Archive for January 2009
Why are economists into such bad fiction? Why do they so enthusiastically announce that they are? Is Stross to the soft neoliberals what Rand was to Greenspan and the like?
Do you know what’s funny to reconsider in exactly this light? Marx’s thing for Dickens. Shhhh. No I love Dickens. But you know, there’s a way to my jadedly modernist eyes that maybe, if you pull the covers around on the bed just the right way, there’s a commonality there.
In order for this to be about something other than being mean and elitistly snarky about bookjackets, I have to say something about the fiction itself, don’t I? What I would say would have something to do with the basic anticipation / fulfillment / frustration model of narrative form that I somewhat idiosyncratically have been carrying around ever since I was a wee litscholar.
Anyway, more, perhaps, to come, when less worked right to the brink of adieu.
I used to live in Brooklyn Heights, which among other things was the location of the world HQ of the Jehovah’s Witnessnes. I think most of their space there has been converted to condos and the like. Interestingly, there seemed to have been some decision on their part that they wouldn’t do the door to door think in their own nabe, for fear of saturating and thus alienating the locals. (The closest I got was the time that the creepy JW who lived two floors above my place ran into me smoking outside on 9/11. He said to me, “Son, you look troubled….” and held our some pamphlets for me to take. I responded, erm, inappropriately…)
Anyway, their housemag The Watchtower was dropped through my slot today. Gotta tell you, the clip art illustrations are worthwhile. So worthwhile that I’ve spent some time on the website tonight, and will be visiting each of you, at your houses sometime very soon. For now, if you could just take a look at this photoessay I’ve made up and consider the alternatives before you….
THE KINGDOM OF GOD EXPLAINED VIA JEHOVAH WITNESS CLIPART
AFTER THE REARRIVAL OF OUR SAVIOR, first of all, old men will be freed from the burden of passing large amounts of urine on any single trip to the toilet. Wee little pees will be their gift from the rearrived Jesus.
Further, entertainment will be more entertaining than it had been lately. Some will be riveted by it; others rendered ecstatic; still more will be driven to clutch and grab at their mother’s bra.
Christmas ornaments will feature shockingly realistic photographic clipart…
…while picnics with grandparents will generally take place in sunny graveyards!
Parents will be relieved from the burden of guilt that they’d rather look at porn than talk with their children!
Students coming home on break from university will be accompanied by their personal set of deer!
Mime will gain a priviledged place as the predominant form of popular art it was always meant to be…
…while Jehovah busily assigns willing, pretty girls to very, very awkward young men for them to use as they will, up to and including intense bouts of handholding!
Charcoal-sketched softcore will take up the religious thematics long anticipated by some…
…while many will be shocked to learn that rental charges will be waived for the video versions of this godly skinstuff!
What is left of non-porn art will be defined by mindbending tricks with perspective, undoing and redoubling the achievements of the Renaissance. Here, flat land in the foreground intersects in a way only conceivable by the post-Armageddon mind with the flatness of the water at about a 30 degree angle. If you had been Saved (do JWs do “saving” hmmm?), this would make good optical sense! Trust me!
After the second coming, you will be able to video chat with your friends on your personal computer! I shit you not, brothers and sisters!
Lounge singers will be permitted to fulfill their ambition to become disabled children!
Suddenly, looking at XXX Magazine will be like reading the New Yorker, perfectly acceptable for the living room on chilly Sunday afternoons in winter, wife and godly children huddled all around, especially since all the images will be blurred beyond visibility…
…while public murals drawn from the Afghan translation of The Joy of Sex will be omnipresent!
But best of all, the real payoff of this whole Jehovah rearrived, will the the distribution of the peacocks, one to each family. Here, we see the bird whispering instructions regarding what to do with the parental remains once she and the horses… and Jehovah are done with them!
Maybe, maybe not, you’d be surprised to learn that when I was a little kid I was absolutely obsessed with war and the military. OCD-type obsessed. “Playing war” in suburban backyards, military simulators on the computer (I think the last Xmas when I can remember what I actually got was the one when I received this, and they played it for something like twenty-four straight hours….), reading Jane’s Guides and the like. Best of all, was this – which I never actually played with another human being, but whose modules and rule books I read and reread and tried to play by myself but you can’t, really.
Anyway, memoirs of a lonely, semi-Aspergersy childhood in late cold war America I guess. All this is prologue introducing a childhood epiphany, one of those little tiny moments of philosophical insight that you have when you’re a child but which stick with you. Maybe you, if you were like me, thought miniscule thoughts about causality (I remember discussing, basically, Zeno’s arrow problem with my mom long before I’d heard of Zeno’s arrow – she was, erm, unhelpful. I can’t even imagine, actually, what she thought but I remember the day like it was yesterday…) or had the thing that everyone has when they set vanity mirror parallel to the bathroom mirror and, boom, infinite regress.
But the one that I’m thinking about tonight is a little less abstract. I remember realising, all at once, that one of the presumptions that I had about soldiering was – had to be, mathematically – all wrong. The presumption was this: that if you served in the armed forces during a war, likely you would kill several members of the opposing side during the course of that war. That is, that say the average veteran of, say, WWII would have killed several people during his tour or tours of duty.
Simple math shows that this simply cannot be the case. Imagine a war in which there are 100,000 front-line troops on each side. If on side A, the average soldier killed even 1.5 enemy combattants, well, that would be 150,000 dead, just from the start. Of course, some on side A would die before they had killed, and then there are injuries to account for and the like. But I think you see the point: I realized that it must be relatively rare for one solider to kill another soldier during a war. That is, it would be a fairly hotshit thing to have killed even one of the enemy. (In WW2, about 3 million of 17 million German soldiers died – a fairly high percentage, but only 17 percent… So it’s very unlikely that whatever grandpa told grandma to get her in the sack and / or justify his drinking was true…)
Huh. This came as a great shock to me, and it’s really no wonder that it did. Movies make killing seem common, depending on the realism of the picture in question. Video games, of course, arc the issue into absurdity. Remember all those scrolling Nintendo games, where you fight your way through level after level of the enemy, killing thousands and thousands of bad guys before you’re done?
Then again…. We know tonight that semi-final tally of the current war on Gaza comes to 1200+ / 13, a set of numbers that seems preordained to force newswriters into the absurd position of putting an almost before the phrase a hundred to one ratio… if they were brave and honest enough to write the phrase into their work to begin with. These are movie ratios, if not numbers more appropriate to a video game. The fact that they include both military and civilian casualties only makes the point horrifically worse.
Perhaps, then, what was unrealistic about the films and game when I was a kid, and which led to the misunderstanding that gave way to mathematical revision, has actually now been reversed. It’s not the cold war any more, which had a tendency to turn asymmetrical battles symmetrical through direct or indirect support of the “other side.” But the counterweighting effect has long since passed….
But it’s interesting that the newest war videogames both enact and critique at the same time this turn toward hundred-to-one ratios in war. Call of Duty 4, from which the images in this post are drawn, has two modes of play like most “first-person shooters” today. There’s a conventional game, where you follow a storyline from training to, well, something to do with seizing a post-soviet missile silo, and in which you fight against all of those computer directed badguys that we’re all long familiar with from videogames. On this side of the game, since you play as a single named character (OK – two named characters, one from the British SAS and the other from the US Marines), the presumption is that, yes, in the course of the game “you” kill hundred and hundreds of Middle Easterners and Russians without dying yourself. This was once unrealistic, but since your solidiers go into battle in this game with the ability to summon Air Force bombing runs and helicopter gunships, UAV flyovers and the like, well, maybe not as unrealistic as it once was…
The other mode of play, however, offers what we might call a utopian revision of the game played in the first part – if a vision of war can ever rightly be called utopian. This is the multiplayer mode, where you sign on and can join a game set in one scenario or another against other human beings who have logged on to play against you. In each case, you pick a side to join – the Americans, or in the case of most of the scenarios, some sort of Middle Eastern army or resistance movement, a hybrid I suppose of the Iraqi national army and Hamas. But, in order to make the game fair and attractive to players, whichever side you select you choose from the same sets of weapons, and have the same ability to call in airstrikes or UAV reconaissance missions. Asymmetrical war has been rendered symmetrical for the sake of fun and sportsmanship – it is an odd sight to see, F16s flying over a photorealistic Falluja dropping clusterbombs on American Marines, but one that you accept for the sake of the game. Suspension of disbelief, a fair fight, a kill-to-die ratio of approximately 1-1 in the case of all but the best and worst players, whichever side they prefer to fight on.
And it all leads me to wonder what it would be like to write a videogame in which one dies a hundred times over before one successfully kills a single antagonist. The boredom of waiting to fight the enemy would be punctuated, in all but the rarest of cases, by sudden death from the air. After hours of waiting, the screen would simply go blank, over and over and over, without the player ever getting to fire a shot. The sole variety, perhaps, would come from death by other means – a sniper’s shot to the head or a round from a tank. But no matter how, the screen goes blank just the same way – you probably shouldn’t even get to appreciate the difference in the way that you just died again.
And it further leads me to wonder whether the ability to countenance the deaths of others on our fields of battle arrives via the fact that, when confronted by numbers like 1200 or 600,000, we have no more sense that each of those individuals had a backstory, independent subjectivity, a fully human life than we are able to believe that the programmers of games give each of the computer-contolled enemy figures independent initiative, fuzzily human logic, and the rest of the markings of existence equivalent to those that play the game and, eventually, win the game. The bad guys circle their programmed rounds, follow the strings and orders of the code, fire more slowly and less accurately that we do as we kill them. They are robots, bots, spam, studio-manufactured figments. And they all look the same with their swarthy skin and balaclavas and with the AK-47s that they grip and sometimes fire.
Their corpses, as in the games, fizzle and melt back into the earth a few seconds after they die. If they didn’t, their mouldering bodies would litter the field, the screen, and make it impossible to see the next one for the piles of previous victims.
When you walk around with a sense that you are literary, and further that what literary means in this case is not quite perverse but perhaps something like dialectical in a rather unanchored way, you are of course rendered unfit for political position-taking, you tend toward the overreading of documents, the endless deferral of signature writing, awkward conversations with those who know better.
“But wasn’t that always the point of the dialectic? It’s unanchoredness?” you ask yourself just before you ask yourself the next question, which is whether you believe that there is such a thing as bad faith. And there you are back again, right in the middle of the not-quite-perversity that might or might not be the hallmark of the dialectic, the unanchored one.
Of course, the answer is no. You don’t believe that there is such a thing as bad faith. This is a problem. But even with a gun to your head, even if you in extremis answered that you did believe in bad faith, even if people would die because of your lie, “Yes, yes, god. Of course there is. Of course there is such a thing as bad faith! Obviously, god, of course!,” it still wouldn’t be bad faith, not in your opinion. It would only be the gun at the back of your head and a completely comprehensible human response.
Of course people save themselves. Of course they distractedly save themselves first, block off the thought of the others who will perish. You can hear the very thoughts in their heads as they do so, because they are not unfamiliar thoughts. (Not unfamiliar to anyone you want to add but stop yourself). And if others die because of it, because of the lie or the solipcism, it is not their fault, but the fault of the structures and systems that are unforgiving of lies or solipcism, that render them more deadly than they ever should be.
What sort of answer is this and to what? It’s getting humid in here so you decide for a change to think about yourself.
When one’s habits of thought, the only instrument that works in one’s trusty toolbox is a sort of vulgar Derrideanism that both survived the end of Derrideanism with a capital-D and one’s own unwillingness to get on board with Derrida to begin with, in the first place, back when that was the sort of decision one was asked to make, one is clearly left in an awkward place.
You wonder if it was Derrida at all. How could it have been? How much of his work did you actually read? You read Grammatology, Writing and Difference, the one about Hegel, the big one with paintings, the one with Blanchot in it (did you?), some of Specters, other things. What is the one with the essays? Which one has the interviews? Christ now you can’t even remember the name of the one with the signature, and whether that’s the one with Austin in it. You did meet him once, you introduced yourself. But whatever had happened had happened long before that. That was the end of the story, when whatever it was was already set in the stone of your method, your calcified method. This is only dawning on you now.
When you got your first job you should have remembered, you should have stopped and considered (this coming only now, amazingly, just now four years later) that what you call “vulgar Derrideanism” is actually and simply only quite refined but basic liberal-arts college English technique. It is what you learn to do when someone takes the time to mark your work well but ambiguously, and when you have the time and the need for approval that you ponder the ambiguities, discuss them endlessly during walks with your one-day wife. What did he mean by that? Why did he draw the question mark in the margin? What was wrong with that passage? It is what you learn to do when you are there to learn and you are taught by conscientious vulgar Wittgensteinians who haven’t read much or any Wittgenstein. They don’t need to – there are decades worth of essay prompts for them to draw on. Why bother with the foundational materials at this point when what works truly works.
Describe the process of taking a book out of Frost Library.
Describe what it’s like to hit a tennis ball.
Describe what it’s like when you read this poem.
You were rewarded when you learned to balance paradoxes, to pull the string of ambiguity without snapping it, to keep the little plastic ball bobbing just above the straw that extended upwards from your lips toward the sky. But another way to put it is that you learned perversity, sinistrality, to coin a word. Always let the left hand remodel what the right hand is doing.
Despite some reservations, they allowed you to continue working in the field. This happened again and again until you are just where you are. You do what people used to be able to do but can’t anymore. And what is that, exactly? And can you imagine hearing something like that and feeling a spurt of unreflective pride. I do what people used to be able to do but can’t anymore.
It is a relief when, as you correct your manscript, when the readers have pointed you to a passage that could use more analysis. There is nothing easier for you than more analysis. You will get to the part about the major, and absent claims of the work later.
In the afternoons, you work for an hour (two during summer) on fiction. It is no wonder why. And it is unlikely that you will ever publish a single word of it. It is no wonder why.
Today you taught. You teach very well. At least they smile when they leave. They say nice things about you, very very nice things about you, when you’re not around to hear. You get a raft of Ph.D. students, here like the last place. When you teach, someone, always a female when it happens, almost always stops to thank you for your enthusiasm. No one, none of them, are enthusiastic. You are so enthusiastic. It’s such a breath of fresh air, your enthusiasm. You are enthusiastic, it is true. You are intense – everyone tells you you are intense. You took the first paragraph of the 1802 Preface to the Lyrical Ballads and showed them at least three extremely convincing but mutally contradictory ways to make Wordsworth into a parodoxicalist, an ironist, a dupe of haunting ambient ironies, or perverse. You love the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads because almost every paragraph of it contradicts itself in its own distinct way. The science of pleasure, the real but made, metrical but natural, poetry but prose but poetry but prose. The social and historical determination of art and thought, but mere idiosyncratic intensification of the timelessly common.
Paul de Man. He was one of those people who did the sort of thing that people no longer do, but you can do. Paul de Man. You wonder if you have it in you to be Paul de Man. You wonder if they’ll let you write for the papers too.
Or…. you are Private Joker in an alternate (and perhaps more interesting, perhaps) version of Full Metal Jacket, in which after he learns to disassemble and reassemble his rifle so very well, takes all too strongly to the running joke about the eroticization of his weapon, in the climactic scene, instead of blowing away his teacher and sticking the barrel up his mouth, he instead is himself made a drill instructor on Parris Island. And in fact, rather than shifting the scene to Vietnam (that is to say London, really…), we watch as now Master Sgt. Joker brings his own sets of inductees into fully and effectively the Corps, despite the fact that the war, after Tet, isn’t going all that well. Best of all, he is cool and methodical where the first drill-instructor was bluster and joke. He is better, cooler, cleaner than his teacher.
So you acquired technique, a proficiency. But there will be no program to reskill workers with obsolescent skill sets, no federal program to subsidize engineering’s transformation into massage therapy, telecom marketing into environmentally sensitive agricultural work, financial (and other forms of) speculation into deaconry or even church sweeping. There will be no subsidy to beat croquet mallets into shovels, tuning forks into spoons that feed knives to hungry children. It is unlikely that you can do these things, unfortunately, on your own, with out a bailout.
No, you will be left with your toolbox and single tool to make do as one can despite the closure of the factory, the bakery, the plant. Piecework, odd jobs, putting out, freelancery. All while holding down your sinecure – the unemployment is elsewhere, has little to do with your job.
When all this is the case, one is likely to do no harm, but one is also almost certain to do harm in doing no good. Whether more harm than others, it’s hard to say.
All of this is so much as to say, in what can only be called (dishonestly, really, or is this too a lie) an extreme case and performance of bad faith, I should have signed the fucking letter. What the fuck is wrong with me, really?
Like David Lurie at the end of Coetzee’s Disgrace, they should put me in the backyard with a banjo with broken strings and a three-legged dog and an operata about Byron’s abandoned mistress to write. They should, but it’s too late, as I’m so already there.
If it were a different age of criticism, back in the time of queering and general erotic teaseout, maybe I’d write a paper on masturbation and the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads.
Sex is, afterall, all over the text, even if it’s generally woven underneath the fold euphemistically. There’s of course the description of poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” as well as the location of the origin of the form in “emotion recollected in tranquility.” One goes out into the world to see things, one comes home a bit agitated, one recollects the moment of agitation and its source, and the “powerful feelings” overflow out onto the page. Further, there’s the moment where, despite Wordsworth’s argument that the poet isn’t different from other men in kind but rather only degree (whatever ordinary men are, he’s just that, only moreso), he additionally possesses
a disposition to be affected more than other men by absent things as if they were present; an ability of conjuring up in himself passions, which are indeed far from being the same as those produced by real events, yet (especially in those parts of the general sympathy which are pleasing and delightful) do more nearly resemble the passions produced by real events, than any thing which, from the motions of their own minds merely, other men are accustomed to feel in themselves; whence, and from practice, he has acquired a greater readiness and power in expressing what he thinks and feels, and especially those thoughts and feelings which, by his own choice, or from the structure of his own mind, arise in him without immediate external excitement.
Just to parse this quickly: what the poet comes up with isn’t quite the Real Thing, but it’s a lot more like the Real Thing than normal people are apt to come up with “without immediate external excitement.” Absent things as if present, right? Back at home, “in tranquility.” Got it.
But there’s something else to this, something almost fully manifest in that passage, but which comes out much more clearly later on. Sex is referenced directly only once, in the course of Wordsworth’s defense of his decision to write in meter rather than prose.
The only point that it is presented directly is this one, part of the defence of his decision to write in meter rather than prose that comes toward the end of the Preface. He’s talking here about the pleasure inheritent in metrically-arranged language.
If I had undertaken a systematic defence of the theory upon which these poems are written, it would have been my duty to develope the various causes upon which the pleasure received from metrical language depends. Among the chief of these causes is to be reckoned a principle which must be well known to those who have made any of the Arts the object of accurate reflection; I mean the pleasure which the mind derives from the perception of similitude in dissimilitude. This principle is the great spring of the activity of our minds, and their chief feeder. From this principle the direction of the sexual appetite, and all the passions connected with it take their origin: It is the life of our ordinary conversation; and upon the accuracy with which similitude in dissimilitude, and dissimilitude in similitude are perceived, depend our taste and our moral feelings. It would not have been a useless employment to have applied this principle to the consideration of metre, and to have shewn that metre is hence enabled to afford much pleasure, and to have pointed out in what manner that pleasure is produced. But my limits will not permit me to enter upon this subject, and I must content myself with a general summary.
So he’s not got time or space to go into it here…. But he’s speculating that meter has something to do with the play of similitude and dissimilitude that defines not only poetry but sexual desire… as well as the linguistic materialization of sociality, i.e. discourse, itself. Great little crackle of panic there at the end of the paragraph, dodging the conjunction he’s come up with here but doesn’t and/or won’t tease out, and it makes sense that he retreats from here back into the full enunciation of the emotion in tranquility / overflow of powerful feelings bit.
Now, I don’t have time either (not because I’m panicked, I don’t think, nor because I’m rushing off to masturbate or anything – it’s just time for bed, and I have to get up early) but if I were to write my paper on Wordsworth, the Preface, and Masturbation, I’d go long with the idea that what we have here is a negotiation, conducted simultaneously in aesthetic and tacticly sexual but also social terms about what this new form of lyrical poetry is going to be about, ultimately. Further, he doesn’t here specify how similarity and dissimilarity work for either poetic pleasure or sexual desire: does he mean, when it comes to the latter, that you like girls because they’re like boys only not… or is it something even more interesting, something like a phenotypical notion of attraction. You like her because she looks like others, only in her own way.
The object of poetry, if I had time, if I had time, might in the “Preface” end up related to something in between the generic images that you temporally make solely your own when you have sex by and with yourself and the everyone else that you love in your particular beloved.
We’re treading toward the whatever here, in more than one sense. Sorry that you’re my notebook. But he’s up to something interesting here that’s not entirely unlike the sort of stuff that drew me to the book that gave this blog its name. More soon, as always!
For example, Nanabhay said that Al Jazeera planned to announce this week that all its video material of the war in Gaza would become available under a lenient Creative Commons license, which effectively means it can be used by anyone – rival broadcaster, documentary maker, individual blogger – as long as Al Jazeera is credited.
Smart, that. Al Jazeera is only available, according to the article, in the following US cities: Burlington, VT; Washington, DC; Toledo, OH. (Toledo, OH?) It’s replaced CNN International as our nightly dinnertime TV fare. (Yes, we eat in the living room! Yes there’s a tv in our living room! Yes it’s a big tv!) And while I’m sure we’re all well practiced in US/UK entre les lignes work with US/UK TV news (oh, that falling bomb likely caused death on the ground, even if we’re not going to see it), I must say it’s rather startling to watch the coverage on AJ.
(By the way. If you happen not to have a TV and live in the UK or selected countries in Europe, you might want to download this. You can only watch Al Jazeera in Arabic as of now… Which isn’t all that helpful for most of us. But you can, you know, watch a lot of other things slickly and without trouble… It’s a pretty amazing service….)
Read this post as an extended footnote to my previous one. It’s very easy to forget, I suppose because it’s set in 1904, that Joyce wrote Ulysses during and after the First World War. For instance, Badiou does in The Century:
The twentieth century kicks off in an exceptional fashion. Let us take the two great decades between 1890 and 1914 as the century’s prologue. In every field of thought these years represent a period of exceptional invention, marked by a polymorphous creativity that can only be compared to the Florentine Renaissance or the century of Pericles. It is a prodigious period of excitement and rupture. Consider just a few of its milestones. […] This period also sees the publication of the vast novels of James and Conrad, the writing of the bulk of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and the maturation of Joyce’s Ulysses.
Badiou is making a point here about the relationship between culture before and after the First World War, so it does matter that he’s a few years off with the dating of the development of Ulysses. And it mattered to Joyce, apparently, that we take heed of the dates of the texts “maturation.” Remember what happens at the very end?
watchman going about serene with his lamp and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.
The dates and places mark the text as itself marked by the particularly brutal time and place it was written. They are arguably – traditionally – considered to be a part of the text itself, rather than “supplementary” materials added on like an author’s note on the last page of the text.
What do we miss when we read Ulysses without attending to what Joyce clearly wanted us to know (if only retroactively, retrospectively) about his novel? One way to put it is that this novel about 1904 wants to announce itself as a sort of dialectical image, if a strange sort of one. Here are the requisite quotes from Benjamin, the first from the Arcades Project, the second two from the Theses. You’ve probably read them before…
It’s not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation. In other words, image is dialectics at a standstill. For while the relation of the present to the past is a purely temporal, continuous one, the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical: is not progression but image, suddenly emergent.
The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again. ‘The truth will not run away from us’: in the historical outlook of historicism these words of Gottfried Keller mark the exact point where historical materialism cuts through historicism. For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably. (The good tidings which the historian of the past brings with throbbing heart may be lost in a void the very moment he opens his mouth.)
The historical materialist cannot do without the notion of a present which is not a transition, but in which time takes a stand [einsteht] and has come to a standstill. For this notion defines the very present in which he himself is writing history. Historicism offers the “eternal” image of the past; historical materialism supplies a unique experience with the past. The historical materialist leaves it to others to be drained by the whore called “Once upon a time” in historicism’s bordello. He remains in control of his powers – enough to blast upon the continuity of history.
I’d argue that the dates at the end of Ulysses, particularly if they’re taken (as I take them) to be part of the text proper, force us to take the novel as something in line with Benjamin’s notion of the dialectical image rather than, say, simply a “historical novel.” 1904 is summoned / presents itself because it was 1914-1921 in Trieste-Zurich-Paris, rather than the alternative.
But it’s a strange sort of dialectical image or collection of dialectical images. First of all – but I suppose this is true of all images of the sort – it’s not clear what exactly we’re supposed to take from what Joyce has collected. Franco Moretti in Signs Taken for Wonders brilliantly claims that Ulysses is a sort of retrograde dystopia, one that predicts the worst of all possible bad futures, the bad future that has already come to pass:
Ulysses is indeed static, and in its world nothing – absolutely nothing – is great. But this is not due to any technical or ideal shortcoming on Joyce’s part, but rather his subjection to English society: for Joyce, it is certainly the only society imaginable, although he just as certainly condemns it, through a hyperbolic presentation of its worst features, to a future of paralysed mediocrity (a future that Joyce, with a stroke of genius, places in the past, as if to underline his consummate scepticism: one can always hope never to reach the negative utopias of science fiction, but if a negative utopia came into being twenty years ago, and no one realized it, then the die is truly cast…)
But there’s something else that’s strange and complicating about all this. June 16, 1904 is also (we know, we know) the date when Joyce first went out with his future wife Nora Barnacle and when, according to semi-official legend, she gave him a handjob. * This fact somewhat over or underdetermines all that I’ve written above, hard to say which, but nevertheless does lead on to the next of my thetically arranged series of posts, in which I attack Benjamin for always fantasizing about explosions where none were to be found…. Coming soon….
* I’ve always been a bit curious about this whole handjob thing, as the letters indicate that it really did mean quite a lot to JJ, but also JJ clearly had been with women – prostitutes – before Nora and assuredly in a more than manual sort of way. Somehow the handjob from a non-prostitute was more, well, epiphanic than anything else that had happened with prostitutes. Which makes sense…. And doesn’t. No it does actually. But for a good time, read this exchange. Just found it.