Archive for the ‘questions with answers’ Category
At the place where I teach, we still have the students do two courses (one at the beginning of their time with us, and one at the end) in “practical criticism.” We don’t call it that (we just call it “criticism”) but that’s what it is. If we were an American institution, we’d think of it descending out of what is termed “The New Criticism,” but because we are where we are, it’s seen as an import from Cambridge. As the folks to the north-north east describe it on their department website:
Practical criticism is, like the formal study of English literature itself, a relatively young discipline. It began in the 1920s with a series of experiments by the Cambridge critic I.A. Richards. He gave poems to students without any information about who wrote them or when they were written. In Practical Criticism of 1929 he reported on and analysed the results of his experiments. The objective of his work was to encourage students to concentrate on ‘the words on the page’, rather than relying on preconceived or received beliefs about a text. For Richards this form of close analysis of anonymous poems was ultimately intended to have psychological benefits for the students: by responding to all the currents of emotion and meaning in the poems and passages of prose which they read the students were to achieve what Richards called an ‘organised response’. This meant that they would clarify the various currents of thought in the poem and achieve a corresponding clarification of their own emotions.
If you’ve been a reader of this site for awhile, or are familiar with my work in “the real world,” you might think that’d I’d buck against this model of instruction. Any good materialist critic of course should. It approaches the literary work in isolation of its context – the work as an ahistorical entity that emerged autonomously and without the frictional influence of the writer who wrote it or the world that the writer wrote it in.
But on the other hand – and this is why I not only do not buck against it but actively enjoy teaching on this course, perhaps more than any other – it is an extremely valuable method for enabling students to develop “against the grain” critical insights about texts. In the absence of astute attention of the “practical criticism” variety, it’s very difficult for students (or, really, anyone) to develop convincingly novel interpretations of texts. The close attention to the words on the page, and the dynamics of their interaction, not only sets the stage for an appreciation of the “value added” that comes of distilling whatever contextual and personal issues inform the piece once the history is added back in, but, due to the multiplicity and idiosyncrasy of possible interpretations, provides an opening for critical newness – for the saying of something provocatively different about the work.
So how do I teach “practical criticism”? In the seminar groups that I lead, I model and encourage the following “flow chart” of thought: Anticipate what other intelligent readers of this piece might say about it. Try to imagine the “conventional wisdom” about it that would emerge as if automatically in the minds of the relatively well-informed and intelligent. And then, but only then, figure out a perverse turn that you can make within the context of but against this conventional wisdom. “Of course that seems right, but on the other hand it fails to account for…” “On first glace, it would be easy and to a degree justifiable to conclude that…. But what if we reconsider this conclusion in the light of….”
Students tend to demonstrate resistance, early on, to this practice. For one thing, especially in the first year, they don’t really (and couldn’t possibly) have a fully developed sense of what the “conventional wisdom” is that their supposed to be augmenting, contradicting, perverting. At this early stage, the process requires them to make an uncomfortable Pascalian wager with themselves – to pretend as though they are confident in their apprehensions until the confidence itself arrives. But even if there’s a certain awkwardness in play, it does seem to exercise the right parts of the students’ critical and analytical faculties so that they (to continue the metaphor) develop a sort of “muscle memory” of the “right” way to do criticism. From what I can tell, encouraging them to develop an instinct of this sort early measurably improves their writing as they move through their degree.
But still (and here, finally, I’m getting to the point of this post) there’s a big problem with all of this. I warn the students of this very early on – generally the first time I run one of their criticism seminars. There’s a big unanswered question lurking behind this entire process. Why must we be perverse? What is the value of aiming always for provocative difference, novelty, rather than any other goal? Of course, there’s a pragmatic answer: Because it will cause your writing to be better received. Because you will earn better marks by doing it this way rather than the other. Because you will develop a skill – one that can be shifted to other fields of endeavour – that will be recognised as what the world generally calls “intelligence.” But – in particular because none of this should simply be about the pragmatics of getting up the various ladders and depth charts of life – this simply isn’t a sufficient response, or at least is one that begs as many questions as it answers. What are, after all the politics of “novelty”? What are we to make of the structural similarity between what it takes to impress one’s markers and what it takes to make it “on the market,” whether as a human or inhuman commodity? What if – in the end – the answers to question that need (ethically, politically) answering are simple rather than complex, the obvious rather than the surprising?
In my own work, I’m starting to take this issue up. And I try to keep it – when it’s appropriate – at the centre of my teaching, even if that can be difficult. (And there’s the further matter that to advocate “simple” rather than “complex” answers to things is itself an “against the grain” argument, is itself incredibly perverse, at least within an academic setting. There’s a fruitful performative contradiction at play that, in short, makes my advocacy of non-perversity attractively perverse!)
I’ll talk more about what I’m arguing in this new work some other time, but for now, I’m after something else – something isomorphic with but only complexly related to the issues with “practical criticism” and the issues that it raises. It has to do with politics – in particular the politics of those of a “theoretical” or in particular “radically theoretical” mindset, and the arguments that they make and why they make them.
Take this article that appeared yesterday on The Guardian‘s “Comment is free” website. The title of the piece (which of course was probably not chosen by the author, but is sanctioned I think by where the piece ends up) is “What might a world without work look like?” and the tag under the title continues, “As ideas of employment become more obscure and desperate, 2013 is the perfect time to ask what it means to live without it.” While the first two-thirds of the article is simply a description of the poor state of the labour market, it is the end that gets to the “provocative” argument at play.
But against this backdrop – rising inflation, increasing job insecurity, geographically asymmetrical unemployment, attacks on the working and non-working populations, and cuts to benefits – a debate about what work is and what it means has been taking place. Some discussions at Occupy focused on what an anti-work (or post-work) politics might mean, and campaigns not only for a living wage but for a guaranteed, non-means-tested ”citizen’s income” are gathering pace.
The chances of a scratchcard winning you a life without work are of course miniscule, but as what it means to work becomes both more obscure and increasingly desperate, 2013 might be the perfect time to ask what work is, what it means, and what it might mean to live without it. As Marx put it in his 1880 proposal for a workers’ inquiry: “We hope to meet … with the support of all workers in town and country who understand that they alone can describe with full knowledge the misfortunes from which they suffer and that only they, and not saviours sent by providence, can energetically apply the healing remedies for the social ills that they are prey to.”
In other words, the best place to start would be with those who have a relation to work as such – which is to say nearly everyone, employed or otherwise.
It may be a somewhat bad faith line to allege that “interesting perversity” rather than some well-founded and straightforward belief is at work behind an argument of this sort, but in the absence of any substantive suggestions of what the answers to these questions might be, or in fact why these are the right questions to ask at the moment, what else are we to assume? It is provocatively perverse to suggest, at a time of stagnant employment rate and when people are suffering due to the fact that they are out of work or locked in cycles or precarity, that we might do away with work altogether. It isn’t the standard line – but it’s a line that allows the author to avoid repeating the conventional wisdom about what a left response to such a crisis might be. This in turn affords an avenue to publication, as well as a place in the temporary mental canons of those who read it.
Unfortunately, of course, the Tories (and their ideological near-cousins in all of the other mainline parties) are also asking the same sort of questions about a world (or at least a nation) without work. How might one keep the tables turned toward what benefits employers? How might one keep wages (and relatedly, inflation) low but still spur “growth”? How might one manage this system of precarious non-work, at once depressing wages but keeping the employable populace alive and not building barricades. In short, the question of “What a world without work might look like” is a question that is just as pressing to the powers that we oppose as to people like the writer of this article.
We’ve seen other episodes of the same. During the student protests over tuition increases (among other things) I myself criticised (and had a bit of a comment box scrap over) the Really Free School and those who were busily advocating the destruction of the university system…. just as the government was doing its best to destroy the university system. That many of those making such “radical” arguments about university education were themselves beneficiaries of just such an education only made matters more contradictory, hypocritical, and frustrating.
In short, in countering some perceived conventional wisdom, in begging questions that seem to derive from a radical rather than a “reformist” perspective, the author (and others of her ilk) ends up embracing an argument that is not only unhelpfully utopian, but actually deeply compatible with the very situation that seems to provoke the advocacy of such a solution. I can’t help but sense that the same instinct towards perversity that makes for a good English paper – and, perhaps even more pressingly, a good work of reputation-building “theory” – is what drives a writer to take a line like this one at a time like this. One might counter that I’m being a bit of a philistine – that I’m closing off avenues of speculative thought and analysis. I’m not. I’m just wondering what the point of writing all this up in a questi0n-begging article in a popular publication is, an article that does little more than raise unanswerable questions and then ends with what might as well be the banging of a Zen gong.
1) Rewatching the first season of the Sopranos (can it really have been a decade since?) and amongst all of the wonderful (and wonderfully woven) thematic threads is one that I’d forgotten. In S01E09, which is best remembered for the Uncle Junior “South of the Border” sequences, Tony and the boys decide to punish their daughter’s soccer coach when it’s discovered that he was sleeping with one of his charges. What follows is a sequence in which the males are frustrated in their plans through the reasonable intervention of several women, especially Artie Bucco’s wife (who identifies the egotism inherent in the planned action – the fact that the coach would die more than anything else for the collective satisfaction of the mobster fathers) and Jennifer Melfi, Tony’s shrink, who asks the critical question: Why is it that Tony feels that it’s his job to exact justice in every case?
2) The stage is set for the anti-climactic ending by playing the potential climax out in advance, only in small scale and in a banal setting. Artie Bucco and Tony are out for dinner, and they see a young guy wearing a baseball cap in this relatively swish restaurant. After a conversation-that-aging-white-guys-like-to-have about declining social standards and the like, Tony gets up from the table, walks over to the becapped diner, and tells him to take off the fucking hat. The kid does so, embarrassing himself in front of his girlfriend in the process.
3) I’ll admit, I have a little bit of a problem with this sort of thing myself. It’s important, I think, to draw an immediate distinction between calls-to-action that really are yours (your wife / your daughter / your son / your husband is in trouble and its up to you, and only you, to respond) and this other category of events that the Sopranos episode is highlighting.
I’ve ended up in problem after problem in life by throwing myself into frays that were not mine – always, always, on the side of “justice,” or at least what seemed just to me at the moment – it ways that might seem absolutely baffling to someone wired otherwise. They would ask me, just as I am now asking myself, “Why is it your business, business that you actually have to bring to some sort of conclusion, if for instance some young kid hits on a girl in a bar over-aggressively? Why is that your fight to fight?”
4) I don’t like spitting on the street. The other day I was walking down the road when the kid in front of me hocked up a huge one and sprayed in on the pavement. I was just about to tap him on the shoulder to ask why the fuck London seemed like him the right place to blow his brown sputum around when I realized it was one of my tutorial students from last year, one of my favorite ones. I ducked away without him seeing that I was behind him.
5) What exactly is my problem with protest? I’ve been trying to sort it out this week, obviously in the wake of the big demonstration in London on Wednesday. I hate going to them, though often have. Obviously they have to happen, but for some reason (just being honest here – perhaps in the tradition of Orwell on the sense that he could never quite overcome that poor people smelled – and hopefully in service of some larger claim) I can’t help but walk around incredibly fucked off at everyone around me. Whether self-satisfied later-day liberals or kids who don’t seem to know what they’re actually protesting, whether anarcho-thugs bent on violence for its own sake or annoying academics taking a break from skimming the New Left Review – I am an equal opportunity hater, even if – as is generally the case – I am fully on-board with the cause in question.
6) When I was in grad school, I attended one of the anti-WTO protests in New York. After I proudly reported this fact to one of my smarter and more pragmatic friends, he asked me – quite simply – what it was exactly I was protesting. I could not coherently answer.
For whatever reason of bearing or position, people don’t often ask me questions like that, questions based on an assumption that I simply am too ignorant to answer. It was an awkward 30 second exchange whose import I’ve never quite shaken.
7) I was in my office meeting with students during the early stages of the protest this Wednesday. I’d check the BBC News video feed on my computer and as things heated up at the Millbank Centre I decided that I really wanted to go down there. I mean like viscerally.
8 You really learn what it means to live in a country without a revolutionary tradition when you watch the news media – and even various student representatives – go into an absolute fucking flutter over the destruction of a rather incidental amount of property. America gets panicked about a lot of things, but christ, I can’t imagine the response to some equivalent act of group vandalism taking quite this tone and intensity. Sure, the building housing the Conservative Party HQ isn’t some random Starbucks or Gap outlet, but still….
9) The left response to the seizure of the building has been incredibly incoherent, incoherent in the guise of semi-reasonableness but really wearing the hairshirt of fear and irresolution. For instance:
Why couldn’t Solomon explain her actions? One assumes that she and the other who participated in this event actually did have reasons for doing what they did. One further assumes that she here on Newsnight she wanted to avoid falling into a trap that she presumed Paxman (and the British media in general) was laying for her, but ended up blundering into a far worse situation in the end. In refusing to answer directly, what ends up filling the gap where the reason should be is not the presumption of violent intent. It’s the presumption of stupidity, collective stupidity.
Even worse, some sort of on-message conspiratorial stupidity – which becomes the global effect when one considers many of the articles and documents written in support of the occupation. Again and again, the occupation is explained as an effect of amorphous “student frustration” – which only again begs the question of what, exactly, this act would do to assuage or ameliorate this frustration. It doesn’t get much better in things like the now infamous “Goldsmiths Lecturers Letter” (full text here):
We also wish to condemn and distance ourselves from the divisive and, in our view, counterproductive statements issued by the UCU and NUS leadership concerning the occupation of the Conservative Party HQ. The real violence in this situation relates not to a smashed window but to the destructive impact of the cuts and privatisation that will follow if tuition fees are increased and if massive reductions in HE funding are implemented.
Well OK. That’s pretty carefully worded, but ultimately says not much more than “look over there not here!,” which doesn’t really amount to a serious appraisal of the actual event that the letter is ostensibly focused on but which it ultimately skirts. As such, it opens itself even more flagrantly to the exact sort of co-optation that it ultimately and quickly suffered from. Co-optation without side-effect, as there was nothing in the statement to poison with reason those who would use it irrationally.
Again, assuredly there were reasons, even if uncomfortable ones, for entering the building. It’s my hunch that they would in fact play better than this sort of thing that we’re seeing from the left on television, in the papers, and in a series of petitions and collective letters. If occupations and the like are going to be conducted, if windows are, yes, going to break (as Solomon vaguely promises during the programme), mightn’t it be a good thing to be able to describe why in fact they are happening? The collapse of the London Eye is nothing compared to the wholesale destruction of Higher Education in the UK. The collapse of the London Eye is a deeply-felt expression of student frustration. I don’t want to talk about the collapse of the London Eye, even though I planted the charges. I want to talk about student fees. I’m afraid it didn’t play well this time, and will play even worse next time.
10) At the end of the Sopranos episode that I mentioned above, Tony actually bows to the reasonable arguments advanced and decides to call off the hit. He ends up rolling on the floor of his house, in a drink-n-valium fueled stupor, only able to say to his wife “I didn’t hurt nobody.” He’s restrained his impulses for once, thought something through for once, let the “system work” for once, and ends up an incoherently frustrated mess, basically a very large child in a semi-coherent state.
While most of us are able to step back comfortably from an endorsement of mafia-style vigilante violence of the sort dealt with there, I still think that the episode serves as a very vivid and ambiguously wired political or ethical allegory. That is to say, the crossing of ethical demand and psychological need, the complex relationship between instantaneity and process, and in particular the very complex question of impersonal involvement, even violent involvement, in the pursuit of justice of one stripe or another, are persistent ones, insoluble but worth seeing (I hope, I hope) presented vividly.
11) Why did I want so badly to go down to Millbank? Was it simply because there was the possibility of violence? Why didn’t I go down to Millbank? Well that, my friends, is a longer story than I can possibly tell here.
It’s bad form in even a vulgarly dialectical essay like this one, but I hope that you can see the aporia that’s looming over this piece.
12) Of course some of the impulse to violence in the service of justice is hardwired, written into our basic codes and structures. Interesting to think so, though. Seems an animalian holdover, something quite primitive, but on the other hand: do animals commit vigilante violence?
I suppose the question of vigilantism comes down to an issues of numbers, sets. Family – herd – neighborhood – any random victim on the street.
13) Of course it’s hardwired, but it’s also an impulse I clearly learned from my father. Such vivid memories from my childhood – the time at the baseball game when teenagers were carrying on behind us, using foul language and generally being loud, and my father…. turned around on them. A scene that I’ve been repeating my entire life, along with many others of the same, my entire life: in thought and dream and often enough action. When one is a child, a boy child enamored with his father, these scenes seemed like living allegories of bravery and abstract justice, arbitrary interventions on behalf of justice for its own sake.
Now, while some of the sheen of those moments has been retained, I increasingly want to ask – him, the him in myself – the very question that Melfi asks Tony: Why was this sort of thing his job? Why is it our job?
14) Under-interrogated psycho-social issue: What is the effect of having a father who went to war when you yourself did not? A grandfather who did while your father did not? I suppose I could ask some of my friends whose fathers served in Vietnam…. Mine was Canadian so (fortunately) missed the show. I suppose I could ask some of these friends, but would risk wandering them into the high traumas of parental alcoholism and violence that I know understand were going on behind the scenes, at night when I generally wasn’t there.
15) The numbered, thetical form that these personal-cum-political blogessays that I write often take allows for a certain halting stream of consciousness, not unlike that which is supposed to obtain during psychoanalysis, to take place. Just write what comes next, from whichever frame of reference it comes.
Of course, this tactic (tactic?) inevitably results in a document useful only as a clearing house for further thought – it is not thought itself. It is a smooth, empty concrete floor where one spills out all of the contents in the hopes that once out one might put them back together again with coherent form.
16) The hidden non-sequitur incoherence of Benjamin’s “Work of Art” essay… The madness of the ending – as an ending to that piece – despite the brilliance of the observations arriving at cinematic pace throughout…
“Fiat ars – pereat mundus”, says Fascism, and, as Marinetti admits, expects war to supply the artistic gratification of a sense perception that has been changed by technology. This is evidently the consummation of “l’art pour l’art.” Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.
17) Theory and what it excuses: if I were to put myself back in the frame of mind that I once briefly held – during the coursework time, I suppose, of my PhD – I could allow myself to wrap this up in a theoretical aporia, a full-empty question or request for further thought that allows me to step away without solving anything out. We must interrogate the complex entanglements of personal desire and public good, personal perversity and rational action, that informs each and every act of political violence, in this context potentially liberatory political violence. I could glibly ignore the performative contradictions inherent in my piece, expecting that mystified readers would leave off the contradiction inherent in everything that they exuberantly label performativity.
Identifying knots of over-determination but doing so in a tone that seems to indicate that you are announcing a political program is something like treading water while selling slickly-packaged books to the passing tourist boats.
If you had to teach a seminar on Gertrude Stein, and the seminar was to be focused on “queerness” however construed, which text would you discuss?
Filling in a bit of a glaring gap here, as it were. I’ll admit it.
In real life, I have a nearly unpronounceable surname. Almost all vowels. At least it’s distinctive – search for it and you find only me, my father’s campaign contributions to the Republican party, and a long string of arrest records of distant relatives in West Grenville, Ontario. Neither my family nor I really knew how to say it, tried a few different ways, and finally settled in the one least likely to get me laughed at by my fellow jockish types.
But it seems that my pseudonym is just as difficult, if in another sense. There’s a small dispute going on over at digital emunction about the proper way to write the possessive form of my first pseudo name. Should it be Ads’ or Ads’s? Well, it depends whether Ads is a proper noun or common noun. As Michael Robbins writes in response to another comment:
Ads is whose name? For plural nouns, even if they serve as collective proper nouns (like the Rolling Stones), CMS is clear: apostrophe only. Now if some dude is called “Ads,” that’s another story; but the author posting as Ads is clearly posting as “Ads without Products,” like when Keith Richards posted in Kent’s Flarf review thread as “Stones,” or when the CEO of Hardees signed his comment in my meat thread “Hardees.” (I also know this because I once got into an argument about it with someone who said the same thing as Joel above, so I wrote directly to the editors of CMS, who backed me up. I don’t care if you make fun of me.)
Ah but everyone’s missing the point! True to the fact that the title of this blog was inspired by a paragraph (not the one I’m about to clip in, but rather the one discussed here) from Agamben’s The Coming Community, my blog name is a whatever name, aporetically balanced directly between the proper and the collective.
Common and proper, genus and individual are only two slopes dripping down from either side into the watershed of whatever […] The passage from potentiality to act, from language to the word, from the common to the proper, comes about every time as a shuttling in both directions along a line of sparkling alternation on which common nature and singularity, potentiality and act change roles and interpenetrate. The being that is engendered on this line is whatever being, and the manner in which it passes from the common to the proper and from the proper to the common is called usage – or rather, ethos.
As such, of course, it has no possessive form. There are no possessions of any sort down in the watershed of whatever.
Little help from all of you. About to start writing a piece about waiting. In particular, the sort of waiting that one does in cities. I have to move very very quickly on this piece, and it’s pretty important that I do a decent job, so…
Can you think of novelistic / poetic / graphic / filmic representations of waiting? Pastoralia like Godot doesn’t really work. I have my own set, but it’s all French, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I’d like to have some others. Even more French ones, if that’s what it takes.
Fire away, SVP.
Very grateful for the articulate explanation of militant dysphoria at Poetix today. I hope Dominic doesn’t mind if I post the pièce de non-jouissance, the final paragraph, here:
“Militant dysphoria”, or “politicised unpleasure”, is a name for the shift from experiencing dysphoria as a personal pathology (depression, anhedonia, guilt) to recognizing that the syntheses of experience that bind together all but the most rudimentary pleasures are part of a larger cybernetic network: personal “dysfunction” must be understood in the context of this system and its (naturalised) functions. The aim is not to reform the world so that one will at last be comfortable in it (what suits me wouldn’t suit you, just as what suits you doesn’t suit me), but to be able to suspend the verdict of pleasure where it serves reactionary political ends.
I’ll admit that there’s a sort of knuckleheaded temptation to answer this provocative arguments with just what it expects to be answered by… diagnosis, pathologization, and the like. After all, to be fair about this temptation, there are lots of people with major or minor, manic or minimal, physiological / psychological / social issues and pathologies that can in fact be treated and via all sorts of approaches. It is clear that some forms of therapeutic intervention are certainly aimed at simply taping up the broken worker and getting her or him back out on the the neoliberal, precarious, dehumanizing shopfloor. CBT, which is by far the dominant practice in the UK, aims at just that. (Though I will say that I’ve seen some serious and undeniable success stories with CBT and CBTesque therapy, and often practice a bit of auto-CBT on myself, as do we all, I’m sure… Still…)
But even if the embrace of one’s own dysphoria, let alone becoming militant about it, leaves me worried from the start for the above reasons, let’s not head down this line for now. And anyway, if much of the point is to see the social (or “cybernetic,” in Dominic’s term) matrix that informs one’s own individual negotiation with happiness and unhappiness, then I’m all for that. One of the weakest points of psychoanalysis (even in its softer versions – which happens to be my preferred therapetic approach) is its unstinting structural avoidance of the social and political. It’s written right into the basic models at play. Everything goes back to when you were a little kid, dealing with the dad and mum that made you and their treatment of you after they did, and the thing about families is that class differential really doesn’t exist in the family home, or only does on rare occassions. Things change when Billy leaves the house, and later becomes CEO of the company that employed Dad as a janitor, but during the first act, you are your parents’ class. When dealing with later issues, if they’re always belated, adult manifestations of the child’s problems, class / work / financial matters can only be deplaced meta-effects of the pre-social triangle of mommy/daddy/me. If you’re dissatisfied with your work, it’s because you had a tyrannous father who told you would fail etc.
So whatever qualms I have about Dominic’s description as far as the first move – toward the comprehension of the generic nature of personal dysphoria – goes, I am definitely willing to shelve my concerns and keep listening. Where I become much less patient, however, is when we get a bit further down the road. First of all, while I am clearly no expert on Goth culture, and that seems to be an important thing to understand in order to understand, let alone buy into, Dominic’s claims, I would assert that I was a paid-up and duly dunked member of the original Gothic clan, that is to say, the Roman Catholic Church. Funny costumes – we got those. Fetishization of gore and all sorts of visualized morbidity – check. But above all else, militant dysphoria shares with Christianity the embrace of the refusal of “natural” pleasures, the prolongation under the banner of virtue of unhappiness, the investiment of unhappiness in the bank of uncertain and ill-defined futures. When I was told not to masturbate or mess around with girls, it wasn’t couched in the promise of more and better pleasure in the future. It was dysphoria for dysphoria’s sake – and as far as Dominic’s post takes the matter, that is what I see as the logic of his argument as well.
I’d even be so glib as to say that the conceptualization of militant dysphoria would only be possible in a place that’s long since left Christianity behind, where enough generations have come and gone since belief and all that comes of it was real that it is possible to forget how all of this worked. Or perhaps its just poor memory at play. For what Dominic is refounding (rather than simply founding) is a pseudo-Christianity dressed in the garb of a left politics without the political, that is to say without a pragmatics of possible change and resolution of the problems that the concept is meant to address. Sure, Christians are meant to get to heaven by embracing (or actively creating and then embracing) their refusal of pleasure. But heaven is as vague a place as the outcome of MD – both Christianity and militiant dysphoria are far more invested in the pathologization of pleasure in the present than the arrival of some sort of misty reward after the redemption.
I don’t want to belabor the point, but there’s a way that this endorsement and prolongation of the dysphoric resembles the temporal (il)logic of what has long been called the Protestant Work Ethic as well. Isn’t the trick of the PWE, too, the trick of deferral within a system that will systematically deprive you of the opportunity to reap what you’ve sowed? This brings me to my second, and perhaps more important, problem with the description. As Dominic says, “The aim is not to reform the world so that one will at last be comfortable in it (what suits me wouldn’t suit you, just as what suits you doesn’t suit me), but to be able to suspend the verdict of pleasure where it serves reactionary political ends.” This I really don’t understand. Perhaps there’s more to be said, but I’m just working with what’s in front of me. But where does this dysphoria end? If the aim is not reform, such that the gothic disavowal can finally put an end to itself, and everyone can be just a littel bit or a lot happy – whether they want sex, whether they want to come, or not – then I’m not sure I see the point. Does reform, despite what Dominic says, slip in the backdoor at some stage in this process? Or do things end up in a dysphoric utopia? If the point of the deferral, perhaps infinite, of the partaking of pleasures is to bring about radical political change, presumably unto the betterment of the world, then at what point to the capes and sullen looks get beaten into jouissance, or even plain-old plaisir, of any sort?
If we’re killing the category of pleasure off altogether, then I’m not sure what game were ultimately playing. In fact, if that’s the game we’re in, perhaps there would be nothing better than to simply embrace the present, call for exactly more of the same dysphoria that we’ve allegedly already got. I’m sure it will get worse, all by itself and without our attention. Perhaps this is the point. But if this is what we’re after, then I’m not sure there’s any point in writing about it. It will happen whether we’re awake at the switch or fast asleep, either way. And either way, I’m afraid you can count me out of all of this.
One last thing – perhaps a bit guardianistal, but so what. I’d be really very nervous, if I were Dominic, about trotting this idea out in front of people whose dysphorias are less cerebral than material. If anhedonia is the baseline, sure. But I’d venture to guess that for 95 percent of the world’s population, and even a healthy minority of Britons, the idea of giving up the struggle to make things better, the idea of actively embracing a perverse and amorphous psychological blankness, would be, to say the least, something of a non-starter. This is politics for the relatively affluent only – and come on, we’re all relatively affluent – we eat, we don’t get rained on, here we even get free medical treatment and cheap or free education. Let your imagination roam free, and imagine what happens when you pitch this stuff to anyone who’d not a well-fed information worker….
What is the relative smallness of the Pyramid when seen from an airplane window a symbol of?
What is “baggage claim” a symbol of?
What is a decorated Christmas tree, when erected in a rental car airport office, a symbol of?
What is the rental car and its smell a symbol of?
What is grass that turns light khaki in the winter a symbol of?
What are apartment complexes for elderly baptists a symbol of?
What are aging grandmothers a symbol of?
What are in-laws a symbol of?
What is the fact that it is easier to engage with a dreary world when I constantly snap pictures of it with the camera mounted on my phone a symbol of?
What is the nervous way the white teenagers eye the black teenagers at the mall a symbol of?
What are Christmas presents, when purchased after Christmas, a symbol of?
What are camouflage jackets, when worn by women who are mothers of young children, a symbol of?
What is the fact that, just like London, the primary indigenous fast food in Memphis is fried chicken and french fries, served in a little cardboard box, a symbol of?
What is the woman sitting in the Barnes and Noble cafe at 10:30 PM reading a book about husbands and infidelity a symbol of?
What are the teenage girls who hang around Barnes and Noble’s cafe on Saturday night a symbol of?
What is the solitary displaced academic who reads Bleak House at the Barnes and Noble cafe until it closes a symbol of?
What is Bleak House a symbol of?
What is the $3.99 fee at Barnes and Noble to use the internet a symbol of?
What is the paid use of the internet at Barnes and Noble a symbol of?
What are blog comments a symbol of?
What is the Barnes and Noble cafe in general a symbol of?
What are photoessays a symbol of?
What are Germans visiting Memphis a symbol of?
What is the “country,” where we are going tomorrow, a symbol of?
What is Walmart a symbol of?
What is “they’ve been troubleshooting it for the last two hours, and they should have the wireless internet running again by tomorrow morning” a symbol of?
What are hotel lobbies a symbol of?
Beyond Christ and the two bad men, one less bad than the other, what are the illuminated crosses that hang over the eastern suburbs of the city at night a symbol of?
…we might start by working the following out:
So much of the quasi-materialist theory of the past, oh, sixty years has staked itself on the promotion of the random wander through city streets as opposed to the technoratic, overly-rational, heartlessly-designed urban plan, and in particular, the plan’s incorporation of tracts of uniform, utilitarian housing developments / projects / estates. The dérive, the tactical – these topographical / metaphorical practices form the underpinnings of Lefebvre’s, Debord’s, SI’s, de Certeau’s theoretical resistance to centralized bureaucratic power.
Today, however, well after Reagan and Thatcher and their descendents have “starved the beast” of government and brought to an end, in the Anglo-American world and, by influence and force, beyond, the actually-existing and potentially-constructed category of the welfare state that was known as social housing, we now know, unlike those who have come before us, the true value of what was once and now is no more provisioned. We read these earlier theorists who had, no doubt, noble intentions, as cringe inwardly, knowing that we smell in their works an ideology better suited to bourgeois gentrification and tower demolition than, you know, the provision of rooves and running water, walls and doors, simple, unglamourous things that just every single one of us are very happy to have. We understand, in short, the inadvertent complicity of previous theories that are dependent upon libertarian visions of urban space, and we cannot help but think that they were written during a period when it was easier to take for granted the fact that these things would continue to be built, and that the people that live in them would never be left to fend for themselves on the open, and irrationally exuberant!, market.
To put it another way, today, given the choice (which is, perhaps, the only choice that we have, and only if we’re lucky and persistent) between the Ideological State Apparatus and the Abolition of the State, we know that we’d take the ISA and work through the problem of the I in it, rather than the latter, which is the path the world has taken since, and we know damn well where that has gotten us and will continue to get us.
We will have to rewrite the whole thing, cognisant of and vigilant about the ennui and disciplinarity, corruption and neglect, that comes of a strong state sector, but even more careful that we know what our true priorities are, in an age where there seems to be only one single priority.
So the question is, I guess, if we were to restart theory, would we have to sell our old, well-marked copies of Debord and de Certeau on Amazon, donate them to the charity shop, in order to get the room we need to work practically, efficaciously? Would we have to banish them to the category of the merely historical document in order to get done what needs to be done?