Friday, October 30, 2009

Weak theory

I said last time that while I find Eve Sedgwick's position in her essay "Paranoid Reading, Reparative Reading" extremely problematic--largely because of her unquestioning (and, indeed, last ditch) commitment to close reading, her authoritative, hyper-moralistic, and accusatory tone, and her general feeling that "big thoughts" are really irrelevant--I'm confident one suggestion of hers is extremely valuable. This is that theory needs to become what she calls "weak theory," following Silvan Tomkins.

Tomkins opposes weak theories to "humiliation theories," or "strong theories." He uses the word "humiliation" because a strong theory tries to account for every relevant phenomenon that pops up and might contradict its claims, thereby continuously anticipating its own failure. To counter this, the theory grows even more expansive, trying to explain and connect more and more extant cases and demonstrate how other theories are insufficient. The theory humiliates because it tries to stave off being humiliated.

Sedgwick explains:

As this account suggests, far from becoming stonger through obviating or alleviating humiliation, a humiliation theory becomes stronger exactly insofar as it fails to do so. Tomkins's conclusion is not that all strong theory is ineffective--indeed, it may grow to be only too effective--but that "affect theory must be effective to be weak."
-"Paranoid Reading, Reparative Reading," in Touching Feeling, 134

The point is that affect theory, which seeks to recognize more than just the cardboard-cutouts that are the simply positive and simply negative affects (love, hate), must have done its work on the theorist in order for any alternative to strong theories to present itself. That is, we must have cultivated a more sophisticated relationship to feeling, must have diversified our experience of emotion, in order to be able to create theories that do not constantly humiliate and end up humiliated.

This important for Sedgwick not only because she thinks that criticism at this juncture works too easily off of negative affect--stirring up bad feelings in order to use bad feelings against what makes us feel bad--but also because she believes theory can anticipate other things than failure all of the time.

This, I think, is an extremely useful thought, even if I also believe that Sedgwick's sense of what is indeed possible with theory remains extremely narrow, and that this in turn causes her to (unsuccessfully) try to humiliate D.A. Miller. Miller's expansive and truly excellent study, The Novel and the Police, is, along with Judith Butler's pathbreaking Gender Trouble, Sedgwick's exemplary paranoid critical text. And, when it comes time to stop accusing it of being paranoid, and praise Miller's work for what it anticipates besides the failure of its own project, Sedgwick only points to generally aesthetic aspects of the theoretical text:

I don't suppose that too many readers--nor, for that matter, perhaps the author--would be too surprised to hear it noted that the main argument or strong theory of The Novel and the Police is entirely circular: everything can be understood as an aspect of the carceral, therefore the carceral is everywhere. But who reads The Novel and the Police to find out whether its main argument is true? In this case, as also frequently in the case of the tautologies of "sexual difference" [her description of what Judith Butler does in Gender Trouble] the very breadth of reach that makes the theory strong also offers the space--of which Miller's book takes every advantage--for a wealth of tonal nuance, attitude, wordily observation, performative paradox, aggression, tenderness, wit, inventive reading, obiter dicta, and writerly panache. These rewards are so local and frequent that one might want to say that a plethora of only loosely related weak theories has been invited to shelter in the hypertrophied embrace of the book's overarching strong theory.
-"Paranoid Reading, Reparative Reading," in Touching Feeling, 135-6

It should be obvious that not only does this description damn by faint praise, as well as turn Miller's main argument into a joke, but also end up portraying Miller's lengthy readings of Collins, Dickens, Trollope, and others (the majority of the book) basically as filler. These readings, in the end, are only good for their production of what Sedgwick later calls a "glue" forming between their many words, made up "of surplus beauty, surplus stylistic investment, unexplained upwellings of threat, contempt, and longing" ("Paranoid Reading," 150).

Now, yes, it perhaps is also seems reductive to describe Sedgwick's interest in this surplus of feeling, skill, and beauty as interest in the merely "aesthetic" aspects of Miller's text, as I have done. But, when isolated from the involved and important arguments that make up the book, this glue is aesthetic, and even the feelings themselves are made into mere contributions to readerly enjoyment. For Sedgwick, the weak elements of Miller's text do not just resist the anticipation of his theory's failure--they confine themselves to anticipating nothing except the end of theory itself (and I'd read this phrase in the most expansive way) in pure writerly creation. Against this, can't we see how Miller's theories might be anticipating something different? And indeed, something that, seen against what the book is actually arguing, isn't as humiliating?

Now, I take the time to point out this (attempted) humiliation of Miller because I think there is a crucial place for negativity in criticism: when someone is doing something wrong, we should point it out, explain it, and oppose it. Negativity especially has its place in the inflection of explanation and opposition: it produces a movement which allows the unfolding of the position in question to produce one's distance from that position, thereby making room for a thicker--not thinner--account of what gets opposed (which might not even be the position itself, but what it entails). And here, considering Sedgwick's reading of Miller, where there is the temptation to enact her positive alternative that is being theorized in order to prove the validity of that alternative, and where the questioning of so many key aspects of theory itself occurs, I think it is especially important to show where Sedgwick is also going wrong, rather than accept such a characterization of Miller. I'm being so negative, in short, because being negative can help us preserve what is positive here--and indeed make the realm of the positive more expansive than Sedgwick is here making it.

For, as we said, positive affects, when aligned to weak theory, don't just involve that "wealth of tonal nuance," or indeed that "glue of surplus beauty, surplus stylistic investment." In fact, they might also involve what Sedgwick later calls "nonce taxonomies:"

There are important phenomenological and theoretical tasks that can be accomplished only through local theories and nonce taxonomies...
-"Paranoid Reading, Reparative Reading," in Touching Feeling, 145

And these, most importantly, don't produce rewards that, in their authotelic, aesthetic perfection are only "local and frequent." Nonce taxonomies can, in other words, outlive their immediate present. Thus I think we can use what Jameson says about how we should judge the political effectivity of Utopias--

In the case of Utopian texts, the most reliable political test lies not in any judgment on the individual work in question so much as in its capacity to generate new ones...
-Archaeologies of the Future, xv

--and also apply to judging the theoretical yield of weakness--instead of Sedgwick's aesthetic test. For when a weak theory remains weak, and yet also can proliferate by an process where its local use is unexpectedly displaced into another locality (as I am doing with Jameson right here), it becomes a nonce taxonomy twice over. In other words, instead of judging the yield of weak theory by itself, as we would a (individual, high-modernist, Proustian--all qualifiers that enthralled Sedgwick) artwork, we should perhaps think its potential differently. That is, we should consider its potential as more than in its its ability to resist, by the self-confining gesture of rolling into a ball of pure "panache," any and all diffusion beyond the local, any and all spilling over the borders of feeling and the realm of beauty into an area of writing that expands, connects, and attempts to account for various cases--like argument (on this point, I think it is extremely significant that Tomkins distinction is about scientific theories: in English, our theories have never been that strong, and Sedgwick's need to think that they are makes her opposition to the expansive and totalizing almost seem phobic). In other words, we should see that if weak theory can anticipate something other than its own failure, this means that a theory could anticipate its success precisely in its expansion and expandability in a way similar to these "nonce taxonomies"--and thus all theoretical expansion cannot simply equatable with a process of becoming strong, as Sedgwick, by making the only other possibility of anticipation a local and aesthetic one, would have it.

It's in this way that even a dialectical criticism--surely something that involves "big thoughts"--might become weak or weaken, perhaps precisely through that process of pushing towards closure that, following Jameson, I described last time.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


Always historicize? What could have less to do with historicizing than the commanding, atemporal adverb "always"? It reminds me of the bumper stickers that instruct people in other cars to "Question Authority." Excellent advice, perhaps wasted on anyone who does whatever they're ordered to do by a strip of paper glued to an automobile!
-Eve Sedgwick, Touching Feeling, 125

I've always thought this remark of Sedgwick's demonstrates most concretely the misreading of "Jameson's Imperative" so very prevalent wherever his work is considered. The phrase "Always historicize!" is to be taken dialectically, as is clear from the opening of The Political Unconscious in which it first appears:

Always historicize! This slogan--the one absolute and we may even say "transhistorical" imperative of all dialectical thought--will unsurprisingly turn out to be the moral of The Political Unconscious as well.
-The Political Unconscious, 9

One is tempted, in the end, to rewrite Jameson's "we may even say" the other way around. For what gets missed by someone like Sedgwick is that this imperative is also "the one absolute." This means that we have to read such a statement as already expressing a contradiction. Thus the "always" is not to be seen as atemporal, and blindly used as "proof" that the motto's inconsistency is fatal to its integrity. Yet you see that this is what Sedgwick does, planted firmly as she is in the stance of reflection. Indeed, if we view things rightly, we see that Jameson calls it an imperative only in order to anticipate his anti-dialectical readers precisely on this point, to try and get them to actually think the contradiction (this is also why he uses transhistorical, in quotes). Instead, they bastardize the contradiction and act as if Jameson is accountable for it.

There's good reason, however, for this situation. One doesn't point at an inconsistency in the dialectic and say "Gotcha!" just because one takes it reflectively. Rather, it comes from a distrust in general concerning what we might call the dialectical reversal--that shift in emphasis caused by the turning of things into what they weren't supposed not to be. This reversal is, for Jameson, never an instance of something local multiplying relations, inflecting things slightly differently--however quietly it may occur. The tortuous paths that Hegel traces while turning quality into quantity may seem to involve extremely small points (how did we end up discussing gravity?), but these points never reverse things because they are local. Rather, the reversal occurs when something larger comes to force things to put up or shut up, to move towards definite closure--as Jameson always excellently puts it.

It is an intolerance of this sort of pressure from closure
, of the totality bearing down on the instance, that then makes us avoid the reversal. Or, as Jameson would rather describe it, a general jadedness with respect to such massive structures--a belief in their irrelevance and even a feeling that they are not interesting, or only are interesting to moralists (who love their generalizations). Indeed, a sense that Jameson's writings are always heavyhanded, that they carry their lesson, seems to float around in discussions of him. We certainly see this in the quote from Sedgwick, who sticks him on that bumper. Personally, I find Jameson much lighter in tone than that.

It's rather those with the unconditional regard for the local who seem to me to couch things in moralistic terms (respect the particular!), in order to emphasize how something can ever have effects beyond the local context. Thus, it's no accident that Sedgwick invokes close reading at the end of that essay where she dismisses historicizing and advocates, instead, weak theory (a promising notion that I'll return to sometime):

What could better represent "weak theory, little better than a description of the phenomena which it purports to explain," than the devalued and near obsolescent New Critical skill of imaginative close reading?
-Touching Feeling, 145

There's the moralistic insistence that the focus which never goes beyond its immediate context is, paradoxically, obsolescent, tougher to do than it sounds, nearly impossible. It's no matter that close reading has from the beginning been "devalued," or rather an attempt to make such attention virtuous (as D.A. Miller rightly argues). Seen beside the dismissal of Jameson's "always," we see that close
reading ends up as something like a mere refuge for those who distrust that total shift of emphasis.

At the same time, though, I wonder whether the reversal merits this distrust when dialectic becomes identified with something like what Zizek does. For while everyone seems to worry whether Zizek does violence to the object by ramming it through the dialectic, I'd rather take a Jamesonian stance and wonder whether the victim of Zizek's dialectic is the dialectic itself. Why? Though it reverses things, the dialectic doesn't take up whatever it finds and proceed to turn it around. Such a maneuver may be necessary to get the wheels going, but it amounts to the same thing, really, as "imaginative close reading" and stems from the same overemphasis on the particular--or inability to see the totality. The Frankfurt School did much to widen the gap between the local and the total, and provide many intermediaries--such as constellations--that could allow you to move more carefully from one to the other: Zizek would benefit from using them, because
rather than imposing too much of something external on the content, his moves simply are not formal enough. This is why Jameson explains dialectic as something like forcing a closure--the reversal has to come from elsewhere and the effort to get there. And this is also why it doesn't resemble a shock or short-circuit (as Zizek calls it) so much as a different emphasis.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Drills and hammers

I may use an electric drill, but I also use a hammer. The former is thirty-five years old, the latter hundreds of thousands. Will you see me as a DIY expert "of contrasts" because I mix up gestures from different times? Would I be an ethnographic curiosity? On the contrary: show me an activity that is homogeneous from the point of view of the modern time. Some of my genes are 500 million years old, others 3 million, others 100,000 years, and my habits range in age from a few days to several thousand years. As Péguy's Clio said, and as Michel Serres repeats, "we are exchangers and brewers of time." It is this exchange that defines us, not the calendar or the flow that the moderns had constructed for us. Pile up the burgraves one behind the other, and you will still not have time. Go down sideways to grab hold of the event of Cherobino's death in its intensity, and time will be given to you.
-Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, 75

One of my favorite little bits from Latour, which I'll be posting on next week on our reading group's website: This week, we're discussing The Pasteurization of France, or Pasteur: Guerre et Paix des microbes (Evan has already rightly pointed out how the weirdly bland English version covers up a central question of the work: as Evan puts it, "how essential are agonistic and adversarial metaphors to a sociological understanding of reality?") and Science in Action. This is just to say, our little adventure with Latour has started, after a couple weeks of book-accumulation.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Paul Fry's Theory Course

Here is an absolute treat: Paul Fry's introduction to the theory of literature course, both in podcast and video format here at Yale's Open Courses website. If you want to know what literary theory is (whether you are in literature or in another discipline), go to this site and listen to the courses (or read the nice transcripts). I've been fortunate enough to meet Fry and see him in action, and can say that he is simply the person to go to on this subject. Why? Not only because he is eloquent, quite the theoretician himself, and an immensely skilled reader (like Empson, whom he has written on extensively), but also because he has an amazing knowledge of the history of our discipline and the history of interpretation in general, and this is absolutely essential for understanding--especially at this juncture--why we do theory. In other words, I don't really think you can talk about literary theory (whether within our discipline or outside it, whether for it or against it) if you don't understand this history, and, like Fry, grasp theory through it. It simply won't make sense: all its elements will appear only externally related, and the whole ensemble will appear more extensive and less inclusive and ultimately less concerned with the literary than it really is. And, on this point, you also can't really talk about theory unless, at the same time as you articulate theory historically, you discuss literature and especially literary form. For form is ultimately a much tougher thing to grasp than you might think--in fact, I'd say it is the toughest thing, and only the most sophisticated critics can keep something so basic in their sights (while nearly anyone can pick a "representation" or a theme or even a code and follow it through exemplary texts). And it is here that Fry is incomparable: anyone can theorize in the abstract and juxtapose various systems, but Fry brings up fundamental questions that keep our theory literary and show us why literary critics have always done theory in one form or another.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

On tenor and vehicle

I wonder whether our discussions of metaphor have become a bit sloppy. When we find metaphor being treated merely like logic, as in the work of Paul de Man, something has gone wrong. We then take the metaphor as a unit, and, if we don't completely overlook its internal complexities (treating it as rhetoric in the abstract), open the door for all sorts of mistakes in actually determining how the figure is working (accepting any grammatical work at all as metaphoric). This probably extends to how de Man treats all figures, but I'd like to stick to metaphor, because so many others tend to treat it in his fashion.

Of course, I can say that things have become sloppy because we literary critics once (in our readings) had a very precise way of talking about the internal aspects of metaphor: through the distinction between tenor and vehicle. And while this famous formulation of I.A. Richards presented in The Philosophy of Rhetoric ends up being put to ends much too formalist and too psychological, one has to recognize that it seems sophisticated in comparison to how de Man talks about the figure (for example, in his analysis of passages of Proust in Allegories of Reading, or even his strained reading of the word "translucent" in the famous essay "The Rhetoric of Temporality").

So what are the tenor and vehicle? They are the elements of the metaphor, its two components. This is the first and most fundamental point which must be understood: the metaphor is the name for the copresence of the two elements in the form of the two sets of ideas being related, and never is reducible to either one. For it is still (still!) common to say that the figure itself is the second element, the vehicle.

Let me use an example: when I say that my love is a red red rose (to modify Burns a bit), taking the metaphor as the vehicle would mean saying that the red rose is the only thing in the sentence that is metaphoric. Richards' real innovation is to understand that this requires my love to be unmetaphoric, or the literal, plain meaning which the rose simply embellishes.

Now, this might seem exactly right with the use of a simile: what is the rose here doing except embellishing, coloring the woman, my love? But extend it to any more complicated (and normal) form of a metaphor and you immediately get confusion: when I talk about how the morning sun kisses the mountainside (as Shakespeare does in his 33rd sonnet), or even how my dessert is kissed with honey, we're not using using kiss to embellish some plain meaning.

Yes, we could explain what we mean otherwise--a small amount of honey is delicately added to my dessert--and thereby act as if the plain meaning is being added to by some fancy-schmancy language. But to do this, look at what is necessary: an expansion of the vehicle, not explaining the plain meaning which this vehicle supposedly embellishes, the tenor. In other words, we have moved over to what we're calling metaphor itself (and what is really the vehicle) in order to retain some notion that there is a sense (a tenor) which is unmetaphoric. We have made precisely what we called metaphoric (and is really the vehicle) into something other than a metaphor in order to explain how it (the vehicle) is metaphoric (as a mere embellishment)!

It makes sense, then, to change this situation and say that what we're calling metaphoric is only one part of the metaphor: the vehicle. For once we do this, in explaining the vehicle we can still say that we are explaining a metaphor--we don't have to literalize what is metaphoric in order to prove its metaphoricity. This is the brilliance of Richards' distinction: it recognizes the way we are looking at the problem in the process of our reading and, by giving us a clearer terminology, actually allows us to continue what we're doing, but much more precisely. He calls this a process of translating our skill into observation and theory, by which he means making our skill in reading and deciphering the problem explicit so as to refine it. And this is an alternative to what people still do when unable to articulate how their precise readerly observations come from more than just mere insight: fetishize the skill, turn it into the mysteious capacity that only a few distinguished individuals possess. Richards, yes, came up with the phrase "close reading," but he uses it in the exact opposite way of those who talk about Derrida, for example, as an "extremely close reader."

If we say that the metaphor involves the copresence of the tenor and the vehicle, then, we can begin to investigate the different ways this copresence takes place. We can talk about the different interactions of the tenor and vehicle, and see that embellishment is only one possible relation between the two. We can even begin to make sense of what at first appear like limit cases, because, with a recognition of the vehicle as vehicle, the tenor becomes much more expansive than "plain meaning." No longer identified with such meaning, it can become even something as generally unmeaningful as the excuse for merely using a vehicle.

In Shelley (I'm thinking of Epipsychidion especially) we have a lot of the this latter phenomenon, along with the layering of metaphors (the use of a vehicle as a tenor for another vehicle) which Richards' vocabulary also allows us to explain. However, Richards' example is John Denham's description of the Thames in what is usually called the first locodescriptive poem, "Cooper's Hill" (1642)--an example which Samuel Johnson, in his Life of the poet, praises:

O could I flow like thee, and make thy stream
My great exemplar as it is my theme!
Though deep, yet clear; though gentle, yet not dull;
Strong without rage; without o'erflowing, full.

No doubt Johnson had other reasons for liking this (its intense reliance on parallelism, that great mechanism of Johnsonian thinking), but he says that it is good because "the particulars of the resemblance are so perspicaciously collected." We'll come back to this in a moment, but for now, let us see how Richards explains what is really the tenuousness of the relationship between the tenor ("I," or, as Richards says, the poet's mind) and the vehicle (the river) in the last lines and its development of what at first appears to be "a limit case" of metaphor:

The more carefully and attentively we go over the senses and implications of deep, clear, gentle, strong and full as they apply to a stream and to a mind [...] the more will the vehicle, the river, come to seem an excuse for saying about the mind something which could not be said about the river. Take deep. Its main implications as regards a river are, "not easily crossed, dangerous, navigable, and suitable for swimming, perhaps." As applied to a mind, it suggests "mysterious, a lot going on, rich in knowledge and power, not easily accounted for, acting from serious and important reasons." What the lines say of the mind is something that does not come from the river. But the river is not a mere excuse, or a decoration only, a gilding of the moral pill. The vehicle is still controlling the mode in which the tenor forms. That appears at once if we try replacing the river with, say, a cup of tea!
-The Philosophy of Rhetoric, 122-23

Richards then quotes again the last two lines just to show you:

Though deep, yet clear; though gentle, yet not dull;
Strong without rage; without o'erflowing, full.

If the vehicle used here was tea, and not a river, the lines obviously become ridiculous: while a tea can be strong, and while a cup of tea can deep and full (without overflowing, or rather spilling!), no one would say it is "strong without rage" unless they were using the vehicle to give us a better sense of how a mind works. Thus, we can see that a river is a better vehicle than a cup of tea. That is, the vehicle is still related to the tenor, developing it, even if it has come so far away from the tenor that "what the lines say of the mind is something that does not come from the river." The tenor, then, is no longer a sort of pure meaning which the vehicle modifies, but something which, precisely "forms" as the vehicle "controls" it.

Thus the relationship between the tenor and vehicle can modulate to accommodate, on the one hand, a situation where the vehicle merely develops what is already pretty apparent in the tenor, and, at the other, a situation (this one here) where the vehicle takes up senses that do not resemble the tenor at all but which still lend it a more powerful meaning.

And with this we can turn back to Johnson. The vehicle we see, doesn't have to have any "perspicaciously" achieved "resemblance" to the tenor at all: Richards takes up this example to show that what Johnson praises about the relationship between tenor and vehicle ultimately would have to make the vehicle still embellish the tenor, and restrict the tenor only to something like the plain meaning underlying the vehicle. Rather, resemblance is only one way in which the tenor and vehicle can be achieved, just as embellishment is only one way in which the tenor and vehicle can relate. More often, there will be a process where the vehicle simply modifies or qualifies the tenor in the way that the vehicle of the river does here.

To describe this relation more adequately, Richards begins to supplement his original schema.  At present, we have simply the following:


tenor + vehicle

Now, Richards introduces another concept, the "ground" of the metaphor. Most accounts of Richards' distinction leave this out, though it only describes more clearly what we have been talking about concerning the resemblance of the vehicle to the tenor. The ground of the metaphor is merely the presence of a tenor-vehicle relation, which is most "solid" (or the least "recondite," as Richards will say, 117) in the form of resemblance. Thus, where we have a vehicle that relates to the tenor in the form of resemblance, the metaphor has a ground. And where we have a metaphor where the vehicle is controlling the mode in which the tenor forms, but not by bringing out something that resembles the tenor, the metaphor has less ground (i.e. the metaphor is more ungrounded). A particularly common form of metaphor where there is less ground is found in instances where we call someone a "pig," for example, if we are disgusted by them. There is no relationship of resemblance, but there is a sort of commonality between the tenor and vehicle here which ultimately is the function of the ground: it is the common characteristic that sets up a relation between tenor and vehicle. However, this commonality is not in directly mimetic terms, so there seems to be less ground. Instead, there is only a commonality in terms of how we feel about the person and how we feel about pigs.

So, to reiterate, where the relation of the tenor to the vehicle is one of resemblance, there is ground. Where there is less of this type of relation, there is less ground--though the ground still hasn't disappeared. However, we see now that in neither case are we talking about the relation of the tenor and vehicle solely in terms of each other, so we can easily admit what we previously had to talk about as "limit cases" as what they really are: basically normal metaphors. The "limit cases" are normalized, not in order to disturb our assumption that we talk in plain language most of the time (though this view of metaphor will allow us to see "most sentences in free or fluid discourse turn out to be metaphoric," and that "literal language is rare," 120), but to be truer to the way metaphor is used, which is often not at all like a simile--that is, as an embellishment. So, let's modify the schema, incorporating Richards' changes:


tenor ↔ vehicle

With this fully developed model, Richards is in fact able to tackle the famous table leg. Leg of a table is generally recognized to be not really a good, pure metaphor, but a catachresis. However, as the catachresis is usually defined as a failed metaphor, we have to actually explain on what basis we would call the leg of a table a leg. No one, however, ever explains this, except by saying that the metaphor is a dead one (which doesn't tell us much)... no doubt because it is simply easier to say why the leg fails as a metaphor (tables aren't human!). Richards, however, with his more developed schema, is able to explain why it is a metaphor quite clearly:

Let me begin now with the simplest, most familiar case of verbal metaphor--the leg of a table for example. We call it dead but it comes to life very readily. Now how does it differ from a plain or literal use of the word, in the leg of a horse, say? The obvious difference is that the leg of a table has only some of the characteristics of the leg of the horse. A table does not walk with its legs; they only hold it up and so on. In such a case we call the common characteristics the ground of the metaphor. Here we can easily find the ground, but very often we cannot. A metaphor may work admirably without oru being able with any confidence to say how it works...
-The Philosophy of Rhetoric, 117

Thus while the leg of the table has less ground than, say, the example of the river, there is still a commonality, still some form of ground between a tenor and vehicle, and so it is indeed metaphoric. For--as we said above concerning the normalization of "limit cases"--what Richards is trying to admit through this notion of ground is the case where,

the peculiar modification of the tenor which the vehicle brings about is even more the work of [the tenor and vehicle's] unlikenesses than of their likenesses.
-The Philosophy of Rhetoric, 127.

So while a leg only shares one real commonality as a vehicle (in the action of holding up), it is still part of a metaphor and should be recognized as such, precisely because there could be cases where the lack of resemblance will (unlike here) make a better metaphor. These instances aren't an instance of the paradoxical good catachresis, but simply metaphors.

This is also because is on this new basis of ground that Richards distinguishes between metaphoric language and non-metaphoric language: we can say that what goes beyond our "limit cases"--a metaphor completely without ground and a metaphor where there is too much ground such that the vehicle and tenor are identical--will not be a metaphor. Why? Because no relation will be there between a tenor and a vehicle, such that we can distinguish between them and relate them:

If we cannot distinguish tenor from vehicle then we may provisionally take the word to be literal; if we can distinguish at least two co-operating uses, then we have metaphor.
-The Philosophy of Rhetoric, 119

I put this in terms of ground because while Richards is emphasizing here how one idea described by the same idea is not metaphoric, we can also stress (perhaps against Richards' tendency to psychologize) how the opposite case also holds: when we relate two things without any commonality whatsoever, this is a literal relation.

One final point. I stressed the presence of ground, and the possibility of the metaphor that still works quite well when it is less grounded, because Richards introduces one more concept immediately after talking about the table leg--that of the shift between tenor and vehicle across the ground:

...A table does not walk with its legs; they only hold it up and so on. In such a case we call the common characteristics the ground of the metaphor. Here [in the case of the table leg] we can easily find the ground, but very often we cannot. A metaphor may work admirably without our being able with any confidence to say how it works or what is the ground of the shift.
-The Philosophy of Rhetoric, 117

Now I call the "shift" another concept, but what is really the case--and should be clear from the entire exposition here, and which, even more strikingly than the lack of talk about ground, I have also never seen elaborated--is that all of the terms which Richards introduces to explain metaphor are also metaphors: tenor, vehicle, ground, and now shift. I bring this up now because this metaphor of the shift allows us to describe metaphor completely metaphorically, but also more accurately, because all the other terms are able to give a fuller sense to as well as explain metaphor. For indeed, when we only use "tenor" and "vehicle," which is what happens when (rarely, as we noted) such terms are brought up, we do only the latter--and such explanation tends to make the terms into what they were meant to replace. We can complete our diagram, then, as follows:




Richards is comparing metaphor itself, in other words, to something like a car, such that we don't even have to talk abstractly about the relation of the tenor to the vehicle. Rather, the vehicle brings the tenor along, and shifts it across a ground. The tenor gets in the vehicle, and the vehicle shifts it. Thus we see why Richards chose "vehicle" and talked about how the vehicle modifies the process of the tenor's formation: the vehicle takes over the movement of the tenor. Furthermore, because we stressed the possibility of the attitudinal nature of the commonality or ground, we see also why Richards chose "tenor" for the name of the first element in the metaphor: the tenor is like tone--it isn't what the message means, but it is what sets the message in a particular direction (tone being the attitude of the speaker to the listener), allowing it to develop (here) by other means (the vehicle, with which it can share a common attitudinal relationship). In other words it is as much of a mistake to see the meaning of the metaphor within its first element (the tenor) as it is to see the meaning of a word solely in how it is delivered, in its tone: how the message is delivered isn't the same thing as its meaning, and by emphasizing how what we normally think of as the meaning could really only be attitudinal, our mode of trying to talk about the metaphor in terms of its literal beginnings is hindered. Nevertheless, while tone or how the message is delivered isn't the same thing as meaning, it certainly allows the message to develop: the metaphor is where such a message in a word is developing in a complex way through another word.

In short, all the metaphors explain and modify each other in this new structure, which the final diagram above can only somewhat adequately explain (to be more accurate, we would have to act more as if the tenor is moving over the ground by way of the vehicle and through the shift--thus the shift should also be represented more as the shift of the tenor and vehicle over the ground). Nevertheless, if you begin to use all these metaphors, you have a sense for how complicated and rich the internal complexities of metaphor become.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The new "text"

I have spoken too often of Sianne Ngai's book Ugly Feelings without outlining its argument. It's time to make clear what I find problematic about it, rather than let the little allusions perform a work of dismissal.

For I don't think you can dismiss Ngai: her work is important for drawing our attention to the everyday feelings which make up the book (animatedness, envy, irritation, anxiety, stuplimity, disgust, interestedness, and a few others). We see, in her work, that the grand emotions (anger, melancholy, even the belatedly recognized shame) are perhaps overpriveliged in aesthetic theory precisely to the extent that feeling generally has been seen as an ornament or effect of the artwork--not as something in which the artwork is always moving, as it were. In this respect, her emphasis on how feeling can, at times, be more useful for us in than form in diagnosing ideological effects seems genuinely correct (48). It opens the possibility (which, unfortunately, to make her own work seem novel, Ngai doesn't pursue) that historically, feeling has been more useful in this respect, because usually what we first catch about a suspect situation is within the affective register--and this would profitably provides a more accurate and nuanced view of the history of criticism. Those who take issue with the "cultural" or "discursive" turn of literary studies often are shown to have too narrow of a view of what the work of interpretation and criticism does, as if it were only a combination of philology and hermeneutic and not, often, driven precisely by feeling (the extremely dry "Against Theory" of Knapp and Michaels seems to be the most concrete expression of such a view, though also deconstructive critics and, to a lesser extent, structuralist poeticians often share it). In short, in Ngai's work we find the focus powerfully, fully returned to experience in Ngai's work--which is welcome after experience was generally banned as a reference point in poststructuralist times (though it always seemed to resurface in horribly contradictory ways, often through intense emotion), and is still banned in areas like Post-Marxism.

All this culminates in what I think is the strongest and most promising aspect of Ugly Feelings: the focus on the ugly feelings, the feelings associated with negativity. This focus is indispensable when criticism is everywhere under attack for overusing its negativity. What Ngai suggests is that such blame is misplaced (and in fact an instance of the traditional denigration of affect), and that, really, we can strengthen the situation of the critic by cultivating a more robust language for the forms of its negativity--that is, by acknowledging many negative affects. That is, we can produce better (or at least other) forms of negativity if we begin to acknowledge the complexity of the critical situation, and reform things, rather than reduce criticism simply to some monolithic negativity (opposed to positivity). I might add that such a reductive gesture only really has the effect of making criticism seem outmoded, to what, rather than reform, we can (without any trouble) replace. This sort of shop-counter view of method seems suspect--especially after the days of literary/critical theory which this anti-critical critique supposedly acknowledges.

I do, however, want to turn to what I find problematic in Ngai's work, because I see it in many ways hindering the effort to carry out the reform effort which it makes possible. How? Through its general vagueness regarding its theory of feeling. Ngai is out always to find what she calls "objectified emotion"--neither emotion as subjective or affect as observable emotion. And while she's not wrong to consider this objective category in general, she deliberately leaves open the vital question: whose emotion is being objectified? In other words, she makes leaving this question open the necessary gesture for any grasp of feeling. Feeling then becomes a moment where we do not know where the feeling comes from, or what intention to which it corresponds. When we have this general "feeling about feeling," as Ngai calls it, or a sort of confused feeling about whether we should be feeling the way we do, she says we have happened upon a feeling in art.

Against this gesture, I'd ultimately say that we need to answer the question of whose feeling this is, or where it originates, otherwise the feeling indeed originates in the artwork, merely as the quality or even property of it that seems to lack an origin or intention.

To show how such a reinsertion of Ngai's feeling back into the artwork occurs, we can look at her analysis of tone. One can see the problem even in her description of tone as "organizing affect" (that is, qua organization, as a work, something to be decoded and read in itself). For we really have to ask ourselves--what is involved in reading something like tone? Certainly the tone of a work can't be read.

Or, at least, this is what the New Critics actually understood about tone, even though Ngai claims (and needs to claim) that such a gesture divorced tone precisely from feeling: fundamentally, these Critics said, you can't read a tone because the tone is carried with the message, with the utterance, with what you read, and indeed becomes a part of it. Tone is a means through which you grasp what you read, not an end that can be read alongside what you read.

And, we might add, this is also what Marxists understood about aura--that it was not a property of the work but the means by which a certain change in the structure of perception could be registered as the effect of technological reproducibility--that is, a change in the productive forces as they affected the production and consumption of art.

Why do I bring up this second, seemingly unrelated point on aura? Because Ngai absurdly ends up seeing tone as aura--except that it is then cut off from every crucial origin in the means of production that I just mentioned, or rather everything that makes aura, aura.

I'll briefly summarize the argument. As we said, tone for her is not something appended to a message. What is it then? The general atmosphere created by the artwork. It has nothing to do with the communicative function of language, or with meaning in general, but is something that we grasp about the work on a general holistic level. But while this holism is somewhat welcome (I'll get to this near the end), though only as something prior to the work of criticism, I'd say it isn't an accident that her first example of this is from film, not literature (Double Indemnity). There we can more readily see the atmospheric element of a work, which Ngai begins to characterize in terms of distance to it. She then begins to qualify this distance (which supposedly is tone) in terms of feeling: it becomes something like the general interest of the work, motivating you to look at it but always resisting representation within it--especially in any form, with which tone should not be confused. Thus, tone becomes the general connection you to a work but which itself is not meaningful--and therefore is not there to enhance meaning, or be carried by meaning at all. Ngai thus calls tone "noise." But then, recalling its function as highlighting the work, setting it off, she stresses how this noise becomes the perception of a distance, or rather the distancing that allows you to pay attention to the work in a particular way. And thus, this noise which is tone becomes like "a more specific, value-inflected version of aura" (87). Indeed, she even has the gall to then turn everything on its head and claim that everything critics have been calling aura is tone (88).

I've presented this general summary of the (somewhat overly complex) argument to show how far we are going in order to 1) get rid of the notion of tone as something which has to do with meaning or its origin, and thus align tone with something not present in the work, and 2) at the same time make tone immanent to the artwork, as what allows you to pay attention to that work.

Instead of affirming that this is tone, I'd rather stress that this is really just what allows the notion of the artwork to expand--an operation Ngai performs in order to remove feeling's origin, or say that it's lack of origin is constitutive of it. Thus, what happens is that we end up making tone something like the only other concept that claimed to drop its situation in subject or object, and use its lack of origin as its foundation: textuality. Tone becomes textuality, and feelings texts that can be read. In short, we achieve the same dubious sort of thing that the expansion of the notion of the "text" did after Barthes and Derrida, only with a different name. "Feeling" is the new "text."

How? As I said, for the New Critics tone is a means, which clarifies the message (for a summary of this see the "Context Theory of Meaning" very clearly outlined by I.A. Richards in The Philosophy of Rhetoric). Texts, on the other hand, appear anywhere we find something interpretable, precisely because we lose the ability to mobilize the qualities intrinsic to them (for there are none--there is no origin/meaning) and which require something more than mere reading to make sense. In this way, tone becomes something like an end--and thus something which can be read in itself (as we said before was absurd for a New Critic).

To be sure, Ngai doesn't claim to let tone be merely an end: for her, tone as the organizing affect of a work is supposedly not reducible to the work either. Rather, "Tone is the dialectic of objective and subjective feeling that our aesthetic encounters inevitably produce" (30).

But the effect of such a statement is to only make tone more readable--and that, I claim, should make us extremely suspicious. For if it really were a dialectic of the subjective and objective, it wouldn't be able to be talked about in the way Ngai talks about it: as what doesn't add to the meaning but (by virtue of this very fact--such are the paradoxes of Barthesian textuality) becomes able to be interpreted. For suddenly we're in the practice of talking about the emotions of a work, the affects of a work, all with their origin where such phrases indeed say they are... the work (only as expanded). We suddenly begin to speak as if people only had feelings derivatively.

On this note, and as I said earlier, it is telling that the first example we get is of a film (an object which was an intense object of textualization in the days of theory, such that now we talk with ease about films as "texts"). In tone and feeling we ultimately have, I think, something that can't really be grasped adequately on the literary level except in the form of a general perception about what the text is doing--that is, in terms of textuality that are ultimately able to be extended to other forms (indeed, we're left wondering whether what Ngai says even may be applied to a non-aesthetic domain). And thus, when it comes time to really understand, through tone, the feeling of "stuplimity" (the biggest hit of the book), it is no accident that we go to Stein, for whom the function of meaning is (in Ngai's reading--I don't think this can be endorsed wholly) suspended. There we begin to talk about the way Stein's work feels--and while this may grasp elements of what Stein is accomplishing, it in no way treats her work as different from any other system of textuality which presents itself in similar organizations.

For where other theories ground this sort of feeling in an origin, we have here no way to explain feeling except as the structure of the object (Stein's work, the texts, are stuplime)--a structure which also allegedly (but only allegedly) makes it something non-objective. In short, tone is precisely what Ngai muddles in order to allow her to make it readable on top of or beside the meanings of the work.

And so Ngai gets confused when Fredric Jameson starts talking about Duane Hanson, since he seems to be raising issues similar to hers:

The problem [tone] poses for analysis is strikingly similar to the problem posed by uncertainties concerning a feeling's subjective or objective status [she will go on, as we saw, to say these problems are the same]. For we can speak of a literary text whose global or organizing affect is is disgust, without this necessarily implying that the work represents or signifies disgust, or that it will disgust the reader (though in certain cases it may do so). Exactly "where," then, is the disgust? Similarly, the "joyous intensity" Jameson ascribes to the work of Duane Hanson in his aforementioned essay on postmodernism does not imply that Hanson's hyperrealistic culptures of tired, elderly museum guards and sagging, overweight tourists represent or express joy, or that they make the viewer feel joyous--as opposed to, say, mildly amused or unsettled. Who is the subject, then, of the euphoria to which Jameson refers? Should this feeling belong to a subject? How is it even produced by the object from which it ostensibly emanates?
-Ugly Feelings, 30.

What she sees in Jameson's analysis is something similar to her notion that emotions are somewhere in the text and outside it, but then confuses what Jameson does with the reading of a text, rather than what he is up to--cognitive mapping (it is telling that Ngai uses Jameson's term precisely as he says not to use it: i.e. as the notion of a map of the mind, somehow both literalized and metaphorized: "affective disorientation" she says, is "being lost on one's one 'cognitive map' of available affects," 14). Such a Jamesonian project situates texts within an area of cultural production/logic, which, in a Lukásian manner, reflects (or represents) the totality of the means of production in the form of a consciousness. For Jameson, unlike Ngai, has a definitive answer to the subjective/objective question--for Jameson, feeling is both at once. What feeling precisely isn't is neither, which is what the ideology of the text (which Jameson himself analyzed) ends up turning Ngai's feeling into. In short, Jameson is confusing to Ngai because she doesn't understand that Marxists (as well as New Critics) don't read texts.

My final points here follow from this last point--namely, Ngai's inability to see an appropriately social dimension to the work (although she seems to make headway in understanding feeling as somewhat social--or rather non-individual--and looking at social issues [not works] mediated by feeling, like in the chapter on envy). First, Ngai's work represents to me a (somewhat welcome, somewhat suspect) attempt to read prose as poetry, where such holistic reading is more common. Where there is this sort of reading in poetry, however--indeed people will talk about the effects of a poem, or a stanza, as shifting the general movement of a poem or introducing a tension, or indeed changing in tone--this is ultimately subordinated to a task of determining meaning or talking about form. It ultimately remains pre-critical (when it is reading: otherwise it becomes theorization, where the texts are used merely as allegories). Which brings me directly to my last point: I take Ngai's effort largely as a sort of formalism that doesn't want to be formalism. The formalism that goes to talk about tone and how a poem feels, ends up always grounding its statements in the form of the poem. This has the downside of making the poem into a bit of an object, but the upside of insisting clearly on where the feeling is, and either treating the poem as a subject or as an object. And while treating a poem as a subject is indeed odd, what Ngai risks, in waffling between these two, is basically the same thing--and this follows from the logic of textuality, where effects are produced in the text by the text (as if it had its own agency). The way out of this dilemma would be adopting something like the Marxist viewpoint--perhaps the ones we find in Raymond Williams (who she cites, oddly as we can now see, as a forerunner of her work), in Jameson, and to a lesser extent in Lukács (as well as Benjamin and Adorno), who ground feeling in not just the experience of a work of art, but in social experience. Another would be to ground feeling in form.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Tactical criticism: Leavis

I agree with Raymond Williams that F.R. Leavis makes close reading seem to positively require a very specific group of people: the small minority Leavis describes in Mass Civilization and Minority Culture, the most rudimentary community, that, merely by virtue of its small size and relative stability, would supposedly gain insight which remained closed to everyone else. Close reading becomes the practice of a seminar full of militants, thinking they are defenders of cultural tradition.

And, as Williams rightly says (in Culture & Society and elsewhere), this isn't elitism, at least in its usual form--despite what people still say about Leavis. For outside of the minority there is the entirety of civilization, on the one hand, and, on the other, individuals. Instead of the formation of a coterie, Leavis wants comrades. Criticism is criticism when something like intellectual guerrilla warfare takes place, not when a bunch of individuals decide they think others are inferior.

But where this warfare does indeed take place, and against whom, matters immensely for Williams and for me, and very little for Leavis. If such warfare only really makes sense at Cambridge (for it certainly can't take place in America: we barbarians have lost all hope of redeeming ourselves in such small communities with a tie to tradition) isn't this a little telling?

That is, in Leavis, I feel we have are the conditions of the struggle for Cambridge English universalized. And the very extent to which others recognized their struggles in this universalization testifies, not to the reality of the Cambridge situation, but to the appeal of an idea of a small community--which indeed, with Williams, I think is something to save. But if we save this idea, this does not in turn testify to the insistence that the small community of skilled readers is the only group capable of action, as Leavis would hold. In fact, the community itself becomes pointless if it is seen as the only community there could be. And, as Williams says, the position of the group against civilization leaves all sorts of questions about civilization unanswered, precisely in order to shore up the group.

On this point, it's probably good to get into the details of what Leavis calls "Judgment and Analysis" (and what others called "Practical Criticism"). For we have to see how Leavis's actual critical practice fits into his notions of this culturally informed minority, and allows this minority to sustain itself without any notion of a larger community into which it could eventually (after transforming this civilization) dissolve.

It might be helpful, then, to turn to America and the always illuminating W.K. Wimsatt. In "Explication as Criticism" (in The Verbal Icon) Wimsatt remarks that there are three forms of critical language. There is a sort of wide ranging positive and negative evaluation (good, bad). Then there is a sort of neutral technical language, where we label parts of the work in question (as well as label the "referential content," or "themes"--i.e. alongside "spondee" we also talk about "love" or "war" as what the poem interrogates, complicates, inflects). And finally there is a more complex, more subtle language that mixes the two others, a middle language where we get terms like "careful" "precise" "simple," "dreary"--terms that are used to evaluate while explicating. The third terms, Wimsatt says, are generally used because a positive or negative term has set off a train of evaluation that is being justified and expanded by the more neutral terms.

This surely has changed since Wimsatt wrote (1948): now we have new and more complex neutral terms to set off the process of justification by other, more technical neutral terms. But in saying this I should also mention that with the decline in outright evaluation there is a corresponding change in the function of criticism itself, such that it no longer explicates but organizes or describes a text--something overlooked by people who lament the loss of the evaluative function of criticism. It isn't as if criticism grew afraid of the positive and negative and only now substitutes an other, more neutral language for them--such that now, we're always only judging positively or negatively by other means (as Sianne Ngai and might claim). Rather, as I have said before and with reference to Leavis, literary criticism called into question the entire structure that Wimsatt outlines and which produces this first language (good, bad). If there is any error here, it is in seeing this first language as a mere symptom of the explicative structure, and not the integral moment that Wimsatt makes it.

Thus, perhaps more significant than the change in the ability of Wimsatt's structure to describe a state of criticism is the transformation that occurs in the use of structures like his in general. That is, while we also don't judge positively or negatively anymore, we also don't have any real faith in Aristotelian structures like Wimsatt's (my colleague Evan is fascinated with this). For, to bring us back to the actual three languages and how they bears on Leavis, Wimsatt wants to cultivate, not the neutral terms, but (and here's Aristotle) the middle terms. Why? What we do with middle terms is point, while explicating, to the larger "concrete universal" aspect of poetry at which the general evaluative terms can only sort of grunt.

And this sort of grunting "authoritarian bent" in criticism, caused by a lack in the cultivation of middle terms, characterizes Leavis from Wimsatt's perspective. Here, without middle terms, criticism becomes only provocation, only the exhortation that we ought to admire these passages. Or only somewhat more subtly, it becomes the insistence that we ought to plainly perceive how a poem is good, or part of the great tradition, if a particular poem's thought or viewpoint is something generally right or not--which is what Leavis's criticism does. For Wimsatt, all this is trying to get us to the concrete universal too quickly, and ultimately in a way that, even with its meticulous justifications (or rather because they are there only to painstakingly justify something so crass), ends up destroying our ability to apprehend that universal.

But there is also something to be said for Leavis's lack of cultivation of middle terms, as opposed to this authoritarian prodding in general. Because Leavis is always trying to show us how an author can be right or wrong in a general intellectual sense (and that his or her rightness or wrongness is what is valuable about his or her work), he never gets stuck judging merely the intricacies and complexity (tonal, structural, whatever) of a work. He always integrates this complexity into a sort of world view that becomes relevant for the possibilities of connections to other works that it produce, unlike a poem for Empson, which seems somehow to exhaust the world it comes from; to not offer anything to us by virtue of its coming from a history. But one also wonders whether considering a thought valuable to us if we ourselves were to take it up now is somewhat preparatory to the work of criticism--as preparatory as I would claim (perhaps somewhat scandalously) Empson's work is.

Only Leavis, then, could see the potential in reprinting something like John Stuart Mill's writings on Bentham and Coleridge--generally ignored at the time or, if read, seen only as "great essays." Leavis's introduction to the two essays makes the case for reissuing the little book (almost a pamphlet--a form with a history of subversion) quite well: one will get in Mill's writings a portrait of two intellectual tendencies that will dominate the 19th century, as well as a third tendency that would first recognize and isolate, and then try and reconcile them--and this is infinitely more valuable than the Carlyle that people read for the English Tripos. There is, in short, something to be said for such an effort, which makes possible alternate traditions, and actively opposes them to the established histories (like the tradition of the novel--the serious study of which he, along with Queenie Leavis, made possible). But as an effort, one also has to wonder, with Williams, whether it belongs to literary criticism and not to the sphere of Kulturkritik. Obviously, its aim is reversed, and it is not bourgeois, but it is a local effort that has no possibility of going further abroad except through a wide process of generalization, like those remarks on taste that such a bourgeois criticism constantly uses (allowing mass audiences to be better consumers).

Criticism, Leavis says in The Living Principle, is tactical. And I do think there's something to be said for that notion--if only because it make clear that practical criticism is undertheorized as tactical criticism. But a tactic is a limited effort, not a general one: it can gain its force through its ideal (tradition, living principle), but actually becomes cut off from its goals when it (without transforming itself) becomes generalized.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

We have never been...

...blogging. My colleague Evan and I (and maybe Grant too) will be reading Bruno Latour (who I have been much too hard on in the few posts I have made on him here), Graham Harman, and others related to ANT and SR over the next few months. You can follow the reading group's discussion at

On this blog

I don't consider this to be a great blog, qua blog. If you want a great blog, look at Bldgblog. This skillfully utilizes certain aspects of the blog format to present its content. There are other blogs, of course, that rebel against this format--like typewriter blogs, where people type on paper, scan in the entry, and then put the image where the normal post would be--but I think we can say that these utilize the format equally well (as something to work against or parody). I don't do any of this. For a couple years now, I've just been doing the equivalent of scribbling here--that is, typing out some little notes and, instead of keeping them on a file on my computer, presenting them publicly. So it's all about content. In fact I feel it is a deformation of the blog form than a utilization of it. And I'd even go so far as to say that it's not even all about content--since the content remains mere notes, half-thoughts, rather than developed ones.

The only redeeming quality of this blog has really been the naivete, or the open-mindedness, or the honesty (I'm not sure what to call it), that comes with entries which are basically fresh thoughts put out there to others just in case they might prove handy. But at a certain point this undoes even itself. I've contradicted myself hundreds of times here--something I don't say often enough. And I fear often that what I say ends up being less handy, or even misleading, when it is so fragmentary.

I have always believed that thinking is a very fragmentary and impersonal experience, a matter of putting something in language so that you and others can work off of it. It's the type of thing that happens in the seminar room (or at least the ones I've been lucky enough to sit down in). You say something and try to grind it down or build it up into the right phrase, and slip it in there to push things in a certain direction. Others either take up the bit of language you proffered and use it, or they let you use it on your own. And in a way they only gain value through this social process: the thought isn't really a thought before you make it into this tool, this lever.

So you need others to do this--which is why I call it impersonal (a better word would be "collective"). But a blog ends up, in the end, being authored by one person--however many wonderful (or crazy) comments you may get.

And this is where the form of the blog has to come back in. Only being worried about the general shape of a minor point... that ends up creating a morass of opinion only gaining coherence from the force of the author behind it all--his general tendencies, etc. A blog should be a little more shaped and shapely: posts should be more definite, completed things, users should be able to navigate through it somewhat without trouble. Of course, there are many ways to make a blog work. In fact, one can make a blog into the reflection of the opinions of its author--but by engaging its form more than I have done with this blog here.

In short, I fear the general task of impersonal, fragmentary commentary could turn into a "bad egoism" or personalism here. This might stem from the other goal I had in starting this blog, which was simply to write better. Communicating your thoughts publicly makes you think differently, and I think more clearly in certain respects: you certainly have to finish whatever you're trying to get at, which was always a constant problem for me. And indeed, looking through the blog, you'll probably witness definite improvement on this point. But, you see, this is all at the wrong level. This blog should be about paragraphs, not phrases; posts, not periods.

To that end, you see I've been trying to improve the structure of the blog, organize some of its content, and write more significant entries. But I just would like to stress here that most of the blog is still fragmentary, and that many of the thoughts here are meant to be useful only as tools or levers in the manner I described above. Thus, they might be wholly wrong. I hope they're not. But I hope so in the way that I do during a seminar that we're going in the right direction, and that whatever I say has to contribute to the discussion, or lead it down an illuminating and generally good path, rather than divert it or grind things to a halt. The exceptions, of course, will be papers and generally the longer considerations--they'll stand out. These, of course, will be offered in a different way... a way that I hope to be more like my future posts: a bit more personal, a bit more formed, a bit less faithful in the general provisionality of the space in which these ideas are offered. That merely means that they will be more responsibly formed, more reliant on the space of the blog, qua blog.

I say all this of course with you, the reader, in mind. For offering something in a class is offering it to a present participant. On a blog like this one (and not, of course on all blogs), despite all the directness, you are still there as a reader, and that puts a little more space in between us--space I can't take for granted. I feel the experience of reading this blog, now, must be something like overhearing the discussion rather than actually being addressed. What I'm saying is that I'll be trying to correct this.

But this is not to say the comments on this blog don't exist, or that no one participates in discussions here. I love the comments! They have been helpful in many many ways, and I thank everyone who has written them. And the contacts with people I have made here have been so great. I'm just taking small measures that I hope will make this wonderful state of things even more wonderful.

But in general, keep in mind my warning that things here are more like handy phrases than theses. This isn't to say I don't believe in them or they are false. Just that they're offered and will generally continue to be offered--however much I try to improve things--as (mere) contributions.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Reading Heidegger

(See the very helpful response to this post by Paul Ennis. Everything Paul says I'd agree with: I even left a little comment in favor of "Heidegger-speak," which I oppose to the Heidegger jargon--empty parroting in order to keep agreeing with or defending Heidegger--that I mention below. Indeed, the whole post here owes a lot to Paul: it was a sort of meditation on what Paul meant when he talked about reading Hegel on his own terms. It also, of course, owes a lot to my discussions with Jethro Masís, who is thinking deeply about all that is involved in reading Heidegger.)

Reading Heidegger is always a remarkable experience. It can be, at times, absolutely exhilarating. Other times it is a real slog. What's remarkable, though, is that none of this occurs in the regular way: what's exhilarating isn't typically exhilarating, what's a slog isn't like your usual slog (if I can say such a thing).

That is, what's exhilarating isn't happening upon anything new--though of course the first time you read Heidegger it is (if not confusing) unbelievable. It is rather that the sort of steps that you make unfold something to you concretely, and in a way that is somewhat unexpected (even if you know Heidegger). This is why I wish certain parts of Being and Time were longer... even though rereading these parts, or looking in other passages in Heidegger, will do the job of explicating whatever is at issue (and giving you deeper, even different insight). The analysis of space and Ent-fernung is one of these places.

And then the parts you slog through aren't exactly boring or confusing or difficult. They're just gaps where Heidegger seems just to need to get to someplace. Now, I'm not talking about the regular big chunks that everybody says are typical overgeneralizations of Heidegger--the way he will push an interpretation of someone (Nietzsche, say) onto a certain track, and then unfold the argument predictably, according to the general "status" he confers upon that track. I don't think that's really a productive way to see Heidegger working--you end up thinking he's always saying the same thing, when, even if he is (and I'm not sure of that), there's actually a lot of weird and interesting stuff all over the place. No, what I'm talking about is much smaller, and ultimately much less significant. I'll give an example. Heidegger is talking about how sleeping is not the same as not-being-there, and not-being-there is not the same thing as being unconscious:

After all, what we generally know about things, we know in terms of an unambiguous either/or. Things are either at hand or not at hand. [...] Human beings have a consciousness, and something can be at hand in them on which they know nothing. In that case it is presumably at hand in them, but not at hand in their consciousness. A stone either has a property or does not have it. We, on the contrary, can have something and at the same time not have it, that is, not know of it. We speak, after all, of the unconscious. In one respect it is at hand, and yet in another respect it is not at hand, namely insofar as it arises from the possibility of being conscious of something unconscious. This distinction between not being there in the sense of the unconscious and being there in the sense of what is conscious also seems to be equivalent to what we have in mind by awakening, specifically by the awakening of whatever is sleeping. yet can we straightforwardly equate sleep with the absence of consciousness? After all, there is also absence of consciousness in being unconscious (which cannot be identified with sleep), and a fortiori in death. This concept of the nonconscious, therefore, is much to broad, irrespective of the question as to whether it is at all suitable. Furthermore, sleep is not simply an absence of consciousness. On the contrary, we know that a peculiar and in many cases extremely animated consciousness pertains precisely to sleep, namely that of dreams, so that her the possibility of characterizing something using hte distinction "conscious/unconscious" indeed breaks down. Waking and sleeping are not equivalent to consciousness and unconsciousness.
-Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics (GA 29/30), §16, p. 61 [91-3]

Now, everything is fine here--I'm not questioning Heidegger's point at all. But the "a fortiori in death" seems foreign to things, along with the fact that dreams, suddenly, are cases of "extremely animated consciousness." Where did this last point (that dreams are cases of consciousness) come from? It proves the point, yes, but where did Heidegger get it? I suddenly know I'll have to start hunting elsewhere for a better explanation, tying together the corpus. But, again, I'm not objecting, it all makes sense, I know why it is here: all this is here because the point we're getting to is the following:

To awaken an attunement cannot mean simply to make conscious and attunement which was previously unconscious. To awaken an attunement means, after all, to let it become and as such precisely to let it be. If, however, we make an attunement conscious, come to know of it and explicitly make the attunement itself into an object of knowledge, we achiever the contrary of an awakening. The attunement is precisely destroyed...
-Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics (GA 29/30), §16, p. 61 [91-3]

That is, we had to go through the rigmarole to get here. Thus, this doesn't make the points about consciousness and unconsciousness and sleep invalid--indeed they can be seen as essential. I refer to the way of taking Heidegger's writings as a way or path that confers on certain parts of the presentation (the text or, here, lecture) a significance insofar as they develop the question at issue. But on this path, there are certain foreign elements, that just seem pulled in from elsewhere, say, in order to keep us on the path--like how dreams are suddenly cases of extremely animated consciousness. To me, these bits make reading a slog (perhaps in lecture they were more interesting).

All this is leading to a sort of distinction I want to make, which involves not just this experience of reading but the appearance of what I'm here calling foreignness in Heidegger's texts (and which makes me feel like reading is ugh, not exhilarating at all). What do we do with those moments that seem on the way, but only on the way--or rather really somewhat off the way, not even on a Holzwege? How do we see what is not on the way? Heidegger himself points out how certain phrases, say, like "die Sprache als die Sprache zur Sprache bringen," can look differently when seen on the way (to language, here) and not (where they become formulaic). But where do we draw the line?

Another way to think about this is that it troubles the notion of "reading Heidegger on his own terms." This, of course, doesn't mean reading only to agree with Heidegger--the confusion of the two is often the fate of dogmatic Heideggerians (sticking with the jargon, etc., in a way eerily similar to the way Derridians stick to the jargon, etc.). But it might at times mean something like stepping off the path or the way. That is, isn't there a difference between following the way, the path, and reading someone on their own terms?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


I thought I'd gather together some good posts I have been reading recently:

First, my colleague Grant's great post on Stiegler.

Then, Paul Ennis' post on reading Hegel.

Next, Graham Harman's post on clarity, positions, surprises.

Next, Miriam Jerade's take on the Nobel Prize, which I think is right.

Finally, Robyn Byrd's excellent advice on/adventure with the Lit GRE.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Almost entirely free

I'm not really the habit of reading the blurbs on the back of books. So I just now picked up the Country and the City there on my bookshelf--a book I've read at least twice now--and happened to notice this remark from the Times Literary Supplement:

A sustained and thoroughgoing attempt to relate English literature to its social background... It is fair to add that Dr. Williams's work is almost entirely free from the partisan unfairness and unimaginative literalism to be found in some other critics who share his general outlook; and he has given us a right and timely admonition against sentimental falsifications of rural life and of nature.

What can this mean but "Raymond Williams isn't a real Marxist?" I'm searching for the original review--there it might have made much more sense. But on the back of a book like this, one suspects that the line blurs between something like "He isn't your typical Marxist" and "You can pick it up, kiddies, it's safe."

In other words we can see how a typical Kulturkritik rhetoric of originality, when opposed to "partisan unfairness" especially, and then bolstered by "unimaginative literalism," easily turns around into its opposite: Williams is no different than all those others... Indeed, those people he pals around with, those who "share his general outlook," they're the dangerous ones--but who would read such boring trash? They're too sentimental, too naive about country life. Too "back to nature." But fundamentally, they're just so "unfair." To those poor country folk... or to us. In short, you can read this blurb a different way if more context is given (it could be a Marxist defense of Williams, even). But as a blurb, the old "vulgar Marxist" argument is turned into a "right and timely" quote that will sell the book. Of course, then, it is no accident "free" is used in one of its more hygienic senses... And even if we wonder what made the reviewer, and the people who designed the jacket, stick with that "almost," we've already perversely limited what in Williams' approach would be truly tough to swallow...

I bring this up because I wonder whether there is indeed something palatable to Williams from the bourgeois standpoint. While it ultimately might be in the bare content (nature, experience, etc. etc.), I think it has to come from the subtlety of his method, from his isolation of structures of feeling and his very Lukácsian insistence on the need to interrogate what is lived (though he only read Lukács after he wrote The Long Revolution), the real activity of men and women, that would make him take up particular figures wholly opposed to his viewpoint (Arnold, Leavis), and allow him to claim they are vital for our thought in a certain respect (to the extent they shape and express those lived structures).

This was for him a more radical gesture than investigating the unconscious of society--which he considered a basically bourgeois concept (since it had been quickly mythicized and reified: one imagines Williams being more open to more powerful Lacanian reformulations). But, from a certain angle, such subtlety can also make him seem "almost entirely free" from Marxism for such a reviewer. One then has to ask--what sort of environment would take subtlety in such a way? Of course, with the question put this way I open the door to cynicism. But I do imagine there could be other answers. One might, for example, insist upon how hard it is to actually conceive a neutral criticism, despite the long history of the view that criticism is without prejudice.


My friend Chris just launched an awesome media and culture site:

Monday, October 12, 2009

Coming up...

Better posts coming up, everyone, along with a better blog more generally. In the near future expect:

1) Posts on GA 29/30 (Die Grundbegriffe der Metaphysik)
2) Posts on The Pasteurization of France and Science in Action
3) Posts on The Country and the City
4) Posts on The Difference Engine
5) Posts on Locke's Essay

I'm also reading John Protevi's Political Physics. I'll say a little about some of the excellent ideas there soon. Prepare yourselves...

Toby's houses

I must observe, that although in the first year's campaign, the word town is often mentioned,—yet there was no town at that time within the polygon; that addition was not made till the summer following the spring in which the bridges and sentry-box were painted, which was the third year of my uncle Toby's campaigns,—when upon his taking Amberg, Bonn, and Rhinberg, and Huy and Limbourg, one after another, a thought came into the corporal's head, that to talk of taking so many towns, without one Town to shew for it,—was a very nonsensical way of going to work, and so proposed to my uncle Toby, that they should have a little model of a town built for them,—to be run up together of slit deals, and then painted, and clapped within the interior polygon to serve for all.

My uncle Toby felt the good of the project instantly, and instantly agreed to it, but with the addition of two singular improvements, of which he was almost as proud as if he had been the original inventor of the project itself.

The one was, to have the town built exactly in the style of those of which it was most likely to be the representative:—with grated windows, and the gable ends of the houses, facing the streets, &c. &c.—as those in Ghent and Bruges, and the rest of the towns in Brabant and Flanders.

The other was, not to have the houses run up together, as the corporal proposed, but to have every house independent, to hook on, or off, so as to form into the plan of whatever town they pleased. This was put directly into hand, and many and many a look of mutual congratulation was exchanged between my uncle Toby and the corporal, as the carpenter did the work.

—It answered prodigiously the next summer—the town was a perfect Proteus—It was Landen, and Trerebach, and Santvliet, and Drusen, and Hagenau,—and then it was Ostend and Menin, and Aeth and Dendermond.

—Surely never did any Town act so many parts, since Sodom and Gomorrah, as my uncle Toby's town did.

-Tristram Shandy, Book 6, Chapter 23