January 13, 2011 § 1 Comment

First off: — Crazy-appropriate, I guess, but mostly just crazy.  Don’t know what to say about this really.

Second: Reading Gayatri Spivak’s intro to Of Grammatology, I was struck by a stray phrase about

… Mallarmé, “that exemplary poet,” who invested every gesture of reading and writing—even the slitting of an uncut double page with a knife—with textual import.

And got to thinking:

What must it have felt like, for an educated 19th-century Frenchman, to take up a book,

blank book

to run fingers along the still-uncut pages,

already eyeing greedily the words ahead,

then reaching for the paper-knife

and making the incision,

only to be faced with…



Hittin licks was the only thing I knew besides grindin

January 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

((A bit late on this one, but I’ll go ahead and post it anyway because it involves DUMB STUFF IN THE NEW YORK TIMES, which everyone seems to like (or to like mocking); plus it gives me an opportunity to try out my new PUNCHED-UP SNARKY STYLE, which will maybe help me win back some of the goodwill I lost with postmodernismposts.  So anyway.))

* * * * *

It must be my lucky year or something, because no sooner do I start this blog than the New York Times Book Review offers up a nice little roundtable on THE STATE OF LITERARY CRITICISM TODAY (here’s the intro), which, y’know, I guess means we have to talk about it!

I’ll start with SAM ANDERSON, for the completely arbitrary reason that his name is the MOST GENERIC-SOUNDING of the lot (although some might suspect me of ulterior motives because it also comes FIRST ALPHABETICALLY).  Right off the bat, Anderson assures us that he’s not one for “big, sweeping, era-defining statements”; nevertheless, our era is defined by a big sweeping change which has occurred in “the culture’s relationship to time”, a change which is “so obvious that it’s boring, by now, even to name the culprits: Google, blogs, texting, tweets, iPhones, Facebook” — he’s right, that is pretty boring, let’s just call it TECHNOLOGY for short.

Anderson goes on to describe something called TIME-SLICING, which sounds horrifying but apparently that’s just the way people do things these days.  Thanks to WEB2.0 or TWIDDLER or SOMETHING, “texts”, which I think means “web pages” and possibly “books” but not “text messages” or “.txt files”, are now “shorter and more flagrantly interconnected, with all kinds of secret passageways running into and out of one another.” We’ll come back to the secret passageways later on in the tour, but for now the important thing, according to Anderson, is that the critic “can no longer take readers’ interest for granted” when the latter are “half a second away from doing 34,000 other things”, like SOCIAL NETWORKING or MP3 BLOGGING or INTERNET PORNOGRAPHING.  Finding the path to his reader’s attention blocked by these menacing beasts, what is the lonely and despairing critic to do?  Should he gripe about technology, as critics have done ever since the dawn of recorded history, when they spent a lot of time complaining about this newfangled ‘writing’ thing that meant they were all going to have to learn how to read now in order to keep criticizing things?

(No, he probably should not.)

On the contrary: “We have to WORK HARDER to justify our presence on the page, our consumption of readers’ increasingly precious attentional units.” How?  By being GOOD WRITERS*, duh.  “To function as an evangelist [!?] , the critic needs, above all else, to write well. A badly written book review […] is self-canceling, like a BARBER WITH A TERRIBLE HAIRCUT.” Well, alright, I guess… but doesn’t this, I find myself wondering, basically concede the argument, often made by critics of criticism, that critics are just failed writers, wannabe novelists who (pardon the expression) couldn’t HACK it?

Things aren’t quite that simple, though; there is, according to Anderson, MAGIC at work here.  (Also, some kind of BUDDHISM?)  He quotes Martin Amis to establish the seemingly trivial point that literary critics, unlike music critics or art critics or theater critics or film critics, respond to prose with MORE PROSE.**  The encounter between the reviewer’s text and the text reviewed then gives birth to “a third, hybrid, ULTRATEXT, which admittedly sounds pretty badass, although it also unleashes the NIGHTMARE SCENARIO prophesied long time ago by noted CURMUDGEON Thomas Carlyle, in which “all Literature has become one boundless self-devouring Review.” That’s actually not a bad thing, says Anderson: Carlyle begat Joyce, who begat Beckett, who begat David Foster Wallace, whose books are basically websites anyway, so hey, why not check ’em out!

So, to conclude: “In the grand game of INTERTEXTUALITY — which is, after all, the dominant and defining game of the Internet era — critics are not just referees: they’re equal players.” Yes!  And literature is just like the Internet, because it is 1.) made of words, 2.) that refer to one another, 3.) some of which are made-up (seriously, “ultratext”???); books are awesome because they are full of hyperlinks to other books; a good critic is like a content aggregator combing through all those books for bloggable memes and tagging the ones that r most relevant to yr 2k11 concerns; we could go on but let’s not.

* * * * *

KATIE ROIPHE‘s piece strikes many of the same notes, albeit in a more TRADITIONALIST, less techno-delirious register.  “Has the critic become a quaint and touching figure engaged in an irrelevant, positively medieval pursuit, like MONKS ILLUMINATING MANUSCRIPTS?” she wonders.  The anxiety is quickly assuaged as Roiphe, like Anderson, reminds us that “critics have always been a grandstanding, depressive and histrionic bunch.”*** At any rate, no matter how bad things seem to get, “The world […] stubbornly resists going entirely to the philistines”, which means the critic still has some WORK LEFT TO DO.

Whereupon Roiphe proceeds to erect a rather silly FALSE BINARY between the legitimate professional critic (whose years of education and experience culminate in the tautological task of “[writing] beautifully” in order to “protect beautiful writing”) and a variety of menacing, NEAR-ILLITERATE amateurs and pretenders to the throne (“the angry Amazon reviewer who mangles sentences”, “the serious, unshaven young man in a coffee shop somewhere in Brooklyn […] on his shiny laptop”).  How are we to tell the TRUE CRITIC from the false?  Again, she echoes Anderson:

the critic has one important function: to write well. […] There is so much noise and screen clutter, there are so many Amazon reviewers and bloggers clamoring for attention, so many opinions and bitter misspelled rages, so much fawning ungrammatical love spewed into the ether, that the role of the true critic is actually quite simple: to write on a different level, to pay attention to the elements of style.

But of course, it’s not just critics vs. angry internet ppl; there has to be something for these two to fight over, which turns out to be, predictably enough, the souls of YOUNG FOLKS.  “Can an 18-year-old,” Roiphe pleads, “really not understand why a sentence of Hemingway or Wharton is MORE CHARISMATIC THAN A TWEET?” Indeed, there is still hope; despite their atrocious grammar, the young people aren’t all bad; with the proper guidance, some of them could even grow up to be literary critics themselves.  Where the danger lies, there too grows the saving power:

I have seen students rush out to buy “Anna Karenina” because an essay by James Wood made them feel that Tolstoy was essential. If it’s even just these couple of students, alone on planet Earth, who have read that essay and rushed out, those couple of students are to me sufficient proof of the robustness and purpose of the eloquent critic, of his power to awake and enlighten, of his absolutely crucial place in our world.

So the role of James Wood, I guess, is to use BEAUTIFUL LANGUAGE (presumably, the students wouldn’t have responded as well to a friend posting “okay you have to read Anna K. after i’m done with it, this book is INCREDIBLE” on their Facebook) to persuade people to read Tolstoy.  Then they go read Tolstoy, and… get blown away by language that is EVEN MORE BEAUTIFUL THAN A JAMES WOOD ESSAY??  I’m not exactly sure.  For all the stress she lays on the near-mystical concept of “WRITING WELL” (helpfully specified as “[concentrating] on the excellent sentence” and “[paying] attention to the elements of style”) in order to stand out from the crowd of bloggers, hacks, kids and trolls, Roiphe has curiously little to say about the READING of literary works.  It’s this experience of reading, after all, about which the critic is writing, towards which she is attempting to orient readers, and from which she draws her norms of ‘good writing.’  But Roiphe completely takes for granted the status and value of Literature, never poses the question of reading, and ultimately arrives at a position that strikes me as a bizarre and untenable mimetic variation on the standard CRITIC-AS-GATEKEEPER argument — the main difference here being that, rather than the cultured/educated critic explaining to us why we ought to read Great Book X and pass on Trashy Bestseller Y or Degenerate Experimental Novel Z, it’s the books themselves that are reaching out to us, with the truly great ones leaving stylistic imprints of their greatness on the prose of any critic who has been lucky enough to come into contact with them, like the scattered traces of reflected goodness where Al-Mu’tasim has passed among the common thieves in a Borges story.****

* * * * *

PANKAJ MISHRA begins with the same sort of distancing gesture we’ve seen from our first two critics: he does not, he tells us, “think of [himself] as a literary critic”, as he prefers to look “beyond the literariness of texts”, viewing works within their (historical, political, cultural) horizons.  This is promising enough, and I agree with many of the points he goes on to make about the need for POLITICAL ENGAGEMENT, the demise of PUBLIC INTELLECTUALS, and the “mass depoliticization” of American culture in the face of “political and economic arrangements [that] seem depressingly unalterable”.  In this “postpolitical” situation, literature becomes a consumer good like any other, albeit one marketed to a slightly more “refined” audience.*****  “Compared with their realist predecessors,” he writes, “most contemporary fiction writers in America and Britain appear to be cultivating THEIR OWN GARDENS — the critic’s job being, I suppose, to be the Maria of this Metropolis, gatecrashing the garden parties and filling them with dirty orphans until everyone agrees to feel bad about themselves.

But Mishra’s dismissive reference to “the cloud-cuckoo-land of LITERARY THEORY and its weird cults of academic technicism and tenured ideologues” tempers my enthusiasm a bit — those “weird cults” have long been among the most stubbornly vocal critics of depoliticized American cynicism and the powers that it serves.  It’s one thing to call, as Mishra does, for a return to engagement; and another thing altogether to THEORIZE, with Fredric Jameson, about the REASONS WHY such engagement might have disappeared in the first place, and the representational problems that impede its speedy return.  Which is not to say that Jameson’s is always the better option, for the two are by no means mutually exclusive.  Mostly I resent the anti-intellectualism, of which America already has quite enough, thanks; but I also think that Mishra underestimates the difficulty of the repoliticization he’s calling for.  So when he offers his own solution, which is basically to READ DIFFERENT THINGS… :

To examine the work of Lu Xun, China’s foremost modern writer, is to be taken through his anguish deep into Chinese self-perceptions, from the long Confucian past to the weirdly hybrid capitalist-Communist present. It is to understand not only his experiments with many different aesthetic forms and genres, but also his country’s tormented recent history, not to mention the implications these developments hold for the rest of the world.

… I don’t wanna say I’m skeptical, but I think the argument is a bit more complex than ‘Read Chinese novelists’ –> ‘Understand China’.  To the extent that such a thing does happen, it relies on a whole network of categories and background assumptions that allow us to mediate between the work of narrative fiction before us and the picture of the ‘world-system’ we carry around in our heads.  Unfortunately, without theoretical reflection on the literary object and the act of reading, this mediation tends to produce only empty platitudes of the ‘Great Family of Man’ sort (“Look, Chinese people love their children too!”).  So again, I find myself basically agreeing with Mishra’s diagnosis of the problem; but his proposed solutions, less so.

((Okay, that was exhausting, so I think I’ll stop here for now.  Part 2 comin’ on the next album.))



*: i.e. the kind to whom the words “precious attentional units” would never in a thousand years occur.

**: For my own part, I think the specificity of literary criticism can be framed in rather more mundane, historical-materialist terms: before the advent of the Internet, TV, film, recorded music, lithography, and whatever other things I’m forgetting, the written (printed) word possesses an unrivaled power when it comes to the dissemination of identical (or near-identical, anyway) works over a wide geographical area…  which means that, if you’re a critic who is interested in writing for and about “the nation” in its broadest cultural terms, you’ll find your audience more receptive to discussion of those popular printed works than to reviews of performances in London they’ll never be able to see.

***: Robert Frost’s exemplary criticism of this tendency is worth quoting here:

We have no way of knowing that this age is one of the worst in the world’s history.  Arnold claimed the honor for the age before this.  Wordsworth claimed it for the last but one.  And so on back through literature.  I say they claimed the honor for their ages.  They claimed it rather for themselves.  It is immodest of a man to think of himself as going down before the worst forces ever mobilized by God.

… but on the other hand, as my friend B. likes to say, not only have people always worried that the world was ending, most of ’em have been right.  Someone who thought Elvis’s hips would lead to the downfall of American values would shit a brick if they could see Lil Wayne and Jersey Shore, no?  There have been many worlds throughout history, and many apocalypses.

****: I suppose this position could be reworked into a sort of pluralist/pragmatist hypothesis: different readers like different books, critics who like the same books I like will also like writers I like and subtly borrow from or emulate those writers stylistically, assembling a distinctive style which signals to me that our tastes more-or-less line up and this person might be worth listening to.  But I find nothing in Roiphe’s piece to suggest that she herself would accept such a heterogeneous conception of literature — indeed, she seems much more interested in protecting the ONE TRUE LITERATURE from violation at the hands of UNCOUTH SAVAGES like, I guess, me.

*****: This situation isn’t totally without historical precedent; to quote from a book which I’ve finally gotten around to reading, Jürgen Habermas’s The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere:

The court aristocracy of the seventeenth century was not really a reading public.  To be sure, it kept men of letters as it kept servants, but literary production based on patronage was more a matter of a kind of conspicuous consumption than of serious reading by an interested public.  The latter arose only in the first decades of the eighteenth century, after the publisher replaced the patron as the author’s commissioner[.]

advertising is the new taxes

January 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

today in “commercials that offend me at the deepest level of my being”:

[INT — A golden retriever frolics friskily in the company of its owners, a mother and her young daughter]

V/O: “… have shown that feeding your dog [DOG FOOD BRAND X] can add up to 1.8 healthy years to its life!!”

returning to the fold

January 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

It’s been simultaneously fun and frustrating, as I sift through the historical record, to relive America’s hysterical overreactions to the threat of “deconstruction”, “postmodernism”, and other scary academic buzzwords.  Case in point: John Searle’s* review of Jonathan Culler’s 1983 book On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism (“The Word Turned Upside Down“, New York Review of Books, October 27, 1983).  This extremely hostile review prompted a defensive letter from Louis Mackey [NB I have no idea who this dude is], to which Searle offered a still-pretty-hostile response (“An Exchange on Deconstruction, New York Review of Books, February 2, 1984).  Their debate is, frankly, tiresome: Mackey accuses Searle of illiteracy, Searle accuses deconstructionists of obscurantism, and each accuses the other of being uninterested in ‘finding truth’, whatever that might mean.

At the risk of revealing myself, from the very beginning, to be a biased observer, I want to approach this issue from a more marginal position, along a road not taken.  Not the simple contrarianism of walking in through the “OUT” door, but rather a little-known service entrance, a side door.  Let’s call it — pun fully intended — the ‘analogical’.

There’s a passage from Culler’s book, one of many that Searle, with his usual snarkiness, quotes for the sole purpose of mocking it.  “Anatomists,” writes Searle, “will no doubt be interested to learn that ‘what we think of as the innermost spaces and places of the body—vagina, stomach, intestine—are in fact pockets of externality folded in’ (p. 198).”  We find Searle here engaged in the time-honored practice of ‘exhibiting’ a quote with a minimum of context (the last sentence before the one I have quoted reads simply, “And there is much much more.” — as though Searle were a homicide detective describing a particularly gruesome crime scene), so that author and reader alike can shake heads and cluck tongues at its self-evident ridiculousness.  Of course the ‘point’ of the passage that Searle exhibits in this way is not at all an anatomical one, as Mackey points out in his reply:

Culler is not confronting anatomists with a revelation. Like Derrida, he is using this familiar fact to illustrate the impossibility of “framing” a text or a genre of texts; i.e., of demarcating its inside clearly and unambiguously from its outside. (Cf. Derrida, “The Law of Genre,” Glyph 7.) Culler’s observation bears not on anatomy but on the sort of formalism that thinks it can isolate a literary work or a literary kind, seal it off from its environment so as to prevent bleeding in or out, and treat it as a self-contained entity.

The only thing I would add to this account (I think it’s already implied there, but deserves to be made explicit) is that Culler isn’t operating in a vacuum, either; he’s responding to, and criticizing, a long-established tradition of applying ‘organic’ metaphors to the literary work.  The New Critics, as it were, shot first.

But the anatomical analogy seems to have touched a nerve in Searle, who can’t resist attacking it once again, in his reply, from the standpoint of scientific knowledge:

Mackey thinks that it is ‘a familiar fact’ that ‘what we think of as the innermost spaces and places of the body—vagina, stomach, intestine, are all in fact pockets of externality folded in.’ But this is not a ‘familiar fact’ at all. Unless Mackey is referring to very early stages of fetal development [emphasis added], the claim is just anatomically unintelligent. And such bad anatomy offers no support one way or the other for theories about literary formalism.

Leaving aside the incredibly uninteresting question of whether this is a “familiar fact” or an “anatomically unintelligent” claim (I assume Searle means “uninformed”, or maybe “unintelligible”; but perhaps I’m wrong, and he’s actually discovered a special new type of intelligence which pertains only to human anatomy), it seems pretty obvious that Searle understands the analogy and is just being a dick about it.**  Where does he suppose bodies come from, if not “the very early stages of fetal development”?  Solid blocks of human-shaped matter into which God, in His infinite wisdom, carved openings and tunnels, in order that we might eat and poop and breathe?  The argument from analogy here is meant to demonstrate that, just as a body which ends up in possession of a fairly well-defined “inside” and “outside” only arrives at that point through a complex morphogenetic process in which the totalizing “inside/outside” distinction is far less important than the various local processes of adhesion, tension, scission, involution, etc.; so, too, for literary works, a genetic view reveals the arbitrariness involved in speaking of “insides” and “outsides”, and the need to move beyond them if we are to arrive at an understanding of the work in its singularity.

At no point does Culler want to call into question the state, or the status, of scientific knowledge about or practice on the body.  Doctors are free to continue making profitable use of the words and concepts of “inside” and “outside” when they’re looking for tumors or operating on patients; and in literature, too, these terms can continue to address real aspects of the human body or our experience of it.  But we must be aware that we cannot ground this distinction through an appeal to the organic unity of the body, of the organism, or of life itself; for, looked at from the perspective of ‘the body’ and the life-processes that shape and sustain it, this distinction does not seem to count for very much.  It’s an artificial category, created by humans, in order to interpret the world.  And if it’s artificial to speak of the “inside” of a human body, how much more so it must be to speak of the “inside” of a text!

At this point, however, the text that we are examining is beginning to grow quite convoluted, so much so that it risks involution.  Let us, then, move ‘outside’ of it, to consider a broader text, perhaps even broad enough to be called a context.

So, for example, we find a critical sensibility very similar to the one expressed by Culler in, of all people, Derrida’s mortal enemy, Foucault:

We are not talking about a gesture of rejection.  We have to move beyond the outside-inside alternative; we have to be at the frontiers.  Criticism indeed consists of analyzing and reflecting upon limits.  But if the Kantian question was that of knowing what limits knowledge must renounce exceeding, it seems to me that the critical question today must be turned back into a positive one: In what is given to us as universal, necessary, obligatory, what place is occupied by whatever is singular, contingent, and the product of arbitrary constraints?  The point, in brief, is to transform the critique […] into a practical critique that takes the form of a possible crossing-over.  (“What is Enlightenment?”, p.515; in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth)

Foucault calls this kind of critical practice a “historical ontology of ourselves”, by which he means that we should come to regard those very “selves” not as the most fundamental ground of being, but as the ever-changing products of historical flux and “arbitrary constraints”.  Moments of transparent self-reflection, in which we (mis)recognize ourselves and come away reassured and confident of knowing who/what we truly are, are in fact exceptional and privileged occasions, whose possibility is inscribed in history long before they ever come to pass.  But this is only the first step; and once it is recognized that the limit may be an arbitrary one, one must try to push against it in order to determine just how arbitrary it is.

Even beyond this purely formal question of “transgression”, the testing and overcoming of limits (which goes back at least to Bataille, if not all the way to Nietzsche), there is another interesting context in which Culler’s rhetoric can be situated.  This body reduced to “pockets of externality” not only echoes Artaud’s famous image of the “body without organs”, analyzed by Derrida (in “La parole soufflé”) and Deleuze/Guattari (in pretty much everything they wrote); it also calls to mind the dramatic opening lines of Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy: [warning: sort of gross + oddly beautiful]

Open the so-called body and spread out all its surfaces: not only the skin with each of its folds, wrinkles, scars, with its great velvety planes, and contiguous to that, the scalp and its mane of hair, the tender pubic fur, nipples, nails, hard transparent skin under the heel, the light frills of the eyelids, set with lashes — but open and spread, expose the labia majora, so also the labia minora with their blue network bathed in mucus, dilate the diaphragm of the anal sphincter, longitudinally cut and flatten out the black conduit of the rectum, then the colon, then the caecum, now a ribbon with its surface all striated and polluted with shit; as though your dressmaker’s scissors were opening the leg of an old pair of trousers, go on, expose the small intestines’ alleged interior, the jejunum, the ileum, the duodenum[…]

This scissoring goes on for some time, skin and digestive tract giving way to nerves, veins, muscles (“like smooth sleeping dolphins”), bones; until at some point, we find we are being irresistibly carried beyond the limits of the individual body, into the circulation of some monstrous collective “libidinal body”: retinas connected to rays of light, hands to steering wheels, tongues and teeth to the phonemes they articulate and the networks of language they participate in, lips pressed against other lips; underneath our fingernails we find “huge silken beaches of skin, taken from the inside of the thighs, the base of the neck, or from the the strings of a guitar.”  Having “spread out the immense membrane”, Lyotard concludes:

All these zones are joined end to end in a band which has no back to it, a Moebius band which interests us not because it is closed, but because it is one-sided, a Moebian skin which, rather than being smooth, is on the contrary (is this topologically possible?) covered with roughness, corners, creases, cavities which when it passes on the ‘first’ turn will be cavities, but perhaps on the ‘second’, lumps.  But as for what turn the band is on, no-one knows nor will know, in the eternal turn.  The interminable band with variable geometry […] has not got two sides, but only one, and therefore neither exterior nor interior.

Which takes us, I think, about as far as we can go, or need to, in that direction.

I want to take a step back now — although perhaps it is really just another step in the same direction, the final step, over, across the edge, and onto the other side; perhaps it leaves me stranded upside-down, dangling by my feet from a ground which must henceforth loom above me like the starry vault of the heavens themselves — at any rate, I want to take this step, and to think about what all this means.  The uncharitable reading (“They’re just trying to shock people!”) probably has some truth to it, but doesn’t bring us any closer to understanding why such language has the power to ‘shock’.  We would also have to clarify just what sort of shock we’re talking about: is it an aesthetic judgment?  a moral one?  or pure physical revulsion?  And why should the frequency of shocks have increased so greatly, dating from a certain moment in time?

On the one hand, I suspect that, like “Theory” itself, this all has something to do with the so-called sexual revolution; indeed, the talk of things going into and out of bodies grows a good deal less abstract if we situate it alongside debates over the legal status of abortion, contraception, ‘sodomy’, and so on (to say nothing of Foucault’s proclivity for fisting).  On the other hand, I would connect it with the triumph of biology in the 20th century — not only biology as a scientific discipline, but as an element of popular consciousness and knowledge.  This theoretical rhetoric of the body then reads as a sort of subversion or détournement of the ever-expanding scientific corpus: indeed, it only works to the extent that the scientific terms it creatively redeploys have already penetrated our minds.  When the philosopher or theorist lays hold of these terms, they are ripped from the sterile, hermetically-sealed environment of the doctor’s office or the operating table, and reconnected with everyday life, with experience, with affect.

Take another look at the Lyotard passages above.  What I find most striking about them is the sheer proliferation of technical terms.  As we peel back the layers, getting further and further away from our usual superficial experience of the body, what do we discover?  In fact, we ‘discover’ nothing, for it has all already been discovered.  I arrive at the most remote and intimate antipodes of my own body, only to find that science has been there first, has noted down and labeled every feature.  There is an analogy here with Derrida/Artaud’s “parole soufflé”: the pun, which does not survive translation, is that “soufflé” means both “inspired” and “stolen”.  Speech which is at once inspired (by something, or someone, outside of me) and “spirited away”: for Artaud, such a conception of language cuts to the root of his very existence, an offensive birth and death perpetrated against him by God, whose body

projected itself across my body


was born through the disemboweling of my body

of which he kept a piece

in order to

pass himself off

as me.

If, in our time, God no longer possesses this power, might we not suspect that it has passed into the hands of Science?  This, at any rate, is the anxiety that seems to be voiced here, and to fall on the deaf ears of Searle.


*: In fairness to Searle, I should also note these words of his, from a 1990 article in the same publication, discussing the supposed “crisis” of the American university:

There are, indeed, many problems in the universities, but for the most part, they tend to produce silliness rather than catastrophe. The spread of “poststructuralist” literary theory is perhaps the best known example of a silly but noncatastrophic phenomenon. […] How serious are these threats? Right now we can’t tell with any certainty because we can’t yet know to what extent we are dealing with temporary fads and fashions or with long-term assaults on the integrity of the intellectual enterprise.  (“The Storm Over the University”, New York Review of Books, December 6, 1990)

So, while he can’t entirely rule out the possibility that it may yet turn out to have catastrophically undermined “the integrity of the intellectual enterprise”, Searle is pretty sure that deconstruction is merely “silliness” and “fashion”.

**: Okay, that’s too harsh; Searle isn’t a dick, because that implies that he’s doing it on purpose, when in fact he’s been forced into this position by his own philosophical views.  Attempts to ground philosophy in the analysis of “ordinary language”, no matter how productive they might be, necessarily involve an element of policing, a decision as to what is or isn’t “ordinary”.  So a word like ‘invagination’ is tolerable in the specialized discourse of a scientist, but far too strange to sully the rigorously “ordinary” scene of philosophy with its presence.  Rather than attempting to figure out what his interlocutors might mean by the words they employ, Searle would rather write them off as irrational, nonsensical, poetic, mad, or fraudulent; or else demand that they resubmit their argument after phrasing it in more ordinary terms.  Anything else risks degenerating into metaphysics.

starting from zero, got nothing to lose

January 2, 2011 § 1 Comment

“Be well.  Study hard.  Save the world — really.  We need you to.”

Those are the last words spoken to me, as she was leaving, by one of the two women at the table next to me in Starbucks* yesterday.  We had struck up a conversation just before they left; they asked me what I was reading (Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror, in tandem with Celine’s Journey to the End of Night, because I’ve never read any Celine and didn’t want K’s discussion of him to go completely over my head), I tried to explain a little about it (“She’s like… a feminist literary theorist?”), and next thing I knew they were telling me stories about meeting Betty Friedan and shit, and generally making me feel like a lightweight and a poseur.  “This is a bit more on the wishy-washy academic side of things,” I admitted, which they didn’t seem too bothered by; and when I told them about my current effort to reconstruct some of the broad historical trends in American intellectual life during the 20th century**, they were genuinely enthusiastic.  A few more stories were exchanged, the obligatory Mad Men riffing (one of them had just been given the DVDs as a christmas present — I still haven’t seen it, and I don’t really care to, but whatever), and some reminiscences of growing up in the 60s (“There were three different sections of job listings in the classifieds back then: Men, Women, and Coloreds”).  Then they left, but not before speaking the words that now stand at the head of this post, at the head of this year, at the head of this blog.  Words which seem as appropriate as any for the role, and better than most.

This blog, then, stands under the sign of History, of Politics, of Culture, of Saving the World.  For the time being, too, it stands under the sign of Abjection.  Last year was rough for me: I broke up with my girlfriend of 2 and a half years, left the town where all my friends live to move back home with my parents, and continued to drift slowly along a course of secondary education that could best be characterized as “blind flailing (w/frequent misadventure)”.  So when Kristeva opens her book talking about

violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside [… that] beseeches, worries, and fascinates desire, which, nevertheless, does not let itself be seduced. […] But simultaneously, just the same, that impetus, that spasm, that leap is drawn toward an elsewhere as tempting as it is condemned

, I don’t know exactly what she means, but it’s hard for me not to think about suicide, and the feeling of utter worthlessness, anguish, and dissolution that you*** fall into whenever you contemplate it seriously and thoroughly enough.  I don’t know whether or not this feeling has a political component, or can ever acquire one — I guess that’s one of the questions I’m trying to answer for myself right now — but, once again, it seems like a good starting point for reflection.  Because among the myriad other ways that a society is defined, there’s the whole issue of what you can and can’t say, the private and the public, the problems that you talk about and the ones you just suck it up and deal with.  (Needless to say, this is a topic that was taken up and debated, quite productively, by earlier generations of feminists: “the personal is the political” and all that jazz…)

All this has strayed quite far from the ostensible purpose of this blog, which, briefly, just to get it out there in the open, is to variously criticize/question/celebrate pop-cultural and subcultural artifacts that seem, in some way, to articulate a political vision — that is to say,  an idea of life-in-common, of a way the world might look, for better or for worse.  (The phrase “unearthing the latent utopian potentials of indie rock” may or may not have been used, at some point, in silent conversation with myself.)  Maybe I’m being a bit self-indulgent — one of my friends recently accused me of “brooding”, which stung a little, I can’t deny — but mostly I just want to show that my heart’s in the right place… even as it constantly runs the risk of getting squeezed up my throat and vomited into the dirt.


*: Overheard conversation between some teenagers that I thought was funny:

T1: Are you getting something?  I can pay for your drink if you want…

T2: Nah, it’s okay, I have a giftcard.

T1: Oh… I have a giftcard too, that’s why I offered!

(I have a giftcard three… which, in my defense, is 90% of why I was at Starbucks in the first place, the other 10% being [REDACTED])

**: It’s very hard to explain exactly what this means without sounding hopelessly vague or lost up my own ass, but one of the better tricks I’ve found is to simply remind people that a phrase like “sexual harassment” or “human rights” didn’t just appear out of nowhere.

***: Okay, me.

what it is

November 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

mostly a place for me to practice writing, critically.—I spend a lot of time thinking, critically; hopefully that will help.—I guess you could call this “cultural studies”—leftist in political orientation—historicalmaterialist+psychoanalytic in theoretical orientation—libra—north carolina—

I’m pretty much an unemployed hipster who reads a lot.  I think I’m cool tho

the name is from a song by Yeasayer, an indie-rock band I have generally positive feelings about, although I still haven’t checked out their latest album, except this one song, which, well, anyway.  I don’t know if the Yeasayer dudes self-identify as “communist”, but either way, this lyric:

but if you learn one thing and learn it well

in june, you must give fascists hell

that’s pretty awesome, right?


posts in the works:

—”Sex, Violence, and the State of the Union in Iron Man 2” (just rewatched this and it’s even sillier the second time around; can’t wait ‘2’ finish working on this post)

—something on transference and singer-songwriters (Okkervil River, the Mountain Goats… Sufjan Stevens?)


July 18, 2010 § Leave a comment

I started this blog a while ago, and began typing up an elaborate (non-)manifesto, which was to be the first post, except that it proved to be unwritable, more or less.

So I’m doing something in a humbler vein.

I guess mostly I just want to engage with contemporary popular culture in an effort to locate and/or draw out revolutionary political potentials?  But also to subject the reactionary ideologies that predominate to a thoroughgoing critique.  I don’t think it’s hopeless.

* * * * *

Conversation with an area anarchist:

Him: “… basically, we’re fucked.”

Me: “Yeah… but that at least posits a ‘we’!”

* * * * *

This is all for now, and hopefully, enough.