Friday, January 22, 2010


I don't usually post my actual literary critical work here (though there are some exceptions). This blog is usually just a speculative theoretical space for me. But I've been wanting to show, in a nutshell, what the Marxist Raymond Williams was up to in talking about "counter-pastoral" in The Country and the City, since the general argument there a bit complicated and spans several chapters. And that involves some actual criticism and critical reading, as well as some actual Marxism that focuses on culture. Maybe people can also see what is really involved in all these practices--at least for someone in literature like Williams--that are so much maligned recently, both inside literary studies and outside it.

Williams at first defines counter-pastoral as poetry that continually resists the idealization of village or country life. Crabbe's couplet from The Village is, for Williams, the most succinct formula: “No longer truth, though shown in verse, disdain, / But own the Village Life a life of pain” (Book II, ln. 1-2).

But what is more important is that this insistence isn't just opposition, from the outside, to an idealizing pastoral. Rather, we have a properly generic dilemma: counter-pastoral still is pastoral. The idealization it resists is its own tendency to turns the young laborer into a swain. Thus to "own the Village Life" is not so much a conscious decision  to stay true to the country, so much as a task imposed by the pastoral tradition itself as is felt no longer to reflect anything essential about Arcadia, the countryside.

In other words, counter-pastoral is an intensely reflexive moment in pastoral where the pastoral scene the poet would imagine has to confront the material conditions of the country landscape, since at a certain point he or she feels the pastoral tradition is somehow painfully distant from what it allegedly depicts. It is not that pastoral has always tried to depict the countryside--no. It is just that the pleasure in idealization which is constitutive for the genre has disappeared.

Thus the "pain" of Crabbe is, besides being that of village life itself, the pain of the poet. He or she suddenly feels that a certain sector of poetry itself has disappeared, useless. Thus, together with the disappearance of the commons and the restructuring of the material land itself that goes on after the 17th century, the one cultural product that had the most direct relationship to this materiality also disappears.

The poet's problem then is to make his or her pain less subjective--and this is the task that Crabbe is outlining. Counter-pastoral occurs here, where this act is not so much a unburdening as a reinvention of the pastoral tradition necessary for pastoral poetry to occur at all.

This, of course, involves a lot of description or comparison between what the traditional poetic language evokes and what is actually seen: thus the pastoral becomes, after Denham, the locodescriptive poem. But it also involves a lot of turning in place, a lot of repetition of the tradition in order to try and knock it onto a new track. And it is really this that is always present in the mimetic emphasis so often ascribed to this poetry: where there is fine description, there is also a non-mimetic sort of weighing of words themselves against their own history.

Thus Williams picks up on an aspect of form that regularly appears throughout Crabbe's The Village and sees it as characteristic of the counterpastoral mode: the quick repetition of either an entire word like “life” or, via the deployment of a combination of alliteration, assonance, the spondee, parallelism and the more specific figure of chiasmus, a series of repetitions of similar words within a line of two lines. It is here that this sort of weighing is going on.

Even in the lines we quoted, then, we see “Village Life a life.” Earlier in the poem though we also find “They boast their peasants’ pipes, but peasants now, / Resign their pipes and plod behind the plough” (I.23-4); and “Here too the sick their final doom receive, / Here brought amid the scenes of grief, to grieve,” (I.242-3); and perhaps the most complex of these concrete instances (echoing the specific peculiarity of certain tightly formed structures one finds in Pope--but now without that neoclassical, rhetorical mission),

There, where the putrid vapours, flagging, play,
And the dull wheel hums doleful through the day;
There children dwell, who know no parents’ care,
Parents, who know no children’s love, dwell there (I.232-5).

The irony of the playing of vapors among the children (it should be the other way around!) is particularly evident here, though only after one revisits the whole sentence and, to a degree, grasps its form. We only meet the children after we get the intrusive repetition by assonance and alliteration in “the dull wheel hums doleful through the day,” and perhaps also the reversal in the last two lines (concerning where "children dwell" and "parents ... dwell"), so that the poem calls us back to where the children are dwelling only after we have passed through the distracting intercession of the mechanical.

Now, one could generalize and say that the repetitive structures in the form of the poem here are a highly mimetic evocation of the type of psychic state of the villagers or of the type of the village’s social relationships when these villagers are treated merely as labor and given only rote tasks to perform: repetition mirrors or reproduces the feeling of the unfruitfulness and boredom that according to Crabbe always hangs over the life the villager. But from Williams’ perspective, this would reduce the evident to evidence, and overlook what is really at issue in such description.

Thus he argues that these repetitions at the formal level are instead “dimensions” of that field he specifies as counter-pastoral, “caught” by the poem (see The Country and the City, 68-72). In other words, they are instances of a self-consciousness about how pastoral has failed and will fail to account for the pain of rural life, as we said earlier, at the same time as they are little attempts to reevaluate the words against that failure and actually express and overcome the latter.

One could see, on the other side of the spectrum, the intrusion of the botanical classifications that we find in Thomson in this light. Instead of repetition, we have the use of wholly new poetic words (and the reinvention of the older, repetitive poetic structure of the catalog) as an attempt to break out of the history. In each case, Williams is attentive to these little tics, which are working through the counter-pastoral dilemma.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

David Harvey again

From Marxism 2009 last year. Though I'd heard of him and his excellent work before, I only really started to read some of Harvey when I was writing on Raymond Williams (Harvey has the single best piece on Williams--in Spaces of Capital--thinking through Williams' problematic "militant particularism"). I'm liking him a lot. Again, if you haven't seen the Reading Capital course, check that out. It's a good way to get through that book, which is one of those no one ever reads all the way through unless it's assigned (not unlike anything by Hegel). That's not always a bad thing, of course (certainly in Hegel, though only reading the master-slave passage in the Phenomenology or the beginnings of the greater Logic and thinking the dialectic is "therefore" necessary to "overcome" is pushing this way too far). I'm planning on going all the way through Capital 2 and 3 shortly (I've only really gotten through the beginning of 2 and the end of 3), so it's a great refresher and a good way to pick up those parts of the first book (especially part 7) I never made it through. I never touched anything really after the chapter on the working day (except some pieces of the machinery chapter and the amazing part on primitive accumulation), even when I reread it for exams last summer: in literary studies, due to Derrida and his specters, the focus is still on the first three chapters on use and exchange value (though not confusing the labor theory of value with the value theory of labor has enough attendant complications), often to the detriment of the theory of surplus value as a whole.

One more thing. Harvey above (and in a recent paper) talks about a transition from capitalism to socialism--revolution--taking just about as long (or at least involving as much complexity and work) as the transformation from feudalism to capitalism. This is a welcome comment (obviously drawn from Marx's sense of things itself) when revolution has always had the connotation of radical, instantaneous breaks on the one hand, and on the other has been conceptually discredited by the theoretical left itself in the US for about forty years in favor of micropolitical models of change (or a a dour sort of pragmatism, which turns quickly into a fatalism, rightly thrust to the fore for critical inspection at Planomenology--though one should also point out Zizek too often trades in this pessimism). To this, I would also just add a pragmatic remark about the relation of revolution to violence by by Fredric Jameson:

What is always at the bottom of the quarrel about the term [revolution--MJ] is the conception of revolution as violent, as a matter of armed struggle, forceful overthrow, the clash of weapons wielded by people willing to shed blood. This conception explains in turn of what may be called demotic Trotskyism, that is, the insistence on adding the requirement of "armed struggle" to whatever socialist proviso is at issue: something that would seem both to substitute effect for cause and unnecessarily to rase the ante on salvation. Rather, this proposition needs to be argued the other way around: namely that the other side will resort to force when the system is threatened in genuinely basic or fundamental ways...
 -"Actually Existing Marxism," in Valences of the Dialectic, 388

Then I would follow that up with how he shows, pointing rightly at Allande's Chile, just how plausible the beginnings of such a long revolution (Raymond Williams' term) actually are:

Left electoral victories are neither hollow social-democratic exercises nor occasions in which power passes hands definitively: rather, they are signals for the gradual unfolding of democratic demands, that is to say, increasingly radical claims on a sympathetic government which must now, in obedience to that development, be radicalized in its turn, unless it sells out to the appeal for order. The revolutionary process in this sense is a new legal dispensation in which repressed popular groups slowly emerge from the silence of their subalternity and dare to speak out--an act which can range, as in Allende's revolutionary Chile, from the proposal of new kinds of laws to the seizure of farm lands [which right now we find in Venezuela--MJ]; democracy necessarily means that kind of speaking out, which can also be identified as the truest form of the production of new needs (as opposed to consumerism).
-"Actually Existing Marxism," in Valences of the Dialectic, 391

So new laws, new freedoms, new regulations, alongside the building of new economic infrastructures under the emerging new state:

The legislature was passing the laws of eco-economics [...] They directed co-ops [...] to help the newly independent metanat local subsidiaries to transform themselves into similar cooperative organizations. This process, called horizontalization, had very wide support, especially from the young natives , and so it was proceeding fairly smoothly. Every martian business now had to be owned by its employees only. No co-op could exceed one thousand people; larger enterprises had to be made of co-op associations, working together. For their internal structures most of the firms chose variants of the Bogdanovist models, which themselves were based on the cooperative Basque community of Mondragon, Spain. In these firms all employees were co-owners, and they bought into their positions by paying the equivalent of about a year's wages into the firm's equity fund, wages earned in the apprentice programs of various kinds at the end of schooling This buy-in fee became the starter of their share in the firm, which grew every year they stayed, until it was given back to them as pension or departure payment. Councils elected from the workforce hired management, usually from outside, and this management then had the power to make executive decisions, but was subject to yearly review by the councils.
-Kim Stanley Robinson, Blue Mars, 296-7

And one more thing: this sort of conception of revolution concretely situates any cultural or discursive struggle--struggle on that level is only of finite use, and takes place at that level. Cultural politics is only politics (often just politicization, often just micropolitics) unless it also hits at or ties into economic levels--as Jameson (who some might call a mere cultural Marxist) never gets tired of saying.

But then again it is also necessary to register (with Harvey--see this lecture of his for an elaboration of his point about Ch. 15, footnote 4 in the short piece above--and Jameson) that there are many levels of struggle, and that no one who seriously is engaged in cultural Marxism believes they can turn the world around just at that level. No, it's often a micropolitical model that believes that--along with people who dismiss cultural Marxism as a safe or partial form of commitment. The dismissive sense of that last word shows that its positive sense--that indeed, as applied, it is a piece in a larger situation--isn't available from this perspective, one that also believes with the micropolitics of Foucault especially (and tendencies in critical theory in general) that institutions (the "academy") are what is big and bad, and moreover are what determine and compromise the situation of cultural anti-capitalist critique (rather than capitalism, which is precisely much larger--and smaller--than any institution).

My point is that "the production of new needs" is what cultural criticism is about (finite, because representational, demands and Utopian possibilities), but is about this alongside other--indeed partial--sorts of activities and commitments that are by no means incapable of this sort of production (Jameson's phrasing here is precisely calculated to emphasize the fact that these needs can be and are produced at these other levels--even especially at economic ones). Significantly, it is precisely the cultural level (or the level of everyday life) that is most engaged by the recent statements of Zizek, Jameson, Harvey, Badiou and others to think hard about what communism might be, to imagine Utopias, to speak up out of subalternity and present alternative experiences of the world, and, indeed, to think about revolution: "carving out autonomous spaces," as Paul Ennis recently calls it, in various ways (he talks about what Badiou thinks is necessary, against Zizek, but I think Zizek too thinks this Utopian--and I use this word in an approving, Harveyian, Jamesonian sense that too few share--enclave-production occurs or is at least pragmatically necessary). And it is this cultural level that is most misunderstood by people unfamiliar with that level and what it involves (including the sacrifices that I don't think we can just say are nonexistent--unless we keep thinking all cultural Marxists are just "humanists" in a disturbing new sense). That, however, means education is necessary (both of yourself and the misinformed, as Harvey insists upon above: part of the problem is that this stuff isn't taught, or only gotten through someone like Zizek), and repeated reconnection of this level to others (an act that cultural criticism and recent ideology critique has learned to do in perhaps the most adept and tactical way).

And indeed, cultural Marxism is great at this too: what is culture but a way to reconnect while recognizing that separation of levels, rather than try and construct a one-off sort of immanent metaphysical level at which every microelement just is or is not political? I don't even think you can say cultural Marxism has gone too far--which is what the reactionary consensus in the US (indeed increasingly in literary studies) seems to be. We need more cultural studies, not less. As these studies make their way into departments dealing with urbanism, architecture, media theory and design--where some of the most radical Marxist work is now being done--I think they become more concrete and produce more connections and reconnections, perhaps, than they did when this study was done primarily in literature and film (or philosophy). But that's a development and transformation, which is also probably a shift made in accordance with changes in the system studied and the new forms reconnection to other levels is imagined to take.

Best of... Critiquing de Man

I've always been suspicious of de Man. That said, I've also always tried to give him a fair shake. You never should dismiss any thinker outright. Part of the problem, though, is that de Man takes a lot of your good will and puts it into his service. It's the common practice of a cynic, of course--not too hard to get around (though it takes John Guillory some time). But you have to be vigilant.

Part of the appeal of de Man is not so much his aphoristic language, but the modernism of his postmodernism--as Jameson has rightly put it. Everything is tightly worked out to fold back onto itself, in a perfect self-perpetuating form in which you are... now not in control. On another level, it's also the appeal of a system: with de Man, you can put away all the considerations that have to come from context, and just ram a text through the system. Oh yes, you have to pay very close attention, work through all sorts of problems--but that's made a part of the system too, insofar as it is what the system accounts for as an act of "reading" irreducible to the system.

Regardless, it's a significant and influential appropriation of Derrida--so influential that American philosophers confronting Derrida might still not have encountered the more (I hesitate to say original) French-Algerian article (one can often tell by their reference to Derrida's overintense focus on language... the latter being a primarily de Manian preoccupation).

I'm only realizing now that I'm a little outside that circuit--having never quite been in on the de Man sort of deconstruction, whenever I encounter it I just feel odd. But I think the important thing to stress is that it wasn't a "misappropriation" (something de Manians love to get all moralistic about) so much as a powerful coordination of all sorts of concerns, a lot of them political (and even the desire to be apolitical is quite political) and having to do with the state of the university and the English department (particularly Yale's department, which never was consolidated into an actual department like in other schools) at the time. It is also something we can sort of ignore or put by, while we try and cultivate some completely new sense of how to relate Derrida to the reading of literature. We can't let the dour de Manian, or for that matter the Derridian, stop that project, especially with his system.

That said, we have to learn to extract what we can from de Man, I think. And there is a lot that is useful here. Some of the following posts try and bring these elements out, while combatting what is the desperate sort of attempt of de Man to make literature both relevant and irrelevant at the same time:

Prior to a Hermeneutics and a History: I try to focus on what is good and anti-hermeneutic about this de Manian proposition--written for a class with Peter Brooks.

Theory, Pedagogy, de Man: A look at de Man's remark, "the resistance to theory is itself theoretical," and why this sort of aphoristic tendency of his produces a sketchy "pedagogical" situation--that is a situation sketchy insofar as we insist on its supposedly pedagogical nature.

Demystifying the Singular: Consolidating the critique, by looking at more dangerous lines in "Criticism and Crisis." There's a long exchange in the comments where I try to defend my views and distinguish de Man from Derrida (a task well-accomplished by Gasché, but I try and do it in a more holistic sort of way). One thing I didn't emphasize enough in this exchange is that de Man truly thinks the origin of the language of the sciences are "literary," and that this is insane. Now, it's not insane insofar as it engages an issue involved in literary studies all the way back to Richards and his rejoiners to C.P. Snow. It's insane insofar as it encroaches on articulating a sort of metaphysics of the letter--which many people still attribute to Derrida himself.

Giving Up Deconstruction: Not where I give up deconstruction, but where I reflect on many people being dissatisfied with just this sort of de Manian metaphysics of the letter (this is a sort of sequel to "Demystifying"). I use Frances Ferguson's excellent situation of this problem in terms of 18th century aesthetics and the role of Kant.

Blindness: I read "The Rhetoric of Blindness" and try and sum up the differences between Derrida and de Man that I've been articulating in "Demystifying" and "Giving Up." What's sort of amazing is how hard this is to do in literary terms, when philosophically it is extremely clear what these differences are... something that shows why new and more sophisticated interpretations of Derrida in America usually come from philosophy departments. This, however, isn't a sign that Derrida was really a philosopher all along--or that the new Derrida is actually more correct than the previous Derrida (the fact that many of these philosophers worked in Comp Lit. shows their knowledge of Derrida is impossible without the literary emphasis). Indeed I claim elsewhere that philosophy will never quite grasp Derrida without going back to the literary-critical concern. What this means though is that the de Manian approach pulls Derrida too quickly towards reading an individual literary object. Other literary approaches to Derrida--like that of Geoffrey Hartman--can often be deeper.

Blindness, part 2: One last word on the issue.

Predicaments: Looking a little closer at how people get de Man out of certain binds.

Reading and Society: Here I consider the de Manian drive to separate literature from any significant social context by way of a simplistic reduction of these contexts to the Barthesian "codes." The apolitical tendency of de Manian deconstruction is quite apparent here: society and politics has to somehow come only out of the literariness of the literary--nowhere else. All one has to do to oppose this is say that a social context is not the same thing as a Barthesian code. Insofar as the code is inadequate, however, de Man's critique is actually quite welcome.

Derrida, de Man, Materialism: In the last post I'll collect here I critique de Manian materialism and Derrida's weird insistence that he is asserting something similar to de Man on this issue. Indeed, I critique Derrida's buddying-up with de Man in general--I simply think they're on completely different pages, except in their shared high-modernist temperament. More specifically, I make the case for considering Derrida as more of an idealist than a materialist--with one important caveat: this is only really valid insofar as it is just a sort of heuristic. Nevertheless, I think it is helpful to combat the increasingly meaningless postmodern insistence on the "materiality" of the letter (and which Derrida himself critiqued extensively in his writings on Lacan). The trace, it is true, isn't ideal. But conceiving it as the effect of idealization--well, that's what Derrida's very first books lay out. It's important to retain that connection, and understand that it therefore forces a rethinking of materiality--one that makes the latter something completely different from anything de Man is insisting upon.

Mimic the strata

You have to keep enough of the organism for it to reform each dawn; and you have to keep small supplies of signifiance and subjectification, if only to turn them against their own systems when the circumstances demand it, when things, persons, even situations, force you to; and you have to keep small rations of subjectivity in sufficient quantity to enable you to respond to the dominant reality. Mimic the strata. You don't reach the BwO, and its plane of consistency, by wildly destratifying. That is why we encountered the paradox of those emptied and dreary bodies at the very beginning: they had emptied themselves of their organs instead of looking for the point at which they could patiently and momentarily dismantle the organization of the organs we call the organism. There are, in fact, several ways of botching the BwO: either one fails to produce it, or one produces it more or less, but nothing is produced on it, intensities do not pass or are blocked. This is because the BwO is always swinging between the surfaces that stratify it and the plane that sets it free. If you free it with too violent an action, if you blow apart the strata without taking precautions, then instead of drawing the plane you will be killed, plunged into a black hole, or even dragged toward catastrophe. Staying stratified--organized, signified, subjected--is not the worst that can happen; the worst that can happen is if you throw the strata into demented or suicidal collapse, which brings them back down on us heavier than ever. This is how it should be done: Lodge yourself on a stratum, experiment with the opportunities it offers, find an advantageous place on it, find potential movements of deterritorialization, possible lines of flight, experience them, produce flow conjunctions here and there, try out continuums of intensities segment by segment, have a small plot of new land at all times. It is through a meticulous relation with the strata that one succeeds in freeing lines of flight, causing conjugated flows to pass and escape and bringing forth continuous intensities for a BwO. Connect, conjugate, continue: a whole "diagram," as opposed to still signifying and subjective programs. We are in a social formation; first see how it is stratified for us and in us and at the place where we are; then descend from the strata to the deeper assemblage within which we are held; gently tip the assemblage, making it pass over to the side of the plane of consistency. It is only there that the BwO reveals itself for what it is: connection of desires, conjunction of flows, continuum of intensities. You have constructed your own little machine, ready when needed to be plugged into other collective machines.
 -A Thousand Plateaus, 160-161.

The great thing about Deleuze and Guattari is that they let you think that you're doing something in forming a concept... but without being an idealist (or a Badiouian--which is here, however, something even better to be, I think). Thus, the injunction to mimic the strata here, rather than wildly destratifying, is excellent, and commensurable with a provisional Derridian approach as well (though they're ultimately on different pages). In the end, it's wonderful that you can think that you botch things.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Footnote to "bad theory"

Bad and good are probably the worst ways to characterize anything, and I tried to mess with this binary a bit in my post by introducing a (somewhat antiquated and Nietzschian) notion of health: bad theory was rotten, spoiled, or ready to fall off and decompose. Since bad theory though would rail against any binary whatsoever, though, rather than (like Derrida) see the limits of its usefulness (and assert that doing the former is precisely the same thing as the latter), I don't mind this as much (or its attendant organicism). That said, a lot of good theory was present already in this post on bad theory--present in the form of alternatives, really, each of which may eventually crystallize into a second term, but are never destined to do so, marked from the beginning for that particular fate (i.e. their crystallization needs to be produced). So it's not necessary, then, to go any further and cordon off what should remain area of possibility in another, separate post on good theory.

If the generation of such alternatives can itself be seen as a characteristic of good theory--for essentially I was saying that all good theory works on the level of paragraphs (keeping itself open to more and different theory by opening itself up to a political context, transcoding and somehow even co-interpreting through the finitude of any one theory's usefulness), rather than on the level of the essay or book as a whole--if this is the case, we might end up accomplishing precisely that dreaded compartmentalization or marking.

It is best then to remain ambivalent, and say that the approach might also produce regressions or outright refusals to listen to theory and what it has to say about the immense importance of decentering and remaining open to and fractured by multiplicity and otherness. Not too long ago much thought was indeed humanist, and while humanism perhaps too quickly became a bogeyman, upon realizing this we are all too quick to embrace him again under the aegis of so many self-proclaimed post-postmodern notions--now branded as weird, complex, problematic, locally effective, heterotopic in order to retain exactly enough of that of postmodern schizophrenia necessary to make the latter's lesson seem integrated or absorbed. This is merely to say that historicizing theory is more necessary than ever--and is to be accomplished less and less by way of linking theory quickly to all sorts of historicist microfacts and documents on the one hand (what Jameson a couple years ago said was precisely "how not to historicize theory,") and on the other by registering what certain notions did to advance previous thought through the destruction of its more unsavory commitments (which is what the Heideggerian and Derridian periodizing--or perhaps the emphasis needs to be put more strenuously now the other way around--ends up doing, or perhaps the more philosophical attempts at historicizing in general).

Monday, January 18, 2010

World's Roundest Head

It's surprising to me that Ricky Gervais' American promos for the new HBO animated adaptation of the Ricky Gervais Show usually only feature him and Steve Merchant, when Karl Pilkington is so integral to things. I simply can't believe he's still so unfamiliar to the American audience. Surely his boswelox should be world renowned by now. Do yourself a favor and meet Karl (above) ...and while you're at it, listen to the show, which is perhaps the funniest thing you'll ever hear.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Latour and Bourdieu

Evan has just written a great series of posts on Latour and Bourdieu over at our Latour blog. I have been trying to get more into Bourdieu myself over the past year (at the suggestion of a professor), and I enjoy him a lot. But Evan has been actually working a while within the Bourdieuvian framework--as the thoroughness with which he compares Latour and Bourdieu shows. Here are the posts: "Creature of Habitus," "Agents → Actors," "Beneath Contempt, Beyond Critique."

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Emotion, experience

As I read Sianne Ngai, she wants to say that emotion produces the very distance or distantiation that is at the heart of the experience of an aesthetic object qua object, via a modification (not at all Marxist) of Benjamin's concept of aura. Where for Benjamin, this sense of the object crystallizing out of a more richer intimate experience was itself only a nostalgic projection of the bourgeois conception of art (i.e. there was never any actual aura of the artwork, but rather the divorce of art from communal experience as the ruling class consolidates itself produced the retrofiction that there was, and it is now imbued with a power to ironically individualize the artwork), for Ngai, this is actually the function of emotion itself. The resulting ahistoricality of this formulation isn't entirely the most suprising thing about it, nor the complacency with which it distorts (under the aegis of modification) the already overpopular Benjamin. Rather, what's odd is it seeks to at once dissolve the process of reflection which produces the object into emotion, at the same time as it would seek to make any sort of pull away from that process also emotional, so that the solution to the objectification of the art object is also to sink it back into some even more primordial emotional structure.

But one might say that this in turn supposes that one can't present the experience of the artwork in any other form. And this is typical of an extremely regressive post-postmodern movement going on now (not conscious of the ramifications of what it is really saying, and at worst just anarchic like the high theory it seeks to replace) that would try to overcome the sort of difference-producing logics of that earlier moment by showing how more traditional logics can be based upon them instead of upon logics of presence--something akin to having your cake and eating it too. Thus Ngai cites the "post-structuralist turn away from experience" (or some interpretation of emotion as a very thin form of testimony) as all the more legitimating her return to emotion and experience (even though--and this seems forgotten--all that was actually articulated in any generally sane post-structuralist theory like Lacan or Derrida's was a distance in levels between experience and what it would not grasp). But returning to emotion and experience in order to aestheticize both, and then pass them off as difference-friendly, doesn't seem legitimated at all. What is needed is rather something like a sense that the critical presentation or exposition is indeed based upon a different logic than our experience of the text, such that both come to meet each other from different places. As it is, Ngai still supposes, like all the close readers in the post-formalist days of high theory, that our criticism unproblematically expresses our experience, and that the more detailed this gets, the more experience there would be. Instead, I would suggest that I can have an intensely emotional experience of an artwork, and yet that my present explication of it (however impassioned) does not at all immediately reflect that experience, but another one instead. Moreover, I would claim that it is only because of this that I indeed can investigate an emotional experience in any concrete way.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Reading Capital

Just found out that David Harvey's famous (and thorough, and excellent) yearly reading of Capital I is online in all sorts of formats.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Bad theory

Almost forty years now of theory widely practiced in the US--and we only have a general sense of what theory is. It's a notorious problem that is actually its own solution: theory is one of the only fields where knowledge doesn't know what it has to be. So perhaps we shouldn't ever have to lock down what it is. Neverthless, it has assumed certain shapes. These too should not be avoided or combated in the name of preserving continual micro-self-differentiation etc., etc. Rather, bad elements (that is, bad procedures, bad ways of writing into which we slip--bad theorizing rather than bad theoretical positions or theories) should be identified, isolated, and clipped off or left alone to wither. Here then is what might constitute the "bad theory" (and it should be clear that by "bad" I mean something like "defunct" or "spoiled") that we might just hesitate before putting into service yet again, in another empty denunciation of... what have you:

Theory gone bad is theory that tries to assure the unqualified prolongation of theory. Theory should be finite--more than that, it should continually, with each use, project the point at which it might not be of use. Thus even if you want to say theory is immanent to thought itself, and therefore finite in that respect (when thought dies out theory will die out too), it would still be avoiding the issue: the issue is that the production of something different than theory cannot just be problematized from the outside.

Ethical theory is theory gone bad. There is too much talk of ethics and responsibility now, and this produces a lot of bad theory. This is because the use of ethical terms is the quickest way to build a bridge between politics and theory, or rather the politicization that takes place as theory (as I've outlined before) and the realm of society in all its diffuseness. Perhaps it is an attempt to thicken the overquick linkages to the political realm which early theory indeed made. But there's no reason this has to take the form of ethics--except possibly because this allows theory to sound more relevant, to issue more injunctions. At it's limit, this involves the dissolution of everything political about theory into philosophy, which has always been too comfortable with staying out of politics as it is: why ethics and responsibiliy are semi-proper philosophical subjects is because politics often comes to interrupt and situate philosophical speculation, embarrassing it. Theory that strives to be philosophical (or pseudo-philosophical) shouldn't go down the same road. In this respect I agree even with the extreme assertion of Zizek that, within the period under consideration (1933 and a little after), Heidegger's politicization of his philosophy is more valuable than his outlines of the structures of proper philosophizing (in his courses especially) that borders on an ethics--which is what in general I take away from his recent consideration of Heidegger's joining the Nazis (in In Defense of Lost Causes). That doesn't at all make what Heidegger did right--as Zizek would crudely hold, himself couching things in an overblown ethical language which supposes that the value of this could have been disclosed to him personally and guided his action at the same time as that action could represent a value attributed after the fact, which we perceive as the imposition of politics on the situation (this language--increasingly Badiouian--confuses things almost completely, as I've said before regarding Zizek on this fraught issue). But to attribute such value means (however crudely or confusedly) to recognize that politics imposes itself continually and is actively contained and bracketed by philosophies as well as other forms of knowledge. Theory normally attempts to trace what is thereby left out--but with an ethical turn (which was foreshadowed in the "deconstructivism" practiced at Yale by de Man, where people preached to no end about responsibility in reading), it loses its vocation and becomes increasingly irrelevant. At the same time, and insofar as this irrelevance suffuses theory, "the political" comes up more and more, leading us to the next form of bad theory:

Reifying concepts in order to protect them from reification. Such, at least, is the strategy I see behind such ugly invocations of "the political" or "the social." This form of parody only lends itself to a high seriousness that undoes the reason for adopting the parodic gesture in the first place.

Similarly, bad theory trades in commonplaces. These include the use of phrases like "identity politics," which are most of the time just codes for a reactive movement against queer or feminist impacts upon the humanities. But "western metaphysics" is also a commonplace. Eventually, this trade in commonplaces (a dissolution of the commons?) results in a prohibition on experience itself, as each of these are traded in for something supposedly known (and never described in detail)--or turned back into their reified pseudo-philosophical counterpart by the move we just mentioned.

This is related to the bad-theoretical overuse of alterity as a concept. The dynamics in which alterity engages us are ultimately reductive and need to be reopened back up into the contexts (experiential) from which they emerge. Even if the concept is used to precisely fight reduction, to insist on irreducibility, it has become an uncreative way to reorganize a wide array of phenomena along too-familiar lines.

This is also the way that bad theory ends up relying too much on "language," and makes it into a homogenous field through which everything has to pass. Language isn't that important to good theory. Or, rather, when it becomes a crutch, it isn't language.

Next, bad theory quickly displaces social dynamics too quickly into theoretical terms. An example would be the oft cited "subordination of feminism by Marxism." What and who are we actually talking about here? It is here where Foucault's "discourse" comes in to save the day: when in doubt, say discourse does it. Theories of ideology, in comparison, have infinitely more subtlety--and that's saying something. In Foucault himself, the notion is structured (in the Archaeology of Knowledge) to get him out of precisely the dilemma this question (what? who?) produces, as it is posed to him by people who rightly were wondering just how he was able to coordinate so much information concerning the rise of the human sciences. While it's right to insist that the stratifications of discourse, as well as its effectivity (and by means of such insistence, discourse thereby becomes a richer concept in Judith Butler and Edward Said), this might not be enough to rescue the concept from its reduction to an empty field producing too many of those effects. Discourse has to be used more carefully, with more structuralist concepts brought in to thicken the mix.

Bad theory thinks of itself as avant-garde. It has an easy relationship to its own history that sadly ends up mirroring the simplistic histories of ideas which it was supposed to displace. In general, it proceeds as an arrogant new humanism by thinking of itself as a progressive adventure.

Bad theory thinks it only includes by opening itself to multiplicities. While the focus on alterity is reductive, it'd be wrong to see multiplicity as an alternative, or something that does the job better--even if one conceives of it "rightly" (that is, itself fraught with difference or composed only of differences and dimensions, as in Deleuze rather than in Laclau and Mouffe). Multiplicity might not always be the right thing to which a situation must be opened up or in terms of which it should be conceived. Something like totalization can be mobilized against universality and even unity and oneness, as in Sartre or Adorno.

This touches on another aspect of bad theory: it's unwillingness to use more than one or two theories. Bad theory is usually only one or two theories, which gets stuck to or followed to the letter. It's not yet dogma, because it has so much functionality and can in general also be illuminating. But it seeks to eliminate other theories or foreclose their imposition--which occurs often, and as an annoying conceptual muddle--precisely by extending the one position (and flattening or restricting itself so they can be assimilated without reducing them--which would require changing the current stance). Good theory is polyglot and patchwork: it knows when to shut up in one system and shift to another (in other words, it shouldn't proceed by increasing the number of prohibitions upon itself--something nearly all bad theory does--and then get angry at those who misunderstand the minimalist language). Just because the concept itself--here multiplicity--is actually structured (rigorously) in order not to foreclose something, doesn't mean everyone should see how it doesn't exclude something. Everyone shouldn't have to get on your page (or be immanent to whatever) to be on the same page. Moreover, theory should actually open itself up to other things at the edge of theory, which theory isn't--thus I insisted at the beginning on the finitude of theory, which now is rethought spatially--indeed like literary theory and literary analysis. This leads into my last characterization:

Bad theory thinks it itself is politics: while theory represents the politicization (if only by oblique suggestion) of various other fields and their materials and procedures, it has to be interrupted by something from outside itself--or, as theory, has to go someplace other than the lecture hall--in order to actually become something like activism. Along these lines, one shouldn't think that because one's theory says it does not separate a particular conception and politics (like in theoretical Spinozism), introducing the concept into an arena is not political, nor does it link the politicization that might (and only might) thereby occur to actual politics. It's not that there is a gap which we can never bridge--it is simply that politicization and politics itself requires this lack of certainty as to whether it is, in any instance, traversed, as I think Judith Butler (for one) outlines quite well.

Other questions

Once it is a question of determining the problem or the Idea as such, once it is a question of setting the dialectic in motion, the question "What is X?" gives way to other questions, otherwise powerful and efficacious, otherwise imperative: "How much, how and in what cases?" The question "What is X?" animates only the so-called aporetic dialogues--in other words, those in which the very form of the question gives rise to contradiction and leads to nihilism, no doubt because they have only propaedeutic aims--the aim of opening up the region of the problem in general, leaving to other procedures the task of determining it as a problem or as an Idea. When Socratic irony was taken seriously and the dialectic as a whole was confused with its propaedeutic, extremely troublesome consequences followed: for the dialectic ceased to be the science of problems and ultimately became confused with the simple movement of the negative, and of contradiction. Philosophers began to talk like young men from the farmyard. [...] It should be noticed how few philosophers have placed their trust inthe question "What is X?" in order to have Ideas. Certainly not Aristotle. ... Once the dialectic brews up its matter instead of being applied in a vacuum for propaedeutic ends, the questions "How much?", "How?", "In what cases?" and "Who?" abound.
-Difference and Repetition, 188

A typical narrative from Deleuze. It's helpful, though, to keep in mind. More on Deleuze in another post coming up...

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Structures of the future

So long as one has not studied the structures of the future in a defined society, one necessarily runs the risk of not understanding anything whatsoever about the social.
-Sartre, Search for a Method, 97

The more I read and research, the more I weirdly gravitate towards statements that just seem to word things right, rather than towards complex and interesting ideas in general--and for reasons not unrelated to what Sartre is saying above about society. The "rightness" of such phrases--and Sartre is full of them--often has to do with a vision of something ahead which the words do not fail to grasp, but make concrete. Where they fail, they fail suggestively, with something larger they project and which makes them invaluable. So as I'm currently reading Search for a Method, before I pick up the full Critique of Dialectical Reason, and as I think this particular well-put statement gets lost in the latter--I feel that I should copy it out here.

Saturday, January 2, 2010


I think style is extremely useful as a way into a text, and I often take it up instead of form if I want to attune myself to what is going on in a poem or even in critical/expository writing (I don't use it really while reading a novel, and I'd be hard pressed to put it into service even in a modernist text: issues of plot and character are simply more important there). As soon as it becomes the sole thing specified by one's interpretation, though, or the only upshot of the analysis, two problems emerge. Style becomes autonomous, replacing the issue of form, and thereby bolstering the hardness of the text rather than opening it up into language--in short style becomes something of the artifact. Style also can then become a mere informing presence, and remain at the level of the artist/genius who has a particular style, carries himself with a particular style, etc.

In Anglo-American criticism, all this is really confused by the introduction of the issue of form, which tries--despite what those in stylistics will tell you--to be more specific about precisely what is involved in style. It offers this as an alternative to the specification that comes in stylistics proper through linguistics, and I think (insofar as the retreat from linguistic analysis opens the text to practical criticism, as it does) represents an advance. At the same time, this formalist approach seems to suppose that stylistics itself from the beginning is quite crude, proceeding without its own particular act of specification.

This, however, is a minor problem brought up by the intrusion of form. The more significant one is when rhetoric comes back to supplement this formalism. Combined with the formalistic approach, what hasn't been approached in terms of form can be got with rhetoric. This is bad for both stylistics and formalism, since formalism has now merely become the former with its terms reversed: now one starts from minor units of argumentation and moves back only to the level of an informing presence more general and causal than any sort of actual tension in the object (which a stricter formalism would actually provide).

What seems to ameliorate this situation is 1) a general sense that the function of literary language is still communication and experience, however formally intricate it becomes (thus form always has to be subordinated to the task of shoring up language: in other words, one must have a sense that this increasing intricacy actually adds to the communicative ability of literature), and more precisely 2) the introduction of a distinction within style itself on the basis of this communicational thesis about literature--one which William Wimsatt once made in an essay entitled "Verbal Style" (collected in The Verbal Icon). The latter will then have effects on the formal level which will curb the slipshod use of rhetoric we just outlined.

Wimsatt's distinction is between logical and counterlogical stylistic virtues. What he means is basically that there are pieces of language that have a logical structure and pieces that are basically without logic. One just can't explain the latter except in something like associative terms--and in fact one does a disservice to them by reducing them to a logical framework. The greatest example of the logical he has is the parallelism--which he analyzed at length in his amazing early book The Prose Style of Samuel Johnson--and the greatest example he has of the counterlogical is rhyme itself. I quote from another one of Wimsatt's essays because there you see how the counterlogical is rightly described:

The music of the rhyme is mental; it consists in an odd, almost magic, relation of phonetic likeness which encourages us to perceive and believe in a meaning otherwise asserted by the words... The principle is well illustrated in a few of Pope's proper-name rhymes, where we may note an affinity for a certain old-fashioned and childish form of riddle to be found in the pages of The Farmer's Almanac. Why is A like B? Because the name of A or of something connected with A means B or something connected with B. Why is a dog dressed warmer in summer than in winter? Because he wears a fur coat, and in summer he wears a fur coat and pants. Why is a certain poet a dangerous influence upon married women? Because his name sounds like something.

Poor Cornus sees his frantic wife elope,
And curses Wit, and Poetry, and Pope.

Why is a certain scholar a graceless figure? Because his name shows it:

Yet n'er one sprig of laurel graced these ribalds,
From slashing Bentley down to pidling Tibbalds.
-"Rhetoric and Poems: Alexander Pope" in The Verbal Icon

If the sound is an echo to the sense, as Pope himself famously said (in a phrase tirelessly quoted in the 18th century), well the sense here must be nonsense--if we conceive of rhyme from a logical perspective. If we see it from a counterlogical perspective, the thing makes its own sense, because we have not narrowed sense down to simply logic (later de Man would describe all logic in terms of grammar, and this in turn skewed everything Wimsatt is trying to distinguish here--at the same time as making the act of analytic description much easier and indeed logical). Here is Wimsatt on a related phenomenon, the pun:

Puns have been assimilated into recent criticism so often with phrases like "fruitful ambiguity" or "paradoxical tension" that it is easy not to realize just what a curious thing a pun in poetry is.
-"Verbal Style: Logical and Counterlogical," 214

The literary critical tendency to reduce a piece of language to a form in which it is put back into service of the logic of the poem at the same time is a tendency to sever its connection with communication and experience. Or rather it is that formalist tendency (the phrase "fruitful ambiguity" is William Empson's, and the phrase "paradoxical tension" is Cleanth Brooks') to treat the piece of language as an artifact (or indeed a matter of fact). By no longer using "tension" as a heuristic tool (as I think it is often used by the formalists in practice, as I implied above) but as a substitute for rhetorical classification (a slackening formalism that after I.A. Richards--in fact as soon as Empson himself, and perhaps there most egregiously until we come to his later work--we can see growing), it becomes precisely a heuristic tool for producing logic out of the counterlogical, and a sense out of a more lived and experienced (and not artifactual) verbal affinity like a pun (it is experienced as wit, as a tapping of the contingent).

So if we rightly hesitate before thinking that a rhyme will support the meaning of a phrase--something that even now (and indeed perhaps especially now) is not done enough--it is because we are trying to open up analysis again to this more communicative level of language (full of the counterlogical alongside the logical) and in turn something about style: the fact that it remains chained to the twofold problem that I talked about above while also leading one into a poem by pointing to something beyond the form and rhetoric.