. . . Derrida

. . .

Free and direct discourse: I cherish the memory of telling my college professors who Derrida was, but sometimes I wonder how the guy who introduced Hitler to Nietszche felt.

. . .

Chip Morningstar's Postmodern Adventure (via Cardhouse) is the best geeks-look-at-gobbledegook piece I've seen. But the peculiarities of the contemporary American academy have confused his take on the French origins of poststructuralist style: Derrida, for example, is a professional philosopher, not a critic; his work is interesting as philosophy (and, depending on one's taste, as literature), not as lit-crit. And Morningstar doesn't go far enough in his paralleling of the two communities. If I may demonstrate:

Academic Post-Structuralists Computer Programmers
Supposed Goal Improved understanding of artifacts Improved efficiency of tasks
Actual Goal Career in kinship group Career in kinship group
Problem-Solving Approach Jargon-constricted language with unnatural syntax Jargon-constricted language with unnatural syntax
Water-Muddying Foreign Disciplines of Record Philosophy, psychology Engineering, mathematics
Real Water-Muddiers Obsessive-compulsive egocentricity Obsessive-compulsive egocentricity
Destructive Kinship Rite Crossreferencing Long hours
Result of Kinship Rite Smugness / paranoia about obviously unfinished work Smugness / paranoia about obviously unfinished work
Most Hilariously Unfulfilled Promise Social justice Ease of use

. . .

I started reading Derrida immediately after taking a class on Nagarjuna's masterwork, Codependent No More. It's always pleasant to fantasize that autobiographical accident somehow counts as critical insight, and so my rolling bloodshot eyes paused over Curtis White's latest confident assertion:

Anyone who has taken the trouble to understand Derrida will tell you that this putative incoherence was the discovery that the possibility for the Western metaphysics of presence was dependent on its impossibility, an insight that Derrida shared with Nietzsche, Hegel, and the Buddhist philosopher of sunyata, Nagarjuna, who wrote that being was emptiness and that emptiness was empty too.
And I don't care much what club is used to belabor Harold Bloom so long as he gets lumpier.... But White's unadorned Adorno is not much more palatable:
"Aesthetic experience is not genuine experience unless it becomes philosophy."
An ambitious mission if taken seriously, but a terrible guide if taken as Adorno does (i.e., "Art that is not easily explained by my philosophy does not count as art" -- if Adorno was doing philosophy of math, he'd declare that 5 wasn't an integer because it's not divisible by two). Aesthetics is empirical philosophy, and if pursued without attention to particulars, you quickly end up with nonsense like using a single-dimensional scale of "complexity" to ascertain "greatness." (Scientific attempts at researching "complexity" make for amusing reading, given the muddling ambiguity that attentiveness brings in, and the inevitable toppling over of increasing perceived complexity either into perceived organizational structure -- i.e., greater simplicity -- or into perceived noise -- i.e., greater simplicity.)

More pernicious, and indicative of why smart lads like Derrida avoid the whole question of "greatness," is White's contrast of a "simple folk tune" with what "a Bach or Beethoven will then make of this tune," the former being prima facie non-great and the latter being great. Note the indefinite article: we're now so far from particulars that we're not even sure how many Bachs or Beethovens there are.

And note the isolation of the tune, floating in space, divorced from performer or listener: no wonder the poor thing is simple. Why doesn't White contrast "a simple folk singer" with "a Beethoven" instead? How about with "an Aaron Copland"? Or with "a John Williams"? Is Skip James's 1964 studio performance of "Crow Jane" less complex and therefore less great than a slogging performance of an aria from "Fidelio"? How about if the former is given close attention and the latter only cursory? Is study of a printed orchestral score somehow more aesthetically valid a response to music than, say, dancing?

I'm pretty sure how Adorno would answer all those questions, to give the dickens his due. White, I think, would rather avoid them.

I owe 'im, though, for providing the following lovely quote from Viktor Shklovsky, which for some reason makes me think of The Butterfly Murders:

"Automization eats away at things, at clothes, at furniture, at our wives, and at our fear of war."
(The site also includes this less comic bit of Shklovsky.)

. . .

The Blasted Stumps of Academe

Lawrence L. White simultaneously kicks off our end-of-school special and continues our previous thread in high style:

I spent several days composing a response to your comments re Curtis White, but couldn't make sense in my own head. As Adorno also says, the aesthetic is inarticulate. Though he claims philosophy is necessary, he recognizes that the artwork always withholds its best part. It's a perfect marriage: one party claims the other can't live without them, the other party knows it.

One of the few ideas that have made sense to me in this dreadful canon debate is John Guillory's suggestion that instead of thinking of canons we should think of syllabi. It's an inescapable fact: only so many books can be assigned for the term, or, for those who have survived their educations still reading, only so many books can be read. (Mr. Bloom acts as if he has read everything, which is his claim to greatness, 'cause none of the ideas he's had about these books amount to squat.) You have to make choices, though you don't have to, or may not be able to, explain them.

Just as there is are Great Works syllabi out there, so too are there Race-Class-Gender syllabi. & both can be automatized. Try to get an American Studies PhD w/out reading Uncle Tom's Cabin. & try to read any of this stuff the way someone like Spicer would read. I bet my copy of Aesthetic Theory (w/marginal notes throughout to prove I read the whole thing) someone out there is doing a Race-Class-Gender critique of Updike, & is thorougly kicking old Johnny-boy's ass. Yes, he deserves it, but aren't there better things to do w/your time?

I want to read books that are smarter, truer, more beautiful (&, as Adorno & Stein point out, beautiful can be ugly) than I am. Criticism that's superior to its object is masturbation. & as my pa told me, beating off is a fine hobby but you don't want to make it your life's work. One of my fellow students did a master's thesis on Fern Gully. Kicked its ass up one side & down the other, undoubtedly. (Which reminds me: Derrida can avoid the topic of greatness because it goes w/out question in France. The question on the bac is about Rimbaud, not Asterix.)

The example of Spicer's reading -- wide, idiosyncratic, passionate -- shames me when I think of all the time I have wasted in graduate school.

  Bent over the old volume

. . .

The Blasted Stumps of Academe, cont.

A great mystery of the past two decades is just how a bunch of European philosophers and psychologists ended up in the English Departments of the New World.

A minor mystery of the past two weeks is why the moral Vincent Leitch drew from his own story (to your right) was that "close readings" should be avoided rather than that English majors don't read enough.

Wouldn't it be nice if these mysteries solved each other?

Question from Stephen S. Power, MA, UFlorida:
Considering how completely removed literary theory has become from the criticism of actual literary works -- a consideration the composition of your anthology may harden into a given -- do you think someday theory may be removed from the English department entirely and put either in the philosophy department, the sociology department or a new one of its own, that of cultural philosophy?

Vincent Leitch:
Let me tell a story. I just finished teaching a course to graduating English majors which had 26 students. I asked them after I taught the essay by Achebe on Heart of Darkness how many students had read the novel. Eight of 26 students had read Heart of Darkness....

Well, as we know here in Kokonino Kounty, nice things are pretty much always the things that happen!

The English Department version of "post-structuralist theory" is to the insanely engaged work of the original theorists as the English Department version of "creative writing" is to the insanely engaged work of real novelists and poets. That's what permits the two groups to be departmental rivals at all: they're playing the same game.

It's true that Derrida makes for terrible Cliffs Notes. But the problem with Cliffs Notes isn't that they get in the way of primary sources -- no one cares about primary sources -- but that they make students play a different game than the professors, and thus keep the students from assisting the professors' careers.

. . .


An anonymous reader queries, regarding yesterday's entry:

Shouldn't that be 'Différance Strokes'?
Yes, it should. We regret any inconvenience.
"Derrida works many other things in his essay, things which it would be more important to study in a philosophy class than in an English class...."

. . .

New Adventures in the Integral Calculus

I've read McLuhan & Fuller & Sontag & Barthes, Bataille & Blanchot, Derrida & Spivak. I've read Benjamin & Adorno & Bakhtin. I've read Cixous & Irigaray & Kristeva & Jardine. I've even tried reading Baudrillard & Althusser & Bloom & Paglia, the Four Assholes of the Apocalypse.

And the most important insight captured by twentieth century thinking still seems to me to be the following definition:

The word "love" is used loosely by writers, and they know it. Furthermore, the word "love" is accepted loosely by readers and they know it. There are many kinds of love, but for the purposes of this article I shall confine my discussion to the usual hazy interpretation: the strange bewilderment which overtakes one person on account of another person. Thus when I say love in this article, you will take it to mean the pleasant confusion which we know exists.
James Thurber & E. B. White, Is Sex Necessary

Optional exercise: From this premise, derive the world.

. . .

Just like medicine

I have two friends who, like me, have derived serious pleasure from poststructuralist writings. We three are easily told apart, and in terms of relative accomplishment I'm easily at the bottom. But I think we would all agree, more or less enthusiastically, with any of the following assertions:

  Un altro elleboro nero
Instead, we commonly enounter the assertion: And being all three of us sworn to defend our pleasures to our deaths, up goes the dander, flying goes the fur.

But I've finally come to realize that such a reaction replenishes the venom sacs of the poisoners I find most fearsome: canons and labels.

  Elleboro bianco
A kiss-off to the abstract blob game, then:

The only commonality I can find in my personal poststructuralism reading list is a tendency to complicate thought (if not necessarily writing; Delany and the sorely-missed Jardine write perfectly lucid American prose): to split hairs and splinter branches and seed beams with termites and combine bicker with blather.

My friends and I have little enough in common ourselves. But I think I can say that for all of us, the appeal wasn't a matter of being frozen, or being seduced, or being betrayed, or having our deepest beliefs called into question, or even being particularly influenced.

More a relief at seeing what we'd already sensed receive acknowledgment and elaboration. Self-conscious complexity is the net that's saved us all from drowning. ("Drowning," figuratively. "Dying," not.) In the nineteenth century, we would've been Kantians; in the eighteenth, what, Viconians maybe? Wherever was foggiest, that's where we'd be. In the fog with a lantern, searching for more fog.

None of us would've been Swift. I think you need to assume a certain height and distance before you can speak down like Swift.

When the world is known to be foundationless, it's pleasant to see that foundationlessness mirrored and elaborated, just like when we ache with anger and disappointment, it's pleasant to see a George Romero movie. But for anyone to force that on someone else for personal aggrandizement or gain, or to wave it as a liberating banner or as a pass card to an exclusive club -- yes, that would be monstrous.

That fucking pharmakon again.

. . .

In May 2009, Josh Lukin responded:

Seems to me that there's a big area in which a critic can "prove" something: the game of refuting sweeping generalizations. Girard asserted that "Every novel has all of these features"; Toril Moi "proved" that some don't. Now, I personally would not use that verb, opting instead for "Moi's convincing challenge to Girard . . . " But if I had to edit a submission claiming that she'd proven him wrong, I don't see how I'd argue that it was an infelicitous construction.

Girard: "Well, then, those are not a novel." But yeah, counter-evidence is something criticism can handle very well. Sometimes I think it's all that criticism's good for.

. . .

Back to School Special

Cholly in the classroom
Sometime during my recent exile, I encountered a repentant "postmodernist" who argued that the much vilified New Criticism started with good intentions, and that his own tribe has by now been responsible for at least as much blindness and suffering, and that a revived historicism will become ossified in its turn.

I wouldn't disagree with any of that, but it's not that impressive a moral achievement to renounce one's party during the latter part of its decline, and aside from a blanket pessimism, he left the problem undiagnosed.

Primary sources trump secondary sources. That's not in question.

The question is: Why is that truism so often (and so immediately) forgotten? Even a non-U Nonconformist can occasionally enjoy watching T. S. Eliot assume a peculiarly Possum-ish position, and I've admitted to finding Derrida both harmless and amusing. So how does an insight devolve into a method and a school and a curriculum and a catechism?

Perhaps those terms hold a clue?

Myself, I'm inclined to put the blame on the penitent's institutional allegiance rather than on literary analysis itself: in the politics of tenure and publication, the weapons of grades and evaluations....

One can gain knowledge about competitive sports, or pleasure from competitive sports; one can even meet lovers while engaged in competitive sports. But knowledge and pleasure and love are not themselves competitive sports, and any institution that treats them as such is corrupt at the root.

. . .

Now it feels all lumped up again.. JAIL

Lawrence L. White writes that our recent serial on comic poetry glanced off a thought much on his mind:

What if the non-sequitur were a legitimate figure of speech?

I take this thought to be a lesson of Gertrude Stein's work. I'm sure Mr. Weinberger counts Stein among the better angels. "Cubist simultaneity" would be her invite to the party. But one thing perplexes me about his list of virtues: two of them are based directly on pictures, and maybe even the third (one creative writing teacher suggested to us that dreams were more like rebuses than stories). None of them are about language. & I thought the lesson we all got from Cezanne was that your medium was the truest path into the problem.

[...] I do mean the "what if" part seriously. There's an odd triumphalism to a lot of Language poetry proponence. As if it really did move mountains. Now I'm not saying that Stein wasn't one heck of a triumphalist, but the parts I like (there are plenty available) are when she's wondering if she's managed to get her latest contraption off the ground yet & if so how long it's going to stay airborne.

Seriously or not, I'm not sure a what-if is necessary. The non-sequitur, like other approaches to nonsense, is already "a legitimate figure of speech" in the living language. It only seems exceptional within the bounds of purposefully restricted discourses such as funeral orations, or shareholder reports. To bring it into those restricted areas isn't to overcome the quotidian but to enrich (or corrupt) with the quotidian.

True, the power fantasies of poets and theorists (and science fiction writers and superhero comics and hiphop MCs and so on) are laughable. But, far from being an attack or a defeat, deflation reveals the true nature of their achievements.

And, as you say, worrying aloud about the impression one's making while in the midst of purposefully restricted discourse is a deflationary technique mastered by Gertrude Stein as well as Robert Benchley. (Which may hint at why my readings of Derrida have been unusually benign.)

I'm aware of my tongue! Unable to stop fretting about one's own place in one's own medium -- doesn't that send us back to Cézanne's school?

Before and beyond any other response they might elicit, Manet's paintings (like Stein's writings) were funny, mocked (more-or-less warmly) even by friends and supporters. Accordingly, the affections of caricaturists and parodists often sided with their irresistible target rather than with their hostile employers. Marcel Duchamp said that when he was a cartoonist hanging out with other cartoonists (not to insinuate that Duchamp ever stopped being a cartoonist), "The conversation centered above all on Manet. The great man that he was." Or, in Baudelaire's reassuring words, "the first in the decrepitude of your art."

I'm trying to avoid terms like "Postmodernism" -- John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, found the lyric stance as distressingly risible as Frank O'Hara or Jack Spicer ever did. But I suppose it might be true that one would need ever higher doses of delusion to avoid self-consciousness after the printer's devil has stopped tapping at the casement window for new installments. Just us and the medium, all alone by the telephone.

. . .

Karen Joy Fowler's Sister Noon: A Note on Method

"As a corollary, then, historical inference can only take us back to the furthest-past extension of the principles that now govern the world. A time when 'everything was different' is in principle not reconstructable, i.e. not available to history."
- On Explaining Language Change, Roger Lass
"That's not where I want to be."
- The Ramones
"If it's not all about me, she might have said, why does everyone watch everything I do? Lucky she didn't. Who would complain of this to Mrs. Pleasant, about whom the whispers never hushed?"
Sister Noon - Karen Joy Fowler
"On the one hand, in effect, one must want the greatest good for the friend -- hence once wants him to become a god. But one cannot want that, one cannot want what would then be wanted, for at least three reasons...."
Politics of Friendship - Jacques Derrida
"Here discretion lies not in the simple refusal to put forward confidences (how vulgar this would be, even to think of it), but it is the interval, the pure interval that, from me to this other who is a friend, measures all that is between us.... It is true that at a certain moment this discretion becomes the fissure of death."
- Friendship, Maurice Blanchot

Most good fiction set in the past achieves its brief rapprochement between history and story by avoiding any names that might rouse mutual interest. But let an old beau be brought up and the holiday is ruined: "Well, if you'd only listened to Aaron Burr —" "Aaron Burr! Aaron Burr! Always she throws Aaron Burr in my face!"

Name-dropping historical fiction, whether researched-sincere or postmodern-bratty, may sell well, but it withers quickly. Even Flaubert couldn't lift John the Baptist to the same level as Frédéric Moreau, and a Michener or Vidal, or worse yet a James Tully or Sarah Booth Conroy, seems irredeemably presumptious. History originally comes from story the rushed and slanted newspaper report, the misremembered self-serving memoir and if I'm going to give up the illusion of certainty, I might as well just return to those primary sources. Their half-truths will most likely provide more surprises than a contemporary fiction writer's could.

You could easily argue with that opinion. Me, I just hold it. And it was with no small confusion that, in the dazzle of my first reading of Sister Noon, I looked down and found it still there in my unattended hands, a commute-worn hat from which a table-filling bouquet had been produced with a show of perfect ease.

Well, one of the critic's tasks is to figure out how the trick's done. It doesn't begin to make the magic easy, but it's what we do. And after a few years of slow-mo-ing through Fowler's performance, I think I might've done it.

Rather than confusing gossip and slander with knowledge, Sister Noon eyes that confusion's source and the hunger that feeds it. Its hero isn't the ascertained celebrity, but the half-reluctant, half-fascinated hanger-on. Its plot isn't a schematic rise to power and fall into disgrace, but a journey into the sucking bog of schemas and back out again.

With "poor, fanciful, inconsequential little Lizzie," we learn how one's unattended, unkempt life becomes stuctured into narrative by a brush with celebrity, or a dream of celebrity, or a memory of celebrity. Suddenly that's what people know about you, that's what people think about you, that's what they want to hear, that's what you want to tell them. You find yourself with a story, even if it's a pale distorted reflection of someone else's story, even if that story itself distorts the celebrity's own unattended, unkempt life.

As docudrama's smugness resembles the lower forms of biographer or journalist, Fowler's fond respect resembles The Quest for Corvo. What's offensive about those other ginks is their wilfull, even spiteful, ignorance. The finer stuff of Fowler and Symons gracefully incorporates its own limitations. Symons begins his biography not with an unpromising birth but with the author's curiosity, and ends it not with an overdue death but with the author's satisfaction. In Sister Noon's first chapter, the protagonist is brought into the circle of the most infamous name of her time and place; in its last, they definitively separate, and, satisfyingly, that's the only thing made definitive.

Fowler's choice of protagonist neatly solves another generic problem as well, that being how to convey the alienness of another time or culture with the techniques of realistic fiction. If reader identification takes for granted a shared notion of what's natural, how can what's "natural" become an issue? Of course, this is also a foundational problem for science fiction, and in both genres a frequent solution is to make the novel's protagonist a first-time visitor to the novel's setting. Fowler instead leverages the insight that alienation from one's mundane surroundings is a familiar shared experience (albeit not one that's necessarily taken for granted). Lizzie Hayes exhibits the same dully baffled irritability towards spiritualism, white slavery, and the Doom Sealers that I feel towards Burning Man, multi-player shooters, or the Great Anthrax Scare. We all occasionally find ourselves stranded on Mars or in a suburb of Carthage.

The ambiguous and disputatious sources of history aren't different in kind from those of the present. To resolve them is to falsify not just "what really happened" but also "what really happens."

And we readers, gossipers, hanger-ons make up part of "what really happens," unattended though we might be even by ourselves. A close look at an entrepreneurial multi-millionaire may confirm our unconfessed contentment in the tweedy middle class. Long-standing acquaintance with a successful author may reduce the shame-facedness with which we prefer self-publishing. On the sinister hand, our growing identification with a target of scandal may weaken our own restraints: having seen the worst, the fears that hemmed us in seem tawdry things, low-grade cotton rotted and easily torn.

There's a reason the fiction was put into this historical fiction. Lizzie Hayes isn't merely a passive conductor, capacitor, or resistor of the social current. When she has reached this realization or rather more actively has realized it, in the most humane and engaged way imaginable the tension between perfectly known fiction and permanently unknowable history is released, and the characters are set spinning out of the name star's orbit, from the documented fantastic to the unlimited mundane, cycling around once, four years later, to be glimpsed in the novel's first paragraph, and then (re-)lost to view.

Not that Lizzie Hayes would genuinely vanish, much as she might like to. Duties, if not heavens, forbid. She and her new-found (or rather more actively new-founded) family drive away, quite as material as they ever were, into what would appear to be a most distinctive narrative of their own.

But that's another story.

. . .

What a Pal, What a Pal

We must give up trying to know those to whom we are linked by something essential; by this I mean we must greet them in the relation with the unknown in which they greet us as well, in our estrangement. Friendship, this relation without dependence, without episode, yet into which all of the simplicity of life enters, passes by way of the recognition of the common strangeness that does not allow us to speak of our friends but only to speak to them, not to make of them a topic of conversations (or essays), but the movement of understanding in which, speaking to us, they reserve, even on the most familiar terms, an infinite distance, the fundamental separation on the basis of which what separates becomes relation. Here discretion lies not in the simple refusal to put forward confidences (how vulgar this would be, even to think of it), but it is the interval, the pure interval that, from me to this other who is a friend, measures all that is between us, the interruption of being that never authorizes me to use him, or my knowledge of him (were it to praise him), and that, far from preventing all communication, brings us together in the difference and sometimes the silence of speech.

It is true that at a certain moment this discretion becomes the fissure of death. I could imagine that in one sense nothing has changed: in the "secret" between us that was capable of taking place, in the continuity of discourse, without interrupting it, there was already, from the time in which we were in the presence of one another, this imminent presence, though tacit, of the final discretion, and it is on the basis of this discretion that the precaution of friendly words calmly affirmed itself.

- Maurice Blanchot, Friendship
Don't put it in the papers.
Don't put it on the air.
Don't put it in your pipe.
Put it there.
- Bob Hope & Bing Crosby, Road to Utopia


RIP Derrida. Your say, Mr Pseudopodium?


. . .

"Why do men [sic] halt between two opinions, and expect histological impossibilities?"

My recent outburst prompted the outburst below, recieved under the above title. I just hope Clifford D. Simak felt this proud when he read Fire the Bastards!

I'm tempted to have it carved on my tombstone. But, considering the financial burden that would put on my heirs (drat this Estate Tax!), I'll probably stick with my original choice of epitaph: "STUPID! STUPID! STUPID!"

Waitamminit, you don't name (or link) names, so I'm not sure of this; but --you're mad at teachers who accuse, say, the Clinton administration of being responsible for proto-bushian injustices so you point out Zizek's absurdity and threaten him with the disgruntlement of a mob of lumpen Christians? Not that there's anything wrong with your view of SZ --I especially liked the wordsalad he produces in the interview to which you linked, and it was indeed impossible for those who only intended to establish their state capitalism to rely on the revolutionary mobilization of the people (most effective revolution, though? by what criteria?)-- but something in the chain of argument reminded me of FrontPageMag's Derrida obit, and the longstanding canard that materialism by itself would reduce ideas to mere passive accompaniments of economic activity. There is a whole universe of meaning to be rescued and redefined: maybe it's just not a good time of year to level accusations against "academics." It *is* important, Ray, to remember that positive motivation to do something is aroused by the expectancy that one's behavior will be followed by positive consequences. Consider not just two prosodically similar statements, but *three*:

"None of that in Kubrick, who manipulates his films like a chess player, who makes an operational scenario of history."

"The destruction of craftsmanship during the period of the rise of scientific management did not go unnoticed by the workers."

"Understandably, hostile or uncooperative witnesses seldom grasped the nature of the hearings they were so forcibly attending."

I mean, it turned out to be advantageous for Kerensky, but at what price? Tom Frank is essentially trying to figure out how the Right's propaganda machine works, right? And had his book been universally ignored, they might have resented every blasphemous word of it. Does that, in your eyes, make him a class traitor by reminding him of your Bryn Mawr profs? These habits of life are of too pervading a character to be ascribed to the influence of a late or brief discipline. I lack the confidence to charge this danger equally to every part of the discourse; I no longer know what objects and ends are in my field of awareness. But surely your Missourian cohort would be equally unhappy with Chip, whose wound has closed up, for his elitism. Signs carrying social information vary as to reliability. Is it beyond your credence that there are teachers (and remember that SZ is not one) who provide political educations, who raise students' consciousness sufficiently to change their lives, and who still don't let the DLC off the hook, and remain appalled by Angela Davis' support for Clinton, or by Carter's having opened up the WH to the bornagainers' leaders? What then do you think of Riesman's view that there's such a thing as a "national character"? I dread hearing you say that the argument for child labor followed the same line, when the Constitution Party presented it in early 2000.

. . .

Heathcliff, Come Home

(Written for The Valve)

I suppose many readers of The Valve eventually get around to The Yale Journal of Criticism on their own, but if un-lit blogs can point you to the New York Times front page, it must be OK for me to point you to "Petted Things" by Ivan Kreilkamp, starring the Brontë sisters as animal rights pioneers.

Kreilkamp's essay pleasingly draws from history, the authors themselves, and recent Derrida in the service of (to me) a novel, amusing, and evocative association of realism with anthropomorphism. The critic even shows good reason for having treated "the Brontës" as a group rather than as individual novelists.

Potential Disney adaptors of Jane Eyre should especially note the story of Clumsy, A Dog:

"Tell how he grows ugly in growing up;... Madam's disgust for him; the rebuffs he suffers.... Clumsy, for that is what she calls him now, banished to the yard; his degradation; detail his privations, the change in food and company."

Everyone else should especially note that Carol Emshwiller's Carmen Dog carries far more entertainment value than its equivalent in Lucas-movie-and-junk-food.

+ + +

Afterthought: The Brontës as potential writers of noble-dog stories reminds me of one of my own favorite alternate-literary-history scenarios: What if, rather than giving up their shared fantasy worlds, the Brontë sisters had successfully brought their mature styles and concerns into Gondal and Angria, weirdly anticipating Joanna Russ's Alyx, M. John Harrison's ret-conning of Viriconium, Samuel R. Delany's Nevèrÿon...?

Pointless, I know, but at least it's a break from imagining the rest of Emma.

. . .

Nothing Personal, inconclusion

Criticism being a discursive form, it's natural that readers should guess at the critic's intention. And since I didn't describe my intentions at the start, some readers guessed wrong. Not surprising at all, very much business as usual, but given what those intentions were, I'll attempt a settlement.

(Although I've always been lousy at wrapping up. I look at the rumpled wads covering the gift and hope it's the thought that counts, but when the gift itself is only a thought you really have to wonder....)

  1. No, I don't believe we should judge poems by the lives of their authors. I've denied that across all my changes of taste.

    But somewhere enabling that bendable "taste", like the wire embedded in Gumby, I suspected a thin core of hypocrisy. The experience of poetry conveyed more "person" than my preferred critical rhetoric allowed. (And, yes, it also conveys more "other-than-person" than the rhetorics of political righteousness or self-help or histrionic heroism allow. But what would be the point of arguing with people who aren't my friends?)

    And so I investigated my terms, flipping over each rock until "diction" paid off, insofar as one can describe an unattractive pale slimy creature as a payoff.

    Immersion in a writer's work creates an ephemeral social contract, each author founding a Republic of Letters in which we feel welcome or not, an aspect of poetic experience which the communally-rooted blarney of pop music criticism gets at more directly than close reading ever could. I wondered (not for the first time) if it would be possible to achieve a similar informality (creased jeans allowed) in poetics. But however I tried styling it, the admission didn't come naturally to me. Only this morning did I find a clear formulation:

    Poetry can't depend on the personal but can't avoid conveying a personality. Readers grasp that personality and put it into narratives. And there's apparently some peculiar glamor in imagining oneself the sort of person who gets put into such imaginary scenarios.

    The same uncomfortable state of affairs holds for the performing arts: Professional ethics dictate the loss of self; audiences dictate a pseudo-self back again; and finally a host of wannabes dream of jumping straight to the vices. The "depersonalizations" found in literary history might be compared to theatrical techniques like "the Method" or "the alienation effect", originally taken as ways to make the actor invisible, while in retrospect we see the usual shtick and celebrities.

    I don't mean to celebrate this process only to acknowledge it.

  2. No, I don't believe "the New York School" or "Language Poets" hold exceptional positions. (At least not more exceptional than anyone else.)

    I started from Eliot, but I could've started anywhere, with Yeats or Swinburne or Tennyson, or Byron's millefeuille of sincere insincerity, or his contemporaries' sometimes literally fraudulent tapping of the national soul, or the sweat-soaked Augustans, or the political-sexual-financial desperation of Tudor classicists. Always the risk that the Muse ain't talking, it's just ol' Virgil makin' shit up.

    No, I retraced this particular arc of the literary roundabout only because someone on the Valve had expressed a certain conception of "the New York School" and then someone else on the Valve had expressed a certain conception of "Language Poets", and I'd promised to attempt reconceptualizations.

    Message, if not legible, at least delivered. Or if not delivered, at least sent.


A Derrida reference? Quelle horreur!


. . .

They Saved Dickinson's Brain

The one part of Raymond Tallis's polemic I left uncheered was its Axis-of-Evil association of neuroscience-based foolishness with "Theory"-based foolishness. The intersection of "writers classified as Theory" and "writers I follow" offers no support, and most cognitive-aesthetics bosh I've seen was written by Theory-bashers. (Unless I count. I don't count, do I? ... do I?)

Well, I haven't been following Sabine Sielke, who's just transported Derrida's structural trademark "I wrote these words on a bar napkin last night so they must be very important but I can't for the life of me remember why" into a new era:

What, then, does it mean to "re-cognize Dickinson"? And why re-cognize the poet in the first place? ... In some way, we have always been and cannot help re-cognizing Emily Dickinson.

I look forward to her take on re-ader re-sponse studies.

But given the essay's many admiring citations of Camille Paglia, we might still need a broader label for that brush. How about "foolishness at large"?


For an alternative application of neuroscience to poetry criticism, see (possibly with the aid of your friendly local pirate) Hisao Ishizuka.

. . .

No Better than We Should Be

JEFF MARKHAM: "We owe it all to José Rodriguez. I wonder if he'll ever know what a bad guide he really was."

Two Anglo-American academic disciplines recently took their aesthetics on an "ethical turn," although their turns share little other than fondness for Henry James and a professionally useful handle. (As Sheriff Peter B. Hartwell once put it, "You mean we could have our pictures taken together?")

Literary criticism's "cognitive turn" and "evolutionary turn" have introduced oversimplifications, misunderstandings, and the most puerile of observations. The ethical turn operates at a higher level entirely. Close reading, introspection, historical and biographical tidbits, the canonical vocabulary of Theory, and consumer studies from surveys or labs all the proven tools of the critical trade remain at reach within a sturdy and compelling perhaps even compulsory frame.

Why do I so loathe the trend, then? Why does bile choke even the expression of my loathing?

And why should you care?

Ethically-turned critics promise inestimable rewards if you'll take time to closely attend the articulation of a spiritual struggle, no matter how privileged the protagonist or how idiosyncratic the circumstance. They describe it almost as your duty.

Friends, I fight for your right to ignore me.

... to be continued ...

. . .

No Better than We Should Be, 2

Literature as Conduct: Speech Acts in Henry James by J. Hillis Miller

Working at the top of his game, Miller explicates "beautifully," to use the Master's own term for such blends of caution and engagement. (Which is to say "carefully," if, unlike the Master, one prefers ambiguity to vagueness.) I happily recommend Miller's celebration to any non-Jamesians in the mood to understand what they're missing and to any Jamesians in the mood for intelligent companionship.

Even in our contested territory, Miller behaves with probity. When Martha Nussbaum delineates the ideal James reader (and by extension the ideal to which all citizens should aspire), she seems unaware how neatly her terms fit Fanny Assingham and The Sacred Fount's Nameless One. Miller meets both head-on:

We are not all that much better off than Maggie or than the narrator-participant of The Sacred Fount, except that we are permitted by the narrative voice to juxtapose several different perspectives. We have several different acts of reading the signs elaborately presented to us, most notably Fanny's and Maggie's. The Sacred Fount, however, focuses primarily on what is problematic and dismayingly unverifiable about the passive/active event of reading signs, making a global interpretation of a presented social scene, and then establishing a law of interpersonal exchange on that basis. The Golden Bowl focuses more on the way a reading of social signs can be performatively felicitous if others can be got to believe it or to act as if they believe it.

The book achieves its goals and cannot step outside them without rupturing genre boundaries. Miller must leave one strand dangling:

When her husband asks what will be his punishment, Fanny answers, somewhat contradictorily: "Nothing you're not worthy of any. One's punishment is in what one feels, and what will make ours effective is that we shall feel." ... If we are unimaginative readers, we can escape responsibility, but only by being grossly irresponsible. Either way we have had it, in a painful double bind that might lead one to conclude it would be better not to read The Golden Bowl at all.

I believe that conclusion should be taken seriously. For one thing, it reflects social reality: most people have not read The Golden Bowl at all. Even literate English-speakers of James's own time tended to leave James's novels unread; some did so with great vehemence. Is there anything to be said for someone (not our dear selves, I hasten to add) who refuses to become "the thoughtful reader of The Golden Bowl. I mean the reader who sees reading literature as James in the preface sees writing it, that is, as a particularly exigent and responsible part of 'the conduct of life'"?

Testimony isn't lacking should the unthoughtful reader seek it. James is dithering; James is timid; James would rather risk incoherence than risk coming to the point. James is a grotesquely pompous peeping-tom, unwilling to assume the responsibility of physical contact and unable to stop nosing around others' sex lives. James is an un-American sissy.

(That last would be Theodore Roosevelt's critique, and yes, I find it offensive. But given his offensive starting point, I can't argue with it any more than I can with the tastes of a later Roosevelt. Henry James and the Roosevelts aimed at different lives and different afterlives. They also serve who don't just stand and wait.)

Having admitted the possibility of refusal, let's tot up the benefits accruing to our own more enlightened status. We can begin with James himself; although he lacked Harlan Ellison reflexes, occasionally an attack did sting him into the indignity of self-defense. I've already had the pleasure of transcribing two examples; here's a very brief third, to his brother:

I’m always sorry when I hear of your reading anything of mine, and always hope you won't you seem to me so constitutionally unable to ‘enjoy’ it, and so condemned to look at it from a point of view remotely alien to mine in writing it, and to the conditions out of which, as mine, it has inevitably sprung.... And yet I can read you with rapture

Written to three very different skeptics, they all follow the same course: James points to his absolute certainty that he, Henry James, experiences life in a certain way and had no choice but to write what he wrote, that the only way for him to not do these things would be to not be Henry James, but that, as Henry James, he's not restricted to a diet of Henry James but delights even in the work of naysayers. Henry James was often sad and often disappointed, but Henry-James-ism was enough to provide inexhaustible and inextinguishable comfort:

If one acts from desire quite as one would from belief, it signifies little what name one gives to one's motive. By which term action I mean action of the mind, mean that I can encourage my consciousness to acquire that interest, to live in that elasticity and that affluence, which affect me as symptomatic and auspicious. I can't do less if I desire, but I shouldn't be able to do more if I believed. Just so I shouldn't be able to do more than cultivate belief; and it is exactly to cultivation that I subject my hopeful sense of the auspicious; with such success or at least with such intensity as to give me the splendid illusion of doing something myself for my prospect, or at all events for my own possibility, of immortality.

Which is to say that your objections would vanish if you could become "that queer monster," Henry James.

Well! This is an admirably modest argument which establishes an enviable position. But it has one flaw: most of us will not become Henry James. And that may be just as well. A world full of Henry Jameses, or even a summer house full of Henry Jameses, sounds a bit stifling. As Paul Kerschen once said, you need at least one dangerously naive young lady as leaven.

Henry James himself, of course, had no choice but to speak exclusively for himself; he was too polite to subpoena character witnesses. The curious thing is that Miller's defense also occasionally relies on muddling just who's doing what: "the reader who sees reading literature as James in the preface sees writing it" will surely be disappointed by her royalty statements.

We'll encounter this muddle again, but for now let us instead assume that reading Henry James will not make us Henry James. How else might we be influenced?

We cannot successfully "be one of the people on whom nothing is lost" because there will always be something going on outside our focal range, and a good thing too. Instead, James suggests trying to be such a person; that is, attempting to lose nothing of our particular small slice of existence. As role models, Henry James's late protagonists do almost nothing but look at and think about occasions which have been carefully selected and arranged for their benefit. As role players who are reading Henry James, we will look at and think about James's pages, carefully selected and arranged for our benefit. Monkey see, monkey sit.

And so to the extent that an ethics is directly derivable from Henry James, it happens to be the ethics of academic criticism and academic philosophy. His novels lend the characteristic activity of scholarship the glamor of narrative. But when his reader is "put on trial," it's merely play. The ethical difficulties of fiction are to the ethical difficulties of life as Tabasco sauce is to firefighting.

Let's look up from our book and imagine a common everyday example of inaction like ignoring a crying child. We may be exhausted, resentful, and drunk. We may be an Objectivist who knows that indulging our sentimentality would bring disaster upon the adult-to-be and perhaps the world! We may be a devout Christian who believes it up to the Lord to decide the little angel's fate. We may be a novelist, finishing our thousand words for the day. Or we may be a critical pedagogue intent on settling questions like "Did Maggie do right? Did she act justly? Was her perjury an efficacious speech act? Was it 'felicitous'?"

Should one consider "conduct" not merely a matter of interpretive protocols but also a matter of how one behaves, one should go on to consider that the loudest champion of James's late work was Ezra Pound.


Josh Lukin writes:

"the indignity of self-defense" -- you mean, writing stuff like "Limited Inc a b c"? Derrida certainly had "Harlan Ellison reflexes," thanks no doubt to a similar background . . .

The translator must've left out the part about breaking Searle's kneecaps.

To misquote a prof of aesthetics, "Beware of ethicists, they always want to bend at the knee."

Wendy Walker writes:

I have always remembered the injunction "Try to be...." as "A writer is someone upon whom nothing is wasted." Either James wrote that somewhere else, or I have amended it in my very creative memory. I do remember his saying this in conjunction to the relation of a a scene from his childhood-- He was playing with a little girl who was a friend and her father came to get her and tell her it was time to go. She started to fuss and cry, because she wanted to keep on playing with little Henry. Her father admonished her strictly, "Lizzie (or whatever her name was), don't make a scene!" James dates his understanding of what "a scene" is from that moment.

The importance of this in the context of your essay rests upon the nuance of the word "lost"-- "wasted" implies recycling, whereas "lost" does not, and I do wonder if James didn't mean "lost" in the sense of "wasted" rather than in the sense in which you interpret it. It is one thing to use a book or experience to become a "better person" but quite another to use it to make another book. I have always assumed that he meant the latter.

Although my prose hopelessly obscures the point, I agree with you as to James's intent: he explicitly addressed the novice writer rather than the general public. My quarrel is not with James's words but with Nussbaum's and Miller's interpretations, which erase any such distinction.

. . .

No Better than We Should Be, 3

Ethical Joyce by Marian Eide

With the aid of Levinas, Derrida, and Irigaray, Eide tidies the Feminist Joyce, the Post-Colonial Joyce, and other Joyces beside into a unified Ethical Joyce. Psychoanalytic theory, l'écriture féminine, smirks about homosexuality, expressions of solidarity with racial stereotypes, genetic textual studies, family biography, puns, coincidences, misunderstandings all, all engage alterity.

As one might expect, Eide cites Joyce as often to illustrate summaries of French theorists as she cites French theorists to prompt explications of Joyce; she handles both tasks splendidly. (I'm particularly grateful for her analysis of Mr. Deasy's coin collection and her correlation of Finnegans Wake revisions to changes in Lucia Joyce's condition.) Neither will the experienced reader be shocked by an occasional hint of partisanship, as in this note on the structure of Exiles:

Joyce refuses an audience's scopophilia, the possibly prurient interest that might be satisfied by witnessing the love scene or failed love scene between Bertha and Robert in the cottage. As in so many of his other works, Joyce draws a curtain before a woman's body and her love (readers never, for example, directly witness Molly Bloom's assignation with Blazes Boylan), granting women characters a privacy that resists the prurience of mimesis and its claims to full revelation.

Few would agree that the last chapter of Ulysses respects Molly Bloom's privacy, and surely Joyce's reason for avoiding the Bloom home was to reserve Mrs. Bloom for his big finale. Similarly, the "moral dilemma" presented to the Exiles audience might be taken as a (generally unsuccessful) attempt to maneuver us into an attitude not far from Richard's scab-picking jealousy.

Special pleading and bardolatry are hardly new to the Joyce industry, and Eide is far from being the worst offender. But with "Ethical Joyce" she explicitly intends to raise the stakes even if she must also hedge her bet: "Ethics, as I am defining it... is an engagement with radical alterity or difference within the context of ultimate responsibility (in the sense of responsiveness) to the other."

Having gone against Levinas in applying his intrapersonal ethics to the production and consumption of artifacts, Eide goes further by treating dead texts as stand-ins for human subjects: "Rather than testing moral vision through ethical dilemmas within the text, I argue that the interpretive facility, that relation between text and reader, itself provides both an ethical dilemma and opportunity." "Perhaps the least obvious, though most immediate, example of this paradigm is the relation between text and reader." (Although I understand the impulse, it does remind me of the court decisions which granted American corporations legal personhood.)

Since Joyce lived before Levinas et al, Eide explains how he achieved his signature values without their aid:

For example, his realization that his mother had provided him with his first habitat and sustained his life through adolescence and yet fell victim to the very system that nurtured his own success, altered Joyce's understanding of his obligation to women both in his literary representations and in his private relations with Nora Barnacle and later with his daughter, Lucia.

This smooth pass between the general and the personal amounts almost to (unintended) sleight of hand. It's hardly rare to find sexists who except their daughters or their wives from condemnation. Moreover, heterosexual male masochism doesn't guarantee feminist sympathies: dominatrices work in a clearly prescribed role, sometimes not of their own volition. Around the time of Exiles, Nora Joyce complained that her husband pushed her to "go with other men so that he would have something to write about," and Joyce's conversation bristled with a misogyny which anticipates that later skinny obsessive, Robert Crumb. Here's an unusually good-humored example:

His lips tightened, he moved in his chair with annoyance and said, "I hate women who know anything." But Mary Colum, not to be put down, said, "No, Joyce, you don't. You like them, and I am going to contradict you about this in print when I get the chance." He fumed silently for a few moments, then abruptly detached himself from his anger and let a half-smile show on his face. Mrs. Colum thought she had converted him, but the poem he recited to her a few days later about his women friends was scarcely corroborative evidence:
As I was going to Joyce Saint James'
I met with seven extravagant dames;
Every dame had a bee in her bonnet,
With bats from the belfrey roosting upon it.
And Ah, I said, poor Joyce Saint James,
What can he do with these terrible dames?
Poor Saint James Joyce.
- Richard Ellman, James Joyce, New & Revised Edition

Eide's Viennese-schooled treatment of incest ignores the very germane use of Aquinas in Joyce's own fable of artistic development:

Saint Thomas, Stephen smiling said, whose gorbellied works I enjoy reading in the original, writing of incest from a standpoint different from that of the new Viennese school Mr Magee spoke of, likens it in his wise and curious way to an avarice of the emotions. He means that the love so given to one near in blood is covetously withheld from some stranger who, it may be, hungers for it.

Joyce rarely welcomed fresh company or confrontation; by his own admission (and by others' critiques) he boasted neither broad experience nor power of invention as conventionally understood: "my foot strikes something, I look down, and there is exactly what I'm in need of." Instead, he took the risk of assuming that his sexuality could stand in for any man's sexuality, that (a caricature of) his wife could stand in for the whole of womankind, and finally that his own clutch of singularities could stand in for all the world through all history. He plotted the heavens through a microscope. His risk paid off, but not without losses along the way. It does us and his work no harm to acknowledge them.

To the pay-off, then. How, exactly, does Joyce perform his ethics?

"For Joyce the first ethical consideration is the experience and expression of sympathy within the preservation of difference. In other words, ethical response makes possible a communion that does not obscure necessary separation." "Ethical representation cannot unambiguously endeavor to mirror or shadow one's own consciousness; rather, an ethical representation carefully delineates a sense of one's difference from an other while at the same time registering sympathy and responsiveness to the other, in other words, partial identification."

In the literary realm, such performative ethics have been discussed under other names: "negative capability," "free indirect discourse," "rounded characterization," or simply "realism." "Locating his ethics in the interpretive space between opposites, Joyce would of necessity, to paraphrase Derrida, oppose racism, nationalism, and xenophobias of various kinds." And similarly, by locating his ethics in dramatic dialogue, Shakespeare would of necessity oppose anti-Semitism. But insofar as both chose ethics of art-making, such "opposition" became unlikely to influence personal habit or communal action. One can say "Joyce labored to recognize multiple subjectivities in his fiction" without indexing the statement as "ethical." "Artisanal Joyce" works just as well, I think.

If I'm correct that the book's chosen epithet is unnecessary, why should I treat it as undesirable?

Although Eide wishes to avoid intentional and biographical fallacies, I think we can call "Red light!" at the point when our interpretation of a seventy-year-old novel depends on weighing the pros and cons of a long-dead couple's treatment of their daughter. It seems impossible to mount an ad hominem defense without admitting the validity of ad hominem attacks. And Eide's assertion that "ethics" must be taken as technical jargon convinces me no more than a soft-Lacanian's insistence that the Phallus mustn't be confused with a penis: if you wave a huge pink sex toy around while you talk, it's disingenuous to tell listeners not to look at it. I fear the chemical reaction which would be set up in our critical discourse by a false homage to an abstraction behind which are massed twenty centuries of authority and veneration:

The Objection from Creepiness asks us to imagine an artwork whose aesthetic value is only available to ethically flawed people or, as I shall call them for brevity's sake, creeps. [...] The problem is not just the work's limited appeal to a highly specific audience. The artistic value of James Joyce's Ulysses, for instance, is only fully accessible to those who can read Greek, Latin, Italian, and French, and who are well versed in Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare, to name only a few, but the novel is not thereby aesthetically defective. This is perhaps because doing whatever it takes to get inside the novel would be good for us; it would help us realize our potential as human beings. What's special about the creepy case is that we have to do something that's bad for us in order to get inside the work; we would have to become creeps, even for just the moments that we spend with the work, and this is contrary to our flourishing.
- A. W. Eaton, "Where Ethics and Aesthetics Meet: Titian's Rape of Europa"

With apologies to Eaton, Greek and Latin are scarcely the major stumbling blocks of Ulysses, and "creepiness" was precisely the objection of Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, and many other early readers yea, unto some of my own undergraduate faculty.

As it happens, I do believe Joyce's books are distinctively and genuinely good in both senses of the word. And although third-party corroboration may be limited, I feel I become a better person when I read Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.

This sense, however, has little to do with some unique "engagement with radical alterity," nothing to do with avoiding "creepiness" I also feel I become a better person when I watch George Romero movies and much to do with humor, honesty, technical chops, and formal innovation. While the reductionism of "What else were they invented for?" cannot be redeemed, it is in some sense balanced by the open self-pity and self-loathing of "Write it, damn you, write it! What else are you good for?" And Joyce's mortar-and-pestling of Flaubert's determinist realism, Flaubert's spectacular phantasmagoria, and Flaubert's idiot burlesque sets up a most un-Flaubert-like chemical reaction in some sore souls.

Writers aim to create something which is better at least more persistently articulate than they themselves; readers aim to have some experience otherwise unavailable to them, which may well include the experience of an ethics which remains within reading. If in some sense it's true that a Europe which took Finnegans Wake to performative-heart would have experienced a very different sort of 1939, it's just as true that a James Joyce who took his own work "seriously" would never have cut off friends, threatened law suits, drank to excess, sponged or possibly written at all. If I took my Joyce reading "seriously," my life would be something better than a quotidian wreck (Prius, pass by!) I might even limp through it without the balm of re-reading Joyce. Sadly, happily, and all other sensations besides, life cannot be a book.

. . .

No Better than We Should Be, 5

And on a bright fall Saturday there we all were, sipping coffee, bitching under our collective breath, and ready to be indoctrinated in the company's much-vaunted QCEL managerial philosophy Quality, Creativity, Ethics and Leadership.... Several hundred phuds, most in the engineering and science fields and some with international reputations, marched through "creativity" sessions in which a trainer with a master's degree in creativity (no shit) inculcated them in the beauty of "convergent and divergent thinking." Or in which they were asked to work in teams to create that "best" paper airplane (i.e., Quality through teamwork, teamwork through Leadership). Or in which they were instructed in the importance of sound (business) ethics without being asked to consider (e.g.) the ethical impact of divorcing ethics from more bracing issues of morality or politics.
- Joe Amato, "Technical Ex-Communication"

Most people would probably agree that ethical judgments should take actions into account, and few witnesses mistake the actions of writing and reading. Mixing them sacrifices any chance to distinguish good-guy contextual "ethics" from bad-guy universalizing "morality": an artwork can be condemned as equally immoral in deed and in effect, but an artwork can only be referred to as unethical in its making. To say that an act of embezzling is unethical is to say "In these circumstances, you shouldn't have embezzled"; if after seeing a movie, I unethically embezzle, the shame is wholly mine. To say that a movie is unethical is not to say "I shouldn't have watched that movie" but "You shouldn't have made or distributed that movie." And it's hard to picture a good humble Derridean saying such a thing.

So why have we seen such consistent fusing of the two roles?

It could that a mere reader, listener, or viewer who sought to promote mere reading or listening or viewing as a powerfully "ethical" practice might sound a bit swell-headed. Replacing the finished artifact with a personal name allows for a narrative of continuous directed action "Ethical Joyce" and "Ethical James" rather than "Ethical Chants de Maldoror" or "Ethical 'Rape of the Lock.'" And replacing the audience with the artist downplays the none-too-heroic security of transient consumption in favor of drive and risk.

Despite its suspicious convenience, though, I doubt this superimposition was instigated by the ethical turn. It's more likely a matter of habit. Purely formal analysis is generally confined to the workshop; insofar as criticism is a conversation held outside the realm of practice, it includes ethical suppositions, judgments, and re-enactments, and "ethical criticism" so defined would include most of my own scroungy corpus, including the dump around us. ("Bless my soul! I've been writing ethical criticism for over forty years without knowing it, and I'm ever so grateful to you for teaching me that.")

This doesn't mean that artists ignore form or that our critical inventions are always supported by evidence. As we've mentioned before, very few writers or directors or musicians under oath would describe anything resembling the intentions we ascribe to "the author." No, it merely means that justification depends on the vocabulary of intent. I am (it seems to me) fully capable of feeling satisfaction, delight, sorrow, or disgust as self-sufficient experiences. But when my reactions are challenged by a skeptic, I grasp for and wield the intentions and effects of imagined creators, the intentions and effects of an imagined audience, my own intended effects....

* * *

Such analyses (except, of course, done much, much better) would find their proper home in an ethics of literary criticism.

In the stack of books and journals that fed this essay, my most pleasant surprise was "Jazz Improvisation and Ethical Interaction: A Sketch of the Connections" by philosopher-musician Garry Hagberg. Hagberg describes his experience of behaviors encouraged and discouraged within collaborative jazz performance, and then goes on to acknowledge some widely held ethical guidelines which do not apply in this particular sphere.

Pieces similar to Hagberg's could be written about any collaborative venture: migrant farming, garbage collection, a political campaign, whale hunting, a meal, a ballgame, a fuck, an execution. Each area of human endeavor holds characteristic blind spots and expectations. Studying its ethics isn't a matter of proving how much better it is than alternative endeavors but of understanding how it works.

Collaborative jazz performance is one fairly clearly delineated subcategory of artistic production. Is there anything that can be said about the ethics of artistic consumption, or of literature, in general?

As a self-described aesthete, I must suppose so. But after setting my blur-filter to maximum, I see only a message of gray relativism. Social context swamps all:

And so I immediately felt sympathetic to Derrida's appropriation of Levinas. No aesthete could hear a hail-alterity-well-met without thinking of our own oh-so-flexible oh-so-fascinatingly-varied pseudo-relations to artifacts.

But recognition is not identity wasn't that the point? and artifacts are not friends, family, tribe, or strangers: I may pointedly ignore a book for years at a time, lend it out, or hurl it across the room without damaging our relationship in the least. A proven utility of representation is to distance oneself from the thing represented. Last year around this time, the Panglossian researchers at OnFiction summarized and spun some other relevant results:

Djikic et al. (2009a) asked people to read either a Chekhov short story, or a version of the story in a non-fiction format, which was the same length, the same reading difficulty, and just as interesting. Readers of Chekhov's story (as compared with the version in non-fiction format) experienced changes in personality. These changes were small, and in different directions, particular to each reader. In a companion study, Djikic et al. (2009b) found that people who routinely avoid emotions in ordinary life experienced larger emotion changes as a result of reading the Chekhov story than those who did not usually avoid their emotions. We interpret these studies as indicating that fiction can be an occasion for transforming the self, albeit in small ways, and can also be a way of reaching those who tend to cut themselves off from their emotions.

Alternatively, it can be a way to help us continue cutting ourselves off from our emotions: I might prefer reading fiction and poetry and watching films to reading newspapers and watching TV because the former applies a cool damp cloth along my forehead while the latter makes me flush and sputter. It's been posited that sleep evolved as a way to keep mammals out of trouble, and art may anti-serve similar non-ends. The primal proponent of aestheticism in the Victorian imagination was "Mr. Rose," a bugaboo of harmlessness.

To cite a social practice treated with similar piety by practitioners, it's been shown that pet owning can teach responsibility, provide a safe route for caring impulses, and reduce loneliness. Nevertheless, maintaining six yapping dogs or twenty yowling cats has proven no guarantor of fairness, empathy, or even politeness towards members of our own species.

. . .

Embodied Visions: Evolution, Emotion, Culture and Film
by Torben Grodal, Oxford, 2009

I've been a season-ticket-holding fan of the cognitive sciences since 1993, but it's no secret that I've been disappointed by their aesthetic and critical applications. And I suppose no surprise, given how disappointed I was by applications of close reading, deconstruction, feminism, Marxism, evolutionary biology, and so forth. (Lacanian criticism had the great advantage of being disappointment-proof.) All these approaches snapped off their points while scribbling across a professionally sustainable territory, all in the same way: Mysteries do not survive levels of indirection.

Mortality is a mystery. Why Roger Ackroyd died is a different sort of mystery. Once we've assumed mortality, however, why Agatha Christie died is no sort of mystery at all: she died because people are mortal. Too often writers like Grodal and Kay Young inform us that Agatha Christie died because species propagation does not require individuals to survive long past childrearing age! And also Roger Ackroyd died! And also Henry VIII!

As if to underline the over-specification, much of what Grodal says about his chosen films apply equally well to their adapted sources:

Although love often leads to integration in the prevailing social order, just as often it leads to a conflict with the existing social order, as in Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet....

What can be gained by explaining Forrest Gump or Mansfield Park with what lies beneath human culture and history? At such removes, "mirror neurons" add nothing to the already biologically-marked "monkey-see-monkey-do." At any remove, "lizard brains" add nothing to anything besides lizards. Why not read David Bordwell straight? Grodal answers by pitting his truisms against the falsehoods of ad-absurdum Derrida, ad-absurdum Focault, ad-absurdum Mulvey, and ad-absurdum Barthes, just as earlier critical fads attacked an ad-absurdum T. S. Eliot. We could call these strawmen arguments, except that the strawmen demonstratively were made and sent out onto the field. Let's call it a battle of scarecrows.

Grodal, to his credit, is no scarecrow. He cites Ramachandran's discovery that the universal standard of feminine beauty is an anorexic with a boob job but immediately points out why it's false. He's noticed that genres are ambiguous and that evolution is not a particularly useful concept to apply to them. He doesn't insist that narratives need a narrator other than the audience. He doesn't always remember that a significant number of human beings are not heterosexually paired and reproducing, but he remembers it at least once.

Sadly for the cause of sanity, banishing arrant nonsense from his shop leaves Grodal without novelties to peddle and leaves the book's first half undermotivated. A professional scarecrow like David Brooks strews fallacy wherever he flails, but he achieves a recognizable goal: to grab attention.

The second half of Grodal's book is less Movie-Goers Guide to Consciousness and far more compelling. Now here, for example, is a first-order mystery: How can generic signals such as by-the-negative-numbers continuity flips, an unlikely proliferation of masochists, and long takes with nothin'-happenin'-at-all reliably induce sensations of depth and uncanniness and individuality among film-festival audiences when it's obvious that the auteur's just slapping Bresson patties and Godard cheese on the grill? (I should emphasize that this is my problem statement rather than Grodal's.)

Periods of temps mort evoke a sense of higher meaning for two intertwined reasons. The first is that streams of perceptions are disembodied, insofar as they are isolated from any pragmatic concerns that might link them to action. Temps mort thus serves expressive and lyrical functions that give a feeling of permanence. The second reason is a special case of the first: since the viewer is unable to detect any narrative motivation for a given temps mort a given salient and expressive perceptual experience he or she may look for such motivation in his or her concept of the addresser, the filmmaker.... The perceptual present is ultimately transformed into the permanent perceptual past of the auteur's experience.
These excess features therefore activate particularly marked attention, switching on feelings and emotions which suggest that these features contain a meaning that the viewer cannot fully conceptualize. The viewer is therefore left with the sense that there must be some deep meaning embedded in these stylistic features, because the emotional motivation for making meaning out of salient features cannot be switched off. Style thus serves as an additional guarantee for some higher or deeper meaning, while at the same time giving rise to a feeling of permanence, since the perceptual, stylistic cues continue to trigger meaning-producing processes without reaching any final result.
...aspects of a film that are easily linked to the actions of one of the main characters are experienced as objective, but if there are no protagonists, or the characters' or viewers' action tendencies are blocked or impeded, this will lend a subjective toning to our experience of the film. This subjective toning expresses intuitive feelings of the action affordances of what we see: subjective experiences may be more intense and saturated but at the same time felt as being less real, because the feeling as to whether a given phenomenon is real depends on whether it offers the potential for action.
Subjectivity by default is much more obvious when it is cued in films than in real life. In real life, our attention is controlled mainly by our current interests. If we have exhausted our interest in one aspect of our surroundings, we turn our attention to something else. But when we watch a film, we are no longer able to focus our attention on the basis of our own interests because the camera prefocuses our attention. Provided that the film catches our attention by presenting us with a focused narrative or salient audiovisual information, this lack of control of our attention does not disturb us. Potential conflict over control of the viewer's attention surfaces only when the filmmaker confronts the viewer with images that do not cue focused propositions or that have no links to the protagonists' concerns. Most ordinary filmgoers shun such films, labeling them dull because they do not have the motivation or the skills necessary to enjoy what they see. More sophisticated viewers switch into a subjective-lyrical mode, seeking at the same time to unravel parts of the associative network to which the film gives rise.

Reviewing these sketches of frustrated drives, congested animal spirits, and spiritual afflatus, I'm not sure Grodal needs a scientific vocabulary younger than Nietzsche or William James. But if his solutions aren't quite as first-order as his mystery, they at least let me dismiss it for a while. Lunchtime!


fine thing, needling the haystack

Josh Lukin:

Reminds me of the election in the Buffalo English dept ten or twelve years ago, wherein there were something like eighteen votes for Professor Conte, twenty for Professor Bono, fifteen for Professor Dauber, and five for lunch.

The afore-and-oft-cited David Bordwell sketches how some individual quirks became genre markers.

. . .

Summa contra juxta Gentiles

  1. Feminism's face-shove into repressed works and lives seemed pure good to me, as did similar redirections by other scholars in and out of the academy. No one had burnt Milton or Dickens or Hemingway; Dead White Heterosexual Guys were as eagerly available as ever. Only on the preset battlefields into which conscriptees were force-marched, canon to right of them, canon to left of them, were losses incurred.
  2. Barthes's groundskeeping didn't (and can't) erase the irrepressible notion of motivated utterance, or bar citation of a writer's, publisher's, director's, or performer's conflicting reports of intent. It simply made room.
  3. I kept "my" poststructuralists for their apparently inimitable expressions of previously unexpressed experiences. I never felt an impulse to layer their crazy clown costumes over my own or interpose them like Tom Snout's Wall in front of other peculiar personal expressions.
  4. In 1993, I began catching up with contemporary (post-behaviorism, post-expert-system, post-my-youth) cognitive sciences, and have followed them since, always with an eye to aesthetics.

    Long before 1993, I'd thought of art(-in-the-most-generalized-sense-possible)-making as a human universal, and since I don't believe homo sapiens was formed de limo terræ on the sixth day by that ginormous Stephen Dedalus in the sky, I must perforce believe the inclination to have evolved(-in-the-most-generalized-sense-possible).

    But scientists' applications of neuroscience, neural nets, and comparative zoology to art were sheer inanity, and with a few very welcome exceptions the "neuro-aesthetics" and "evolutionary turns" which migrated to humanities journals and popularized books catered no better fare. As Paul Bloom put it in a recent issue of Critical Inquiry:

    Surely the contemporary human's love of literature has to have some evolutionary history, just as it has a cultural history, just as it has an instantiation in the brain, just as it emerges in the course of child development, and so on. Consider, as a concrete example, the proposal by the English professor Lisa Zunshine. She argues that humans have evolved a taste for stories because they exercise the capacity for social reasoning or theory of mind. Suppose, contrary to my own by-product view, Zunshine is correct. Why should this matter to your average Jane Austen scholar (to use a common synecdoche for English professors everywhere)? It would seem to be relevant in exactly the same way as finding that stories are processed in a certain part of the frontal lobe that is, not at all.

    While literary critics can safely ignore those interested in theories of the origin and nature of stories, the converse isn't true.

  5. Like generations of analytic sensualists, I've mapped, diagrammed, and sought patterns in bare lists without forsaking delight in prior arrangements.
  6. And, like generations of readers before me, I've felt no compunction about deploying historical anecdotes against an artifactual field. Looking into Sir Thomas Bertram's slave trade connections hardly violates the spirit of the novel ("I was in hopes the question would be followed up by others"), and hardly necessitates casting protagonist or author as villainous collaborators or heroic liberators. What it must do, I think, is deepen our ambivalence toward Fanny's fallout-shelter reward. And if ambivalence doesn't sound appealing, you're denied access to far more than Mansfield Park.

To a published-or-perished team-player, my little biographia literaria may sound naïvely promiscuous: tacking to each newly prevailing wind without a glance at the charts, discarding yesterday's party allegiance in the face of today's confident campaign ad.

I swear, however, this ever unrulier tangle springs from one integrated ground, albeit of well-manured soil rather than bedrock: a faith born at pubescence in the realization that mumbling through Shakespeare's King John was a different thing, a different incarnate thing, than speed-reading Isaac Asimov or Ellery Queen; a faith which developed through adolescence and reached near-final form by age twenty.

This chapel's sacrament is aesthesis, sense-perception, rather than "high art":

For it is false to suppose that a child's sense of beauty is dependent on any choiceness or special fineness, in the objects which present themselves to it, though this indeed comes to be the rule with most of us in later life; earlier, in some degree, we see inwardly; and the child finds for itself, and with unstinted delight, a difference for the sense, in those whites and reds through the smoke on very homely buildings, and in the gold of the dandelions at the road-side, just beyond the houses, where not a handful of earth is virgin and untouched, in the lack of better ministries to its desire of beauty.

But honest attention to sensibility finds social context as well as sensation. Words have heft; the color we see is a color we think. And art(-in-the-most-general-sense-possible) wins special interest as a sensible experience which is more or less bounded, shared, repeatable, and pre-swaddled in discourse.

Pluralism is mandated by that special interest. Any number of functions might be mapped into one chunk of multidimensional space. Integer arithmetic and calculus don't wage tribal war; nor do salt and sweet. We may not be able to describe them simultaneously; one may feel more germane to our circumstances than another; on each return to the artifact, the experience differs. But insofar as we label the experiential series by the artifact, all apply; as Tuesday Weld proved, "Everything applies!" And as Anna Schmidt argued, "A person doesn't change because you find out more." We've merely added flesh to our perception, and there is no rule of excluded middle in flesh.

Like other churches, this one doesn't guarantee good fellowship, and much of the last decade's "aesthetic turn" struck me as dumbed-down reactionism. But The New Aestheticism was on the whole a pleasant surprise. Its reputation (like the reputation of most academic books, I suppose) is based on a few pull-quotes from the editors' introduction; the collection which follows is more eclectic. Howard Caygill sets a nice Nietzschean oscillation going in Alexandria, Gary Banham's "Kant and the ends of criticism" nostalgically resembles what I smash-&-grabbed from the display case back in college, and Jonathan Dollimore snaps at ethical presumptions with commendable bloodlust.

The contributors keep their disagreements well within the disciplinary family, however. They cite Adorno, Kant, and Heidegger very frequently, Wilde once, and Pater never, and disport themselves accordingly. After all, Adorno was a contentious fussbudget and respectable role model, whereas Pater was an ineffectual sissy.

Till at a corner of the way
We met with maid Bellona,
Who joined us so imperiously
That we durst not disown her.
My three companions coughed and blushed,
And as the time waxed later,
One murmured, pulling out his watch,
That he must go—'twas Pater.
- "The Traveller" by Arthur Graeme West

Adorno might have been happy surrounded by worshipful li'l Adornos; a majority of such as Pater, "the very opposite of that which regards life as a game of skill, and values things and persons as marks or counters of something to be gained, or achieved, beyond them," would be the heat death of the world. But there's more to existence than procreation, and aesthetes, at least, should appreciate the value of one-offs and nonreproducible results. We can no more say that Derrida "proved" Searle wrong than that Bangs "proved" the Godz brilliant musicians or Flaubert "proved" us all doomed to follow Frédéric Moreau. That doesn't mean Derrida was therefore best when dishing unset Jello like Glas and Lester Bangs was therefore best when writing fiction and Flaubert was therefore best avoiding emotionally hot topics. Every flounder to its own hook.

If false dilemmas and heroic battles against empire or barbarism are what's needed to drag some white bellies to the surface, well, that's no more ridiculous a procedure than constructing imaginary villages with real explainers in them. I wouldn't presume to say it's all good, but it is all that is the case.


giddy upon the Hobby-Horse

Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Aw, come on, horsey! Please, horsey? Please, whoa. Purty please? Doggone it now, horsey! Won't you please whoa?

Has Dollimore gotten less irritating since his days of applying Godwin's law to literature? ("Here essence and teleology are explicitly affirmed while history becomes the surrogate absolute. If we are used to finding this kind of utterance in our own cultural history it comes as something of a shock to realise that these were the words of Alfred Bäumler, a leading Nazi philosopher writing on race." etc etc)

He kicks off with Hesse, so probably not.

Dollimore kicked off Radical Tragedy with Hesse as well! So this is a rerun, I gather.

A preview of the third edition intro, looks like.


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.