Archive for April 2010
Is interesting to note where Marx’s spectre thing turns up. For instance, this from the start of a Businessweek article:
April 30 (Bloomberg) — While the specter of Greek contagion haunts southern Europe, corporate Germany is going from strength to industrial strength.
What is especially interesting is the way that the endless permutations on the original always bear – as if spectrally! – a little bit of the root sense of the original utterance. Crisis of capitalism, even when the recyclers of the trope don’t believe that such a thing is possible.
1. Yesterday I decide, after consulting the little statement that comes out of the bank machine, that we’re suffering from a bit of a cash flow problem. Not an emergency, yet, but not good either.
2. Well, I like to write. I have a better byline than I used to. So I spend the day pitching places, trying to round up some work.
3. These efforts yield £100, perhaps £300, worth of work. Novels are drifting through the Royal Mail as we speak toward my office for me to review.
4. A few weeks ago, I sent in an abstract for a conference in Chichester. It was accepted today, so I am going there at the end of May. I (fucking) have to write about Ian McEwan. Though negatively, as a symptom, so it’s OK.
5. I wake up this morning still afflicted with some sort of grub street, cash and pub (publication! not public house! though, sure, that too) mania, and spend much of the day writing a column-type thing for the place that readily takes column-type things at £60 per.
6. I am still not finished with the column-type thing. I should be working on it right now.
7. If I place the column-type thing, after taxes (because my academic salary brushes me right up against the top rate in the UK – not that high mind you), I’ll yield oh about £36.
8. To take a break from writing the column-type thing, I book my train tickets (well in advance – way cheaper!) to get to the conference. They don’t cost much – £29.
9. If today wasn’t a wasted day, I will have netted all of £7 from all this work.
10. Something about Thoreau, trains, and walking to Boston occurs to me as I smoke another 25p cigarette outside.
In Athens, the Greek government had no choice but to seek an I.M.F. solution after its costs of borrowing skyrocketed, but that has not made the negotiations for aid any easier.
According to people who have been briefed on the talks, the aim is to secure from Greece a letter of intent for even deeper budget cuts than the tough measures imposed so far, like reductions in civil service pay, in exchange for emergency funds.
Steps being discussed include closing down parts of the little-used Greek railway system, which employs 7,000 people and is estimated to lose a few million euros a day; limiting unions’ ability to impose collective bargaining agreements, which lead to ever-higher public sector pay; cutting out the two months of pay that private-sector workers get on top of their annual pay packages; increasing the retirement age and cutting back on pensions; and opening up the country’s trucking market in an effort to lower extremely high transportation rates that have hindered the country’s competitiveness.
With Greece now shut out of the debt markets, it has little leverage to resist — especially in light of the 8 billion euros it needs to repay bondholders on May 19. Analysts expect a deal by next week at the latest.
I’ve always been a fan of the euro – not that I’ve given it the amount of thought that I’ve given, say, the style indirect libre and such matters. But it does occur to me today that one thing the common currency seems directly to prevent is the present or eventual adoption of the Kirchner method of handling such crises:
On 15 December 2005, following Brazil’s initiative, Kirchner announced the cancellation of Argentina’s debt to the IMF in full and offered a single payment, in a historical decision that generated controversy at the time (see Argentine debt restructuring). Some commentators, such as Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, suggest that the Argentine experiment has thus far proven successful.Others, such as Michael Mussa, formerly on the staff of the International Monetary Fund and now with the Peterson Institute, question the longer-term sustainability of Pres. Kirchner’s approach.
In a meeting with executives of multinational corporations at Wall Street—after which he was the first Argentine president to ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange—Kirchner defended his “heterodox economic policy, within the canon of classic economics” and criticized the IMF for its lack of collaboration with the Argentine recovery.
The Kirchner method, rather than starving labor and the state in service of debt repayment, imposes “austerity measures” on the international banks that made the loans (confident that they’ll be back when the situation improves – and they will) and allows leeway in the domestic effects of a financial crisis (i.e. Argentinians weren’t buying Japanese televisions for quite a bit of the decade…) But due to the eurozone arrangement, this way out, whatever the ideological predilections of those in power, is probably off the table now and for a time to come… As it turns out, the eurozone right now looks like an engine for stealing trains from the Greeks to keep Orlando vacations affordable for the Germans…
And of course, amidst all this, the NYT runs its inevitable ordinary Greeks admit that they are a nation of thieves, and therefore deserve the pain that awaits them piece….
“We did this to ourselves,” said Mr. Koptides, 37. “It is our problem. It’s not Germany or Europe’s fault. We did this to ourselves.”
Greeks seem to be engaged in national soul-searching these days, wondering whether traits they once found amusing might have led to many of their difficulties now.
Some say their country may have been unprepared to join the European Union in the first place. Some focus on how European Union funds sent to Greece were spent on wasteful projects. Greece’s last administration hid the extent of its debt.
“There has always been this way of thinking in Greece that the thieves are the clever ones and the ones who don’t steal are the patsies,” said Petros Anagnostou, 46, a book dealer. “We have to develop a conscience as a community, to see ourselves as a collective society. If it is a jungle out there, then we will eat each other and end up in a place like we are today.”
But of course the right path toward the reestablishment of “a community… a collective society” is by the elimination of the right to collective bargaining and the phasing out of public mass transit!
Huh. Looks like I’m going to be going on strike next week. First time I’ve ever been involved in one of those. Luckily the union is (thus far) permitting us to run our exams… Was very worried about the idea of screwing up my students in service of the cause (exams aren’t easily rescheduled where I work… and they also make up just about all of my students’ marked profile… so it’s no trivial matter…)
I’m starting to have a feeling that things are about to get a wee bit pitched and contentious – even more they than already have been – in and around the UK higher education sector in the coming weeks before everyone goes home for summer break.
Was just talking tonight to my wife about how utterly disconnected I feel from politics. Not in the sense that my fundamental beliefs have changed or lightened – I’m still very much the same democratic socialist that I’ve always been. Just feel like I don’t have anything to say, any insight to contribute on that front – the front of politics writ large, politics played out on television and in the papers – anymore. Back in the early days of this blog (and the blog before that, in particular) I was constantly writing about the political churn, what was in the front sections of the papers, etc. Now, not so much.
But on the other hand… I’ve taken a small but significant step lately towards becoming more involved in my union, getting trained for further and grander participation in it. I am and have been haunted by the sense that people have me pegged out for university administration. I mean the upper bits – head of department, dean, whatever. I am the rare but true alpha male in a humanities department, one of those swaggering ex-athletes with a booming voice and an air of definitiveness about me when I speak in public. People like to be led by me, it seems. My dad was in management (erm, human resources) so there’s something about it all that makes sense.
But I’ll be damned before I go into it though – everyone knows that they carrot and stick you with a big salary and extracted promises to sort things out down on the farm, if you know what we mean. And I wouldn’t do that. But with the union – maybe there’s a place I can take all that half-oedipalized paternal training and put it to good use. And maybe in doing so, find for myself a place where my ever-more-humbled and generally-disenchanted political instinct can find somewhere new to set down roots. We’ll see…
The playhouse he built for his daughter in the garden. What does he say – to himself, even to it – as he stands before it smoking yet another cigarette? He can remember the day he built it. His wife kept his daughter away from the back windows so that she wouldn’t see. It was the day before her third birthday and they had just moved into the place with the garden at back. One pane of the little plastic window in front cracked as he secured it in the frame, and there’s a little lintel piece that he never got around to installing sitting at its side.
Inside the house, there are mostly unused toys. A kitchen set. Some balls. A little chair.
He says to himself while standing in front of the house, Ah, this that you’re feeling comes one way or another no matter what happens. One way or another way, there will be a last time you look at that house. Such is the nature of things. We know this. We know when we’re hammering the nails and tightening the screws that one day some person, one day, will break the house down with a hammer and crowbar and set it out front on the day that they pick up large objects. So what if it is sooner rather than later? It will happen either way.
He says this to himself, and his heart rises momentarily only to fall again. He is right, he is wrong. It doesn’t work. He says this to himself but refuses to say it, even under his breath, to the playhouse.
From an interview with Nick Clegg in the Guardian magazine today:
Which living person do you most admire, and why? JM Coetzee – he writes with a simplicity which lays bare what really matters.
What is your favourite book? Life & Times Of Michael K, by JM Coetzee.
Funny to think what an absolutely perfect choice is for a politicians favorite novel, and funnier to think what a catastrophic choice Disgrace would be…
I’m not sure that all of my US readers (sounds like the UK ones maybe can’t) shouldn’t try to help Helen DeWitt out if they can. The Last Samurai is a very interesting novel; Helen is a very interesting novelist. The world needs more interesting, especially the literary part of the world. And she’s mentioned in a now-deleted post involving Neurathian isotype in her next book – which all AWP readers should understand and support.
(Just to be clear – the better end result from any interest this may spark in you is not to buy a used copy of her novel from Amazon, which will do you but not Helen any good. Unless I’m wrong, a new copy from Amazon would maybe do the trick… But better yet, follow her instructions…. You can pretend you’re paying me for my years of hard toil keeping all of you entertained and educated and such… We’re talking about somewhere in the environs of $15, so come on for chrissake!)
Paradox of blogging. When I justify – generally to myself but sometimes to others – the fact that I write this blog, generally my argument takes this shape: that the blog is helpful because it takes inchoate ideas, random reflections garnered in reading this or that, and forces me to follow through to a claim about them. In other words, the temptation to make a post of a thought moves distracted thinking through to un-distracted concentration. Time and again, I’ve found an argumentative line where there was nothing more than a passing fancy.
But here’s the paradox. I’m garnering a little more writing work lately, which of course makes more writing work easier to garner, as you can parade around your CV bonafides like a journalism membership card. But what happens when this happens is a sort of doubling-over of, or doubling-down on, the logic described above. Random thought turns into incipient blogpost, but then incipient blogpost becomes potential article for pay and in print.
This happened today, early this morning. I was working on a long post based on this article, when I realized that the thing I was doing had the reasonable potential to be a properly publishable piece. And so I stopped short, post nearly done, and wrote instead an pitch for the world-leading art magazine (as my department’s impact statement has it – and they’re not wrong!) that I sometimes write for. We’ll see what happens – I’d be thrilled to write this up for them. But it does fuck the blog a bit. Increasingly, when I think I’m onto something good, I keep it off of here. For instance, there’s this great idea I have for a piece about DFW, totally blogable, but…. It’ll never see the html.
My plan is to drop the pseudonymity at least by January 2011, right after my probation hearing – in which case, generally speaking, I’ll be able to link to published work and then all will be good and I won’t feel guilty about selling out my readers and being in general a bad blogger of the old and pure school. (There are funny stories to tell about the pseudonymity too – like the one about how I’d do my department good, again on the “impact” side of the REF, if I’d cop to having a blog… But… It’s a bit more complicated than that, isn’t it?)
Exciting stuff, and an advertisement for blogging. The headless one will land in 3 hrs 30 min at Heathrow and then is (I hope, if we can work out the US mobile-phoneless-comms) staying at mine. I’ve even washed the sheets on the guest room bed and cleaned out the cats’ litterbox! Scott is probably my oldest blog friend, and one whom I haven’t seen (if memory serves) since 2007 at the Philadelphia MLA (right? I’ve been to so many Philly MLAs that I’ve lost track) when I sat at a blog-meetup dinner next to Holbo and Bitch Ph.D.
I’ve been doing this for a long, long time.
Just read a story, if that’s the word, called “This is for you” by Emmanuel Carrère in the new issue of Granta. It’s not online, and likely never to be… So unfortunately if you want to read it you’re going to have to shell out the (outrageous! though maybe they’re actually paying their authors, who knows) £12.99 / $18.99 for issue 110. (Shhh… If you ask nicely maybe I’ll play about with the new departmental pdf-capable photocopier on Monday and see what I can do…*) I’m trying to look into this story a bit which was originally published in French and in a newspaper, having some trouble finding anything out, so I’m a bit vague on some of the details, but let me try to describe it to you very very briefly.
Basically, the “story” takes the shape of a sort of public letter to Carrère’s lover “Sophie.” Apparently the story first appeared in a summer fiction supplement in Le Monde, and, according to what’s written here, Carrère arranged for it to be published on a specific day when Sophie would be traveling by train to visit him on the Ile de Ré in the west of France. The new issue of Le Monde will have just appeared as she’s about to board the train and he anticipates that she’ll buy it and turn to the supplement to see what he’s written. But what the letter consists of are a series of basically masturbational instructions for Sophie to follow, think about this, touch that, and so on. The kink is that, due to Carrère’s precise planning of the whole affair, there would likely be a large number of people on the same train reading the same “story” as she read it… Toward the end he has her go to the cafe car, the trick being that anyone who was on the train and who got the timing right might well show up looking for this ostensibly sexually aroused woman following a publically published set of erotic instructions… And then who knows what happens after that…
It’s a bit parlor-trickish, isn’t it, and a kind of banal version of the sort of thing that you might expect from a biographer of Philip K. Dick. But there’s also something interesting about it, even if it’s not what Carrère thinks is interesting about it. He thinks that the story is about the performative function of language:
I like literature to be effective; ideally, I want it to be performative, in the sense in which linguists define a performative statement, the classic example being the sentence ‘I declare war’, which instantly means war has been declared. One might argue that of all literary genres, pornography is the one that most closely approaches that ideal: reading “You’re getting wet”, makes you get wet.
But of course he’s wrong about this, or not quite right. “I declare war” or “By the powers granted to me by the great state of New Jersey, I now pronounce you man and wife” are of a different nature than what he’s up to here. The problem is this: imperatives (“get wet”) or wishful descriptions (“bet you’re getting wet now”) are not phrases that are actions, they implore or anticipate action without of course necessarily having the power to provoke the action itself. That’s because the performative is about power – I just said “I declare war on South London” out loud in my kitchen, but as far as I can tell no bombs are falling on or around Clapham Common.
So he’s wrong. But actually he’s on to something interesting, even if he misunderstands what it is in part because he lacks the language that he needs to understand it. I’ve been working on and off for a year now on a theorization of something that I am calling aggregate fiction - here are some of the posts in that line. As Carrère’s story (and, if it works, Sophie) gets to the café car, it leaves behind the close attention to her subjective response to work with a broader character set. But look at how he establishes the shift:
In real life, a writer might sometimes see a stranger reading his book in a public place, but that doesn’t happen often; it’s not something you can count on. Quite a few passengers on this train certainly do read Le Monde, however. Let’s do the maths. France has 60 million inhabitants; Le Monde‘s print run is 600,000 copies; it’s readers thus represent 1 per cent of the population. The proportion of readers on the Paris-La Rochelle high-speed train on a Saturday afternoon in July must be much higher, and I’d be tempted to jump it up to 10 per cent. So we get roughly 10 per cent of the passengers, most of whom – because today have the time – will at least take a look at the short-story supplement, just to see. I don’t want to seem immodest, but the chances of these just-taking-a-look passengers reading all the way to the end hover in my opinion around 100 per cent, for the simple reason that when there’s ass involved, people read to the end; that’s how it is. So about 10 per cent of your fellow passengers are reading, have read, or will read these instructions during the three hours you will all spend on the train. [...] There’s a one-in-ten chance – I’m probably exaggerating but not by much – that the person beside you is at this moment reading the same thing you are. And if not the person next to you, someone close by.
This is the sort of thing that I’m interested in. A shift of fictional attention from the deeply explored single (or coupled) subjectivities to the informed but ultimately intuitive anticipation of statistically-aggregated subjectivities. The odds are that… It’s a way of changing the number of fiction without simply backing off into a panoptic wide-angled mass image. Neither simply the teeming crowd and its patterns, nor the classical bourgeois interiority, but an aggregation of anticipatory selves – educatedly guessed though never quite circumscribed. The scene that Carrère imagines at the conclusion of his piece – a group of random yet predictable Le Monde readers, assembled in the café car of the TGV to La Rochelle attempting to figure out which one was Sophie, then drifting off to masturbate singly yet also in the company (across closed toilet doors) of others who know the game that’s on – seems to me to be an anticipation of an alternative frame for fiction, one that does the math and then sketches out the probabilities. It’s not the performative so much as the probable, it forethinks assemblies of individuals rather than presumes the centrality of this or that self. Its characters are ghostly, futural beings, like the CAD people in real estate advertisements, there because they’re bound to be rather than simply because we suspend disbelief and learn to indulge ourselves in ourselves by solipsistic proxy.
The problem with aggregate fiction, this thing that I’ve been trying to describe for a year now, is that the actually existing examples are wonderful pieces of prose. Carrère’s story is tacky, a bit creepy, and generally bound to put people off rather than turn them on. Still, I’m going to keep cataloging what I find, in the hopes that I might be able to
* Some question in my mind why I shouldn’t simply scan the story in and freely distribute it to you – it’d be to every party’s benefit I’m sure. I could talk about it without extensive redescription, you could of course read it, but most importantly (from the legal-economic perspective) several hundred readers, probably none of whom I’m guessing (just as Carrère does with Le Monde) subscribe to Granta, would be introduced to the magazine as a possible source of interesting stuff to think about. The temporality of blog reading suggests that any sales the magazine accrues will come on future issues, not my readers sprinting to their local bookshop to buy the thing to read with my post now… Hmmm…. We’ll see what happens Monday… Granta editors feel free to permission me, if you see this, in the meantime…
Just watched the first two episodes of The Pacific on Sky Movies. Stirring and scary yes, but also can’t help but feel that what I’m watching is a some sort of desperate projection of American nostalgic fantasy about the last time that we were outgunned, undermanned, underfed, often injured and generally in dire straits but we won. (It’s no wonder that the Battle of Khe Sahn during the Vietnam War plays a similarly iconic role in the American [filmic] subconscious). The colonel in charge of the unit we’re following even at one point, in the face of throwing what’s barely left of his Marine division against the entire Japanese army, reiterates an order from above: if this goes badly, you’ll retreat to the jungle and fight as guerrillas. To which all involved respond, fuck no, sir. We’re almost guerrillas, we might well have become guerrillas, but we’re never in the end guerrillas. And we watch as the desperate Marines manning the machine guns, constantly low on ammo, mow down hundreds upon hundreds of Japanese infantrymen. (At one point, in an act of medal-winning bravery, someone has to go clear a pile of bodies from the breach in the barbed wire fence in order to create a free-fire zone…) Sometimes, after the battles, the more thoughtful of the Americans go and look at the family pictures that the Japs carry in their bags. Once, one of them even finds a child’s doll in the satchel of the dead. But in another case, when these undermanned Americans send a medic out to help a terminally injured Jap, the latter pulls the pin on a grenade to blow the aiding hands and bodies to pieces. Bastards.
So why is this necessary right now? Well, there’s this sort of thing, which I really recommend you watch, and which I found via Chained to the Cinematheque:
I keep wondering (see below) whether videos like this one, which seem to represent in their depiction of the distractedly distanced killing perpetrated by US troops (which of course continues – or in fact intensifies into the primary US tactic for dealing with international insurgencies) some sort of semi-omnipotent Playstation-style control of the battlefield, actually augur something else, a sort of existential or mass-psychological or even material over-reach. That, if I could guess, is exactly the anxiety that constitutes the political unconscious of the Tom Hanks’s HBO production that I watched tonight. But this may or may not be wishful thinking. Understandable, I suppose, for me to construct fantasies about the failure of national projects that involve severely injuring children in the back of a van that their father’s driven to pick up a dying Reuters employee and deliver him to a hospital and then denying said children proper medical treatment.
Anyway, in case you’re new to the blog, here’s a previous (and more interesting) post on a parallel topic. And actually another one here, originally written for n+1′s website but they couldn’t sort out the coding issues with the embedded videos. I’m actually currently attempting to finish a small bit of fiction on this subject that I’ve been working on forever… We’ll see – maybe the awful video above has given me the spur that I need.
NEW YORK (AdAge.com) — Apple may not have paid for its new and much-ballyhooed iPad device to be woven into a main storyline in last night’s showing of “Modern Family” on ABC, but everyone is acting as if they did. You can see why, especially when you consider how much ABC might have gotten if it had charged for all the iPad play.
Apple has been telling other media outlets it paid nothing for “Family’s” bumbling Phil Dunphy character to spend the better part of the program yearning for a new Apple iPad (due out this Saturday) and even stroking the machine wistfully at show’s end. And two people familiar with the situation reiterate that notion, telling us Apple and the studio that produces “Modern Family” — News Corp’s 20th Century Fox — collaborated on its hard-to-miss cameo. Also worth noting: On Twitter, actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who plays Mitchell on the show, said “I will say that no ‘Product’ has been ‘Placed’ in my itchy little palm. I am excited about the iPad & will probably break down and buy one!”
Whether or not it is true, I guess that marks the end of another branding strategy. It’s a strange situation though foreseeable situation when consumer products that seem not to have been placed for pay into sitcom scripts nonetheless acquire the anti-aura of having been worked into the plot because of a marketing deal. We might as well revise the key paragraph of Barthes’s essay “The Reality Effect” on the realistic detail into accordance with current conditions, mostly by substituting the word deal for the word real. First the original paragraph:
This is what we might call the referential illusion. The truth of this illusion is this: eliminated from the realist speech-act as a signified of denotation, the ‘real’ returns to it as a signified of connotation; for just when these details are reputed to denote the real directly, all that they do – without saying so – is signify it; Flaubert’s barometer, Michelet’s little door finally say nothing but this: we are the real; it is the category of ‘the real’ (and not its contingent contents) which is then signified; in other words, the very absence of the signified, to the advantage of the referent alone, becomes the very signifier of realism: the reality effect is produced, the basis of that unavowed verisimilitude which forms the aesthetic of all the standard works of modernity.
Now the revision, with changes to the original text in italics:
This is what we might call the market-deferential illusion. The truth of this illusion is this: eliminated from the realist speech-act as a signified of denotation, the ‘deal’ returns to it as a signified of connotation; for just when these details are reputed to denote the deal directly, all that they do – without saying so – is signify it; Modern Family’s iPad finally says nothing but this: I am the deal; it is the category of ‘the deal’ (and not its contingent contents) which is then signified; in other words, the very absence of the signified, to the advantage of the referent alone, becomes the very signifier of branding: the branding effect is produced, the basis of that unavowed verisimilitude which forms the aesthetic of all the standard works of modernity.
From the description of Gabriel Josipovici’s forthcoming What Ever Happened to Modernism at the Yale University Press site:
Modernism, Josipovici suggests, is only superficially a reaction to industrialization or a revolution in diction and form; essentially, it is art coming to consciousness of its own limits and responsibilities. And its origins are to be sought not in 1850 or 1800, but in the early 1500s, with the crisis of society and perception that also led to the rise of Protestantism. With sophistication and persuasiveness, Josipovici charts some of Modernism’s key stages, from Dürer, Rabelais, and Cervantes to the present, bringing together a rich array of artists, musicians, and writers both familiar and unexpected—including Beckett, Borges, Friedrich, Cézanne, Stevens, Robbe-Grillet, Beethoven, and Wordsworth.
Very much in agreement with this approach, I must say, and genuinely excited by the prospect of this book. But it also bears noting that this sort of move, the everything good was always already modernist play, when committed by younger scholars of modernism (say, at a job interview) can land one in a world of hurt – or at least deliver unto you frantic and belligerent questioners. On the other hand, every modernist who has spent some time delivering her or his work to mixed audience is familiar with the argumentum ex Shandy, in which agitated 18th-centuryists, Rennaissancers, medievalists or even ballsy classicists impatiently explain that there was nothing new under the early 20th-century sun…
Even more interesting stuff comes at the end of the paragraph that I just cited:
He concludes with a stinging attack on the current literary scene in Britain and America, which raises questions not only about national taste, but contemporary culture itself.
Wait! What’s that? A work of literary criticism released by an academic publisher that dares to approach the question of What is to be done? here and now – that takes literary production itself as a going, if troubled, concern? What is the world coming to? Nothing to lose but our utterly indifferent irrelevance, I guess…
Hurrah for Josipovici then. Will have more to say about him soon, as I’m currently reading some of his stuff….
(via the perpetually excellent This Space)
From Jon Meacham’s review of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch in today’s NYTBR:
[I]n a wonderfully revealing insight of MacCulloch’s, that the “daily bread” for which countless Christians ask in the Lord’s Prayer is not what most people think it is, a humble plea for sustenance. “Daily” is the common translation of the Greek word epiousios, which in fact means “of extra substance” or “for the morrow.” As MacCulloch explains, epiousios “may point to the new time of the coming kingdom: there must be a new provision when God’s people are hungry in this new time — yet the provision for the morrow must come now, because the kingdom is about to arrive.” We are a long way from bedtime prayers here.
Wonderfully reminiscent of the strange dialectical temporalities at play in, say, Benjamin’s theses “On the Philosophy of History,” that. The ur-symbol of the quotidian is actually, when the translation engine is run in reverse, revealed to be shot through with a kind of post-redemptive future anteriority. Because of the imminence of redemption, we must start asking now for what we’ll need after the redemption. And we ask in terms derived from the needs that will be abolished with the redemption, because they are the only terms (and needs) that we know. Because of this, we modify these present terms with a single word that means at once of different substance and not now but very soon. Wonderful….
And more wonderful still: the fact that implicit in the entire complicated structure is the fact that with the arrival of the redemption comes not the abolition of needs but rather their metamorphosis and augmentation – perhaps even their drastic intensification…
Via the Valve, an article in the NYT about what the paper is calling (correct me if I’m wrong – the paper’s been calling) “the next big thing” in literary studies – basically the application of evolutionary psychology and/or cognitive science to literature.
I try not to be cranky about this sort of thing – both the NYT’s reportage and this new mode of study itself. And it’s not that I don’t think there are insights potentially to be gleaned from such an approach. Rather, my problem with it is that much of the output that I’ve seen steers heavily in the direction of the massive-research-grant-funded restatement of the obvious and deep tautology. Let me show you a few examples from the article in question. (Obviously, this isn’t entirely fair, as I’m looking at newspaper re-descriptions of research rather than the research itself… But certain patterns familiar from the work in this line that I’ve actually looked at manifest themselves quite clearly in what follows, so I’ll go on…) Here’s a example:
At the other end of the country Blakey Vermeule, an associate professor of English at Stanford, is examining theory of mind from a different perspective. She starts from the assumption that evolution had a hand in our love of fiction, and then goes on to examine the narrative technique known as “free indirect style,” which mingles the character’s voice with the narrator’s. Indirect style enables readers to inhabit two or even three mind-sets at a time.
This style, which became the hallmark of the novel beginning in the 19th century with Jane Austen, evolved because it satisfies our “intense interest in other people’s secret thoughts and motivations,” Ms. Vermeule said.
Now, I am going to look into Vermeule’s work when I’m next in the office and have a minute as “free indirect style” has basically been the issue at the center of my own teaching and research for the past decade or so (that is to say, since I started work on my dissertation, or really since I started seriously reading Flaubert and Joyce as an undergraduate…), but can you see the problem here? Here are the claims in order:
1. “evolution had a hand in our love of fiction”
2. free indirect style “enables readers to inhabit two or even three mind-sets at a time”
3. free indirect style evolved because it “satisfies our ‘intense interest in other people’s secret thoughts and motivations’”
Well and good. But to my mind, even though its nothing new, only claim 2 holds any interest. How free indirect style manages the delicate play of multiple “mind-sets” is an interesting and ever-renewable issue, as it allows us to negotiate with some of the basic dynamics of fiction and their modern (considered broadly) manifestations. Point 1, on the other hand, is uninteresting because the basic assumption behind this approach (and, sure, an assumption that I share) is that evolution had a hand in everything that we have done, has a hand in everything that we do. Is there a human activity X, in other words, to which the statement evolution had a hand in our love for X? A statement like this simply doesn’t bear any, um, value-added. (More on this in a minute). Point 3 likewise merely dresses in evo-psych garb something that all of us have always already known about both free indirect style and, well, fiction in general. Was it ever a great mystery that a large part of the appeal of fiction is that it ostensibly allows us access to the elusive interiorities of other people? I suppose there’s something more to say about why this is the case, but not all that much more – it doesn’t seem all that confusing that whether one is looking for a mate or competing with the next hairy homo sapiens over a hunting ground, that thinking into the thoughts of others serves as a valuable skill in the work of gene preservation / distribution.
So just to sum up – I can see running room in the specifically literary claim that Vermeule’s making, but the “scientific” add-ons seem just that – add-ons, supplements from the realm of blinding common sense draped in the discourse of trendy science. (Please note and don’t get me wrong: theoretically inflected work very often performs and performed the same sort of dance…) But an argument that goes Behavior X seems irrational until we realize that it grants an adaptive advantage. We know that it grants an adaptive advantage because all actual behavior does… simply doesn’t seem to shed light on much of anything at all.
So critical and theoretical trends come and go. I’m a youngish academic, but I even I map my progress according to the rise and fall of Dominant Theoretical Paradigms (I entered the PhD at the peak of the Post-Colonial Bubble, got my first job as Deconstruction self-deconstructed but near the top of the Textual Materialist bubble, my second in the Age of Transatlanticism, and now, according to the paper of record, am doing my persistently untimely work in the Age of EvoPsych…) But I think there’s something special – specially symptomatic – about this trend that merits some attention. Here’s another snippet:
Ms. Zunshine is part of a research team composed of literary scholars and cognitive psychologists who are using snapshots of the brain at work to explore the mechanics of reading. The project, funded by the Teagle Foundation and hosted by the Haskins Laboratory in New Haven, is aimed at improving college-level reading skills.
“We begin by assuming that there is a difference between the kind of reading that people do when they read Marcel Proust or Henry James and a newspaper, that there is a value added cognitively when we read complex literary texts,” said Michael Holquist, professor emeritus of comparative literature at Yale, who is leading the project.
The team spent nearly a year figuring how one might test for complexity. What they came up with was mind reading — or how well an individual is able to track multiple sources. The pilot study, which he hopes will start later this spring, will involve 12 subjects. “Each will be put into the magnet” — an M.R.I. machine — “and given a set of texts of graduated complexity depending on the difficulty of source monitoring and we’ll watch what happens in the brain,” Mr. Holquist explained.
Ah, that sounds like the stuff of the properly-science oriented research grant. My department has been complaining very justly lately that the university-distributed research grants available for us to apply for – actually, which we’re reprimanded on a termly basis for not applying often enough for – are arranged in such a way that makes them literally pointless for us to aspire to. Why? For one thing, the arrangement chez nous is that these grants can only be used to pay for research expense but in no case can be used to buy us out of teaching, that is to say buy us the time out of the classroom that we need to do our research projects. I’d write more if I had time, but I can’t think of a single research-related expense that I need money for, beyond I suppose a couple of books and the like. (This is the back story, by the way, behind the ubiquitous grant-funded fancy-ass home laptop that grantees in the humanities buy “for research purposes.” It seems cagey to do, but there’s literally nothing else to spend the money on, so you head to the Apple Store…)
But I have a sense that part of the appeal of this new “scientifically” organized work is the fact that it is compatible with the science-oriented funding that we humanities types are increasingly expected to attract, but which rarely for most of us fits the bill in any way that makes writing the grant application worthwhile. In a way, the quote above from Michael Holquist discretely says all that needs to be said about what’s driving this sort of work: “We begin by assuming that there is a difference between the kind of reading that people do when they read Marcel Proust or Henry James and a newspaper, that there is a value added cognitively when we read complex literary texts.“ Again, is the fact that people read Proust a bit differently from the New York Post a finding that requires ample funded-research? You need an MRI-machine to determine that? And since when is a commercial term like value-added appropriate for use in describing the sort of work that we do? (Oh, well, yes during the age of impact and its American equivalents…)
I’m definitely not against scientific and especially quantitative approaches to literature – see Franco Moretti’s relatively recent work for a fascinating example of what can happen when you run words through a machine. But I’m still waiting to see an example of EvoPsych / Cognitive Science-based literary work that doesn’t dress ordinary or even banal arguments about literature in trendily mystifying language that ultimately turns out to be 200 proof conventional wisdom. But the funny thing to remember, though, is that theory itself – which seems to be in the crosshairs of many who’ve taken up evo or cognitive approaches – itself emerged in large part in attempt to assert disciplinary rationality in an increasingly science-minded age. Structuralism, narratology, semiology and the like were all attempts to make what we do into a science rather than a endemically-skeptical art…