Sunday, January 30, 2005

Laurie Anderson: No Time for Nostalgia or Schlumping

The New York Times Sunday Magazine features a short interview with Laurie Anderson, who has just completed a stint at NASA as artist in residence, a $20,000/year position that will no longer exist. The interview is short, and the interviewer's questions aren't exactly provocative (I mean does she really think that Anderson worries about wrinkles?), but Laurie displays her comic sensibility with some straightforward one-liners.

My favorites...

Q: Have you ever been psychoanalyzed?
A: No. I started a couple of times, but then I had to leave for the airport.

Q: At 57, do you worry about aging and wrinkles?
A: Not really. I think some prunish people look pretty good. I am more worried about turning into a schlump than into a prune.

Q: Do you find this to be a schumpy era compared with the 80's, when you were part of a creatively inspired New York art scene?
A: I don't miss the 80's. I don't miss anything right now. I have zero time for nostalgia.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Hegel's “Unhappy Consciousness” and the Need for Self-Surrender

In the final paragraphs (¶228-30) of the chapter on “Freedom of Self Consciousness,” Hegel declares that the Unhappy Consciousness, if it is to obtain “relief from its misery” (¶230), must surrender its will to a minister or priest. Such a claim may sound ominously authoritarian to many contemporary readers, for whom the individual’s freedom of choice is, in theory, regarded as an inalienable right. Therefore, I want to discuss the logic of liberation via subservience as it relates to Hegel’s “Unhappy Consciousness,” which is above all a profoundly alienated consciousness. The specific question that I propose we take up is this: what are we to make of the mediator to whom the Unhappy Consciousness is called upon to relinquish its will? But first, let me unpack the figure of the Unhappy Consciousness through a few basic questions.

Q1: What is the Unhappy Consciousness? In Hegel’s words, “the Unhappy Consciousness is the consciousness of self as a dual-natured, merely contradictory being” (¶206). That is, the Unhappy Consciousness is Hegel’s figure for a debilitating state of mind that arises when the self posits an irreconcilable rift between the Unchangeable and the Changeable, the infinite and the finite, the divine and the mortal, and the universal and the individual, etc. and then identifies itself with the second, degraded term. The fundamental self-contradiction at the core of the Unhappy Consciousness is that by means of its powers of abstract thought the self senses the potential power of the universal that it harbors within, but it is unable to harness this power insofar as the universal is experienced as something alien or beyond. What the Unhappy Consciousness fails to grasp is that it is itself a particular instantiation of universal Spirit. Self-contradiction is the catalyst for change in Hegel’s philosophy, and the point of this section is not, of course, to condemn the Unhappy Consciousness but rather to identify it as an inevitable stage in the gradual emergence of Spirit.

While most of Hegel’s commentators take as obvious the religious nature of the Unhappy Consciousness, far fewer, Robert Solomon argues, properly recognize “the extremely sarcastic tone” that Hegel adopts in this section. Solomon, our foremost contemporary existentialist philosopher, notes that “Hegel despises traditional Christianity just as much in 1806 as he did in 1793, and his treatment of Catholicism is particularly vicious” (466). Solomon suggests that St. Augustine provides a ‘real-life’ historical antecedent for the Unhappy Consciousness, draws attention to the way Hegel anticipates Nietzsche’s attacks on “slave morality,” and stresses that this section of the Phenomenology refutes those who would translate Hegel’s philosophy into an apology for Christianity. Solomon’s account raises the question of whether we should treat the Unhappy Consciousness as a historical phenomenon that is best mapped on to a particular place and time, or whether it can be deployed as a sort of ahistorical psychological profile. To get at this question, we might begin by asking:

Q2: How does the Unhappy Consciousness arise? The Unhappy Consciousness emerges dialectically from Skepticism, which is characterized by epistemological doubt and an extreme subjectivism that at times seems libratory and empowering, but can also be experienced as agonizingly confusing. Ultimately, this mode of thinking is debilitating, because the skeptical consciousness gets trapped in a vicious circle wherein the ‘I’ alternates between euphoria and despair in a state of “absolute dialectical unrest” (¶205). The euphoria derives from the skeptical consciousness’ sense that its powers of abstract thought can liberate it from the constraints imposed by specific worldly contexts, whereas its despair results from a sense that its powers of thought, while capable of causing “objective reality” and “its relationship to it” to disappear, are unable to yield anything more substantial than a vertiginous state of contingency and confusion (¶204). As a consequence of doubting and thereby negating objective, determinate reality entirely, the skeptical consciousness concludes that it “is in fact nothing but a purely casual, confused medley, the dizziness of a perpetually self-engendered disorder” (¶205). This ‘identity crisis,’ results from the skeptical consciousness’s over identification with the “protean Changeable,” an identification which prompts it to “set about freeing itself from the unessential, i.e. from itself” (¶208) and which yields the Unhappy Consciousness. But this project of self-liberation is destined to fail, “[f]or though it indeed takes itself to be merely the Changeable, and the Unchangeable is, for it, an alien Being, yet it is itself a simple, hence unchangeable, consciousness, and hence is aware that this consciousness is its own essence, although in such a way that again it does not itself take the essence to be its own” (127). In other words, the Unhappy Consciousness’ very sense of hopelessness, of being absolutely alienated from the Unchangeable, prompts a misrecognition about its state of being—the recognition being the paradoxical one that its inability to free itself from the unessential means that it is, in a sense, an unchangeable (with a lowercase ‘u’) consciousness. While the distinction between an unchangeable consciousness and an Unchangeable consciousness is enormous, and while the Unhappy Consciousness still fails to fully grasp its essence as part of the Unchangeable, we, that is the Unhappy Consciousness, is showing signs of making some progress. The next question, then, is:

Q3: How can the Unhappy Consciousness break free from this back and forth movement and its contradictory state? Liberation will occur when the Unhappy Consciousness rises to a mode of “thinking where consciousness as a particular individuality is reconciled with pure thought itself” (¶216). This failure to ascend to this mode of thought is due to a failure to understand that “the Unchangeable, which it knows essentially in the form of individuality, is its own self, is itself the individuality of consciousness” (¶216). In other words, what the Unhappy Consciousness fails to grasp is that the rift between the individual (contingent, finite, changeable) and the universal (eternal, infinite, Unchangeable)—as the insurmountable obstacle, as pure negativity, as the gap in the order of being—is precisely what makes the advent of Reason possible. The next paradox Hegel presents is that for the Unhappy Consciousness to liberate itself from its unhappy state, it must relinquish its freedom entirely to another, the minister who is said to have a “direct relationship with the unchangeable Being,” and in the process objectivize itself in such a way that it can no longer think of itself as an ‘I’ that exists for itself (¶228).

Hegel specifies three “moments of surrender” that are required of the Unhappy Consciousness, if it is to break free from its misery. First, it must surrender its right to make decisions for itself, then it must surrender the property and enjoyment that it derives from its labors in the world, and finally, it must surrender its desire to act in a comprehensible fashion, to practice “what it does not understand” (¶229). Why, we might ask, would Hegel prescribe the Unhappy Consciousness, already tormented by a sense of hopelessness, to such a harsh regimen? If it is already in such a miserable state, why is it necessary for it to act in such a way that would seem to place it in an even more abject position? Hegel’s response is that only by following these steps mechanically or automatically does the Unhappy Consciousness “truly and completely depriv[e] itself of the consciousness of inner and outer freedom, of the actuality in which consciousness exists in itself” (¶229). In other words, this deprivation is necessary in order to negate a self-consciousness that, again, mistakenly identifies its relation to the Unchangeable by understanding itself to be autonomous and individual and thus continues to oscillate wildly between over-confidence about its freedom of thought and despair at this freedom ever providing access to what it conceives as a ‘beyond’. Of the Unhappy Consciousness is to succeed at breaking free from the vicious circle of skepticism, a minister must intervene or mediate. This mediation makes possible a surrender or sacrifice of self, a negation during which “immediate self-consciousness [is turned] into a Thing, into an objective existence” (¶229).

Q4: So why is a mediator/minister/priest necessary?An external agent is necessary for an actual sacrifice (of will to decide, of property and enjoyment) to take place, because without this mediator the troublesome self-consciousness would not be fully objectified. Basically, the idea is that if a third party doesn’t assume responsibility for the Unhappy Consciousness’s decisions, thereby effectively objectifying the Unhappy Consciousness’s sense of itself, the self-consciousness will continue to deceive itself regarding its relationship to the Unchanageable. The deception referred to here results from what Zizek often refers to as the conflict between the enunicated (the theoretical position)—here, the Unhappy Consciousness’s “disclaim[ing] of all power pertaining to its own independent existence”—and its position of enunciation—i.e., the fact that in making this disclaimer, it “holds on to its own particular existence…” (¶229). In other words, despite its good intentions in acknowledging its gratitude for various gift of freedom—the right to decide, property and enjoyment, etc.—in the very act of acknowledgement the Unhappy Consciousness cannot help but imagine itself as being an agent whose existence is radically detached from the Spirit responsible for these gifts. Consider, for example, the call to give up or renounce what one has acquired through work. Without the surrendering of one’s will, this renunictory gesture alone could be insufficient and produce merely a false sense of humility. Although the gesture is supposed to express one’s thanks for the grace of God, it has an inverse effect. By treating the world and one’s capacities to change it as a divine gift, one feels blessed by these gifts, privileged to be one of the chosen, which then becomes a source of pride. In the penultimate paragraph of the section (¶229). We’re all aware of this phenomenon of false humility, which the Protestant emphasis on outwards signs of one’s Elect status effectively endorses, and which I would argue is a defining characteristic of contemporary American religious zealotry.

To recap, then, the Unhappy Consciousness is an alienated consciousness, tormented by its sense of being irrevocably separated from the Unchangeable, which it fails to identify as its own essence or nature and understands to be somewhere far beyond. In its misguided efforts to liberate itself from its worldly existence, the Unhappy Consciousnesss only makes itself more miserable. What the Unhappy Consciousness fails to grasp is that the Spirit is immanent in and can only be accessed via particular, concrete instances, which is to say that, in order for self-consciousness to actualize the Spirit within, it must do so by engaging with the finite, material world in which it is embodied. For Hegel, this means first and foremost engaging with others, as it is only through the recognition of the other that true self-knowledge is possible. In order to overcome its self-alienation the Unhappy Consciousness must negate its distorted self-consciousness through a surrender of its will to an other, the minister. Only through the mediation effected by this minister will the process of becoming, through which the individual subject is reconciled with the Absolute predicate occur.

At the end of this section, the Unhappy Consciousness does not yet recognize itself as being the “essential will,” though it is progressing towards this recognition. Because the Unhappy Consciousness still regards itself as “pitiable,” still remains in “pain,” and still regards the Unchangeable to be “a beyond, ” it would seem that little progress has been made. Nonetheless, Hegel insists that through the very act of divesting itself of the ability to exercise its will, through relinquishing its decisions to another, the Unhappy Consciousness has restored its belief in “the idea of Reason, of the certainty that, in its particular individuality it has being absolutely in itself, or is all reality” (138). My final line of questioning is this:

Q5: Can we say anything more about this third mediating figure? When Hegel speaks of the need for a “mediator or minister [priest],” how literally should we take this comment (¶228)? Must this figure be a official holy man or woman, ordained by some religious institution? Obviously not, if we want to provide a secular gloss on The Phenomenology. The important point appears to be that the Unhappy Consciousness, relinquish responsibility to another person, and while he specifies a minister, this need not be a literal priest or holy man, just a person in a position of authority who has a “direct relationship with the unchangeable Being” (Zizek would suggest Lenin or Lacan). Nonetheless, how are we to know whether or not the mediator to whom we are to surrender are will truly has “a direct relationship with the unchangeable Being” and isn’t just a charlatan or fraud seeking disciples to use and exploit?

The following question might seem to be ‘out there,’ though I raise it because the tendency to personify texts, granting them a status equivalent to another human being, has become common in the past fifty or so years: Is “Third” figure, whom Hegel figures as a “minister,” and a “counselor” another living human being—which the reference to “someone else” (¶228) would seem to suggest—or could this “other” that is to be posited “not as a particular but as a universal will” take the form of an inhuman entity, e.g., a text, perhaps even The Phenomenology of Sprit itself, with which one could have an encounter?

Addendum: Can we say more about the relationship of the lord and bondsman section to the Unhappy Consciousness? Hegel makes a direct link between these two figurations when he suggests that, “the duplication which was formerly divided between two individuals, the lord and the bondsman, is now lodged in one. The duplication of self-consciousness within itself, which is essential in the Notion of Spirit, is thus here before us, but not yet in its unity: the Unhappy Consciousness is the consciousness of self as a dual-natured, merely contradictory being” (¶206). The Unhappy Consciousness internalizes within a single mind the contradiction previously figured between the lord, the emblem of Stoic freedom, and the bondsman, whose subservient status is associated with Skepticism.

Hegel, G.W.F. The Phenomenology of Spirit. 1806. Trans. A.V. Miller. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.
Solomon, Robert C. In the Spirit of Hegel: A Study of G.W.F. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. New York: Oxford UP, 1982

Friday, January 21, 2005

Bush Displays Satanic Signifier

Note to self: The 'fact' that Norwegians confused Bush's inaugral salute with hailing Satan provides a nice example of the arbitrary relationship between the signifier (the gesure of displaying the right hand with the index and pinky finger raised) and the signified (hailing Satan or the 'Hook 'em, horns sign), a concept that we spent some time discussing in my American Literature and Culture class Thursday.

The article also provides an example of a pseduo-news story (more on that later...)

And did Dubya flash the sign or just Jenna? I know, who gives a rat's ass, but I've been reading Hegel all afternoon.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Getting Away With It

Why is it that the GOP gets away with all sorts of scandalous activities, while Democrats are tarred and feathered for trumped-up offenses? Remember 'Whitewater' and 'Monica-gate'? Can you imagine the field day conservatives would have if Democrats engaged in the sort of shenanigans and outright criminality that Peter Dikikes itemizes in this list of 34 scandals from the Dubya years, part one?

Sunday, January 16, 2005


the 'word of the day,' courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary...


(æzat)  [ad. L. anxiett-em, n. of quality f. anxi-us: see ANXIOUS, and -TY.] 

    1. The quality or state of being anxious; uneasiness or trouble of mind about some uncertain event; solicitude, concern.
  c1525 MORE De Quat. Noviss. Wks. 1557, 91 There dyed he without grudge, without anxietie. a1631 DONNE Select. (1840) 25 Temporal prosperity comes always accompanied with much anxiety. 1714 Spect. No. 615 1 It is the Business of Religion and Philosophy to free us from all unnecessary Anxieties. 1849 MACAULAY Hist. Eng. I. 200 The United Provinces saw with anxiety the progress of his arms.

    2. Strained or solicitous desire (for or to effect some purpose).
  1769 Junius Lett. i. 3 Anxiety..for the general welfare. 1833 I. TAYLOR Fanat. viii. 304 Every man's anxiety to obtain for himself the inestimable pearl of genuine knowledge.

    3. Path. ‘A condition of agitation and depression, with a sensation of tightness and distress in the præcordial region.’ Syd. Soc. Lex. 1880.
  1661 LOVELL Hist. Anim. & Min. 368 The paine and anxiety of the ventricle. 1732 ARBUTHNOT Rules of Diet 303 The Blood..pressing upon the heart creates great Anxieties. 1844 T. GRAHAM Dom. Med. 277 [Angina pectoris] is an acute constrictive pain..attended with anxiety, difficulty of breathing, and a sense of suffocation.

    4. Psychiatry. A morbid state of mind characterized by unjustified or excessive anxiety, which may be generalized or attached to particular situations. Freq. attrib. and Comb., as anxiety-producing, -ridden adjs.; anxiety complex (cf. COMPLEX n. 3); anxiety hysteria, a form of anxiety neurosis (see quot. 1923); anxiety neurosis [tr. G. angstneurose (Freud 1895, in Neurolog. Zentralbl. XIV. 55)], anxiety state, names technically applied to such a condition of anxiety.
  1904 G. S. HALL Adolescence I. iv. 285 The anxiety neurosis was relatively more common in women than in men. 1909 A. A. BRILL tr. Freud's Sel. Papers on Hysteria vi. 134, I call this symptom-complex ‘anxiety neurosis’ (Angstneurose) because the sum of its components can be grouped around the main symptom of anxiety. Ibid. vi. 136 A quantum of freely floating anxiety which controls the choice of ideas by expectation. 1912 Ibid. (ed. 2) xii. 210 We must slightly modify our procedure in anxiety-hysteria (phobias). 1913 Lancet 26 Apr. 1184/1 Anxiety dreams and anxiety neuroses represent a breaking down of this compromise. 1923 R. GABLER tr. Stekel's Conditions of Nervous Anxiety I. iii. 20 Freud..proposed to distinguish two sorts of anxiety neuroses: one with a pure somatic basis, Freud's genuine anxiety neurosis, and one with a psychical basis, which he terms ‘anxiety hysteria’. 1926 W. MCDOUGALL Outl. Abnormal Psychol. xiv. 269 The first factor in the production of the anxiety state is the bringing into activity of the instinct of flight. 1931 M. C. D'ARCY Nature of Belief ii. 39 Another cause for failure in reasoning is what has been called an anxiety state. Those who suffer from this are unable to make up their minds: they have had their balance upset by some shock to their old convictions, and as a consequence they oscillate to and fro. 1942 A. L. ROWSE Cornish Childhood 204 It undoubtedly produced an anxiety-complex, the combination of working hard with worry. 1958 New Biol. XXVII. 34 The tabu word which is presented classified as an anxiety-producing word. 1960 C. DAY LEWIS Buried Day iv. 64, I went to school, entering..a world insulated, self-important, artificial, anxiety-ridden.

    5. Phr. Age of Anxiety: the title of W. H. Auden's poem applied as a catch-phrase to any period characterized by anxiety or danger.
  1947 W. H. AUDEN (title) The Age of Anxiety. 1953 Economist 7 Nov. 413/1 The main change is to be found between the nineteenth and the twentieth century outlooks... A survey which ignores it..fails to achieve a complete relevance to the current Age of Anxiety. 1958 Times 11 Nov. 4/4 He [sc. Jackson Pollock] was very much an American product of the age of anxiety.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Missing That Swedish Egalitarianism...

I'm back in the U.S. again, and this article helps explain why I, and especialy Ira, experience a sense of culture shock when we leave Sweden, a country's whose egalitarian social policies I would like to see emulated in America.

To learn more about life in Sverige, read Daniel Brook's "How Sweden Tweaked the Washington Consensus" in Dissent. Even after spending a fair amount of time there in the last couple years, I was surprised to learn that Sweden has the same proportion of foreign-born immigrants as the U.S.

As Ph.D. students in English, we're both members of the working poor in the States with all the worries that economic insecurity brings. Yesterday, for example, I received an ambiguous notice indicating that two visits I made to the UIC Medical Center last semester might night be covered by my student health insurance. It's damn hard to stay focused on preparing for exams, coming up with a dissertation that demonstrates one's professional competence (i.e. making an 'original contribution' to one's academic field), and teach overcrowded courses to undergrads when you're going into debt (for a job that may be non-existent) and still have to worry about paying the rent.

Best, to tarry with, rather than dwell on, the negative when there's work and more work to be done...

Monday, January 03, 2005

DeeJayKay: Is It you Dennis, or Just a Brilliant Disguise?

Can it really be that my favorite Democratic presidential candidate, Dennis Kucinch, is blogging? And under the name of DeeJayKay no less?

If Kucinich is behind this blog, I hope he keeps it up. For one, it suggests that he's smart, that he's a genuine character, and that he's got beliefs which he's willing to endorse and stand behind. Secondly, the Net just might be the only place in our right-wing, corporate-dominated, mediasphere where someone as 'left of center' as Kucinich can get a hearing.

If this ain't Dennis, who're the merry pranksters behind it?

Wal-Mart: Economic Exploitation At Its Worst

Living in Chicago and Gävle, it's fairly easy for me to take a moral stand against shopping at Wal-Mart because there aren't currently any of the mega-stores in the immediate vicinity of where I live. However, friends and family back in Nebraska, for example, shop there on a regular basis. Prices are generally lower, and it’s convenient to buy everything at one location. Nonetheless, I'd like to encourage them to read "Inside the Leviathan," an essay by Simon Head that reviews recent books and publications that analyze the ascendancy of Wal-Mart around the globe, and consider whether or not they want to continue giving their money to this particular corporation.

The conclusion reached by these publications is that Wal-Mart’s ‘success’ is based on the exploitation of the working poor. No surprise there. But Sam Walton’s managerial techniques—such as intentionally understaffing all stores so that managers will be forced to illegally require employees to work extra hours for no pay, hiring store spies to police ‘time theft’ by the employees, issuing arbitrary punishments in order to make it easier to fire employees, and practicing sex discrimination against women workers who have complained about the corporate malfeasance—don’t just violate Wal-Mart employees’ rights. In the big picture, everybody suffers (except, perhaps, the rich), as Wal-Mart pushes wages and benefits down in the communities in which it locates and forces taxpayers to subsidize the welfare needed to provide employees with the health care, housing, etc. that their meager wages can’t cover:

One of the most telling of all the criticisms of Wal-Mart is to be found in a February 2004 report by the Democratic Staff of the House Education and Workforce Committee. In analyzing Wal-Mart's success in holding employee compensation at low levels, the report assesses the costs to US taxpayers of employees who are so badly paid that they qualify for government assistance even under the less than generous rules of the federal welfare system. For a two-hundred-employee Wal-Mart store, the government is spending $108,000 a year for children's health care; $125,000 a year in tax credits and deductions for low-income families; and $42,000 a year in housing assistance. The report estimates that a two-hundred-employee Wal-Mart store costs federal taxpayers $420,000 a year, or about $2,103 per Wal-Mart employee. That translates into a total annual welfare bill of $2.5 billion for Wal-Mart's 1.2 million US employees.

Decide for yourself if, in the long run, it’s worth saving a few bucks to support a ruthless system that is wrecking havoc on the economy and degrading workers around the globe.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Tropes and Topoi in Postmodern American Fiction (and Theory)

Dangerous Communication.
The Book of Daniel. Doctorow, E.L. (1971):
"Susan had communicated with me; just that; at if now in our lives only extreme and dangerous communication was possible, nevertheless the signal had been sent, discharged even, from the spasm of soul that was required--and that was the sense of summons I felt sneaking up over the afternoon like a blanket of burned space around my ears. And all my life I have been trying to escape from my relatives and I have been intricate in my run, but one way or another they are what you come upon around the corner, and the Lord God who is so frantic for recognition says you have to ask how they are and would they like something cool to drink, and what is it you can do for them this time" (30).

This passage concerns the imperative to act that Daniel Isaacson Lewin feels in the aftermath of his sister's suicide attempt. Indeed, Susan's suicide attempt is precisely the "dangerous communication" being alluded to in this passage. Daniel has just come upon the package of "Gillette Super Stainless blades" (29) in Susan's Volvo. This tableau triggers a kind of perverse epiphany for Daniel, prompting him to recognition of sorts. At this moment, "Daniel got the picture," that is, he experiences a sense "of being summoned." Doctorow leaves it up to his readers to figure out what exactly this summoning entails and whether or not the breakthrough or epiphany that Daniel experiences is productive. I would argue that the fact that moments later Daniel will be tormenting his wife in the Volvo, possibly branding her ass, suggests that we should be skeptical of the entire premise of "dangerous communication," even though the text we are reading, Daniel's book, is being presented as something of an outgrowth of Daniel's sense that he must communicate.

The way I prefer to read this passage is to regard it as a scene of political interpellation. Daniel is hailed by Susan to acknowledge his connectedness to the relatives from whom he has "been trying to escape" (30). What makes the interpellation political is that Daniel's parents are the Isaacsons, internationally infamous Communists who were executed as atomic spies. At this moment in the novel, Daniel realizes that he cannot deny or run from his parent's political legacy, which others will always associate him with. What Daniel must confront is the fact that because he is 'always already' identified with the Isaacsons, he must choose how he will position himself in relation to their political beliefs. This confrontation is traumatic and both Susan and Daniel respond to it with violence. Susan attempts suicide and Daniel torments Phyllis, his wife. This is all to suggest, I think, that "dangerous communication" is a shorthand way of equating violence with the transmission of meaning, or, more generally, of equating force with understanding (an equation common to postmodern fiction and theory). Ultimately, I think Doctorow would have us recognize the falsity of the novel's "vicious eroticism," that is, the sadistic sex scenes in which Daniel attempts to teach Phyllis by testing her bodily limits are intended to demonstrate the error in construing learning as the transmission of experience. (See also: fantasy of transmitted experience).

Dissemination, communication as.
The Book of Daniel. Doctorow, E.L. (1971):
“Susan had communicated with me; just that; and if now in our lives only extreme and dangerous communication was possible, nevertheless the signal had been sent, discharged even, from the spasm of the soul that was required—and that was the sense of summons I felt sneaking up over the afternoon like a blanket of burned space around my ears” (30, italics mine).

This passage is one of the most important in the entire novel as it (1) establishes a link between the text’s vicious eroticism and what I take to be a typically postmodern of communication as a material act of (bodily) transmission and (2) imagines this communicative act to be foundational to a character’s sense of self-identity. The point of Daniel’s epiphany in the parking lot is not simply that he recognizes Susan’s suicide attempt to be a specific type of communication (extreme and dangerous) but also that now this is the only possible mode of communication available to the Isaacson children. By italicizing some of the peculiar words Daniel uses to describe Susan’s suicide, I’ve tried to foreground the abject, erotic and material manner in which imagines communication as dissemination. Daniel does not speak here of, say, what Susan might have meant by her suicide or the beliefs that could have contributed to her decision to take her own life. Instead, of the message, Daniel focuses on the signal, which he figures using a blatanly sexual image—it is a load of semen being ejaculated from a spasming body. (See also: dangerous communication).

End of History (or post-historicism)
Revolution at the Gates. Zizek, Slavoj.
"...the First World and the Third World can no longer be simply opposed as distinct political unities: they are developing more and more within each political unity (state, city)? So when, a decade ago, Francis Fukuyama launched his pseudo-Hegelian thesis on the 'end of history', he was right, although not in the way he thought: in so far as the proper opposite of history is nature, the 'end of history' means that the social process itself is more and more 'naturalized', experienced as a new form of 'fate', as a blind uncontrollable force" (Zizek, Revolution at the Gates).

Vineland. Pynchon, Thomas. (1990):
Frenesi and Flash living in the witness protection program in Vineland: “They had both been content to leave it that way, to go along in a government-defined history without consequences, never imagining it could end, turn out to be only another Reaganite dream on the cheap, some snoozy fantasy about kindly character actors in FBI suits staked out all night long watching over every poor scraggly sheep in the herd it was their job to run, the destined losers whose only redemption would have to come through their usefulness to the State law-enforcement apparatus, which was calling itself “America,” although somebody must have known better” (Vineland 354).

Kurt Vonnegut Remembers Nelson Algren

I just wrote and then lost a fairly lenghty post about this poignant essay, excerpted from the latest edition of The Man With the Golden Arm, in which Kurt Vonnegut remembers his friend Nelson Algren. I've got to get back to work, so, rather than rewrite it, I'll simply provide a sample quote that gives a sense of what Vonnegut finds notable about Algren's writing:

While he was only 13 years my senior, so close to my own age that we were enlisted men in Europe in the same world war, he was a pioneering ancestor of mine in the compressed history of American literature. He broke new ground by depicting persons said to be dehumanised by poverty and ignorance and injustice as being genuinely dehumanised, and dehumanised quite permanently. Contrast, if you will, the poor people in The Man with the Golden Arm with those in the works of social reformers like Charles Dickens and George Bernard Shaw, and particularly with those in Shaw's Pygmalion, with their very promising wit and resourcefulness and courage.

I was struck by the cruel irony surrounding Algren's death. He died on May 9, 1981, the day he was to host a cocktail party in honor of finally being admitted to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a group that had hitherto either snubbed or overlooked him, despite having awarded Algren its Medel for Literature. Vonnegut was invited to the gathering and planned to take a young writer who admired Algren and told Vonnegut that Algren had written the most intelligent review of his new novel. The young novelist was Salman Rushdie, and the novel was Midnight's Children. When Vonnegut phoned Algren's number to inform him of his plans to bring a guest, the police answered and Vonnegut learned his friend was dead.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

'An Excess of Language': American Fiction After Beckett

Bill Gray, the reclusive novelist in Don DeLillo’s Mao II, asserts, “Beckett is the last writer to shape the way we think and see. After him, the major work involves midair explosions and crumbled buildings.” In Mao II DeLillo asks readers to consider the possibility that the literary and artistic avant-garde has failed, and that terrorists, not writers or artists, wield the power to defamiliarize reality on a grand scale. While critics have commented extensively on the alleged obsolescence of the literary avant-garde and the notion that today—in the postmodern West, a cynical culture excessively influenced by the simulations circulating in its electronic media—terrorism trumps art, they have remained relatively silent about Gray’s assessment of Beckett’s oeuvre as being tragically successful. My paper, then, takes Gray’s remark seriously by raising several interrelated questions: How did Beckett shape the way we think? How did Beckett shape the way we see? Was Beckett truly the last writer to alter the way we conceptualize and perceive reality? More significantly, why might another writer (either the fictional Bill Gray or the real Don DeLillo) make such a hyperbolic claim? In the process of answering these deceptively straightforward questions, I aim to situate Beckett’s work in relation to recent postmodern American fiction and theory, writing that foregrounds the materiality of communication and in so doing ontologizes experience.

Focusing primarily on The Trilogy and to a lesser extent on Krapp’s Last Tape, I will explain how Beckett’s treatment of three interrelated topics—(1) the linguistic basis of communicative failure (2) the self/subject as a product of communicative failure and (3) the attempt to use language and other communications technologies to integrate a divided self—presents an enormous challenge for subsequent literary writers who aspire to narrate the aporias attendant to the process of subjectivization. My claim is that a paradigmatic ‘postmodern’ understanding of language as nonrepresentational, affective force can be traced back to Beckett’s texts. I extrapolate it from a remark that Jacques Moran makes in Molloy: “It seemed to me that all language was an excess of language.” But while the validity of Moran’s comment seems to be corroborated by the plethora of failures recounted in Beckett’s Trilogy, what are the aesthetic and ethical implications of the communicative model of language as performance that it implies? What does it mean to suggest that language is inherently excessive? Does this excessiveness effectively render meaning irrelevant? These are the sorts of questions raised by Beckett’s staging of the dialectical process of subjectivization, that is, the process by which Molloy, Moran and Krapp retroactively try to reintegrate themselves through their respective narratives of failure. Whether they are aware of it or not, those who aspire to write serious fiction after Beckett must struggle with these failures which, as DeLillo clearly recognizes, have contributed to the ‘excessive’ form and content of much postmodern fiction.

Reforming the Requirements for the Humanities PhD

Reading this article about an MLA panel on reforming the requirements for humanities doctorates made me sick, as it reminded me just how grim the job prospects are for English PhDs. After spending an average of eight years earning a doctorate, which requires those who are not from wealthy families to go into serious debt, only about half of us can expect to land tenure-track jobs.

The title of the article--Are State Troopers Models for Professors?--puts things into perspective. A state trooper needs only 1-year of training and makes as much as a nontenure-track instructor. As Louis Menand noted "Students are being way over-trained for the jobs available. The argument that they need the training to teach undergraduates is belied by the fact that they are already teaching undergraduates. And the idea that the doctoral thesis is a rigorous requirement is belied by the quality of most doctoral theses." The article contains a few interesting proposals for improving the higher-education training system. I particularly like the one about requiring one published (peer-reviewed) journal article, rather than a book-length dissertation, for the PhD.

A New Publication for Academics: Inside Higher Ed

I've been taking a breather from blogging as the holiday has been flying by way too quickly. Aside from doing a lot of reading (finished Infinite Jest, Hegel's Introduction to the Philosophy of History, Amy Hungerford's The Holocaust of Texts: Genocide, Literature, and Personification and am working on The Public Burning) and writing, and taking longish walks with Ira around Gävle, I've been working on improving my cooking skills. Our Swedish kitchen is larger and much better equipped (more counter space and a dishwasher!) than our cramped Chicago kitchen, so we've been doing a lot more ambitious cooking here. Anyone for some moose enchiladas? Last night we had lobster to usher in 2005, and for dinner a tenderloin in a fantastic red-wine sauce made with tangerine juice (we didn't have any lemons to use and it turned out great) and honey. Yum.

I've got a conference proposal that I must send out today, but want to draw attention to a promising new online publication called Inside Higher Ed. The publication features news and editorials about issues concerning, surprise, surprise, higher education. It will officially debut sometime in early 2005, though they've already published some material in time for the MLA Convention. I get the impression that it's going to be a sort of looser, less staid version of The Chronicle of Higher Education, which is not surprising considering that several of its founders were previously affiliated with that journal. The fact that the editor is Scott Jaschik bodes well for Inside Higher Ed. Jaschik was previously the editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education and has a great track record when it comes to reporting on and covering higher education issues.