-A post on Marshall McLuhan vs. Raymond Williams.
-A post on why literary theory doesn't deal with aesthetics (often perplexing to those outside literature).
-A post on the dividual in Deleuze and notions of community, via a nice passage from Red Mars.
-A post on Jameson's deep notion that postmodern theory ends up thinking (only) the body.
-Another post on Addison, with special guest Addison.
And, of course, lots over a the Latour blog. We're reading a bunch of essays now, and revisiting the amazing Aramis.
I'm a bit all over the place lately, no? Oh well--it's post-examination time, and all I'm doing is trying to expand ideas before locking down that dissertation proposal.
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
-A post on Marshall McLuhan vs. Raymond Williams.
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
In philosophy in America you're usually either for clear arguments, or you're against using the standard of clarity to judge all argumentation. While the former position excludes much good argument by saying it's not clear, a lot of ink is spilled trying to show how the latter position also demands some sort of rigor, rather than an "anything goes" form of argumentation. A lot of this is predicated on a stodgy sort of suspicion of rhetoric, but also on a real and pressing need to show how philosophical discussion itself works at a certain sophisticated level, and doesn't gain its technicality or professional status just through the robustness of the objects or issues it tackles or the sorts of insight into those issues ("results") it generates.
But maybe this situation can be changed if we distinguish clarity from simplicity, and say that good arguments are simple. Now, clarity presupposed a sort of guiding rationality and openness of discussion, along the lines that Popper (always enjoyed by Anglo-Americans) outlines in his nice 1959 preface to his Logik der Forschung: here, proper philosophical work proceeds by
stating one's problem clearly and examining its various proposed solutions critically. [...] Whenever we propose a solution to a problem, we ought to try as hard as we can to overthrow our solution, rather than defend it. Few of us, unfortunately, practice this precept; but other people, fortunately, will supply the criticism for us if we fail to supply it ourselves. Yet criticism will be fruitful only if we state our problem as clearly as we can and put our solution in a sufficiently definite form--a form in which it can be critically discussed.
That is, in a clear form. When either rationality or criticality become compromised, then, the discussion becomes unclear--irrational, and something like the sharing of mere beliefs about the world.
But instead of privileging these opposites--or, since we never really have to go that far in order for Popper's edifice to appear too constraining, showing that discussion doesn't immediately become these opposites if it lacks rationality or criticality--we might just say they both rational discussion and irrational discussion can either state the problem simply or not.
But why simplicity? Frankly because it allows that sort of critical refinement or processing that clarity calls for, without clarity itself. It allows criticism to become something like elaboration, rather than the attempt to try as hard as we can to overthrow any particular solution, etc. etc. And I think that, really, this is what most attempts to be clear already try to accomplish: the elaboration of a problem along finer and more specific lines. Thus, there's a sort of alternate history of simplicity lying underneath all that lip service paid to clarity.
Of course, this all is opposed to complexity--complexity becomes the bad term here. But is that really so unfortunate? I remember an ethics class where my professor scoffed at the word "problematize," because it is used so often now to denote the process of making rigorous consideration of something possible. But--and you all know I'm quite an avid reader of some serious problematizers--I've always been quite inclined to agree with him. Complexity and contradiction might be interesting for architecture, but the best and most creative American philosophy often proceeds by simplifying (thinking, often, that it is being clear). This philosophy's greatest weapon here is the coining of some particular word that is useful, that shifts the argument, that is just metaphoric enough to make the rest of the discourse pull towards it and use it--and allow the rest of the discourse to avoid multiplying unnecessary (because not really used, tinkered with, reused) metaphors. This all perhaps appears naive to people in the Continental tradition, but I don't think that's because such they think such simplifying overlooks the complexity of various issues: it's just because such minimal problematization sounds that way, or has something of an over-humble quality to it (which can often turn around into a sort of tablethumping growl that "that's all there is to it," etc., which is just dogmatism).
Now, much bad American philosophy works with the same sort of tone, but it can obviously now be dismissed as just trying to be clear while it multiplies problems needlessly. Word-coining can multiply things here too, unfortunately (though often because a new word is not coined, and the word loses its usability--which does not mean, either, that it has at that point become technical: in reality, the discourse has just become nominalist). But if simplicity is good argument, we shouldn't have much to do with micro-issues piled upon micro-issues as is prevalent in, say, philosophy of mind--though there are also a lot of great game-changing, simplifying maneuvers here.
Especially if we don't think of avoiding complexity in any old Occam's razor sense--something again that falls perhaps in the clarity-box, oddly enough (and makes the effort to say nothing at all seem like the goal of certain arid essays by Putnam, for instance--however much they are occasionally lit up by crazy flashes of weirdness). If we could make complexity the enemy in a Latourian sense--we shouldn't multiply causes before we've followed the actors (which is how I read him, perhaps a bit against the grain: let's get complex in only the right ways!)--then keeping things simple would mean something slightly different and less agonizing. It would allow us to say that keeping things simple involves not letting too much needless detail take over the presentation of even detailed issues, or understand how specificity (which I referred to earlier) can be simplifying (something we often forget). Thus, issues can get small and fine, but they often will be expressed and discussed with a goal of reducing complexity, rather than creating it. And if this means using a technical language, that's okay too, isn't it (especially if we refrain from equating nominalism or un-use with technicality, as I did above)? It's use should just have similar goals (and that might make the American language, when it is simple, sound less naive).
In short, a lot of what we privilege under clarity can be chalked up to privileging simplicity. Some of the best American Continental philosophers seem to work in this way already (Graham Harman's "overmining" is a great example of what I take to be a very Anglo-like phrase-coining), combining, as it were, the best of both traditions. Here, I'd just like to emphasize what their work has to say back to the Anglo-American love of clarity.
Thursday, November 19, 2009
Franco Moretti is, as I've said before here, the most virulent of the increasing number of opponents to close reading in American literary criticism. He coins the term “distant reading” in order to suggest how his method of using abstract models for literary history--graphs, maps, and trees--actually makes sense of texts. I want to go over that once more.
Quite simply, distant reading makes sense of texts through the process of gathering immense amounts of empirical data about literary works—the presence or absence of various traits, noted by collaborative efforts considering texts in dozens of languages—and organizing it all into various systems or wholes that seek to make sense of their distribution—projecting representations of the evolution of a genre, say, and its spread across Europe as it becomes more or less viable in various markets. Such effort is continually motivated by astonishment at the “minimal fraction of the literary field we work on,” given that the empirical amount of literary works produced in a span of time often dwarfs even the most expansive canon of that period that we indeed study (one of his favorite observations is that even a canon of two hundred nineteenth century novels would be still less then one percent of what was then produced ), and because these works continually overflow the national and linguistic borders within which literary research often moves.
Against this, then, attempts to expand the canon over the years to include alternative literatures meet something like their limit case, but so too does close reading. For it is the organization of canons—or attempts to expand them—around the latter that makes the study of the actual, empirically existing literary field impossible: as Moretti says, “a field this large cannot be understood by stitching together separate bits of knowledge about individual cases.” This study is only possible if we begin to plot what we have not looked at closely in order to extrapolate tendencies that we cannot actually observe at all. The entire project of literary studies suddenly becomes not one of avoiding paraphrase in the sense of avoiding reduction--which, I’d suggest, is the most fundamental motivation of close reading--but what literary structuralists like Propp, Greimas, Genette and Todorov long ago discovered could constitute a powerful poetics: negotiating reduction, simplifying, and then working off of these reduced systems.
Lest Moretti's study of these particular systems of distribution sound too much like work on the economics of literature, however, which has sometimes been treated very extensively in literary study, Moretti assures us that the effort is ultimately directed to the study of where and when formal innovations in literature--the province once proper to close reading—occur, since the traits that will be noted and plotted on graphs, maps and trees will indeed be formal ones: the presence or absence of clues in the evolving genre of the mystery, for example, which is then able to be represented in tree form. This has significantly led Jonathan Arac to call Moretti’s work “formalism without close reading,” an appellation Moretti himself says defines his work perfectly.
But if Moretti can actually affirm his work’s formalism, he still cannot give us much sense of what the close reading to which it is opposed actually involves. “At bottom,” he says, “it’s a theological exercise--very solemn treatment of very few texts taken very seriously--whereas what we really need is a little pact with the devil: we know how to read texts, now let’s learn how not to read them.” Such vagueness is typical of many recent critics who seek to turn away from close reading or, indeed, find new ways for critique in general to proceed. For specificity is not, ultimately, necessary: “close reading” can remain a label for the most tenacious of our basic critical dependencies—in Moretti’s case, at most it is the sort of scrutiny or attention that denies us access to the wide distribution of world literature that “distant reading” considers fundamental. “It’s a theological exercise,” in other words, only hints at what we need to make explicit in order for any widespread resistance to close reading to take place, and not collapse, as it sometimes does in Moretti, into the mere belief that anything different is better than what we have. In this respect, what is also necessary is a sense that distant reading is not only a name for Moretti’s work with models, but something like one pole at the end of a wide continuum whose opposite, while indeed being close reading, is only so if we cross many intervening levels of reading, from the more to the less distant over to the less and the more close. Looking for other distant readers than Moretti (I'd suggest Raymond Williams is such a reader), is then one step in both refining what we mean by close reading and showing how we can be lead out of it and brought towards something more distant, precisely by refusing to set up distant reading as some homogenous space outside of which, immediately, we fall into the close. Such a maneuver in fact capitalizes on what Moretti’s and other such attacks, in their vagueness, actually restore to close reading: its functional aspect, which ties it to methodological decisions that have alternatives.
Richards himself used the term “close” primarily in this functional sense, in order to denote the level at which one’s approach to the text in reading could, not make meanings appear, but eliminate other less relevant levels which might bear upon the act of construing a meaning. Only subsequently in America would the term carry the ethical significance it now has, and which the practical Richards never could really bring himself to charge it with except by becoming Utopian: the sense that if one read closely, one read slowly, with skill, with effort, bringing out the difficult and latent meanings with care. If the term and the practice have been able to remain less questioned, it is perhaps because its functions have become so intertwined with notions of virtue that, in the days of deconstruction, the cry “you have not read me closely,” could become not just a description but an accusation of irresponsibility in the widest sense--something like literary critical immorality, whatever that would be. And since it had become an empty term for, at bottom, interpretive work in general and what it does well, it is no surprise that “closeness” can veer round in Moretti to become an empty term for all that is bad.
Friday, November 6, 2009
I've been wanting to write a post on Jameson for a while, since wading through his immense corpus is basically all I've been doing over the last month or two. This won't be that post. Rather, I just want to give a little review of a few chapters of his new book, Valences of the Dialectic, which came out Sunday, the first of the month.
One shouldn't however, confuse this performance with the effects of style. And, as usual, Terry Eagleton's crassness has to be just as crassly rejected as it encroaches on this issue, for it causes him to do precisely this. His recent essay in the New Left Review, "Jameson and Form," starts off with some nice observations. Eagleton has always lived off of the supposed aptness or incisiveness of these: they're certainly the only reason, really, to read Literary Theory: an Introduction, even if you have to throw most of them away when you actually start thinking about the figures mentioned. Here, we find the following:
As for Kant, not yet being a Habermassian or feeling the sway of any structuralist or postmodern doxa about the primacy of language and communication, he sticks to the mind itself and grasps the categories as so many "concepts of the understanding" which operate both judgments and those perceptions understood to be mental "syntheses of representations." Still, he disposes of some fairly recognizable traditional "space"--the mind--in which, as in Aristotle's "speaking" [just discussed], the categories can comfortably be housed and find their field of efficacy. Whatever Hegel thinks about mind or language, those are not the "places" in which his categories evolve: and to call this last Spirit or even Objective Spirit is to beg the question, insofar as it is precisely the space of the categories which will be called on to define Spirit in the first place. So they seem relatively placeless and disembodied (Valences, 78).
Basic stuff, yes (we're still at the beginning of the essay "Hegel and Reification"), and while there's a somewhat humorous remark to kick it off (which might be approached more accurately and more philosophically in terms of the history of philosophy), and some nice talk about "places," basically everything's just good old thinking (and good thinking) until we get to that last sentence. It is here that we find something thickening, just in this offhand remark: there's no real purpose except to explain, not even how we feel reading Hegel (he'll come to that later, on page 80-1), but the sorts feelings that shape the contours of Hegel's thinking when we follow it. In this seeming placenessness and disembodinedness there is something like the aesthetic projected by this aspect of Hegel, and pinpointing this aesthetic not only give us a better hold on him, but also shows what sort of field Hegel feels his conceptions work within. There is an effort, in short, to connect whatever is in question to experience--though not necessarily "our" experience.
Jameson then is able to seize on this, and perform, precisely, dialectical reversals:
...So they seem relatively placeless and disembodied: they are not the thoughts of a Mind, even a transcendental one (since for one thing, they are not yet even thoughts as such): Absolute Spirit may be, or however Hegel's combination of Substance and Subject may be understood, it is not an omniscient and anthropomorphized narrator of some sort. In fact, I tend to think it would be better to imagine the "space" of Hegel's categories in the absence of all such modern container notions of subjectivity or of element, in a kind of spacelessness. This makes the categories in Hegel far more situation- or event-specific; all the while acknoledging the evident fact that whatever "space" or "context" may be invoke, it will always also itself be precisely one of those categories it was alleged to have governed or contained. Thus once again here we confront the well-known paradox of the "class which is a member of itself," something "solved" by the attempt to imagine a state of things--or better still a type of discourse--itself free of such representational homogeneity, and able to accommodate a series of "events" without a frame or background. Add to this the characterization of these moments as somehow related to pensée sauvage in that the Logic effectuates the construction of local universals out of particulars in a situation in which universals do not yet exist, and we have an even more paradoxical approach to hegel opening up before us (Valences, 78-9).
The aesthetic, given overpresence I might even say, allows a certain leap by which we're able to say that we have to basically suspend our belief (and not disbelief, for once with Hegel!) in Absolute Spirit. All of which involves a project of seeing "Hegel's Marxism" (as Jameson puts it, 100), a project that he picks up back in "Three Names," rather than line things up in the regular order.
Indeed, back in "Three Names," we find positions Jameson has held for some time elaborated more explicitly: Verso's book jacket says Jameson moves towards the "innovation" of a "spatial dialectic," but this is old news, really. Jameson--and this is why, primarily, I like him (and why I like Derrida)--doesn't innovate. All his concepts are tied together and slowly grow, inflecting each other. Often (much more than in Derrida, who struggled for consistency much harder than was, for anyone other than him, productive) there are local eruptions of something completely new and weird, but then the rest of the web comes to meet it by stretching itself over some abyss. This is the work of producing closure that I've stressed was essential to understanding Jameson in a previous post (in which I basically tried to anticipate what Jameson might say in such an introductory chapter as this one)--and it's important to distinguish it on the other hand from the production of a system, which can be just as productive of "innovations." Indeed, this sort of language of what we might call the "theory industry" is parasitic on theory itself, and it is this structure--which I wouldn't say is necessarily organic, and rather involves something like what long durations of concept-formation can produce faster than thought (whether of advertisers or of lesser-experienced thinkers) itself, in a sort of short-circuit that "innovation" precisely misdescribes--that seems to resist such an industry. This is, at least, what I would add to how Jameson describes theory, which is indeed very concerned with the "theory industry:"
The persistence of the proper name in theory, indeed--as when we identify various texts as Derridian, Althusserian, or Habermassian--only serves to betray the hopelessness of the nonetheless unavoidable aim of theoretical writing to escape the reifications of philosophy as well as the commodifications of the intellectual marketplace today (Valences, 9).
Again, he's held this position for some time (see my old post from last year on this, though the position is even older). What is new is the presentation, and of course the particular "thickenings." We see an even more incisive characterization of Derrida in these pages ("it is as though the dialectic moves jerkily from moment to moment like a slide show, where deconstruction dizzily fast-forwardds like a film by Dziga Vertov," 26, a thickening of what has essentially become my view, which we find in Jameson's Archaeologies of the Future, that Derrida "unlike Adorno [...] refuses any positive or substantive concept of its own negative method, and indeed of method as such," 180), as well as a striking and more explicit take on what's wrong with Foucault (his thought is not non-dialectical but "too dialectical:" "Foucault attributes the positive valorization of Enlightenment to his deluded bourgeois readers and positions it as an error which the new narrative of paranoia and conspiracy is to correct: whereas from a dialectical perspective both narratives are correct and both narratives are equally in error," 52), and a thought-provoking characterization of Adorno and Zizek (the latter producing paradoxes not to undo the stupid first impression that it is indeed paradoxical, but rather "to undo that second moment of ingenuity which is that of interpretation [...]: the paradox is of the second order; what looked like a paradox was in reality simply a return to the first impression itself," affirming the "objective appearance," 59--and if this is true my reading of Zizek in that earlier post is faulty, but I still distrust Zizek more than Jameson does). What's also promising and somewhat more explicit than in previous works are the readings of Capital and some of its most visible dialectic moments--a subject Jameson will tackle more in a more focused manner in yet another book.
Also more explicitly formulated is the notion of "neutralization" as it relates to the dialectic, which was worked out perhaps most visibly in Archaeologies of the Future, but also has been around basically since Jameson began considering Greimas. Here, though, like everything else, it gets a bit more thorough treatment, due again to this clean though perhaps too formalistic presentation that divides up the dialectic into its three names: the dialectic, a dialectic (or many dialectics), and dialectical (it's dialectical!). The first makes the case that the dialectic, whether Marxist or Hegelian, has to be seen as not a claim to unity but a presentation that is an aspiration to totality (this mirrors the rejection of the Absolute Spirit we saw above). It passes over into its opposite, which actually is the most fruitful albeit complex section of this first chapter, where we see the dialectic at work in what were antinomies and binarisms of all sorts (the large thread running through this--again worked out more explicitly than in other works--is that structuralism is dialectical in a Sartrean sense, despite what Lévi-Strauss said at the end of La Pensée Sauvage; however many good and unexpected examples appear here). The basic move (which we saw in the analysis of Foucault, above) is made as explicit as it could be: Foucault's work, and anti-dialectical work like it (a topic picked up in the third chapter on "Hegel's Contemporary Critics"),
should seem to generate a situation in which power has no opposite (or is its own opposite). I believe that this seeming impasse can at least be clarified by the suggestion that this particular type of opposition is to be grasped as the superposition of at least two binary systems: a purely logical opposition between essential and inessential or center and margin. Here the "negation" lies in the differentiation between the initial equivalents, while its ideological investment--the very content of domination itself--derives from the way in which this second opposition reappropriates the first one. The force of negation is then transferred from the latter to the former (Valences, 21).
This is clean and openly didactic--more typical of this particular essay than most of Jameson's work. Nevertheless, it is indeed good to have out there when dialectical reversal is indeed harder to grasp for most people than it perhaps should be. Or so Jameson claims in the next section, where he considers the adjectival form (dialectical), and how (following Sartre) the dialectic "will always be its own illustration or example; that any exercise of it wil already be its own presentation," and thus is always difficult to grasp, since "you have to be grappling with a dialectical reality reality in order to be able to show" (and perhaps we might add see) "what the dialectic is" (50). We can close on this note, which brings us to the most essential aspect of the dialectic that--as I said in a previous--always has been the most imperative to bring into overpresence, or deepen:
[F]or the present it is the contagiation of the dialectic, rather than its structure, that we are out to catch a glimpse of: some essential restlessness or negativity that fastens onto our thinking at those moments in which we seem arrested and paralyzed by an antinomy--for, as has been observed above, the relationship between antinomy and dialectic is a crucial one in the contemporary period, where the antinomy has taken the place of the contradiction, expressing intractability rather than energy or construction (or indeed incommensurability rather than relationship).
What happens in moments like these--at least when the dialectic unexpectedly proposes itself, and when it suddenly crosses our minds that "it's dialectical!"--is that the problem itself becomes the solution, and that the opposition in which we are immobilized like a ship in the ice must itself now become the object of our thinking... (Valences, 50-51).
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
These classifications were necessary to enable us to emphasize, without risk of misunderstanding, the sociological and at the same time relative nature of the notion of a species as well as of an individual. From the biological point of view, men who belong to the same race (assuming that a precise sense can be given to this term) are comparable to the individual flowers which blossom, open and wither on the same tree: they are so many specimens of a variety or sub-variety. Similarly, all the members of the species Homo sapiens are logically comparable to the members of any other animal or plant species. However, social life effects a strange transformation in this system, for it encourages each biological individual to develop a personality; and this is a notion no longer recalling specimens within a variety but rather types of varieties or of species, probably not found in nature (although there is a suggestion of it now and again in the tropical environment) and which could be termed "mono-individual." What disappears with the death of a personality is a synthesis of ideas and modes of behavior as exclusive and irreplaceable as the one a floral species develops out of the simple chemical substances common to all species. When the loss of someone dear to us or of some public personage such as a politician or writer or artist moves us, we suffer much the same sense of irreparable privation that we should experience were Rosa centifolia to become extinct and its scent to disappear for ever. From this point of view it seems not untrue to say that some modes of classing, arbitrarily isolated under the title of totemism, are universally employed: among ourselves this "totemism" has merely been humanized. Everything takes place as if in our civilization every individual's own personality were his totem. [...] In so far as they derive from a paradigmatic set, proper names thus form the fringe of a general system of classification: they are both its extension and its limit. When they come on to the stage the curtain rises for the last act of the logical performance.
-Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind, 214-15
Over at my Latour reading group blog, I explain that wonderful first thesis of "Irreductions"--nothing is, by itself, either reducible or irreducible to anything else--and say the following:
In other words, Latour is saying that nothing is singular (irreducible) because it always needs others. Derrida would say everything is singular (irreducible) because it (a thing) needs others. Both, yes, say nothing is reducible to anything else. But such a statement comes from two different concerns. Latour is interested in saying that the misunderstanding ["translation is by definition always a misunderstanding, since common interests are in the long term necessarily divergent"--Latour] comes in to affirm the fact that a thing needs others. While Derrida is interested in undercutting how a thing needs others precisely through misunderstanding.
Of course it's much more complex than that--as the rest of the post(s) should make evident.