Thursday, December 31, 2009

Twenty-ten

One great thing about 2010 is we finally get to refer to each of our years from now on as "twenty-" something. For me, that always seemed the real concrete thing that would bring home just how much we live in the future imagined so vividly by people in the middle of the twentieth century. Referring to "twenty-nineteen" or "twenty-twenty-seven," regardless of the actual historical time involved, sounded futuristic in a particular way that "two-thousand-sixty-one" or "two-thousand-and-ten" just didn't. Now that we're there, and the next real comprehensive future (the future we imagine for the next full generation after us) that we begin to envision (on the scale of some larger cultural narrative) shoots forward to 2060 or so, we can begin to register the discrepancies between what the last wildest age of speculative thought about the future (the "golden age") and what took place. This doesn't have to be done cynically: it's rather a matter of registering the change in the "structures of feeling" that are constituted on a larger time-scale than the individual (though perhaps on a less extensive time-scale than that of a society as a whole), and actually the fact that we can reach back to these alternate futures without positing any really tight continuity... In other words, we can have a concrete encounter with the the fact that we're really living the future of the last generation--always an uncanny thought, but now made even more exciting by our taking up the old dates themselves and seeing how they can be put to so many more and different uses...

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Triangulation

A great parenthesis:

(Nietzschean relativism and fictionality is thus most productively used as a mode of triangulation or of the deployment of parallaxes, rather than as some idle flight from "linear history" or "old-fashioned" notions of causality that are themselves in reality mere narrative forms.)
-Fredric Jameson, "Actually Existing Marxism" in Valences of the Dialectic

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Whole pie

One special notion entertained by the Chicago critics is that the only alternative to a genre criticism is an escape into the psychology of the author or reader. Thus they execute what I shall call a double or slant antithesis, one which is not a true or exclusive opposition. They say that, if criticism leaves the species or kinds of poetry to search for the general definition of poetry itself, then criticism leaves behind also the cognitive object and passes into the realm of general psychology. They seem to assume that there cannot be a general objective discussion of any topic. You have to divide it into its parts or species in order to remain objective. If you try to pick up a pie whole, it will melt into a plan for a pie or the taste of a pie. If you cut it into slices, it will remain pie and whole pie. The argument might gain something of plausibility if we were able to entertain that literal equation of poem with physical artifact which has been criticized above. In the realm of artifacts, if we were somehow constrained to talk only about "artifacts" and never or little about "houses" or "hammers," the objects of our discourse might conceivably tend (at least if we were not on guard) to lose tangibility and become just qualities or, by a further slip, just human aims and methods. But poems, as we have said, are not physical artifacts; they are, to start with, verbal acts. Their definition and defense have to be drawn along a different line.
-William Wimsatt, "The Chicago Critics: The Fallacy of the Neoclassic Species" in The Verbal Icon

This is what Wimsatt calls the "fallacy of the neoclassic species"--perhaps the least memorable fallacy featured in The Verbal Icon because it hovers between the two others: the famous "intentional fallacy" and the other (and equally important) "affective fallacy." Perhaps the fallacy here is actually closest to the latter. This fallacy is where something like generic convention is taken to be the ultimate determiner of the form, and thus the form gets hardened (in a way that it wouldn't if it were seen to produce concretion or complexity says Wimsatt--obviously anticipating his important essay "The Concrete Universal") into something identical with the shape of the poem on the page. Thus, it should be clear that when Wimsatt opposes taking a poem as a physical artifact, and affirms the verbal act, he actually means that we shouldn't think of the poem as a materialization of some ("doughy" he says--Wimsatt likes confection-metaphors) abstraction called language (this position would be resolutely against the linguistic determinism--and indeed sham materiality--we find in Paul de Man). Such a view (combining what he rightly says is an Aristotelian view and, when pressed hard as to what makes the artifact, a Crocean view of poetry) encourages considerations of the "whole object"--that is, considerations that relate any minor point back to the rest of the poem, producing a sort of "tension" that defines the work or requires that any local change (in a novel, the reinterpretation of one character's action) be registered throughout the work (by a reinterpretation of the whole plot, say)--where this whole is defined only as the poem on the page. In short, this makes form too static, or "tension" too defining, at the same time as it makes local "ambiguity" too important. Two indicted critics here would be Cleanth Brooks on the one hand (dear to most New Critics) and William Empson (dear not only to deconstructionists like de Man but indeed to most current critics and theorists) on the other--though it is their tendencies as combined and put to work by the Chicago critics (R.S. Crane included) that are under consideration here. As you can see from the quote above, this all is involved in the general movement of over-avoiding the affective fallacy at the same time as one commits the intentional fallacy (and covers up the deed).

Well, almost everything: Avatar

Let's just say (and without any spoilers), Avatar does a lot right that I said Star Trek does wrong. I was a little off in saying the movie does everything right, as I did in an overexcited tweet a couple days ago after seeing the movie. Star Trek might be the most lengthy popular meditation on what it means to stay within a world created by an SF series--and for that it deserves some serious credit, even if, by the cheap postmodern device of trauma (cheap, that is, when made formalistic--not when it appears as content) it often reduces this world to what is called a "franchise." Avatar instead is a mashup of all sorts of (properly) SF and fantasy devices (I mean to imply that trauma is not a generic-specific device, but one that typically disrupts things all across the board), from "unobtainum" to the concept of the avatar itself.

This doesn't mean at all that the movie is a ripoff--SF and fantasy, like any genre, work in this self-reflexive way (a way I don't think many commentators on the movie so far have really recognized, which is odd). I hesitate to call this way "intertextual," because that horribly vague concept precisely overlooks everything specific about genre (and more specifically form, but that's another post) which needs to be brought to bear upon any consideration of such works. Indeed, condemnations of the film as racist have to proceed as if it did not occupy any particular generic space. Thus, "Avatar is just Dances With Wolves" is the equation through which this critique makes its first steps, while it is only in reflecting upon that generic space (making allowances of course for the fact that it is pop-SF, or "scifi"--perhaps even "syfy"--that we're considering here, though that also opens up a question of genre from the inside as it were) that a condemnation really would gain its force. Of course, there are simply discursive codes that are racist, and there isn't any need to be more specific about them (one of the ways to remove the problems of racism is to suggest the accusation is only superficial): but the point is that the concept of code (when it remains only at the level of a wide-ranging discourse, and nothing more specific, like a filmic or even SF/fantasy code) may dissolve the presence of different racist elements in the work--and especially emerging elements, ones that don't fall into codified pattern.

Thus, what seems racist about the film is not the general portrayal of the Na'vi as othered in typical ways, but, I'll contend, the particular logic at work in their bodies as they intersect with the device of the avatar. The most important line of the film, for me, was the throwaway one which made this explicit: "I had to trust my body," the protagonist says. And is the properly SF situation that makes such a statement really weird and interesting and problematic: what does "my" mean when that is actually the body of something or someone else (the thing/person status of the avatar itself--a body grown for another--is really quite uncanny and disturbing when, even with the use of a pronoun, one begins to restore to it something like the capacity for its own control of itself)? Once we see that the whole colonial problem that is the main focus of the film emerges here in this scene of education in appropriation, the problems provoked by the presence or absence of racist codes have to transform.

But it isn't just appropriation that is at issue here, and this is the first way that the transformation occurs. What is almost more important than the question of who controls this body, or who is proper to this body in any vague sense (the sense in which postmodern theory stretches Heideggerian themes to sometimes foreclose less seemly questions of who owns this body--a question I'll just leave on the table, or take up later), is the way the body works in the film. The new motion capture cameras invented to shoot the picture most definitely come into play here--as well as the fact that it really a film made for 3D (I really recommend you see the film in 3D: if I saw it in 2D I think it would just be somewhat ordinary). It'd be crude to read the whole avatar concept, as deployed, as an allegory for this new motion capture technology (de Manian allegory is always a reduction of content to form masquerading as an opening of form--which mysteriously turns into language itself via a mystification of rhetoric--to content), but if this can give you a sense of the connectedness between the film's use of this technology and the issues central to the story and its development, then it might be worth suggesting. The technology quite simply signals the death of Jar-Jar, allowing for the seamless transition between closeups and full-body CG rendering of action, and then from CG to non-CG shots of the actors. The CG characters thus lose their CG-ness, and I'm actually quite certain that reports of the uncanny-valley experience still being made by people who have seen the film are really just mistaken registrations of the uncertainty produced by the concept of the avatar itself--in other words registrations of the plot. With the introduction of this technology, the valley frankly has been crossed, though of course by a sort of cheating--you are, through the CG, watching actual faces after all--which actually betrays the fact this isn't a technological "advance" (as it is being characterized and marketed, in a typical determinist manner) so much as a proper displacement of the old problem into an area where it now opens up new avenues (think of what the rumored Ghostbusters 3 would be like if it used aspects of this technology for ghosts!). And what this all allows is first and foremost--and finally!--a subordination of your interest in the CG-ness of the characters to your genuine concern with their activity. No longer, that is, do we care about the fact that a character is more or less "realistic." This is important because the suspension of the question about reality lets in fiction itself (and which makes possible something so far only really attempted by Pixar and others with natural scenery --vraisemblance).

When this is combined with the fact that the film is made for 3D, the effect is to make the problem of the body distinguish itself from the problem of any sort of representation of that body. For in these elaborately built 3D spaces, full of palm fronds, vines, waterfalls and bugs  in the foreground that your eye avoids, and backgrounds of stars, planets, or huge mechanical spaces into which you are drawn--in a spatial sense, almost on the level of basic motility (these spaces are brought closer to you, one critic rightly said)--the avatar body can move and interact and refuse to sit there as a spectacle. In other words the 3D aspect of the film stratifies or complexifies the environment against which the body is moving as much as the new motion capture deals with the body's most important surface aspects, such that both become something you deal with rather than look at (as you would deal with a landscape as opposed to a landscape painting: there are multiple points of entry into the former, say, while the latter--even if painted in the picturesque tradition--only attempts to give you those). This differentiation achieved, the problems in the representation of the body can return as part of the problems raised by those bodies.

Thus, within your experience of these bodies on-screen, you begin to notice that the avatar body, and the alien species of which it is a modification, take on problematic shapes. Besides the fact--way, way underutilized--that the Na'vi are about twice as big as humans, they remain somewhat boringly humanoid, except for their little neural hook-ups that connect them to the planet eco-network (but I won't get too specific). This is different with the animals, which are simply the most amazing things in the film because they blend SF and fantasy so well: they remain sufficiently alien while they also behave almost like magical companions--and yet the balance always is tilted in favor of the alien (it can only be tamed through work, not through immaterial communion with it) but without the easy move of making the animal into a monster. One gets the sense--and it is the real achievement of this film--that the creatures work in many different and interesting ways. I think Cameron wanted the Na'vi to be something similar: thus their larger catlike ears, eyes, and, of course, nose (the most significant sign of differentiation), and their tails. But the film seems to founder here: a culture has to be built, and that seems to do the work of erasing the animal in them. Or, more probably, a vitalism and spiritualism--to which we'll return--comes in to take over the animal aspect, and dissolve whatever was interesting about it in the bodily realm.

And now is when we begin to notice that the aliens all remain exceedingly fit, slim, and trim--there's not a pudgy one in sight. And it is here that I think a critique can be levied--now that we have also hit a terrain also familiar to feminism: fitness is allied with race here in a weird way, to do the work of making this alien body alien. In the place of something like a completely different anatomy (always a possibility, though it is perhaps the easiest--and indeed it is explored with the animals themselves), or any other qualitative difference, we have some implication that the aliens experience their bodies more. And this sheer quantitative differentiation does not produce any significantly different "trust" of the body--which is what, I think, would be required here for a genuine experience of the alien as opposed to what it can always (and too easily) be dissolved into: race and sex. The film tries to balance this (along a technology/nature binary) by setting up the colonizers as fit and powerful (something like a different kind of fitness)--even to the extent that they make the protagonist's body get a little flabby the more time he spends as his (increasingly fit) avatar--but it's not really convincing when we gawk at sweaty seething flesh moving rhythmically in ritual (like in Riefenstahl's weird and obsessive late photos). Everything gets leveled to some sort of bodily experience aligned with a re-discovered naturalness (that is, artificiality--or rather the artificial flow between them which can magically partake of both) and then to sexuality, which--besides lacking any gender differentiation or play (women are either reduced to Amazons [i.e. men] or lusty nubile objects)--offers less bodily possibilities precisely as we're meant to think it offers more (and in a way that seems similar to how many theorists talk about "the bodily," taken as a site of pure, uninterrupted or uncitational production).

But, these problems now have to be routed through plot, insofar as the real subordination made possible by the new technology's subordination of spectacle to action is that of all the visuals to the story. What I thought was really lamentable in Star Trek was that this relationship to plot was never set up. Characters were there only, surrounded by a really interesting visual experience. And while characters can generate plot (the best example being Arrested Development), Star Trek decided to turn in circles with the most minimal story--that of trauma. In fact, it even subordinated the most interesting character to this story, as if the character himself wasn't interesting enough: we become familiar with Spock through his trauma, as if the only real relationship with a character that we could have is that of a shared and ultimately minimal void... While this perhaps cleanly avoids issues of race that the alien brings up by draining all of those problems--remember, Spock is an alien--into a trauma that is apparently pan-species (an old, and typical, postmodern displacement of humanism: the "everybody's trauma" or formalistic/constitutive trauma of Cathy Caruth) I'd frankly rather risk an encounter with that (and isn't the possibility of that encounter precisely constitutive of SF itself as a genre?) to see a genuine story--or something, at least, that will make issues out of all these minimal markers. While the plot of Avatar might be a bit too old and oversimple (Cameron himself admits as much), this is what the movie achieves. The real feeling of an "advance" in the technology I think stems from this: that now the CG people and the actors can be on the same team for once, and try to tell a story together through the technical setup. It's in this sense that Jar-Jar is really dead (along with, perhaps, Shrek and Nemo: animation itself can now go down a really interesting route that rotoscoping perhaps only really traveled on seriously before).

So when it comes to plot, the problematic racial relation to the body is solved by a disturbing ending, that affirms the pleasures of conversion into this avatar body rather than make it interesting. Here religion (into which fantasy elements easily slip, though--like in Harry Potter--they don't have to) come back to interrupt whatever was properly sci-fi about the whole situation (though religion and science fiction are also not opposites: see VALIS for the most amazing, if perhaps too soft-SF and self-reflexive, example). And, more than that, they make us question what was scifi to begin with about the various biological neural "networks" that connect the whole planet together: the scientific explanation only really becomes science-fictional when it loses its ties to empty spiritualism. And while the whole movie provides an immersive ecological experience that is sure to drive the importance of biodiversity home to anyone who sees it (and counter cynical religious anti-science drivel), unless it provides something more than an optional scientific explanation for relations between the Na'vi body and its environment--for that is how it is presented--we regress. Something like a real experience of this relation (which is what is required) is, indeed, brought home right before the ending--in the planet-wide rebellion against the colonizers (I try to remain vague so as not to spoil), on a scale that is large enough to render nature itself alien (again). But then the ending kills that off and makes these relations spiritual and familiar.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Typewriter notes

I thought a typewriter would help me write, in that it would slow down my composition and make me think more about the irreversibility of my sentences (the ceaseless push onward, that can't really be erased like handwriting). Currently though the device is serving a different purpose: it has turned into a way for me to take notes.

I hate starting up a computer when I have something to write down. And I like seeing the words, fiddling with them like blocks. So prior to this I would simply use scraps of paper, or small notebooks. This blog I would reserve for lengthier thoughts, ones that had a series of ramifications or relationships to other thoughts--or, as was more often the case, simply needed to be spun out a little in order for them to really become clear. This back and forth has changed a bit since I got a big stack of 3x5 cards over the summer. The little thoughts were now all in one place, at least, stacked up. And so I could work a little more on them there than perhaps I was used to doing--if I ran off a card, I could just take the next one in the pile. Or I could jot something down quicker and know where it would end up. There didn't need to be any hunting down of napkins stuck in between editions of Coleridge or Pope, say, in order for them to be transcribed and collected together in an electronic file.

I knew, however, that if I kept this up, I'd end up in the crazy situation of Niklas Luhmann, who numbered and filed away all his little cards, such that his workspace basically became his externalized brain (Grant and Sand showed me this a while ago).

Now, I simply type whatever thoughts I have out on the typewriter, separating them with a slash mark. So the whole thing becomes a transcription, basically, of a day or two of thinking. Whenever a thought comes into my head, I just walk over to the typewriter and smack it a bit and walk away happy that the fragment is down there, in some basic form. This can become a bit more elaborate, however, than anything I normally scribble on a piece of paper, since the writing puts you in a rhythm and draws the thoughts out of you more than with a pen. Maybe the computer works this way for some people (perhaps older people, who have experienced the world before word processing), but not for me: the act of composition basically is caught up with your thoughts, so that you spend a lot more of your time rearranging things than working off of the device--the latter being for me what is ultimately essential. I don't want the technology to disappear: I like it when its relationship to me gets foregrounded a bit more. The typewriter in that moment provides a sort of gearing down, as it were, so that I have to work a bit more against the machine, exert a little more pressure upon it, in order for more to come out.

Regardless, I am happy to have discovered my ideal way to take notes--capitalizing on that easy slippage of the typewriter into stenography. While many of my friends have found much more sophisticated ways of computerizing their note-taking process, and while I remain still a little envious of them, this seems to me so much more... how to put it? Free, breezy, part of my everyday living. Turning on the computer means entering a space that seems both too ideal and too close to consciousness. With typewriter notes, I get to play with the letters and the words in a more tangible space, a more bodily space.

As more devices take over that bodily space, this difference becomes nil, of course. According to Grant, though (who was tweeting), Lev Manovich asked an amazing question at the recent Digital Arts and Culture conference about why ubiquitous computing has not happened yet--only mobile computers like the iPhone attached to the body. It is perhaps because the gap to be cleared is asymptotic, or can't be crossed merely by a simple notion of the "bodily," however reversible we might make the latter (Merleau-Ponty). There seems to be a difference between the bodily experience involved with the foregrounded device that works against me and the body covered with devices, however much they too try to resist us in new ways. Perhaps here is some sort of contradiction that remains to be negated...

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Yule Log


Speaking of TV, I've always been amazed at the transformation of the device into a fireplace each Christmas. Yet another reminder that content steadfastly refuses to remain content on a TV, as Grant points out ("The Form of Content Delivery"): here something like reference, or even indexicality, brings the device back into the realm of mere depiction, and yet also fills out the space of the gadget (in a way typical of media, yet perhaps ne'er so well expressed) to make it add to the very architecture of your apartment (the transformation remains determined by its place of origin: most New York City apartments don't have fireplaces). Through the looping in particular of the representation, the device is set back into a larger lived space to a radical degree, and one dwells beside it--indeed almost moves through the new space it has created.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Williams and McLuhan

What's most interesting about Raymond Williams' book on television is the scorn for McLuhan. Williams is often reserved in his work, preferring dismissal or contempt to appear only in oblique ways. The feelings, of course, aren't any less intense for all that: it's just that Williams reserves his more fiery language for more directly political writing.

But Television toes the line here, and so it's somewhat fitting that the anger should come out: what's often forgotten about this book is that first and foremost it seeks to present a series of practical political recommendations that would make television a more social means of communication. It certainly ends on this basis, with a rousing call for legal reform (one which Williams wanted to renew, in a revised and updated version of the book, right before his death). But this all is often less noticed (so my colleague Grant tells me) than the analysis of "flow" that provides the basis from which these political statements can be articulated.

This, though, is typical of precisely what so enrages Williams about McLuhan himself: the taking of such analyses as proof that there is a formal change in technology--and this in an constantly polemical language, which makes this outburst of Williams seem to reside in another form of communication altogether. This operation is what Williams refers as both McLuhan's empiricism, and I think it is the one of the better critiques of McLuhan that there is out there--certainly more sophisticated than more common charge brought to McLuhan under the oversimple heading of "technological determinism," and maybe perhaps even more pertinent than the charge (found in media studies itself) of "formalism," which Williams himself also makes.

We can see the essence of the critique in this simple statement:

The initial formulation--"the medium is the message"--was a simple formalism. The subsequent formualtion--the medium is the massage"--is a direct and functioning ideology.
-Television: Technology and Cultural Form, 130

This also hits at the heart of what is the most amazing aspect of McLuhan: his writing. Here, an tradition of Anglo-Saxon punning and word-coinage is taken to new heights, so that it seems to need, in turn, some new and better name to be described: an adequate and accurate one would be, I think, Latour's morphism, whose sense I think can be brought out better if, in turn, we pun on that and call it a morephism (it precisely does not produce the phenomenon Ian Hacking calls having "too many metaphors," in The Social Construction of What?). Throughout the brilliant analyses that riddle Understanding Media, this is put into the service of tracking the mind-boggling (I almost wrote mind-bloggling) reversals, the shaping and reshaping of media, of which this analytic morephing or transcoding (for that is the even more original and accurate Greimassian term behind the Latourian one) itself is only another and more explicit instance.

In other words, it is not only that the medium becomes a massage that is the problem here, for Williams: it is that the phenomenon is too confined to something that can be designated merely as and by this simple transcoding. In this, I see Williams as actually at one with prominent media theorist Lev Manovich, in his Language of the New Media, who thinks that just because this transcoding is itself a feature of the medium, merely tracking it is not sufficient (47-48). For in McLuhan, not only is the meaning of a medium another medium--it is demonstrably so: this very fact itself can be seen to operate upon the analysis of media. This isn't to say that McLuhan's writing is performative, but rather that the theory of the medium is confirmed by a process that begs the question why we would think it was confirmed in this manner. The answer, for Williams, is that McLuhan confines the sphere in which media works. And this doesn't amount to the other common charge that McLuhan is too focused on technology as an extension of man so much as ask why the most obvious and immediate transformations--those psychic and sensory ones--seem to give us a grip on media, rather than genuinely social kinds of transformations.

Now, this isn't a knockdown argument. It sees little or no value in precisely what media studies (rightly) sees as interesting in McLuhan: the opening up of technology into a realm once thought of as aesthetic (though McLuhan still referred to it as such), but which is now more profitably seen as composed of elements of daily life and use (and in this, media studies seems lightyears ahead of the philosophers who still wade through old 18th century questions, as well as literary critics and theorists who, having left those issues behind, still give priority to the role of language untouched by the problems of communication and information in anything more than some vague existential sense--like Paul de Man, who remained basically Gadamerian, though less consistent, however much he claimed to address "writing" under the equally unclear heading of "materiality"). More significantly, it is the opening up of technology into a sort of realm that takes us beyond conventional notions of experience while precisely extending the experience that the use of technology affords us--and which is achieved, it usually seems, by suspending the question of who has control over that use and experience.

But I think it rightly gets at what is also fascinating about McLuhan, and which the charges (from within media studies or media history) that seek to link McLuhan's concentration on the psychic and overuse of this focus on experience with some "humanism" seem to me (now, as I just begin to orient myself in its most basic work) to miss--though they open up a way for the technical to itself evolve in a no less mind-bloggling way (and, in Kittler, account for unbelievable sorts of transformations--like the emergence of software from gaps in the conceptualization of hardware [see "There is no Software"]--which refocus us back onto the material and social contexts of technology--or technical contexts--in a way not entirely at odds with what Williams is doing). It is the way this psychic focus in McLuhan can proceed as if it integrates social analysis. As you can see, Williams even would be willing, with media theorists, to see some importance in the richness the focus on experience gives us if we would just witness the latter phenomenon as well:

Much of the initial appeal of McLuhan's work was his apparent attention to the specificity of media: the differences in quality between speech, print, radio, television and so on. But in his work, as in the whole formalist tradition, the media were never really seen as practices. All specific practice was subsumed by an arbitrarily assigned psychic function, and this had the effect of dissolving not only specific but general intentions [or agencies--MJ]. If specific media are essentially psychic adjustments, coming not from relations between ourselves but between a generalized human organism and its general physical environment, then of course intention in any general or particular case, is irrelevant, and with intention goes content whether apparent or real. All media operations are in effect desocialized; they are simply psychical events in an abstracted sensorium, and are distinguishable only by their variable sense-ratios. But it is then interesting that from this wholly unhistorical and asocial base McLuhan projects certain images of society: "retribalization" by the "electronic age;" the "global village."
-Television, 130-1.

This, it should be clear, is ideology as well: Marxism is also an ideology (one that precisely affirms its ideological elements), and thus reinterprets history on a social basis that makes possible such statements. But this has to be grasped just as much as Williams grasps the bourgeois ideology he attributes to McLuhan before one can actually begin to see what is going on in this instance. Williams sees that the psyche in McLuhan is not social, or only emerges into the social subsequent to its formation as a self. So the direction of McLuhan's analysis is inward, and this is what allows him to project outward to the global village. The alternative, he says, is simply to see this psyche in social terms, determined not by the social as an essence opposed to the individual, but by the social as a system of relationships (terms which make possible media theorist Mark Hansen's description of the commodification of consciousness itself). Such an analysis would grasp the operations of the media then as social adjustments, or move outward from the totality of the relationships to return inward: and this is all Williams means by content. McLuhan's rather uninformative review of Williams' book (I cite it below) sees precisely in this word nothing other than the usual communicational notion of message that gets thrown in his face continually as some contradiction to his doctrine, and which he just as insistently (and correctly, in most cases) claims would have to change when the medium comes on the scene: but Williams presupposes a transformation of this particular term from the get-go, rendering much of what McLuhan says moot. In other words, the reintroduction of content precisely means the social adjustments media produce would be the massage (or, to put it in another way, the exclusion of content in favor of form in McLuhan would be of another type than is usually talked about--and would proceed in a way which makes us negotiate the problem by claiming [in a new content industry--see Grant's paper on content delivery] that content is everywhere).

One can object that the focus on experience highlighted above produces precisely this, if it is only extended--and this would be somewhat right. Thus what Williams then goes on to say about the "global village" strikes us as a bit odd, now:


As descriptions of any observable social state or tendency, in the period in which electronic media have been dominant, these are so ludicrous as to raise a further question. The physical fact of instant transmission as a technical possibility, has been uncritically raised to a social fact, without any pause to notice that virtually all such transmission is at once selected and controlled by existing social authorities.
-Television, 131

This strikes us as odd now precisely because it has become something like a social fact, or at least the sense that it has to be seen as a social fact if we are going to get a handle on anything like the immensity of the technical networks that drive along global capitalism itself in this day.

But at this point, it's important to return to the notion of "social" that we outlined above. One has to insist that the facts of the dynamics of this capitalism are precisely different than social facts qua social--and that this itself constitutes the very situation of society today. Such would be the Marxist claim, or the claim that Williams himself is, in pointing out the conflation of metaphor and hyperbole, making--though this claim is not unlike some things that even Kittler puts sometimes in different terms (perhaps).

Thus the recourse to figures of "control," which are precisely those that McLuhan wants to see as antiquated. Now, they aren't antiquated for McLuhan in the precise way that Williams would characterize it: McLuhan suspends it to provoke us to deal with a radically ambivalent political force, rather than to draw our attention away from the political ramifications altogether (though this isn't exactly Williams' claim: he claims that McLuhan seeks to suspend thought about the institutions that still direct much of technology's politics, in favor of giving us some more personal and less unified form of resistance). But still, the recourse to control isn't as antiquated to begin with, either, since it is put in terms of social control: Williams is trying to ask what is happening in pockets where instant transmission is not yet a social fact, or what the balance of forces actually is there--in short, whether there is a possibility for anything other than individual effects of the media in that location, and what social forces (authorities, institutions) make this the case or not.

This, for Williams, means seeing technology as producing cultural effects, or social ones, before it becomes so quickly seen as projecting an actual fact of society--though I think these operations can actually work in alternation or in tandem (something like using transcoded discourse networks to get a handle on what a technology projects, and then using this against the idea that it has actually grasped the real state of things: negating the stability of the episteme corresponding to the discourse). On the practical level, this means for Williams avoiding that sort of McLuhanesque transcoding on the level of the analysis itself--and this is where the notion of "flow" becomes again relevant in precisely the way TV Studies has not made it (see Roger Silverstone's preface to the Routledge Classics edition of Television, xi). Where they take it as a way to get a handle on what is specific about the the televisual medium itself with respect to other media, for Williams it remains something still-to-be-designated. In other words, the morephic quality of the word still insists on the distinction between what it may designate and reality itself: it is form that still insists on its nature as a (Williams would call it communicative) relation "between ourselves," or a form that has content. So, for Williams, trying to describe "the characteristic experience of the flow sequence itself,"

...would be like trying to describe having read two plays, three newspapers, there or four magazines, on the same day that one has been to a variety show and a lecture and a football match. And yet in another way it is not like that at all, for though the items may be various the television experience has in some important ways unified them. To break this experience back into units, and to write about the units for which there are readily available procedures, is understandable but often misleading, even when we defend it by the gesture that we are discriminating and experienced viewers don't just sit there hour after hour goggling at the box.
-Television, 96

This is completely against the refrain in which McLuhan can slip, precisely because he is so concentrated on precisely designating the actual nature of the technology demonstrated in the experience of it--as he does in his review of Williams:


To suggest [as McLuhan says Williams does] that the television image has anything in common with the movie image is very disappointing, indeed, and suggests a lack of elementary aesthetic analysis.
-"Review of Television" (in Technology and Culture, Vol. 19, No. 2, pp. 259-261).

This is the differentiation of what are seen as completely different media, because completely different experiences--which in another sentence could just as quickly be unified in terms of some psychic transfer between the eye and the ear, because they take place as a unified technological reality called a "medium." Maybe these distinctions are moot at this point, as technical innovation continually exceeds our capacities to describe it. But as a warning about the sort of flattening between the perspective of the analyst and the producer (which brings back the specter of aesthetics on the one hand, and anti-hermeneutic on the other), which can also be explained in terms of the commodification of consumption itself and its effect upon analysis (which is what a lot of media studies--like that of Hansen's above--seeks to register and combat), this at least might be one way to resurrect Williams, or perhaps give his views a new fair shake alongside the brilliant ones of McLuhan (perhaps in a less polemical relationship to each other). And if, as I think is the case, both have almost irreconcilable ways of explaining technology--McLuhan's alleged formalism, we should remember, is always a consequence of his attempt to locate the site of technology with radically unheard-of precision; and Williams' analysis thus represents an attempt to locate it in a completely different place (one has to read "Means of Communication as Means of Production" in Culture and Materialism for his most condensed account of this place--which is a realm of amplificatory, alternative, and durative practices)--then this is at least an advance.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Star Trek

So I finally saw the new Star Trek last night. For various reasons I just couldn't make it to the theater over the summer--though one of those reasons was that when I could, my ambivalence over the whole thing kept me from going. You see, I'm a bit of a devotee (i.e. fan!). TNG has always been my favorite series, since I prefer its more hard-sciencey sort of focus and the more thorough concentration on the issues of managing the flying space city that the Enterprise has become (a focus that we see throughout Galactica, for instance). It's space opera become a problem--I like that. Plus it makes social issues come into focus on a wider scale, and the encounter with "new life and new civilizations" much more representable (instead of just sticking in an alien here and there, as in Star Wars or, actually, in this new movie, you get a focus more on cultures, collectives). Of course, this was also possible because of the money pumped into its special effects, but the storytelling was also usually pitched at that level. Like any good science fiction program on TV, it tended to wobble away from that if a better, weirder, more thought-provoking situation came up and could be explored--in a way not unlike many of the original series episodes, which occasionally seem more like The Twilight Zone's great one-off thought-experiments. So while I liked TNG, the original series, was still great, since it had solid stories, solid characters, and was often true in spirit to the inventive, pulpy, and indeed literary mode American SF, even if it could only build its worlds on a smaller scale (the recent reissue of the original series, with its suped-up special effects [and wonderfully remastered sound] tries to undo this and wonderfully fails, though it allows us to focus away from what is most obtrusive and lends to parody--in a way that makes one realize, as we did in a negative way watching the horrible new Star Wars movies, that the stories are what produce the need for representation of this future reality).

So I had Trekkie issues. But it wasn't so much that I thought the old characters should be forbidden to be taken up again, or indeed the whole canon itself forbidden to be messed with, as much as I was worried about the remake becoming only what it indeed turned out to be: an action movie. Now, TOS was, let's be honest, not always the more cerebral political meditation that one found in TNG (best exemplified in the unbelievable episodes on torture) or Deep Space 9 (which, by the way, is underrated). And TNG (especially in the movies) certainly had its share of pure action. But maybe it'd be good to distinguish between action and adventure, and say that in the original series, regardless of all its fights, it remained closer to the latter. It never made that leap towards the pure action film without some serious loss: it never turned into, however thin the plot was, that typical action-movie form where story becomes merely an excuse tying together pure spectacle, choreography, or violence (which is why the fight scenes--the best being, of course, with the Gorn--are often laughable for their length more than their low quality).

This has huge ramifications, I think, when it comes to the representation of space itself, as we'll see in a moment, but adventure turning into action was what I feared and what the movie actually did. Maybe another turn of the screw is appropriate, though: what we found in the new movie was not action purely, but adventure, become action, now trying to become adventure again. So it's not a pure opposition, but something like the the action movie trying to regain its roots (something that happens--with typical nostalgia for WWII times--in Indiana Jones, say).

It's sad, though, to see that this effort has so limited the resources with which such a revival could be accomplished to the postmodern high formalism J.J. Abrams lives and breathes (there's certainly another sort of postmodern content--anxiety about recursiveness and hallucination as such, which we find in the new excellent remake of The Prisoner--a content that, to defend it, is much more rich... but this is always less appealing to Abrams, unless it is the effect of a formal problem). For it's this formalism that we find, I think, in the old characters themselves: not so much a pleasure in their new content as some sense that their slots have been filled--or the fetishization of the fact that they can be filled at all and their story can be different. I'll get to Spock in a second (perhaps the only exception to this--but even then this is only accomplished through the most bare formal pressures), but you see that indeed this logic is so impoverished it actually has to take the most expansive form of the clunky plot itself, with its time travel and alternate universe production. Never mind the fact that it tries to push the burden of its clunkiness on the ties of the series to science in the first place, in the overcomplicated explanation future Spock (Nimoy) gives to Kirk in an ice cave--which I think just amounts to an insult, playing off notions that the series, because it just was SF in general, was therefore overcomplex and intellectual (early in the movie, Kirk's use of the word "syntax" is depressingly used as a code for deep learning). Never mind that: what's disturbing is that this also makes the whole movie into an allegory for the marketing-like dilemma the re-creators faced in the first place (and which some of them obviously didn't sweat about so much that it would prevent them from shoving a Nokia phone into the beginning): can we make anything different than the original, with these poor characters and this overburdened series, when the original is actually still doing so well? The dilemma becomes one of rebranding when it's not even necessary. Now, it's not that I don't like anything different done with the characters--though that's precisely the insulting sort of false-problem the movie produces for Trekkies and which it would love them to fume over (while they document each new technical change made to their beloved universe) while it rolls in the cash (Why don't you want anything different done? You were supposed to love these characters! You just don't want them shared with anyone other than yourselves!--suchlike phrases/overtones even became a way to market the film... and I think the anger of Trekkies is usually about this having nothing to say back to this more than anything). No, that's not my problem. It's that, when this inversion is transferred to the level of the plot itself, the movie ends up evacuating itself of anything different it really could have done, difference now simply having become newness and vice versa (a problem Jameson rightly sees as central to postmodernism). This is what makes me happy they are doing another movie, where the question of difference can actually be pursued in terms of a less-formal and auto-referential plot (getting its motivation not even from the bad guy, whose superfluity is so extreme that I think he becomes relevant again, in that he gets stuck in there precisely to draw our focus away from the real center--the time-travel dilemma--and its turning in place). Though this is exactly the minimal affirmation, minimal hope, such an empty formal work desires to produce.

Form become content, then, our attention is shifted back to the cinematic medium itself--which indeed has been filled with all sorts of thickness that the plot and the characters (again excepting Spock--but actually I think he's just a form too, as we'll see at the end) are lacking. Here, indeed, is something genuinely fascinating and which strikes out in a genuinely new direction. The profusion of light in the movie, that complete inversion of noir which is so striking when it comes to the bridge of the Enterprise, when projected onto space turns it into another animal altogether. While on the Enterprise, indeed, it remains a great homage to the smallness of the original show: light comes in to delete the space of all those old props, and represent the expansiveness of the original vision which it couldn't actually pull off with its gray cardboard-like consoles and bleep-bloop blinking computer buttons (which again, I think, represents another moment where SF ties to technology get seen as over-intellectual, doomed to become obsolete [not in function but in representation, in look, not feel--but that's a difference symptomatically passed over here], and therefore able to be eliminated altogether--along with their ties to futurity itself and its even more futuristic afterlife, which, let us remember, is again what the whole "plot" is meant to accomplish!). Where there is finally some representation of this old hulking ship, the great tubes, canisters, vats code it wonderfully (and comically) as steampunk--what happens when SF meets pastness itself. This is welcome, but besides the tubes (which crisscross in a weirdly unsmooth fashion that jars a bit with the rest of the movie sleek surfaces--though because these surfaces are ultimately thick and fleshy, as I'll show in a moment) this like the light takes a form subtracted from the visual by its addition, which is that of the wonderful static, crackling sound of transportation (the single best thing in the film, I thought) and the pop of warp speed. All this produces an unbelievable non-nostalgia for 60s-ness (or even late-50s-ness): in the space of the 60s (which, reaching its climax in in Kubrick was full of light--and remember 2001 was hugely ripped off by the first Star Trek movie), it gives us some other feel (non-Kubricky), which is welcome because makes us think hard about what it could be at the same time as it allows us to understand the 60s-feel as such differently, perhaps more thoroughly. Since the association of Star Trek with this old technological code is what the film is perhaps most intent on preventing (another purely negative goal--accomplished by so much being left out and only the crudest associations with primitive elemental forces [water, metal, electricity] put back in), or because this non-nostalgia is so pervasive, the movie doesn't push far in the latter direction.

But back to space, where the payoffs, I said, were the greatest. Space in the movie becomes thick, fleshy, multilayered: the Enterprise itself must keep floating through debris, being shrouded in the light of the warp speed (like on the poster), or emerging out of the bath of Titan's atmosphere (which is dwelt upon almost too long, so that we even feel something like the touch of space, its caress, and everything becomes vaguely sexual). No longer is space a void, an emptiness, a vast beyond: rather it envelops us. We are all Star Children, but precisely because space isn't black anymore: it's yellow, green, blue, anything but that stark black or the hardly different purple--which, represented in the new film, takes on associations with bruises before it seems like any cloud of space-dust. The most striking shot of the film brings this home (you can find some of it here): the Enterprise blasting itself out of the black hole by dropping the warp core (old trick, I think used once in TNG), being chased for a moment by an expanding cell membrane made of blue light which comes to push it on and or absorb it... this shows us the camera has become a microscope and we have completely passed into the realm of biology, of Innerspace, rather than the physics space of old. Space is body in this film, embodied, and while it'd be relevant here to bring up Fredric Jameson's discussion of the body as the real horizon of postmodern thought, I'll do that more in detail at a later time. Needless to say this applies here: we wonder at our bodies in this movie and their disintegration, not at space in any classic sense, and while this might represent something of a progression, something that makes space something closer to the more pliable realm SF has always seen it as (and the physical universe in general, nature itself), because it is a device for producing that reinvestment of action with adventure (and not the other way around) it seems to me a bit regressive. I'll be more specific: physics-space causes wonder, while the biology space of this movie is still sheer spectacle, since space is evacuated of its limitlessness, or made (however wide the shot) only so big, while none of the problems of this swath of light's management (what makes it alien, hard to deal with) emerge (we find in it only sheer enjoyment, or sheer terror). Moreover, given this body, it isn't filled with anything, anything like people, ships, space stations and devices or what have you, despite the appearance of one in the beginning. This space isn't the space of technology and people, of possible civilization, but something like weak nature, which peoples you more than you people it. Again, maybe that's an advance: it's certainly an aesthetic advance, mirrored more on the most unbelievable pictures we get from the Hubble or the orbiters of Mars, and makes possible a new representation of futurity as full of wild being, as it once was called by Merleau-Ponty, full of light and warmth, half-glimpses of stars and worlds (which could be interesting if it were pushed back into technology: we would get less of an on-board experience of journeying--and we don't really get this 19th century naval experience here, which is so prevalent in TNG--and the man-made would flit by with a less visible, though light-filled, tactile pressure and pull than the current visual explosiveness, tending towards the anarchy of Transformers or the obsessively over-detailed Star Wars, that we sometimes still see here and which still relies on simple equivalence between personal perception and the third person objective camera). But, put to the ends of this movie, it all tends to merely mirror our act of gazing at our (nonalien) bodies more than it does any sort of encounter with nature itself (which is why at the end, all the rest of the universe can just be gone through in a series--star system after star system impeccably modeled and chaotic rolling by merely with the credits), and make humanity less of a blip in the cosmos as the natural inhabitant of the universe (space merely as atmosphere)--taking it over without thinking (it's interesting how quickly Starfleet itself is coded as a military organization--like the Air Force, to keep going with the space-to-atmosphere reduction--more than an interstellar forum for diplomacy with an academic institution as its training academy: and while Kirk's final exam has always been seen as a sort of daring mixed with smartness, here the movie tries to code it as the lower class breaking a big bureaucratic intellectual institution through--not even cockiness, but pure assholery [the sign that it'd rather not represent lower class intellect at all, or see it merely as the frat-boy behavior it isn't]).

It's interesting on this point that the movie is so casual with things like planets and civilizations themselves, despite the use of Saturn: no fundamental break is seen between humanity on Earth and humanity in space, between the stars. And this brings me, finally, to Spock and black holes themselves--the real enemy of the movie. These puncture space and take away representation (though they also weirdly--because the plot needs to begin--seem to allow passage from the alternate Trek universe... such clunkily inconsistent physics doesn't even pose a problem for the movie but seems all the more to tie things together without really doing so--the typical formal postmodernist move), and they only work if space has become so very thick and bodily such that we can see this as threatening, sad, or profound. So back on the level of content (that is, form), within the plot, this is precisely what gives Spock himself something new, something only somewhat interesting: trauma. While this makes Spock into a different character altogether, this seems to me to be the most hackneyed way of doing so, since the non-representation of the death of of six billion people and their entire civilization in all its rich complexity seems more a formal requirement of the film--given its pure aim to be different--than anything really thought-provoking for either the character or us. Or maybe it provokes some thought, but this thought is about representation itself rather than any of the more substantial things (legacy, memory, social structure, the alien--remember, Vulcan was the first alien contact humans had, according to the canon) that might appear in further movies (and again, this minimal affirmation is all that the movie is after here). Here, they seek to give new meaning to the old Vulcan dilemma itself, as if it weren't rich enough (with all its racial overtones) beforehand, and this makes such a complex exploration of what this all means take the mere form of yet another prelude to action (big statues, once signifying something, are more interesting because they come crashing down on a poor figure as Spock rescues the Vulcan High Council).

In the end, if you think that this overcomplication does indeed invest the movie with some less formal content, you might be right. It certainly ends up, through all these maneuvers used to extricate itself without extricating itself from the canon and series, as perhaps a more complex meditation on revisiting older aspects of franchises than some of the more recent comic book restart movie-epics. But then again, it also doesn't, in some sense, since this is again all tied up much too neatly: one has to ask whether one wants this affirmation to be so minimally and formally represented--and there only by absence--rather than played out in a richer plot integrating the achievements at the level of the medium itself. And this not in a future film, but in the future of this present one.

Friday, December 11, 2009

A note on Orientalism

So, I divorced literary theory from critical theory a bit last time. But I did so not to knock at the latter so much as show how literary theory is really doing something else, something less critical in the sense that people have been lately been referring to this--that is, negatively, and with its Kantian overtone. This isn't to say that ideology critique isn't also what we do in literary studies sometimes or even often. It's just that this necessarily takes the form of an extended meditation and analysis (or reading), that, because it has to pass through its object and really explicate it, can really only be something like dismissing conditions of possibility if it's done superficially. And, yes, there's probably a lot of superficial stuff. But there is that in all sorts of disciplines, and you can't dismiss critique by equating its most superficial performance with its most accomplished work, unless through that very Kantian maneuver. Regardless, the relationship of literary criticism to critique in general is not a simple one (critique has so many valences, and even if you mean it in the "proper" sense--and which applies, in the Latourian area from which this talk comes, primarily to critical sociology--the import of what you're saying starts to apply to the other significations), and the similarity of the words shouldn't make us think so.

It gets a little more complicated with the rise of critical theory and postmodernism, which sought to really play on this similarity of words and tie literary analysis with critique (and even reading itself into something like critique): it's a way to make criticism in any form (qua close attention to something) seem relevant, after all. However, we shouldn't forget the reasons in America that this desire for relevance was sought. It wasn't just opportunism. Certainly the way it proceeded was a bit suspect, since it also attempted to beat American philosophy (for one) to death. But this was already a dead horse, in many ways, and philosophy's renewed relevance in America might be attributed, in some way, to the slight pressure of this postmodern challenge, which, along with new (and perhaps much more heavy) pressure from the sciences, allowed it to develop its Continental aspects--though of course it did this mostly through internal changes, with much infighting, negotiation, and thinking and reading (the sort of unbelievable fixed positions of someone like a Dreyfus or a Schacht or Searle seem symptomatic of the sort of struggles they went through).

But this is why I once said critical theory is primarily the politicization of other disciplines. Here I just wanted to show that it also politicizes literary studies--and sort of undo the general sense that this critical theorizing started and ended here, or didn't become something with its own agenda. The particular way this politicization occurs--and I should be clear that when I say this I mean that literary studies isn't apolitical, just that it might have other possibilities for politics than the critical one--has generally put people like me in an awkward position, and my interest in literary theory is first and foremost one of trying to figure out how we can negotiate the legacy of literary theory in its relationship with this critical tendency, such that it doesn't all end with the situation we're currently in. This is a situation where last generation of readers has put the next generation in an untenable position, having pissed off everyone through its too-radical-but-strangely-not-radical-enough attempts to change the system by making this theory map directly onto with a critical-political project much larger than any particular field (which end up mainly just collapsing into a weak and less political attempt to deal with increasing "professionalization" or the compartmentalizing of literary studies--see John Guillory's good Bourdieuvian account of this).

But I also wanted to do this all in order to show that critical theory isn't something to be avoided. It just has its particular purpose, which I'd like to make clear is distinct from the purpose of literary criticism. This doesn't mean either that critical theory means "forgetting literature," as some people (Jonathan Culler, though reluctantly) have put it--cultural studies (which we can say is something like a side-by-side critical adventure which we can't quite reduce to the theorization, along with AfAm, Feminist, PoCo, more explicitly Marxist studies, and Queer Studies) certainly doesn't do this, though it sees literature primarily as taking place beside other media, and I see no reason to say critical theory does this either.

So--the general field of things sufficiently stratified or differentiated (and I'd rather insist on this stratification than in the way it's now all organized)--I'd like to suggest that one can jump into critical theory when necessary or even when not (though I'd personally show more hesitance to do so than in former times and not ask whether there were other ways to articulate what I'd say). One can even do so as a literary theorist (or, for that matter, as a literary historian). And I'd like to show the relevance of that particular jump (which can again be made by architecture students, philosophers, etc. etc.) by just presenting again a little contribution to the little spat around an essay by Harman, which I dealt with perhaps a little too roundly a while ago (though not, I think, as roundly as others). It comes up again as a sort of afterthought in Paul Ennis' next-to-last post explicating the essay in question. The posts are excellent by the way (here they are: 1, 2, 3, 4, and again 5), mostly because they show what I thought was obvious but I guess needs more stress (in a way that makes me for the first time doubt the supposed ubiquity of phenomenology as the main background against which most Continental philosophy works), which is that there's a lot of phenomenological ways into the issues discussed and that Harman is in a way making a contribution to them as well: as Paul says early in the first post, "in order to understand Harman's metaphysics one also needs to understand his motivations and these are tied to an overcoming of the overcoming-of-metaphysics in Heidegger." Anyway, as I suggested last time I spoke of this, going through all this as Paul did was one of the most helpful ways to address the larger concerns that dealt with the internal aspects of Harman's project.

But then there was that issue of Orientalism. Paul addresses it, as he nears the end of Harman's essay:

Harman makes an important claim next: “We must ignore the usual connotations of sensuality and fix our gaze on a more primitive layer of the cosmos” (Collapse II, 206). Here I think we can go some way to dispelling the idea that Harman is projecting sensuous qualities upon exotic objects – at least from the strictly philosophical mode. The question of the aesthetic employment of exotic metaphors is a different issue to be addressed later in the round-up. Within the orientalist lens one might also question the notion of a “primitive layer” but this too is a major theme of Western philosophical thinking from Schelling to Heidegger (and already problematic for Jacobi in his depiction of German idealism as a step toward emptiness/nothingness).

It's the last point that was the issue, as I gathered, but in a way had to also deal with that "aesthetic employment of exotic metaphors," though only vaguely. To recapitulate, Harman was accused of Orientalism, or Orientalistic thinking--and that you can't really be "accused" of this will be my point below--for asking us to fix our gaze in the way he does in Paul's quote: on "a more primitive layer."

Now, its the last sentence of Paul's here that will probably give us only cold comfort, since it doesn't really oppose the charge of Orientalism as--to whoever is interested in such charges--show it is more diffuse than ever! In short, making the primitive in this sense into a theme which is traditional doesn't really combat the charge and sounds like an argument from authority (which doesn't have much clout, however sensible it may indeed be).

What does oppose this charge is, however, the critical theory of Orientalism itself as formulated by Edward Said! In other words, it is the charge of Orientalism or Orientalisticity or Orentialisticalismicality which is precisely not proceeding along the lines which Said (alongside his literary theory and literary criticism) developed--as the parties involved to their credit said was the case. And so far from attributing the attack to an interested critical theorist, a critic critiquing, say, we should really understand how critical theory actually, in this case, comes to help philosophy figure out what's going on and, indeed, defend itself.

For, as my quote from Paul was meant to show, it doesn't always have the resources with which to account for things. That's no essential fault--as over-interested people might have said in the past--but just the sign of a place where it can turn to others, and others can be ready to help out.

So in a comment on Paul's blog, I made my contribution, and I'll make it again in more detail here: I said that Orientalism, for Said (one can find this in the first pages of his book), is more of a locus for the operation of power, not a one way dynamic with good and bad sides. So this is why you can't accuse someone of Orientalism. Orientalism is not something like a property of a thought or a taint upon it. Rather, Orientalism is a thoroughfare. Or, more vividly put, Orientalism is like a panopticon. And Said does this because he thinks that seeing orientalism as some taint of exoticization which needs to be expunged from whatever someone says--according to the weak and reactionary protocols of political correctness--are missing what is really at issue. One can always link exoticization with anything. The issue is larger, more collective or more widespread than that, but also has less to do with the character of the ideas themselves as the linkages to the relations between East and West that are the most hard to pin down. And so the concepts, as such, are not good or bad, either because they are old concepts that have come from something like a tradition of oppressing the Near or Far East, or because they carry their exotic flavor. This is because because the association of exoticization with the Orient, and the use of concepts in such a tradition, is the symptom of a more complex dynamic actually playing out between East and West--one that doesn't simply produce the oppression of the former or work in one way, and which never really stops if the concepts in which we see it most manifested disappear.

You see how this relies on Foucault's employment of that nice structuralist notion of discourse (Said himself says this). Now, you can disagree with this, with Foucault's ontology or whatever you want to call it, all you want. You can say it's too based on language (and I'd agree with you), but that's not enough. It's not enough here, because the theory allows us to begin to understand what is going on. Just because we knock away at that the notion of discourse (or language) doesn't mean we can't see how it helps us here, because at least negatively it shows us there can't be anything like a one-to-one correlation of concepts with political or social ramifications. Philosophy has a hard time arguing when this fact comes to the fore, because it means it has to creep past the interior of the concepts, just beyond their edges, and show their formative requirments--in short their historical character. Harman has actually been pretty good about trying to historicize his own concepts, at least on the personal level (I've never heard a person so frankly admit exactly when they really figured out Husserl before, as he does in Prince of Networks)--and philosophy, as history of philosophy as an area of study grows, is no doubt getting better in general in this area. But here we have a critical theory that works pretty well, and so why not use it? It doesn't always have to entail some agreement at bottom with the whole "system," and the efficacy of the notion doesn't always fall away with an attack at its foundations--simply because it might not so philosophically be "based" on such foundations.

It's also a theory that is trying, primarily, to get beyond the alleged crudeness of the Marxist way of going about this, which is through ideology. I think, though, we might see the Foucauldian notion of discourse against this Marxist background, almost as a modification of it rather than anything radically different than it--along with Derrida's much maligned talk about Western metaphysics. What's going on there is some attempt to not just dismiss philosophical concepts as tie them to the tendencies that shape them, their typical directions. If this then has ramifications on the interior, as it were (I'm using a poor conceptual scheme here, as if concepts were black boxes, but whatever--that's Latour's contribution). I think fundamentally, too, it is in this Postcolonial context (as it is called) that the arguments are the best: that is, I find Derrida's talk about Western metaphysics most convincing when it comes out of his attempt to deal with the historical ramifications of France's relation to Algeria--as I think it often does (and not just because he was Algerian). I think of what Foucault does as addressing a similar--though perhaps less starkly drawn--set of relations. Orientalism works too by trying to map the dynamics--not just in philosophy--that obtain at this crossroads. It might not be the best way to go about this, but in this case I think it works, in the sense that the theory makes us grasp how quickly we are moving from something like the content of the philosophy to statements about its general contours, by way of invoking the Orient itself (these large concepts often do too much work, as some people, in other situations, point out well). This is what Said was trying to account for with Orientalism--which is not one such big concept so much as the name for a dynamic which we can trace.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Notes on what literary theory does

Tuesday I sat down with other people to discuss literary theory (which, remember, is not critical theory) with one of our more prominent professors. I agreed a lot with what he had to say--and even more with the jovial way he said it, with genuine seriousness appended as he focused on describing how using literary theory feels. I share some of my notes here, however, because regardless of agreement they offer at least another perspective on what to do with literary theory--or rather, what it's good for--at this stage in the game.

He began by saying that the age where you had to be either for or against theory has completely passed (and this, I'll just say, is certainly true: it might be the case elsewhere that people are trying to breathe life into theory, but we're here all more focused on what you do with it now that it's over, or how you restructure things around a new and more interesting situation). Surely no one has to do it. But, then, he also stressed that in a way no one in an English department was really ever a full blown theorist to begin with--nobody ever really did it. Northrop Frye-like figures were indeed theorists, because they ultimately gave up reading to work out the system. Philosophers might be called theorists because they don't usually bring to bear what they have to say on literature. But for everyone else, in literature, it's always a matter of practical criticism, usually, or judgment and analysis--reading. Why? Because theory is not a method, he said: it gives you insight, in a way that he came back to explain, but it isn't something you can apply. So basically even in the heyday of theory people wrote practical criticism that was "in favor of having some theory" as he put it (and I'd agree, except that I'd also add the crucial missing link: when we do think we're theorists, we're really only doing methodology, and I'd try to see that perhaps as an opportunity, or as perhaps implying no only).

Literary theory usually can't be applied because it is more formative than a method: it sort of changes your whole tack towards an issue. Or allows you to grasp it at a certain angle. But the timeframe here is huge. You really get a theory over the span of a year, or something like that, he said. On that note, he said always to read the primary texts. Never read intros. And he blasted Terry Eagleton in the same way I did not so long ago: Eagleton just turns the theorist into a caricature... one after another after another. And this should not be an introduction to any of them, because it's not the primary text. Read the primary, even if you don't understand it, he said.

He used the example of Lévi-Strauss. He wrote a book on film based on Lévi-Strauss and myth. But it wasn't any sort of application. He just thought Lévi-Strauss' sense that a myth was the resolution of a social conflict was interesting. And then watching films, he started to see these sorts of figures and scenes--representations, mini-narratives--repeating themselves. Like the lone ranger riding into the sunset. Why does this occur? He took it as a myth--but by then it had already been quite a long time, and the theory was bent, as it were, so that it really didn't quite resemble where it came from. On this point, he said he didn't in fact cite Lévi-Strauss anywhere except footnotes. The best theory, he thought, was this sort of absorption of the theorist to that point... not to the point that you can rattle off his or her whole "system," and articulate how your project fits into that system, but in terms of having consumed and integrated it all and made it come out the other side, as it were, as something else, something bearing upon your object, or such that your object's fate is its fate in some mysterious way, back across the gap that the theory has since traveled. He told a story of using Marcel Mauss and then some anthropologists admiring how he did it--and he going away with some minor minor sense that he had altered a little bit of anthropology by just pulling it off. It wasn't that he used Mauss right out. It's just that he saw a problem where Mauss would be good to bring up--and the anthropologists like it, precisely because it's never something they would have done with him and probably should never have done. The disciplinary issues then were coming up: he said you shouldn't think of using a theorist as interdisciplinary work so much as the opposite, something like differentiating-disciplinary work. You show the specificity of your discipline with what you do with the others.

But back to theory, via this: he basically had the myth example and then an example with deconstruction. In the first, this was an example where he found the theory useful. In the second, he found something like a dissatisfaction with an aspect of the theory, as it was philosophically being articulated and of course picked up at Yale etc. It's "elegant pessimism"--a phrase I loved--especially at the end of whatever narrative it is reconstructing. Anyway, so he brought the theory to bear on a particular object (basically the double inscription of the mystery text in less genre-specific work), and this actually was to address a theoretical incapacity. Again, the terms in which this was done were not pure, were not theoretical--they were trying to "have some theory," or have some more coherent, interesting theory--to make an intervention through his object and its dynamics. Now, as far as technical terms go, he's for using them, but also for thinking of similar sorts of words that might cue up something like the theoretical framework, but which really bear more on your project. It's almost as if he is for writing a project where you use a vocabulary that, if you didn't really cite that theorist in footnotes, people might accuse you of ripping her or him off, or, say, thinking you were onto something original when it was exactly what Heidegger, for example, said. He wants you to toe that line, because it makes you think first and foremost about your project, not the theory, and articulate everything in a vocabulary nuanced enough to bring out your object.

Here's some quotes: when I use theory, it doesn't sound like the theory I got it from. But on the other hand, there's a certain necessity to my use of it. Also, theory is good for skepticism, in the sense that it makes you always ask--what's the upshot of this project, and never rest content with, say, history: with a description of the history or a development only. Also, find the person who is doing what you don't want to do, either as a theorist or on the project level. You'll run into them somewhere, and when you do, you will finally probably know what you want to to, because you ran into her or him when you didn't know you didn't want to do it that way so very very viscerally.

Ultimately, he concluded that theory was a good way of "seeing the consequences" of a thought. It was a little vague what this meant, though I thought it similar to the notion of the theory ceiling which I worked out a while ago, though taken in a more positive way in terms of what the ceiling or cap produces for you. I gathered what he meant in particular, though, was that you pick up a theory and follow it at a specific stage in your argument because it forces you to stop taking for granted the story you're telling and push it towards the level of upshots, payoffs--assuming, however, the theory has been sort of internalized in the way described above. The moment of theory, I took him to say, and to be theoretical, was a moment of negation, of that closure Jameson (and Greimas) talks about: you push the argument forward and then allow it to enter another series of moves, a series where perhaps another different theorist/theory might be useful. I said I was finding Jameson's eclecticism wonderful--and he said this was a sort of extreme (in that you are sort of carpetbombed with theories), but also a pretty exact, example of what he liked, where the theory is still subordinate to the matter at hand at the same time as it also is not applied, and carries argumentative force by forcing some closure, some coimplication of the object's fate and the theory's fate.

This, I'll just say in conclusion (and as a way of working a post I promised a while ago into all this) is why we don't think up the idea ourselves: literary theory is often accused of just culling together other great ideas. But, first, we transform those ideas, according to what I said above, and we show how they work, what they feel like in use. Second, we turn to these other ideas in the first place because they do argumentative work through this transformation above and beyond the analysis we're already doing, work that we don't think we should be doing alone since (like I say in the post on the theory ceiling) it is on a more general level. This means taking thinkers into a realm which used to be called aesthetic--but, since Coleridge, who first did this seriously, really can't be considered such, as this makes the issues only philosophical. I doubt many philosophers feel their work is too small in scope or in import, but this is what literary theory says is the case especially as their work bears upon art (and I tend to agree with this notion, though perhaps not for the same reasons). And it bears repeating that this doesn't mean a widening of issues into some conceptual jungle--philosophers know first and foremost how changing a framework can produce a slimmer, more focused set of problems. Perhaps this change is put best, though, if we say it's a matter of opening up the analysis of art to other areas than philosophy, seeing art as not only a philosophical problem. And we do this alongside what we also primarily do, which is refuse to see art solely as a problem of appreciation. We also perform this alongside literary history, which is another way to accomplish the dissolution of aesthetics.

I should also note this doesn't preclude some dismissal of the arguments and the texts that make up aesthetics (as I think some people sometimes believe): theorists study aesthetics very hard, but just refuse to use the texts in that limited way. One can justify this more positively with a reference to the importance of language over sense and perception, but, with my sympathies to phenomenology (including Derrida, though this might seem paradoxical unless you actually understand these people--and stop listening to the Yale school deconstructionists), I've never felt the need to do so.

Monday, December 7, 2009

An animal a thousand miles long...

Just one of my favorite passages from the Poetics, which I'm rereading. Aristotle is talking about plot. I've mixed together two translations, alternating between that of Hubbard and that of Butcher as their formulations become more or less useful:

It is not enough for beauty that a thing, whether an animal or anything else composed of parts, should have those parts well-ordered; since beauty consists in amplitude as well as in order, the thing must also have amplitude--and not just any amplitude. Though a very small creature could not be beautiful, since our view loses all distinctness when it comes near to taking no perceptible time, an enormously ample one could not be beautiful either, since the eye cannot take it in all at once, so that we lose the sense of its unity and wholeness as we look it over; imagine, for instance, an animal a thousand miles long. As, therefore, in the case of animate bodies and organisms a certain magnitude is necessary, and a magnitude which may be easily embraced in one view; so in the plot, a certain length is necessary, and a length which can be easily embraced by the memory. What is, for the poetic art, the limit of this length? Certainly not that imposed by the [dramatic] contests and by perception--if a hundred plays had to be performed during the festival, they would time the performance by the hour glass, as they say once on another occasion... As the limit imposed by the actual nature of the thing, one may suggest that the ampler the better, provided it remains clear as a whole. Or, to define the matter roughly, sufficient amplitude to allow a probable or necessary succession of particular actuions to produce a change from bad to good or from good to bad fortune.
-Aristotle, Poetics 1450b

The history of this view is fascinating, from it's disappearance in Sidney, who favors other parts of the short piece in his unbelievable Platonic-Aristotelian mashup (that is, the Defense of Poesy), to the classic debates in French and English dramatic criticism about the unities, to what I'd argue is its full restoration after Dryden, in what I'd say is, next to the revived ballad, the most important poetic innovation of the whole 18th Century, the descriptive poem--except now inverted, on its head, no longer dealt with in terms of plot but in terms of the perception itself that Aristotle here dismisses.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Close reading defined

The following is the essential meditation of I.A. Richards upon closeness, and thus shows us something of what it originally meant to call literary critical reading "close reading," as he famously did. It is taken from Interpretation in Teaching, which was both an extension of the empirical tests in Practical Criticism to the reading of prose composition (and with students not in Cambridge but in New York), together with a more wide-ranging set of recommendations for the restructuring of humanities education around an updated trivium. Thus, Richards is talking about closeness as it relates to the methods of education in general:

The way in from remoteness to closeness is certainly the secret and Royal Road to intelligence, understanding, sagacity, insight, and all the useful and creditable modes of learning. What the difference is, or rather upon what it depends in a given case, and why it should vary from one minute to the next, and how ability to approach can be increased, are the key-problems of all education.

The best way to help our pupils is to make them more aware of and more reflective about this difference between closeness and remoteness. I have insisted already--and may again--that it is not any mere correction of their mistakes which releives them, but an understanding of how they came into error. Methods to facilitate such understanding work through heightening this sense of the difference between being close to a question and being at a distance from it. Their virtue will be in the cunning by which they provide suitable opportunities for the mind to ask itself "What have I been doing?" "Am I near or far from the real problem?" An excellent way is to show them other minds at work from different distances, and the results--leaving them to draw their own morals in act rather than in words.
-Interpretation in Teaching, 106

You will notice two things: first, closeness is not a pure term, a quality, but rather is defined by degree, and thus is placed on a continuum the other pole of which is distance--a sense of closeness that I have recommended resurrecting. Second, closeness has a primarily functional sense, which makes it not only a matter of degree, but negative when indeed taken by itself. Extrapolating from the quote above and applying it to reading, closeness denotes the level at which one’s approach to the text could, not make meanings appear more clearly, but eliminate other less relevant levels which might bear upon the act of construing a meaning.

We see then that only subsequently (in America) would the term carry the ethical significance it now has, and which shapes the character of the practice itself--a significance Richards never could really bring himself to charge it with: the sense that if one read closely, one read slowly, with skill, with effort, bringing out the difficult and latent (that is, fully present but hidden) meanings with care. While Richards does charge closeness with an intensely moral role--in that from it one can judge the intelligence of the practicioner and, by modifying reading, alter this intelligence--the connection here between reading and morals is extremely dubious (inferring intelligence from reading, as Richards does, is a lot like practicing phrenology) and extremely utopian (reading and composition would and should be the most ideal test of competence).

Thus closeness has to become a positive, nonfunctional quality of reading in order to become so intertwined with notions of rigor and responsibility--to the extent that it could become synonymous, for Derrida and Derridians in particular, with reading itself, and make possible the oft-repeated, highly moralistic charge, "you simply have not read me." Of course, an entire conceptualization of textuality is also implied in this (quite melodramatic, no?) accusation, but in America (though I can imagine how one can, with some modifications, apply this to France) it also cashes in on this nonfunctional extension of closeness to become a gross overgeneralization. Or, to perhaps put it in a better way, the conception of reading becomes powerless to address the actual case where reading did not occur--as no doubt the people who make the charge can feel--except by heightening the invective, and being even more vague about what reading or reading closely might have actually produced.