. . . Djuna Barnes

. . .

Everyday tragedies

From the Bruno's Weekly contributors' notes of April 22, 1916, editor Guido Bruno:

Djuna Barnes, who designed the front cover this week, retired to a sedate and quite private life. After a rather exciting career of a few years of newspaper work (drawing and writing) she decided to do some real work unhampered by editorial influences. A series of war pictures and among these her uncanny gripping "The Bullet," are not only the work of a promising artist, but one of one who started really to fulfill promises.

As well as in drawing and painting she has a style of her own in her literary adventures. Her poems and her short stories cannot possibly be called otherwise but adventures. She feels the rhythm of her inspiration and she struggles along as good as she can to make us feel it too. Her inspiration is flirting constantly with her creative desires. But Djuna Barnes is a bad match-maker. The little things in life make for tragedies. Spelling, punctuation, syntax, lack of concentration, are such little things. They are everyday tragedies in Djuna's life.

. . .

Make the voices stop

At a similar literary salon about, oh, maybe seven or eight years ago, the favorite first lines game was played, and I quickly realized that I didn't have any.

Partly that's because so much of my favorite writing occurred before the late-twentieth-century vogue for hooky opening sentences; partly it's because I dislike that vogue, which will seem as eccentically simplistic to future readers as an earlier era's focus on moments of moral sublimity seems to us. Grabbing the reader by her arm and yanking seems a rude way to initiate a conversation, and when I remember particularly enthralling beginnings, I remember their structural effects rather than the wording of sentence one: the early and peculiar disappearance of Madame Bovary's initial narrator, for example. (Back at that salon, the only opening line I could recall right off was a condensed version of the Bovary gambit, as played by Beckett in Mercier and Camier: "The journey of Mercier and Camier is one I can tell, if I will, for I was with them all the time." The rest of the book being I-less.)

On the other extremity, I'm a sucker for endings that snap close with a satisfying click, and I recall (and re-read) a good many last lines, with special fondness for those whose persistent startle ripples backward through the entire work, restructuring it retrospectively into something far richer than one had even dared to hope for as one kicked joyfully up surfacewards holding one's perfectly timed-to-the-last-page breath.

(Oddly, few of the examples I'm about to offer really count as "spoilers": to understand their defiance of expectations, one must have developed those expectations in the first place. The truly itchy can feel free to request story-wrecking explanations from me.)

Such an ending is more likely to speed the traveller on with a slamming of the door than with a gentle swinging to, treating readerly expectations so aggressively that they could almost be called rebuttals to their own books. (Ulysses is one such rebuff after another.) Closure is, after and above all, a refusal of further story.

Trouble no quiet, kind heart; leave sunny imaginations hope. Let it be theirs to conceive the delight of joy born again fresh out of great terror, the rapture of rescue from peril, the wondrous reprieve from dread, the fruition of return. Let them picture union and a happy succeeding life.

Madame Beck prospered all the days of her life; so did Père Silas; Madame Walravens fulfilled her ninetieth year before she died. Farewell.

"That was the happiest time we ever had," said Frédéric.

"Yes, perhaps you're right. That was the happiest time we ever had," said Deslauriers.

I remember them all with such happiness.
I should certainly never again, on the spot, quite hang together, even though it wasn't really that I hadn't three times her method. What I too fatally lacked was her tone.
"That may be," Nora said, "but it's all pretty unsatisfactory."
He bent to pick it up, then stopped. Don't touch it, he thought, don't touch it.
[The first remains the most chill-enducing and daringly experimental ending I've ever read, as befits Charlotte Brontë's Villette, the pinnacle, in English literature, of characterization through narrative voice: The plot is resolved in the imperative! or, more accurately, via the narrator's very use of the imperative! Aided by the unemphasized selectivity of her seemingly conventional last paragraph wrap-up! (I think we can agree that exclamation marks are called for here, given the tightrope-acrobat precision of the performance.)

The second concludes Flaubert's most brilliant closing movement: that of the infinitely self-undermining Sentimental Education -- whose influence can be clearly seen in my third entry, from M. John Harrison's The Course of the Heart, and perhaps also in Mavis Gallant's "The Moslem Wife" (as cited in Eclogues).

Next, and speaking of characterization through narrative voice, the befuddled detective of Henry James's The Sacred Fount finally manages to reach a conclusion. Fifth is Dashiell Hammett's last word on the murder mystery genre (or perhaps on fiction in general) in The Thin Man, and lastly Patricia Highsmith's The Cry of the Owl abruptly becomes non-Highsmithian -- and freezes.]

Some end with a flourished signature:

And by what I have written in this document you will see, won't you, that I have obeyed her?
And the twelfth stroke of midnight sounded; the twelfth stroke of midnight, Thursday, the eleventh of October, Nineteen Hundred and Twenty-eight.
Having seen this time what I needed to see, I started writing; and in time wrote all that you have read.
"You and Capablanca," I said.
[Janet Frame's Faces in the Water throws mental health into our eyes like vitriol; Virginia Woolf's Orlando shoots its arrows of desire right through the temporal barrier; Jack Womack's Going, Going, Gone goes home; Raymond Chandler's The High Window gives everyone a fucking break.]
Some with a gleeful or furious or heartbreaking -- but perfectly definite -- denial of closure:

That is said nowadays by the most modern of the physicists. If that is true, then that is how it is with Pooch and with Carmen and with all the others.
I'd always felt the future held wonderful things for me. I'd never quite caught up with it, but quite soon I would. I felt sure I hadn't long to wait.
Something further may follow of this Masquerade.
Ever after. I promise. Now close your eyes.
[Carol Emshwiller's Carmen Dog; Barbara Comyns's Mr Fox; Herman Melville's The Confidence Man; and the devastating final sentence of John Crowley's Engine Summer, whose subject (in several senses) might be said to be the tragicomedy of incompletion.]
And some are simply, disturbingly or delightfully, accomplished:

"Nothing, Mamma. I was just thinking."

And, drawing a deep breath, he considered the faint whiff of scent that rose from his mother's corseted waist.

He ran this way and that, low down in his throat crying, and she grinning and crying with him; crying in shorter and shorter spaces, moving head to head, until she gave up, lying out, her hands beside her, her face turned and weeping; and the dog too gave up then, and lay down, his eyes bloodshot, his head flat along her knees.
The beautiful weather was compared with the Great Disappointment of '44, when Christ failed once again to appear to the Millerites.
[Robert Musil's Young Törless enters sentimental grad school; Djuna Barnes's Nightwood pays tribute to Aphrodite; Karen Joy Fowler's Sister Noon lights out for the hills.]

2015-06-21 : Guy Lionel Slingsby kindly directed my attention to this trimmer and more Twitter-friendly approach.

. . .


(Pumped out for the sake of The Valve)
The use of the essay, for example, a kind expressing liberal interest at first, began with Humanism in the sixteenth century; and one of its forms, the miscellaneous familiar essay, ceased to be popular after the crisis of Humanism in the 1930s.
- Alastair Fowler, Kinds of Literature

At 9 PM on Saturday June 18, the Pacific Film Archive at UC Berkeley is showing a revisionist Western from 1972, Dirty Little Billy. All later muddy streets seem thin in comparison: puddled with New Age puke or John Ford horsepiss. Given its timing, a few of the Billy demythologizers may have benefited from personal experience of frontier communes.

Was the movie intended as history or satire? To some extent, whether you're mocking or creating is decided later, by who notices what and how they respond. Artmaking is largely about being distracted from your original purpose; sometimes you even wake up in a new neighborhood. If you want to explain Robert Browning's influence on Ezra Pound, you could start worse than with a Browning parody like "The Cock and The Bull":

I shoved the timber ope wi’ my omoplat;
And in vestibulo, i’ the lobby to-wit,
(Iacobi Facciolati’s rendering, sir,) ...

That's a recent addition to an ongoing retrospective of a Century of Imitation, along with Calverley's "Proverbial Philosophy":

A maiden’s heart is as champagne, ever aspiring and struggling upwards,
And it needed that its motions be checked by the silvered cork of Propriety:
He that can afford the price, his be the precious treasure,
Let him drink deeply of its sweetness, nor grumble if it tasteth of the cork.

Also Thomas Hood Jr.'s Poe, worthied by its expiring exclamation!, and Swinburne's "The Person of the House", which literalizes Victorian reticence as "That Only a Mother" later literalized pulp science fiction reticence and to similar effect, as well as another online copy of Swinburne's magnificent "Nephelidia".

In other serialization news, Paul Kerschen has just begun serializing a free translation of Franz Kafka's diaries, alongside the original German. And if you aren't already following the lifework of W. N. P. Barbellion, 1910 is the year his journal completes its transition from dissection of other species to vivisection of our own. As the few remaining years go by and he consults and reconsults his own archives, we'll see Barbellion develop a craving for precursors or peers. He'll read Portrait of an Artist and decide he and James Joyce have struck the same vein independently. Later still he'll excitedly decide he's just like Marie Bashkirtseff.... "Is there one who understands me?"

But once your isolating eccentricity does turn out to be a community, new issues arise. I believe Djuna Barnes said everything worth saying about surveys: "I am sorry but the list of questions does not interest me to answer. Nor have I that respect for the public." Yet since Mr. Waggish is a compatriot to whom I owe the deepest respect, if Mr. Waggish requests something, I must assume Mr. Waggish has good reason, and therefore:

Total number of books I've owned: I buy books because of not always having had access to a good library ("I will never go stupid again!"), but I winnow them because of moving fairly often in the past, but I still want to re-read more books each year so the collection does grow, and because I've lived in one place with access to a good library for a while I've been buying fewer books but unread bought books are piling up. So maybe four times the number of books I have now? Roughly. Within a factor of ten.
Last book I bought: It was a group. A translation of Heinrich von Kleist's Penthesilea, the new Hans Christian Andersen translation, Ron Silliman's Under Albany, and Justine Larbalestier's Magic or Madness.
Last book I read: This must mean what I'm in the midst of reading since the next query is the "Last book I finished"? Mostly right now Kinds of Literature by Alastair Fowler.

It's free of nonsense, and, for all its easy style, extremely concise: virtually every page of this library volume is mostly underlined, the table of contents bears a jot by each chapter title, and I found there a improvised torn-paper bookmark with the scrawled note "BUY WHOLE BOOK?" (It's out of print, of course.) Two-thirds of the way through and Fowler's heroic attempt to revive the form of the Anatomy became a worthwhile drama of its own.

In 1982, I would've argued against Fowler's low opinion of the works recovered by feminist critics, but, hey, by 2005, I bet he might argue against himself. I'm possibly more skeptical that something fixedly "literary" can be found in all the works that drift in or out of literature, but that disagreement means less in practice than I thought at first. I may know a bit more about contemporary American genres, but that's to be expected; Fowler is sensible with the parts he knows, and he has a far wider and more detailed grasp of literary history than my autodidacticism has managed. His biggest difficulty may be the usual academic one of distance from working artists. Genre doesn't just happen between books; it's also a way for the author to feel less lonely for a bit (before feeling betrayed). Publishing isn't just to make money; it's also to make contact (before getting an unlisted number).

Fowler's book was recommended to me by Wendy Walker. If Wendy Walker is a new name to you, for the love of god, drop that copy of Emma Brown and hie ya. I'd like to tell you how I came to get a book recommendation from Wendy Walker. I commuted daily between Nashua NH and Cambridge MA, and I read something about Samuel R. Delany appearing at some convention between, so I stopped there. Formal emphasis was placed on the most ambitious class of science fiction and fantasy, but participants also included small press publishers, readers of contemporary poetry, and listeners to contemporary music. Our conversations were intriguing enough to bring me back the next day. I kept in touch with some of the people I met that weekend, and one of them, Don Keller, kept suggesting I write down some of what I spun in conversation. I started doing so, and the practice eventually became habitual.

Wendy Walker's work is sui generis. But some genres are friendlier towards the sui than others. Her novel The Secret Service seemed to me one of the great books to be found in the 1990s, but who would find it? I browsed shelves randomly and was fortunate enough to live by shelves which included Sun & Moon Press, most of whose other contemporary authors were poets poets I admired, but whom I knew to be a sadly insular group. I gave copies to friends, recommended it, and wrote about it. Independently, so did Henry Wessells and Elizabeth Willey. Walker's cult was small but fervent, and, fearing that neither the writer nor her publisher had any clue as to its existence, I dropped him a note to suggest that an audience awaited.

The note was passed along. In a few weeks, Wendy Walker will be attending that uniquely ambitious conference in Massachussetts. It's a small world.

Or a big sign.

. . .

Mystery Macintosh, My Darling

(Also at that other world)

"The M'Intosh Murder Mystery" by John Gordon,
Journal of Modern Literature 29.1 (2005) 1

All right-thinking people agree that The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism's most unconscionable omission was James Thurber's "The Macbeth Murder Mystery", and so I'm certain John Gordon is a right-thinking person.

Except in this case.

[For the non-Joyceans in our audience, here's the story so far.

Aside from its status as early science fiction, Ulysses represents advanced evolution of the detective story, with each incident a visible and meaningful clue. Having played so fairly, Joyce could dispense with the handwaving detective hero, and instead left handwaving in the laps of the readers. And a jolly time we've had of it, too!

As early Joyceans gained confidence in their ability to tie every detail to every other detail, the few remaining danglies gained weightiness. (Weightiness to a Joycean, mind you; the centrality such nits assume in the secondary sources can sadly mislead a first-time reader of Ulysses. "When do we get to the word known by all men?")

Some of these puzzles, I think, weren't originally meant as puzzles. The (scanty) evidence suggests that "U.P. Up." delivered a clear message to nineteenth-century English and Irish urbanites but happened to escape documentation, becoming a hapax legomenon of popular culture. Numeric errata seem best explained as Homer nodding. Or shrugging. Come on, you ask Homer "How many fingers am I holding up?" what's he gonna do?

The Man in the Macintosh, however, emphatically riddled from his first appearance:

"Now who is that lankylooking galoot over there in the macintosh? Now who is he I'd like to know? Now, I'd give a trifle to know who he is."

A lot of scholars have tried to earn that trifle over the years, and Gordon deserves an "A" for assurance:]

"I have lived with [the proposed solution] for a while and have come to think of it as a solid and upstanding reading which improves on acquaintance. I believe in it. It can come to dinner; it can date my daughter."

Gordon proposes that M'Intosh is the ghost of Bloom's father, who committed suicide after the death of his young wife. And (so confident is he) this proposed solution is used only as a tee-off from which to approach another, less often asked, riddle: What killed Bloom's mother? (So's not to steal Gordon's thunderclap, I'll just say Joyce may have anticipated the misogynous hard-boiled dick.)

But I do not think his proposal makes a solid and upstanding tee-off. I do not believe in it; I do not want it to date my daughter. (I am, however, prepared to buy it a drink some time.) Because the character who inspects M'Intosh most closely is Leopold Bloom.

Now I admit it's a wise son that knows his father. But even a flibbertigibbet like Hamlet was able to recognize Hamlet Senior's form straight off. And clear-sighted Bloom doesn't note a family resemblance? In a graveyard?

No, I'm afraid all the lovely circumstantial evidence Gordon's gathered just shows how irreconcilable the lyric and the narrative finally are, even in Ulysses. Poetically, his argument's airtight. Prosaically, it won't fly.

(And who do I think M'Intosh is? Well, since I ask, personally I think he's the fox burying his grandmother under a hollybush.)

1 I also recommend from this issue "Remembering Race", where Sergio Rizzo documents the dependents of that Red Wheelbarrow, and "Repulsive Modernism: Djuna Barnes' The Book of Repulsive Women" by Melissa Jane Hardie, who so neatly associates revision and repression that I think Freud should take over my dishwashing duties.


A bhikku writes:

Tell you what. Rudolph Virag? Lankylooking? Galoot? Doesn't sound like the Bloom physique, does it? No, Gordon's looking for a counterpart to Stephen's Hamlet thoughts, isn't he.

Apparently JJ used to ask cocky Ulysses readers who they thought the fellow was anyway, go on then.

. . .

True Enough

The Social Misconstruction of Reality by Richard F. Hamilton, 1996

Hamilton gives us a polemic and a series of debunkings which ascend from trivial observation to war-cry:

  1. Wellington cared nothing for the playing fields of Eton.
  2. Mozart didn't die neglected and rejected.
  3. Weber couldn't connect Calvinism to capitalism.
  4. Hitler wasn't elected into power by benighted shopkeepers.
  5. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault lied! lied! lied!

Debunkings are always fun, don't you think? And since sociologists, like economists, advertise empirically-derived generalizations while under unrelenting pressure to justify policies which benefit specific parties, I'm sure the debunkers among them will continue to feel both vitally necessary and desperately beleaguered.

The polemic's more problematic. Hamilton wants to fix the social sciences and humanities. His diagnosis is gullibility; his posited causes are group-think and authority worship; his posited cure is individual contrariness.

Hamilton nets most of his gulls from journalism (particularly book reviews), introductory textbooks (particularly sociology), and interdisciplinary citations. Within the errors' overlapping discipline of history, only once did Hamilton himself blow the first whistle, and that was a case of simultaneous discovery. As corrective scholarship goes, the record compares well to "harder" sciences: physics theories can be elaborated for decades before finding confirmatory evidence, and the social impact of slanted pharmaceutical papers dwarfs any of Hamilton's examples.

Regarding journalism, anyone appalled by reviews lauding Weber's or Foucault's "meticulous" research must not have opened many "poetic," "masterful," or "shattering" novels or examined the similarly meticulous research of popular science writers. And I don't know from introductory textbooks. So let's move on to the interdisciplinary mash-ups of philosophy and literary studies and so forth.

Now, I grant that an abstract argument founded on a false premise, although possibly charming in other ways, won't advance the great Sherman's March of scientific knowledge. But the equivalence of citations with logical premises is itself an assumption in need of examination.

As empirical ice-breaker, I took the top hundred returns from a Project MUSE search for "Foucault" and "Discipline and Punish," along with a dozen or so Google Book results and a few examples from my general reading over the past few months. In that sample I noticed only one argument which would have been invalidated by refuting Foucault. The vast majority of citations either occurred in studies of Foucault himself (a filter which would catch Hamilton as well) or were... well, here are some examples:

For actor-network theory is all about power power as a (concealed or misrepresented) effect, rather than power as a set of causes. Here it is close to Foucault, but it is not simply Foucauldian for, eschewing the synchronic, it tells empirical stories about processes of translation.
Discipline and Punish thus suggests a principle that can be seen to underlie many recent studies of early modern disciplinary power: "bad" discipline drives out "good." I want to ask whether it should or must, whether a more positive view of discipline can be successfully defended. My test-case is a lyric poem, George Herbert's "Discipline."
In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of The Prison, Foucault describes four basic techniques of discipline, all of which are exemplified in Lowry's novel and, to varying degrees, in the other dystopian novels as well.
The institutional, patriarchal discipline that serves as the dominant force in Auster's fiction is largely identical to that described by Michel Foucault.
This makes Foucault's view of the professions as groups of pious experts devoted subconsciously to the establishment of narratives of knowledge, or "regimes of truth," for the propagation of their own power an intriguing line of investigation for those who are fascinated by the historic controlling and detached image of the librarian and by the discursive knowledge base of librarianship.
What we see here is a shift from the spectacular to the scopic, and the scopic gaze of surveillance is that of an anonymous "white stenographer," a gaze that is stamped by the phallic authority of whiteness as it arrests the black body in its divestiture. The scene suggests the emergence of a regime of discipline with a far more generalized and anonymous system of surveillance that does not draw attention to itself as spectacular.
What the reformers likely called the Fear of God may have seemed more like the Fear of the State to Foucault. Hawthorne, too, was wary of the state's power and skeptical about relying on its judgments for enforcing morality.
In understanding the power relations manifested in the parades of revolutionary Zanzibar, Foucault offers valuable insights.
Huckleberry Finn even more radically views subjectivity as enthrallment to convention and habit.
Jane [Eyre]'s first description of John Reed's abusive behaviour and of her reaction to his tyranny sets a pattern that continues throughout the novel and that exemplifies the responses to tyranny outlined by Foucault.

An intriguing subcategory argues against Foucault-citers in ways that parallel arguments against Foucault's own work:

A thorough empirical critique of this simplistic and mistaken application of the Panopticon metaphor to the call centre labour process will form the latter part of this article....
... even if one grants that panopticism may apply to the power relations represented within fictional worlds no less than to those enacted in the real world, serious problems are raised by its application to the formal relations that pertain between novelistic narrators and fictional characters.

And a few citers rival Foucault himself in the audacity of their applications:

Thus, Foucault shows us (1) that an emphasis on self-discipline and ritual conduct does not imply a lack of freedom in and of itself and (2) that self-discipline and ritual conduct can actually be used as the basis for practicing freedom deliberately, as was the case among the ancient Greeks and Romans. Similarly, Confucian codes of self-discipline and ritual behavior can become the basis for the active, participatory practices of the citizens of a modern society.

While reading Djuna Barnes' Consuming Fictions by Diane Warren, I encounter the sentence:

In effect, the rather random operation of censorship in the twenties effectively endowed critics with a kind of panoptic power, which could at any time lead to the invocation of the law.

And I look down to find an indisputable footnote:

The ever-present possibility of being watched, and the consequences that this has in terms of self-censorship have been theorised by Foucault (see Discipline and Punish).

Warren pretends no interest in the history of penology, and she introduces no "kind of" logical dependency between claims about censorship and claims about prison reform. What work's being performed here?

Nothing equivalent to technical vocabularies, which condense clearly agreed upon definitions. In the humanities, popular brands become stretched and baggy from overuse, and restoring them to bear a full load of meaning requires redefinition within the essay or book itself in which case no labor's been saved by their deployment. For instance, Michael Wheeler's Reconstructing the Cognitive World headlines a battle between Descartes and Heidegger, but then needs to explicate both philosophers in such elaborate detail that their names obscure the cognitive science he means to illuminate.

However, not all disciplines trade in generalizations about common nouns. Disciplines of particulars and proper names boast, if anything, a longer and more continuous history, reaching from Alexandria to the establishment and expansion of vernacular canons. What determines "scholarly value" within such disciplines isn't a correlative graph carefully sculpted from a half-hour test taken by twenty undergraduates for ten bucks each, but the prominent deployment of citations. The marking patterns of scholarship emerge from the talk of scholars, and this particular habit has nothing to do with detached analysis and everything to do with conversation: we begin each interjection with "Speaking of which..." or risk rudeness.

(Of course, political institutions which stabilize power imbalances may quickly make "politeness" indistinguishable from "coercion" and "obedience". See Bourdieu, Homo Academicus; Foucault, Discipline and Punish.)

In these examples, the citation is analogical and the cited author or text serves as a totum pro parte for some generality, or even some mood. Rather than a logical premise, it's an association, a hook, an inspiration, or an excuse. At its best, the arbitrary authority primes the essayist to genuinely novel insights. The middling browbeaten formula goes "I found this and was able to come up with something vaguely reminiscent in X." At its worst, "I went looking for something that would remind me of X and I found it," justifying pages of fond X reminiscence by one utterly unrewarding sentence's worth of application.

The pattern holds in primary sources as in secondary scholarship or, to put it another way, primary sources in one context (Foucault studies, say) began as secondary sources in another context. Freud's blunder about Leonardo's bird was a bit embarrassing, but a mistake holds only a little less truth value than references to fictions like "Hamlet" and "Oedipus Rex." And in fact, the original whistle-blower, back in the January 1923 issue of The Burlington Magazine, also complained about Freud using Dmitri Merejkowski's Romance of Leonardo Da Vinci. To which the editor responded:

[Freud] says: "This deduction of the psychological writer of romances is not capable of proof, but it can lay claim to so many inner probabilities, it agrees so well with everything we know besides about Leonardo's emotional activity that I cannot refrain from accepting it as correct." He gives his reasons for doing so very clearly. Mr. Maclagan plainly states that Freud did not even pretend to have any data beyond "the unsupported guess of a popular novelist." Freud refers to Merijkowski on other occasions as an example of how an imaginative writer may sometimes illuminate matters that remain obscure to the merely exact investigator. We have all experienced the truth of that.

Seventy-seven years later, references to Freud himself would be defended on similar grounds:

... his work loses little if some of his sources are doubtful, and if not every single hypothesis proves to be fertile. It is self evident that, after almost ninety years, most of Freud's answers should have been refuted. But the potential of his questions is not exhausted. He himself predicted that his essay would primarily be understood as "merely... a psychoanalytic novel," but he also guessed that it "was especially pleasing to a few knowledgeable people". Perhaps they understood that it was these poetic overtones that were able to direct art analysis away from dull scholarliness and away from emotionalist reveries.

In other words, Freud could have justified his ideas with any made-up shit and have achieved the same results. However, it's particularly helpful to invoke someone else's made-up shit to find a third party to interrupt, to incite, to provide some friction and spark in what might otherwise become a rather dull cocooning of the author-and-topic couple. The historical fiction of Leonardo worked as a hooky and ambiguously encouraging pretense for fantasy (which, appropriately enough, stabilized narcissism's role in Freudianism). And once Freud himself becomes primary cultural material, his historical errors matter almost as little as Shakespeare's.

(Although again ethics turn foggier and darker as we move outside a text-delimited community of equals to, say, the business of health care. See Foucault, Madness and Civilization. But let's leave that for another day; here I strive to understand the text-delimited community of equals.)

Since the history of referential scholarship is necessarily one of accumulation and fashion, reductionist threats of a firm theoretical foundation will always fall flat. For a long while after Discipline and Punish, most academics who wanted to talk about internally imposed constraints felt compelled to mention Foucault, if only so reviewers wouldn't criticize them for not knowing Foucault. At other times, the super-ego or false consciousness or the Harper Valley PTA might special-guest-star with very little modification to the central plot line. Some citations take the low common ground of a Nike T-shirt, while others are worn with the fervor of a team jersey during the World Cup. In the first edition of Factual Fictions, Lennard J. Davis namedropped Foucault as enthusiastically as a cafeteria chef shaking canned parmesan over a dish to make it "Italian."

There's a bit more to academic truth-value than just lack of rigor, though. The "scientific" heroism of Freud (and Foucault, and Nietzsche, and so on) didn't include careful transcription of sources, painstaking replication of results, or double-checked blind studies, but it did require expressing engaging and potentially unpleasant thoughts applicable across a range of enduringly interesting problems. Which is to say such humanities scholarship can be "true" or "false" somewhat as a novel or poem is true or false, with a truth-value that's utilitarian and context-dependent. The utilitarian side shows naked when defenders mock the barrenness of debunkers' "ideas": a flourishing brood of citations in itself proves the scholastic validity of the cited source.

Returning to the out-and-out errors reported by Hamilton, their longevity may spring from a few enduring mysteries:

  1. Why has an abomination like Eton not been razed to the ground?
  2. It sucks that we can't buy Mozart a beer.
  3. The New Testament condemns greed as straightforwardly as it does anything, and yet most European and North American plutocrats are Protestant. And they rule the world!
  4. Hitler's father was a civil servant and Goebbel's a factory clerk and Weimar Germany was a democracy, but normal people don't do such things.
  5. Despite the work of reformers, prisons don't seem particularly humane. Also, even though I've left home I feel kinda constrained instead of all liberated and shit.

The simplest explanations will probably remain the most stable in the face of argument. To take the three cases which exercise Hamilton most:

  1. Most people are hypocrites. And just wait a while.
  2. A representative electoral government can magnify minute shifts of popular advantage into unthinkably extreme results.
  3. Ethics, law, and the administration of justice are incoherent, shifting, and therefore inevitably clashing systems. Also, welcome to adulthood.

Unshakable though they might be, none of these snappy answers satisfy our perplexity. There must be more to it than that. A residue of an urge to explain will remain, and will be met by one plausible story or/and another.

But if I don't quite share Hamilton's high-colonic ideals, neither would I welcome the erasure of all distinctions between "Hamlet" as produced on Gilligan's Island and "Hamlet" as described by Stephen Greenblatt. The pretenses of a genre don't have to be air-tight (or thoroughly sincere) to be productive; the inevitable constructions of sociability and the "social misconstruction of reality" overlap but aren't identical. And there are other measures of scholarly worth besides citation volume Michael Baxandall, for example, seems worth emulating despite his low production of forever footnotable trademarks.

Moreover, quasi-refutations of quasi-premises hold their own context-sensitive utilitarian value. For example, as satisfying and useful as attacks on the fascistic aspects of your parents' milieu were if your middle-class youth occurred in 1950s or 1960s Western Europe, in the post-Vietnam United States it might have been wiser to recall that most of Hitler's support came from the wealthy and from rural Protestants, and that religion determined votes more reliably than economic class.

To my non-academic eye, any harm done by Discipline and Punish hasn't been to historiography but to the ability of non-historians to keep track of the world surrounding them, a bit closer every day. For the sheer directness of its display, I'll perhaps unfairly single out Janet Holtman's "Documentary Prison Films and the Production of Disciplinary Institutional 'Truth'," published in 2002 in Virginia, which pits Foucault, Deleuze, Jameson, and Bourdieu against all of two actual films: The Farm: Angola USA, which "merely acts as another social scientific node by which the disciplinary power of the prison functions," and Titicut Follies, which "may number among the many 'odd term[s] in relations of power... inscribed in the latter as an irreducible opposite.'"

As mentioned above, and for perhaps obvious reasons, the documentary prison film is a type of discourse that seems to offer particularly interesting possibilities for analysis in terms of Foucault's theories. It is perhaps here that one might look to find a discursive formation whose effects are clearly recognizable on Foucauldian terms; an analysis of this particular cultural production as a type of truth-production may evidence the ways in which filmic discourses perpetuate humanist values such as the movement toward prison reform, the continuation of the social construction of subjectivities such as "the delinquent," and the normalization and implementation of some of the social scientific technologies of discipline that Foucault describes, such as the examination and the case study. A key question here, in other words, is "what do documentary prison films do?"

A more pressing question here and now, I would think, is "what are prisons doing?" In this regard, recent anti-humanist academics fought an enemy that in most parts of the world (notably the USA) had already been thoroughly defeated by a common foe. It's wonderful that Foucault gave us a new way to talk about repression in a relatively comfortable material position which permits extraordinarily free movement and speech, but not insofar as that's distracted us from H. Bruce Franklin.


Josh Lukin:

H. Bruce Franklin has had extraordinarily free movement and speech, just not simultaneously. Back when he became the first tenured professor to be fired from Stanford for reasons other than moral turpitude, he lacked free speech; now that he's more safely tenured, he lacks free movement on accounta he's ol' (Possibly on a no-fly list too, with a history like his).

Peli Grietzer:

As for academic style, I think being an academic is a lot like being in a band that's trying to make commercially viable music (pardon if I drop the obligatory 'only not cool' etc.).

Oh, and -- I've this months for the first time really read Foucault more than in passing, and man, he can fake sources all he wants for all I care, the man is an analytic dynamo.

And Josh adds for very good measure:

Most of the first dozen uses of Foucault you quote are refreshing in their clarity and restraint: "Here's a nifty correspondence" generally beats Jamesonian or Bloomish grandiosity in my book. But you've persuaded me by the end that U.S. academics, with a few exceptions, are doing something, mutatis mutandis, like what James Holstun calls the fate of European philosophers whose "work has had a more productive history in Europe and Britain, where it actively engaged a lively humanist marxist tradition, than in the United States, where it rather quickly assimilated itself to regnant anticommunist ideologies." In the case of Foucault, himself an anticommunist, I guess you'd substitute something like "gay activist circles" for Europe and Britain and "the broader intellectual public sphere" for the United States. See, notwithstanding Halperin's fine demolition of it, Protocols of the Learned Elders of Sodom casts a shadow over every public discussion of Foucault, from the Right and the Left (Rée's "defense" of Foucault is about as helpful as Shaw's of Wilde or Struwwelpeter's of racial equality). Studying Seventies Foucault is fine, and a heartening number of cultural historians and literary scholars have made good use of his ideas without turning his highly experimental propositions into dogmas; but a look at, say, Chapter 16 of the Eribon biography shows Foucault spending two or three years doing work not only worthy of H. Bruce Franklin but being a kind of amalgam of Franklin, Bruce Jackson, and Clifford Levy: why doesn't "Foucauldian" connote work like what MF did in the Groupe d'Information sur les Prisons? Part of the answer, I fear, has to do with the replacement of the activist philosopher with the bogeyman Foucault Jim Miller's book gave us.

Juliet Clark noted that Holtman sets Titicut Follies inside a "Correctional Institution" without mentioning that it was a state hospital for the criminally insane, which lent at least a bit of surface plausibility to the censors' concerns about inmate privacy. (See Robson & Lewton, Bedlam,RKO, 1946.) The omission seems strange in an article so avowedly Foucauldian.

That voice on the phone

I have been remiss in not yet mentioning that this piece was guest-posted at the Valve (thanks, SEK) and will be reprinted in the next issue of J Bloglandia (thanks, Ginger).

. . .

Pelican Books

I've said nothing to anyone: what a victory that you know now why I am so "secret", and what you not say for your wuality that I gave some of it up to you, because you so much wanted it? You see now why one must be secret? One must not betray that place, or it will heal up, and you'll know nothing more of it clearly, only to so few, a John, you, and ones secret book that one day becomes public, but still secret if written as it should be. Why did I just say "will heal up"? That's exactly it, it just came out. The wound in the side of Christ?
- Djuna Barnes to Emily Coleman, 1937 Nov. 30
(via Improper Modernism by Daniela Caselli)

An obscure hurt maintained, sanctified, and iconized by obscurity it's the flipside of that Freudianism Made E-Z which says if we stop fetishizing the mystery of our neurosis, the truth will set us free... to find another fetish. At our age why start a wound from scratch?

(My good friend Copy Editor Bear will have noticed the first sentence's extra dose of obscurity. Like many other obsessive revisers, Barnes [and then her editors] struggled with grammar school basics, in her case partly because she never attended grammar school.)


I suppose a [sic] really would be too heavy-handed in context. And maybe out of context.


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