Saturday, May 31, 2008

Zizek on Heidegger and Nazism, again

I presented a somewhat detailed response to this topic a while ago: since then, the essay Zizek wrote on "Why Heidegger Made the Right Step in 1933" has made its way into his newest book, In Defense of Lost Causes--the topic thus merits a reconsideration, but I'll be more brief and more blunt.
Zizek's effort in this book is valiant. One can take this recent and precise characterization of the book by Terry Eagleton (a rarity in Eagleton's corpus--and perhaps the only one in this shallow, resentful review), and affirm it against Eagleton's scorn:

The self-consciously outrageous case the book has to argue is that there is a “redemptive” moment to be plucked from such failed revolutionary ventures as Jacobinism, Leninism, Stalinism and Maoism. Žižek is by no means a champion of political terror: the Mao he offers us here, for example, is the mass murderer who mused that “half of China may have to die” in the Great Leap Forward, and who remarked that though a nuclear war might blow a hole in the planet, it would leave the cosmos largely untouched. His aim is not to justify such demented views, but to make things harder for the typical liberal middle-class dismissal of them (my italics).

Perhaps Eagleton phrases it in an asinine way, but I think that this "making things harder" of Zizek is precisely how we should read Zizek's effort. Phrased a little less cynically, we might put Eagleton's statement this way: Zizek restores weight to politics, philosophy, and culture--this is his mission and has been his mission consistently throughout this career. And rather than losing momentum over the years, he has only become more intense--his ambitions and his fire only have grown.
But Eagleton's idiocy locates the problem in this restoration--he makes the same mistake as Zizek, but falls only on the other side of its result. The problem is this: who is the subject to which Zizek addresses his discourse? Granted, unlike other big thinkers on the Left (I'm particularly thinking of certain Frenchmen, with their extraordinary academic and state apparatuses), Zizek's ideas is less institutionally supported in the sense of having a stable and somewhat more closed forum in which to speak--indeed, his best work is when he is among psychoanalysts. But his major works are always more global than that: he is probably the first thoroughly global (and this does not mean international) thinker. This means that his remarks are directed somewhat all over the place. And in the end, who reads them? Well, in the UK and in America, the typical middle-class Anglo-American thinker (I bypass the great and much more fruitful reception he has had elsewhere, and merely talk about our Zizek, the Zizek that we see and talk about here). I'm not saying the people are middle-class who read Zizek. It is that the particular middle-class that Eagleton has in mind is the one sympathized with and identified with by the Left intellectual: the subject needed to be mobilized and enlightened in order to do something substantial about capitalism. Zizek's great achievement is to try and restore some weight to Marxist notions and the Marxist spirit by showing Marxism isn't as old as we thought: it still has life in it yet, because it can link up in a creative way with Lacan--that is, an anti-humanistic (but not Althusserian) thinking. This must resolutely be called "making things harder" only in the sense that this means an ascesis, a training in thinking and in activity so as to be able to adjust thinking to the radically new problems posed by capitalism--those problems which escape the more rigid Marxism of most of the twentieth century. In short, it means thinking about action: Zizek is the thinker of individual and collective action against and within capitalism--if this means things must be harder, it means that we also are on the way to addressing their difficulty by becoming hard. Eagleton cannot know what this means: all he can do is seek out points where real thinkers are complicit in the capitalism they criticize.
Thus, where Eagleton would stupidly see some hypocrisy in the precise identity of the Anglo-American subject of Zizek's work (shouldn't Zizek mainly be talking to the rebels?), we can begin to see that the real problem in this identity is that it can only be marshaled into action by appeals to practicality--or at least this is what Zizek seems to assume (and with some grounds for doing so). The extremely impractical restorative weight that he gives to certain problems, then, ultimately has to turn on almost being able to be confused with the immediately practical: this is the one, sole aspect that constitutes the Zizekian flair in almost every sentence. There is a reversal on a conceptual level that he effects--for example, what Heidegger did in 1933 (join the Nazi party) was not evil, but actually a rare thinking-through of the commitment his philosophy was making politically and one that took place not within that philosophy itself (smuggled into texts) but in action--and this reversal almost of itself can seem to be absolutely pragmatic--it suggests that one should not philosophize politics as much as engage in political action. The force of this reversal is always an appeal to pragmatic action--and this because the audience Zizek writes his sentences for is one that needs not only conceptual shifts and reversals but clues to guide their practical activity. In short, the people Zizek writes for can't just think through a conceptual reversal--they need the force of this reversal to reflect some practical action they can engage in then and there.

While this might be right about these readers, I wonder whether Zizek doesn't need to rethink this aspect of his writings--for in a case like this with Heidegger we see that perhaps another way of arguing and appealing would be both more practical and intellectually interesting. For what is Zizek's treatment of Heidegger, after all? It doesn't say much besides its title: in short, postmodernist philosophers who sneak politics into their words are weak compared to even Heidegger, who had the smarts to join a party in the open, as an action--that is, be committed to what one says even more than theorizing it. Of course this was a monstrous choice--but in principle, with other parties, this is what the Left needs. So Zizek argues, but this is only to isolate what is most obvious about the case of Heidegger: that he made a political decision which was tied into his thinking. Beyond the shock, the appeal to mobilize in a similarly counterintuitive way (but with a totally different party)--precisely because (according to Zizek) Heidegger's case is a paradigmatic instance of the risks of political engagement for thinkers--this does not do much. And it risks making a sly appeal to the perverse in Heidegger's action as what we should feel if we are being political, if we are being active--it gives us something disturbing that we can be okay with so we can get off our asses and mobilize. In other words, this makes it seem as if the bar is lowered for all of us and that political action is just perverse since it always risks being an abomination. In short, it risks being pragmatic for the sake of being pragmatic--that is, just to mobilize. And it is willing to sacrifice the conclusions for this aim. This is Zizek's fault--and to say this is to be as far away from chastising him as a provocateur as possible.
In the end, if Zizek is advocating an action like Heidegger's but directed differently--if he is saying that most political action of thinkers has to risk becoming Heidegger--well I can't see how this isn't a refusal to think what is so vile in Heidegger: the privileging of presence, of activity, of manliness, of the poetic; and the denigrating of the calculating, the prosaic, the everyday--all this, so prevalent in his writings, being made into a Nazism, committed to very specific ideals that are unspeakably disgusting. Many thinkers have had these privileges before: they are not Nazis. And if Zizek is saying that they are precisely not politically engaged because of this--well, he is waging a war not just pragmatically in the now against capitalism, but with a lot of human history. It all comes down to this: is Zizek's discussion of Heidegger an example for a revolutionary mind? Or is it something more impractical? If it is the latter, well, I don't know how we would read Zizek.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The animal mechanical: Nietzsche

The following is a very famous passage from The Anti-Christ. Let's look at it yet one more time, for it bears upon our understanding of both technology and animality massively. It especially constitutes an association, a particular orientation of motifs (by extending that association that is made first in Descartes), that will be explicitly dealt with by two of the most important theorizers of technology in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries: Heidegger and Derrida. With the latter, one should read it alongside the entirety of L'Animal que donc je suis (à suivre) (The Animal That Therefore I Am, to be released in full in a few days). And though he does not seem to be as related to the two when it comes to being a theorizer of technology, one has to--in a completely different, but perhaps infinitely more interesting way--try and include Foucault in this group. One has to precisely because his work is largely an expansion of the domain in which the following orientation of Nietzsche's is set up. We might add that in Foucault this occurs not only in the development of his problematics of micro- and bio-power, but also and perhaps even more pressingly in his notion of a discursive formation (which appears very removed from power in general). But, to begin to turn back to this association or constellation of motifs and their being picked up by the great thinkers of technology: Derrida in his lecture puts this whole motif together when he recalls the opening of the second section of On the Genealogy of Morals: "Nature is said to have given itself the task of raising, bringing up, domesticating and "disciplining" (heranzuchten) this animal that promises." But, to return to the passage in The Anti-Christ itself: let us pay attention to two (or three or four) words in the following especially: machine (machina and Nietzsche's own "translation" in the last line: machinal, which gets rendered as mechanistically) and calculate (and miscalculate: all the cognates of rechnen):

We have learned differently. We have become more modest in every way. We no longer derive man from "the spirit" or "the deity," we have placed him back among the animals. We consider him the strongest animal because he is the most cunning: his spirituality is a consequence of this. On the other hand, we oppose the vanity that would raise its head again here too — as if man had been the great hidden purpose of the evolution of the animals. Man is by no means the crown of creation: every living being stands beside him on the same level of perfection. And even this is saying too much: relatively speaking, man is the most bungled of all the animals, the sickliest, and not one has strayed more dangerously from its instincts. But for all that, he is of course the most interesting. As regards the animals, Descartes was the first to have dared, with admirable boldness, to understand the animal as machina: the whole of our physiology endeavors to prove this claim. And we are consistent enough not to except man, as Descartes still did: our knowledge of man today goes just as far as we understand him mechanistically [machinal]. [...] The development of consciousness, the "spirit," is for us nothing less than the symptom of a relative imperfection of the organism: it means trying, groping, blundering—an exertion which uses up an unnecessary amount of nervous energy. We deny that anything can be done perfectly as long as it is still done consciously. The "pure spirit" is a pure stupidity: if we subtract [rechnen... ab] the nervous system and the senses—the "mortal shroud"—then we miscalculate [verrechnen]—that is all!
-The Anti-Christ, 14; Kaufmann's translation.

First, the play on calculation, on this act of programming and tabulating, which returns both in Derrida and could be said to govern nearly the entirety of the use of the word throughout Heidegger, including its use in Being and Time. If we reckon (the word comes directly from rechnen) such that we get rid of the nervous system and the senses from our sense of what we are, Nietzsche says, we do not reckon: if we rechnen... ab, we ver... rechnen--that is, taking ab- and ver- more literally than usual as Nietzsche invites us to do, if we subtract or deduct, we calculate awry. But what is so interesting about this play is that it is precisely showing the ineluctability of the mechanical: in a way, we are in fact always already calculating, because we are already calculating in such a way that we try to get rid of what makes us calculable--in a calculable way (subtracting).

To be a bit clearer and spell out the paradox that gets missed in the English (though Kaufmann tries valiantly to save it): in order to get rid of the senses and make man something that is only spiritual, we are already deducting, adding, multiplying (cf. what Nietzsche says a few sections earlier about pity being the multiplier of suffering), etc. We are sizing up man in terms of forces, in fact quantities, in order to be able to make a qualitative distinction of this sort. Thus: we only miscalculate according to Nietzsche because we (only) calculate. In other words, we do not miscalculate because we somehow have gone about our qualitative distinctions in the wrong manner--that is, theoretically put it out there in an impoverished or mistaken form. No--and we must add what he says in Ecce Homo, namely that error is not blindness but cowardice (merely--but this makes all the difference!--a lesser form of strength, power as a quantity of energy). In the end, this subtracting here is only finally expressed in theories. Thus, this calculation is taking place on the ground, as it were (and this does not disqualify theorizing and theory as forces at play here--the important thing we're noting is that theories and propositions of reason are not just the only things operative), in the domination of a certain set of bodies over another--the priestly as it has dissipated itself about, or made itself into the "herd." Instead of being an error in theory, this is an error in the constitution of an entire people (or, better, a set of biological/physiological forces), according to Nietzsche, precisely in their calculable qualities. It is these that Nietzsche shows, in the earlier part of the passage, are calculable--that is, able to be reckoned mechanically. Let us take a closer look at what he says here, in the German:

Was die Thiere betrifft, so hat zuerst Descartes, mit verehrungswürdiger Kühnheit, den Gedanken gewagt, das Thier als machina zu verstehn: unsre ganze Physiologie bemüht sich um den Beweis dieses Satzes. Auch stellen wir logischer Weise den Menschen nicht bei Seite, wie noch Descartes that: was überhaupt heute vom Menschen begriffen ist, geht genau so weit als er machinal begriffen ist.

What Nietzsche means by this is very basic--but it is precisely this that makes it an unbelievably profound understanding of Descartes: we can provisionally say that, according to Nietzsche, Descartes had the boldness to interpret the animal as a set of physical forces--in short as something that was constituted in a calculable manner. But we have to double back and look at the terms Nietzsche uses in order to substantiate this, for, as we will see, the way we understand the two appearances of the machine here interprets the entire paragraph for us. These two (more or less) appearances are constituted in Nietzsche's use of the Latin machina, and then of als er machinal begriffen. The reason why we speak so timidly about the number and the exact constitution of the mechanical here is because it is not clear what the relationshp of the latter phrase to the former Latin one is doing, nor what they themselves actually refer to individually. We can turn for help to the translators. Kaufmann leaves the Latin, and renders the last phrase as "understand mechanistically." R.J. Hollingdale turns machina into "machine," and renders the phrase provocatively as "our knowledge of man today is real knowledge precisely to the extent that it is knowledge of him as a machine." This directly makes this phrase refer back to the use of machina: according to this rendering, Descartes understands animal as a machine, and our knowledge of man is gained only by understanding him as a machine. Kaufmann's translation, on the other hand, collapses the whole phrase als er machinal begriffen into an adverb, but preserves the reference: this has the effect of setting up a tension between the two phrases. In short: Descartes did not understand the animal mechanically, as we do when we gain our only knowledge of the human, but instead understood the animal as having the essence of machina, of what is invented, of what is a contrivance or a creation.

The point is not to specify which translation is better, but to understand the problems at work here. Kaufmann is extremely delicate in trying to show the difference between the first and second reference to the machine, because that difference is there--not only in the use of the Latin but also in the use of the verb: in the first case, we have verstehn (know, in the sense of understanding) and in the second we have begriffen (know, in the sense of grasping). Descartes understands, we grasp. To this extent, we can say with Kaufmann that Descartes understands man as machina, while we grasp man mechanistically.
But we also have to specify, with Hollingdale, that what Nietzsche says is, more literally, not "just as far as he grasps...," but "precisely to the extent that he grasps as..."--this is how he translates it (substituting grasp back in there instead of either "have knowledge" or "understand"). While being more literal is by no means to be more accurate to the source text, it is true that Kaufmann loses a few crucial words (the crucial word als, especially) in his version by trying to lump them all together in an active word.
So, what to conclude from all this? With the first phrase, I side with Kaufmann (one should retain the Latin), and in the latter, I side with Hollingdale, though recognize the importance of the fact that Hollingdale loses something active about the phrase--namely, the fact that any understanding or grasping that we do would, in a sort of paradox that we explored already with calculation, have to be just as mechanical as the object we are grasp, because the object is us. And insofar as this is the case, we don't really have knowledge or understanding in the manner of Descartes: Descartes understands the animal as machina, therefore, while we do something different, more actively, in itself, already machina.

In the end, let us just explicate what it is trying to get at with this knowledge of the tension between the two phrases at the level of the rendering of the words themselves, expanding our initial reading of them. We can come up with the following: Descartes had the boldness to acquire knowledge of the animal as machina--as a construct, as an invention, as a functioning. In fact, it was precisely this that allowed him to distinguish the human from the animal: the human was more natural, less machine-like, more spiritual than the animal. The perversity of this gesture is, for Nietzsche (beyond the oddness that humans would be more natural than animals), in that it makes the natural precisely what is anti-nature: spirit. And what is more, it is obviously not consistent--it cannot be, nor would Descartes want it to be that way. We physiologists endeavor to prove how the animal is a construct, is, in short, a set of calculable elements or functions like forces, and to do so more consistently than Descartes by extending this into the human. The effect is double: it is to make the natural precisely what is mechanical, precisely what is constructed; and it is therefore also to restore naturalness to the human, by despiritualizing him (as it were) and interpreting him as a functioning just like this mechanical animal. It is in this sense that any knowledge or grasp of the human that we have now extends only to what we know of him as this construct, as this calculable set of forces--that is, insofar as he is natural and we interpret the natural as the mechanical. Now how one understands this last sentence comes about here, for one understands both the nature of one's understanding and how much the mechanical is exactly participating in the human. Instead of coming down on this phrase, I'll leave it somewhat open (I might come back to it later, and with my own rendering/translation of it), and simply point to a recent experiment ("Monkeys Control a Robot Arm With Their Thoughts") that does not specify so much as illustrate a particular way that we can understand this grasp. I would say that this is not the particular type of physiology that Nietzsche is thinking about, but that actually this experiment would indeed be included in its efforts. What is precisely so interesting and slightly disturbing about the experiment is that it merely is an extension of what is already there with respect to the animal, as well as the human: the animal is already a machine, in some way--and we too are visibly seen in the experiment as coming close both to this animal and this machine (that the animal is).

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


If I have been unduly harsh on historicism in several posts below (especially my post on The Country and the City Revisited), it is because there is something more depressing about its failure as a movement within literary criticism than--for example--the failure of deconstruction. While the latter seems as if it were supposed to fail, as if it were supposed to remain merely a pipe dream, as if it were supposed to stay true to its starry-eyed idealism (despite its paradoxical claims to empiricity) and float along disinterestedly even before its moment has passed, the former always strove to be more pragmatic, to work towards the idealistic but always fall back upon the real, the actual--thus it is a bit more painful to see its downfall, for we lose with it a bit of our groundedness in actuality itself, and does completely against our will. (Informing these remarks is Frederic Jameson's Postmodernism, or the Logic of Late Capitalism, which has a brilliant piece on historicism and its failure which seems to me to display these qualities. Soon we will also turn to Thomas Pfau and his more bitter account.)
"Failure" and "downfall," of course, need to be immediately qualified (we should note that Jameson and Pfau do this as well): nothing simply fails within the study of literature, and certainly not historicism. We apply the term when assessing these movements precisely for this reason. To be clearer: until now (and perhaps beyond now--in America that is), the study of literature cannot really be distinguished from the application of an interpretive method, from a hermeneutic enterprise. Historicism and deconstruction, then, were both events in history (movements) and theoretical assumptions (methods). The movement passes by--not only for reasons of fashion, but also for professional necessities, world events, all sorts of historical reasons--and the method changes with it. The only way to really show how both are tied together is to talk about the movement as if it were then an expression of the method: that that interpretive was a reflection of some aspect of the interpretive theory. We thus say it failed, but this is precisely because the theory will always have a complex relation to the historical movement--in short, that it can't be said to fail simply. It is our way of trying to find the problems within the necessary aspects of the historical event itself. At least this is what I gather from the way people talk about these movements--the best example, I think, is that of Frederic Jameson--if they do not dismiss them unreflectingly as fashions. I prefer to call this whole process the "dating" of a particular critical activity: things do not fail--they become dated. I like to think that this produces interpretive structures or forms or events not unlike Peter Eisenman's City of Culture currently being built in Spain (and pictured throughout)--that is, in terms of penetrating the historicity of the critical act (in Eisenman's structure, the landscape and its uses) with a respect for its impenetrability, its being over with or merely a date (that is, mechanically or technically: Eisenman builds up the landscape, modifies it mathematically--see below picture--and then builds up the landscape itself again as buildings). In the end, the problem may just stem from not listening to Nietzsche, who reminds us how hard it is to say anything at all about these things without some resistance: "The most valuable insights are the last to be discovered; but the most valuable insights are methods" (The Anti-Christ, 13).

Regardless, this immense qualification accepted, both our depression and (relative) lack of depression at historicism and deconstruction, respectively, are symptoms of the problematic elements within the movements/methods (let's just call them movements henceforth) that led precisely to this fall or failure: historicism is unknowingly idealistic when it tries to be material--that is, completely, seriously hypocritical--and deconstruction, continually displaying an extremely annoying (but never as depressing) masochism, savors its hypocrisy in proclaiming desperately the need to respect the material, the empirical, when it cannot tear itself way from the ideal.
Jameson in his discussion of historicism does not explicitly put things in the terms of mourning and/or melancholia like I am here, but the sense of a greater failure is there in his account. It is most definitely present in the recent account of the amazing Thomas Pfau (in "The Philosophy of Shipwreck," MLN 122). Pfau characterizes historicism as governed by several axioms, all of which expand on what we have already pointed out as historicism's hypocrisy when it comes to the material: "the axiom of the archive," "the axiom of contextualism," "the axiom of pluralism (or indifferentism)," "the axiom of retroactive liberation (or secularization)," and, most damningly, the "axiom of critique as the guarantor of historical progress." Instead of getting into all of these--which all remain very interesting points--we can sum them up in a basic thesis: historicism operates more as a pragmatic check on wild theorizing, rather than as a genuine historicism. This does not do justice to what Pfau says as a whole, but it emphasizes how (in Jameson too) we have not really gotten over that magnificent Against Theory, of Walter Benn Michaels and Stephen Knapp: Pfau's focus is really on how historicism becomes a data-producing machine under the aegis of an empiricism or materialism, when its aims are simple idealistic liberal humanism--that is, just as starry-eyed as theory itself. The study of literature--and furthermore professional advancement in the study of literature--becomes an effort to dig up data and make it make no demands on the interpreter other than its archival nature and its newness with respect to the tradition of interpretation. Its "rigor" is really the demonstration of the healthiness of an interpretation backed up in historical records--its ability to live without the larger, more complex, ultimately less particular theoretical statement.

While this may be true, it remains for us to see exactly on what level it is true (thus we return to the problems of whether and where we can distinguish between the practice of interpretation and its method, as discussed above--and how much one can or cannot encroach upon the other, either wittingly or unwittingly). But instead of pursuing this, we can return to how Pfau seemed to reinforce that old argument about new historicism: that it is really the anti-theoretical study of literature, that devolves into a crude plea for pragmatism just as idealistic as theory.
Is new historicism just conservatism within the field of literature? For this is the implication of this claim. Obviously, the case can be made either way. My suggestion is that this is the inappropriate question underneath all the others: we need to think this "pragmatic" aspect of historicism differently if we are going to figure out what its failures are. For there is something indeed extremely amazing about precisely what this "pragmatism" produces: the expansion of the field in which the literary object places itself, and with more complicated processes of determination and delimitation of this aspect than anything Marxism has produced. In other words, what we get is that recognition that even if we looked at the internal logic of a text and exhausted its possibilities (even by affirming that they are infinite), the level at which the text operates must be specified and in fact delimited: it is easily smaller than we might think, caught up as it is within all sorts of activities that are larger than itself. We might revisit the remark of Foucault upon finishing Derrida's Dissemination: "So what?" In other words, for all that, what is the level upon which this immense play is taking place? Plato's texts not only have a complicated relationship to the textual element pharmacia: they are operative within a certain text that has many, many more elements in play--that is, within discourses. Historicism brings one back to the vastness of this field of discourse. More on this later...

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Wars: Nietzsche, Foucault

My ever insightful buddy Sand Avidar-Walzer pointed out that the crucial thing in the passage from Nietzsche I quoted a little while ago is the fact that Nietzsche speaks of wars (Kriege)--that is, war in the plural:

Die höchste Kunst im Jasagen zum Leben, die Tragödie, wird wiedergeboren werden, wenn die Menschheit das Bewusstsein der härtesten, aber nothwendigsten Kriege hinter sich hat, ohne daran zu leiden.
-"Versuch einer Selbstkritik," Die Geburt der Tragödie (I quote the German because I remain a little dissatisfied by the English rendering of it.)

The highest art in saying Yes to life, tragedy, will be reborn when humanity has weathered the consciousness of the hardest but most necessary wars without suffering from it.
-"Attempt at Self-Criticism," in The Birth of Tragedy

I was making the argument that self-criticism, for Nietzsche, was this war, and that it was a war precisely because it was not a slavish No to life. It is the closest thing to this No which can be made from a non-dialectical perspective, which is (to remind us) a perspective that seeks not to fix and set an other against a self in a fight that this self will always win--because the other will never be anything than the self's other--but to endure the risk of confronting an other that is beyond any fixing, apprehension, etc., and so is, in its being a threat, an enticement to life, a potential for the self to increase its domination, impose its reality. Self-criticism is, for Nietzsche, the only No that would say Yes to life, and this because it is a war.
And this because, as Sand says, war is in the plural here, is already more than one war. For, if one is to confront the other non-dialectically, there will be no fixed self to oppose this other just as much as there will be no stable or fixed other. The war of this self will already be another war from itself: this is indeed why war is primarily life-affirming for Nietzsche. That is, war is not life-affirming because Nietzsche is bellicose or valorizes violence generally (this is perhaps most the case even in his early writing on war, "Homer's Contest"). Nor is it merely that a higher man would find in war not a threat but an increase in power. It is that war, properly conceived, is the dissolution of the self precisely as the endurance of an other qua other. Self-constancy becomes a leap into becoming only here.
And I shouldn't even be talking of a "self." Nietzsche here talks about "humanity," or, to interpret "Menschheit" a bit more provocatively or in a more Nietzschian manner, human-ness, the constitution of our species when we consider it in its animality. What falls away into becoming in the wars here is any type of consciousness inhabiting this particular non-animal animality of the human: we become animals in these wars. I stress this because the body, the brute matter that makes this animal up, is really what is involved in this war rather than a self. Nietzsche affirms the body always against certain philosophers, who think of it only as "infected with every error of logic there is!" as he says in Twilight of the Idols. This parody of the philosopher here is so brilliant, because it brings forth so much of the human way of considering the way bodies work in wars: carnage is the first thing we see and think of--the destruction of bodies without logic, without reason, purely on the basis of the contingency of violence escaping any battle tactics (for these tactics do not extend down to the level of the wound: they only organize its possibility, remaining chillingly rational--we will come back to this). Nietzsche inverts, however, the way we think we think about it: could it be that we think war illogical and full of carnage precisely because we humans, and especially we philosophers, think of the body as illogical and as the defiling of reason, of the soul?
Again, this is not to valorize war: it is to rethink humanity on the basis of a site that to it, qua human, seems the most animal, the most bodily, the most inhuman, precisely because there it concretely has the chance to make more war. Who would make war within war? Certainly not a human. But this is exactly what Sand gets at: for Nietzsche war is only really made when it is made in a war--when it is already another war.
Foucault picks up on this, and I suggest that we can only really understand him when we connect him to Nietzsche's sense of war: in an interview, asked about how an event gets taken up into discourse, he says,

Here I believe one's point of reference should not be to the great model of language (langue) and signs, but to that of war and battle. The history which bears and determines us has the form of a war rather than that of a language: relations of power, not relations of meaning. History has no "meaning," though this is not to say that it is absurd or incoherent. On the contrary, it is intelligible and should be susceptible of analysis down to the smallest detail--but in accordance with the intelligibility of struggles, of strategies and tactics.
-"Truth and Power," in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Essays, 1972-1977, p. 114

One merely needs to read "humanity" for "meaning," and one has our Nietzsche. And in fact, this is precisely what Nietzsche is already doing in talking about "humanity" and especially about "consciousness:" the animal that goes beyond humanity is one that does not have the same way of making things mean. This is why he or she is first of all an animal, and second of all, because he does not only have a different way of meaning, but really seems to break the form of meaning altogether, so as to have no recourse to it, he is beyond both other animals and the human animal. He or she differentiates himself or herself by not meaning--which precisely means seeing a different type of intelligibility altogether, and precisely in places like struggles, wars. In the end, this is the way that wars are always in the plural, why they are waged again from within war: the human does not merely break with meaning to try and establish another meaningful war within (but outside) the war, but actually breaks with war as meaningful in waging it again. The superfluity of the act, its being able to be waged again and again, is precisely how it constitutes its intelligibility, how it brings the human out of the human. And, indeed, does not close off the other: Foucault continues,

Neither the dialectic, as logic of contradictions, nor semiotics, as the structure of communication, can account for the intrinsic intelligibility of conflicts. "Dialectic is a way of evading the always open and haserdous reality of conflict by reducing it to a Hegelian skeleton, and "semiology" is a way of avoiding its violent, bloody and lethal character by reducing it to the calm Platonic form of language and dialogue.
-"Truth and Power," 114-5.

What we find here is that the talk of strategies is not a reference to their being planned, but their being the intelligibility of a struggle beyond meaning--in this sense only then, we can interpret strategy as working all the way down to the level of violence, of the individual wounds, struggles, bodies (to respond to our hint above). One must read Foucault this way in order to get his sense of power and to place it alongside Nietzsche's. One has to wonder, however, exactly where war is and is not: whether terrorism, civil unrest, incidental violence, etc. are war or (what is likely) are war only indirectly--if not at all. Foucault's inversion of the famous dictum of Clausewitz is very helpful in this context, for if politics is war by other means, we have a greater sense of where and how this nondialectical, Nietzschian confrontation of alterity is distributed. Foucault would have it reach back into many of our daily processes. In a way, we can then understand him as thinking various regimes already from a Nietzschian standpoint, the standpoint where we are beyond the human animal. Rather than confining war to a genuine, essential moment (a privileged one where war is really war), war suffuses our everyday activities--but with the possibility that it is not even violent. Bombing, terrorism--what if these were not always war, and not because they were not instances where war was "really," "authentically" war, even in a Nietzschian sense? Furthermore, when we critique the war on terror by calling it "the so-called war on terror," we don't posit an authentic war to contrast it against in this way--otherwise the critique of the phrase would have more traction, I think. But if we are not doing this, then precisely how are we criticizing the assertion that the war on terror is really a war? It is because we have not perhaps been as precise in our analysis of it as a function of something like a discursive regime, perhaps, that we lack any way to say what where we can find real wars to contrast this so-called war against.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Reading Foucault

The following articulates of course the fundamental thesis of Surveiller et punir and La Volonté de savoir: power is productive, not repressive; it sustains instead of kills off; it directs rather than impedes; it disperses rather than gathers:

In defining the effects of power as repression, one adopts a purely juridical conception of such power, one identifies power with a law which says no, power is taken above all as carrying the force of a prohibition. Now I believe that this is a wholly negative, narrow, skeletal conception of power, one which has been curiously widespread. If power were never anything but repressive, if it never did anything but to say no, do you really think one would be brought to obey it?
From "Truth and Power" in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 119.

But the last sentence here--"If power were never anything but repressive... do you really think one would be brought to obey it?"--lets us come away with two very different views of all this, two views that, because of how Foucault has been interpreted in America, we continually need to distinguish between. (This is not just corrective: it is also good practice. If theoria had connections with eudaimonia once, it was precisely because it was as much exercise as it was contemplation. Thinking as production of the new is quite a limited conception of thinking.) This sentence of Foucault can mean,

1. That a system (let's just posit a system distinct from power for now to keep things straight) in which power only said no, where it was only repressive, could not really allow for people to obey power. People obey power when they are suffused, sustained, stretched across the span of power's distribution, precisely insofar as they resist power or (what is not the same thing) free themselves from all sorts of constraints.
2. That a system in which power only said no could not allow for people to obey power, so power is crafty, cunning. How could one obey power if it were merely repressive? It must be more devious than that.

The second reading is the popular view of Foucault, thanks to the way we now read him: our emphasis is upon punishment and upon institutions much more than on knowledge and on the body. This is not to say we don't read and think about all the other dimensions of power: it is just that our understanding of Foucault on things like the production of knowledges in their more abstract forms (the human sciences, the sciences in general) and the exercise and attention to the body in a less immediately violent way (dieting, etc.) are so thoroughly colored by this emphasis that we do not see how, for Foucault, the first reading already contains the second. The second reading is, in fact, extremely superfluous, and verges on a crude personification of power--precisely when power is for Foucault something extremely non-human. There is no cunning going on, for Foucault. Power does not find new ways of making its way into ways of resisting it: it is not that inescapable, this inevitable, even if it is this pervasive. Power is more technological, even more mechanical than that.
But an objection is raised: if power isn't cunning, then we, we who affirm this, we must not be acquainted with the horror of power being actually exercised. We would never say that power was not cunning, was not something that contrived to crush bodies even when bodies resisted power--we would not say this if we saw power being used in certain ways. We make Foucault seem rosy precisely when he is talking about something that works in prisons.
My reply would be that this objection is made from the standpoint that Foucault is trying to break with by talking about power. It is a standpoint that needs to see power exercised, if not as repression, then as violence. In short, power must remain insidious from this standpoint--for all intents and purposes, bad--even if in order to analyze it we have to look at it more complexly than as repression. But this, I hold, is merely displacing repression, sticking it into power. There is a more rigorous way to read Foucault which does not do this. For this view wants to escape power. One has to think of ways of designing schools, organizing communities, building spaces that precisely are full to the brim with power, not shy away from this task as if power in itself was something evil, something that, if it did not make people repress it, marked them with its violence. Power is indifferent, and that is why it is so dangerous. And it does not really get dangerous for any other reason.

Now, don't get me wrong: power produces violence--it sustains violence of all kinds. But the viewpoint in question here and from which the objection was raised--that power can only not be repressive if it is some sort of cunning, some sort of pervasiveness or weight that invades even attempts to resist it--misses the point: that the production of knowledge can even exercise violence without being insidious. Far from evading issues of the most horrific violence--like trauma--ours is in fact a statement that precisely seeks to account for them. Violence without intent, purpose, meaning: this is a possibility of power, but it does not immediately make power bad, and that is why we must analyze it. In short, we do not need to see violence in order to see power, and we do not immediately need to see power as the direct cause of violence where we see violence. Rather, power is light, it is a subtle web, it is barely there, it subtends both blows and caresses, precisely when one is not equatable the other (when a caress is just a caress, and a blow, a cut--just that). But why is it so hard for us to look at things this way? Why do we need to see violence in order to verify that power has been at work?
Because we (in America) are, in a sense, still getting used to reading without suspicion, still getting used to the break with hermeneutics that Foucault and others have allowed us to make. Historicism and crude deconstruction (and not just these, but a whole set of silly factors and tendencies that supported them) have made us so suspicious of various texts, so eager to see the violence that they perpetrate, to bring it to light as testimony to the complicity of a party in the textual process that we are extracting, that we cannot in fact talk about the systematicity of violence, its indifference to interpretation at the level of its most organized, routinized, and ghastly unfolding. Only recently are we figuring out that terms like "power" were precisely used by Foucault for indeed talking about precisely this systematicity, about the way violence may be perpetrated but not experienced. If we realize this, we realize what Foucault means by talking about the "positivity" of power. Power can produce an object that is not violent, nor seeks violence. It doesn't mean that everything is complicit, but that we indeed can account for both violent and nonviolent acts. (I know this sounds ridiculous from another perspective, but indeed there are those who generalize so much that they say nearly every act is violence--this betrays a crude ontologizing of the violent which, while not wrong in principle, definitely subverts any ability to see degrees. On the other hand, from that very perspective this sounds indifferent to violence and betrays a willingness to classify some acts as violent and others as not. What I would say to these people is that even and actually primarily Derrida is the one who asserts the necessity of this precise classification to occur. The point is to make it strategic--there won't be a way of escaping it.) In the end, one needs to think of the power in the caress: not as its assault upon another body, but as the control and lack of control subtending every motion, every force within the hand. Only then will we realize--and not the other way around--how thin a line would indeed be needed to turn this into a blow.

This is what Gayatri Spivak just a few years ago (and she was one of the first in America--along with Judith Butler, who did an immensely better job with all this) found out to her amazement, only to conclude precisely the wrong things about it: Foucault was breaking with hermeneutics! Was breaking with the need for us to explain or tease out a meaning that we experience in a text! She then composed "More on Power/Knowledge," and, more recently, in her A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, which immediately link Foucault with Derrida. Even though she tries to respect the difference between them, this impulse to connect or even place side by side shows the poverty of the American academy in its reception of an anti-hermeneutic tradition (the same goes for me below, when I did this as well a little in a post or two). Two people couldn't be as far apart as Foucault and Derrida, and yet we think they are on the same page. Moreover, as usual, this leads her to think of Foucault as somehow not facing up to the Derridian truth of things--the impossibly insane standard that Derrida's ethics/metaphysics-nonmetaphysics has set for any interpretation. This leads her in the A Critique to dismiss Foucault when he says the following:

One can perfectly well not talk about something because one doesn't know about it, not because one has a knowledge which is unconscious and therefore inaccessible.
-"Questions on Geography," in Power/Knowledge, 66.

First, Spivak (and this is a revised version of "Can the Subaltern Speak?"--the position hasn't changed in 15 years) quotes Foucault out of context. Second, she submits him precisely to the Derridian standard. Third, she thereby doesn't actually listen to what he is saying or the fact that this is precisely one of the places she could have--mistakenly, again--seen Derrida and Foucault precisely on the same "side."
The important thing about this quote (which I will reproduce in full below) is the part "which is unconscious and therefore inaccessible." Why? Because Foucault is talking precisely resisting the impulse to think of not speaking about something, about being silent, as an instance of repressing something one should have said. A statement can just indeed reside there, and others can just simply remain absent. The fact that both are this way does not mean that they are lacking something else. This is the whole point of discursive analysis: merely to describe the things there and their possibilities for being different than they are without resorting to the language of lack to fill out how these possibilities are possibilities. This is why the whole quote goes like this: he is responding to geographers who said he should have included geography in The Order of Things and Discipline and Punish, but lacked it, and says in reply to them,

I hesitate to reply only by means of factual arguments, but I think that here again there is a will to essentiality which one should mistrust, which consists in saying, "if you don't talk about something it must be because you are impeded by some major obstacle which we shall proceed to uncover." One can perfectly well not talk about something because one doesn't know about it, not because one has a knowledge which is unconscious and therefore inaccessible. You asked if geography has a place in the archaeology of knowledge. Finding a place for geography would imply that the archaeology of knowledge embraces a project of global, exhaustive coverage of all domains of knowledge. This is not at all what I had in mind. Archaeology of knowledge only ever means a certain mode of approach.
-"Questions on Geography," 66.

What Spivak does, like those who conceive of power not as repression but as violence, is displace the repression they really do attribute to Foucault (because Foucault should have been talking about X--in Spivak's case it is because Foucault should have just been Derrida, who is nearly always right), into a sort of violence that hangs about along with the fact that there is a non-address of something. But what Foucault is saying is that supposing, on the one hand, repression, and on the other (which we can read into this), the inability to conform to an infinite ethics (tout autre est tout autre, the nonstatement should have been in itself a statement beyond its being a nonstatement), both move to quickly to dismiss the ability for a statement not to be there and be sustained (only) by a positive, light force--a force or power that distributes itself all about. They also therefore make violence into everything, and do not see the specificity of its tenuous relationship to the said and the unsaid precisely in that statement or nonstatement that was there or was not but was there as possible (i.e. not in its possibility, but in its being there as possible).
In the end, because power is everywhere this precisely does not mean that we have to be suspicious. It means that we need to be descriptive. I will find the Spivak and quote it in full in the near future (my book is away from here now). But the point of all this is to promote, ultimately, a reading of power into The Order of Things: we are too hesitant to see power operative in this book as it does in the later works or, more crudely (not as the fully theorized form of power) in the earlier works. Foucault periodizes his thought so much that we in America, who are seeking a representative Foucault, only look at the one period we think is most "mature." What this does is exile a whole domain of thinking about knowledges precisely in their systematicity and transformation as sustained by power. While one can't do this totally rigorously (the concept just isn't there), it would be better to do this than find new domains where power just is violent and bad and oppressive, like so many historicists have done.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Is close reading dated?

Nearly all of us talk about “close reading” ahistorically—that is, as if it was not dated. I "close read" that text there--and yet also by this I mean I use a technique that has particular affinities with an act that was performed by the New Critics, say, or, even better, I.A. Richards--that is, by those in my field and who interpret in a similar way. We might know more about what close reading is, then, as vague as this is----slow, patient and minute attention to a text--than when am I when I say I am close reading. Similar frustration with other terms of this sort has led people to want to give them up completely--that is, not just date them, return them to their specificity, but be done with them. Thankfully, few people seem weary in this way with close reading. Despite attacks over the years and even amidst the current pressures of the proliferation of media and the expanding canons and global literature (that is, despite such a large amount of text that close reading all of it becomes impossible), it seems safe to say that the sense that we have moved on—moved on much more than people are willing to admit or acknowledge, and need to be doing something else completely—has not taken over. But it is not clear whether this mode of talking prevents something like fatigue from occurring, or whether it does not. Indeed, there is a defensiveness (I might also call it an aggressiveness) in what D.A. Miller says about close reading in his lectures on Jane Austen, published recently as Jane Austen, or the Secret of Style, that seems to grasp this and try to protect close reading from it. Miller gives us two “exercises:”

Picture, if you can, a past moment of literary criticism when, institutionally empowered and rewarded, close reading was the critic’s chief tool of professional advancement; his command of a text, his capacity to tease from it a previously invisible nuance, or illuminate it under a fresh insight, would as good as light the pipe in his mouth and sew elbow patches on his jacket, so unfailingly did he thus distinguish himself as the compleat, the full professor of English literature. Now picture, if you need to, a future moment of literary criticism in which the same practice has fallen into total dereliction, and the esprit de finesse has ceded all its previous authority and prestige to the esprit de géométrie, more familiarly known as “theory” (all quotes from Jane Austen, or the Secret of Style, 56-58).

The defensiveness, in a way, has already formed itself—and not necessarily in the depiction of the rise of “theory” as impatient and deaf to close reading. But Miller continues:

I don’t mean to suggest by either exercise that, whether or not we ever lived in such a past, we should contemplate returning to it, or that, if such a future is indeed at hand, we should do our best to resist it. On the contrary, it is close reading in its humbled, futile, “minoritized” state that would win my preference in any contest. For only when close reading has lost its respectability, has ceased to be the slave of mere convenience, can it come out as a thing that, even under all the high-minded (but now somewhat kitschy-sounding) rationales of its former mission, it has always been: an almost infantile desire to be close, period, as close as one can get, without literal plagiarism, to merging with the mother-text.

I call Miller defensive here because his exercises and comments seek to secure a space and time for close reading—a setting in which it is, paradoxically, already the least secure. This setting is, as he says, that “minoritized” state which he prefers. But we do not understand what Miller means if we conceive of his preference as a type of choice or pleasure in apprehending a close reading performed in this state—that is, if we conceive it as similar to that like or dislike accompanying our exercise which, as Miller pictures a past and future, prompts us to choose a side. For the contest in which the “minoritized” state wins Miller’s preference is not of a kind that would produce this like or dislike. This is because it does not occur between the close reading of the future and that of the past that we are invited to picture. We can understand this if we ask ourselves whether, even if close reading lost its respectability in the future we saw and ceased to be a slave to convenience when it was performed—whether it would not also be this when in the past we pictured it was a tool for a professor to distinguish himself. Now, this is not to say that the practice of close reading as Miller thinks of it is the same in both of these situations: indeed in this future, it has lost the frequency with which it has been performed and fallen into dereliction. And neither is this to say that the use of close reading as a tool for advancement is really the same thing as performing it while it has ceded its authority (Miller shows our professor, in between the passages cited, transformed by close reading into an emeritus, seeming to ramble before impatient listeners). It is merely to say that in both of these situations we picture, we do not picture the close reading, the “minoritized” act itself that Miller prefers and that takes place in the contest: close reading’s loss of respectability and its lack of convenience are in fact simply different things here than either the authority it has or has not ceded. That is, if close reading cedes this authority in the future we pictured, this does not mean that in the past in which we saw it was not performed also in a “minoritized” state, beyond our capability of vision. Also, if it had this authority in the past, if it appeared as a mission with all sorts of rationales, these rationales exist in the past as well as in the future we pictured—appearing in the first as high-minded, in the second as kitchy—and only alongside the fact that close reading itself is what it has always been: that is to say, never reducible to this mission with its rationales. Secure, then, outside both this past and future, and yet alongside them both, as if it were their lining, we are never sure (almost like an infant, we are so insecure) whether the authority of our interpretation is a reflection of its humble, futile state. The “coming out” of which Miller speaks is therefore also, despite its importance and its very real occurrence, a non-phenomenon. The “minoritized” state of this emergence is precisely that which, if we look for it in the future we picture, appears fully and only as what is antiquated (the remarks of the poor emeritus before the impatient crowd). In the past, it appears only as a tool, as something done with convenience (the lecturing of the “compleat,” distinguished professor). Nowhere does it appear as humble or futile. Thus it also can be said to appear everywhere beyond our ability to picture it—and appear precisely as the insecurity, the registration of a danger that it could be always becoming less and less frequent. For in every non-appearance, close reading is as exposed to the danger that alongside what we picture it to be our actions are actually hurting it as a practice: though when it emerges it is what it has always been, Miller affirms that it has fallen into dereliction, that somehow it exists less often and is abandoned. Secure without being secure, then, it is in fact opposed to both our pictures via Miller’s “On the contrary,” which may and may not (it is as if there were an enjambment or a caesura between them) connect this humble, futile practice with the past and future in the sentence before it:

I don’t mean to suggest by either exercise that, whether or not we ever lived in such a past, we should contemplate returning to it, or that, if such a future is indeed at hand, we should do our best to resist it. [||] On the contrary, it is close reading in its humbled, futile, “minoritized” state that would win my preference in any contest.

Between two things that are not opposed but either occur or do not occur side by side, this contest for Miller’s preference is no contest—and is therefore also “any contest.” And the preference in the contest is precisely that—only a preference, a feeling for something of which we are not sure. We might therefore call it, as Miller does, a desire—a desire that “is” only a desire, for if it were to do more than desire, if it were to come into existence as desire, we would be able to apprehend it there before us. We see, then, that this desire is nothing like our liking or dislike for one or the other of the states of close reading that we picture, simply because when we close read there is no opposition between them:

But point of picturing these two extreme conditions is not to get us to choose sides, but to recognize that, if we retain any vital relation to close reading whatsoever, as we all do, we must always be on both.

If this setting of close reading that Miller specifies is both secure and not secure, we now begin to understand why what Miller says has a tinge of defensiveness, and (what is the same thing) aggressively anticipates a total attack upon what he is talking about. In other words, we understand why the articulation of close reading here is made up against that sense of a total weariness with close reading: always remaining in its humble, futile state, always possibly occurring there, right outside where we can be sure we have respected a text or interpreted well enough, close reading can never surely be killed off, made impossible, or kept from emerging again before us—it cannot be kept from coming out. Furthermore, this is precisely because it is its obsolescence that it is exposed to constantly: because anything that we apprehend about our interpretation cannot guarantee that we or some other force are not killing it off, close reading exists precisely as a defense against this weariness, as a desire that is more than non-existent but always existent enough to be continually asserting itself against non-existence. Now, while this definition is an outstanding achievement, we must wonder whether the protection it provides close reading is as strategic as it could be. For if it prevents us saying of close reading that it is over and done with, that its existence there is wearisome and should be left behind, it has little to say to those who do not, as of yet, use the phrase “close reading” with any sense of it being dated—and especially to those of this group who are either “incompetent” in it as a technique and who say they use it as well as those who, with other techniques, willingly or unwillingly would do damage to close reading. And while this looks like it is a plea for pragmatism in the face of Miller’s definition, it actually is not. It is (or tries to be) a plea for the radicalization of what Miller says by extending it back into this domain, the domain where close reading is not only performed but also pointed towards, classified, asserted to exist in some places but not others.
For what is so defensive and aggressive in Miller and can be more strategic is not that Miller defends against something too large or too total in an environment that has many smaller problems. It is that he lacks any way to respond to those problems than by making them into the largest one: the question of whether we are really being responsible to the text, whether close reading has indeed occurred, in short (and in a phrase I think Miller is, with his peculiar and outstanding exercise, trying to tease out of us) whether we are in fact as close as we picture ourselves to be. Miller’s singular achievement is to thereby restore to the word “close” in “close reading” the deepest and most vital sense in which it is operative. This is as a relation expressing being near and being far at the same time, as a process of becoming nearer but never being sure one is near—in sum, as a desire to be close instead of what we usually refer to it as: a demonstrable, apprehensible closeness, a general sense that we have spent time with a text, a familiarity, a fine form of attention to minute details on the page. But addressing the small problems by this massive act of restoration perhaps does not show as much faith in close reading’s ability to deal with them as it might seem. For what Miller is saying is that a certain class of acts that we normally call “close reading” and towards which we can point ultimately have the same status as the past and the future that we pictured in the exercise. In other words, in order to protect close reading, Miller has to assert that these examples of close reading have the same relation to historical existence as do the pictures itself—they remain, in fact, always in question beyond that point where we can apprehend or question them. If a reading that we call “close reading” is there, if we can point to it and say “there, that is a close reading, that is what they are like,” its particular closeness is always susceptible to being questioned again by another close reading; always able to be subjected to the standard, so to speak, of a new degree of intimacy, a new desire. A new desire that, indeed, is the same old desire: so in fact the reading that we point to, the example, can never really be said to just be a function of an older desire, for the closeness only can be said to be operative in the desire that is functioning. The example is then, in fact, questioned already as we point to it, as we try to close read with it in mind. Always already taken up into the newer reading and its closeness, we lose any ability to account for why we thought that reading, there, was indeed close and should guide our reading in the future: we can only say that it bears on our new reading, that our new reading questions its closeness as much as the old one questions the new by being an example or guide. Defensive of close reading and aggressive against anyone who would deny a close reading its new existence, its ability to recur, this definition—precisely when we accept it—seems not to extend itself to what is operative in what makes us consider a thing close at a particular time, and because this continual process of calling into question seems to be the only way Miller here is envisioning history. To put it bluntly, here Miller does not seem interested in accounting for close readings that we thought existed in the past except as they bear upon a close reading that cannot be sure if it is going on. While this secures close reading—and, as we said, does so precisely by restoring what makes it close—it also limits our ability to build up a set or class of objects that could be considered close readings as opposed to, say, Austen’s commentary on her novels in her letters. Now, the absence of this class is not important because it allows our powers of apprehension to distinguish close reading from something that is not (and this is why this is not a plea for pragmatism). It is important because it allows us to distinguish different degrees of closeness as what we pointed to (or did not point to) in the past: we can tell that a reading somewhere, even if we cannot totally justify why it is classed as close, is more or less close than another. Similarly, Austen’s comments may not be a form we would normally consider close reading, but we can suppose that if they were, they would be more or less close than something else. In the end, without this class the way Miller approaches things makes it possible for someone with a more dogmatic allegiance to close reading (that is, much less faith or with faith of a totally different type than him, like Paul de Man) look like he has more (of the same) faith than Miller.
And it is here that the problem of dating close reading, as I have been calling it, comes in. While considering close reading as dated does not seek to directly prevent the weariness we talked about, it seeks to build up—precisely out of that definition of close reading as desire that Miller gives us—a historical sense, so as to be able to consider close reading as more stratified in its operation, as providing different ways of referring or not referring to its closeness as “close” (even including referring to it as “distant”). The problem then is not one of how best to keep insisting to all the people we referred to earlier that, whatever they apprehend about their efforts to read, as a close reading it is not close enough; that however they read, it will only be close if it is the desire to be close, if it needs to be read again even closer (as Derrida says: “Un autre conseil, solution de désespoir: tout lire et au besoin relire!”). The problem is to try and provide a way of indicating how the closeness in close reading can gauge itself against itself—that is, stratify itself, distribute itself—beyond our apprehension of it; how, aided by the clues that are our acts of calling something a close reading (rather than something else), we can better acquire a sense of the general area in which things become able to be close—without having as our only way of doing so the injunction that we are constantly not close enough, and that close reading is totally threatened thereby. This allows us to respond to some basic questions that, astonishingly, seem still have not been answered, and without answers still keep us from using close reading as a dated word: What, in the end, distinguishes what we now call close reading from formalism? And from deconstruction? And from traditional hermeneutics and commentary? I have heard the words “close reading” used to designate all of these. And perhaps it is correct to do so. But the way to find out whether this is the case is not to look at whether they are close, but whether they have a relationship to that set of objects we think qualifies as close reading, and to do so (like Miller excellently does with respect to how close reading is close) beyond the level where we currently apprehend these qualifications, where they apply but where we cannot directly picture them.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Heidegger's turn

It is very confusing to read of a turn in Heidegger's thinking. Philosophers seem to want to locate it in some work of Heidegger's, whether it be the essay on the essence of truth (Richardson put forward this thesis long ago), the humanism letter (Derrida usually tends to see things turning here) or, more recently the Beiträge zur Philosophie (there is also the Kant book). Theodore Kiesel also has added importantly to a certain consideration (also always there) of a sort of turn towards Being and Time, dividing up Heidegger's thought, then, into three areas. For the turn in Heidegger's thinking, as it is usually put, is one from Being and Time to Seinsgeschichtliche denken or thinking in (or on) the way of the being-historical (i.e. "being-historical thinking," as it is usually translated). This thinking of course found most explicitly in the later works on technology and Ereignis (enowning or event of appropriation). The pre-turn that I spoke of, would be the turn towards an analysis of Dasein from the early writings (but this is of course too felicitous a way to put it: the turn is explicitly talked about as a specific movement of thought by Heidegger and it would be wrong to think of a mere turn towards and away from something in one's thinking as this turn itself).
The turn itself is made by moving from an analysis of Dasein towards being via time, to one of how being gets destined or scattered about over history. This second analysis cannot totally be phenomenological in the manner of Being and Time, then.
I will elaborate on this more later, but I think that the more you deliberate this problem of "where," the more you lose yourself in more arbitrary distinctions. The turn needs to be specified really only if you too are trying to be Heidegger, if you too are trying to do the type of analysis he undertakes--and not much even then. With the increasing professionalization of phenomenology (in areas of cognitive science) this indeed might be really necessary--that is, as you elaborate questions of method. But it can easily keep you from the philosophy that this method is trying to articulate--and thus philosophers especially are pretty wrong to keep focusing on it in this way (since they don't even have the tools to do it well, like the scientists). The point itself certainly isn't in a book--one can specify places of the later thought in Being and Time itself (Levinas is particularly good at this, as well as Carol White). It is simply the odd supplement to Being and Time: Being and Time, unless it gets continued in its own manner, slips into a different mode of thinking. The seminars around Being and Time somewhat reflect this. The book itself has its own problematic, and so once you step outside of it, it does not really make sense to locate another book in which this other thinking is located--you are pretty much already in it. This is because what is turned from is so extremely specific, while what is turned to cannot be. The crucial question behind most inquiries into where Heidegger turns is really about what is lost in this gap, in this shift from one perspective to the other.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

The untimely Geoffrey Hartman

Julian Wolfreys in a recent review of the excellent (and award winning) Geoffrey Hartman Reader says something we all have seemed to know for a long time now, but never really can fully appreciate regarding Geoffrey Hartman. I suppose it is the nature of the thing, which Nietzsche tried to show us long ago by calling it untimely or inopportune (unzeitgemäss). Regardless, Wolfreys makes it explicit: collecting Hartman's readings together, he says

is to be welcomed as an accessible, comprehensive, and perhaps even urgent reintroduction to a culture of vision, through some of the most perspicacious and perspicuous interventions in what we call literature and culture. And if this is a reintroduction to a culture of vision it must also be read as both a timely and untimely invention of a vision of culture. Like all the best writers, Hartman remains other to his times, and in this exhibits an abiding apprehension that ‘criticism is not the place where language goes to die’ [he is quoting Hartman], alongside a persistent demand that criticism should not succumb to a certain ‘narcissism’ [again Hartman] prevalent in much critical writing today.

I wouldn't say, however, that what has kept Hartman so fresh is that he resists, on the one hand, lending a sort of authority to interpretation (once it is interpreted, the text is killed off, closed, not needed to be opened again), and, on the other, lending a sort of authority to the interpreter--though Wolfreys is right to suggest both points. I fear even this tribute does not do justice to the the way Hartman is indeed other to his times. I find his continual freshness, rather, in the interesting patience one encounters in Hartman's writings, which does not have the anxious tone of a critic in this sort of double bind. To me, it seems to come from an unbelievable confidence that a responsiveness to history can produce. I mean history in its hugest, almost inhuman sense: that is, not in any (new or old) historicist sense of the word, which thinks it in terms of important dates and solid periods (that is, when they aren't being changed by the historicist--for indeed there is nothing wrong with dates and periods in themselves I think), and theories of influence, progress, and continuity (spanning any apparent discontinuity or, by stupidly asserting/fetishizing discontinuity even more than dumb deconstruction, preserving the continuity).

Open up 1980's Criticism in the Wilderness, and you will find issues there that, of course, are not perennially relevant, but come just about as close to this as possible--precisely because they are so much of their time. Hartman has a knack for what will be of interest in a situation, because he is always attentive to the duration, the historicity, of any event, and sees criticism as the attempt to interpret only beyond this horizon, this perceivable limit of historicity's presence. Interpretation beyond experience: this is what he praises in Derrida in Saving the Text, and (in an earlier text) this is why he sees it as so urgent (and so nearly impossible) to move "beyond formalism." What is "The Voice of the Shuttle" but an attempt at this impossible phenomenology? As he says in "Criticism, Indeterminacy, Irony:"

The seduction of understanding through a fiction should provoke something more active than bemusement or suspended disbelief: it should provoke me to break, however provisionally, the very frame of meaning I bring to the text.

I should be taken to that horizon of sense, of what defines my moment and my comportment to the fiction, and from there, return while remaining as open as possible to what can come from beyond. Indeed, wherever he falters, it is only because he is interpreting his particular moment and from his moment too much (to be only slightly more specific--further posts will justify this claim--such is the case with his fear of the mechanical and the methodological in hermeneutics; his fear that "to methodize indeterminacy would be to forget the reason for the concept," also in the essay last quoted: this responds to a particularly crude McLuhan-like conception of the mechanical, though probably only because it has in mind Auschwitz).

So this isn't so much an attempt to escape narcissism on the one hand and objectivity on the other: even these are too local concerns for him. What is at stake is indeed, again, something Nietzschian (not touched upon enough in Deleuze's book on him, nor explicitly enough in Derrida's Spurs): the will to economize, while being precisely in the inhuman, the unexperienced, the unformed. The great via naturaliter negativa he elaborates so deftly in the early Wordsworth's Poetry is, when thought in slightly different terms, precisely this: the going down and under (Untergang) of Zarathustra, conceived as far as possible as an ascent, as a holding-together, as a formalism. Hartman needs to be seen--and in fact can't help but be seen (thus his freshness, his quirkyness, his disarming perspicuity and vagueness, his untimeliness)--as one of the few, perhaps, who indeed have somehow of necessity understood Nietzsche:

The conditions under which any one understands me, and necessarily understands me--I know them only too well. Even to endure my seriousness, my passion, he must carry intellectual integrity to the verge of hardness. He must be accustomed to living on mountain tops--and to looking upon the wretched babble of politics and nationalism as beneath him. He must have become indifferent; he must never ask of the truth whether it brings profit to him or a fatality to him... He must have an inclination, born of strength, for questions that no one has the courage for; the courage for the forbidden; predestination for the labyrinth. The experience of seven solitudes. New ears for new music. New eyes for what is most distant. A new conscience for truths that have hitherto remained unheard. And the will to economize in the grand style--to hold together his strength, his enthusiasm...
-The Anti-Christ, Foreword

The supplement here ("And") as a step back--part of the step-no-step (démarcher) of that openness to what is beyond experience, at the limits of a time's historicity--as a holding together or binding of what is unbound... In other words, economizing in the grand style: this is what we really need to understand in (and as) Hartman's untimeliness.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The unconscious(es)

There are perhaps more unconsciouses than we think there are whenever we talk Freud. I've heard three so far, and am realizing that what I've always thought was the right view (the last--Zizek's) might be helpful if it were not asserted as correct against the others but put beside them and used when the occasion permits. I'll therefore do so here:
First, we get the unconscious (Unbewusst) as merely sub-conscious or not-conscious. Freud explicitly rejects this view in The Interpretation of Dreams, a fact that is probably more significant than we usually think. It means resisting, to some degree, any dialectic between the two systems. Thus the perception-consciousness system, which resides between the two in the earlier writings, becomes crucial.
Second, we get the unconscious thought not in opposition to the conscious--that is, as a separate system--but with certain elements that consciousness exhibits attributed to it. This is the unconscious of classical ideology (when it does not merely mean subconscious), but it is also the unconscious of many remarks in the work of trauma theorists like Cathy Caruth. All of these people talk about "unconscious memories," or "forgetting trauma," which are things that would happen not in the unconscious proper, but in the perception-consciousness system. Obviously this gets more complicated with trauma, masochism, and all the economic problems that make Freud change his model to the I, super-I, and It model later, and so it might help to be open to this view.
Third, the totally unconscious. No memories (though there are inscriptions, psychic energies, etc.), and no talk of "changing" anyone's unconscious by reverse-ideology tactics of whatever sort--at least changing it directly. The only one of these that would do anything is the extremely indirect (though, when used badly, direct--and therefore useless) Lacanian model of critique and analysis. It is utterly foreign to discourse, though able to be localized by certain structures of that discourse. In a certain sense, it is like the Kantian sublime: it exceeds our capacity to cognize what it might be whenever it presents itself to us as such. Paradoxically and crucially, it is not able to be cognized precisely because the truth of the matter is that what we cognize daily actually is it already. That is, the effect of its rupturing our consciousness when it presents itself is to keep us from knowing that there is no real difference between what we cognize and it. In a sense, we make our reality uncognizable in order to keep ourselves from cognizing it, when it irrupts into cognition.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Coleridge and Wordsworth

I just want to suggest here that a line in Wordsworth, one of his most amazing images in The Prelude might have resonances with a line in Coleridge--as they so often do. In Wordsworth this image--"huge and mighty forms, that do not live like living men, moved slowly through my mind"--occurs after the famous boat-stealing episode. It echoes the line "Obscure fears of beings invisible," I think, from Coleridge's "Destiny of Nations," in the passage that deals with Fancy and with its frightening effects:

For Fancy is the power
That first unsensualizes the dark mind,
Giving it new delights; and bids it swell
With wild activity; and peopling air,
By obscure fears of beings invisible,
Emancipates it from the grosser thrall
Of the present impulse, teaching self-control,
Till Superstition with unconscious hand
Seat Reason on her throne.

-"The Destiny of Nations," published in 1796

Here is the (amazing) passage in Wordsworth:

...But after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days, my brain
Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being; o'er my thoughts
There hung a darkness, call it solitude
Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes
Remained, no pleasant images of trees,
Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;
But huge and mighty forms, that do not live
Like living men, moved slowly through my mind
By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.

-The Prelude, 1805, Book I.

The resemblance isn't much, but in my mind when I hear Coleridge, it's there. Obviously the "beings invisible" are much different, both in what they do (the contexts are very different) and in what they exactly are, which makes this more interesting. That is, these "beings" gain an added strangeness in Wordsworth because their life is more emphasized. It is thus able to, simultaneously (by an extraordinary enjambment so typical of Wordsworth's genius), be made less life-like.