Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The description of Byron

I won’t describe; description is my forte. (Don Juan, V.52)

On August 6, 1809, having just landed at Gibraltar, Byron picked up a golden pen (a gift from his old Harrow headmaster upon his departure from England four weeks prior) and began a letter home, relating his journey with John Cam Hobhouse through Portugal and Spain. Recounting his itinerary, he comes to their three-day residence in Seville: “Seville is a fine town, and the Sierra Morena, part of which we crossed, a very sufficient mountain.” He pauses in the middle of the description, however; the pen stops. Then: “—but damn description, it is always disgusting.
The tourist reluctant to describe—particularly reluctant to describe scenery—is a role Byron adopts throughout much of the tour that would produce the first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Teasing glimpses of “cloudless skies, and lovely landscapes” are given, then left unelaborated through a performance of conformity with a mysterious imperative to relate all in full later: “—But I must reserve all account of my adventures till we meet;” “—But why should I say more of these things? …Has not Hobby got a journal?;”“—But I will not describe, no, you must be satisfied with simple detail till my return, and then we will unfold the floodgates of Colloquoy.” It seems that Byron must be faithful to immediate and private experience at the expense of description—accounts will be related when later all can be recollected in tranquility. And though he hypocritically ends up describing vividly anyway, the effect of performing this lack of speech, of halting the pen, secures that immediacy by denigrating its representation. It promises through aphasia that a plenitude of private experience must disrupt any of its possible repetitions in description: to continue describing would be to only approach experience with disgusting signifiers that make a mockery of its bounty. And so without any description given, any proof of his having been in a place, we believe Byron has experienced that place to the fullest.
The maintenance of this posture throughout the tour seems to contradict much of our understanding of Byron’s descriptive practice, however. That is, from the reception of Childe Harold in 1812 to recent analyses by those like Phillip W. Martin, Jerome McGann, Richard Cronin, and Jane Stabler, Byron is conceived to be tenaciously faithful to immediate experience precisely through describing, not by deploying the suggestive mechanism of refusing to describe.
Rather than a virtuoso in sustaining a posture that consistently renders silence the signifier of experience, Byron is understood as a master in directing his descriptions towards the eclipsing of any silences or representative inadequacies possible in a private representation, marshalling the described into performing nothing less than the totality of experience in a place by opening up and sacrificing its private character to history. A thousand Venetian years superadd themselves to his merely private utterance on the Bridge of Sighs, and as he describes the hills of Spain those hills append the totality of experience they contain to what would have been a necessarily inadequate and disgusting representation of them:

On yon long, level plain, at distance crown’d
With crags, whereon those Moorish turrets rest,
Wide scatter’d hoof-marks dint the wounded ground;
And, scath’d by fire, the green sward’s darken’d vest
Tells that the foe was Andalusia’s guest:
Here was the camp, the watch flame, and the host,
Here the bold peasant storm’d the dragon’s nest… (Childe Harold's Pilgrimage I.49)


The private representation of the mountains becomes more than private when that mountain is represented so as to embody the scars of the battle there between the French, Spanish, and British in 1809. The effect is what McGann argues famously in The Romantic Ideology and elsewhere—that Byron, ultimately, has no traditionally “greater Romantic” lyric voice within lyric poem: Byron’s private voice is sacrificed to a paradoxically historical lyric voice (“[Byron’s] Romantic subjectivity, whether reflexive or impassioned, regularly defines itself in spectacular terms. Studying and brooding upon themselves, Romantic poets produce cosmic theatricals from the dramas they write about their own lives, feelings, and experiences. In the lyrics of Wordsworth and much Romantic poetry, however, this ‘poetry of experience,’ as it has been called, typically erases or sets aside its political and historical currencies… Byron’s lyrical procedures are quite different in that they regularly draw upon a complex set of political social and world-historical mediations.” McGann, “Byron’s Lyric Poetry” 210-11 in The Cambridge Companion to Byron; cf. also The Romantic Ideology,123-125, 131-136). But the return McGann emphasizes is that Byron achieves a greater representation than a lyric Byron ever could. He can participate in an economy of experience where, even in the absence of any invocation of a Muse, merely walking by Parnassus can be asserted as equal in value to that invocation:

Of, thou! In Hellas deem’d of heav’nly birth,
Muse! Form’d or fabled at the minstrel’s will!
Since sham’d full oft by later lyres on earth,
Mine dares not call thee from thy sacred hill:
Yet there I’ve wandered by thy vaunted rill;
Yes! Sigh’d o’er Delphi’s long-deserted shrine,
Where, save that feeble fountain, all is still... (I.1)


Martin and, more recently, Stephen Cheeke, elaborate how what would have been the representative emptiness of the refusal to invoke (that is, Byron’s resultant silence) is filled by a reference to Byron’s experience of the historical spot and is therefore able to be exchanged (via “Yet”) with even a successful invocation. Since any invocation would be condemned as a representation to some distance from experience, the reference to Byron’s experience alone secures, in its promise of a more than personal representation issuing from that experience, its equivalence in value. Martin and Cheeke’s elaboration thus clarifies the conditions necessary for the exchange of the lyric and historic that McGann outlines, and renders his historical economy also touristic: the opening up of the private into the historical occurs precisely because they both conjoin in a specific place that could be visited, experienced, and potentially represented lyrically—Byron in a way must utter from the Bridge of Sighs in order for those years to expand around him. The operation of this touristic/historical economy is thus asserted to be the motor of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage—Byron’s first significant poem in which he develops this technique—and Byron’s descriptive practice in general: “at the center of his entire achievement,” Phillip Martin asserts, “lies the illusion that a wealth of worldly experience, or at least a huge capacity for worldly experience, provides him with the essential qualifications of a great poet.” The illusion achieved in collapsing of representative distance through a private plenitude of historical experience in a place, renders Byron, as Cheeke calls him, the “brilliantly individual amanuensis to whom the European landscape is dictating its histories.
But what would it mean to assert that Byron could only accomplish this by simultaneously deploying the mechanism of maintaining silence we have seen him act out on his tour? What would it mean to assert that Byron in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage adopts both postures of the descriptive poet and the poet who refuses to describe?
(To be continued...)

Sunday, September 28, 2008

"A sort of ignorance"

Freud has much to say about the way physicians approached their patients before psychoanalysis. What might not be clear is that in these little remarks he is hinting that the practice of psychoanalysis, as well as a good portion of the theory itself, derive precisely from an effort to combat this way of approach. Freud essentially objects to the way of treating patients as if giving them information will immediately allow them a choice in the matter of their illness. In this, he rejects much of the practices constituting Western medicine fundamentally: even though Western medicine might come to the same conclusion about a patient's inability to handle the illness, it will treat the moment in which this happens as a derivative case. For Freud, the point is thinking this case without thinking it as derivative.
Thus this rejection on his part also necessitates a theoretical rejection of what it presupposes: an idea of what the patient does not know as the subconscious, as merely "a sort of ignorance" (see below) that the patient, if he is informed by the physician, can master by himself. In short, the theoretical intervention that Freud makes here is to really install alterity back into a conception of what the patient does not know: a sort of foreignness to the subject's ability to choose, to think rationally, to be conscious that is not just merely a derivation of this conscious activity. The unconscious is totally other than a rational, conscious subject: thus, it doesn't make sense merely to tell this subject information about that other, as if one could integrate the alterity within consciousness. What is at issue is comporting yourself to its absoluteness, its being totally different, its precise inability to be appropriated into conscious action.
This, at least, is the path of the thought, from practice into theory. We can see all this in the amazing little paper on "'Wild' Psychoanalysis:"

It is a long superseded idea, and one derived from superficial appearances, that the patient suffers from a sort of ignorance, and that if one removes this ignorance by giving him information (about the causal connection of his illness with his life, about his experiences in childhood, and so on) he is bound to recover. The pathological factor is not his ignorance in itself, but the root of this ignorance in his inner resistances; it was they that first called this ignorance into being, and they still maintain it now. The task of the treatment lies in combating these resistances. Informing the patient of what he does not know because he has repressed it is only one of the necessary preliminaries to the treatment. If knowledge about the unconscious were as important for the patient as people inexperienced in psychoanalysis imagine, listening to lectures or reading books would be enough to cure him. Such measures, however, have as much influence on the symptoms of nervous illness as a distribution of menu-cards in a time of famine has upon hunger. The analogy goes even further than its immediate application; for informing the patient of his unconscious regularly results in an intensification of the conflict in him and an exacerbation of his troubles.
Since, however, psycho-analysis cannot dispense with giving this information, it lays down that this shall not be done before two conditions have been fulfilled. First, the patient must, through preparation, himself have reached the neighbourhood of what he has repressed, and secondly, he must have formed a sufficient attachment (transference) to the physician for his emotional relationship to him to make a fresh flight impossible.
Only when these conditions have been fulfilled is it possible to recognize and to master the resistances which have led to the repression and the ignorance.

-"'Wild' Psycho-analysis," in the Standard Edition, XI. My italics.

The problem, however, is whether even this comporting towards the alterity is itself supposing too much, reducing that alterity, in short, to something that can be comported to. What if the alterity is more radical than that? What if the unconscious is more unconscious than psychoanalysis supposes? Freud himself knew this was a possibility, and wrestled with the problem constantly. However, as I've said before, on the side of Derrida (whose thought this is), these moments need to be retrieved from his thinking: they aren't obvious, simply because this possibility was not totally clear to Freud at the time (and because it demands an even greater dismantling of all Western practices, period). For Freud at the time it was enough begin to ask of Western medicine that it overcome or at least modify its particular notion of the subject's agency in an illness.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Post-interpretation

Quentin Skinner, the brilliant and extremely charming historian at Cambridge, has just delivered a neat lecture that pretty much explains what I was trying to get at a while ago: how Foucault would reply, frustrated, to Derrida. Rehearsing many of Derrida's arguments, marrying them with nice, clear analytic language, Skinner in "Is It Still Possible to Interpret Texts?" (The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, Volume 89, Issue 3, Date: June 2008) tries to ask if we can interpret anything anymore: in short, what the use of hermeneutics is in a post-hermeneutic world, a world subjected to the Derridian critique.
His only mistake--but it is a really, really crucial one (and I think I was making it too until recently)--might be thinking that Derrida, and not Foucault, is really trying to kill off hermeneutics. Derrida wants to use hermeneutics at that point where it collapses: that is, use it otherwise. So describing him as someone who levies a critique against hermeneutics is way off the mark.
Why? Derrida, precisely by not simply criticizing hermeneutics, produces something more by way of hermeneutics. Where I am going in my series on Ricoeur, Derrida, Bentham and hermeneutics is precisely to this point. It isn't by escaping hermeneutics that Derrida escapes hermeneutics: this is the simple and yet annoyingly impossible thought that counts here, and what makes any effort to recall what he says as the main propositions or theses in a critique--as is going on a lot in Oxbridge, it seems, recently, as if Derrida were Kant--well, this is what makes this a misrepresentation of Derrida's position. What has to be thought is precisely how his thought is a series (if one could group them) of a-theses that have their place not a critique, but a dismantling or deconstruction of hermeneutics, as he so thoroughly tried to explain in his seminars in the 70's and in The Post Card, especially. So at issue is not just a problem regarding how his theses are interpreted, but a problem in regarding the status of what Derrida wrote: in short, he's not simply a philosopher, and his critical acts, therefore, are not those of a philosophical critique--that is, a critique like Foucault's.
However, moving in the direction of post-interpretative description of the Foucauldian sort that Skinner advocates here most certainly helps bring the particular Derridian contribution to this problem more to the fore. I most definitely think it is a better direction for interpretation generally. The question Derrida asks, however, is whether this will only produce more of the same. Is post-interpretation still interpretation? Is it really something that would be otherwise-than-interpretation? It might have a higher probability of being so, yes. But one can't fall back on this reason all the time. Still, we get what is crucial, yet again, from Skinner: a sense of the "kinds of histories" that would result from this endeavor.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Derrida, Merleau-Ponty, depth, and the body, concluded

I ended my last post by saying that Merleau-Ponty, in his working notes, outlines two notions of the invisible in order to clarify its relationship to the visible. The invisible, which we tried phenomenologically to specify as that sort of reversibility of the seeing-seen relationship, or touching-touched relationship (when I touch my hand touching something, as Husserl said, suddenly I feel the hand that is touching something reverse itself into a hand that is being touched), this invisible reversibility needs to subtend the visible as what makes it possible. It needs to do this in such a way that the invisible itself can only remain purely this reversal. But if this is so, how can it have some relationship to the visible at all? With these questions in mind, I propose recalling the two notions of the invisible he outlines, before ending this paper (which does not totally come to a real conclusion):

But instead of quoting them directly, let us use Derrida’s summary of them, which takes place as he specifies what we now understand to be that crucial aspect of drawing he calls the aperspective of the graphic act—the fact that the point where the line is put down cannot be seen. This aperspective is crucial to us now because we understand that, due to the failure of vision in front of the drawn line via the withdrawal of the trait and its rhetoric or re-inscription—a failure we know Merleau-Ponty resists by bringing the line under the sway of painterly depth—we ourselves become the draftsman in front of the drawing. In other words, we always have to fall back upon the aperspective of the graphic act, because we always have to redraw the line in our trying to see the line. In failing to see the line and re-inscribing it, however, we also inhabit the blindness that this aperspective constitutes (thus, again, every drawing is a self-portrait of the blind), and in two ways that reflect these two ways the aperspective is inhabited (that is, in ways that mirror those of the withdrawal of the trait and its rhetoric). These two blindnesses within the aperspective of the graphic act are precisely visible invisibility and the absolutely invisible.
Indeed, the point under the pencil in which the inscription of the inscribable takes place “escapes the field of vision” for two reasons: “not only because it is not yet visible, but because it does not belong to the realm of the spectacle, of spectacular objectivity” (MB, 45). In other words, it is either merely hidden from view (potentially visible, “visible invisible”), as a point that will be drawn once the pencil moves past where it has contacted the paper; or it is radically different than the visible, completely of another order than the visible, never to become visible precisely because it is the point that gets carried along with the point of the pencil when it puts down the line (its invisibility would therefore be absolute). Or, as Derrida puts it, the invisibility can be interpreted

either as the eve or the memory of the day, that is as a reserve of visibility (the draftsman does not presently see but he has seen and will see again: the aperspective as the anticipating perspective or the anamnesic retrospective), or else as radically and definitively foreign to the phenomenality of the day. This heterogeneity of the invisible to the visible can haunt the visible as its very possibility (MB, 45).

This last point is the most crucial for Derrida, and reveals why he only quotes Merleau-Ponty while trying to specify absolute invisibility. For we can now ask: precisely what invisibility constitutes the reversibility that supports the flesh, the intertwining of vision and the visible? While he specified both types, Merleau-Ponty never could concretely state on which model the invisible is itself constituted. Thus, he was not able to think, like Derrida, that it might be precisely the difference or heterogeneity between them as that ideal that would sustain or subtend the flesh. Derrida thus only takes Merleau-Ponty’s speculations on absolute invisibility, working out visible invisibility with the help of Baudelaire, and thinking the difference between them on his own.
No doubt Merleau-Ponty could not think this heterogeneity because it has the effect of completely reversing all his thought. For if Merleau-Ponty were to call not one or the other but the difference between the two the invisibility or reversibility of the senses, he would be saying, like Derrida, that the type of invisibility that subtends the vision and the visible would have to be vision and the visible: it would have to be so indeterminable in not being either one of these two that it would be indistinguishable from vision itself; being identical with the possibility, within visibility, of invisibility. Suddenly what Merleau-Ponty is trying to specify as the invisible has become precisely vision and the visible itself, while, for Derrida, what he called vision and the visible is now merely that withdrawing and retracing of the line—mere representation, flat upon the paper. Where has the body, the visible and vision—the whole presence of the flesh to itself—where has this all this gone?
We can only suggest the ways that this question already returns us to the relation of sight and secrecy. For Derrida, depth is completely gone—or rather, it is only surface: if it is achieved, it is through the invisibility that is vision, the heterogeneity between both modes of invisibility that itself constitutes seeing. What this means is that depth is always only a possibility achieved in a surface: as such, there is no flesh, no continuity between vision and the visible that could be determined without being blind to this very continuity. If the body is still there in the sense that Merleau-Ponty specifies it, it could not be seen or seen out of in the sense that he specifies it, since it would precisely only appear when the vision and the visible was indistinguishable from invisibility. This is all to say that where Merleau-Ponty holds out the possibility that vision can see itself seeing, Derrida says that this possibility is only possible on the condition that, when it was achieved, we would be blind.
The body and secrecy, therefore: both seem incompossible in Derrida, but we see that there is a possibility that this incompossibility or non-coincidence, in preserving itself, would keep the blindness (to which it is blind) to itself. This—we can only sketch this here—might be secrecy, and it thus could only be achieved by a body, a body with the reverse structure of Merleau-Ponty—that is, a body that did not see itself seeing but was precisely blind to the fact that it was a body.

This body—this is what I was hastening towards as the paper became too long already!—would of course have to be a technical body, a body of surfaces and not of depths. We could look, for an example of precisely this type of depth in a surface, not to either paintings or drawings, but to the photograph—which in Memoirs of the Blind seems to accommodate itself to the model of drawing Derrida there outlines. The photo would then perhaps preserve, by a technical supplement, the body qua Derridian body—and our bodies would already in a sense be photos, in a sense. This means that the act of responsibility could be achieved not through something like Merleau-Ponty’s painting, but in an act that accommodated photography, seen as the technical supplement of natural experience (Merleau-Ponty in “Eye and Mind” has much to say against photography because it eliminates flesh). The photo, like the drawing, would be that in which we see in secret—and our photographic body would therefore in a sense always be responsible (but—as The Gift of Death says, also never responsible enough). This is the sense in which the sacrifices “are not even invisible:” our vision is this invisibility that we need to dedicate to secrecy more and more… The End

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The status of his writing

I’m interested in the recent language that we have been using to introduce Derrida, to make beginnings into explanations of him. It rarely describes what he does. Rather, we are introduced to a set of statements about reality—a point of view, in a word. Rarely do we actually start with something about his writing—unless it be either something about style or difficulty, interesting topics in themselves (though I think we’ve also seen a recoil even from this question of style, which once seemed a more popular topic). At most we might get something like, “Derrida produces a reading of a text.” To write like Derrida would produce a reading—of a philosophic tome, of a political situation, of whatever. But what does this mean? Well, then we get into statements about what the reality of the situation of reading is, which becomes a discussion of the historical subordination of writing under speech, etc. etc. Very rarely do we get a really cogent introduction to Derrida that just tries to tackle the problem of the status of his writing, such that it could say—and I mean say significantly, not just something about how you want to sound—you can write, you can analyze, perhaps, like this. No doubt this is because starting with writing would much be too abyssal a beginning—our conception of it is so determined by Derrida himself (and so disruptive of the notion of "status") that you wouldn’t be able to say anything about it with any sort of critical or even explanatory distance (not to mention accuracy). But what concept or word in Derrida is not like this? And how many introductions begin like this anyway? And so why not begin here?
Maybe this was how things were introduced in the 70’s and 80’s, I don’t know. This of course is the great understanding of Derrida’s writing as a method—deconstruction. But even then, it is hard to see even this idea of deconstruction as saying something about a mode of writing, as a set of remarks with a certain singular status. If deconstruction was mistaught as a method, as the story goes, why do we still have trouble describing the status of the remarks that it produces? Why do we so quickly go towards what it does to the texts it rips apart or inverts or whatever? Doesn't this lend credence to the idea that this misunderstanding was also an attempt to get at what we're also failing to get at now?
This brings me back to the best description I have of this status of Derrida's remarks. Gayatri Spivak said (and she has told this, I'm sure, to many students) working like Derrida is “acting as if you are writing the text you’re reading.” This doesn’t tell me so much about how to go about this as it does about the state of the analysis. All the weight falls on the “as if.” What would it be to write as if you were the writer of the document you are looking at? This means obviously that you write both as this writer and not as this writer—you’re somewhere in between the thing you are analyzing and the position of the reader that you imagine you are in. But it also means that this "in between" is the nature of the words themselves that you produce: the writing you make is only this “as if.” It is only this "as if you are writing the text you are reading:" it doesn't seek to be either a writing about what you are reading or a writing that is a direct extension of what you are reading. In other words, your writing is purely this odd relation to the object that is not coming from your position as a subject: it has no source and no destination, and yet it is both emerging from somewhere and heading somewhere. Thus, it has the status (or non-status) of an inscription: a reading that is also a writing, a rewriting, or what Derrida called a long time ago "the difference of a hermeneutical effort" ("Violence and Metaphysics," in Writing and Difference, 80).

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The political economy of reading

I've just finished reading William St. Clair's massive new book, The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period, which provides an unbelievable amount of information for anyone interested in either the period or the history of reading in general, along with providing some significant methodological challenges to literary study.
If you aren't familiar with the text, or those like it--which have begun to appear recently, mostly in Renaissance scholarship but also in areas of history of the book, as both of these fields and the discipline more generally supersede historicism and hermeneutics and accommodate sociology--it is a wonderful one that complies a lot of quantitative data on publishing and the consumption of romantic (and pre- and post-romantic) texts. From this data it tries to derive a whole economic system in which they take part (you can get a sense of the assumptions guiding the work from his last chapter, which is in the form of a lecture here). Essentially, St. Clair wants to find out what actually was being read in the period, which, you can imagine, is quite different from what was being written (in the narrow sense of writing) and what was being sold. I can buy a book and never read it; I can just as easily read something very carefully that I see in my passing through a coffee-house.
What keeps St. Clair from being a historicist, however, is what is so crucial about this text: these readings that really did happen only make sense when they allow the construction of a model of the total process of printing, distribution, reception, etc. of which they are a part. What we have here is statistical, sociological, and ultimately economic analysis at its best: it is looking not for the actual transactions so much as the regularities which allow models to be made about probabilities of reading. What happens is that the emphasis falls not on whether something did actually happen--as the historicist loves to point to (I always imagine the historicist as Steve Martin in The Jerk, saying "Stay away from the cans!" when he is being shot at, totally missing the upshot by registering the empirical)--but the network with which we can make sense of the data. This network or system can be refined and recalculated as well as supplemented, allowing us to think off of the model rather than keep trying to pose huge logics or theories about reading each time we do a study. In other words, St. Clair allows me to conclude something different from him based on how I see his model, or how I adjust it: this means that two interpretations are based upon a clear and stable description, and we don't have a new interpretation each time we have new descriptive material given (as in historicist and deconstructive studies). One great outcome of this--like in Franco Moretti's work--is the possibility of serious collective scholarship, which happens already but is, I feel, frowned upon by the particular way our discipline is set up (especially for those writing their dissertations: you have to break out into the discipline as an individual!!).
Most significantly, what happens is we move totally beyond the model of individual agency or influence in the realm of literary production itself: Coleridge depended upon (if one can still call the relationship this--which is precisely what St. Clair upends) hundreds of people in order for his words even to reach their readers. Is it accurate then to say that Coleridge himself influenced his readers to do such and such? Not exactly: the agency is retained at Coleridge's level, but is agglomerated as it also includes all the workers in the field of manufacturing, distribution, and selling, that we have a huge collective producing a text able to be read. The author just becomes one point or node in that collective. What is so significant about this is, however, not that it shows more people were involved than we thought--everyone knows books need to be made, and that there exist communities of readers--but that the issue of influence is spread so far that we have to just junk it. Coleridge didn't influence his readers, because his agency is only so local. A sector of the public is primed to receive what he says, and there is a whole network of technicians willing to take his words up and use them. Pointing to the fact that he wrote something, and particularly pointing to the fact that he wrote it at X or Y time, doesn't mean anything then, because it is not clear whether his words will be significantly powerful enough to achieve anything as significant as "influence" in a system already ready to receive him. One can't say, then, that Coleridge influenced Shelley, say--and one especially can't do this by pointing to the fact that Coleridge wrote before Shelley. It is more likely that Coleridge didn't influence Shelley. Indeed, Shelley did read Coleridge (with Byron, famously, in Italy), but now this term "read" doesn't necessarily mean "influence" or even "determine," in the way that it might have if we didn't know the whole network in which Shelley was placed. At the same time as the study restores a sense of force to the word "influence" and even "agency," it makes us realize these terms are themselves inadequate for describing literature.
Most significant about the book, then, is the way St. Clair outlines the "obsolescent:" literary works that, if we just looked at the chronology, we would not call contemporary with the authors (we think of Godwin's work as contemporary with Coleridge's) and with the public shaped by these authors, but which actually were read. In short, St. Clair outlines how what gets read is usually the books of forty or more years ago, such that one might never have read Godwin or Austen even if one encountered a modern poet like Coleridge--which was rare in and of itself. Reading was stratified into layers of history, and one rarely encountered something that was contemporary. All this makes the assumption that Wordsworth was either directly affecting or (especially) directly responding to his time when he sat down to wrote a poem in 1798, an extremely dubious assumption. If he was responding to texts (and the possibility is opened up that he didn't at all), these were probably those written 40-100 years ago but which he grew up with or read daily. With the less studied receivers of Wordsworth--those who pass by Lyrical Ballads as just another new book in the bookseller's--this is even more the case: what matters for them are the sermons of Hugh Blair, say, or Blackstone's Commentaries, that they read early on and continued to see around them (indeed, Bentham wasn't angry at Blackstone in his Fragment on Government because of Blackstone's arguments: he was angry at how these arguments were in the back of the minds of so many people--he had to read Blackstone as a kid).
But what is so crucial is that even this fact doesn't matter--it isn't that the influence gets displaced over to a level where certain other books, just because they are more popular, still influence people. It is that we have escaped searching for the point of contact between the author and the reader entirely. If it were, then pointing to how a reader was complicit in the system of publishing and receiving something would undermine the system: obviously it would be in his interest to publish one thing instead of something else. But what St. Clair shows is that, so far as the system is concerned, this is perfectly fine:

As simple representations of a highly complex human system, the explanatory power of these models is not undermined by acknowledging that many of the agents were themselves part of the system. Some printers, for example, were part of the constituencies whose ideas they wished to promote. Publishers were themselves readers with their own horizons, needs, and aspirations which they brought to their role as commercial agents.
-The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period, 449

What we need to do is regard things from the point of view of the system, which has--strictly speaking--no interests, no influence, because it is not influential in and of itself. It is only something that makes influence possible, but in such a way that what the system causes is not guaranteed to be influential. In short, it lends credibility to what is not encompassed by the system--and not as an aberration, but as another fact that gives the system itself limits and rigorous boundaries. Other systems can be produced, too, such that one gains a stratified picture reading. One is merely describing the texture of what existed--nothing more. We're not looking, that is, for whether this describes all the readers there are, or the entire system of production: we're simply looking for how much was read and what this reading itself looked like (what were its objects, where did it happen, etc.).
Thus, nothing happens when one points to how a particular agent was complicit in the system. The question for our research shifts: what matters is the shape of the system, the direction that reading practices are heading--in short, how we can make sense of conflicting data. This sense is limited to the coherence of the model, and when the system fails, we can revise it or construct a new one. But what lies outside of the coherence of the model is not a contingency, for everything in the model is contingent.
In short, there is no anxiety of influence: it isn't that it just can't happen (though this itself is really questionable), but that even if it did, it wouldn't matter for what we do and what people did with texts. Complicity is done away with, as well, because it simply isn't significant in the same way: the particular agent that is complicit in the system of production and reception here simply can have conflicting interests that are able, themselves, to be described. What matters is the direction of the interests and whether they were frequent. In the end, everything about our evidence as literary critics changes--and changes, I think, for the better.
Nevertheless, I still have some questions--which I'll end this post with:

1. How portable is this method? Can it work for different economies, especially? I am led to believe that this is the case (one can imagine a similar study in the Medieval period), but that it really isn't much of an objection in the first place. What matters is that it is able to make sense even of the complexities of our system as it is currently--which no other method (even Marxism) is quite able to do with such rigor.

2. Isn't this way of looking at things most helpful in alerting us to unseen or unanalyzed spheres of influence? How can we keep reinscribing this back into the old model of literary history? The method isn't attempting to say something like, literary history works this way only, which would be the only way to avoid this reinscription. But perhaps this is the benefit: other people can argue about what literature and history is. What is important is that we finally have a method that can be amenable to something other than influence.

3. The disposition required to do this kind of work is massively different from that even of literary historians now, not to mention all those studying literature. It isn't a mistake that--like Bernard Williams--St. Clair served in the government and was deft at both using and getting through bureaucracies. Again like Williams, his work takes its form from that experience. But how many people currently in literature departments could do something similar--i.e. would have even remotely similar dispositions? Can you picture your professor also serving on a government committee? I know I can't. Part of this is due to the greater separation of American literature departments from the government than in the UK. But even departments in law and politics have many overlaps with government service. What steps would we need to correct this in the case of literature? Would this not be the real way that literature departments could politicize themselves? Compared with the UK, our departments look quite libertarian. But are they? Is there an important role for this current separation? Are we separate in the first place? And (to conclude this post with a question St. Clair loves) by how much?

Friday, September 19, 2008

Freud's objections to "schizophrenia"

Freud always remains skeptical about the name "schizophrenia"--the name that Eugen Bleuler proposed for those suffering from (what was called) dementia praecox. He even goes so far to suggest his own name instead for the phenomenon: paraphrenia. Until now, I never really understood why this odd objection on the part of Freud takes place, and does so with exceeding regularity. Then I hit upon the following paragraph in the Schreber case:

The designation chosen by Bleuler...--"schizophrenia"--is... open to the objection that the name appears approproate only so long as we forget its literal meaning.
-in Three Case Histories, Collier edition, 179

The literal meaning being, of course, "split mind." But--and here's the point of objection--there isn't a split mind here, in the case of schizophrenia, unless we are referring to how the unconscious is split. But then the term describes all psychic states whatsoever, all minds. In other words, there can only be one split:

For otherwise it prejudices the issue, since the name connotes a theoretically postulated characteristic of the disease--a characteristic, moreover, which does not belong exclusively to it, and which, in the light of other considerations, cannot be regarded as the essential one.
-Three Case Histories, 179

"A characteristic, moreover, which does not belong exclusively to it:" that means, being ruptured, having the character of something in which irruptions are mysteriously produced: this is the psyche in general, not just schizophrenia. To keep the term, we would have to distinguish between a sort of semi-conscious split alongside the split effected by the unconscious, which doesn't make sense (it makes us think of splits as having degrees of intensity, which is odd). What becomes more interesting--and what was interesting in the first place, before we called it a split and started searching for where the split is--is the question of the dynamics that could produce something like multiple personalities and all the symptoms we know schizophrenics suffer (and which also exist outside it) when they do not split the mind, but rather originate by virtue of that one split that all people have--that between the CS (or PCS) and the UCS. This is why Freud opposes the word so vigorously.
One more thing provokes a remark: "the name connotes a theoretically postulated characteristic of the disease," "theoretically" being the crucial word here. For what this implies or connotes in itself is that there is a non-theoretical assumption in naming the illness something better--paraphrenia, for example. Or, perhaps, there still is a theoretical assumption, but one which is consistent with an entire effort to theorize the mind. Freud, in short, objects to an empirical designation that in and of itself presupposes the existence of a special theoretical model: schizophrenia must belong to the entire mind, not force a new model of the mind to be applied. And not because the model Freud has is so sufficient that it should not be changed, but because this means that every illness has its own mind--something that allows no research at all.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Heredity in Freud

One of the most basic aspects of Freud's thought is his move away from the hereditary in his thought on etiology and towards a comprehensive notion of sexuality. One might say that the biggest tendency in objections to Freud--whether they be scientific or cultural--take the form of trying to work against this move and resituate symptoms in a rich (genetic and neurophysiological) conception of heredity (one can see this in a recent article on the diagnosis of depression). And while this may be more correct--in whatever sphere, be it scientific or cultural--it must overlook a particular complication or wrinkle the direction of Freud's movement produces. Etiology, when not interpreted as a hereditary function (and interpreted in terms of sexuality), precisely calls for a rethinking of the concept of etiology. That is, it calls for the rethinking of cause, such that we can attribute the cause of a symptom with equal validity to that of heredity or psychology. In other words, Freud doesn't merely replace heredity with psychology or psycho-sexual disposition. He makes the first coextensive with the latter, such that we can never be totally sure which one is the real source of the symptoms.
We find this summarized in a great early paper (written in French to the students of Charcot, who rigorously interpreted symptoms as hereditarily caused), L'hérédité et l'étiologie des névroses (1896):

Our opinion of the etiological role of heredity in nervous illnesses ought decidedly to be based on an impartial statistical examination and not on a circular argument. Until such an examination has been made we ought to believe that the existence of acquired nervous disorders is just as possible as that of hereditary ones.
-Complete Psychological Works, III, 144, my emphasis.

Because the question is no longer about where the illness originated, since it can be just equally regarded as heredity or as acquired in the course or one's individual life (that is, as psychology), the question becomes one of how the symptoms are able to originate. More precisely, it is a question of the possibility of one cause being able to show up as the other. A whole dynamic here is missed if we simply go against Freud and try to ground him again in heredity. It is not a solely psychological dynamic, either: it is precisely the transit between the physical or hereditary and the psychical that is working itself here. And this is why conversion is such a key notion for the early Freud: the ability of anything to show up in a register where it should not be (the psychical in the physical) makes analysis stop looking for the original source and approach the issue more holistically. This doesn't mean that prescribing a drug won't change things: Freud is quick to actually recommend this where we are very sure we can determine a particular illness is heredity. It is just that we have to look at symptoms as only able to show themselves in part--even when they are already parts of a whole illness. We only get parts of the parts of illnesses--this is what it means to reevaluate etiology with this critique of heredity.

"A strange resilience"

Without plays like a strange resilience, neither an energy or a functioning. X without X no longer appears to function. But if it does, it is not as one thinks.
-Derrida, "Pas"

On each occasion one will have to make complex gestures to explain that one is acting, despite contamination, in this particular way, because one believes that it is better to do this rather than that, that a particular act chosen is in such-and-such a situation more likely to do such-and-such than another possible act. These gestures are anything but pragmatic, they are strategic evaluations that attempt to measure up to the formalization of the machine.
-Derrida, "Nietzsche and the Machine," 237

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Close reading as close writing (and close teaching)

One creative and wonderful way around the problem of close reading--which I have outlined before, but which mainly consists of the fact that we are always much more distant than we think, unless we set up some standard for what counts as "close," as intimate, (or) as scientific--one way around close reading is to say that it simply does not exist except in the process of, on the one hand, writing (this is Geoffrey Hartman's thesis, and Frederi Jameson's), or, on the other, teaching (this is mine, though I'm sure others have made it too).
Think about it: how closely can you read, if you are not already writing about something or are forced to look at a text in order to be able to teach it? This seems to be the only time in which close reading appears. When you read without writing or teaching, you usually skim--or at least don't pay as close attention to the text compared to these other two times in which you do. Novels bring this out clearly: I may only remember a few scenes in detail--only a few hit home to me. I rarely remember--or perhaps it is better to say that I rarely attain any intimacy or familiarity with--the words themselves. Poetry is better in this respect, but that doesn't mean it solves this problem. Reading aloud, which is something readers of poetry usually do, forces you to slow down--but if you do scansion, which is what is produced eventually by the oral (a greater emphasis upon the stress of syllables eventually emerges), you are already writing. There might be one really crucial exception to this, which René Girard (among others) might have something to say about: ritual. But is ritual reading? Some may say that it is, some may say that it isn't. And how far away from this is pedagogy--that is, teaching?
But isn't it more interesting to flip the old emphasis on close reading and think of reading closely already as a process of writing or of teaching? When I really read, I am teaching myself--am I not? Isn't this closer to the phenomenon? I'm not really doing it when I just turn the pages there in my chair--or even really strain over a line. Unless I am somehow reinscribing the text, repeating it to myself or others, it isn't really reading in a significant sense. This is perhaps what Derrida most hit home to the Yale School, when it comes down to modes of reading--and even though this misses much of what Derrida has to say about the topic.
An even more radical question remains, however: whether this close writing or close teaching is itself impossible without some standard for what counts as "close." I suspect that the answer is yes (and this is also where notions of a reading that does not read to the reader, that does not simply repeat but repeats with a difference--which is also a question of sociology and Marxist analyses of the dissemination of texts--appears), but that is an issue for a different time.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Against "complicity:" or, theory after criticism


The aspect of deconstructive practice that is best known in the United States is its tendency towards infinite regression. The aspect that intersts me most, however, is the recognition, within deconstructive practice, of provisional and intractible starting points in any investigative effort; its disclosure of complicities where a will to knowledge would create oppositions; its insistence that in disclosing complicities the critic-as-subject is herself complicit with the object of her critique; its emphasis upon "history" and upon the ethico-political as the "trace" of that complicity...
-Gayatri Spivak, "Draupadi"

Everything in this remark needs to be opposed. It is not that the aspect of "deconstructive practice" that Spivak brings out here is not an aspect of what Derrida is constantly talking about--that is, the remark does not need to be opposed because it is a misinterpretation of what Derrida said (a useless fiction, especially in this case). It needs to be opposed because it takes what Derrida says and grafts it onto a logic of complicity. Before we get into what "complicity" means here, we have to remark that even the graft is not in itself bad: this is not a logic that is foreign to "deconstructive practice," indeed (as many remarks of Derrida himself testify). However, it is clear that the logic of complicity is one that relies upon concepts that this practice from the get-go disrupts. In short, Spivak wants to act as if this graft works only one way--for her it is the "positive" aspect of "deconstructive practice." But in grafting this practice to this logic, the logic is necessarily disrupted by the practice. Complicity is not the end-all, be-all of this "practice." It is, therefore, precisely what cannot be totally "disclosed," what can work as a "starting point" for analysis.
But what is this logic of complicity? Why does it contain that which this "deconstructive practice" disrupts? Well, we can see what Spivak says: the complicity is like a point, a point "where a will to knowledge would create oppositions." It is that which her practice (I'll refer to "deconstrutive practice" this way, indirectly, as Spivak's practice, since I find the phrase awkward and misleading) discloses. But shouldn't we be suspicious of any assertion that said Derrida was trying to effectively disclose something? Or even that what he did in effect, as a byproduct, disclosed something? Disclosure in Derrida is interrupted as soon as it begins. Now, Spivak is saying that we should pay attention to the trace of this disruption--this is what is amazing about her practice to her, and what constitutes that point, that "provisional" "where" with which to begin furthering her practice along. And this would be right, except that she thinks of this trace as a trace of complicity. And here everything goes awry. Again it is not an issue of whether this is wrong--Spivak is usually always technically right, which is why she is hard to criticize (and so resistant to criticism)--but about how the particular way this being-right is colored, such that, if it were taught or disseminated or overheard--and here is the crucial point, the crucial point in the history of the interpretation of Derrida in the United States--it would be misunderstood. One can say this is just moving the accusation of misunderstanding one step back. Perhaps this is right. But that would be precisely to overlook what is historically significant about the transmission of Derrida in the United States: the fact that it was taught precisely as what could allow students to find in texts points where Western discourse was complicit in atrocities. In short, it is what allowed his theory to become criticism.
Now, I am saying that we need to oppose complicity as a logic with which to interpret this theory of Derrida's (one that is not even totally a theory, and what I say only has a weak relationship to other theory--however, I keep calling it this because the conclusions here might indeed apply to theory in general in the US). I don't personally assert this, either: it is where the theory is already going in America as we speak. Doesn't this mean extracting and extricating the theory from criticism, then? In the end, I would say, yes. The theory has to cease its critical function, which is precisely a pragmatic function of finding complicities. Only then can it become theory--that is, a theory of those complicities, whatever they may be. And insofar as this is the case, it is only the case for criticism understood in the most boring, colloquial sense of the word: that is, as a statement with negative value judgement implied. Insofar as this is an argument for theory after criticism, it is also an argument for criticism after criticism.
This is not to say that this theory or criticism would be a discourse free of complicity: it means, however, that theory would not become, as it has in Spivak's case--and, I would argue, Zizek's (though he is getting better--one might summarize this whole effort of opposition I am arguing for under his motto, "forget, but never forgive") as well as Stanley Fish's (also Laclau, in a big way)--theory would not become primarily the effort to avoid those complicities. One can fight to free theory from criticism and move it towards the realm of description (which is what I'll call theory sans complicity for now), without it also extricating it from any complicity it might participate in. The difference is, however, that this description does not confuse what it describes as something that is "disclosed," or "recognized." In short, it does not make the mistake of thinking that the only form of working against a bad situation--whether this opposition be ethical, political, or whatever--is looking for and pointing out its complicity. Political opposition, for example, without this pragmatism would be precisely that criticism which we are saying is after or beyond criticism.
Perhaps most important, this description would not see what is described as a "starting point"--opposed, that is, to something that isn't. We would get the feel for how what Derrida says is precisely a trace that allows no pragmatic way of orienting oneself to it. With respect to "deconstructive practice," this means rediscovering in it precisely that "tendency towards infinite regression" that Spivak dismissed. It remains, I think, to be felt in the US--we have been too busy with historicist studies and politics. History and politics, as well as ethics, might only be able to really be addressed if we make this felt or at least widely and in a dim way sensed.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The mechanical hermeneut attacks!, part 2

I concluded the last post with the following:

...We are left with two questions regarding aspects of this second conception of Derrida. First, what is a hermeneutics of suspicion? Second, is the point where reading is understood as mechanical that very point where one can resist a hermeneutics of suspicion?

I pursue these questions here. I will be moving towards an explication of the following, the result of which will set up a discussion of suspicion proper in post number 2.5:

For the phenomenology of religion, symbols are the manifestation of the sensible--in imagination, gesture, feeling--of a further reality, the expression of a depth which both shows and hides itself. What psychoanalysis encounters primarily as the distortion of elementary meanings connected with wishes or desires, the phenomenology of religion encounters primarily as the manifestation of a depth, or, to use the word immediately, leaving for later a discussion of its content and validity, the revelation of the sacred.
-Freud and Philosophy, 7

What is a hermeneutics of suspicion? Ricoeur introduces this term in opposition to a hermeneutic project he advocates--that of a hermeneutics of revelation or restoration--so will obviously have to reconstitute how this opposition is introduced. However, we must not cease to overlook the following fact in doing so: this opposition is immensely articulated, and cannot just be used wherever and whenever. Even Eve Sedgwick, in reformulating this opposition as "paranoid reading" and "reparative reading," sometimes succumbs to the ease with which such a distinction can be applied. It is a sign of just how complex establishing this difference is that Freud, who in an exemplary manner perches himself upon it according to Ricoeur, would merit several hundred pages of analysis: one constantly alternates between or stands on both sides of the difference, and so finding it and separating out what is suspicious from what is restorative requires looking again and again at a particular discourse. It never means resting content with labeling a thinker as generally suspicious or not.
For what is crucial is that this opposition is descriptive for Ricoeur first and foremost: despite his advocacy for a hermeneutics of restoration, he does not deny that a hermeneutics of suspicion is an extremely enlightening and often very necessary hermeneutic. This is why he distinguishes suspicion from skepticism: skepticism has less necessity historically than suspicion, if it has it at all. For one can be skeptical at any time with what needs to be interpreted, while one only remains suspicious if one is provoked by something within what is read. We will return more to this distinction momentarily, but it is clear from this that any proscriptive function of the fundamental distinction between the two hermeneutics comes after we understand its descriptive function: if this were not the case, Ricoeur would be equating suspicion and skepticism (that is, denying all determinateness to the object of suspicion), which would contradict his own notions about what constitutes suspicion. Thus, Ricoeur's characterization of Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche as practitioners of a hermeneutics of suspicion is not so much a grouping of various thinkers and/or readers under the heading of "suspicious" in order to dismiss (at least) their approach and (at most) them themselves and their followers, as announcing a necessity we can see both in the intellectual affinity of these interpreters (whether it be in their metaphysics, their ethics, their teachers, their specialties, the positions of their opponents, etc.) in history.
Noting this, we can begin by outlining this restorative hermeneutics of Ricoeur. It has its urgency in the status of our thinking about language. More and more, he says, we believe that language determines what can be done in the world. At the least, it is clear that language is crucial in determining what can be thought. Now, there is a particular region of language that becomes crucial in deciding whether and/or how this determination will proceed, and to what extent: the region where what is said has a double meaning. We say "double" instead of simply "more than one" to ward off the conclusion that Ricoeur means an area of language where meaning is just generally vague: what Ricoeur is getting at is that there is a region of language where two (or more) meanings have a claim to being meaningful in a genuine way, each to the exclusion of the other (or others). He calls what falls into this region "symbols," and it is clear that it is solely with symbols that interpretation must deal. For if meaning is not double in this way, if a phrase has a singular source of genuineness, even if it is not clear it will not provoke a decision among possibilities as to where it crucially gets its meaning from and thus to what this meaning should properly apply. Indeed, one can always dispute how something said should get applied or mean. But only when the meaning gets its character from the disputation itself, such that what is disputed over is not merely two or more meanings but two or more forms of the way meaning will be constituted, so that the entire work in question must be determined by the way one deals with this dispute--only then does a symbol appear and only then, when a symbol appears, is an interpretation needed. In other words, there is a general order in which a discourse proceeds to mean, and when we encounter the possibility of multiple orders we encounter a symbol--that is, no longer normal discourse, which usually only has one order. Tone provides a good illustration: when something sarcastic is written, for example (that is, when we cannot hear how it is uttered), we suddenly have the possibility of shifting the orders in which the sentence means, because the singular nature of the way the discourse was proceeding has split. Here interpretation is confronted with a symbol. Or, to use another, more hilarious (but actually more accurate) example, say I see a sign in the south of Boston, as I did the other day: "Chinese Spaghetti Factory." Here it isn't a tone that is really at issue--a whole register of discourse is not in play--but the effects are just as total or determinative, and therefore require a decision. For we can obviously take this sign in two ways, depending on the emphasis we lend the writing: looking at the sign, we either see a Chinese Spaghetti Factory, or a Chinese Spaghetti Factory. That is, either the sign designates a factory where Chinese people make spaghetti--that is, the classic pasta that we might find in Italy--or it designates a factory where a random group of workers from all sorts of backgrounds make Chinese spaghetti--that is, something like the noodles we might find in China. The last interpretation is a bit of a reach, but we see at least that the possibility is there, since what is at play in the sign is not just the register of the discourse but the whole possibility each word in the sentence has to mean, when their senses are combined and taken together. In other words, the function of this utterance as a symbol (which should be more condensed: they do not usually have the form of a phrase but a word, like "evil"--here I am just trying to illustrate) makes many linguistic elements other than the symbol proper shift in their signification--because what gets decided upon is a whole way things can come to mean (which is larger or more encompassing than any particular instance of meaning). The word "Factory," which seems pretty external to the symbol, is a good indication of this: even if it is external to the symbol, its meaning is bound up in the decision that is made with respect to it. The factory taken in the first sense, with the emphasis upon Spaghetti and not on Chinese, gives us an indication that the factory is a spaghetti factory foremost--and not a Chinese-owned factory, which is what would be designated if the emphasis would alternate. In other words, the factory shifts between being a factory defined by what it makes and a factory defined in terms of its ownership. In looking at the symbol, then, I have to decide about more than the right way to read the sentence; I am deciding not just the way a few words should signify. I am also deciding between two possibilities anything in the sentence--even if other words should be added onto it later--has of meaning.. Again, this is to come down on more than just the correctness of a statement or even the context (to a certain, but significant, extent): what has double meanings can be wrongly expressed or invalid or absurd (I have refrained from mentioning the possibility the sign allows: a factory that makes pasta out of people from China!?!).
But now we come to something important. When a symbol is encountered and interpretation of it begins, how should we conceive of the work that is done to bring one sense about instead of another? We must note that this is ultimately the question that leads Ricoeur to the distinction between restorative and suspicious hermeneutics, because it suggests how this work can occur in a particular direction--one which must lie beside other possible ones. However, we are now only tracking the way that a restorative hermeneutics proceeds along, and must confine the question's power to this particular sphere. How should we conceive of the effort a restorative hermeneutics uses to bring one sense out of a symbol rather than another? In what does this work of decision between senses consist? To answer a bit schematically, it consists in entering into the multiple meanings or senses and isolating one as that which is authoritative and originary. In short, one decides between senses on the basis of originariness. Now, this does not mean (of course) that one hears in the words that sense which came first, or even entirely that sense which most deeply resounds in the words and which makes the others possible. The former is too reductive of originariness, the second, not necessarily most significant when it comes down to a criterion for choosing and the work needed to be done. Rather, the sense that is originary is that sense from which all other meanings become deviations in some respect. If we isolate one sense, and if the others can be explained in terms of it, it will be more encompassing and thus more primary (in a non-chronological way).
We will elaborate on this in the following, but now we reach the most crucial question: what does this work in turn determine the mode of that which is to be interpreted--the symbol? How does the symbol function for this work? In a hermeneutics that seeks to recover or restore the originary and primordial, the symbol becomes a manifestation of the originary. In other words, the set of words that has a double meaning has its double meaning because of the originary sense. The crucial thing here, however, is not that the meaning springs from, as it were, the originary sense, but that it gets its doubleness--it appears as something (say, a set of words) that, if we look into it, can be said in another very determinate way--it gets this double appearance from out of that sense (among the others) that is originary. The originariness itself brings about a doubleness. It is in this way that the doubleness manifests or reveals the originary. Revelation: this is seeing the doubled constitution of symbols as due to what in this doubleness has (the symbol's, and thus as well as the doubleness' own) originary sense. It is thus that the work of recovery proceeds: it recovers what is originary and asserts it as the origin of what it manifests. Ricoeur used a wonderful expression late in his life to give some sense of this, and though it was formulated with regard to a larger and more encompassing object (art in general), it can apply here: he speaks of "a species with one single individual." Here, finding what is originary is finding what makes the individual a species--and thus what makes any particular manifestation the manifestation of some more original more unified general sense. But (and here is the real point of the expression) this occurs in such a way that there is nothing other than an individual to make the species out of--there is no other thing in which the species instantiates itself except the manifestation. That is, unless the species deviates from being this particular species. In symbols, this deviation does occur (there are two meanings that manifest themselves), and so the work of asserting that it is indeed a deviation (it has its source only in one--that is, a species) has to be undertaken.
Now that we somewhat understand what a hermeneutics that recovers is, we can see what suspicion is. It has to do both with that criterion with which it makes its interpretive decisions about the symbol, and with what applying this criterion presupposes about the modality of the symbol itself. (I'll proceed to this in the next post.)

"I no longer need to pull the strings"

...Playing with one's own name, putting it in play, is, in effect, what is always going on and what I have tried to do in a somewhat more explicit or systematic manner for some time now in certain texts. But obviously this is not something one can decide: one doesn't disseminate or play with one's name. The very structure of the proper name sets this process in motion. That's what the proper name is for. At work, naturally, in the desire--the apparent desire--to lose one's name by disarticulating it, disseminating it, is the inverse movement...
-In the roundtable on autobiography in The Ear of the Other, 76

This might be a good quote to back up what I am trying to say about reading Derrida as a reading machine. What the notion of reading like a machine does is try to make sure you don't think you have a choice about reading. Reading happens--it doesn't become more likely to occur and occur rigorously if you pay any more attention to a text, to its phenomenality. For too long we've proceeded in the US as if Derrida were saying this: we say he plays on language--as in the case above when someone asks him about how he plays with his name in Glas (the now famous phrase "derrière la rideau," behind the curtain)--when this play is precisely not something he chooses. Or rather, it is not something Derrida as himself chooses: this is what he means when he says "one doesn't play with one's name." This means: play doesn't occur to any one--play is precisely what disrupts the constitution of any one, any self, any proper name, like Derrida, or any determining force like that of some one who plays, and thus is in control while he or she plays. He continues in phrases that, for me, hit all this home the best:

Thus the proper name is at play and it's meant to play all by itself, to with or lose the match without me. This is to say that, at the furthest limit, I no longer need to pull the strings myself, to write one way or another. It is written like that by itself.
-The Ear of the Other, 77

The paradox is of course that at this limit is the only thing one can call a choice to begin with. So saying Derrida plays doesn't mean he plays; nor does it mean he plays, if by "play" we mean some completely out of control unloosening of language into indeterminacy, refusing to grant this event the name of a choice. The unloosening is the choice--that means that it itself is not indeterminate but always strategic. Sarah Kofman calls what Derrida effects "a formal, syntactic practice of undecidability"--that's all I'm trying to get across. It's simply that moment, that limit, that is impossible to experience and yet which we must flesh out if we're going to direct our understanding of Derrida on the right path, where I no longer need to pull the strings. Meaning fleshing out that moment where we precisely understand reading as pulling strings, operating a mechanism. This, however, requires completely changing how we think of operating a mechanism, and what the mechanical is in the first place.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Jokes and dreams

I was surprised by one of the amazing works of Freud I finally sat down and read: The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious (now in a fresh, athletic new translation by Joyce Crick). Surprised, that is, because the upshot of the book is not what I have always heard: that jokes are like dreams arising out of the unconscious. It even says this on the back of my Penguin edition:

Why do we laugh? The answer, argued Freud in this groundbreaking study of humor, is that jokes, like dreams, satisfy our unconscious desires.

In short, the joke is like a wish-fulfillment. But this couldn't be farther from the truth. In fact, what is so unbelievable for me, reading this work, is that this thesis is precisely what is resisted by Freud throughout it.
Jokes do arise from the unconscious, it is true, but what is more key is that, like the preconscious residues of our day's experiences as we fall slowly into sleep and begin to dream, they plunge into (as Freud often says) our unconscious. Everything revolves around this change the focus of our analysis takes. That is, everything revolves around a change in the direction of movement that we conceive the psychical activity as most its own within; a change in the way we have to describe its relationship to the unconscious; a change in our vocabulary from arising from to plunging down into.
A change in direction, yes, that still occurs along a singular and one-way path also traversed by the dream: one could thus describe what is key as a change of emphasis from one stage of this path (the first--falling into the ucs, which is followed by the work of the ucs itself) to another (the third--emerging out of the ucs). But a change in direction is more what Freud is looking at since it means jokes and dreams tend towards different things: the joke might seem like it occurs at a different place on the same model (that of dreams), but it does so in such a way that it almost justifies another model of its own at that point, since it proceeds in a way that is most its own, and merely accomplishes this procedure there--at that stage in the model. In short, we say "change in direction" because it makes the fundamental aim of the book more clearer: to assert that jokes are at bottom not like dreams, which are most themselves when they arise from the unconscious--and that jokes distinguish themselves from dreams even though the way dreams manifest themselves may seem "jokey."
For as Freud says, this "seeming jokey" of dreams is precisely what got him into the question of jokes in the first place:

If one gives an account of a dream-analysis to someone who is not conversant with such things, in which of course, the curious and -- to waking thought -- repugnant pathways of the allusions and displacements employed by the dream-work is described, the reader is subject to an uncomfortable impression, declares that these interpretations are "jokey," but obviously regards them not as successful jokes but as being forced, and as somehow breaking the rules of the joke.
-The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious, 167

Dreams seem jokey, and yet break the rules of the joke as soon as we interpret them as jokes. And this is the structure of the book: interpret the joke as a dream to get at what constitutes "jokiness." Yet the fact that this comparison can go only so far is the upshot, and one can't emphasize it enough: the heart of the comparison of the joke to the dream is precisely to elucidate the dream, not the joke. It is when this comparison breaks down that we genuinely have some contribution to the theory of the joke from Freud.
Thus, interpreting the effort to draw similarities between the joke and the dream as merely an instance of applying the framework developed in the text on dreams to the joke--which is precisely what we do when we say that jokes, like dreams, satisfy desires or are wish-fulfillments--is completely missing the point of the comparison in the first place. Freud is not applying the same model to expand its legitimacy, but finding its limits by testing things against the possibility of a convergence between these things and this model. Using the model, he is trying to find that point where the same model will not apply: at that point will be a different logic or set of rules or, in short, a different model--that one which the dream succeeds always in "breaking."
So saying that the point of the book is to elucidate dreams doesn't mean that that joke itself isn't something similarly unconscious, in the end--that in truth the joke actually is on a different model than the dream: it is just that the way of going about proving this can only occur for Freud if he finds that the joke indeed has some claim independent of the dream to participation in unconscious thinking. And the right way to do this is to find the point at which the model or framework of dreams, when applied to another object, no longer serves to elucidate that which inspired the application (i.e. dreams). One opens up to alterity by finding that point where it is already inscribed in acts of opening up onto it.
Thus we may say that going down into the ucs is the basis of the logic of the joke, while with dreams it constitutes itself in going out of it: these are two logics inscribed in the same space (I might recall that the going-down of Zarathustra could be important in some way here, especially with his emphasis upon joy and jokes and clowning).
Put a different way, the joke puts its relation to the ucs out there, while the dream hides it (the relation) to the utmost. This is what we mean when we say the joke goes down into or retreats into the ucs: what is not important for it is what manifests itself as a result of the descending. To personify a little too much (though this is sort of inevitable when talking about this stuff): the joke just wants to get there. This is unlike the dream, which must actively dissimulate what manifests itself, because it is the unconscious going out there. It's goal is to get out, so manifestation is a bigger concern for it. It isn't that the joke and the dream don't both have a manifest content that is different than what they are really getting at: in short, it isn't that the joke doesn't have something to hide like the dream. Both manifest themselves and hide at once. It is simply that for dreams this manifestation carries a risk--as well as an involved psychical process, that of regression--which for jokes does not apply.

This risk is unpleasure. The dream is making its way out there in such a way that it must avoid unpleasure. So, it hides where it came from--the unconscious--because this risk is foremost for it. But it is not that the exposure of the source of the dream would be that thing which causes unpleasure, as our way of outlining this here would make things seem. Rather, unpleasure is what is risked from the start, in the formation of the dream itself. The avoidance of unpleasure causes the dream: thus the dream takes extra care with its manifestation, precisely because the manifestation is the avoidance of unpleasure itself. This is simply to say: the dream is a wish-fulfillment. It seeks to overcome the possibility of an unpleasure by making it look as if this avoidance was itself the gaining of pleasure. The unpleasure would actually occur simply if the psyche sat still--so revealing anything behind the manifest content doesn't matter unless one gets at why the psyche is moving or manifesting anything in the first place.
So rather than saying its manifestation carries a risk the joke doesn't have, we might say that the dream is the risk that the joke isn't. This means, in short, that rather than an avoidance of unpleasure, the joke is simply an attempt to gain more pleasure. This is why jokes don't care as much about their manifestation--in short, why the technique of the joke, while so sophisticated, doesn't really reveal anything about the unconscious (what are its desires?) when it is taken apart or undone. This doesn't mean that jokes are simple. It just means that dreams always break a rule of jokes because dreams don't play by those rules. One could also say, as Freud does in the following which will summarize everything here we have covered, that dreams just don't play by rules in general:

The dream not only has no need to place any value on intelligibility, it must even guard against being understood, for otherwise it would be destroyed; it can only exist in disguise... The joke on the other hand is the mot social of all the psyche's functions that aim to obtain pleasure... It has to commit itself to the condition of intelligibility; it may not make use of the distortion from condensation and displacement that is possible in the unconscious to any further extent than can be redressed...
-The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious, 173

"To any further extent than can be redressed..." this is what is key. It means that the rules of the joke that the dream busts open are precisely rules--that is, the terms in which it occurs, its situatedness, its context. The dream erupts into reality: this precisely means that even though it does respect a certain technical set of requirements, it occurs to break the context in which it takes place. This makes sense from what we said earlier: the unpleasure that the dream avoids is precisely that which would occur if it stood still--if it remained in its context, that is.
So while we were busy bringing out one of Freud's most radical theses of the book--that dreams avoid unpleasure while jokes seek to gain pleasure--we have hit upon another: the dream tries to break into the context of reality while the joke, to a degree, respects it. But this is really to say that the dream tries to make the unconscious into reality, while the joke tries to make reality into the unconscious.
This is the point in saying, as Freud does, that jokes lack regression:

The regression of the train of thought to perception certainly does not apply to jokes...
-The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious, 161

For what is clear is that this means dreams seek to move us into a different context or a different reality--they seek to allow the ucs to irrupt into reality itself (veiled, of course)--while jokes preserve the state of the psyche and its relation to reality--playing with it, as it were, only to restore it:

Despite all its practical nullity, the dream maintains a relation to our great vital interests; it attempts to fulfill our needs by the regressive roundabout route of hallucination... The joke on the other hand attempts to draw a small amount of pleasure from the sheer activity, free of all needs, of our psychical apparatus.
-The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious, 173

(More to come... sorry to keep you waiting--I'm doing this in bits and pieces while traveling...)