Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A tribute to Hedonismbot

Probably the most amazing joke (of the many many of them) in Futurama is the Hedonismbot: a robot that embodies all the auto-affectivity we fear in machines, such that we can't understand why the hell anyone would make him. That is, with no function other than to provide for his own pleasure, Hedonismbot is absolutely superfluous from the standpoint of man--in this he is actually the embodiment of the most mechanical aspect of the mechanical, insofar as the mechanical is only constituted in contradistinction to the human. Who knew we'd meet the mechanical as such in this: not just a machine that is autonomous, but in a machine that can enjoy itself, since his pleasure, more than his autonomy, escapes the circuit of desire as constituted both traditionally (in the history of metaphysics, especially including Epicurianism), and in modern theories of pleasure (psychoanalysis, for example, which cannot conceive of this pleasure apart from the pleasure principle that emanates and ends in itself--that is, except as the death drive). (What's also interesting is that he is the embodiment of pleasure, not just mechanicity, as such.)
And, on top of all this, HE IS HIS OWN CHAIR!

Heidegger, Affect, Performativity

It has always surprised me how little Heidegger's conception of mood or attunement (Stimmung) is used by theorists of affect. It's a very rich concept, and in fact it is one of Heidegger's most significant contributions to philosophy that he rigorously thought it out: he rescued it (with Husserl, and, in a different quarter, Bergson) from the oblivion to which epistemology-centered work had consigned it, arguing it had more significance than as an external accident of psychology.
Perhaps this is the case because the body doesn't make too many significant appearances in Heidegger (unlike Husserl and Bergson): the circuit between body and mood might have to be a bit more elaborated for them to pick it up. But Heidegger does indeed make inroads into this connection (especially in his seminars), so the problem seems deeper than this.
A clue is given from these theorists' reliance on psychology. It is as if we get that odd connection Husserl and Bergson were making between the psychology and a larger structure of existence, without Heidegger's development of it into an existential structure that depends on a real rich conception of being. That is, it is as if philosophy just before Heidegger has returned in this area with a vengeance, to the precise exclusion of Heidegger.
This proves one thing: people want to subtract being from theories of affect. This makes total sense: the proliferation of performativity as a conception of identity precisely junked being in the area of selfhood, where anticipation and historicity were, so what remains is to explain affect while junking its dependence on mood or attunement too.
I don't think this is a mistake, personally, but I do think since affect has been much more maligned as a phenomenon than selfhood, these theorists might be losing something significant. They are losing, first and foremost, an idea of the coherence or structuredness of affect--or, since coherence and structuredness get thought otherwise in performative theories of identity, I should probably say an idea of function. Affect functions. It leads you into other states. The biggest problem with studies of affect that I see is that, fundamentally, because everything is performative, there is no ability to distinguish between affects: shame might be different than anxiety, but there's no way to explain that, because in the end it all really just collapses into performativity. Again, this collapse is great--I like performativity--it's just that we're not able to explain affects (in the plural) as accurately as we seem to want by way of it.
Fundamentally, I think there is a problem of phenomenality involved. Performativity is a theory of identity that disturbs (delays and defers) phenomenality. This brings it beyond Heidegger. But this same disturbance cannot exactly take place with affect, though it should: the real interesting thing about performative theories of affect is that there should be no subordination of affect to identity, precisely as there is in Heidegger. But this occurs: not because studies of affect perpetuate the old subordination, but because if they don't do it, affect becomes performativity, as we were saying. The two have the same function--to subvert the subject. The subordination remains, then, but for a different reason.
What this does though is--oddly--to make affect function more phenomenally than identity. This leads to--and this is a real regression--the desire to want to explain certain aspects of how one really does feel like when they are sad, or anxious, or whatever. But this is to precisely undo the contribution that performativity makes to the study of identity: it doesn't matter how you "really are," because you are determined (subverted) otherwise than that--in other words, the basis of your identity is not in being, so the question of authenticity (which is the phenomenological question par excellence) isn't relevant.
I think we need, then, to turn the focus on affect around: this would bring us to consider the link between a particular affect and all performative aspects of a self, and why one in the end can't be distinguished from the other. It would bring us to the problem of how to distinguish otherwise--and it would do this precisely in opposition to the tendency to try and explain affect based on how we really feel in a situation.
And oddly, I think, this would bring us back to Heidegger. For what Heidegger has some very rigorous functions ascribed to affects--and different affects, by the way--which we can study. If we can somehow extricate ourselves from their focus on being, we might then see that what is performatively subverted in the realm of affect is precisely a certain understanding of the functions of various affects. This would seem to be closer to the real thrust of performance, as we find in Butler, for example: the issue is not exactly to constitute a self that is free of all constraints, but to have a self that does this only by deconstructing the particular understandings (that is, phenomenologies) of roles that exist.
This has been sketchy at best (especially the last part, of which I'm really not sure), but I hope to revise this over the next few days and somewhat make it all clearer. The important thing for now was outlining the path of the thought.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Translating Derrida

I think David Wills' translations of Derrida are usually very solid. They have a vivacity and a sort of "right on the mark" feeling to them that just seems to fit perfectly with the particular texts he translates. For example, Donner la mort, or L'animal que donc je suis: they both are a bit "heavier" in consistency. By this I mean that both texts have many direct and visible ramifications, but of a deep nature: they don't have their relevance exactly in the more immediate sphere of politics, but in religious and ethical issues. They therefore require a lot of serious choices which have to dispense with a lot of other possible, but meaningful alternatives. And they have to do this constantly, sacrificing a lot. Wills manages this heavy demand very well, I think.
But sometimes he just makes the weirdest choices! Here are two that have been really bugging me lately. First, "The Gift of Death" for the title Donner la mort--and I just mean the title, as Wills is usually good at sliding between the different senses of the phrase throughout the text. Now, I'm not really one to judge about French. But I do think I know a little about what Derrida is up to, because I've worked a lot with the texts. Wouldn't it just have been better to translate the title as "Putting to Death?" Here Wills displays the sort of strength or solidness I praise him for above, but I just think it is going too far. Why? Because the solution Wills comes up with really turns the shifting or modulating between the transitive and intransitive senses of the phrase into the work of what is, effectively, a noun.
At least that's how people hear the phrase, I think. No one takes his advice (which he offers in a note before the text) and hears "kiss of death" behind "the gift of death," even though this actually really is an elegant and somewhat formally identical (if people actually heard it that way) way of getting the phrase across. The little project fails--no doubt because even "kiss of death" is just too weak in comparison with the "putting to death," combined with the fact that it's just used much more rarely whereas the phase in French is much more common--and all we get is some idea that there is a gift out there, when what the French is saying is that there's something, a process, going on.
But what gets me is that Wills knows the audience Derrida has in English speaking countries: they love to turn something like supplement into a thing they can point at, a sort of handy reified concept that they don't really need to think any more about but can just use everywhere. They did this with deconstruction, they did this with hymen, they did this with the crazy Greek word parergon, for crying out loud. They even did this with differance, a word that is actually extremely amenable to being used legitimately as a noun: you can legitimately say, a differance between x and y... but people here (unbelievable!) say, instead, there we find differance--as if it were not a differance but the differance, it itself! They reified what could already be used as a noun! Go figure. The point is, though that this should make it apparent that you should really emphasize the active here. Instead, Wills' solution is to let the phrase sound like "the kiss of death," and let it get its activity from that. A good way out of the problem, especially considering how the phrase gets used in the rest of the text, but not a good translation: the two are different things, as the problems of translation are different than the translation itself. "Giving death," which gets used in the main body of the text much more than "the gift of death"--much more--would have been almost just as good. There is an odd concession to the fact that a gift needs to be thought of as a thing, as some distinct entity, and in fact as a sort of concept, as the gift, in general. That is what is disturbing to me about that, for the concession isn't really merited by the text.
But I don't have as much beef with that--people are just going to keep looking for a cheap conceptual bauble that can make them look good in class or even an article some day instead of reading what Derrida says--as I do with the next translation, more recent, in the new edition of The Gift of Death. The phrase that begins "Literature in Secret"--the essay included in the new edition that Derrida released in 1999--Pardon de ne pas vouloir dire, gets translated as "Pardon for not meaning (to say)." What's wrong with the more simple phrase, which is much more accurate--if I know my French right (not so much via my French but via my Latin)--"forgive for not meaning (to say)?" Forgiveness is so much more crucial in the context of the essay than pardoning, which is way too harsh and doesn't really get at the phenomenon (or non-phenomenon; or, as a friend and I recently quipped, a phenonmenon) that Derrida is trying to outline. What the odd concern about grammar here? Or propriety? Or whatever the odd concern that is making Wills change the sense of forgiveness into the sense of pardoning, which he goes on about in the following? "Consideration of Derrida's attention to the gift (don) and forgiveness (le pardon) recommends translating pardon de ne pas vouloir dire using "forgive" rather than "pardon." However, English would then require a personal pronoun (e.g., "forgive me for not saying"), which would anchor the phrase more than Derrida seems to want here. The reader [like he does with hearing "the kiss of death" for "the gift of death"] should therefore hear "pardon" in the sense of "forgive."" Okay, fine, I sympathize a little with the anxiety here. But how does English "require" that we hear "me" after "forgive?" That is, why does this appear to Wills as a stricture, and not as something that just adds to the complexity of the phenomenon that Derrida is getting at? For I do think the French--even though yes, Derrida doesn't want to anchor it, as Wills says--has this "requirement" in it also. The implication, I think, is that Wills doesn't think he can get away with just saying "forgive" in English, without also adding "me." That is, he thinks the phase would appear ungrammatical or something. But why this anxiety here--when you are already using a way (albeit traditional) of rendering vouloir dire that is, at best, a clunky typographical fix-up?
What I don't like about this is not so much the translation as the failure of that sort of strength or solidness that Wills usually brings and which I outlined above. For what this does is produce a text that is willing to say "fuck you" at certain points to the sort of settled way of translating various phrases of Derrida that has accumulated since the 60's. It was an exciting time when this vocabulary was still being developed: this is the one--and only--thing that makes Barbara Harlow's absolutely criminally abominable translation of Spurs (someone please, please retranslate this text!) somewhat tolerable. One gets the sense that there aren't exactly set ways in English to render certain phases of Derrida's, and this makes it a bit exciting. The better example of this is, of course, Of Grammatology. I can live with the translation of Il n'y a pas de hors- texte as "there is nothing outside the text," instead of the more accurate and interesting "there is [and I'd like to throw in parentheses here (es gibt), to get the allusion to Heidegger always operative when Derrida is talking like this] no outside-text," simply because Spivak is creating a huge set of words and concepts almost from scratch. But this all gets stale every once and a while: there get to be really clear formulas for how to render a particular phrase in Derrida and, well, all you have to do is mark the phrases that don't really conform to this code, or are, as the translations always note, "colloquial." Wills--especially with Donner la mort, which is so crucial for messing up a lot of presuppositions about Derrida that had accumulated at that time, even with his style--brings you back to the freshness of the phrasing somehow by not caring exactly how things are rendered. Again, the sheer virtuosity of the text--its sort of offhand manner, its quickness (it has been postulated that it was written on the way to the conference, and I could see that, and the result is in fact better than if it had been calculated: it is almost more calculated)--forces Wills to do this, but he also is good at being very receptive to it. Here Wills just gives into overthinking things a bit, and the result is very weird and in fact worse than if it had just been translated with the accumulated, "standard edition" vocabulary. I'll note that use this phrase because I want this post to join up with another I am writing on Freud and Strachey, but also to mark the real virtues of Wills when he is working: he resists the real danger, that I think will only become more crucial in the next decade or so, to turn the words of Derrida into a standard vocabulary, further reifying (and with him--and this is Derrida's true uniqueness--this is the direction in which the reification works) the words of his texts into concepts.
Now, again, the texts here are really, really complex, and many other problems abound in them. For example, the really tricky translation of apprendre, which means to teach, but also has the valence, philosophically, of grasping--as you would a phenomenon in phenomenology. And that odd phrase tout autre est tout autre. And in L'animal... there is the constant work going on with the "therefore," donc, that is quite complex, along with the amazing pun on ani-mal, which you have to hear running through it to get the fact that it is also a meditation on how philosophers (most significantly, Lacan) treat evil (a problematic that connects up--concerning Heidegger--with the work in Of Spirit). But, again, Wills is up to the task in most of these cases (in the latter, he smartly uses more footnotes--which would actually be a little wrong in Donner la mort, I feel, for some reason). I do suggest looking back at the French when reading Donner la mort, though, to compare, because it especially is a delicate work, more delicate I think than all the others in Derrida's entire corpus, and especially those in which there are puns and things, homonyms, etc., perhaps excepting Glas.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Deconstruction as "overturning binaries"

I'm a little tired of the description of deconstruction as the exploding of binary oppositions. Handled correctly, this way of describing the strategy is helpful, but in most cases, it's a bit deceiving. If you read a lot of Derrida, you'll begin to wonder why this description is even used in the first place, because deconstruction really only concerns itself with singularities, and can't really be deployed, ever, by approaching singularities with this general schema. What is needed is an emphasis on how what this description describes would only be the resulting appearance of the deconstruction, its product, if you will, and could only be perceived by foregoing the deconstruction--that is, by abstraction. If this emphasis is made, the whole situation changes. Unfortunately, it often isn't.
Why this description is used in the first place, is because Derrida precisely tried to abstract and generalize about what he was doing in his texts--texts which had already been published--in an interview in 1971. There he attempts to describe deconstruction as a strategy, and comes up with the following:

...What interested me then [when he was writing "La dissémination" and "La mythologie blanche," that is, in the late 60's], and that I am attempting to pursue along other lines now, at the same time as a "general economy," a kind of general strategy of deconstruction. The latter is to avoid both simply neutralizing the binary oppositions of metaphysics and simply residing within the closed field of these oppositions, thereby confirming it.
Therefore we must proceed using a double gesture, according to a unity that is both systematic and in itself divided, a double writing, that is, a writing that is in and of itself multiple... On the one hand, we must traverse a phase of overturning. To do justice to this necessity is to recognize that in a classical philosophical opposition we are not dealing with the peaceful coexistence of a vis-à-vis, but rather with a violent hierarchy... To deconstruct that opposition, first of all, is to overturn the hierarchy at a given moment.... [And on the other hand,] we must also mark the interval between inversion, which brings low what was high, and the irruptive emergence of a new "concept," a concept that can no longer be, and never could be, included in the previous regime.

-"Positions," in Positions, 41-42

Now, one has to, first and foremost, see this strategy as itself, in the context of the interview, at that moment in history and in the history of the intellectual scene in which Derrida was working (the Marxists, for example, were pushing him hard, for example, for some concrete political positions or at least for some relation of what he was doing to political action, as they were all recovering and assessing May '68)--one has to see this description of the strategy as itself strategically organized. Unfortunately, this didn't happen, at least here in American classrooms, where Derrida was mostly being received: all over the US the passage (or more usually only a couple sentences from the passage) was distributed by overexcited professors getting off on the thrill of doing something new. The result was that they themselves knew--or at least sensed--what Derrida was up to, and believed it was very germane to crucial tasks in the university and culture more generally (and in their works it was used to engage in these tasks, confront these problems--quite rightly, I think), but their students only got their confused descriptions of what they sensed--this description being the most succinct and (what's most important) the easiest to teach.
But why so easy to teach? As always, one has to (beyond paying attention to the context) also pay very close attention to what is said here in order to really grasp it. Especially the phrase which precedes the remarks about overturning and marking, etc.: I mean the phrase about the "double gesture," that is "itself divided." Explaining this remarks--which indeed is a bit tough, I imagine, for someone to decipher who has not read a lot of Derrida--would qualify everything that follows. For what this means is that the description of deconstruction as the overturning and marking of a binary opposition would be seen not as a step by step schema so much as an aporia. But I have never seen this part taught: only what follows gets quoted. The result is a reduction of the complicated and, one would think, extremely crucial statement to a sound bite. The reason behind this, and the result's teachability, must lie elsewhere: probably in the vividness of an idea of overturning, and the vividness of the idea of hierarchies.
Let's look for this in what gets taught. This is--instead of close attention to the crucial passage-- that Derrida is saying here 1) what gets deconstructed is a binary opposition between two concepts belonging to metaphysics, and 2) deconstruction is undergone when you overturn the hierarchy of these concepts and show their opposition in the first place to be false.
Now, think of how odd this is! But also think of how easy it would be to see the action of deconstruction actually at work: deconstruction is like an approach you take to two things that you know exist--two objects--and it is the undoing of the perception of a difference between them--or, worse, the existence of them as separate. It isn't a resolution of these things--nicely sidestepping Hegel here, and an airy idealist "all is one" conclusion--because you also show thereby that the two things were hierarchically arranged. In fact, this is the real product of deconstruction: not the undoing of the difference--who can tell what two things would be like if they weren't different? student's ask in desperation--but the revealing of the hierarchy, the exposure of an injustice, of the fact that metaphysics isn't peaceful. Deconstruction is visible, then--as violence exposed.
So the original quote gets emphasized in all sorts of wrong ways--since, to begin with, for deconstruction nothing simply exists or is there. But this is besides the point: the point is that I might have done more justice to what Derrida said just now than some teachers simply by quoting even the little bits that I did. Of course, what gets taught isn't totally false: all the words like "hierarchy" and "overturning" and "binary" that were actually in the quote get used. Or, maybe it just is false: in any other discipline than literary or culture studies in the 80's and 90's, such a skewed rendering of a set of words would indeed be called totally false. But, I don't mean to knock literary studies: Derrida wouldn't even be in the States if it was up to philosophy departments--things would have stayed nice and clean and boring as hell until the late Rorty and the late Bernard Williams (but significantly they both had heavy continental influence). The point is really that the high stakes of literary studies--the particular political and social advances it was helping to make, and, essentially, its need to show that interpretation could (with a disturbing ease) reveal violence (that is, hierarchies that needed to be overthrown)--were more important than accuracy at that time insofar as teaching was concerned. So something extremely odd got thrown about everywhere when it probably should have been brought back occasionally to the actual statements from which it originated.
Or at least, more thought given to how it was taught. If we're going to talk about binaries in the future, then, I'd recommend a stress that falls less on the individual terms of the opposition than on the opposition itself. The point is not so much to see what is opposed as to see how the opposition is necessarily going to be there even before you grasp those two things--that is, how the binary or bifurcation inhabits the perception of something to begin with. Then the problem isn't one about the relationships between the opposed things in all of their structure, but about how exceeding this opposition looks impossible. That is, it makes it seem as if another and yet another series of oppositions will just replace the first one.
And this, this is the infinite regression or interminability that is the phenomenal mark of deconstruction at work. It is this appearance of the impossibility of getting out of using oppositions that is the real problem with oppositions, and what will, in the end, allow you to--as you try and get your way out of them--in fact deconstruct the original opposition by opening it up into this infinite replacement or displacement. In short, the process here, the procedure, appears interminable, as Derrida emphasizes in The Post Card (384), and it is this apparent interminability that, when engaged with or written about, will end up deconstructing of the opposition you started with. This is really what Derrida means by a divided writing or doubled gesture: at the same time as it it writing about its own operation's impossibility, it also inscribes the binary. The result is a dual writing that brings the terms of the binary out of the realm of their merely possible effects and into the realm where they will have to reorganize themselves in order to have any effect: that is, the realm where the terms of the binary break down their opposition because they have to reform otherwise to accommodate something beyond their current possibilities--that is, the impossible.
What is crucial here is, then, that the impossibility is still only an appearance, like the interminability of the replacements. But the impossible isn't hiding a real possibility that exists. So we can't ever be sure that, indeed, the impossible will at some point become possible, at the same time as we can't be sure that the impossible will remain impossible for the binary. But what happens here is that the terms have indeed been opened onto radical alterity, and that is enough: for then we aren't dealing with the two terms as if we can control them. This makes the operation one open to the singular nature of the two as they encounter alterity, because it isn't just fitting them all into some schema. The cultivation of the uncertainty is the point. If only to make us, at some point (but how could we be certain where?), uncertain of even uncertainty. But I'll stop here. All I want to do is mark how what Derrida is saying in this interview can otherwise be described--not as the application of a schema, but as a process open to (or of opening to) singularity as the uncertain advent of alterity within a constituted set of oppositions.

Dynamic, structural: explaining free and bound energy, and more, in Freud

Here is a little thing I wrote about two years ago, as I was first getting into the problems of Freud. It's a bit on the right track, but it puts a lot of things the wrong way. I hope to revise what it says eventually in another post, one that will more clearly explain the shuttling between the dynamic (or "economic") and structural (or "topographical") accounts of the mind in Freud. My ultimate goal was a bit more expansive than it should have been, which confused me: I was trying to relate how the unconscious related to the Id, and what displacement was effected there in the terms with which Freud was dealing with the mind. However, following Derrida, I got hung up on how these problems were already emerging in the Project for a Scientific Psychology and resurfacing in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, as well as, especially, "The Economic Problem in Masochism:"

In understanding the relationship between the Ego, Id, Unconsciousness and Consciousness, it is helpful to investigate what exactly underlies a comment Freud makes nearing the end of The Interpretation of Dreams. Recalling his discussion of the “primary” and “secondary” processes—what will be termed, descriptively, the unconscious and preconscious processes or, structurally (that is, in terms of how this process relates to the other processes of the mind when describing the dynamic operations of the whole apparatus), the Ucs. and Pcs.—Freud reminds us that what we are invited to assume by the postulation of these two different parts of the mind “is not the existence of two systems near the motor end of the apparatus, but the existence of two kinds of processes of excitation or modes of its discharge” (the first sentence of "Unconsciousness and Consciousness--Reality," the last section of the book). What Freud attempts to point out here is that these two processes can be made more distinguishable as results or effects of the dynamic movements of a basic psychical energy rather than as two static psychical territories that govern this movement. In other words, Freud reminds us that, when dealing with the two psychical processes he elaborates here, we should remain attentive not to the location of the psychical energy within the mind but to the two basic tendencies of movement of this psychical energy.
We may bring forth what underlies this comment if we see what happens when we heed his advice. Paying attention to psychical energy and its movements—that is, to its investments, its Besetzungen (translated in English as “cathexes”)—we find that Freud feels compelled to distinguish between two processes because he believes he has observed two basic tendencies of energetic movement or investment. As Freud explains here and throughout his writings, it becomes evident that the first (primary and Ucs.) process should be regarded as the process constituted by the tendency of energy to move or be invested such that it can be described as “free” energy, and the second (secondary and Pcs.) process constituted by the tendency of energy to move such that it may be described as “bound” energy. What do these descriptions mean? The aim, goal, or purpose of any accumulation of energy within the psychic apparatus being discharge (a fundamental point of Freud’s that we will discuss more in depth momentarily), energy is deemed “free” because it tends to move directly towards discharge along the path of least resistance—or at least along a path where there is as little deferral of the event of discharge as possible—and because when it discharges, it usually does so completely. On the other hand, the energy that makes up the Pcs. system is called “bound” because it is seen as “inhibited,” or more willing to defer its discharge and possess the tendency to discharge only partially (cf. “The Unconscious,” 135-6, “The Economic Problem in Masochism” 194). We may note in passing that these tendencies of movement amount as a whole into huge threads of energetic behavior that Freud calls “instincts” or, more accurately translated, “drives.”
Now that we more clearly understand this distinction between “free” and “bound” investment, we must turn to how Freud regards investment itself as existing only as differences of the quantity of energy. That is, at any specific moment in the history of the psyche, there exist no qualitative distinctions between units or even tendencies of psychic energy, and especially not between the “free” and the “bound.” The “free” and the “bound” are thus only different quantities of investment, despite their tendencies or mode of investment that we have just noted. The psyche is, indeed, like a portfolio: we may invest more or less rapidly, but at any particular point, if we ask exactly what we have invested, there will only be amounts of cash. However, throughout his work, Freud proceeds, after making this point, to keep these two distinctions of “free” and “bound” energy anyway, as if they were accumulations of investment so different in quantity as to be regarded for all intents and purposes as qualitatively different elements of the mind—so long as we remember these elemental qualities arise only from quantities.
We may ask, then, whether Freud should make this distinction in this way at all when he is attempting to set up two dynamic processes governed by the movement of psychic energy and not two static systems that, as it were, handle the energy with their own independent agency. Perhaps a simple criticism is adequate here: perhaps Freud could have explained this in different language so as to draw even more attention to the lack of a qualitative distinction between different movements of psychic energy, and thereby buttress his larger point about the radical difference of the dynamic and structural conception. For what the notion that we have merely one psychic substance made up of differences only in terms of quantity—what this notion helps to reaffirm is that we have two tendencies of psychic energy that simply operate in different ways, rather than two (or more) different types of energy within the mind warring against each other with no common battleground. That is, this quantitative conception eludes a horrific mistake of the systematic view: though this latter view is able to describe quite clearly the various parts of the mind and how they interact with each other, because it affirms a qualitative distinction between these parts in terms of the energy within them it actually forecloses an accurate analysis of the dynamics of these qualities’ intermixings. Each region of the mind gets divorced from the other based on the quality of its energetic unit, and we get only a reshuffling of the order of the qualities and their arrangement--Lacanians love this aspect of Freud the most, and generally all they do is this reshuffling (which of course has its own merits). So, would not referring to the two tendencies of energy within Freud’s structural and dynamic view in terms of their differing quantities then drive this point home? We quickly find, however, that our position is in the wrong: our hesitation to agree with this phrasing is precisely what Freud would have wanted to engender, but he only could engender it by keeping these two distinctions present in this way. That is, Freud’s decision to leave us with two types of energy, and thereby to seemingly contradict his own point by slipping back again into language that regards as qualitative what he claimed should be rigorously held as only quantitative, is not only to keep things simple for the reader so as to more fluently present the structural and dynamic conception of the mind. This contradictory phrasing remains because it also has the effect of actually reflecting and elucidating something else about the dynamic nature of the cathexes or investments that will eventually explain why a systematic view of the mind is essentially inadequate at an even more fundamental level: it is inadequate because to describe two manifestations of psychic energy in any terms other than qualitative ones (while appending disclaimers that this is, despite the language, not a qualitative distinction) is not possible if we are going to say that the psyche actually has a particular status, exists in a particular way at a particular time.
Let us elaborate: we find that this contradictory phrasing is in fact necessary for Freud because not only is he encountering a fundamental problem within the nature of the most basic element of his structural and dynamic theory of the mind, but he is also running up against a problem many thinkers--chiefly Nietzsche--have encountered. Essentially, the contradictory language opens up to larger, metaphysical levels because Freud here is tapping into a primordial contradiction: he attempts to describe something (psychical energy) that he wishes to assert ontologically exists as becoming while using language and logic that can only assert that something ontologically exists (and can only possess the quality of becoming). Thus he flips back and forth between quality and quantity. And because he is able to describe the psyche dynamically with quantities, he nevertheless must backtrack and describe it again in terms of quantity in order to say that, at a particular moment, it exists. If he were to forego the quantitative, he could only say that the psyche functions as organized, or looks as if it exists, in a particular way. This is the larger tension at play between the dynamic and structural accounts, and why both tend to feed off of each other's inadequacies.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Getting some with Kenneth Koch

(Photo taken by Koch)

I'm interested in a statement of Kenneth Koch’s from an interview with David Shapiro in 1972: “I like opera,” he says,

because you can celebrate anything. You can open the window and say: ‘The window is open. The sun is shining. My hand is on the window, and I love you.’ And somehow the music can make that beautiful enough.

There’s a lot to say about this little preference of Koch’s. First, the sort of ridiculousness of what he likes: he likes a simple action being sung over and above the action itself. There’s something superfluous about the singing. This indeed is precisely what constitutes the singing’s being a celebration, being something operatic: there is a sort of meaningless, dumb pleasure in the act, in the music that carries what is said just a bit beyond its literality.
But—and here is the crucial thing that allows me to refine a little what I’m getting at—there isn’t really an act itself, without this pleasure, without this superfluity. When we see the celebration at the window Koch describes, we don’t see an act with this celebration pasted on top of it. We just see the act of celebration. It’s all one fluid movement: the celebration, the pleasure, the superfluity is the action itself. Another way to put this is that, at the window, we have at the same time an act bathetic—this sort of anti-climactic, ridiculous superfluity of the celebration—and an act that is rapturous—full of pleasure, and in fact purely pleasure, absolute and abandoned to its own movement. It’s all a lot like an orgasm, if you’ll permit this leap in logic: a sort of expenditure of vital energy at the peak of its concentration. But it is an orgasm that we’re always having, such that orgasm, this sort of celebratory, operatic expenditure, becomes coextensive with action itself. Again, the superfluity isn’t something extraneous, even though it seems that way: like the redundancy of opera, it doesn’t come from outside to give us some extra pleasure, but remains something that we can only modulate, something of which we can only have more or less.
This is puzzling, to say the least: in fact, in one of his New Addresses, Koch describes orgasms precisely in this manner:

It seemed
Puzzling that we had you
Or rather that you
Could have us, in a way

-“To Orgasms,” in The Collected Poems of Kenneth Koch. New York: Knopf, 2005. 623-4. Hereafter cited parenthetically as CP. I won’t note line numbers for now, because that would involve a lot of counting, but I’ll get around to it sometime.

So too it seems puzzling that we can have the celebration, the saying of “The window is open,” and that the act, the opening of the window, has us celebrating, singing, in a way. There is a sort of exchange where both the acting and the being acted—the transitivity and intransitivity—run into each other at once, so that we just get the whole operatic, celebratory action. In other words, puzzled, we nevertheless get some action.
I won’t say that this little phrase that we often use in a different context—a phrase I use not only because it gets at the peculiar nature of operatic or orgasmic action, but because, as we will see, it inscribes itself in a network of crass, stupid heterosexuality which plagues Koch’s work—I won’t say that this phrase can sum up Koch’s amazingly varied oeuvre. But I will say that it sums up a constant concern of that oeuvre. Or, instead of “constant concern” I should say that all this activity, vital energy, ridiculousness, and puzzlement involved in getting some action—understood in the wide sense of acting in a way that also “acts you” which I have just tried to give this odd phrase—constitute a sort of structure. Or, rather, since “structure” sounds too determining, a sort of Derridian texture—that is, something structuring and unstructured at once, a consistency that varies itself wherever it is attempted to be seen—that runs through the work of Kenneth Koch. This consistency is not exactly something I can say definitively exists. But at the very least it can be elaborated as a concept of action that drives Koch’s poetics, as the result—a result that is nothing other than the language of the poems themselves—of the way he uses and abuses language.
Now, in elaborating this celebratory, orgasmic consistency of the language of Koch, am I just coming up with a more expansive way to say that Koch is really a dramatic poet? That he makes a show of himself speaking? Perhaps. Koch seems indeed to many people to be a type of poet that is only good if he comes up with a catchy setup for a poem, a situation in which his words can gain an extra edge, a bit more showiness due to the context and the ironic distance to that context that they both create and inhabit, not unlike Browning. I use the vague word “setup” and make this reference to Browning because it’s not exactly form that is at issue here in Koch or in Browning’s monologues. Rather, it’s all the requirements of a particular performance: issues of content—like action, motive etc.—but also that of form—exposition, arrangement and tone especially—insofar as they interfuse and unfold before you on the stage that is the poem. Indeed, you can understand some of his great poems very well in this way: “The Departure from Hydra” (CP 156-171) is a great example, since it has a small cast of characters—Margaret, Norris, and Peter—and a narrative voice that gains some ironic distance from the voice of Koch—distance in which it can show itself a little, perform its oddness. When we read the following lines, somber and brooding, Eliot-like, over a pretty trifling incident (putting one’s stuff on a mule to be carried up a hill), we can’t help but enjoy it as a certain specimen of personality, not as a serious exhortation to also feel sorry for the mule:

I passed a mule—some men were loading up
His fellow-mule with packets—and I stared
At his wide eyes and his long hard flat nose
Or face, at which he turned away his eyes
And stamped his right hoof nervously. I felt
Guilty, a member of a higher species
Deliberately using my power against
A natural inferior because
Really I was afraid that he might kick
When I came past; but when he seemed upset
Then I felt guilty
(CP, 156).

It is as if the narrator is simply out looking for the moment when he can say, truly, “then I felt guilty.” It is as if this was the last refuge for meaning for him for “solidity,” as he says (156), pleasure in life, in other things, being somewhat impossible. The poem continues as the narrator analyzes the reasons for Peter’s actions (he was feeling somewhat sullen, it seems, after Norris declined him on his offer to take a hiking trip of another Grecian isle, to which Norris originally agreed—already we see how sort of boring and useless it is to recount all these details, in the end), and meditates on all the minutia of the Peter’s sensibility, eventually tracing the whole incident back to old platitudes about Nordic or English blood versus Southern vivacity.
I’ll return to this poem momentarily, but I’ll note first that it would be too restrictive, I think, to think of this poem as a sort of drama, and Koch himself as a dramatic poet—thus I am hunting for something that is more evasive of these generic labels, something that could be otherwise than a genre. (Note: The word “camp” comes to mind, but, though I don’t have reasons for rejecting it totally, I will at least keep it in abeyance for now, since it seems at once a little too precise and a little too general—though it does work outside a rigid notion of genre, I think, and so I might just in the end be describing campiness. I have the feeling though that if we were to put this word in play, we’d find that Koch would be flattening out campiness into something more boringly straight, if only because he would be making camp out of a sort of Eliot-style modernism and a sort of machismo heterosexuality. These two things just seem more resistant to camp and dull it down, bring it closer to a simple, mean form of satire. I want to take this form and show what it is doing above and beyond satire, so I have to come close to camp, therefore. But I want to somehow thread the needle between them.) It would not be restrictive necessarily because Koch wrote poems wildly different from “The Departure from Hydra,”—that is, because there are counterfactuals out there, poems that are just not dramatic—but because this erases how Koch has his own concerns over and above the performance he might be putting on—namely, that particular active, operatic texture he brings about, that makes his poems celebrations. And this is why from the beginning I’ve also avoided parody as something that could pin down the particular gift Koch has for coming up with a great situation, a particular voice he can exhibit and exhaust. This is probably the more popular way to approach him, because it lays stress on his being comic, silly, and light. But Koch isn’t totally parodic: he doesn’t have an end or aim in the way that parody does. And this is true even when he is being arguably parodic, like in “The Departure from Hydra.”
How? Well, the answer will not only show that this isn’t parody, but that this isn’t drama either: the poem also does something crucial, something serious, to a conception of life, and so doesn’t have its end just in displaying just the characters. At some point the ironic distance breaks down and we’re left to ponder the result of this whole performance. Now, I’ll specify that point in a second, but let me be more precise. Of course drama, if not parody, can say something serious as well as be dramatic or be parodic. But I did not claim that the poem said something that made the ironic distance break down. I said it does something, and that makes all the difference.
And here is the point, so you can see what I mean. The speaker is reflecting on the enthusiastic outburst that Peter displayed by suggesting that he and Norris go on their walk, and that this outburst was tinged with a sort of neurotic hyper-enthusiasm more than a healthy, southern exuberance:

This sort of thing, however, often happens
To people from Northern countries, not just Peter,
And perhaps if one is English, Norse, or Swedish,
Danish, Finnish, Swiss or North American,
One cannot avoid a certain amount of tension,
A certain quavering in the hand which reaches
For a ripe peach or the shoulder of a girl,
One whom, as one walks back from going swimming,
One thinks that one could eat, she’s so delicious,
But only thinks it for a little while
(This thought itself is such a Northern one!
A Southerner would think about a place
Where he could go and jump on top of her)…
(CP, 158).

This thought gets completed in the last lines of the poem: “Deep thoughts make helpless/ Men for small undertakings” (CP, 161). On the one hand, this is a lot like Koch’s more “didactic” poems on poetry, like “The Art of Poetry,” or even “One Train Hides Another.” You get the sense there that the speaker really is saying something that he really believes about the cause of Peter’s actions and about people more generally, just as the speaker, in those other poems, is really saying something he believes about poetry. On the other, if you read that back into the poem, it doesn’t give you anything. The statement just is there: at most it would add on another level of irony or parody, but—so what? You already have enough of those. So it just sits there and is more done—just enounced—than said. You can still try and call this drama, but at some point it just doesn’t matter what is said, but rather that and how it is said: at some point we just stop being interested in the display of the character, its quirks and its foresightedness, and we see the pure unfolding of the words before us, regardless of their meaning.
In the end, this sort of meaningless action of the poem, of irony that you don’t know what to do with, but that happens or is done anyway, makes the status of the text more similar to something like “Poems by Ships at Sea” (CP, 478-480) rather than a parody, or a dramatic monologue. Here, given the wonderfully brief and witty pretext—“It was not known that ships at sea wrote poetry. Now it is known” (478)—we find that odd knack Koch has for stepping into a certain voice, a certain situation, and letting that voice speak for itself—that is, celebrate itself, act itself out—but both the dramatic quality is reduced, and more importantly the process seems more positive than the sort of parody that Koch usually gets compared with—parody that is closer to satire, I should say, to a cutting down of someone else. Even the more naïve-sounding, rhyming, more formal lyric of the USS United States does not seem to really stage a voice, does not seem to progress so that we laugh at its inability to see beyond its own personality or character, even as it gathers its creativity from its being a performance of the setup:

AMERICAN FOAM

By the USS United States, United States Navy

You can talk about the Banda’s crazy waters
Where mermaids splash around and kiss and comb
You can yak about the Andaman and Flores
But there’s nothing like American foam.

You can say I wish that I were in the Tasman
Or that the Laptev froze me to a stone
But I will tell you, lads, that there is nothing
As soothing and as cooling as the foam

That slaps my keel when I am in Penobscot
Or Tampa Bay, or, when I’m heading home,
The West Atlantic and the East Pacific
Or Puget Sound, or Norton, close to Nome.

There’s nothing like the feel of U.S. water
It’s straight ad sharp and clear and it alone
Can make a ship feel she is Ocean’s daughter
Carried upon her parent’s shoulders home.

(probably) Tasman Sea, 1930s


Koch plays around with the setup, and he acts, but he doesn’t fully dramatize: if we must say he parodies, he parodies only in the positive, performative sense of this word—never wholly to satirize. The poetry doesn’t have that end to it, because that would restrict it to being something that means—it would erase the power of the language to also just happen.
So, I think in the end I’m not saying that Koch is a dramatic poet. The challenge however has allowed me to refigure (hopefully with more precision) what I’ve said about the orgasm as the conception of action or activity in Koch’s poetry. It’s clear that the only real way these two poems—“Poems by Ships at Sea” (and I might have chosen “In Bed,” which looks even more different) and “The Departure from Hydra”—can seem similar is because the point, for Koch, is not to stage something, or mock it, but just to let the words do what they do, to let them occur or act. Now, we have to qualify this with attention to what results, for we are now being more specific about the particular material that makes up the performance of Koch—that is, language: the words do what they do, but the poem does not become a medium for some inner voice. That is, the language is out there: we don’t see through the words to the performer who happens to use them like we would see through a character to an actor on stage. In short, the words don’t have an arbitrary, or chance status, because Koch is not their source, that to which they must always be ascribed. On the other hand, the poem does not becomes an object with a voice or activity of its own: it isn’t objective, it isn’t only just a thing there. In other words, you do look for where they are emitted from. The words do not work to establish themselves as self-contained, like an artifact. The point is to let the words act, and remain effusive—to let the words act in a way which is even strangely at odds, I think, with drama.
This has pushed my argument farther. I merely was trying to distinguish Koch from drama, but now I am saying that the sort of performance in his poems is at odds with drama—somehow incompatible with it or different from it in essence. How? It has to do with this origin of the words, that makes them not have the status of accidental emissions of a source—that is, a medium—nor, and at the same time, let them constitute themselves by establishing their own origin in themselves like an artifact. Where is this origin, to which the words are ascribed but which does not constitute them fully? They are ascribed to the setup, which is part of the language. Because this source is the setup, which lies outside the verse proper like a preface to a work, the words do need to be ascribed to something. But at the same time, because this setup is merely an occasion for the writing of the verse, it doesn’t make sense to say that the poem is a hermetically sealed unit that is only responsible for itself.
Another way of putting all this is that the problem Koch’s work brings to the fore is one of trust. Koch is easy to trust, despite all your efforts to get around his ironies, parodies, comedy or what have you. This is why we want to say he just finds forms to insert himself into—and why this characterization is a bit wrong, I think. For if we can’t trust him directly, we want to trust his staging of the thing. But what is really the case is that Koch has nothing to trust: the words just act, are there.
So, if we look at “The Art of Love,” for example (CP, 276-298), it isn’t a parody, even as it is—because there’s just a celebration of the particular mode—I hesitate again to call it a form or a content. Koch gets at the crucial thing about this poem right away—that what interests us about a piece like this is the speaker and the occasion. So what happens is that we take a certain ironic distance from him, but Koch already catches us at this and makes us think once again about how to regard the words that are being said and whether they really are emanating from some source—that is, are really a medium: this is the whole function of the end of the “rolling like a wheel” passage. At the moment that the speaker says, “forgive me,” and at this moment actually questions the validity of ascribing anything at all with legitimacy to the setup of the poem. So where we begin to take a certain distance that would be proper to parody, surely, but also to drama, Koch forces us to go one step further, and by revealing that the process isn’t that of an artifact—that it questions even its own setup—so that we must get rid of the notion of our distance from a real source of the words altogether:

Well, you can roll her like like a wheel, though I doubt she’ll approve of it,
Women rarely do, I knew one once, though, who did. For
This of course you use the right hand right ankle left
Hand left ankle arrangement, using splints on both sides of each
Knot so that the limbs will stay in wheel-position. Now that she
Looks like that which makes a chariot roll, roll her! If this hurts her,
Soothe her a little by kissing her all around, saying
“Ah my lovely wheel, when over a bumb, did it?” and so on,
Until she finally is resigned to being your wheel, your dear beloved one
And is eager to be rolled about by you. Small objects placed on the floor
Will give you brief twinges of sadistic energy and speed up your wheeling.
I suggest ending by wheeling her out an opened door
Which you then close and stab yourself to death. This procedure, however, is rare.
I was carried away. Forgive me. The next chapters will be much more sane
(CP, 280).

But will they? Because, as far as the words are concerned, does it matter? (Note: What is so disturbing and creepy about the poem—as we noted in class—is precisely the fact that it means too much beyond this activity of language: in the end, the poem about nailing a woman to a wall is just satirical, and in bad taste. But this isn’t coextensive, I think, with the project of Koch insofar as language is concerned. I’m not trying to be an apologist for Koch, of course, but merely note that what moves the poem is what he is doing with language and the setup. When Koch veers away from this, it just becomes—and this is the case with his other, less controversial poems too, like “Variations on a Theme of William Carlos Williams” (CP, 135)—crass satire. The vulgar aspect of Koch and the more sophisticated project are connected, though, as we will see, though a concern or anxiety that haunts this activity of language.) The poem becomes just action, celebration, pleasure in one. The words don’t have an origin, at the same time as they are just like words that have an origin—they “are had” by something that isn’t them, at the same time as the poem “has” them.
As you can see, I’d like to inscribe this back into some language of orgasm and getting some action with which I started. The sort of drive of the words, what pushes them on and makes them occur one after the other, doesn’t remain entirely free floating and external, as it would in satire: for Koch it remains something essential about the work of language and action in general, which, for him, avoids being mediated or being artifactual at the same time as it is both—just as the orgasm is something that merely is had (it is a medium) and something that has itself (it is contained) at the same time. One could say his poetry is a refiguring of how we think of action, and a modeling of it upon the orgasm or at least along vital lines.
But why vital lines? This is the question with which I will conclude. Why the orgasm? Aren’t we just talking about a structure that can take its paradoxical form anywhere? I’d like to suggest that it is because Koch thinks of how the action of language happens as something energetic, as a sort of charge that can be expended, that we have to cast this paradox as one within the vital, within the orgasmic.
For, up to now, we might think of this model of action merely as something language does, not as something that language can stored up. The orgasm is had and has itself, it gets its action, and that is it; an action just performs itself, and is over. But Koch thinks that this doesn’t allow for any sort of continuity between actions: even if they don’t emanate from somewhere, poems do emanate instead of not emanate, and this difference means that even the pure performance that is the poem—and not the drama—itself must have come from somewhere. It must come from the collected result of all of these emanations—as what is built up over time through them. So he says, in “Energy in Sweeden” (444):

Those were the days
When there was so much energy in and around me
I could take it off and put it back on, like clothes
That one has brought only for a ski trip
But then finds that one is using every day
Because every day is like a ski trip…
This describes the orgasm, the sort of just stepping into and stepping out of an action, which means it has you and you have it at the same time. But then, he continues, after relating how he meets six young women in a boat in Sweeden,
It seemed to me I should have done something at the time,
To have used all that energy. Lovemaking is one way to use it and writing is another.
Both maybe are overestimated, because the relation is so clear.
But that is probably human destiny and I’m not going to go against it here.


The conception of action, of the unfolding of energetic activity, has changed. It no longer is a garment, or like an orgasm, but is something that has to be able to be collected together to make some ultimate sense. It is this tendency that invades the conception of action that Koch’s use of language develops, and which, I think, takes it over from time to time. It is, indeed, what pulls this orgasmic, celebratory superfluity out of the language and gives it a point, which usually makes the poems descend from their more performative status into the sphere of satire. This is often what gives his poems their force—that force that makes us want to read his statements on poetry as statements about his own poetry, adding one more level of irony instead of seeing that there is only irony, only performance, only distance, and that this is something essential to language, because language acts.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Lacan and repetition, redone

I've redone and extended a post I wrote roughly a year ago to finally get around to what I believe repetition is doing in Lacan's 1964 seminar:

…Where do we meet this real? For what we have in the discovery of psycho-analysis is an encounter, an essential encounter—an appointment to which we are always called with a real that eludes us. That is why I have put on the blackboard a few words that are for us, today, a reference point of what we wish to propose.
 First, the tuché, which we have borrowed, as I told you last time, from Aristotle, who uses it in his search for cause. We have translated it as the encounter with the real. The real is beyond the automaton, the return, the coming-back, the insistence of the signs, by which we see ourselves governed by the pleasure principle. The real always lies behind the automaton, and it is quite obvious, throughout Freud’s research, that it is this [process] that is his concern…

-"Tuche and Automaton," in Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 53-54.



The encounter with the real (tuché) is beyond the process of returning (the automaton), or, put a little more clearly (for the names tuché, automaton, etc. are not important), the real is something that is encountered in a space that opens up once returning is no longer the way in which something comes back to the subject.

Let us bring in the passage from the previous session, “Of The Network of Signifiers” (which would have been fresh in the minds of his listeners), to explain what returning is, so that we can see what Lacan is getting at here. Reproduction is returning—Lacan uses both terms synonymously. So both reproduction and returning are, if we heed this last seminar, different from repetition: “Repetition is not reproduction,” Lacan asserts (50). Both repetition and reproduction, however, are ways that the subject can comport himself towards the past: in each case what is repeated or reproduced is something that for the subject was and now is again. But, as is evident by Lacan’s linking up of returning and reproducing, the past, when it returns, is also reproduced, in the sense that it is re-presented—it is present somehow again. Thus, we do not yet know that this is the case with repetition: indeed, “repetition appears," or is revealed or brought to us, "in a form that is not clear, that is not self-evident, like a reproduction, or a making present” (50, my italics). So we’ll let repetition go for now, noting this key distinction, until we can pick it up again with a fuller notion of what reproduction entails.
What in the past we are comporting ourselves towards, and that comes back again in such a way that it returns,—this “what” is reproduced, is re-presented. Freud calls what gets re-presented a memory—indeed, something that comes back from the past in such a way that it gets re-presented to us (in images, words, feelings, etc.) is what we normally think of as a memory. The key, though, is to link up re-presentation with “presentation” itself—this will show us what memory and what returning really are.
The word “presentation” only designates something that occurs to us, something that our minds and bodies perceive or grasp or comport ourselves towards—and it is what “presents” itself in both the spatial and the temporal sense: what comes before us—the presented—and the time in which it comes before us—the present. Thus, if what is present is somehow re-presented, it will have to be what was in the past: if it is no longer present in the temporal sense, such that it has to be brought before us again, it will be present again in a different form—the form of present-become-past, or in the form of now-is-that-which-once-was. Thus, a representation (i.e. this form) is never going to appear as a past that is unable to be present itself once more: all of that-which-once-was can be again now. Moreover, all that is now is something that can be that-which-once-was. This means that what returns will always be something that could be present again—the past. Memory is not merely a representation of the past, then: memory is only that form which can adequately represent the past as something that once-was-present. Any other form will not reveal the past to us in such a way that we can recognize it as something that was once present.

So, if the real is the something that is encountered in the space that opens up once returning is no longer a factor, we can conclude that this space is no longer the space of the past. Repetition steps in here, taking over what was a function of returning or reproduction: repetition is the form of returning beyond returning, the form of bringing something before us in such a way that it is not revealed as something that once was present. Put a different way, the space that opens up once returning is no longer the form in which something comes before us--that is, the space of the real--this space is the space of repetition. How, then, does repetition bring something before us? Obviously not in the manner of representation/reproduction. And this means, not in the manner in which it renders something that comes back as past. Repetition, unlike reproduction, does not bring back the past. Rather, it brings back the real.

But what is the real? What is that which is brought back in repetition? If there is no past in repetition, is there any time at all? Indeed, Freud said that the unconscious does not participate in the temporality we are used to: if the unconscious is the seat of the real somehow, does it not have a past or time more generally?
To answer these questions, or at least to try and answer them, we must be clearer. When we say that there is no past in repetition, what we mean is that there is no past that can be simply presented again to consciousness. And when we hypothesize, with Freud, that the unconscious does not participate in temporality, we mean the type of temporality that presents moments to consciousness. However, this does not mean that there can be said to exist any other past or any other temporality than these--that is the question we must ultimately hold in abeyance. We do so along with Lacan, who, in the passages above, has enough on his hands already to show what manifests itself when something is brought back to the subject in repetition. So when we try to specify the past that is brought back by repetition, for example, we specify a past that can be said only to exist insofar as it manifests itself--that is, insofar as it is appearing to the subject. The ultimate status of this manifestation must remain a question for now.
This is all to say that we will also have to change the form of our following question: but what is the real? For the real, it will become clear, is nothing other than what is brought back by repetition. That is, it doesn't clearly exist as something outside repetition itself. Repetition, therefore, does not bring back anything. It is the bringing back itself. This means that the real is, insofar as it manifests itself, repetition. We now can begin to clear up how this repetition or this real relates to manifestation if it does not do so by way of making something present.
We made clear above that, if we take the representation of something as the manifestation of it, it is quite obvious that the real will not able to become manifest. We said that it would become manifest as repetition, but we have yet to understand whether, ultimately, this itself is really any manifestation in the normal sense of the term. What is manifestation of repetition? It is quite obvious what the answer should be: what gets manifested in repetition is the repetition of manifestation. Manifestation is doubled, as it were. In other words, what gets represented is not something simply represented: it is a doubled-representation of some sort, a representation of a representation.
But here we have to pause, and consider what we are saying. For isn't a doubled-representation still a representation? And didn't we just establish above that representation is merely the same thing as a presentation or manifestation? And didn't we say that only what returns or reproduces itself manifests itself as a modification of the present? We seem to be coming back to the same phenomenon--that of return or reproduction, not repetition--from the other side, as we try to derive it from the real.
However, at this point, Lacan explores a crucial word of Freud's that, he implies, would render this idea of a doubled-representation: Vorstellungrepräsentanz. But why does he suddenly bring attention to how the German would render our notion of a doubled-manifestation? Leaving us wondering, Lacan simply proceeds. Let's watch what he does.
He makes a simple point. In short, he notes that this word is not to be thought of like it sounds: that is, since Vorstellung and Repräsentant both mean representation, the temptation is to act like Freud's French translators and think of Vorstellungrepräsentanz as a representation of a representation, or (to say the same thing) a representative representation (le représentant représentatif). Lacan suggests that we think of this word of Freud's as saying "that which takes the place of the representation" (le tenant-lieu de la représentation, 59-60).
It should be clear now that in making this short, offhanded remark about how to translate a word, what Lacan is doing is showing us that there is a basis in Freud's language upon which we can rethink the manifestation of repetition. In other words, interpreting Vorstellungrepräsentanz in a particular way makes possible the following thought, a thought that does not allow us to fall back into thinking of repetition as reproduction: the manifestation of repetition is not a representation of a representation, but a repetition within representation.
What does this mean? To understand this, we have to follow Lacan through his interpretation of the fort-da game of Freud's grandson. He concludes, eventually, that the game little Ernst plays with his spool "itself... is the Repräsentanz of the Vorstellung" (63). In other words, the game is that which takes the place of the representation. Since representation here would be the mean the manifestation of repetition, what Lacan is saying is that the game is that which takes the place of repetition. Repetition, in other words, manifests itself as a game in which there is alternation back and forth between possible representations (or signifiers) of this repetition. But--and here is the crucial point in the analysis--the alternation back and forth in the game is itself repetition. So repetition (the game) takes the place of repetition (itself), which, if you think about it, makes total sense: repetition doesn't repeat anything other than its own activity.
I say "its own" activity, but what this means is really that what is broken down in repetition is any sense in which this repetition could be the repetition of the same act of repetition. Repetition here, since it institutes itself over and over, merely repeats the differences between its acts of repetition. Put back in terms of the game, what is happening here is that more and more games will attempt to signify or represent the repetition that is the real's manifestation. The games will repeat themselves, in that they will repeatedly keep taking the place of repetition. Or, in terms of the Vorstellungrepräsentanz, there will continue to be Repräsentanten of the Vorstellungen, because the Repräsentanten will in turn become the Vorstellungen that new Repräsentanten will have to take the place of. This is what Lacan means when he asks, "What will become of the Vorstellung when, once again, this Repräsentanz of the mother... will be lacking?" (63).

Friday, October 10, 2008

Angry criticism and the name

Obstinate old man--senex
sapiens, it is not. What is he saying;
why is he still so angry? He says, I cannot
forgive myself. We are immortal.
Where was I? Prick him.

-Geoffrey Hill, The Triumph of Love

I'm interested in a type of criticism I've seen lately, one that can't stand other people's thoughts unless it has them held in a position, under a name. It is not so much that it can't stand people that don't have clear positions, as it is that it can't stand the difficulty of naming, in general, and at this historical juncture. Naming has become harder, somehow, in the postmodern world. This criticism concludes that it is better to have a name than none at all. So, frustrated with you, it gives you a name. And what it does in the process is not so much confine you to a position or that name, as think that you once had no name, no position at all, prior to their giving it to you.
This is the problem. I don't mind names, call me whatever you want. Names usually only help a situation: they label, they identify, they correct themselves, they allow you to see what faults describing something as X instead of Y produces, etc. The problem is that hesitation over what to call something or someone is not the same as indecision over it or, more significantly, a refusal of naming.
I just went to a talk, for example, where the phrase "ideological critics" was applied to certain people. By this was meant those who gave either new historicist or deconstructive or feminist or queer readings of a text, though in a looser way to also imply those all that work that is influenced by these modes of looking at texts. This was useful. But it was applied as if these ideological critics were refusing to take a stand on something crucial about textuality by being concerned with ideology. In short, the name was circularly applied: by calling these critics ideological critics, you could criticize what you call them. Thus, you only criticize the name: but the slippage here between the name and the referent is all that counts. It destroys any responsibility to try and rigorously demonstrate that the name applies to the referent. In the end, it assumes that the ideological critics refusal to call themselves your name is a dismissal of naming itself. And in the process what it does is not use naming so much as a process that elucidates as a process that just is frustrated with the problems of naming in itself.
What am I getting at? This criticism just seems angry, at the end of the day. And nothing more. By that, I don't mean it does nothing or is nothing. By no means. It is simply is frustrated with the conditions of its own possibility, and wants to impose those conditions upon everything. So it doesn't develop them, when it is placed in a new situation, but merely uses that situation to confirm its conditions of possibility. So it is in the end a type of criticism that doesn't do anything but can say a lot about everybody. It's just pissed off. When it does say something, it doesn't come from this way of criticizing: it seems external, like it could have been achieved by a critic who wasn't so angry. And this is the case because, indeed, under the guise of trying to quickly name something so the critic can get somewhere already and stop worrying about its conditions of possibility, it worries only about its conditions of possibility--because it doesn't think its responsible to step beyond them. So instead of engaging with its object, this criticism sucks its object back into its own sphere of problems. The name is the tool for this non-engagement: it labels, it makes it possible to talk about the thing, but at the same time it does this disingenuously, because it also believes labels or names don't hold. It aspires to a radical provisionality, while at the same time trying to impose its stamp upon everything.
Here is a position for you, angry critics: all pragmatism is this angry criticism.
This doesn't mean that the theses of pragmatism--what it has to say about truth, for example--have this character trait. It merely means that the way pragmatists, or those who fall into pragmatism (which is a more common phenomenon than you might think), go about articulating these theses is by getting angry. In short, what this means is that pragmatism (or its modern form) is a certain style of dealing with the investigations of Wittgenstein (among others), most notably characterized by the two pronged idea that a) we are beyond Wittgenstein, we should know better than him, and b) given the theses of Wittgenstein, which we know and are beyond, you can't get beyond him. Taking up this frustrating two pronged thesis and militantly waving it around, that is what makes you angry. Rorty was great at this, and played a lot with the possibilities of this anger. That is, he often appeared angry and calm at once, and it is this cognizance of his own position on positions that I personally enjoy about him--and why I think he resists a lot of the criticisms that people levy against pragmatists.
But those who do not at first appear to be pragmatists are also angry: Marxists, for one. Gayatri Spivak is constantly infuriated. This isn't bad, as I should emphasize: it simply is a way of presenting ideas and reducing your opponent's position--one which makes them into, in fact, your opponent. And especially under the guise of usefulness, that quality of the name that I tried to outline earlier. The name, the name for the position, is exceptionally useful. But to use its usefulness against itself, as a ruse that will allow you to claim to be, at least, clear about something--this is a strategy that angry critics constantly deploy. So in her essay on Foucault and Derrida, Spivak believes she is being clear when she tries to parcel out their respective positions. This doesn't in the future preclude her from criticizing Foucault in a pretty base manner--that is, in a really angry way, frustrated with her own real inability to criticize him.
But then there are other political thinkers, obsessed with the civic and with solidarity in different ways, who are exceptionally angry: Gillian Rose, perhaps is the most concrete example. The fury she displays (a lot like that of Geoffrey Hill, her friend) is extraordinary, and most precisely of all these examples takes the form I elaborated above with reference to naming. Let's look at her attack on Derrida, often a figure that this criticism grows unbelievably frustrated with. We can imagine why: not only does he criticize clarity as a virtue in itself--he calls this somewhere a naive belief in a sort of philosophical Esperanto--but he precisely resists the frustration one feels with the name. That is, unlike the pragmatist, he thinks the two pronged, contradictory relationship to Wittgenstein precisely as a contradiction to develop, to explore, such that it breaks down. It is not something that is constantly trying to be resolved for him, and it is not something that can be preserved by the work of philosophy: the work of philosophy takes it up and destabilizes its function as philosophy's premise or condition of possibility, no matter how contradictory it is. But back to Rose, for whom this is all intolerable: watch her infinite rage in motion:

All this stems from the logophobic ethos of Derrida's thinking (pardon my neologism). Desperate for expiation and for ethics, he nevertheless desires to avoid at all costs renewing the question (yes, the question), which Marx himself posed and from which his thinking, young and old, proceeded: "How do we stand in relation to the Hegelian dialectic?" Only our taking on the burden of posing this question anew would permit us to investigate the possibility of an ethics which does not remain naive and ignorant of its historical and political presuppositions and hence its likely outcomes.
-Mourning Becomes the Law, 70-71 (italics in original).

Notice the neologism with the immediate criticism of what she named. Nowhere is there a second thought as to whether this name applies to Derrida--thinker of the dialectic and the problems of the dialectic par excellence (has she ever read "From Restricted to General Economy?" or Glas?). The assumption, I think, is that he will respond, and that if he can prove the name logophobic doesn't apply--and it doesn't, as he addressed explicitly in several interviews and papers (cf. "For the Love of Lacan")--well, then, Rose will take back her position. She thus seems to demonstrate a good faith in discussion. Seems to: for will this taking-back ever happen? Well, the short answer is no: for what Rose here also deploys is the fact that the name will still stick unless she herself takes it back. So not only does Derrida have to say, no, that does not apply, he has to make her take the thing back herself. It's like we are in fourth grade, and saying bad things about each other's mothers. Take it back! You take it back! The good faith in discussion is the same thing as the anger with the frustrated possibility of naming something I outlined earlier--in short, faith in discussion is the imposition of her inability do discuss upon someone else. So she will say, with a fury it is oddly hard to dissociate from anti-Semitism (and I'm not the first to say this, of course), Levinas, Bloom, Derrida, Jabes, and others (but the term applies most forcefully to Levinas, I think) all "operate according to what might be termed neo-Hebraism" (Mourning Becomes the Law, 79--while she acts like this is well-known, the name is in fact Rose's), a quality that does not just remain as a label but also rings throughout her writing like a sort of accusation, like it also names a stain, a disgusting pathology. This excess in the act of naming is the frustration with naming: the name applies, but it applies itself knowing that it won't ever be exactly right. So what happens? You name anyway, without hesitating over the name--and here is where frustration turns into anger. The residue of affect here--the anger at the futile position of the neo-Hebraists--is not just one about whether this name applies or not. That would be too simple, too Rortyian (this is the technique I spoke of above: Rorty turns anger back against itself to merely end up with this frustration). This residue of affect is concerned with how the neo-Hebraists will not themselves ever accept the name that Rose gives them... even if they were to say they did. This is the same thing, I am suggesting, as the determination to skip over one's own inability to deal with the name: Rose wants to impose the frustration she feels upon others, to never look like she is hesitating. What this completely, utterly overlooks, is that Levinas, Derrida, Jabes, even Bloom all might feel this frustration too. In the process, she makes it seem as if her opponents don't ever think what she thinks--that they, in fact, renounce thinking, questioning (yes, questioning).
That the other might feel this frustration with language, with naming, is what Frederic Jameson understands. He is a great example of someone who escapes this angry sort of criticism while genuinely exploring all the virtues that angry critics think naming allows. Constantly calling the thing by a name, at the same time he never gets frustrated with naming. This can make him extremely difficult to read, especially in his later work, because the names he calls something keep shifting around, and don't apply in the way that you normally think they will apply to something. In short, he does not abuse the clarity afforded by the name, but puts it to work. Deceptively clear, he tries to produce a community where names can be used and are used, but one in which we all understand the other's frustration with their inappropriateness. Using a name is not a fatalistic act for Jameson--it doesn't demonstrate that one is making a resolute decision despite what one already knows about how the name will not apply. It doesn't want to "prick him," as Hill says in the poem above, as if this is a lamentable but responsible act. It simply is what happens in an effort to communicate.

Friday, October 3, 2008

"I don't believe that there is any perception"

The following--from a discussion at Johns Hopkins during the great structuralism conference in 1966 (!) that took place right after Derrida delivered his "Structure, Sign, and Play" lecture--might help out some of my phenomenologist friends trying to wrap their heads around Derrida. Doubrovsky's great question at least allows you to approach the more structuralist and semiological mode of that essay's articulation:

SERGE DOUBROVSKY: You always speak of a non-center. How can you, within your own perspective, explain or at least understand what a perception is? For a perception is precisely the manner in which the world appears centered to me. And language you represent as flat or level. Now language is something else again. It is, as Merleau-Ponty said, a corporeal intentionality. And starting from this utilization of language, in as much as there is an intention of language, I inevitably find a center again. For it is not "one" who speaks, but "I." And even if you reduce the I, you are obliged to come across once again the concept of intentionality, which I believe is at the base of a whole thought, which, moreover, you do not deny. Therefore I ask how you reconcile it with your present attempts?

DERRIDA: First of all, I didn't say that there was no center, that we could get along without the center. I believe that the center is a function, not a being--a reality, but a function. And this function is absolutely indispensable. The subject is absolutely indispensable. I don't destroy the subject; I situate it. That is to say, I believe that at a certain level both of experience and of philosophical and scientific discourse one cannot get along without the notion of subject. It is a question of knowing where it comes from and how it functions. Therefore I keep the concept of center, which I explained was indispensable, as well as that of subject, and the whole system of concepts to which you have referred.
Since you mentioned intentionality, I simply try to see those who are founding the movement of intentionality--which cannot be conceived in the term intentionality. As to perception, I should say that once I recognized it as a necessary conservation. I was extremely conservative. Now I don't know what perception and I don't believe that anything like perception exists. Perception is precisely a concept, a concept of an intuition or of a given originating from the thing itself, present itself in its meaning, independently from language, from the system of reference. And I believe that perception is interdependent with the concept of origin and of center and consequently whatever strikes at the metaphysics of which I have spoken strikes also at the very concept of perception. I don't believe that there is any perception.

-From The Structuralist Controversy, Discussion of "Structure, Sign, and Play," 271-2

Translating Husserl into the language of structuralism and specifically semiology was primarily the work of Merleau-Ponty (good friend of Lévi-Strauss), and if one reads certain remarks of his from the late 50's you can get a good sense of what that work of translation entails--you can piece together the puzzle that semiology poses to the phenomenologist of the non-French tradition, and begin to read, because all of a sudden you are launched into the types of conversations that were held after his classes there. Suddenly, this more formalized remark of Derrida's--no less extreme in its conclusions--from 1959 might also help, because one understands that it basically says the same thing in a less semiological language:

The question of the possibility of the transcendental reduction cannot expect an answer. It is the question of the possibility of the question, opening itself, the gap, on whose basis the transcendental I, which Husserl was tempted to call "eternal" (which in his thought, in any event, means neither infinite nor ahistorical, quite the contrary) is called upon to ask itself about everything, and particularly about the possibility of the unformed and naked factuality of the nonmeaning, in the case at hand, for example, of its own death.
-"'Genesis and Structure' in Husserl's Phenomenology," in Writing and Difference, 167-8

All this is evidence of the benefits of a historically minded approach to philosophy, which doesn't so much focus on the appropriations and misappropriations of particular philosophers (Husserl or Heidegger), but tries to reconstruct the discourse in which those appropriations are happening. It is also helpful in discussions of Kant, say (who is dealing with the British empiricists and materialists, like Priestley), and Descartes.