Thursday, September 30, 2010

How I learned to stop worrying and love the Fagles

...It teaches well. 'Nuff said. I still prefer the Fitzgerald Aeneid (for its brilliant and beautiful attempts to define a high style in American English, which I think is more like what Virgil was doing), but the more and more I work with it, I get over the shock of the rawness of Fagles' Homer and appreciate the poetry in that very quality: brutal, quick (if you read it aloud, not silently), yet capacious, it seems to really connect with the students. One still can't get over how frightening this is sometimes: you start to see that the Greek world of the poem might feel a little too close to how things are now, with intense, almost savage forms of honorific struggle among so many uncertainties, which seem to swoop down like so many gods from above... But there's something disturbing--and something that should be disturbing--in all such identifications. I can't recommend it enough.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

This is scary

The comments of the CEO of a company taking over public libraries on the West Coast are genuinely scary:

“A lot of libraries are atrocious,” Mr. Pezzanite said. “Their policies are all about job security. That’s why the profession is nervous about us. You can go to a library for 35 years and never have to do anything and then have your retirement. We’re not running our company that way. You come to us, you’re going to have to work.”


“Pensions crushed General Motors, and it is crushing the governments in California,” he said. While the company says it rehires many of the municipal librarians, they must be content with a 401(k) retirement fund and no pension.

These are arguments that haven't changed since the days of union busting--though people still seem to fall for them!--but their application to the running of libraries, as if they were anything like GM, really does just sound ridiculous. The CEO even has something to say about that though:

“There’s this American flag, apple pie thing about libraries,” said Frank A. Pezzanite, the outsourcing company’s chief executive. He has pledged to save $1 million a year in Santa Clarita, mainly by cutting overhead and replacing unionized employees. “Somehow they have been put in the category of a sacred organization."

Nothing sacred. It sounds like the politicians in charge of the local government have decided against providing public services in general for their community, no doubt because they probably had similar things to say: the government wastes money, it's ineffective compared to the private sector (which I, the candidate, have worked in), and the first thing that has to go is government workers and their unions, who are the laziest of all the lazy American employees (for a good rejoinder to this attitude, look at Paul Krugman's excellent recent bashing of the idea of structural unemployment). We can't have the government run by the government.

But the real perversity is just simply that it is an argument for job cuts, masked as an argument for efficiency and fiscal responsibility, when it is precisely the function of the government to provide and stimulate job growth by itself offering jobs like this--especially right now. That's what's weird: they're after the heart of things, attacking the idea that government has nothing to do with anything business-related, eliminating the idea of partnerships and going all-out for privatizing the whole damn thing, as if that really would be more efficient. If they're going to compare the library to GM, why not compare this company to Goldman Sachs?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Rallying its qualities

Should I keep a journal with a view to publication? Can I make the journal into a "work"? [...]  No, the journal's justification (as a work) can only be literary in the absolute, even if nostalgic, sense of the word. I discern here four motives.

The first is to present a text tinged with an individuality of writing, with a "style" (as we used to say), with an ideolect proper to the author (as we said more recently); let us call this motive: poetic. The second is to scatter like dust, from day to day, the traces of a period, mixing all dimensions and proportions, from important information to details of behavior [...]. Let us call this motive: historical. The third is to constitute the author as an object of desire: if an author interests me, I may want to know the intimacy, the small change of his times, his tastes, his moods, his scruples; I may even go so far as to prefer his person to his work [...] I can attempt to prove that "I am worth more than what I write" (in my books): the writing in my journal then appears as a plus-power (Nietzsche: Plus von Macht), which it is supposed will compensate for the inadequacies of public writing; let us call this motive: utopian, since it is true that we are never done with the image-repetoire. The fourth motive is to constitute the Journal as a workshop of sentences: not of "fine phrases," but of correct ones, exact language: constantly to refine the exactitude of the speech-act (and not of speech), according to an enthusiasm and an application, a fidelity of intention which greatly resembles passion: "yea, my reins shall rejoice, when thy lips speak right things" (Proverbs 23:16). Let us call this motive: amorous (perhaps even idolatrous--I idolize the Sentence).

For all my sorry impressions, then, the desire to keep a journal is conceivable. I can admit that it is possible, in the actual context of the Journal, to shift from what at first seemed to me improper in literature to a form which in fact rallies its qualities: individuation, spoor, seduction, fetishism of language.
-Roland Barthes, "Deliberation," Tel Quel, 1979

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


I tended to conceive of English and Irish as adversarial tongues, as either/or conditions rather than both/ands, and this was an attitude which for a long time hampered the development of a more confident and creative way of dealing with the whole vexed question--the question, that is, of the relationship between nationality, language, history, and literary tradition in Ireland.

Luckily, I glimpsed the possibility of release from this kind of cultural determinism early on, in my first arts year at Queen's University, Belfast, when we were lectured on the history of the English language by Professor John Braidwood. Braidwood could not help informing us, for example, that the word "whiskey" is the same word as the Irish and Scots Gaelic word uisce, meaning water, and that the River Usk in Britain is therefore to some extent the River Uisce (or Whiskey); and so in my mind the stream was suddenly turned into a kind of linguist river of rivers issuing from a pristine Celto-British Land of Cockaigne, a riverrun of Finnegans Wakespeak pouring out of the cleft rock of some pre-political, prelapsarian, ur-philological Big Rock Candy Mountain--and all of this had a wonderfully sweetening effect upon me.
-Seamus Heaney (in the introduction to his Beowulf)

Fiscal responsibility

Every time you hear the phrase "fiscal responsibility," think "job cuts," and "no services," because that's what it means, and what it has meant for 30 years now. "We have to be fiscally responsible," in the mouth of some conservative or libretarian or pro-business leftist blowhard, however "multicultural" or "green" or "patriotic" or whatever they are, means "I think we have to cut jobs and refuse to provide services to the public; I think we have to take away the few stable jobs that there are right now--government jobs, at the federal and local level--which provide vital public services and a national infrastructure; I think we need to 'privatize' it all, make the narrowest of private interests dictate what's in the public's interest--and in fact, wholly dictate whether ten percent (or more) of all of them can be employed or not, can make a living or not."

Friday, September 17, 2010

Object-oriented Wordsworth

(Many apologies for the sloppiness of everything below, and all the fulminations on the place of literary criticism etc.: I wrote it all way too fast, and with the intention of showing how what we've been up to in the last 10 years especially has really been more philosophy-friendly than in past decades, and especially friendly to the realist sort of view.)

Paul Fry's new book Wordsworth and the Poetry of What We Are (Yale, 2008) is something that the object-oriented ontologists/realists should probably take a gander at: Fry has been defending what can be called a realist, objecty sort of aesthetics since the mid-80's, against both Derridianism and historicism, and this book pushes that argument even further. Tim Morton has gained a lot of attention in OOP circles because he understands the metaphysics of the realism better than Fry, and is just more interested in it, for good ecological as well as literary-critical reasons. And thing-theory has become a branch of critical theory, though I don't really think it is object-oriented at the moment (preferring to deal with discourses, representations, etc.). But we should look at Fry for a very fully developed account of what an object-oriented literary theory looks like (and I use the words "literary theory" precisely: that is, meaning basically a methodology for literary criticism that opposes itself to a wide-ranging, PoMo, pseudo-philosophical critical theory which most philosophers are encouraged to think is literary theory as well--mostly by critical theorists themselves).

Graham Harman has done an amazing job of working out what an object-oriented aesthetics would be, or rather teaches us what the role of aesthetics is in a object-oriented philosophy. He has also married philosophy and the use of literature quite well, much better than most philosophers (and critical theorists) who use it as a sort of mix between an illustration and a case-study and then switch back into an aesthetic concern about what art is (this goes all the way back to Plato and Aristotle, though the relation between literature and philosopy before Aristotle especially was very different). Even Stanley Cavell, who uses literature more than most, does this a bit, though his work on the marriage-plot is great (Cavell sticks with film more, though, because I think it's a more friendly medium for his reflections). This sort of attitude is not a fault, by the way (as some critical theorists would contend): I don't want philosophers doing something like literary criticism/theory, because it'd keep them away from doing good philosophy.

What I like about Harman is that he doesn't really stick with the "illustrative" end of things and moves the philosophizing back to the more aesthetic area: it's here that philosophy actually works best with literary theory, actually, because what literary theory does is to work out aspects of aesthetics by testing them against methodological consequences for literary criticism, and work out methodology by testing it against aesthetics (the purest example I can think of is William Wimsatt, though Northrop Frye comes to mind). Nothing more, nothing less, really: you either descend into literary criticism proper when you do too much of the latter, or become an apolitical criticial theorist when you do too much of the former (more on the proper, productive role of critical theory in a moment--for now I want to focus on how it screws up both literary theory and philosophy). The illustrative/case-study sort of philosophizing (though using case-studies is better than illustration, in philosophy all things on this end of the scale tend towards the latter, unless you really resist the tendency like Cavell), is good for ethics if you have the patience for that sort of stuff (Nussbaum), and for outlining more clearly what you are already saying on the aesthetic level (think Aristotle on plot). But the literature here is like flat soda, warm soda (Harman had a great post on warm soda a while back), warm beer: it has to be treated as a sort of empty vessel in order for the job to get done. You read it like a parable, and indeed I think philosophy in these moments is closer to religious interpretation than literary studies gets, for all the talk about the origin of the latter (not exactly historically accurate, more a convenient fiction) in scriptural exegesis (Ricoeur I think would support this argument: Gadamer isn't exactly the one to go to here since for him interpretation is--rightly for his argument--too vague and huge a thing). That's not entirely bad, but it often passes itself off as interpretation in a literary critical sense, either by critical theorists or literary critics looking for a sort of cheap alliance between philosophy and literary studies--one that can be and should be based on something that we have more in common than this vague thing (the goddamned badass mission of the humanities, and particularly our less-historically-minded end of the humanities). And in the end it makes us (lit. crits.) look bad, since philosophy at least has big questions to answer through this method (and is much more precise about what exactly interpretation is, while we feel what it may be more keenly because we practice it), while we seem like we're using it to do what we're always accused of doing: nothing substantial except reading or at most teaching literacy (though I know philosophers will come back with the litany of things they are accused of not doing, which is substantial--what we should take away from this is that perhaps no two disciplines are as actively marginalized as us both together since we don't do history as much, which is something we should both, together, fight against). But enough of the big talk, which I use just to sort of work out how, from a lit. crit. perspective, literary criticism can work with OOP--and why lit. crit. could actually add to the OOP enterprise.

The more immediate point is the following: this is why addressing things in a more aesthetics-minded way, like Harman, is going to be better for literary criticism. Where the literary object is brought up as an object, which is what aesthetics does, you don't do this sort of illustration. But Harman doesn't exactly confine himself to this: his definition of aesthetics is, generally, something that happens in reality amongst objects that adds to them (it is something like the touch of objects on objects, their feelings in the more literal sense of this word and of the word aesthetics), and as such can veer away from the literary object to what we might say (if we weren't Fry or a realist) are "representations" that are in the world (the ugly words "discourse" or "textuality" might be invoked here, and the former surely would be extremely inappropriate--the latter might be more friendly to the object-oriented if it was tweaked [you all know I think Derrida is ultimtely reconcilable with an OOP perspective]).

I'll say why this use of "representations" is wrong in a moment, but let me just say that this is where phenomenology comes in: because Harman lets phenomenology do the work of taking us towards what is "represented" in the literary object, as well as what is added to reality amongst objects and their sensitivity to other objects ("representations"), Harman does a much better--because phenomenology-friendly--job than Latour's realist "scientifiction." The latter outlines a neat sense of what the literary object does, or what it is (no representation layered upon the real, no dualism [no dualism at least that could be opposed to monism], no folding of reality as Latour says in Irreductions somewhere, which I would agree is a sort of folding-over, a concession to history's view of reality that I'll get to in a minute I promise), but Latour can only really use literature as a case-study to get at what he means. At his best, he does that shifting between trying to use Rick Powers as a case study and using Powers' works as an object (as I've said on the Latour blog), but most of the time he tries to sink that shifting into the former sort of interpretive use of the work. So Powers can be considered right beside the amazing Turing, and we don't have any sense where fiction begins or ends: it's all mush, when what literary criticism wants is a precise sense of where the fiction is. We don't want to know that hypotheticals or thought-experiments in philosophy or science are basically fictions, and that fictions do something a lot like thought-experiments. Granted, Latour is working in weird territory, and that what Turing does is surely more like fiction than even the richest thought-experiment (he presupposes so much more than any "experiment," and--Latour is magisterial in bringing this out--even more than this the swiftness with which he slides into these sorts of fictions is the thing that really makes them extraordinary, or more fiction-like [only Latour could make us feel the urgency of the fiction-like, by the way--even if this is a central subject of literary theory which we know a lot about and we do think is crucial] than the thought-experiment in general). But we feel there is something different between Powers and Turing, even if we refuse to say that there is less of a distinction between the science each does. There is something different, in other words, between them, even if we try and curb our desire to say that the one is an artist and the other's work traditionally is seen as computer science or engineering or whatever thing you want to characterize it as which belongs on the other side of campus (Turing just is that hard to pin down). And we want to know what that is, or rather where that is. In the grand scheme of things, in short, there might be little difference between them, but we feel something is different. And the job of the literary critic/theorist is to find out what that is, in a real practical sense. The philosopher can find out what it is too, but he's probably--and rightly--going to be more willing to keep looking at the big picture or argue against the feeling in favor of the big picture.

This is why I'm always sort of confused when I see Lovecraft as the darling of the object-oriented philosophers (not just Harman), when Wordsworth, the poet who wanted to treat words themselves as objects (see the "Essay upon Epitaphs"--written itself "upon" the epitaphic, in an object-like, "physical" sense rather than the "representative" sense), is right there. I know it's important to get at what's weird, and stick with the weirdness of reality, and even that the object-oriented view of things actually probably maps onto the amazing Lovecraftian sort of weirdness better than with what we normally associate with Wordsworth (Lovecraft may better outline the differences between a general new sort of realism and an object-oriented sort of realism, maybe). I also know that frankly Lovecraft isn't paid enough attention in literary studies, though you'd actually be surprised if you looked at just how much is actually written on him. I also know he's a figure is more popular than "high" literature.

But Wordsworth is weird. He's really, really bizarre. Trust me, and trust everyone who studies Romantic poetry now or has studied it in the last 50 years or so, who, like Fry, have actually done a lot to make literary studies the place where an object-oriented view of things can really be accepted, as we sort of get frustrated with all those into representations/discourse and textuality who wanted to steer us more towards pure critical theory (the classic study of all this, its chapters published right in the thick of it all, was Frances Ferguson's amazing Solitude and the Sublime, which is extremely realist and even object-oriented--it is another bit of required reading alongside Fry for the philosopher who has the time for all this--though it wants to then ask, rightly I think, what happens precisely to what we once called representations [see Ferguson's more recent Pornography: The Theory for a more worked-out picture of the result, which recuperates much in classical Utilitarianism]). The Victorian view of Wordsworth, as well as the Modernist view of Wordsworth (and there's a lot the two eras share with each other), was just a guy who likes nature in a sort of pantheist way. But he's nowhere near that: if you read the writings with that in mind, they just don't make sense (okay, maybe the daffodil poem, but that's about it). The rest of it, the stuff that really matters, is way like Lovecraft. Morton can attest to that (listen to his course on Romanticism, and his great classes on Wordsworth, which are spot on--note: opens iTunes link to all Morton's courses), but so can Fry, whose reflections on Wordsworth lead him to a Harman-like thought in his book A Defense of Poetry:

The thinking that is accomplished by matter, to turn then to the hard-to-grasp notion of what I want to call the "embodied," appears on the face of it to be a strange transumption of the nature of matter that may or may not some day reveal its neurophysiological secret in terms that make sense within the Cartesian tradition; but in the meantime its nonuman task is to think itself as matter and not prefigured as res cogitans. Perhaps the way to do this [...] is not to think mind as matter but to think matter as mind, which, when it fails to think, can then stand revealed for what it is, like Heidegger's hammer.
-A Defense of Poetry (1995, collecting essays from the 80s), 206.

You see Fry struggling to articulate what he means, and he has lots of recourse to PoMo, textualist sorts of rhetoric in order to do so throughout his writings--which might have the stink of language-centered philosophy that the object-oriented people rightly don't like (though it's really not that bad, is it?)--but the impulse towards the object-oriented is there. It is also, yes, an impulse that very wrongly gestures towards what Harman continually tries to fend off, which is panpsychism. This too is what seems to be lurking behind Wordsworth for people, and is really what we mean when we fling the old accusation of "pantheism" at him. But precisely following Wordsworth, being led there by him, Fry stresses the "failing to think" of matter, and does so through precisely the hammer of Heidegger, through tool-being--and this, however inaptly put, is just one indication of an underlying tendency in Fry that is deeply, I think, object-oriented (or at least realist with an object-oriented sort of drive). It is obviously going to be less clear about the metaphysics, but this is because Fry isn't a metaphysician, nor does he want to be. He is outlining the consequences of a view of literature that sees its purpose as providing that sort of suspension of--he calls it "knowledge," but that's again too postmodern sounding (remember Fry is a huge critic of PoMo, but that literary theory is now dominated by a French-centered vocabulary which makes it sound critical-theoryish all the time, when it isn't). What is suspended is, as he says elsewhere in the book and all throughout the new one on Wordsworth, intention as human-centered. He also calls this knowledge or meaning, because that is what we are concerned with in intention in literary studies (as opposed to say, haptic, double-touches, lost limbs, all the great stuff of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty), and so we talk about intention in that vague way (believe me who once entertained the philosophy path for a while, that yes I know this is very frustrating for philosophers who spend so much time trying to be precise about this stuff!). But Fry means the non-human, and precisely the non-linguistic-centered (less fashionable to think around 1995, certainly):

To think the nonhuman. To stand back from the anthropocentrisim and pathetic fallacy that is built into our very language, here begins necessarily, the release from signification, not just as the already shopworn gesture of decentering the mental subject but also as the less fashionable through or around the determinate linguisticity that so quickly and suspiciously acquires human attributes in post-structuralist thought. It is only by thinking human being in its objecthood, in its continuity with being in general, that we can suspend the dialectics of reflection...
-A Defense of Poetry, 205.

He's talking about Lyotard in this moment, thus the vagueness of the last phrase: what he means is the sort of drive to interpret that we get when we literary critics pick up a poem, which is actually so different than the drive to actually write literary criticism on the thing--that is, what we normally do and do well. The first tendency is the one we share with the parable-reading people (philosophers, exegetes, everyday readers), who see meaning multiply as reality gets folded over more and more. The literary critic, whether she thinks this or not (we do a lot by intuition) brings the work closer to reality though, back away from this meaning-making, which treats the literary object precisely as a sort of extension of a man-made-intention, or essentially crystallization of it, a representation that folds it over, however much we try to water-down this New Critical, formalist, Aristotelian (that is, Aristotle of the Poetics and Rhetoric) attitude towards the work by seeing it as a chunk of language, discourse, whatever. We bring it back as an object working against and with other objects, all of which are nonhuman or just thought in their objecthood, like the hammer which discloses more, more and more, but not more human-centered meaning, when it breaks down (Harman and Fry might differ as to how this moment is interpreted, but I think Fry might like Harman's reading of it better than his own, which is vague but pretty good for a literary critic).

All this is Fry, and all of it comes from a Wordsworthian sort of view of things:

An Epitaph is not a proud Writing shut up for the studious: it is exposed to all, to the wise and most ignorant; it is condescending, perspicuous, and lovingly solicits regard; its story and admonitions are brief, that the thoughtless, the busy, and indolent may not be deterred, nor the impatient tired: the stooping Old Man cons [knows, understands] the engraven record like a second horn-book;--the Child is proud that he can read it;--and the Stranger is introduced by its mediation to the company of a Friend: it is concerning all, and for all:--in the Church-yard it is open to the day; the sun looks down upon the stone, and the rains of Heaven beat against it.
-Wordsworth, "Essay upon Epitaphs"

That's just a bit of the amazing essay: notice that it admits of a pantheism, but what matters actually are the things and their precise, definite, hard and soft interactions--you have to read the list as a list of individual things, and not just a rattling on. Because it's clear Wordsworth thought all his writings were something approximating this writing on tombstones: Geoffrey Hartman was the first to point this out in the 60's in his Wordsworth's Poetry, which first enlightened us as to just how un-Victorian, how weird he was. This was the real motivation behind his resistance to "poetic diction," which everyone knows about. That's not about encrusted phrases versus a lower, more homely language that everyone can understand. When Wordsworth says the poet should be a man talking to men, he means it quite in the sense that the person speaking is just a man and he has a just a man as his immediate audience: the humans are there in their objecthood, their hardness, in this sort of way. If this sounds too human-centered, also reflect that this isn't a sort of "let's get together in language" sort of thing: that's what 18th century poetry is like; that's why you use stock phrases like "finny coursers" (as a metonymy for fish) or invoke muses. The community he seeks is very much like the society of objects that Latour often describes (politically too, much like Wordsworth) and that Harman describes more clearly: this is why the poetic object doesn't even have men as its "audience," but just as men who are witness to it, to the talking. The phrase, essentially is a tautology--something Wordsworth defended vigorously (see his long note on his poem "The Thorn") as not a fault of language but perhaps its chief beauty. The reason is that the tautology (and he means it not logically but rhetorically, so it's not the tautology you hear rightly condemned in philosophy departments but the sort of repetitious saying of the same thing that you hear in speeches) just says what there. It gets rid of reference as representation and opens up a saying of what, well, is just said. The man talking to men is like a brute description of what poetry is; it's not what it should be like if you understand this to mean the poet should "represent himself as a particular type of speaker." Read all of Wordsworth's poems with this sort of distinction in mind, and you'll see that he's right up your object-oriented alley:

A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.

No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth's diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.

I think I better stop there: what's important though is not that there are objects "represented" in the poem (this is what thing theory sadly looks at most of the time, though Latour plays a big part there, and why most of the time it isn't object-oriented; but that's also why it is a critical theory more than a literary one), but how the poem works and how it is in touch with the real and with these objects. For instance, pay attention to what the word "seemed" is doing: the only representation-producing word here, is actually working to undermine the human-centeredness of feeling and touch, bring them closer to the earth, by setting them up precisely as what death--or is it death as is usually assumed (because of the sequence of poems it is in)? has anyone really died here? or is it just a sort of change of viewpoint that is being registered? you don't need to die to roll around like this--undercuts, or as what is in contrast to what the speaker "now" finds.

The other main things I wanted to note are that 1) the most explicit example of what type of fiction this realism-fiction is (it's not exactly object-oriented, but it has something like OOP's realism), then, can be seen It's Garry Shandling's Show as I said a while back; 2) that history (or a certain view of it) is the thing that prevents a lot of this realism from catching on (history opposes fiction and reality, whereas fiction considered alone just has no opposition to reality at all but adds to it: see Michael Wood's Literature and the Taste of Knowledge on this, and in a more exploratory way Fry), and that literary history is a huge part of literary studies--whereas history is never at all really an issue in philosophy departments except when it is made a philosophical issue--which is why we are more likely to view literature in terms of the representational even if we don't really criticize it that way; and 3) what critical theory does well is combine various idioms across departments, and direct them towards neglected areas, thereby politicizing the fields they join (it can easily be a reactive stance, though it seems progressive, which is why feminism and labor don't really need it, nor various groups when they get some real power behind them), and is very important if what you are theorizing is neglected. All these things can be got into more: the best thing to read on 2) is Fry and also Michael Wood (as I mentioned above). On 2) I'll also say I think philosophy does what it needs to do without much history, though history can be a great resource for it philosophically (you can dig up neglected philosophies if you look for them); and I really mean history in the history-department sense of it, which I think once it hits philosophy gets turned into what they call politics or political metaphysics (look at the work of history of philosophy people to see what happens there: it is a lot more like the bad sociology of science that Latour hates), whereas in English we marry the two a lot (no Milton without the Civil War). And I'll add that it is the historicists who really battled alongside the deconstructionists in promoting a view of fiction that was opposed to reality, that subtracted from it or undermined it, and promoted a representational sort of view of it all (Foucault, who should be the enemy of OOP, was the foundation of New Historicism, and the impact of the latter was massive; and though Derrida I think is just philosophically less of a problem for OOP, as I said above, Paul de Man's Derrida, which was hugely influential, basically turns him into a thinker of language qua representation/underminer of reality).

And I should add one more thing to this history angle, which is that I know the status of history is changing in philosophy through OOP and OOP like projects, because Latour is the one person who can write histories of objects, ideas, everything: there has been a focus on Braudel by Levi Bryant and Harman is actually making his way through Gibbon (though I know less about what he's going to do with it once he's done: it's awesome though, because Gibbon is amazing and changes the 18th century view of history radically, and well it's just an amazing read). I'd add that the reason this is able to happen is because Latour writes narratives, understands objects compose narratives or that reality is a composition of narratives, and that despite the fact that this sounds like something linguistic which the perverse PoMo critical theorist would love, it means nothing of the sort. In fact, it actually means we as literary critics are in a good position to understand what Latour means in a different way, in a more substantial way than the hard line PoMo linguistic angle, if only because that's just critical theory and doesn't really reflect what we do with narratives or even how we think of them in literary theory. To be blunt: there is a moment in the LSE event, when Harman and Latour are talking to the audience (I think it's the LSE event since it had to be, but my memory is shoddy of this), and someone brings up some possible objection to what he says about, well, reality. The objection is, well how do you know where these narratives begin or end? How are you able to tell where the narrative you are composing, the account you are giving of the way objects work and public transit systems are developed and decomposed etc., begins or ends? In short, it's a legitimate question, but it has a sort of false epistemological sort of dualism about it which Latour must destroy: he says rightly that this is a question that scientists don't ask when they try to account for their work, and so it brings you away from the reality and towards the critical sorts of histories of science that he always wants to avoid. The position is right: the narrative is just the narrative, and it's over when it's over, when you've accounted for the events. But there's a practical angle to this, which is on the level of narrative and how you compose it: when do you begin and end your narrative? It is literary criticism and literary theory that can come in and answer this question, because it is a question about the limits of fiction and how narratives work, which we can answer. This is the area that was exploited by people allied with literary studies in the 80's to undermine science for the humanities: but in practice, we deal a lot with these questions and less with the undermining, and can help with the narrative issues (see Wood again for this).

And one last note: criticism and critical are two words that get thrown around a lot in OOP circles because of Latour and it is important to note that when I talk of literary criticism I mean nothing like the sort of Kantian critical attitude. The "critical" of critical theory, or its sort of criticism, definitely are of this Kantian sort, and it is in critical theory's interest to equate literary criticism with something critical. (I've heard that what the "critical" means in "critical theory" is the "close reading" of theoretical texts: perhaps, yes, this technique is used there--though it really isn't the same thing even then, since the close reading in theory is just so much more flighty--but still we then have to say that there is a huge difference between the theoretical text and the literary one, and that this leaves "theory" undefined. Essentially we have to enforce the gap between the two senses of the term, the one implying a whole Kantian task and the other--the literary critical, literary studies sense--is actually only adopted because in literary studies we need a word for what we do when we don't do literary history, or the historiographical sort of work we also pursue, and it looks a lot like the stuff they called criticism--i.e. judgment and analysis--they did way before Kant in the 17th and 18th century). So I don't really see anything wrong with combining the words "object-oriented" and "criticism," or maybe even speaking of "object-oriented criticism," when I mean objected-oriented literary criticism--though I think it's probably good to avoid that phrase in general ("literary critical realism" might be more accurate, since we rarely hold to any precise sort of philosophical distinctions when we criticize, and only use them for practical purposes when we theorize).

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Liking Homer straight

I reflected a little while ago on the English of Robert Fagles' translations, not to criticize the translation, but to criticize us who use it--so accurately does Fagles capture contemporary English in all its range. What I mainly wanted to document was basically that English in America lacks the registers that it had in the past, or that if it has registers (low, middle, and high styles), it never subordinates itself to decorum. Now, I'm not saying that this is really a bad thing. Decorum is one of those concepts that looks more internal to the language than it is, when it is really something that comes from a whole cultural agenda: you have to want culture to function a certain way (and have to just expect it to work a certain way, grow up learning that it works that way) in order to appeal to it. "Impact" or "catchiness" might be a more contemporary version of something similar: but you see the sort of assumptions the use of the term makes about how culture should function. And these assumptions don't invalidate the thing either, by the way: they just inform the use of the term and certain appeals to it.

The only thing is that decorum is one of those more fundamental sorts of concepts, which actually contain the idea of a sort of functioning culture within them: it sets the bar really low, in the sense that all it really expects culture should be is something that has a function. Even then, though, decorum projects a certain type of culture that is more functional than... not functioning. I'd say that Britain still has a sense of decorum in speech, if only because they seem to have a sense that the threat of the fragmentation of a functional culture (a culture with a social purpose) is what we get when we lose it (which may or may not be the case). Of course, they also have a longer history of invoking the term and know what happens when it is invoked (particularly throughout the 18th century). All this tends to color certain battles over the use of dialects there: we have something like that, of course, but it seems less, well, important here. Nothing much is at stake culturally in the use of a particular dialect, though it seems to say something about the language user, and vaguely bring up some stupid worry about culture's "decline" (think of the "debates" over rap lyrics, etc.). They are colored as dialects before any sort of rich concept of their cultural function can be developed, and so decorum is never really invoked: only "broadcasting standards," "free speech," etc.

To come to my point: American English mixes what we might have thought was the low and the high. And what is sort of wonderful about this is that it allows us to get some sense of Homer's Greek. This is what I think Fagles is really getting at when he says in an interview that "the English tend to like their Homer, as they take it, 'straight,' meaning in prose. We tend to like our Homer in verse, and I think that may tend to explain why American Homer—American translations, in fact—are with us." He's also referencing his belief that Homer should be less "literary" in the stuffy sense and rather something that should be picked up often, thumbed through, dogeared (though this seems like that make the thing pretty "literary" to me). We like our literature to be a performance, or, in other words, an event. Seems pretty accurate, but concedes too much to an idea of "the media."  But the main point is, I think, that rather than something without decorum, England would have nothing. That's a bit of an England-hating statement, but it's important to be biased in these matters: not because of any sort of nationalism, but because that's how you argue about literature an international level (which we should distinguish from a "comparative" sort of point of view). But again it seems right: we don't care about decorum, and so we can actually give you something approximating a real visceral sort of language--and this seems to be very much like what Homer himself (that is, the collective subject we refer to as "Homer") is trying to do.

I applauded Fagles' Odyssey more than the Iliad, because Homer does this more successfully in that poem, blending the mythic and the everyday in a way that Longinus once smartly pointed out (even though he also hated it: it's not that one should decide between the two, but that  mix should to be a sort of strong combination, rather than a dissolution of the two terms). But, that said, both really do give something like an idea of Greekishness (I hesitate to say Greek), or rather bring it to life in a sort of new way: we're not dealing with the old stereotypes of Homer that, for so many in England over the years, have kept him and his language in place, somewhere with respect to decorum. I'm warming to these translations, in other words, as poetry. Where I think you see the failure of this sort of approach is in something requiring decorum: the Aeneid. We just don't have what it takes to do this right, on some level, and though Fagles tries, there's just no high style in English that he really can inhabit that will do the job. Robert Fitzgerald, on the other hand, does, but by working with the meter Fagles here doesn't really elect to use--probably because its Miltonic background is just too imposing. But working against the lack of decorum on the one hand and the foreign rhythms creeping into American English on the other, Fitzgerald gives us a nice approximation, building decorum from the ground up, relying on its American sounds rather than its sense (Fagles does the latter marvellously, but neglects the former I think--something again that works better for the Greek than the Latin).

All this reveals that the directness of the American English may be a sort of simulacrum of the Homer, rather than an approximation of it, if we just sit back and don't really feel the English as English, or just expect that what we're getting is Homer in English. We should try and hear an Americanized Homer, as Fagles says, rather than just Homer and American English. Translation is just not about transparency in this sort of simplistic sense: it is about a transparency that is really a sort of combination, addition, which you have to look twice as hard at--and often can enjoy twice as much. But this really means thinking about what then in the Fagles is poetic: we have to sort of invent this much like Fitzgerald does with the Latin. That's a task that is wonderfully left open by Fagles, I think, and gets me exited that the translation is so popular. It's not only great that that so many people are really reading verse: Fagles also really encourages us to look at all the savagery of the Iliad, and treat it less like a "movie" (the parody of a real movie, full of "scenes," to which we now reduce our coneption of novels), than, well, verse poetry in some really undefined, new, American sense.

This was what was important in Fagles' work, I think, for Bernard Knox, though he might not have put it in these terms: their openness, combined with their immediateness, visceral directness (which is not of a cinematic or mediactic type) opens up the possibility that the classics can become relevant in a way that they never really seemed to be in the 20th century. At the same time, his recent death I think marks the end of an era where this sort of openness could be entertained as a possibility of renewal, at the same time as it was used conceptually to undermine the classics Knox defended: now, I think, we actually have to pursue the renewal or the destruction. This means in a sense that the arguments Knox often made are now a bit irrelevant, either because we've benefitted from his efforts or because what he opposed has changed. Arguments about "radical feminists," which really meant classical scholar Eva Keuls, undermining the bases of Western culture are now quite absurd to entertain, because they have exhausted their local purpose just as much as the tactics Knox opposed--and often played more into the hands of those who wanted to get rid of the humanities altogether than those like Keuls who wanted to change it. The game has changed (we now can see that "multiculturalism," the other term he opposed, might have been something much better to focus on, rather than the people who were stupidly killing the Women's Movement that by making sex into violence and victimization--though this did have measurable benefits in making rape and domestic violence much more visible [and prosecutable]) and as we reread these texts we should keep this in mind, I think, especially when the people truly undermining Western culture of whatever sort are those who would focus on this old sort of debate as Knox's only achievement: his NY Times obituary gives him tribute by leaving us with one of his more bitter quotes that is almost twenty (that's 20!!) years old, apparently because replaying early 90's battles in the humanities apparently works better with audiences (and keeps America polarized).

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Dryden's translation of Horace's Second Epode

I was having the darndest time trying to find Dryden's translation of Horace's famous second epode in a form that was able to be copied and pasted. This happens to be the case with much of Dryden's work in general, and especially his translations (there isn't even a full version of the Fables that is easy to use anywhere). But the unavailability isn't due to indifference so much as the lack of resources to cope with Dryden's massive output: efforts to tackle it (rightly) get concentrated on getting the dramas and the Virgil up first, and then seem to flag.

But his earlier translations (that is, relative to the massive output after he lost the Laureateship), especially those collected in the second volume of the famous miscellanies published with Tonson (1685), are wonderful, and deserve a bit more attention just in general (they include a lot of pastoral and a lot of Lucretius--a really readable version all you philosophers should check out). This translation is one of my favorites: we see Dryden at a marshaling all his skill in heroic versification in a shorter four-beat line, wonderfully varying the rhyme with all the talent involved in deploying his famous triplets (if you're interested in the latter, Christopher Ricks--with his usual brilliance--has addressed this neglected aspect of Dryden's versification in a wonderful piece in Cambridge Companion to Dryden).

It is also just one of Horace's best poems, which I have fond memories of trying my hand at in Latin class: the famous "Beatus ille" epode (you can find the original and a literal translation here), loaded with the counter-pastoral skepticism or rather (because skepticism is too critical and neutral a term) doubled-perspective that can only come from a working-man like Horace, it has a wonderful dignity that is constantly poised upon devolving into something simpler--either through too rich a portrait of the simple life, or through resentment that comes through such doubling, its sardonic sort of turn that would explode the vision--but never does. The achievement of Horace is not tone so much as a sort of pointedness of ridicule: the mockery is not of the simple life so much as of the rich Alfius' impulse to desire it materially--this is what turns the vision into a cartoon. And Dryden captures this perfectly, I think (I should mention that Dryden changes Alfius to Morecraft, a famous contemporary usurer--see also his "Essay of Dramatic Poesie"--a traditional practice in translations of satiric material). But enough prefacing:

The Second Epode of Horace
‘How happy in his low degree,
How rich in humble poverty, is he,
Who leads a quiet country life;
Discharg'd of business, void of strife,
And from the griping scrivener free.
(Thus, ere the seeds of vice were sown,
Liv'd men in better ages born
Who plow'd with oxen of their own
Their small paternal field of corn.)
Nor trumpets summon him to war,  [10]
  Nor drums disturb his morning sleep,
Nor knows he merchants gainful care,
  Nor fears the dangers of the deep.
The clamours of contentious law,
  And court and state, he wisely shuns,
Nor brib'd with hopes, nor dar'd with with awe
  To servile salutations runs;
But either to the clasping vine
  Does the supporting poplar wed,
Or with his pruning-hook disjoin   [20]
  Unbearing branches from their head,
  And grafts more happy in their stead:
Or, climbing to a hilly steep,
  He views his herds in vales afar,
Or sheers his overburden'd sheep,
  Or mead for cooling drink prepares,
  Of virgin honey in the jars.
Or in the now declining year,
  When bounteous Autumn rears his head,
He joys to pull the ripened pear,   [30]
  And clustering grapes with purple spread.
The fairest of his fruit he serves,
  Priapus, thy rewards:
Sylvanus too his part deserves,
  Whose care the fences guards.
Sometimes beneath an ancient oak
  Or on the matted grass he lies:
No god of sleep he need invoke;
  The stream that o’er the pebbles flies,
  With gentle slumber crowns his eyes.   [40]
The wind that whistles through the sprays
  Maintains the consord of the song;
And hidden birds, with native lays
  The golden sleep prolong.
But when the blast of winter blows,
  And hoary frost inverts the year,
Into the naked woods he goes
  And seeks the tusky boar to rear,
  With well-mouthed hounds and pointed spear;
Or spreads his subtle nets from sight  [50]
  With twinkling glasses to betray
The larks that in the meshes light,
  Or makes the fearful hare his prey.
Amidst his harmless easy joys
  No anxious care invades his health,
Nor love his peace of mind destroys,
  Nor wicked avarice of wealth.
But if a chaste and pleasing wife,
To ease the business of his life,
Divides with him his household care,  [60]
Such as the Sabine Matrons were,
Such as the swift Apulian’s bride,
  Sunburnt and swarthy though she be,
Will fire for winter nights provide,
  And without noise will oversee
  His children and his family,
And order all things till he come
Sweaty and overlabored home;
If she in pens his flocks will fold,
  And then produce her dairy store,   [70]
With wine to drive away the cold
  And unbought dainties of the poor;
Not oysters of the Lucrine lake
  My sober appetite would wish,
  Nor turbot, or the foreign fish
That rolling tempests overtake,
  And hither waft the costly dish.
Not heath-poult, or the rarer bird
  Which Phasis or Ionia yields,
More pleasing morsels would afford   [80]
  Than the fat olives of my fields;
Than chards or mallows for the pot,
  That keep the loosened body sound,
Or than the lamb, that falls by lot
  To the just guardian of my ground.
Amidst these feasts of happy swains,
  The jolly shepherd smiles to see
His flock returning from the plains;
  The farmer is as pleased as he
To view his oxen, sweating smoke,   [90]
Bear on their necks the loosened yoke:
To look upon his menial crew
  That sit around his cheerful hearth,
And bodies spent in toil renew
  With wholesome food and country mirth.’
This Morecraft said within himself,
  Resolved to leave the wicked town,
  And live retired upon his own.
He called his money in;
  But the prevailing love of pelf   [100]
  Soon split him on the former shelf,
And put it out again.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The itch to translate

Dryden once said he was “troubled by the disease (as I may call it) of translation” (Preface to Sylvae). And he’d have to be, I think, in order to English (wonderful verb), not just the venerable works of the Greek, Latin, French, or Italian languages, but also those of English. It takes an itch to translate, in other words, in order for an English poet like Dryden to translate Chaucer or Milton.

Of course, in either case it’s pretty unjust to seriously consider Dryden’s attempts as translations of English. The language of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, some of which Dryden included in his Fables, Ancient and Modern (1700), was foreign enough for many readers. And in Milton’s case the foreignness was most immediately felt in Paradise Lost’s blank verse (though the diction wasn't really English either), which Dryden smoothed and evened out into heroic couplets in his unpublished drama The State of Innocence (1674). But I want to insist on the intensity of Dryden’s “paroxysm” (as he called it, again in the "Preface") in considering these “adaptations” or “modernizations” (as they are often called) and not just to connect efforts quite distant in time and purpose. Dryden eventually weighed the particular cast of English society itself in terms of translation, saying that

the genius of our countrymen in general [is] rather to improve an invention than to invent themselves, as is evident not only in our poetry but in many of our manufactures.

We have to remember that the same genius is also a “fit” (a paroxysm, a disease) to grasp the true ambivalence of this comment about improvement--usually taken as a straightforward progressivist, modern (not ancient and modern) ideology (though as such it doesn’t quite merit the name, ideology never being straightforward).

Thursday, September 2, 2010


Just ran across one of my favorite similes from Virgil, at the beginning of Book VIII of the Aeneid. But I should say something about similes in general first, because they are very strange things. This is especially true when they take the extended "epic" form, which I actually think is the purest. Now, there are a lot of reasons to think otherwise: the epic simile provides a comparison which does not so much compare as narrate another story in miniature, and when they are not annoying for taking us away from the action, they vex our attempts to make sense of them, as they force even best interpretations to turn towards the awkwardness of allegory.

But many of these reasons come from a sense of the rhetorical canon (it doesn't have to be even an explicit rhetoric) that subordinates the simile to metaphor. Never mind the fact that this tendency often comes from the modern sense of metaphor as a function rather than a--for lack of a better word (the traditional "trope" having been coopted by de Man et. al.) I'll just say an artifice--which tends to justify itself with references the psyche empirically understood. Whether these take place in studies that present the empirical psyche straightforwardly as such (in a marriage of psychology and poetics that begins with I.A. Richards), or studies that veil it in a pseudo-phenomenological garb of anxiety and trauma (in a deconstructivism or late-Lacanianism), such view is problematic--not because empiricism provides its foundation, or because the reference is too psychological, but because such it sees the place where the psyche meets rhetoric as language, which is thereby both kept obscure and granted too much power (it becomes Language). This, by the way, is why this sense of metaphor as a function is really only helpful in structuralist poetics, which interprets the psyche psychoanalytically (as in Barthes) or with a genuine phenomenological intent (Ricoeur often, or the more un-de-Manian aspects of Derrida). Situating the link in a linguistic system which, made up as it is of signs, is able to be studied (that is, neither undifferentiated or wrapped in the mystery of infinite differentiation), these stay true to the real aim of the functional sense of metaphor, best outlined by Jakobson: to recover rhetoric by recovering its explanatory power, which means making it more economical (two tropes, which are brought into closer relationship to schemes) so as to restore some sense of the urgency of debates over typology (it will matter again whether the instance in question is an instance of metaphor or not).

But never mind all that: the point is that everything that makes us subordinate simile to a metaphoric function doesn't help us when it comes time to actually get a sense of the purpose of the simile. Here, it is more helpful to turn things around and say as Pope once did that a metaphor is really just a little simile: this junks all the deeper things we have learned about metaphor, and reduces them to the comparative purpose of the simile, but it gives us a perspective that doesn't take this comparative purpose for granted. More significantly, it changes the relationship between metaphor and simile from one of explicitness (when we think of simile subordinated, we often say that it is just a more explicit metaphor: we are apt to explain it as a metaphor that just "has" like or as) to one of size: we thereby understand the comparison accomplished by the "littler" simile as something more like a short illustration, and the comparison of the actual simile as something elaboration. There is something disgusting to modern ears in this, because it comes close to the late-19th century finishing-school sense of such tropes as ornaments that make everyday speech more noble, decorated, and serve to puff it up. But comparison as elaboration is something different than comparison as ornamentation, and it gives us some sense of the essential role that earlier generations felt such tropes played. For they did not have such a disgusting sense that proper speech should be utterly unornamented, devoid of anything but the most rudimentary grammatical connections and the plainest, most dumbed-down meaning: they did not have the sense that meaning was utterly opposed to the means that expressed it (a sense which is only exacerbated by weak attempts to dissolve this opposition and make everything "linguistic," like those of the empirical/postmodern theories I mentioned above--which is why I complain about them).

If we view the simile then in this light, we understand more its relationship to narrative. Perhaps we even see it see it as a modification of the storytelling impulse itself, a modification which seeks to put the fictional aspect of stories to good use: it seeks to find what in fiction compares or elaborates reality, and uses it to work up a fiction already being elaborated. Such a role might actually bring it more in line with a different, lyric impulse, which does not oppose fiction and reality but sets them side by side: the simile might be lyric trying to tell a story, in other words, or narrative trying to return to its similar lyric-like--sorry for the similes--lack of opposition to reality (considered as something different from history, which is mimetically duplicated--more on this in a moment). This view of similes can perhaps most be opposed to view that has to make sense of them as allegory, relating the components together into a hard lump which, in its self-consistency, opposes itself holistically, at one go, to whatever is being compared: maybe it is even the trope that is the very antidote to allegory itself, being always closer (even in its more condensed, illustrative moments) to something like a parable.

Of course, what challenges such a view is the mimetic function that is most explicit in a simile. But what if we rethought mimesis in our rethinking of this very explicitness above, though we did so in a (supposedly--I'd say seemingly but that's what is precisely in question) different connection? Elaboration, like fiction itself, surely involves mimesis, but is not therefore an elaboration of anything that would bring it into opposition to reality, or, as was often said in the height of a celebration of postmodernity, undermine reality (for similar--sorry again--perspectives on check out the writings of Paul Fry and Michael Wood: Fry has been advancing this "realist" view since the 80's). Once we admit the fact that fiction, with mimesis at its center driving it on, is not as opposed to reality as it is to history (the weird internal timeframe of literature, which you can sit down and slip back into at any time, is an index of this--which does not, for all that, make literature itself something ahistorical), we begin to see how tropes that involve it, that mobilize it, might actually be the stuff of literature that is most in connection with the real.

This probably requires a bit more thought (how does literature's non-opposition to the real differ from its elements? how does a novelistic fiction's elaboration of reality differ from lyric's, which is obviously more direct? and how much is rhetoric fictional, especially when it is used in "non-fictional" [a pejorative term, that brings fiction back into opposition with reality qua history] discourses?). But in the meantime, it certainly shows you why I grant the epic simile primacy, as something like the "model" of all similes, and explains as well perhaps the most fascinating thing about epic similes (and perhaps all similes, then): their amazing translatability. Because from a practical perspective they serve to elaborate first and foremost (or tend to open up into something more than illustration), they gain a certain freedom from the selection of words that tends to modify illustrations (metaphors) more. They differ, of course, from translation to translation, but are wonderfully portable.

Perhaps I'll give you an example with the following simile, to which I finally come:

quae Laomedontius heros
cuncta uidens magno curarum fluctuat aestu,
atque animum nunc huc celerem nunc diuidit illuc
in partisque rapit uarias perque omnia uersat,
sicut aquae tremulum labris ubi lumen aenis
sole repercussum aut radiantis imagine lunae
omnia peruolitat late loca, iamque sub auras
erigitur summique ferit laquearia tecti.

-Book VIII.18-25

Meanwhile the heir
of great Laomedon, who knew full well
the whole wide land astir, was vexed and tossed
in troubled seas of care. This way and that
his swift thoughts flew, and scanned with like dismay
each partial peril or the general storm.
Thus the vexed waters at a fountain's brim,
smitten by sunshine or the silver sphere
of a reflected moon, send forth a beam
of flickering light that leaps from wall to wall,
or, skyward lifted in ethereal flight,
glances along some rich-wrought, vaulted dome.

-Theodore Williams' (pretty literal) translation.

While Turnus and th' allies thus urge the war,
The Trojan, floating in a flood of care,
Beholds the tempest which his foes prepare.
This way and that he turns his anxious mind;
Thinks, and rejects the counsels he design'd;
Explores himself in vain, in ev'ry part,
And gives no rest to his distracted heart.
So, when the sun by day, or moon by night,
Strike on the polish'd brass their trembling light,
The glitt'ring species here and there divide,
And cast their dubious beams from side to side;
Now on the walls, now on the pavement play,
And to the ceiling flash the glaring day.
'T was night; and weary nature lull'd asleep
The birds of air, and fishes of the deep,
And beasts, and mortal men.

-Dryden's translation (I include three more lines because I think Dryden is doing a balancing act of some sort between night and day which nicely takes off from Virgil.)

I'll add other translations as I hunt them down.