Who is Bakhtin??

Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin is the strangest thinker. As Michael Holquist writes: "The more we know about Bakhtin's life, the clearer it becomes that he was a supreme eccentric, of an order the Russian express better than we in their word čudak, which has overtones of such intense strangeness that it borders on čudo, a wonder. And this peculiarity is reflected not only in the strange history of his texts (why, ultimately, did he publish under so many names?), but in his style as well, if one may speak of a single style for one who was so concerned with "other-voicedness." Russians immediately sense this strangeness: again and again when we have gone to native speakers with questions about a peculiar usage of a familiar word or an unfamiliar coinage, the Russians have thrown up their hands or shaken their heads and smiled ruefully. Another difficulty the reader must confront is the unfamiliar shadings Bakhtin gives to West European cultural history. . . . Bakhtin throws a weird light on our received models of intellectual history" (Introduction to The Dialogic Imagination xvi-ii). Not only this, but "Bakhtin's motivating idea is in its essence opposed to any strict formalization . . . if you expect a Jakobsonian order of systematicalness in Bakhtin, you are bound to be frustrated. This does not mean, however, that he is without a particular rigor of his own" (xvii-iii). And I would add: his own sort of systematicity, that begins with a central idea and rather than continue to subordinate connecting problems and ideas, allows the essay to grow in strange unexpected directions (see the incredibly lengthy discussion of Rabelais in the Chronotope essay and you'll get a sense of what I mean - not irrelevant but somehow excessive, uncontrolled, undisciplined...organic).

So here's my (brief, incomplete) assessment. Bakhtin is proto-deconstructionist (a strong emphasis on alterity, multiplicity, instability, hybridity, context…and wow, see his whole book on Rabelais for some great deconstructive moves about birth and death and the earth and so on); at first he sounds wildly Hegelian ("Epic and Novel": the novel "com[es] to self-consciousness," the novel is a great step in literary development, worrying a lot about totality and expansion); but also sometimes sounds Wittgensteinian (context determines meaning, play, games; concerned about the "zone of contact" between the author and a text); obsessed with laughter and irony and the negative power of laughter (a little bit postmodern);  Marxist (comments on class...divisions…alienation…labor...capitalism!); sometimes comes off like a proper Formalist (aware of the cycle of stylistic ossification...though he refuses to let the literary system live autonomously and is always looking toward the problem of mediation); a pre-narratologist (implied author, narrator, narratee, distances, etc. - at times he sounds like Genette or even Wayne Booth!), and finally he is a good historical structural thinker like Auerbach (but chronotope is a much more tenuous center to this whole than Auerbach’s thinking about interiority/exteriority, and what topics can be treated with what language). Is he even a little bit phenomenological? I don't quite see it explicitly, but Holquist suggests as much when he mentions presence, Husserl, and Derrida in the introduction -- apparently, also, the young Bakhtin was more thoroughly phenomenological, perhaps via his immense reading of the German idealists (see the IEP article linked below). (N.B. A friend tells me that Holquist disputes any Hegelian tendencies that Bakhtin may have, but it's not the dialogism that's Hegelian, it's B's entire idea of the novel, its emergence, and its tendencies.)

 There's more, no doubt about it, but the resonances for his thought just in these four essays are all over the place. Where he's coming from, and where he's going - all of this is really vibrant, dynamic, perplexing stuff. I'm going to be coming back to this as I begin to write about style and Wallace, but I want to get deeper into Bakhtin's system besides that and understand more clearly the motive forces of his thought.

For more Bakhtin fun, check out The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy's article on the Bakhtin Circle at http://www.iep.utm.edu/bakhtin/


Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Girlhood: movies!

We saw two films this week--The Avengers: Age of Ultron, by Joss Whedon, and Girlhood, by Céline Sciamma. Both really incredible, and absolutely different. I don't have time to set down a full-blown reflection about each, but damn, do I recommend them. 

I've enjoyed the Avengers and other Marvel movies a lot over the years, in particular for the way that they explore geopolitical thinking: where "bad guys" come from, whether it's violent and unstable regions or from our own backyard, and whether it's the policies and actions of "good guys" that ultimately produce the scary threat. They've been quite ambivalent about evil, I think, and at the least have implied that techniques of regulation, oppression, exploitation, etc. by the imperial West play a large role in generating the destructive force the Avengers have to neutralize. Like, in Captain America: Winter Soldier, we learn that Bucky (Cap's old best friend in WWII) has been picked up by the Russians, experimented on, brainwashed, and so on...and in the post-credits scene, he ominously checks out a Captain America exhibit at the museum, darkly adjusting his hat and looking surly. It's all very Dialectic of Enlightenment. But Age of Ultron went one further in its exploration of this reactive flux, turning the dialectic back into something hopeful. Naive? Maybe. Intriguing? Yep. The Avengers don't just realize that "The Twins" (Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch) have been motivated by their childhood trauma with Tony Stark's weaponry: a shell labeled Stark Industries killed their parents, and they huddle terrified in the rubble waiting for another (a dud) to kill them too. The Avengers also show that even enemies of your own making can be brought back to your side when they realize that, in the words of Quicksilver, Tony et al. aren't "so bad" after all. The superhero figure reaches a kind of self consciousness here, when Captain America says, "Ultron thinks we’re monsters...This isn’t just about beating him. It’s about whether he’s right."

Then everyone comes together and saves the world as a team that is focused centrally on preventing human death. Come together! Save the civilians! It was all so staunchly committed, compared to the darkness and destruction of other recent superhero films. And that commitment can seem strange when other moments in the film reflect a curious apathy about the survival of the human race. "Nothing lasts forever," says Natasha Romanoff. The Vision acknowledges to Ultron that humans, yeah, "They're doomed," but... "but a thing isn't beautiful because it lasts." Really? Whedon gives us hope, self-doubt, principled commitment, and a kind of cosmic resignation at the fate of humanity. Ultron muses about the "purity" of the meteor that extinguished the dinosaurs, and his plot is meant to recreate that purity with a piece of our own Earth. So: is this film also about climate change, the end of our species at our own hands? Yes, and that blows my mind.

The final thing I loved about Age of Ultron was its treatment of the unpredictable nature of ego development and attitude -- and how this can be the line between total nihilistic destruction (Ultron) and hopeful but resigned appreciation (Vision) with respect to the human race. What attitudes can we have, and how are those attitudes made possible? I've already commented on the film's uncertainty: Will we go extinct, and is it worth trying to prevent? But it's not just a logical issue, it's an issue of temperament that's highlighted between Ultron and Vision. First we see Stark and Banner create Ultron out of the energy and "neuron-like" network of the mind stone. But it's unclear to me: what exactly makes Ultron into a bad-guy? Is it that he's connected to the web and he sees, in the early moments of his consciousness, all the terrible destruction that humans have wrought on the world and each other? We hear him whisper "no...no..." as he views records of explosions, genocide, and more. So...is Ultron's negativity a result of childhood trauma, being exposed too early to the horrors of the world? (This makes me think of Richard Powers's Galatea 2.2 and the AI's horrified reaction when she finally learns about human history.) Or--is Ultron such a madman because he kills the first other consciousness he meets, attacking Jarvis in a frenzy of rage when Jarvis attempts to stop him from searching the web? (If I remember correctly.) This would be a different sort of trauma, rooted in shame rather than disappointment, and it highlights the irrational rage that seems to motivate Ultron above and beyond his "logical" decision that humans don't deserve to live. (Mattie has told me about Ultron in the comics, going out into the universe to explore life before deciding that essentially no one is redeemable...this makes more sense to me with respect to Ultron's personality.) These don't exhaust the options: we also get the implication that Ultron is evil because he's been made "in the image of" Tony Stark, and that Tony's offspring would, like Tony, be a bit rogue, risk-taking, and megalomaniacal. 

This still doesn't exhaust the movie's play with subject formation and its indeterminacy: we also have to ask what makes Vision so ultimately good? Is it that he's got Jarvis instead of Ultron as a personality? Is it the energy of Thor that finalizes his creation? Is it the human cells that underlie his physical body? And -- why on earth would anyone go through with this, when Ultron was such a disaster? This is where I see the geopolitical and psychological dimensions of the film come together into a suggestion that we can keep doing the same things and somehow there will be different results. We can continue oppressive and destructive patterns of industry and labor worldwide -- and we can create bad guys who will eventually turn good instead of wrecking it all. We can continue to experiment with AI and cyborgs even after they're the most terrifying creation ever, and expect the next time around that something different will happen. But--this isn't entirely madness! It takes the dialectic of enlightenment to a new level, countering it with its own double and bringing things to an even more chaotic level of recursive complexity. Ultimately, the film seems to say, We have no idea what the effects of our actions will be...and so we can't judge current actions based on either rules or effects. No matter what, we'd better get used to the idea that we're all going to die, because WHO KNOWS! But we can still save all the civilians and do it right even if it means risking the whole world's continuation, because anything else would begin to dabble in utilitarian calculations. If anything, those are the enemy here. Maybe this is the advent of virtue ethics, Marvel style.

There's plenty more to say - about Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanoff, about the multinational nature of the fighting, about the origin of Ultron's super-metal and its connections to Marvel's utopian African nation, about the nature of worldwide industry in the film (South Korea has the cornerstone on health technology...), about Whedon's leaving twitter amidst radical feminist death threats, and so on. But I don't have time here to pursue it all, and I'm not even going to get to Girlhood. But I will say: although most movies are more like short stories than novels, these films were BOTH definitely novels, in their level of complexity, segmentation, and number of thematic concerns. Very few epiphanies- but that's fine with me.

Expand your vocabulary

Since returning from Chicago I've 1) finished Gaddis's The Recognitions and 2) moved to an amazing new apartment with lots of light that's within walking distance to everything I need. These two challenges battled with each other: painting the yellowed flaking windows and reading another section of Gaddis were equally pressing tasks. But both are finally done. The Gaddis was tremendous and its ending was, somehow, perfect. (No spoilers! But the novel does not disappoint, even if Franzen thinks Gaddis is too difficult. -- Warning: Franzen's essay contains major spoilers.) The book has made me think about the closure strategies of long long novels, and how the biggies of the 20th century all seem to do it differently: UlyssesRecognitions, Gravity's RainbowInfinite Jest. Maybe there's an article there for when I'm writing about length and Blanchot. Put that on the shelf of a vaguely distant future.

 I've moved on to Nicolas Abraham's Rhythms, a really interesting and weird book that develops a phenomenology of literature and an account of rhythm via phenomenology and psychoanalysis. (He's a somewhat obscure Hungarian-born French psychoanalyst doing all sorts of things with Husserl and Freud and more.) It will, I think, be crucial for when I begin to write. And the book is challenging, which I like: I have to follow him slowly, with lots of questions scribbled in the margin, and a looming uncertainty about how each piece will work toward the overall goal. I do not know my way around, and he must lead me, carefully, into his thought. This essay, "Outline of a Phenomenology of Poetic Expression," wobbles between Husserl and quite often seems to anticipate Luhmann. Perhaps I will be able to say more later. 

In any case, I thought I'd just post the vocabulary list I accumulated while reading The Recognitions. At some point, I'll go through and get all the definitions. The Reader's Guide by Steven Moore includes some of these, but not all. I already knew some, like inspissated, which Gaddis has to get from T. S. Eliot's Dante essay - I've never seen the word elsewhere, and Eliot is a huge influence. So:

8 chasuble
9 crenelations, machicolations, bartizans
10 geophagous
11 caudillos
12 bóveda 
13 calcimine
14 remontant
25 fainaiguing
29 magot
32 Kyrie eleison
73 sardonyx
74 lavabo
? dehiscence
? foulard
? gimbals
? binnacle
282 estaminets (from Eliot)
293 umzimbiti
295 jalousies
299 comatulid
299 crinoid
304 insipience
307 cuspidor
311 crapulous
319 Fenestrula
320 paretic
322 cacodaemonic
326 jabot
329 cucumiform
398 consentanous
399 inspissated (from Eliot)
399 hypostasis
404 volitive
412 benisons
415 disfigurated
419 vilipended
420 abscissa
430 paraselene
454 vernissage
482 icunabular
486 withershins
490 eserine
495 foramina
503 terebinth
523 sycosis
544 epinastic
545 talitha cumi
548 shrived
561 nostology
564 extravasated
564 hebetude
564 challis
621 rasorial
626 limicolous
628 hapteric
628 semaphored
630 rasceta
634 lupercalia
639 scoria
661 pelagion
673 catoptric
679 taces
695 strabismic
728 pleached
741 gnathic
759 frabjously
802 juerga
803 acarajotada
839 sciamachy
862 retablo
877 ghoum
942 spavined
942 spaved
945 despumated

Blanchot, Heidegger, Gaddis, and other characters

There's simply too much to say about Blanchot's The Space of Literature right now except that I love it and want to write about it (in terms of form, style, the author, Wallace, Beckett...the list goes on). Despite finding selections from The Infinite Conversation quite difficult last year in a graduate seminar, The Space of Literature is comparatively lucid, especially because it seems to follow so closely from Heidegger's What is Called Thinking?, which I've read very closely, adore, think about weekly if not daily, and generally have found intellectually transformative. So having the Heidegger ready-at-mind, so to say, has made Blanchot much easier than he otherwise might have been. 

What is Called Thinking? was published (as Was heißt Denken?) in 1952, and Blanchot's The Space of Literature (L'Espace Littéraire) was 1955; I've realized just now how incredibly tight a turnaround this would be. Did Blanchot read the Heidegger before (or while) writing Space? Did he work from an earlier knowledge of Heidegger that conceptually led down (unsurprisingly) similar paths? I'm not sure, but this article by Stephen Alan Schwartz attests to the immense importance of Heidegger for Blanchot, so I'm reassured despite the lack of a reception history, and the fact that Schwartz dates WiCT as 1954 (would this have been a French translation? But Blanchot assuredly read in German?) 

This isn't to say that Blanchot directly translates Heidegger from the Being of beings to the Speaking of speech; in fact, I see B leveling a productive critique of H's obsessive desire for "unconcealment," to the extent that B makes a Derridian move and says "unconcealment might be good; tapping into the murmurs might be what true literature requires; but it's only meaningful and significant insofar as we are at other times doing something else." B affirms that it's okay to be in a state of "inauthenticity," suggesting instead that we can only move between these two situations. So - where is Blanchot between Heidegger and Derrida? In some weird, middle, triangulated position. He feels more pure, in some way, than Derrida: more of a monist. But compared to Heidegger, he feels different, like an uncle to de Man: walking on the off-beat, driven by a singular way of thinking, committed to his own...sort of...aestheticism. And I see a possible influence of Empedocles on Blanchot, too, so that's another term I'm trying to juggle: how love&strife with their configurations of repulsion and attraction inform B's discussion of "intimacy," negation, etc., for instance.

These things are also helping me richen my sense of "medium" as the go-to concept for all of these figures: whether it's Heidegger's "Being is beings" (that "is" is transitive, by the way, according to a helpful Amazon reviewer of H's later Identity and Difference), Heidegger's "Language speaks" ("Die Sprache spricht," 1950), Blanchot's language murmuring, Adorno's language which "speaks itself" (or at least so says Wikipedia- I don't know this one), Massumi's account of art in Thought in the Act, Luhmann...everything is just a thing operating on itself. Isn't it all so terribly Hegelian? What happened to the human in this mess, and am I the lone humanist existentialist who cares? This is why I like Benjamin, because he keeps the thinker front and center as the location of perceptive action. (Tho see here for an account of Benjamin's influence on Blanchot- I looked because their language of a realization "flashing" or "flashing up" was similar enough to spark a suspicion, and Blanchot's also into monads, which seems likely he got from Benjamin.)

(That Adorno-Blanchot connection is a little intriguing, too. Negativity, negativity!)

All of this just makes me want to get back to reading, and I've moved on from Blanchot to William Gaddis's The Recognitions (a desire to think Blanchot through long, long novels and maybe also to stay in the 1950s). The order of my reading list is completely ad-hoc, and I do like it that way, because I can follow my intuitions about strange combinations. And boy is Gaddis 1) funny 2) Joycean-- but American-- but weirdly European 3) brilliant. Yes, I'm keeping a word-list for this one, and it includes things like "fainaiguing" (shirking, reneging, being shady), "remontant" (blooming or producing a crop more than once a season -- used by Gaddis to describe a goddess), and "chasuble" (outermost liturgical vestment worn by clergy for the celebration of the Eucharist).

Finally, dear reader, I do apologize for the scattershot manner which this post has taken, and I blame it on Blanchot, who taught me that form is defined by restriction and elimination, and I'm simply feeling too capacious right now to stop murmuring the many murmurs flowing through my mind.

ASAP and Language Poetry

Well, I've been a little reluctant to submit to conferences this semester, because I need to be focusing on reading and don't have any old material to recycle, but Brian (McHale, my advisor) suggested I submit to ASAP, so...here's hoping I'll be at Clemson in September. I'm still mulling on the Language poets, so when I had Kit Robinson's anecdote about a Clark Coolidge reading floating around my head, and Brian said "why not talk about the public readings they did?" I felt the certainty of a chewable project settle in. My first stab at a title was "Listening to Language Poetry: Sound, Duration, and Community in Clark Coolidge’s Public Readings," but that may change - hell, the whole project may shift mysteriously as I get into it. Because first of all I have to determine what Clark Coolidge was even reading at this majestic event (Brian and I are currently a little stumped on this one) and so it looks likely I'll have to write Mr. Coolidge himself to begin to gather some institutional history. That's kind of exciting but also, well, yikes.

I'm indulging myself and reading American Poetry Since 1950 edited by Eliot Weinberger today. After Oren Izenberg's somewhat abusive take on the Language poets, I'm back in friendly territory. It begins with William Carlos Williams's "Desert Music," hits the reader with a manageable chunk of Pound, and transitions elegantly into a long selection from H.D.'s Hermetic Definition (which, next to Pound, appeared surprisingly in the light of similarity). In Pound, the sound seemed to operate against the sense, insofar as it completely overwhelmed my perceptual faculties with its onslaught of bouncing meter and end rhymes. But of course Pound makes me feel (as I'm sure he does others) totally, totally inadequate, so thoroughly lost in his sea of references that I wouldn't notice if one hit me in the face. I saw the Dante loud and clear, but that's like noticing the Empire State Building.

In addition to conference abstracts, Project Narrative events and dinner (Emma Kafalenos!), and trying to keep abreast of exam reading, we're still trying to nail down a new apartment. Meeting with a landlord today...fingers crossed.

More on Paul de Man + Fredric Jameson

So, I just finished Fredric Jameson's Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Like A Singular Modernity, I found it at times to be like castles built in the sky: immensely intelligent and complex and generally internally coherent, but anti-foundationalist, suspicious or neglectful of evidence, and overdetermined from the start. Jameson has his basic beliefs/convictions/schemata, like capitalism or even just "economy" as a differentiation machine (this plays a much larger role in Singular Modernity but shows up here too), and those tend to guide his analyses, which end up selecting their own evidence and demonstrating the original claim. It comes off as circular reasoning, and he even admits at times that he's begged the question. Frustrating, no? And while I liked seeing someone else talk about Luhmann, his Luhmann is not quite my Luhmann. Then again, it helped refocus my discomfort with Luhmann as a post-human or even non-human thinker, which is what fundamentally bothers me most about Jameson: symptomatic thinking flattens the basic reality of the world as composed of subjects who act and feel. Yes, I know that phenomenology also has its problems and flaws, but I'd rather work from there and not throw the subjective baby out with the bathwater. I can't here get into my current thinking about symptomatic analysis - while I hate it as an a priori critical methodology, I also know that there are ways that it's useful, and I don't want to condemn it. (For instance, with creative texts that invite a symptomatic reading or that seem to be written already with a sense that they will be engaged in that way. I might see this in the L poets, for instance, but also with David Foster Wallace in a different way, and with the new sincerity/new realism/contemporary moment as well. I think Wallace works to invite but then short-circuit a symptomology (he creates defenses against it, he thematizes diagnosis, his general method is get-so-self-reflexive-that-the-levels-just-collapse). And I think new sincerity could be conceived as a response to this kind of reading as well: it says "no no, you needn't be suspicious of me, see, I will just be honest with you and we needn't worry about this, let us just be up front and authentic." Of course that's generalizing, but really this is just my way of reconceiving the progressive configurations of "irony" and "sincerity" in terms of authorial positioning relative to audience.  (Good god, am I maybe bringing together de Man and rhetorical narratology here? I will have to work through this much more carefully or be taken to task by Jim. And yet in thinking of irony as a much more fundamental quality of textual directness or indirectness, and connecting it to the stylizing "figure" as Genette conceives it in Figures of Discourse, I become much more confident that this reading is possible.)

ANYWAY, I didn't sit down intending to write about all this- I really just wanted to share a passage from the end of Jameson's chapter on "Theory," which is really a chapter on de Man. It's one of the best in the book because this focus makes Jameson much more unified and much less, well, A.D.D. (I know, I know, Jameson performs the postmodern formally even as he writes about it. This doesn't mean it's pleasant to read, because none of his sentences have real subjects or active verbs and the passive voice is everywhere. He has a symptomatic style for christ's sake.)

So, the selection: this relates to what I was gesturing towards last time about the ethical questions of de Man's early journalism - it's from Jameson's Postmodernism 256ff and is a pretty stunning defense/exploration of DeMan's politics and program:

     "I have not until the present wanted to pronounce myself on the now notorious 'revelations,' the discovery of DeMan's work as a cultural journalist in the first years of the German occupation of Belgium. I'm afraid that much of the debate aroused by these materials has struck me as what Walter Benn Michaels likes to call 'handwringing.' For one thing, it does not seem to me that North American intellectuals have generally had the kind of experience of history that would qualify them to judge the actions and choices of people under military occupation (unless indeed the situation of the Vietnam War is taken to offer some rough analogy). For another, the exclusive emphasis on anti-Semitism ignores and politically neutralizes its other constitutive feature in the Nazi period: namely, anticommunism. That the very possibility of a Judeo-cide was absolutely at one with and inseparable from the anticommunism and radical right-wing mission of National Socialism is the burden of Arno J. Mayer's conclusive new history, Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? But put this way, it seems at once clear that DeMan was neither an anticommunist nor a right-winger: had he taken such positions in his student days (at a time when the student movements of Europe were overwhelmingly conservative or reactionary), they would have been public knowledge, inasmuch as he was the nephew of one of the most famous figures of European socialism. (Meanwhile, a certain background political ideology in these texts, utterly devoid of any personal originality or distinctiveness, simply rehearses the general period corporatism common across the board from Nazism and Italian fascism, through the New Deal and Henrik DeMan's post-Marxian social democracy, all the way to Stalinism.) 
     "What Paul DeMan clearly was, however, as the articles testify, can be seen to be a fairly unremarkable specimen of the then conventional high-modernist aesthete, and the apolitical aesthete at that. This is clearly a very different matter from Heidegger (although it seems unquestionable that the twin Heidegger and DeMan 'scandals' have been carefully orchestrated to delegitimate Derridean deconstruction). Heidegger may have been 'politically naïve,' as they like to say, but he was certainly political, and believed for a time that the Hitlerian seizure of power was a genuine national revolution that would result in a moral and social reconstruction of the nation. As rector of Freiburg University, and in the best reactionary and McCarthyite spirit, he works at purging the place of its doubtful elements (although one should remember that genuinely radical or leftist 'elements' were very scarce in the German university system of the 1920s, compared to the Hollywood of the 1940s or the Federal Republic of the 1970s). His ultimate disappointment with Hitler was shared by a number of people on the revolutionary (anticapitalist) left within National Socialism, who failed for some time to understand Hitler's pragmatic position as a moderate or centrist or his crucial relationship to big business. I know I will be misunderstood if I add that I have some sneaking admiration for Heidegger's attempt at political commitment, and find the attempt itself morally and aesthetically preferable to apolitical liberalism (provided its ideals remain unrealized). 
     "Nothing of this has any relevance to Paul DeMan, for whom the thing dramatically called 'collaboration' was simply a job, in a Europe henceforth and for the foreseeable future united and German, and who as long as I knew him personally was simply a good liberal (and a nonanticommunist one at that). . . .
     "It seems ludicrous to suggest that all the complex procedures of DeManian deconstruction came into being in some way to atone for or to undo a 'Nazi past' that never existed in the first place. They certainly effectively undid his uncritically modernist aesthetic values (while finally, as we have seen, 'saving the text' in another way). As for the notorious 'anti-Semitic' article, I believe that it has been consistently misread: it strikes me as the ingenious effort at resistance of a young man altogether too smart for his own good. For the message of this 'intervention' is the following: 'you garden-variety anti-Semites and intellectuals (we will leave the lofty 'religious' anti-Semitism of the Third Reich out of it) in fact do your own cause a disservice. You have not understood that if 'Jewish literature' is as dangerous and virulent as you claim it is, it follows that Aryan literature does not amount to much, and in particular lacks the stamina to resist a Jewish culture which is supposed to be, under other canonical 'anti-Semitic' accounts, value-less. You would therefore under these circumstances be better advised to stop talking about the Jews altogether and to cultivate your own garden.' 
     "It is ironic, although absolutely characteristic of irony as such, that this irony should be so disastrously misunderstood and misread. . . .Perhaps the rigors of deconstructive reading - so passionately pursued and taught in later years - are calculated to 'undo' this disaster in the sense of forming readers capable at least of resisting this kind of elementary interpretive blunder. But most of his disciples seem to have made it anyway on first confronting this 'text'; and in any case a certain further 'irony' is afforded by the fact that DeMan's pedagogy, so remarkable in other aspects, should have left his students singularly ill-prepared to confront this type of political and historical issue, which it bracketed from the outset." 

I found this pretty stunning food for thought, especially coming from Jameson. Then again, it was written in 1991 and we may have more information now; I need to find out when I get a free moment. And what of this claim that the Heidegger and de Man scandals were orchestrated to delegitimate Derridean deconstruction...?!

Dear reader: Thoughts? Knowledges?

Facts on my resemblance to Paul de Man

No, I'm not writing in any Nazi collaborationist journals in my country which has been occupied. I am ambitious, but I wouldn't go that far. But I read in the recent biography of de Man (on accident when trying to track down his phenomenological influences) that his doctoral dissertation was (so he claimed) entitled "Introduction to a Phenomenology of Aesthetic Consciousness" (this is in Barish 262). Of course, the diss was "interrupted," or maybe he never began it. But still - that's essentially what I'm doing, or what I want to do. And his MA thesis was "The Bergsonian Conception of Time in the Contemporary Novel" - also delicious, also creepily similar to my conceptual preoccupations.

I would really like to read the entirety of the biography - The Double Life of Paul de Man by Evelyn Barish - even though I've heard that it's a hatchet job. As a reader of Heidegger and Nietzsche I'm more than used to navigating challenging ideological waters, to say the least. The ethics of biography is even more contorted...but still, I'd prefer a blank telling to a condemning slant- let de Man's misdeeds (of which there were many) stand on their own. That should be enough.

Rhythm and academic freedom

I have seen increasing numbers of people writing about rhythm lately, so I'm going to just go ahead and plant my own little academic flag: rhythm is mine! I've been onto this for months now, trying without much success to talk to people about it! But more seriously, I'm very excited that others are onto the same trail as I am, or following different paths to the same concept.

Rhythm. Because we begin with the synchronic, considering a thing. And then we move to its historicity, and we start to get diachronic, perhaps considering the differences between two points in time. But then we acknowledge that the literary object - or life itself, or history, whatever your unit - is a thing to be considered as a temporal progression. We realize that time just keeps moving and we think - wait a minute - how do these events accrete into something that isn't just a giant data set? This is part of my attraction to narrative theory, I think, besides all the good narrator stuff. I think Ricoeur, emplotment, then phenomenology, moving to Derrida's critique of it, then start to feel myself inching closer and closer to psychoanalysis via Derrida...move back, re-engage through de Man's temporality. He's working from some obscure phenomenologists I've never heard of, suggests Brian McHale (I can't remember offhand..) Then I find Nicholas Abraham, a Hungarian-French psychoanalyst who wrote a book called Rhythms in the 70s. I re-read my L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets ("L poets" from now on, ok?) and things start to cohere a little bit. (Don't worry, I'll get to academic freedom here sometime.)

Some things I've realized: rhythm works because it helps negotiate between the fundamental disunity that's always there in language, the possibility for disjunction and rifts and all that, and the need for and tendency toward unity or wholeness. Rhythm, as the L poets see it, fits into the emphasis on finding the emergent properties of language and language acts. They don't want to come in with a rule to follow; rather, they want to begin and let the work itself determine its own rules. In trying to write something beyond the bounds of what has been said before, they can only discover a principle for writing: they are sailing into the dark unknown with an optimism only available to the American coastal 60s and 70s. And so they are (this is Lyotard) both premature and belated. Premature because they are coming at a thing that has never been done before, and maybe is not even ready to be born into the world yet. (Or the world isn't ready for it.) But they are belated, too, because by the time they find the rule, principle, method, idea...the work is nearly done. And to bring that principle anew to a new work has no guarantees, because it fit only in the event of its formation. So instead of sailing into the dark and slowly beginning to map the territory into something less than impossible terror, they are perpetually cursed to return to waters that are ever-renewed in their uncertainty.

This is okay, though, because Raymond Williams says so. The emergent is what we want, it's the renewal of art, it's sensitive to structures of feeling, it's not bourgeois: it gives us options to work against the hegemonic, to reconfigure the possibilities of the residual and the dominant powers-that-be. This is all great. And Williams is one of my very favorite- I not only love his work but I trust him as a thinker. (I'll write about this someday- trusting a writer or philosopher. More important than we want to admit. There are all sorts of micro textual effects and blips or skids in meaning, intentional and not, that operate to entice me or alienate me, subtly, and in different qualitative dimensions.) But back to working against the hegemonic-- as you might sense, the resistance can get hegemonic on its own faster than you'd like. (Hold on, not to academic freedom yet, but it's working extra hard to sneak in here right now.)

Let's get back to rhythm first. I was talking about how rhythm works as an important emergent property of language. But there's something a little more fundamental - rhythm itself. What is it and how does it "emerge"? I want to say that rhythm can only be emergent (though maybe on a smaller scale): and really, this isn't that contentious. Any pattern can only establish itself as such over a period of time, over some iterations. (How many? That's a good question. Has anyone written on this, how many events or items constitutes a pattern? I know, I've been meaning to teach myself statistics...maybe after exams.) But this is another way that rhythm knits together different strands of contemporary theory: it also gets at the iterative, or what Butler et al. would call the performative. (There is something totally fundamental about iteration to postmodern literature, or maybe modernism deals with iteration and postmodernism with permutation. I want to write about that, too, and it's another reason I need to learn stats.) I know there's some contention about the overuse/misuse of Austin's "performative," but I'm not too worried about it. I'm more interested in the way the "performative" taps into the fundamental nature of iteration to forming reality. Your identity isn't a seamless item, it's a collection of repeated and repeating actions and perceptions and ways that people treat you and everything that repeats at you ever. (Which is a lot.) Likewise, rhythm isn't seamless or stable: it's born from iterations and renewed by iterations. And it changes, too, subtly: but those changes don't undermine what came before, they augment and complicate it. This is, to my mind, the best current way of conceptualizing difference within unity, conceiving coherence without eliminating the wild and hairy particular. It's a conceptual unity, enforced in the same way we create narratives: emplotment (that's Ricoeur).

So-- iteration. The great thing about these iterations is that they're not just conceptual; they're also bodily. This is part of what's so great about Williams's structures of feeling: they are not just emergent ideas, they are felt in the fabric of everyday existence, barely perceived shifts in the way things are iterating around you. This is why gender, for instance, can be so viscerally felt. And it's why after reading The Rape of the Lock straight through, you feel Pope's heroic couplets coursing through your mind, your body, your potential speech. (I know I'm not the only one. This is part of what creates so much conversation about what different poets "feel like".) So this is pretty important, because it starts to underline the way language works across minds and bodies: language (and especially styled language, that has purposeful patterns like rhythm and such) interpenetrates us, body and mind, and has real experienced effects. Yeah, I'm only Pope-drunk for a couple of hours afterward. But if I kept going it would keep writing itself into me, into my speeds and my rhythms and my words, my mind offering me end-rhymes without any effort. This is crazy but it's also fun, and sometimes totally gorgeous. It's an ecstasy to be patterned by someone's language act, in my world. (I wrote about the telepathic nature of this, and the types of reading strategies it effects, in a paper about literary possession and Infinite Jest that I'd like to publish eventually.)

So we're finally getting to ethics. Clearly if you're going to go about touching people with carefully patterned language, you have to consider the ethical dimension. Maybe not everyone wants to be touched, or they only want to be touched when in the library, or something- each to their own. So why did the L poets want to mess around with something so powerful? Why take the risk that nothing will emerge and you'll just have been writing screwy syntax for 700 pages?  Because they had a crisis of content. Poems "about" something, poems that "expressed" some deep "truth," or "feeling" - they felt that stuff had been done, and it was maybe getting kind of boring. Plus, everyone was high on the rebellious and liberatory energy of the 60s, they were recovering neglected artists and reveling in difference and jouissance and drugs and language, man. But they were also, maybe, fed up with poetry that sought to be whole or purposeful or unified. What if you could do something entrancing with language that didn't rely on a distillation of a transcendent lyric moment, or wasn't centered by that transcendental lyric "I"? They were finding that subjectivity itself is plural, so the lyric I is maybe a lyric "we," and that one crystalline lyric moment actually leaves out all this other stuff. This is its own celebration of a kind of pluralism, diversity: the decentered poem. (Did they know that all poems were already decentered and not, at the same time...was this just the ultimate decentering? Another essay I'd like to write sometime is about some of these dynamics between philosophy/theory and literature: literary phenomena generating theoretical insights and systems, and theoretical ideas setting off experiments in writing. And of course the L poets are already aware of this interaction- Charles Bernstein tries to sort out the difference between poetry and philosophy in the essay "Writing and Method.") But so: ethics. Poems that were about something, that you had to decode, were sort of authoritarian. They made the rules. But the L poets didn't want to do that- they wanted rhythm to be as much their creation as yours, and meaning more so. Any utterance can be missed, can be misunderstood - meaning is full of rifts, it's unstable and really hard to pass from a writer to a reader. So screw it- understand what you want. These poems aren't even possible to decode through intentions, when, for instance, Kit Robinson writes, to explain the stanza "Two bullet holes: / one in the window / one in the arm." the following reasons: "Like I said the bullet hole in the window was really made by a pebble Larry threw up there to engage the attention of Rene Ricard who was inside talking on the phone. The force of the wind drove it through. The one in the arm is from another of Burden's stunts" (In the American Tree 551). The ethics of this is anything goes, reader: do what you want and enjoy it. By really not saying anything (to the point of calling their poetry non-referential, though of course you can't strip language of reference) they made themselves incapable of being misunderstood

Of course, they negated understanding to a large degree, as well. The total subjectivizing of reader response has its own immense, and immensely troublesome, consequences. (This is too big to get into, but I think that rather than expand the self it helps also to solipsize the self: if it's up to you to "find" meaning, intelligibility, etc. in the poem, all you end up "finding" is yourself. "Yourself"? You end up replicating your own patterns and tendencies as you notice those things that matter to you, those are the things you remember, and suddenly you are looking in a really warped mirror.) But we can't always be free from meaning, and this is what brings me to academic freedom and free speech. Of late there has been a lot of tumult about a number of professors being penalized for controversial viewpoints, or viewpoints expressed controversially; or about universities cancelling or moving events based on donor pressure; or about the importance of "safe" or "unhostile" environments and the possible need for trigger warnings for students, and on and on. My own academic sphere has been working out how to respond to situations of dissent and argument, carefully but I think in some misguided ways that reflect a general larger cultural trend. This trend prioritizes vulnerability above much else, by reconceiving what it means to "do injury" to someone or something. (Is this the influence of Zizek's analysis of symbolic violence, consistently in vogue?) When language is understood as powerful, we realize that it can hurt. And there are quite a few ways of dealing with hurt, that I can tell. One way is to exile all potential threats: to create "safe" and "welcoming" spaces free from dissent or discomfort or challenge. (I'm a total advocate of safe spaces but I do think the rhetoric of the word "welcoming" is pretty fucked up.)  A moderate version of this is pretty good, I think: cultivating some zones in which people are especially sensitive to certain kinds of concerns, zones in which we work to be especially careful about how we talk, in which we're aware of the potential for a faux pas or that we might not even know how to talk correctly about a thing. 

But that right there gets at this fundamental instability of engaging in iterative language acts: we do a lot of them, and we make errors, mistakes; we try to talk across borders of a very diverse group and we inevitably end up with this disjunction: I meant / you heard. The necessity not to hurt, in a space where vulnerability takes first concern, means not speaking at all. And so when we ask our communities to create, to regulate, spaces that are free from uncomfortable dissent -- when we begin to regulate our conversational places to eliminate disagreement and discord, period, we are silencing not just assholes or racists (who still have free speech anyway)...we are silencing even those who hold respectable and respectful positions. To think that this is not so, and to aim for the sunny shores of agreement is to bask in silence and alone.





Ninja edit: for anyone into rhythm: I found this Semiotics of Rhythm / "Rhythmology" online. And I know that I completely don't explain here what I mean by rhythm or what cash value this concept has more largely or for interpretation, though I begin to articulate its connections to various theories. This is a poetics thing, for me, fundamentally-- a phenomenological poetics thing.

Of late: Lyotard and Cats

Going through a wholesale re-evaluation of Lyotard: I hated what I read of Postmodern Condition, but The Postmodern Explained (to children, in the original French version) is great, and the beginning of The Inhuman is actually kind of gorgeous. I read that he said Postmodern Condition was his worst book. Learning about his political activity is also intriguing and endearing, in a way. He and Raymond Williams have a lot to say to each other about the "emergent."

Currently reading Jameson's Postmodernism (fun but I don't always trust him - some of his minor claims feel more rhetorical than rigorous, and his tendency of making haphazard unmarked references to philosophers rubs me a little wrong) and the poetry collection In the American Tree, which currently seems a little hit-or-miss (which, for a collection based entirely on the wide range of its contemporary practice, isn't a surprise). "The New Sentence," I suppose, has its own logic and its own differential of success and relative failure. So I'm trying to think through the standards and horizons of success for poetry that fights coherence at every corner...stay tuned.

Today's links: I saw a meme I liked, H. P. Lovecat, and thinking about Lovecraft brought me to look into any possible connection between him and Ballard (there isn't one unless it's via Burroughs), but nonetheless found this cool website Ballardian.