Thursday, April 29, 2004

The Passing of An Era: Leo's Lunchroom on Division Street to Close

If saying farewell to Jeff & Cris Smith--two of my closest friends in the world who, after 8 years in Chitown, moved back to Nebraska to get some of "the Good Life," (i.e., piece o' land and some peace & quite)--on Monday night wasn't sad enough, now there's another sign that the Chicago I know and love just won't be quite the same. Ray Pride's excellently titled cover story, "Subdivision Street: America--The Passing of an Era at Leo's Lunchroom," in this week's New City announced that Leo's Lunchroom (1809 W Division Street) will be closing soon.

I just scanned the article quickly between a couple of el-stops, so I don't know the date or the specifics, just that the current owner has decided that, after 10 or so years, it was time to sell the business. First the Busy Bee, then Myopic Books, then Jean's Place, then Tuman's Alcohol Abuse Center, and now Leo's. All my favorite haunts in the Wicker Park/Ukranian Village/East Village area from the No Time era have shut down, changed owners, or moved. Even though I've been leaving in Uptown for a few years now, I still miss these places, which draw me back to the old 'hood even though most of mis amigos, like me, have mooved to cheaper and less gentrified places. Glad that Ira got to dine at Leo's once at least. Of course, she appreciated Leo's healthful food served in hearty portions with no pretense or bullshit and the authentic Americana ambiance. I hope the Double Door is able to renew its lease; haven't heard any new news about that, and that the Rainbo will remain open. It would be a damn shame if the area became totally saturated with "stininkin' juppies."

A Lengthy Response to an Offhand Remark Made by a Student in an E-mail

Dear X,

It's been good having you in class, and I'm looking forward to the paper on A Clockwork Orange. That said, I do wish you would've spoken up more. As an Honors Student, you should make a concerted effort to productively contribute in class discussions. And if you find the material difficult, push yourself to figure out why. Ask questions, no matter how naive they might appear to be. Chances are, you're not alone, and as a teacher, it's not easy knowing whether or not people are making sense of material or not.

I want to respond to your remark about not enjoying reading postmodern novels. While I can understand -- and to be honest, don’t care one way or another -- why you might not enjoy reading postmodern novels, I would ask you to consider the following question: what relevance does the alleged difficulty of the language in a particular text (fictional or non-fictional) have to do with one's ability to learn about a topic?

The language used in a text might impact the way you approach it. You might, for example, have to muster the self-discipline to study it regularly, or to consult a dictionary, but your like or dislike of a subject, for whatever reasons, shouldn't impact your capacity to understand or comprehend it.

What concerns me is that, based on your remarks, you appear to confuse your affective response to a subject (and a text) with your ability to understand the concepts and ideas discussed in that subject or text. I want to argue that, ultimately, these things—one's affective response versus their ability to reason and interpret -- are not directly related.

Now, of course, if you happen to 'like' (we won't unpack that term right now) something (say, Cubs baseball or postmodern novels or investing in the stock market) you may be more prone to familiarize yourself with texts about it more regularly, which should help you to increase your knowledge about it, but your liking or disliking it has no bearing on your ability to analyze, interpret, and understand it.

Moreover, I reject entirely your implicit claim that the 'difficulty' of the language used in discourses about a subject necessarily makes that subject inaccessible to the 'common man'. Who is this common man, and in what subjects does he or she naturally or automatically have an adequate grasp of the language? Politics? Sports? Literature? Economics? History? Molecular biology? Chemistry? Art history? Jazz? Hopefully you see where I'm coming from.

I'm trying to make a couple key points here. First, by the time you reach university-level study, every subject should be difficult (i.e., require a great deal of time and effort to understand) to the hypothetical 'common man' on the street (whom I generally regard as a 'straw man' figure; e.g., most everybody has a certain amount of knowledge that makes them uncommon or exceptional in some sense). Indeed, a subject will be difficult and challenging not just to those who are not versed in it, but especially to those who chose to specialize in it as well. That’s because life, the universe, and everthing is, in general, pretty damn complex, at least from our perspective as mere mortal homo sapiens. If the subject matter is not somewhat unfamiliar, difficult or challenging, it probably means the topic has been dumbed down or oversimplified to a level inappropriate for an institute of higher learning.

Second, the necessity of mastering a specialized vocabulary or a group of terms and concepts is not limited to academic study. Specialization is a fact of life in the modern & postmodern world. Every profession has its own way of speaking and its own ideas and concepts that, to the uninitiated will appear obtuse and difficult. This fact is not an insurmountable obstacle, though it is a fundamental challenge that the student of a subject needs to be addressed.

This phenomenon of (ultra) specialization manifesting itself in language holds for more than professions too. Think about music , or sports, or computers or a host of subjects that people get 'obsessed' with. I can talk in depth about rock music with my peers, at least about punk, indie, and alternative music from a certain period, but I’m lost when I hear aficionados of certain subgenres (electronica, hip-hop, death metal, etc.) discuss their bands and their scenes. And my ability to recite and interpret song lyrics from Paul Westerberg's oeuvre (both solo and with The Replacements, relating them to his biography & the sociopolitical & historical phenomena that he sang about) in no way necessarily enhances my ability to play guitar or produce a professional sounding record or to even understand what guitar players mean when they analyze chord progressions or what sound engineers mean when they debate the merit of Pro Tools versus another type of digital-audio software.

Let me give you another example. Because I visit certain websites regularly, have read certain books, and subscribe and read MacWorld each month, I can talk shop with my friends who are fellow Mac users (at least at a certain level, which is general from my perspective, but seems scholarly to my Mom, a stubborn PC user whom I’m tried unsuccessfully to convert to Apple for years) but if my friend who does graphic design gets too into a discussion of, say, how to produce an effect in Photoshop, I’ll need to reach for the reference manuals and interrupt him with questions. Likewise, my European friends who didn’t grow up with American football, often can’t make heads or tails of the discussions I have with my American friends about the NFL playoffs and the NCAA’s Bowl Championship Series. They have to ask about or look in a reference source about terma and rules that will, to them, seem esoteric until they become more involved in a subject. They've got to learn how the game is played. (I don't want to push the discipline as game analogy too far, because the metaphor will break down at a point).

In short, X, you’re an Honors Student. You’ve taken English Comp. If the terminology used in a text confuses you, you should know enough and have the discipline to consult the appropriate reference sources in the library. And if you don’t know offhand which sources to check, you should know enough or have the initiative to ask me, or a professor, or, hell, even a librarian.

Anyway, I don’t mean to sermonize, but since I was supposed to direct your honors paper, & you didn’t come to my office hours, I figured a few “words of advice for young people,” as William S. Burroughs would put it, were in order. Basically, I want to make a point about one of the things you should be doing while you’re attending a university as an undergrad: exposing yourself to different subjects and figuring out how to make sense of & orient yourself within a field/subject/discipline. You needn’t enjoy all of them; indeed, the point is to figure out which ones most interest you so that you can pursue them further down the line, as a professional &/or as simply a curious person. I hope you’re in the process of developing an intellect and that, regardless of your taste in fiction (which, I’ve found can fluctuate radically depending on external factors entirely unrelated to a text’s content) my class has shaped you in a positive way by teaching you how to think more rigorously. As ol' Friedrich Nietzsche put it, “That which does not kill me only makes me stronger.”

It’s almost 3:30 a.m. 'Nuff said.

Take care, and drop by my office occasionally. I like to hear how my former students are doing, and I can let you know my reaction to the Swedish metal you recommended.

All best,

Eric R.
From: [deleted]
Date: Sun, 25 Apr 2004 19:18:12 -0500
Subject: RE: [engl105s04] Engl 105: Participation Grade questionnaire

Responses are directly underneath the questions. Enjoy!

>===== Original Message From =====
>Dear Class,
>Below are a few questions that you will need to answer. Please e-mail me your
responses by Friday, April 30 in a reply to this message.
>In your responses, please write complete sentences and be as informative as
possible. This is your chance to 'lobby' on behalf of yourself for the
participation grade you believe that you deserve.
>Before answering, please reread the course attendance and participation
policy on your syllabus and then answer the following questions.
>1. How many days have you been absent &/or tardy this semester? Be honest,
and if you truly cannot remember, offer your best estimate. If you wish to add
any additional explanations, feel free to do so.

I have been absent a few times lately due to medical reasons. Tardy often due
to class running long beforehand. Outside of that, its the discretion of the

>2. Do you participate actively in &/or out of class? If so, please
characterize your participation (class discussion comments, questions,
Blackboard posts and responses).

I do, but mostly outside of class, not inside. Noone really participates in
class, and the class feels more like a lecture than a discussion, which suits
the class with the difficult readings we've undertaken. My honors assignment
in the class also shows active participation in English Fiction.

>3. Have you come to talk with me during my office hours or on another
occasion (after class, during the breaks, etc.)?

I have spoken with you a few times after class and via email.

>4. Have you gone to the Writing Center outside of class? If so, how many
times and with whom did you have a conference? Did you find the visit helpful?
Why or why not?

I did use the Writing Center for the Lolita paper, and the counselor's name
escapes me. I did not find it helpful, because I am an active editor of
others papers within the dorms. I feel that I can do this myself, and plan to
take Engl 222 next year, Spring, to increase my skills as an editor for a
career in the field.

>5. How do you feel about your progress in the course thus far? Are you happy
with your efforts and the work you've produced? Where do you feel you made the
most improvement?

My coursework has been fundamentally sound, as shown in my stellar midterm
short answer section. My reasoning in postmodern literature, however, has
been lacking a bit, as I have struggled with the fine points. I would like to
add that I personally do not enjoy reading post-modern novels for the reasons
that they exclude the common man with difficult languange. Some discussions
in class linking this material to modern day examples have aided me some.

>6. What participation grade do you think you deserve?

Between a B-B+, -A if the Honors Activity paper counts towards my
participation grade and not my total grade.

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Course Description for "Significant Connections: Making Sense in Postmodern American Literature"

Not just planning for the Summer semester, but for the Fall as well. Thankfully, this Fall I'll have a Tuesday/Thursday teaching schedule, which I'll need as I prepare for my exams and the presentation of my dissertation prospectus to the department.

Significant Connections: Making Sense in Postmodern American Literature
Engl 109 (#11163): American Literature and Culture
Eric Rasmussen
2:00-3:15 pm TR /115 Stevenson Hall (SH)
University of Illinois at Chicago, Fall 2004

This reading-intensive course provides an introduction to recent American fiction, particularly as it relates to various poststructuralist and postmodern theories about language, communication, and meaning. Our class investigations will emphasize the concept of connectedness, that is, the ways in which a range of texts imagine various subjects (human and Other-wise) to be linked to one another and how texts are understood to be technologies through which significant (though not necessarily meaningful) connections are established.

Reading Catherine Belsey's Poststructuralism: A Very Short Introduction and Steven Shaviro's Connected, or What it Means to Live in a Network Society will introduce students to terms (e.g., difference, significance, subject, ideology) and concepts (e.g., differential vs. referential accounts of signification) that will enable them to make sense of key theoretical positions about our so-called postmodern culture. Class discussions will focus on how these theoretical claims (about topics such as new models of human subjectivity and the extent to which reality is thoroughly textualized) play themselves out in postmodern American novels. That is, the situations narrated in the fictional texts will provide examples with which to assess both the utility and the validity of various theoretical positions.

We will definitely be reading Don DeLillo's Underworld, and students are advised to read this fairly lengthy novel along with Belsey's short primer over the summer. Other literary authors whose work we might read include: Kathy Acker, Laurie Anderson, Octavia Butler, Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, E.L. Doctorow, Shelley Jackson, Toni Morrison, Chuck Palahniuk, Thomas Pynchon, Richard Powers, William Vollmann, and David Foster Wallace.

Course requirements include two exams, two 3-5 page papers, in-class presentations, and mandatory attendance.

Course Description for "But Is It Art?: Art and Artists in Postmodern American Literature"

Tomorrow's the last day of classes for the Spring 2004 semester, but I've already got the Summer 2004 semester on my mind. I'm hoping I can succeed at getting my students, most of whom will likely have no idea what the topic of my Engl 109 course will be, to get out and visit the Art Institute and develop an interest in modern and postmodern art.

But Is It Art?: Art and Artists in Postmodern American Literature
Eric Rasmussen
English 109: American Literature and American Culture
Summer 2004, University of Illinois at Chicago

Course Description
What is art? Who creates art and why? How and what does art communicate and how are we to understand it? These are some of the general questions we will address via a select body of recent American literature that is specifically engaged with art (artworks, artists, and the artworld). Reading Cynthia Freeland’s But Is It Art?, a basic introduction to aesthetic theory, along with a sampling of novels, short fiction, poetry, criticism and film will enable us to assess a range of positions about the meaning and significance of art in postmodern America. We will be particularly interested in how the models of human subjectivity implied in these works relate to manner in which artworks or texts are imagined to signify.

The literary authors we read and discuss, some of whom are also non-literary artists in their own right, will likely include: Laurie Anderson, Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, Don DeLillo, Shelley Jackson, Rick Moody, Howard Norman, Robert Pinsky, Richard Powers, Kurt Vonnegut, and Paul West.

As a reading-intensive course that is meeting on a compressed summer schedule, the pace will be brisk, and students will need to read a fair amount most every day to keep up with the class. Course requirements include two exams, two or three short papers, in-class presentations, and several trips to the Art Institute of Chicago. Students should begin to become familiar with the Art Institute’s 20th-century collection, particularly its abstract expressionist paintings and the surrealist assemblages of Joseph Cornell. Since this will require several trips to the Art Institute, you may wish to purchase a student membership to the museum.

Sunday, April 25, 2004

Reading Notes: Zizek on The Perverse Core of Christianity

“My claim here is not merely that I am a materialist through and through, and that the subversive kernel of Christianity is accessible also to a materialist approach; my thesis is much stronger: this kernel is accessible only to a materialist approach—and vice versa: to become a true dialectical materialist, one should go through the Christian experience” (6).

Thus Spoke Slavoj Zizek... To make sense of Zizek's claim, it's necessary first to clarify his terminology.

By a "true dialectical materialist," he basically means Marxist, though Zizek avoids the phrase in The Puppet and the Dwarf, because as a political ideology, communism is presumed to have died with the fall of the Soviet Union. However, Zizek is not convinced and retains hope that a true communist state is a viable goal.

[Note: I would like to think that "dialectical materialism" could also refer to democratic socialism, but that needn't concern us here. I will only note that I don't believe the abolition of private property is any solution. There is some validity to the notion that private entrepreneurship provides a catalyst for innovation. That said, I'm entirely unconvinced that the so-called free market can be trusted to solve the world's pressing problems (overpopulation, environmental devastation, global warming, AIDS, etc.) and am convinced that strong, nation states (with democratically elected representatives, not plutocrats) are needed to serve as a counterbalance to multinational corporations.]

It is more difficult to provide a concise gloss on the "subversive kernel of Christianity," but it is a notion that emerges from Zizek's interpretation of Christ's crucifixion. For Zizek, the significance of Christ's death is that in this sacrificial act, God reveals his own impotence. "When Christ dies, what dies with him is the secret hope discernable in 'Father, why hast thou forsaken me?': the hope that there is a father who has abandoned me. The 'Holy Spirit' is the community deprived of its support in the big Other" (171). Another way of putting this is to say that Christ's death made possible a paradigmatic shift in the Symbolic Order, one that transformed Christianity from an esoteric Jewish sect into a religion of universality and which made possible a new type of human subject. Zizek conceives of the early Christians as a sort of proto-revolutionary community organized by Paul, whom Zizek regards to be, "like Lenin" a "great institutionalizer."

I spoke with Ned Lukacher about Zizek's take on Paul, which is adopted from Alain Badiou, and he suggested that it was a myth and misrepresented and idealized Paul's teachings. I'm not enough of a theologian to judge, but my hunch is that Lukacher is right. This doesn't necessarily discredit Zizek's interpretation, since one of Zizek's central notions is the necessity of fantasy, which functions as a sort of anamorphic frame that provides the constraints which enable us to establish a sense of reality. In this way, for Zizek, fantasy and the anamorphic gaze provides the basis for human subjectivity.

Ultimately, I think, it is a renewed faith in universalist notions that Zizek wants to extract from the "perverse core" of Christianity. Zizek recognizes, correctly, that over the past few decades Western culture has lost its faith in the notion of progress (which, as a Hegelian, Zizek still retains). More specifically, we have lost our conviction that human beings can create an egalitarian global society, one in which class differences have disappeared. What Zizek wants to take from Christianity is not so much the specific content of its teachings, as its commitment to, or faith in the possibility of radically transforming the existing order of things, e.g., "Christian love is a violent passion to introduce a Difference, a gap in the order of being, to privilege and elevate some object at the expense of others" (33).

I understand where Zizek's coming from, though I must admit that this rhetoric of violent love sounds a bit too close to the evangelical right. That said, Zizek might argue that the Left Behind crowd misses the point of Christianity. These evangelicals emphasize the visions of the apocalypse because they cannot imagine life on Earth being ordered in a more fair and just way. Instead, they fantasize about the end of the world as we know it, convinced that their 'personal relationships' with Jesus will provide them access to the Kingdom of God while the majority of suckers on the planet (including Christians of other denominations) are left behind.

Anyway, the last term that needs to be unpacked is the "Christian experience." At this point, I'm still not certain what Zizek means by this. Does he say 'experience' to emphasize he's not advocating belief in actual Christian doctrine? If so, why refer to Christian at all? Couldn't he just say the experience of recognizing that one's actions needn't be constrained by the symbolic order and that there's no Almighty whose going to point the way?

I'll have to think about this some more before I can finish writing up my review for ebr...

Saturday, April 24, 2004

Disagreement Over Difference: Why Ideology Matters More Than Identity

I've spent much of the last 24 hours reading The Shape of the Signifier, the forthcoming book by Walter Benn Michaels, who is the Head of UIC's English Department, and, it so happens, one of my advisors. The book isn't in stores yet, though you can order copies direct from its publisher, Princeton University Press. I've borrowed a copy from Walter himself, which I promised to return after the weekend, and am struggling to refrain from marking it up.

Although I've heard Walter rehearse most of the arguments advanced in The Shape of the Signifier on multiple occasions--in seminars, meetings, and especially our department's weekly colloquia, where Walter's inquisitive presence make most any talk worth attending, regardless of the topic--and have read the bulk of the journal articles that were revised and reshaped into this book, the book itself is an invigorating read. It's a true intellectual tour de force.

As anyone familiar with Michaels's criticism knows, Walter would scoff at my remarks thus far, because they are merely an experiential report on how I was affected by the text. Such a report, as Walter will tell you, may be of interest to people with whom you are particularly intimate (close friends & immediate family members) but, unless you have acquired celebrity status, will be of negligible interest to the vast majority of people (including anonymous blog readers). Causal accounts of one's personal tastes and responses, that is, descriptions of how one happens to be affected by various experiences, are not (and generally should not be) of interest to people outside of one's immediate social network. Rule one for critics is "Thou shall most definitely not try to pass off one's affective responses as criticism."

So, to explain why I've found Walter's book so difficult to put down, here's a brief account of the argument made in the The Shape of the Signifier. Basically, the book is a polemic against the logic of identitarian difference as it has played out in various discourses--literary, philosophical, political--over the past third of a century or so. Michaels's core claim is that this logic of identitarian difference (i.e., the primacy of one's subject position--body, language, history) has supplanted the logic of ideological difference (i.e., the primacy of one's reasons for believing certain things) and that this tendency, which postmodernism, is a serious mistake.

A key lesson that Michaels would have us learn is that when responding to texts (novels, political manifestoes, philosophical treatises) we must not confuse the author's intended meaning with either the author's or the audience's experiences or subject position(s). Another way of putting this is to say that we should first and foremost concern ourselves with the question of what people believe (which involves assessing the validity of the reasons they give for their beliefs) rather than who they are (or understand themselves to be). A common mistake that people often make is to confuse a text's significance, that is, the generally unpredicatable impact that it makes in the world as it is disseminated, with it's meaning, which can and must originate solely in the creator of the text.

Michaels's argument about intentionality (which he and Steven Knapp in the essay "Against Theory") is not to suggest that the author is ever fully in control of the text's meaning, or even that she is aware of its meaning (as psychoanalysis teaches us, we can have unconscious intentions); rather, it is to suggest that for a set of words to count as a meaningful utterance or speech act, we must attribute them to an orginary source who intentionally produced them. Moreover, the interpretation of a text, correctly understood, entails an attempt to discern the author's intentions, i.e. what she believed herself to be saying when producing a text. This isn't to say that interpretation isn't, at times, an extremely complicated task (though it needn't be) or to suggest that a text's true meaning can ever be fully understood. It's simply the claim that if you are the business of textual interpretation, ultimately you are in the business of understanding what someone or some people intended when the made an utterance. While this might sound like common sense, the argument for intentionality is widely regarded as erroneous by many literary critics. One of Walter's key insights is that the denial of intentional meaning and the elision of "conflict over which interpretation of an utterance is incorrect" results from a theoretical conception of language that reduces "the sign to the mark, the utterance to its shape" and thereby prodcues an "allegiance to the primacy of the subject position" (63).

The remarks I've just quoted come from a passage discussing Judith Bulter's commitment to "resignification," but, as the reference to the sign reduced to a mark suggests, the theoretical model of language being critiqued here is deconstructionist. Walter's book isn't so much concerned with rejecting deconstruction (indeed, you might describe Walter's accounts of how the logic of various texts is frequently at odds with their explicit ideological message as deconstructionist) as it is with demonstrating how versions of its radical materialism--e.g., language as meaningless marks (Paul de Man) or trace inscriptions (Derrida)--inform and in some cases directly contribute to two common errors. One is the widespread tendency to treat all disputes as forms of identitarian difference. The second is the tendency to confuse accounts a text's significance, i.e., the plurality of responses different people have to a text, with a text's meaning, which, again, are a function of the author's beliefs and intentions.

What's particularly illuminating about Walter's work is his ability to trace the impulse to replace ideological disagreement with identitarian differences in a range of texts, written by authors whose affiliations and commitments are all over the political spectrum. So, while Kathy Acker and Samuel Huntington obviously hold opposing views about topics such as U.S. foreign policy, Michaels reads both Acker's 'radical' novel Empire of the Senseless and Huntington's 'neoconservative' political treatise The Clash of Civilizations as being committed to a posthistoricist world view in which beliefs are irrelevant and what ultimately matters most are identities.

It's a bravura argument, and a convincing one that, if taken seriously, should shake things up, inside the academy and out. Many people will find Michaels's argument disagreeable, but if they do so because they think it's claims are false (rather than because, say, it's written by a white, male, Jewish professor) they will be, in a sense, acting out the books's argument. Here's hoping this book finds a wide audience.

Friday, April 23, 2004

Reading Notes: Rei Terada's Feeling In Theory

Prefatory remarks: I was expecting a lot from Rei Terada's Feeling In Theory and after spending lots of time with the book I feel disappointed. Terada could explain my feeling with a de Manian account of how emotion functions. According to de Man’s model, emotions arise as a solution to the inevitable interpretive impasses that we experience as empirical creatures. Upon encountering an ambiguous phenomenon (and Terada recognizes that de Man’s model of textuality ultimately doesn’t distinguish between natural objects in the world, such as an other who appears as a giant, and art works that have been created) my uncertainty will lead me to feel anxiety or fear. This fear will enable me to act and respond to whatever phenomenon I’m perceiving by metaphorically substituting a hypothetical figure that I will take to be a literal fact. I’ll return to this ur-scenario in a bit. Allow me to indulge, briefly, in my emotional response.

Reading Feeling in Theory was a let down, but I’m not sure whether it to hold the book or myself more responsible. That is, I’m not sure I’ve fully grasped either Terada’s project--constructing a poststructuralist theory of emotion--or her fundamental claim--that emotion not only doesn't require a unified subject to do the feeling, but that emotion depends upon the very nonexistence of the subject. At times it seems that Terada’s book boils down to an extended meditation on the de Manian claim that our insights into the meaning of the ultimately undecidable text are a function of our blindness to the figural status of tropes that we literalize.

In other words, her basic critical insight is that whenever de Man works through the play of figures and tropes in his readings, the passages he chooses to analyze are directly concerned with emotional responses. Terada argues, then, that de Man is advancing a theory of emotion as well as a theory of rhetoric and that the two are intimately related, for emotions turn out to be effects produced by the play of rhetorical structures. I was expecting more of a payoff from Terada’s book.

My disappointment, according to Terada’s theory, could be due to my inability to make adequate sense of her book. As a strategy of coping with my experience of the book’s undecidability, which generates an intolerable anxiety, I dub her book a "disappointment." Calling the book a "disappointment," according to this line of reasoning, should not trick anyone into believing that it is literally a disappointment. This is merely a metaphorical substitution that I’ve made as a sort of coping strategy which enables me to being acting (in this case, to get around to writing a response, to reread the second half of Derrida’s Of Grammatology, etc. to finally getting around to actually reading Rousseau, etc.). My act of denomination makes possible a series of metaphorical substitutions that will generate subsequent emotions. For example, once I convince myself that the book is a “disappointment” (perhaps an act of bad faith, but possibly a useful one) I may get angry or I might be inspired, etc.

Ultimately, I’m not sure Terada breaks much new ground regarding de Man. Like Frances Ferguson, she identifies a strong empiricist streak in deconstruction, thoughfor Terada this is precisely why it offers a useful account of emotion. Here, then, are some key quotes from Terada that are particularly relevant to her discussion of "deconstructive passion" and the "nonsubjectivism of emotion."

"If we have emotions because we can’t know what to believe (what texts and people are up to), as de Man suggests, then we have emotions even though we can’t know which emotions we ought to have. if we truly knew which emotions we should have, we would no longer feel like having any" (89).

This quote illustrates that Terada gets the fundamental de Manian move, which is to treat written compositions, artworks, bodies, iconographic representations, and objects in the world as texts, which is to say as objects that seem to signify. However, what de Man’s analyses strive to demonstrate is the complex manner in which these text generate the illusion of meaningfulness. For de Man all off the aforementioned objects are ultimately opaque and meaningless. Terada’s reading begins with the notion that what we experience as emotion begins with instinctive (I think this is the right word) response to the fundamental meaninglessness of objects in the world. (In this regard, Terada picks up on the existential streak that was more prominent in early de Man, which has been described in detail by Frank Lentricchia).

"I am arguing that a discourse and ideology of emotion exist; that poststructuralist theory shows their relation; and that the effect of this exploration is to suggest that we would have no emotions if we were subjects" (4).

When Terada speaks of poststructuralist theory, she primarily means deconstruction; she argues, for example, that "Derrida and de Man unfold fully the nonsubjectivism of emotion" (7). Terada proposes that, contrary to his reputation for being a dispassionate theorist, de Man was not only particularly interested in emotion, but that his writings offer a "direct" theory of emotion. She notes that de Man's choice of authors in Allegories of Reading (Rilke, Proust, Nietzsche, and Rousseau) was due in part to the emotionality of their prose. In the preface to Allegories de Man informs us that "The choice of Proust and Rilke as examples is partly due to chance, but since the ostensible pathos of their tone and depth of their statement make them particularly resistant to a reading that is no longer thematic, one could argue that if their work yields to a rhetorical scheme, the same would necessarily be true for writers whose rhetorical strategies are less hidden behind the seductive powers of identification" (AR ix). The phrase that Terada picks up on and runs with is “ostensible pathos." As she explains, de Man's larger deconstructive project is to undermine the priority that has been given to "thematic," by which de Man means, "referential" readings and to advance in their place "rhetorical" readings that trace the figural movement of tropes through a text. In Allegories of Reading , de Man aims to deconstruct the "ostensible pathos" in several texts associated, in complex ways that needn't concern us here, with Romanticism. In other words, de Man wants to reject so-called referential readings of these texts in which their meaning "would be located in their author's intentionality and psychology" (48). That is, the typical way of treating the pathos in the texts written by the aforementioned authors is to identify it with real emotions that were experienced by them. De Man regards such a view as being dependent upon a naive understanding of emotions--how they function, why they occur, and how the can be transmitted. De Man wants to expose emotion and affect as a rhetorical effect and to do so he "calls our attention to the deployment of pathos as a persuasive tactic" (49).

(Note: When de Man speaks of rhetoric he does not do so in the usual sense of a carefully crafted mode of discourse aimed at persuading its audience of a particular position. This view of rhetoric emphasizes authorial control and mastery over language; whereas rhetoric in the de Manian sense stresses the extent to which the figurative nature of language eludes control of its users. For de Man, language users are always trumped by the tropes that they employ).

As a critic, de Man is typically interested in foregrounding the extent to which all of our experiences of reality are thoroughly mediated. As Stanley Fish has put it, "deconstructive or postructuralist thought is in its operation a rhetorical machine: it systematically asserts and demonstrates the mediated, constructed, partial, socially constituted nature of all realities, whether they be phenomenal, linguistic, or psychological" (Critical Terms 215). Terada's move, then, is to read Allegories of Reading as a text about the illusory nature of our emotions, which are typically regarded as being immediate expressions of an internal state. Terada argues that such a model of "expression is the dominant trope of thought about emotion" and that as a trope it functions "to extrapolate a human subject circularly from the phenomenon of emotion" (11). Following upon the work of de Man, whose mid to late texts provide "a coherent model of emotion as tropic structure" that conceptualize "emotions as practical interpretive acts which are as yet not classically subjective" (50) Terada aims to expose the expressive hypothesis as part of an ideology of emotion that is to be rejected for perpetuating an outdated model of subjectivity based upon a unified and stable self. The claim that emotions are thoroughly mediated doesn’t strike me as being a particularly novel position, though, to her credit, Terada’s account of how emotions function in de Man’s readings is more interesting. The interest, for me anyway, lies in the move to treat emotions as linguistic or rhetorical phenomena.

Here, then, are some passages that we might turn to in order to extract more from Terada’s account of de Man's theory of emotion:

ex #1) Wordsworth
Terada focuses attention on how de Man’s reading of the "Blessed Babe" passage from Wordsworth’s Prelude—in which the "Babe who sleeps/ Upon his Mother’s breast; who, when his soul/ Claims manifest kindred with an earthly soul, Doth gather passion from his Mother’s eye!"—stages an ur-scene of perception. In this scenario, an emotion, here passion, is figured as a nurturing substance that can be exchanged from one person to another and which makes possible a communion between them. This communion between mother and infant is based upon the sense of recognition that occurs during the exchange, and what de Man would have us recognize is the illusory nature of of the sense making that the emotion facilitates.

Terada summarizes de Man’s reading, which puts pressure on the ambiguous nature of emotion, as such: "...emotion coincides with the shaping of sense, suggesting that emotion is itself a figure—here it serves as a prosopopoeia and as metaphor—that consolidates an outside, a face, an inside, and a precarious means for getting back and forth between them" (5). The conclusion de Man would have us take away from his reading is that "one’s own emotion does not really provide access to the feelings of others or reflect the structure of reality... but the affective force of emotion understandably persuades us to think so" (55). In other words, the force of an emotionally moving experience creates a powerful and convincing illusion, namely, that we have direct access to the inner life of others and by extension to reality itself. However, the very experience of emotion, of being affected and feeling intensely, is always and already thoroughly mediated. The sense of being overcome by emotion is a form of making sense, and sense making, for de Man, is a linguistic phenomenon that involves being seduced by the movement of rhetorical figures and tropes. This Wordsworthian moment is particularly important for de Man as it illustrates the trope of prosopopoeia and the role that the face plays in the interpretive process.

This raises a question posed to me by my lovely wife, Irina Rasmussen Goloubeva, in an e-mail: "What about babies who have not yet entered the mirror stage?" As I understand it, Terada and de Man are relatively uninterested in psychoanalytic accounts of the prelinguistic subject, though they do share a belief with thinkers like Lacan and Kristeva that the entry into the symbollic order is a foundational moment in human development. If I read Terada correctly, she would argue that until they acquire language infants do not, in fact, experience emotions, though they obviously are affected by their sensory impressions of the world.

ex #2) Rousseau
The key moment in deconstruction’s engagement with emotion is the moment from Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Human Languagesin which a primitive man first encounters a man from another tribe and reacts with fear. In Rousseau’s parable of denomination, the primitive man’s fear leads him to perceive them as bigger, stronger and as a potential threat to his welling being. As a consequence of his fear and distrust, he dubs them giants. Only after repeated encounters with the other man and members of his tribe will he discover that these men are not actually bigger or stronger. At that point the man will invent a word, such as man, that will apply both to himself and the other. The point of Rousseau’s parable is the figurative nature of the first word: "This is how the figurative word is born before the literal word, when our gaze is held in passionate fascination; and how it is that the first idea it conveys to us is not that of the truth" (42).

ex #3) Kant and Schiller

In "Kant and Schiller," de Man criticizes Schiller for misappropriating the Kantian sublime for "practical psychology," a move that dephilosophizes the sublime by neglecting Kant’s concern with the limitations of the faculties of reason and the imagination and instead focusing on the problem of coping with a terrifying experience. De Man is full of contempt for Schiller’s use of the sublime. He acknowledges the usefulness of the "topological figuration." Schiller posits in which a fictive or hypothetical danger substitutes for a literal danger. Such a move, we have seen, occurs in Kant as well, and at times the ability to come to terms with a real, but uncertain, danger by providing a fictional figure can provide a strategy for self-preservation. However, de Man opposes the manner in which Schiller deploys the trope of the sublime so that self-preservation becomes a purely idealized state in which the powers of the mind are entirely divorced from the material body, which remains in physical danger (65).

Terada understands De Man’s late essays on Kant to be addressing the aforementioned fear “by tracking the consequences of Kantian apatheia” (82). Kant takes care to distinguish between affects and passions. The distinction lies in the fact that affects are "impetuous and unpremeditated, passions persistent and deliberate" (Kant 132n39). Surprisingly, perhaps, in Kant’s system, affects are valued more highly, because the deliberate pursuit of passion threatens to become an a manic obsession for repetition, that is a from of addiction. Kant’s discussion of affects advances a hierarchy of value that privileges "emotions the less arbitrary and coercive they are" (83). Kant’s criteria for judging emotions lead him to praise apatheia "when found in a mood that adheres emphatically and insistently to its principles, cannot only be sublime but most admirably so" (quoted in Terada 83).

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Final Exam for Engl 105: English and American Fiction

Spent much of the evening writing a final exam for my Engl 105 (English and American Fiction) class, "Narrative, Textuality, Subjectivity: The Transatlantic Postmodern Novel from 1950 to 2001." It's a take-home exam, so I can post the questions here with a clean conscience.

Final Exam: Angela Carter's Love and Don DeLillo's The Body Artist

Part I. Short Answer Questions (50 pts. each)
Type (single spaced, 11 or 12 pt, Times or Times New Roman font) short answers to the following questions. Be as specific as possible and make a point of interpreting specific phrases and sentences from within the texts.

1. a. In your own terms, define the term metonymy, explaining how this figure of speech functions.
b. Following the MLA citation format, quote a sentence or short passage from either Love or The Body Artist that contains an example of metonymy.
c. Briefly contextualize the metonymy you've quoted, explaining how the metonymic relationship therein functions within the section of the novel from which it has been extracted.

2. Reread the short section on "Irony and Antiphrasis" in Reading Novels where Hughes quotes a short passage from E.M. Forester's A Passage to India and then explains the irony in Forester's narration (210). Then, using Hughes's reading as a model, provide a similar close reading of a passage from Love or The Body Artist where the narrator makes use of antiphrasis or irony.

3. Reread the section from Reading Novels titled "Types of Description: Production" (69-70). Using Hughes's discussion of a passage from Beckett's Watt as a model, identify a metafictional moment from The Body Artist. Type up the passage, and then proceed to explain how the prose works here to foreground its own production &/or consumption. In other words, pick a passage that, however subtly, encourages readers to reflect upon the process of writing and/or interpretation.

4. Imagine that you have been hired by Simon & Schuster as an online copywriter. Write a short synopsis (250-400 words) of The Body Artist that will be published in the academic section of the website. Your synopsis will be written for an audience of professors and teachers who, you can assume, are familiar with literary-critical terms. Your assignment is to describe the book in a way that emphasizes its literariness.

Part II. Take Home Essay (200 pts.)
Type a short (1.5-2 pages, single spaced, 11 or 12 pt, Times or Times New Roman font) essay responding to the following question.

5. Write an essay subtitled "[Insert Your Title:] Signification and Subjectivity in The Body Artist" (you will have to provide a title). Your essay, in other words, should discuss the process of meaning making and its relation to the phenomenon of subjectivity in DeLillo's novel. I will leave it to you to work out the details, though here are some questions to address that will enable you to better formulate your arguments about the meaning and significance of The Body Artist.

First, as we discussed in class, in postmodern discourse, "the concept of the subject is...frequently invoked to undermine the notion that an innate sense of 'self' can provide a stable personal identity or be the focus of experience...It is both a grammatical term (the subject of a sentence) and a political-legal category (a British subject), and at once active (subject of) and passive (subject or subjected to)" (Macey 369). How does DeLillo engage with the theme of subjectivity? In what ways are both Lauren Hartke and Mr. Tuttle emblematic postmodern subjects?

Second, explain the significance of the novel's title The Body Artist. As you do this, pay close attention to the numerous references to bodies, body parts, artists and types of art forms and artistic experiences. How do they relate to the novel's concern with meaning and subjectivity?

Finally, in your response, advance a coherent thesis and be as specific as possible. Make a point of interpreting individual phrases and sentences from within the text. Below, I have provided you with four bulleted quotes that might provide useful entry points into the novel. Interpret and contextualize at least two of them

- "He violates the limits of the human" (102).

- "She thought maybe he lived in a kind of time that had no narrative quality" (67).

- "She didn't know the meaning of this feed but took it as an act of floating poetry" (40).

- "Maybe this man experiences another kind of reality where he is here and there, before and after, and he moves from one to the other shatteringly, in a state of collapse, minus an identity, a language, a way to enjoy the savor of the honey-coated toast she watches him eat" (66-7).

Format: Type your questions and the essay. Use Times or Times New Roman, 11 or 12 pt. font. Margins 1" on all sides. Be sure to give your essay a title and subtitle that gives readers a sense of what your thesis is. Staple a copy of the grading matrix to the back page of your questions and the essay. If the grading matrix is missing you will automatically lose 5 pts. If your pages are not stapled you will lose 5 pts. Inscribe your name on all of the pages.

Due: At the beginning of class, Thursday, April 29. No later.

Tips: You are advised to schedule an appointment at the Writing Center during which you workshop a draft of your paper. Make sure you know the proper MLA format for creating a bibliography. Follow the advice given by UIC English Professor Gerald Graff in his short piece, "How to Write an Argument: What Students and Teachers Really Need to Know." If you workshop your paper at the Writing Center, write the date, time, and name of the person with whom you met at the Writing Center in the "Notes" section of the Grading Matrix.

Relax, I know you've learned a lot. Take plenty of breaks as you compose your responses. Make sure to give yourself time to reread and edit your responses.

References: The following books may be of assistance as your work on this exam.

Belsey, Catherine. Poststructuralism : A Very Short Introduction. Very Short Introductions 73. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Carter, Angela. Love : A Novel. Rev. ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1988.
DeLillo, Don. The Body Artist: A Novel. New York: Scribner, 2001.
Hughes, George. Reading Novels. 1st ed. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2002.
Lentricchia, Frank, and Thomas McLaughlin. Critical Terms for Literary Study. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
Macey, David. The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory. London ; New York: Penguin Books, 2001.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

In Defense of Feminist Theory

Fellow theory junkies are advised to read Lisa Yun Lee's essay Who's Afraid of Theory in the May 10, 2004 issue of In These Times, if only to see how not to go about making the argument that theory matters in the world outside academia. In this short piece, Lisa Yun Lee attempts to defend academic feminism against charges that it is "convoluted and theoretical, mired in jargon and intellectual elitism, a big bunch of mumbo jumbo" and ... "constipated, static and pretentious." Unfortunately, Lee doesn't sufficiently address a key issue, which is that theoretical feminism, as an intellectual discipline with close ties to philosophy, literary criticism, history, anthropology, etc., is necessarily difficult and demands that one spend a fair amount of time studying a host of concepts--identity and difference, gender, power, etc.-- that have a long and complicated history. Instead, she begins by conceding that attacks on the difficulty of various writing described as "ivory-tower feminism" are often justified. Hey, people, this is college-level discourse here. "No-body said is was eaaasy." Rather than outlining some of the intellectual debates surrounding the use of these philosophical concepts in feminist theoretical scholarship (a difficult task to do in a short essay, granted) she presents the following 'argument': "Feminist theorists have long challenged language through use of unconventional syntax, bad grammar and neologisms in order to convey something new and disquieting."

What it means to "challenge language" is unclear to me, but the suggestion that such a challenge can be mounted effectively through the deliberate use of incorrect grammar is ridiculous. (Such an argument might imply that Dubya's malapropisms and moron-speak could be regarded as somehow subversive in a politically progressive sense). You can't challenge language, only the uses to which language is put by the agents (typically human, but not always) who deploy it.

To flesh out her vague claim, which is probably best understood as a claim that a new vocabulary can pave the ground for new forms of political awareness, Lee proposes that we understand "the simple act of replacing the pronoun 'he' to 'she' in a sentence" to be a political act of consciousness raising that exposes "the hidden agendas of language." Please. Such a claim is hardly a theoretical insight, and how can language have an agenda anyway? This is an example of poststructuralist claims about the 'prison house of language' etc. being misunderstood. What Lee's statement does is displace the traditional autonomous liberal subject from a human being to language itself, which is an all-too-frequent way of understanding poststructuralist thoughts on how the symbolic order functions, but a mistake nonetheless.

I appreciate the "therapist/the-rapist" pun, but would hardly hold it up as a devastating critique of the psychoanalytic establishment. For the record, I'm pretty sure that Humbert Humbert, the loquacious pedophile who narrates Nabokov's Lolita used the term before Mary Daly, and we wouldn't want to hold him up as a pioneer of feminist thinking, would we?

But these are specific quibbles. My larger concern is Lee's account of what feminist thinkers (she specifically discuses Judith Butler, Gayatri Spivak, Sandra Harding, Catherine MacKinnon, and Dorthy Roberts) have contributed politically via their theoretical writings. "These women," Lee tells us, "provide a much-needed service by unleashing a radical imagination." I cringed when I read this.

I suppose what Lee meant by this statement was something to the effect that these theorists have contributed significant ideas about gender that impact the way we approach social issues and problems which impact women's lives. However, as I read it anyway, Lee's rhetoric trivializes these women's intellectual contributions by describing their ideas in a way that reduces them into another genre of self-help writing. In other words, her account of why theory matters turns it into a form of cheerleading. Theory, according to Lee, imaginatively inspires, but I'm left wondering how this differs from, say, getting pumped up by listening to a feminist anthem (crank the Helen Ready, grrrrls). In short, this account fails to acknowledge that theory, if it is truly that, works by presenting an argument that provides reasons which may or may not convince readers that a particular position is right or wrong. That might not sound so sexy, but let's not confuse thinking with copulation.

To her credit, Lee does provide brief accounts of some of the ideas that these thinkers have advanced, but her synopses are too short to do justice to the debates in which the ideas emerged. What concerns me, ultimately, is that someone unfamiliar with these thinkers might be turned off and decide not to read their books or articles based on statements like "The useful concept of performativity has gone beyond how we think about gender to help us understand oppressive forms of identity such as nationality." It's worth noting that Butler's (the theorist to whom Lee is referring) commitment to the deconstructionist notion of the 'iterability of the mark' prevents her from making such reductive judgments (nationalism = always bad). Indeed, one of the fundamental lessons we might take away from Butler's corpus is that concepts like nationalism or identity can signify radically different things in different contexts.

In short, while I admire Lee's motive for writing this essay, i.e., to turn politically minded feminists onto theory, I think the way she 'defends' theory is fundamentally misguided. Theory is not a discourse produced to unleash imaginations; it is written to advance convincing arguments about concepts that have long and complex histories. Before one can comment on the consequences theory may or may not have in the political arena, it is first necessary that these theoretical arguments be understood. This requires time and a great deal of effort. Indeed, it necessitates that the thinker move at a pace which, to an outside observer, particularly an activist accustomed to the rapid-fire pace of the contemporary political arena, probably appears to be unduly plodding. Personally, I think that despite the incoming e-mails, the ringing phones, and the urgent faxes that there's time enough in our all to brief lives for some slowing down. Indeed, certain activities, (e.g., thinking and theorizing, cooking and dining, and foreplay and fucking) to be done right require it.

But I digress...Here's hoping that Lee gets another opportunity to write about theory for a nonacademic audience and that this time she spends more time doing unpacking one theorist's arguments in some depth and making explicit the reasons she believes her position to be true or false. Such an exercise might or might not suggest how a particular idea relates to the world of political activism, but at least it wouldn't be an exercise that reduces theoretical thought into a propangandistic slogan to be consumed. Yes, that would be useful.

Sunday, April 18, 2004

Slavoj Zizek Psychoanalyzes U.S. Foreign Policy on Iraq

The Bush Administration's conflicting movtives for invading Iraq resulted in the current foreign policy debacle, argues Slavoj Zizek in the Jan/Feb 2004 issue of Foreign Policy. Zizek's article, Iraq's False Promises, makes the case that the U.S.'s three main reasons for invading Iraq -- to promote democracy, assert U.S. hegemony, and secure a stable energy supply -- are mutuallly exlusive and cannot simultaneously succeed. One needn't subscribe to Zizek's psychoanalytic arguments to recognize the truth of one of Zizek's key points; namely, that a truly democratic Iraq will most likely be an anti-American Muslim state that will want to capitalize on its oil resources.

I suspect that Bush & co. were intent upon establishing a puppet regime in Iraq all along, and simply cloaked their realpolitikal intentions in democratic rhetoric; or, more likely, Vice Prez. Cheney intended to establish a puppet regime in Iraq and sold the idea to Dubya, who may have actually believed his administration could succeed where his Daddy's administration failed. It's scary to think that Dubya might want to do more than simply emancipate Iraq in the name of democracy. That is, as an evangelical Christian true believer, Dubya might believe that it's his duty to 'cleanse' Iraq of Muslim fundamentalists to pave the way not for a secular Iraq, but for a (Judeo)-Christian nation. But it's unhealthy to speculate what, if anything, passes through the mind of 'President' Bush. Here's hoping he gets the boot before he instigates armageddon.

Virgin Blog

After years of interest in digital writing and electronic literature, I've decided that it's about time that I develop and maintain a blog of my own.