Thursday, January 29, 2009

"Any methodological approach can be self governing"

I was reading Wlad Godzich's extremely perceptive introduction to de Man's Blindness and Insight, and happened upon a statement that is both right on and, unfortunately, symptomatic. Godzich is describing with all possible accuracy the sort of writing that de Man produces with respect to the rest of the field of literary studies. While modern literary studies falls back upon the rigor of its methodologies for validity (it conceives the correctness of its results based on the correctness of the procedure that produces these results, more or less self-consciously) as opposed to something like philology proper (which works to establish a text, and has methods that, because their product is more of a product, can be seen as external to the result: the correctness of the result can be more objectively verified, and does not always imply a merit or misstep in the procedure that brings it about)--while modern literary studies, Godzich claims, is engaged in this refinement of its methodology (and he is speaking in such broad strokes here he could be really wrong), de Man tries to immediately call into question the necessity of this falling back upon method in the first place. In other words, for de Man, the issue is not whether a particular method is correct or needs to be replaced with another, whether it succeeds or fails. It is why this issue of the correctness of a method needs to be called up in the first place. Godzich puts it better than I can: de Man is not "a methodologist among others," one who

can never mount a critique of an approach without, at least implicitly, holding some strong views on what the correct approach should be. Rather, his scrutiny of the critical practice of others... seeks to go beyond an inquiry into the validity, or to speak rapidly, into the success or failure of a given methodology, to an elucidation of the relationship of that methodology to its own necessity. That is, while de Man does not neglect to consider the capacity of a methodology to abide by its own rules and to thus give us knowledge of the text it is applied to, such a consideration is, for him, secondary to the question of why the issue of methodology had to arise in the first place; and to the answer that the given methodology provides to that question, explicitly or not.
-"Caution! Reader at Work!" in Blindness and Insight, xviii-xix.

Insofar as all the presuppositions above about the nature of literary studies were necessary to bring out this aspect of de Man's work (and it is telling that one has to reorganize literary studies around de Man in every effort that you undertake to situate him within it--de Man is both that powerful and the aspects of his work are, indeed, so hard to characterize) I think they are justified and well thought out. For the payoff here is huge: Godzich gets right to the heart of what de Man is up to. It is interesting that many contemporary definitions of theory precisely articulate themselves in these terms: theory is about the conditions of the possibility of any methodological interpretation, is a quick definition to which many have recourse--in contradistinction to being a "methodologist among others," one who just picks up a text and interprets it, applying the method. One can attribute this, I think, to the immense influence of de Man or at least to the power of his formulations--as well as to their ambiguity and their presuppositions. For what becomes clear is that the presuppositions of this statement are not just what has already been stated about the particular methodological concerns of modern literary studies. To characterize what de Man does (and perhaps, by extension, what theory now does) as an inquiry into the necessity of methodologies, one has to admit what Godzich immediately goes on to say:

...While de Man does not neglect to consider the capacity of a methodology to abide by its own rules and to thus give us knowledge of the text it is applied to, such a consideration is, for him, secondary to the question of why the issue of methodology had to arise in the first place; and to the answer that the given methodology provides to that question, explicitly or not. For the practice of any methodological approach can be self-governing, whereas the question of the necessity of methodology raises the issue of what reading is.
-Blindness and Insight, xix (my italics).

This last sentence is what is right on, but also what is completely symptomatic. For it is true that every methodological approach is, in relation to de Man's practice, self-governing. It is even true of theory. But, at the same time, it is only true of these insofar as they themselves conceive of their practice this way and comport themselves as such. In other words, this would be the ideology of theory, rather than anything objectively valid--and the crisis of theory now (or at least since the late 90's) would be (among other things) the result of the dissolution of this ideological formation.
For is it really clear that the practice of any methodological approach can be self-governing? What an amazing, massive presupposition! Can we just go and apply a method, ever? Certainly not after the contribution that theory has made to our studies--in other words, not any more. Every inquiry now very easily, in fact, questions not only its own validity, but also its necessity. If anything, we are enormously, hugely lacking in what should be the more simple issue of validity, of the correctness of our approach to the methodological rules we have set out to engage. This is the harder issue.
But more importantly, it seems that this assumption that any given methodology can be self-governing was precisely what that very anti-theoretical movement called New Historicism precisely tried to deploy and in the process thoroughly (again and again and again, with painful, deadening consistency) proved false. Greenblatt and one or two others remained skeptical about this assumption in their own practice, mostly because for them it was precisely something that could not of itself resist theory (it was an assumption that could only be deployed with theoretical interest: namely, a Foucauldian anti-hermeneutic agenda). But throughout the field (and I speak as a former student with New Historicist proclivities) it was this belief that a methodological approach will govern itself that precisely became the center of the practice and would release you from all the impure concerns that theory or a critical practice of the de Manian type had introduced (this epithet impure still gets thrown around: theory in particular introduced an impurity to the pure study of literature--though theorists themselves, and especially de Man, were often given to saying that theory was a purer study of a purer object). The belief in self-governance manifested itself in the unbelievable fascination with research, with manuscripts, with often badly carried out historical work in the archives--most of all with the production of allegedly buried historical data, a new text, a new document, a new poster, letter, diary, advertisement, etc. etc. etc. that would be able to be run through the methodological machine and produce, besides what was usually a pointless study, an ascetic, self-immolating pride in one's ability to be self-governed, armed as one was with this method. This would proceed to the extent that the belief would (if it was not already doing this from the start) be reaffirmed to the exclusion of the historical data: when it came time to write the article, it usually revolved around setting up the text to be duped by your research, the point being precisely that the text represses its history (!!). But at this point, it is clear that self-governance has been elevated to, precisely, a theoretical point: de Man's formulation of the resistance to or of theory works here more than anywhere else.
The point, however, is not that the New Historicism couldn't oppose what it opposed except dialectically: the point is that its failure was perhaps due precisely to the championing of what theory defined itself against, and that this was some idea that a method can regulate itself unproblematically from the inside (and if this assumption sounds similar to the anti-bureaucratic, anti-government, states-rights or free-market rhetoric that is now being questioned--finally--in America, well, that's no accident). The failure of theory as well of New Historicism, then, would be tied up together in this assumption, the first as a negative, and the second as a positive expression of its falseness.
What if, on the other hand, the practice of every methodological approach precisely implied its own governance from the outside? Not in the sense of being inferior to another discourse, which we see here theory (and then New Historicism) will have already implied is the case. This confuses the subjection of method in terms of importance (again only in terms of the ideology of the overlord--it only claims that it is important or prior) with governance. What is needed, it is clear, is a conception of governance that does not subject but that regulates, in terms of rules and prescriptions, tasks and tests. This will free the sphere of method from both the naive assumption that it can govern itself but, at the same time, not just turn it into its negative, the dependent set of rules that have no force without a richer and more important sphere of analysis to dole them out--which is, in the end, the same thing.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Structuralism and finitude

A good understanding of structuralism is something I think we are regaining in the United States, after our flings with certain "post-structuralist" modes of understanding things: there is a return to structuralism that is going on.

That is, unless it is a discovery of structuralism, a return to something that was never really understood well in the first place.

I add this because if you look back at the old journals, you can't help but feel that there was a sort of odd reception of structuralism in the US, one that really missed a lot of its points. Mostly (I think) this was because of the work that people who had the French connections were trying to connect it to discourses that were active in the US that looked like structuralism (in the positive sense that we will develop below). So Geoffrey Hartman, for one (and he was not the only one to do this), would try and explain the structuralist project alongside Northrop Frye's work. This is a good start, but it betrays the fact that there was a certain hermeneutic tradition that was lacking in the US that perhaps was there in France, and allowed a purer understanding of the structuralist approach to take place. And then there was the approach, right after--or, more accurately, right in the middle of the structuralist reception--of certain "post-structuralist" discourses: this perhaps closed the era of structuralism in the US before it really could begin. It isn't an accident that Lacan, Derrida, and others introduced these new notions in a conference meant to consolidate the structuralist influence, in 1966 at Johns Hopkins--introducing and destroying it at the same time for people.

Before outlining what distinguishes this purer understanding, I'll name what I think is the tradition: Heideggerian phenomenology.

Some might be tempted to say: Saussure. But as important as Saussure was in France, Heidegger and phenomenology remain the wider background against which the key notion of structuralism can really be grasped. This notion, which will lead us to the distinguishing characteristic of a solid understanding of structure, is the effectivity of the structure, the way the structure determines its elements.

Now, this effectivity is often explained still in Saussurian terms, around the discovery of the arbitrariness of the signifier: it has to do with the bonds forged horizontally, as it were, between the chain of signifiers, rather than vertically, or through reference to the signified. So where we have a group of signifiers, it is not the downward movement of each signifier's reference that matters,

but rather its ability to juxtapose itself beside other signifiers,

and bring about signification that way. This is a stronger claim, essentially, than "reference only occurs in a context." No: what this claims is that reference occurs only through context, such that 1) the context is what "in the last instance" does the work of reference, not the signifier's relationship to the signified (i.e. the context takes over for the arbitrariness), and 2) the context itself becomes wider than a mere "context:" it is not reducible to anything like order, syntax, or exchange which may locally bring about the juxtaposition. The context becomes a structure, nothing that is still dependent upon the downward work.

So, what do we end up with? The effectivity of the structure on its elements is one that holds it together in the absence of any specific (i.e. non-arbitrary) determination of its elements. The structure's effectivity is what allows meaning (or rather, the function of meaning) to take place and be understood despite the ultimate arbitrariness of meaning.

But this is what I will call only a positive definition of the effectivity involved. It is a rich, full concept of what it is for a structure to have the function of meaning. To this day, it is how we in the US are often taught the concept of structure.

What is more interesting, however, is the corresponding negative phenomenon, that which the positive definition implies. And phenomenology gives you a richer sense of this negative thing at work: it makes what is negative from the Saussurian perspective also positive. If the structure holds its elements together despite any local determination of those elements, what we have is a structure that is or exists only insofar as its elements exist. In other words, the limits of the structure are also defined here, such that we understand that while the structure is transcendental (it governs all the elements despite their determination), it is also finite (its governance does not bear upon anything other than what makes it up).

I will come back to this last word--finitude--in a moment, for it is precisely the distinguishing criterion of a purer understanding of structuralism that I am talking about. But it should already be clear from my vocabulary here (transcendental, finite) that these are phenomenological and specifically Heideggerian concerns. The effectivity we are talking about here is precisely the ontological one that Heidegger brings about in his laying out of Dasein: Dasein is made up of all sorts of specific elements, it is dispersed in these ways, but it holds itself together because the inner tendency (or necessity) of these elements is not to be without a determination (or rather, a determining) that is larger than them, as it were--something that makes of them a whole, but which is not merely a summation of them or even of the nature of an organic, part-whole relationship. Heidegger precisely describes this as the transcending (and not transcendental) essence of Dasein (or, more often, just Dasein's transcendence), which is quite accurate, because as we see, the ontological dimension which holds these elements together is only made up of these elements, and thus cannot be effective upon everything, universally: it is therefore a type of transcendence that goes against the very definition of the transcendental (it is finite), so another name must be sought out. Merleau-Ponty says that this transcendence or transcending is the "lining" of the elements like the lining of a jacket: it determines the contours of the elements but does not remain outside them, independently of them (he also calls it "the invisible"). Regardless, this transcending is the flip side, the negative of the determination of the arbitrary elements: it is the negative of a rich concept of structural signification which determines this signification as only existing insofar as its elements exist--and which is needed to bring this notion of signification really into its own.

Perhaps one of the best people to explain this is Louis Althusser, in Reading Capital. One can see there that, liberated from the Saussurian framework we can still have a structuralist analysis, because this negative phenomenon is thoroughly grasped. In this case it is Marxism that is grasped structurally--despite the fact that we lack any reference to signifiers and signifieds, or arbitrariness more generally: the mode of production there is the global structure that determines all the rest of Marxist phenomena (culture, ideology, relations of production, etc.). But the important thing is the structure's remaining a process of transcendence and not a universal transcendental status: in other words, its effectivity will not be able to be separated from the phenomena that make it up: it will not be anything apart from these, its (here, economic) expressions or effects:

The structure is not an essence outside the economic phenomena which comes and alters their aspect, forms and relations and which is effective on them as an absent cause, absent because it is outside them. The absence of the cause in the structure's "metonymic causality" on its effects is not the fault of the exteriorly of the structure with respect to the economic phenomena; on the contrary, it is the very form of the interiority of the structure, as a structure, in its effects. This implies therefore that the effects are not outside the structure, are not a preexisting object, element or space in which the structure arrives to imprint its mark: on the contrary, it implies that the structure is immanent in its effects, a cause immanent in its effects in the Spinozist sense of the term [that Althusser developed earlier], that the whole existence of the structure consists of its effects, in short that the structure, which is merely a specific combination of its peculiar elements, is nothing outside its effects.
-"Marx's Immense Theoretical Revolution," 188-89 (I've removed Althusser's italics and added my own--he significantly adds a footnote to the phrase "metonymic causality," which attributes it to Jacques-Alain Miller, who tries to characterize the causality Lacan recognizes in Freud.)

The phenomena which the structure structures precisely make up the structure: their existence is the condition of the structure's existence.

As I said, this is essentially the finitude of the transcendence of the structure that is involved. In Heidegger, the transcendence is precisely a function of the finitude of the phenomenon, as we saw but characterized only in a privative way by speaking of its non-universality. But more richly considered now, the this finitude is what makes determines the structure ultimately: the structure doesn't extend on and on in an infinite chain (the moving chain of signifiers in Lacan thus resists the structuralist mode of thinking the structure: the function of the Real is precisely developed to destroy the implications of this finitude), but remains a distinct entity which can be viewed, which can be seen existing, and which can therefore have limits insofar as the instances in which it makes its appearance or expresses itself are limited.

And it is this sense of finitude that is lacking in all the old talk about structuralism in the US. The idea came about that the structure lacked this finitude, and was therefore very ahistorical and all encompassing. And while this is true from a certain standpoint--insofar as the structure is considered finite and as something that exists--which is the standpoint precisely of the critiques of structuralism in France, in the US, without a sense of the finitude of the structure, this criticism seems to be more empty: it sounds like a criticism that can be levied against any method, which is that it pretends to a more universal or total set of ramifications, a universality or totality, than is always useful or safe. This also makes the post-structuralists just seem like a set of people reacting against structuralism (i.e., "post-structuralists," which is a uniquely Anglo-American name used to understand these people: they did not think of themselves as post-structuralists, as after anything). In other words, it inscribes structuralism into a uniquely Anglo-American progressivist timeline, one that allows people to talk about it as if it were yet another event in the history of ideas--and not a set of theoretical and methodological propositions which need to be dismantled from the inside. This would also explain the odd staying-power of structuralism: it would have staying-power insofar as these labels and names, these horribly inadequate (and usually pretentious) ways of thinking of ideas, would not have actually touched that to which they claim to refer.

In the end, the more and more this aspect of finitude gets recognized and developed now in the US (which I think it is), the richer and richer the understanding of structuralism becomes.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The becoming-(anthropomorphically)-animal (of man)

A long EGS seminar in which Derrida reads a fascinating paper on Deleuze collected in Derrida, Deleuze, Psychoanalysis: I've selected the best little bit, where the citation and situation of Deleuze really takes place, and the argument gathers itself together. Particularly brilliant is the association of con and bête: the former is "as untranslatable" as the other. That is, it is no accident that D&G say that anyone who likes animals is a fool precisely when, in the same network of problems or problematic, Deleuze will also talk about stupidity and the becoming-animal (which Derrida initially said was "untranslatable"). Con then appears at the same time related to this problematic and also as having other possible problems of its own (con is a word for genitalia in particular). It is as if, in other words, con repeats the problematic around bête, and yet is singular and thus totally unrelated to it. Thus, "as untranslatable" on the one hand, and "as untranslatable" on the other.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

More on translating "Fetishism"

So I finally got a copy of Graham Franklin's new translation of "Fetishism" for the 2002 volume of the New Penguin Freud, The Unconscious. I gotta say, while it improves somewhat grammatically over the previous versions--by Joan Rivere and James Strachey--it duplicates a lot of the errors in those versions and sometimes makes new mistakes I would have never thought possible. All in all, it's a missed opportunity for opening up what in German is a really striking verbal performance. Here I'll just go through and list the problematic points.
The whole rendering of the first paragraph is off, first and foremost. But what really irks me is that Franklin continues in the tradition of Rivere and Strachey in all three versions in botching the last sentence horribly. Freud says:
Der Fetish spielte also in der Regel die Rolle eines Nebenbefundes.

Which I'd translate roughly as:
As a rule, the fetish therefore plays the role of a incidental finding

Pretty simple, no? Well, Rivere says this (in the International Journal of Psycho-analysis, which you can find now in the handy volume edited by Rieff called The Psychology of Love):
As a rule, therefore, the fetish made its appearance in analysis as a subsidiary finding.

Strachey copies this in the Standard Edition version:
As a rule, therfore, the fetish made its appearance in analysis as a subsidiary finding.

And, to top it all off, there is Franklin:
As a rule, then, their fetish came to light only incidentally during analysis.

Why do all the English versions available get rid of the theatrical metaphor? Odd. It could be because I've got my grammar wrong, and somehow the verb (spielte) is working differently than I think it is... but that doesn't seem right. And why the addition of "in analysis" in all these versions? Both these moves seem to me unncessary, though Franklin actually quite nicely got himself out of the problem of trying to convey what a "Nebenbefundes" is--and this perhaps was a good choice.
Then there is the very crucial sentence about the penis' narcissism:
Nein, das kann nicht wahr sein, denn wenn das Weib kastriert ist, ist sein eigener Penisbesitz bedroht, und dagen sträubt sich das Stück Narzißmus, mit dem die Natur vorsorglich gerade dieses Organ ausgestattet hat.

Rivere, which despite his grammar distortions I like, because he is spirited:
No, that cannot be true, for if a woman can be castrated then his own penis is in danger; and against that there rebels part of his narcissism which Nature has providentially attached to this particular organ.

No, that could not be true: for if a woman had been castrated, then his own possession of a penis was in danger; and against that there rose in rebellion the portion of his narcissism which Nature has, as a precaution, attached to that particular organ.

No, this cannot be true, because if women have been castrated, then his own penis is in danger, and the piece of narcissism, with which nature providently equips this very organ, recoils at the thought.

What!! The penis is thinking!
Or, let me put it differently: everything in this sentence revolves around the "sträubt sich." In an effort to again dilute the resonances of this word, or perhaps convey these resonances in a different sense than Rivere and Strachey have--they have given it what is, I think, given the events in Red Vienna in 1927 (like the burning of the Palace of Justice)

a sort of political valence--Franklin has made it into a sort of colloquial phrase: "recoil at the thought." Even if recoiling is a bit better at communicating the sort of revulsion that verb implies, including "thought"--which is nowhere in the German--cancels out any progress that is thereby made. And "providently," on top of all this, is just unforgivable. "Providentially" is the only acceptable form of that word--otherwise Freud just sounds like he's a snooty Brit. I think Strachey is a bit better in rendering "vorsorglich" as "as a precaution," though this might be a bit more heavy and erase the type of agency that Freud is attributing to Ms. Natur. Nature acts with foresight, but also with care here. I'd render it as the following:
No, that can't be true, because if the woman is castrated, then his own penis is threatened, and counter to this there rioted that part of the narcissism with which nature has preventatively equipped exactly this organ.

But "preventatively" doesn't even really cut it. There's got to be a better solution, and Franklin just looks like he either tried too hard or not enough. I think if you play up the military metaphor--politics runs through this piece, as an essay of mine which you'll see here soon will try and show--and maybe say that Nature did not just "equip" the penis but in fact "outfitted it" (which also has the benefit of playing upon the clothing and performative register that we saw earlier at work), we could then perhaps make the "vorsorglich" a bit more mild, loving, caring: "which nature has, with foresight, outfitted exactly this organ"--or something to that effect. I'll also note there is huge confusion on "das Weib," and I think that Franklin's decision to go with just "women" is bold, especially because he doesn't (like any of the other translations) seem to get the tense right of the verb: what I (following my translating authority Sand Avidar-Walzer) think is "if the woman is castrated" becomes "if women have been castrated." I might in the end be convinced to go with the plain "woman" if Franklin changed the verb to "is."
I'll end up on a good note, though: Franklin has the best rendering in English of one of the most complicated sentences I think exists in all of Freud:
Der Hergang wer also der, daß der Knabe sich geweigert hat, die Tatsache seiner Wahrnemung, daß das Weib keinen Penis besitzt, zur Kenntnis zu nehmen.

I have this roughly as the following, which is just dry:
So what happened was that the boy refused to grasp his knowledge of the fact that he apprehends that the woman does not possess a penis.

Rivere tries his best:
What had happened, therefore, was that the boy had refused to take cognizance of the fact perceived by him that a woman has no penis.

Strachey follows this and ends up with something just as ugly:
What happened, therefore, was that the boy refused to take cognizance of the fact of his having perceived that a woman does not possess a penis.

And Franklin with unbelievable elegance solves the problem with a comma (and a colon, which is a bit much), which both duplicates the unsettledness the German creates but also keeps it just as clean:
What has happened, then, is this: the boy has refused to acknowledge the fact that he has perceived, that women have no penis.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Against the New Aestheticism

Perhaps one of the biggest things we're suffering from now in Anglo-American literary criticism is how little we know how to handle a post-hermeneutic mode of interpretation. That is, as we gather more and more of an idea of what post-hermeneutical criticism would actually look like, we are, at the same time, losing a sense of how older critical devices can be turned towards this new form of criticism (or how we can invent new devices out of old ones). In other words, it doesn't take as much effort as some people might think to use a device in a post-hermeneutical way. So what is betrayed is not a lack of knowledge about what interpretation would be like without hermeneutics, but a lack of knowledge about how this new interpretation really is already at work in many ways in what we do already.
We generally know now, I think, that there are several forms this post-hermeneutic interpretation would look. The clearest example--that is, the one that is easiest for us to wrap our head around as far as how its post-hermeneutic operations look--is a sociology of literature: here what is at issue is nothing about the meaning of a text, but how that text fits into a system that produces that meaning as an effect of its (the system's) operation. It does this little switcharoo, however, without trying to say that the system is any more viable a source of meaning than the text: this is what makes it less hermeneutically invested--it doesn't try to find a real sphere where meaning originates. The post-hermeneutic act of interpretation, then, is in the laying out of the system. Franco Moretti gives us some very clear examples of what this work of elaboration can involve: making graphs or maps of data (how many copies sold, where, how, etc.) or just simply the explanation of the paths between these pieces of data.
What Moretti doesn't tell you, though, is that we do this already, sometimes, in hermeneutic interpretation. We just don't emphasize it, or really work on it for its own sake. When I write an essay about a book, I organize whatever I find out about it. A lot of the work of my hermeneutic effort depends on this organization. But I eventually use it for hermeneutic ends. And because I do so--and here is why my hermeneutic effort will look a lot different than Moretti's--I confine myself to the work that exposes sites of meaning. And these tend to be internal to the text (or intrinsic, to use the old term). And even when they are extrinsic (sales figures, etc.), they tend not to extend themselves out into networks that aren't subordinated to the intrinsic work of the book. They therefore don't give us a wide ranging study of the networks themselves--studies like Pascal Casanova's.
But this presence of the post-hermeneutic in the hermeneutic should be kept in mind, I think. For what happens when this isn't recognized is you get post-hermeneutic critics trying to just pick up the hermeneutic devices without caring about how they have to modify them to be post-hermeneutic. In other words, they just use all the old devices and say they are not unlocking meaning with them--and in a lot of cases, we just have to take them on their word that they are doing this. This is how that odd phenomenon that I will call the New Aestheticism--a phenomenon that is catching on--works. New Aestheticist critics (I have Michael D. Hurley in mind, but also bits of Stanley Fish and even Eve Sedgwick) use certain ambiguous but old and commonsense categories like "feeling" or "pleasure" (as in, how does that poem make you feel?) to try and 1) integrate these maligned phenomena back into the work of interpretation (which is laudable) and 2) make these phenomena into a sort of unmeaning excess that is the only point of the text. Not only does the second aim completely undo what would have been the laudable aspects of first (it effectively maligns affect yet again--and I think this is pretty unforgivable, because at the same time these people act as if their crusade in the name of affect makes them a morally justified), the second point really misunderstands what post-hermeneutic interpretation is about. That is, the second point proceeds as if post-hermeneutic interpretation is only the act of pointing out that the only meaning of a text is a non-meaning. In other words, the Aestheticists think that if you come up with a sort of moment where what is at work is something vague (unelaborated) like a pleasure (individual or collective), and then say that all the text does is produce this, you've canceled out any particular hermeneutical work you've done along the way--and that this cancelling out is the goal of post-hermeneutic discourse. But it's evident that this isn't really talking about pleasure (it's talking about meaning) and it isn't really post-hermeneutic, because it doesn't--like the graphs do--use any devices as post-hermeneutic devices. It uses them as hermeneutic devices and then tries to subtract their work.
The real problem would be precisely finding out how these old hermeneutic devices look when they operate in a post-hermeneutic way--and how they have to maintain themselves to keep working, i.e. what demands they make or compromises they have to bring about on the part of the critic. This is what I find in the work of some (and only some) deconstruction: in this area, we have close reading without its hermeneutic goal--close reading that doesn't bring out any meanings but instead organizes a text differently than before. To think about the micro-elements that make up this work of reorganization, and how they must work if they themselves do not produce meaning--this is what deconstruction is, and what makes it a neat site of (still pretty intrinsic, unfortunately) criticism that tries to negotiate these problems, not run away from them.
Or rather, act like it is too in the right to deal with them. For the real bad thing is these New Aestheticists have the gall to attack other post-hermeneutic modes of criticism: they yell at the New Formalism, which has these post-hermeneutic tendencies (especially when it becomes Derridian), and against the sociology of literature people. This is partially because the New Aestheticism becomes merely intrinsic again, shutting itself off from a lot of "statements about society," as it might call the result of these other forms of interpretation--while modestly claiming that it wouldn't presume that it was able to say anything with that weight (when it is in reality presuming twice as much and is half as moral). Most often, though, they yell at "theory." Theory--and what to them is its sidekick, cultural criticism--was nothing other than the subordination of post-hermeneutical efforts (the work of Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, etc.) to hermeneutic ends. Theory is the mistake that the New Aestheticst's approach will reverse by focusing on more traditional, but more overlooked (in the recent years of theory's wildness, particularly due to its fascination with politics) elements of the text.
I'd contest the idea that theory worked this way, however. This seems only to describe bad theory--which is just bad literary criticism in general. Theory might have worked precisely as a way for people to organize their ideas in a post-hermeneutic way. It did this not by actually carrying out what the post-hermeneutic authors that were its progenitors (Derrida, etc.) were saying, but it sort of met them half way by deploying something similar of its own.
For when we talk theory, we are usually describing something we could talk about in a different way. Theory is a sort of shorthand, in most cases, for concepts of interpretation that are often different than those of old (those of the New Criticism). I might say that the particular moment in this text reminds us of Lacan's mirror stage, which I would then outline... and this would be a theoretical remark. I can even use one theorist and then another: the mirror stage can be imbued, here, in this textual instance, with a sort of Foucauldian power... This is the way theorists often talked, and often confused ideas--as the New Aestheticists would say. I'd say instead that while this was a confusion, it was doing something more as well. This sort of shorthand allowed one to proceed more and more without reference to meaning insofar as it originated in the text itself. One could be led, then, from theorist to theorist--submitting the text to the play of this sort of parallel interpretation that was going on. For what happened was the theorists would be elucidated with respect to each other, fit together in new and interesting ways. Or at least one theorists ideas, reified by this process, would be made to work in odd ways that perhaps, if they were submitted to some ideal of systamaticity (or even to the rules of organic, philosophical thought, which theory does not follow), or even to the rest of the system from which they originated, would not have occurred to anyone. In other words, what happened was that the text got related and referred to a discourse that was developing alongside it. And what this did was pry away the interpretive effort from the hermeneutical effort in the first place. This is what theory did, I think, and it is the only way that a more rigorously post-hermeneutical discourse can now (in the Anglophone world) be taken up. Theory, then, was a post-hermeneutical modification of one of the basic tools in the hermeneutical toolkit: the reference to an authority, usually philosophical. This work of reference was made to work in and of itself, and forgo its capability for elucidating the text. The authority would then merely cohabit the interpretive essay with the text, and at this point--though it also was sustained by a huge academic regime, and this I would say was a very bad step--would be working out what interpretation was like without opening up a meaning in the text.
So far from being a mistake, theory was what makes the discourse of the New Aestheticists possible, and may have even operated in a similar way to other forms of post-heremeneutic criticism. What it didn't do, though, was make the post-hermeneutic use of interpretive devices seem easy, which is practically the only thing the New Aestheticism does (although I'd say this only of some theory, in the end: theory also did this, and thus actually made possible the New Aestheticist fascination with canceling out its hermeneutical work--just look at Spivak and her fascination with writing under-erasure and you will see this is the real goal of that erasure). The focus on pleasure, the focus on the excessive feeling that a text gives you, when this is considered as non-meaning, does not give us anything in itself. As I said, it even erases what is left of any conception of pleasure that we have--and it is dependent upon preserving the ambiguousness and thus the maligned and ostracized status of pleasure. (So to the idea of pleasure or feeling that this criticism employs must be opposed, precisely, Raymond Williams' idea of structures of feeling--an idea that has affinities with a sociology of literature.)
Allowing a mere descriptive work of interpretation, a phenomenology without a point (phenomenology's strength is that it invokes the ideal, the invisible), this New Aestheticism should be avoided. Above all, it forgoes the need to explain more what is theoretically advantageous about its conception of pleasure, or even to look into its origins (Hurley, for one, is completely anti-scientific and would resist this project). Without a more elaborated notion of what pleasure is, about what will be cancelled out by the work of the New Aestheticist criticism--and, for that matter, the work of cancellation itself, which is merely effected by the reference to a vague notion of pleasure now--all we have in the end is one of those old vague analyses of style, or, even worse, something like a book club. It is not that literary criticism has to be submitted to the rigors of scientificity--and this is really what the New Aestheticism rejects, not hermeneutics (but passes its opposition for the former off for opposition to the latter). It is just that what this idea of scientificity allows is rational discourse, discourse that is sustained by discussion and by the articulation of points. And this is not in opposition to a post-hermeneutic project. The idea that it is, that we can only have a discussion that operates post-hermeneutically if it is not submitted to the rigors of articulated discourse--this is what is at the heart of this turn back to the excess of (this made-up and unstructured conception of) pleasure, of feeling.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

A bit on photography: digital ghosts

If the old photograph rendered its subject spectral, as Walter Benjamin never tired of emphasizing, and which the spirit photographers of the late 19th century literalized, I feel like the average little digital photos we take now on our simple digital cameras (preferably on a night out) show us (again?) that this spectralization was always filtered through the technical. Put more clearly, while the spirit photos of the late 19th century literalized the spectrality of a technology, the pleasure we take in many digital photos now is one of literalizing the technical nature of this spectrality. This is a pleasure that will probably disappear very soon with the advancing sophistication in digital cameras, but still remains most visible in pictures of the night.

Here I just want to call attention to the fact that we might be almost at the end of this interesting period in photography--as I'm sure many people more specialized in the field than me have probably noted. It is not unlike the end of the era of 8-bit images, which we now nostalgically look back at. These are, incidentally, captured well by Michael Wolf in his monumental The Transparent City: the grid-like structures provided by buildings (which were much more oppressive in his The Architecture of Density)

here are able to be filled in, just like in any little 8-bit graphic. Accordingly the detail shots of the people who inhabit these buildings are extremely pixelated:

The particular inability of the digital image to capture phenomena, however,--and especially at night--which produces a clearer image in some parts and a longer-image exposure in other areas, along with the play of light and even the iridescent vein-like outlines and scale-like squares of compression will perhaps be gone soon too, only to make a comeback. The pictures allow us the sense that the disoriented feeling, that ghostlike feeling, of life is not just due to the fact that death inhabits it--this was spirit-photography's point. What digital photos allowed was the sense that this death in life was technical, was due to the immense amount of mediation that our experience has undergone in the last few years.
At least this is the only way I can explain the amazing fact that over the years as the technology has gotten better these phenomena of the digital photo became more fun to see. As cameras adjusted the image already as you were taking it to stabilize it and prevent problems of underexposure and blurring, one began to take pictures in such a way that one was negotiating with the camera, working with and against it, in an extremely organic way. The pleasure you took in the odd blurred photo then (which was only blurred in certain areas to a certain degree), was in the fact that something could escape and emerge out of this dance. But the fact was that at the same time what emerged would have to be even more technical, or produced by the errors and creativity in the technology. That is, taking pictures became more than ever relating to the abstractness of the machine which actually performed it. The surprising over-exposure, or underexposure, or blur, would be brought to you the more arbitrarily and randomly the you manipulated the device. In short, what is special to to this particular digital image, I think, is that the texture of the photo is brought out, often, but not on the surface, like it is in wonderful gritty (and undersaturated) photos of New York, for example, in the 70's.

In the digital photos the texture is, because it originates in the back and forth in the algorithms and not in the actual mechanisms of the camera, more tightly imbricated with the particular objects photographed. The texture, the surprise, is more in the things than in the medium. And what's more, its totally without pretension, without setup. (The use of the flash gets rid of this effect sometimes while keeping, or perhaps even emphasizing, the hand-held nature--American Apparel figured this out, taking it, of course, from amateur porn. The processing of the camera that is involved without the flash seems to take longer and be more involved, thus becoming more and more technical. Flash brings back the surface, in other words.)
Perhaps this is due to the fact that what was being integrated into these photos was not the eye, but the hand--digital photography became, as it became more handheld (like it did with the 35mm cameras of old), a more bodily experience. This would correspond with the notion that the technical mediation of experience was everywhere, or is at least more tactile, and therefore not just in the eye. Regardless, photos such as the one above--someone else's experiences in Paris that I just stumbled upon randomly--and some like the following

will remain my favorites long after the stabilization techniques overtake our ability to work against them (and with them) manually, thus making all the images of night fixed and clear.