Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Against The Day

Pynchon is back, and his new novel, Against the Day, finally arrived in my hands today. It's been sitting in the UIC English Department offices since last Friday, which was frustrating, but allowed me to remain focused on the tasks at hand over the past Thanksgiving weekend.

I've only had a chance to read twenty pages, and I've savored each one so far.

When Mason & Dixon came out (has it already been nine years?!?1?) I read the entire book in two days, but I was employed only part-time, and out of school, then.

Now, there's a stack of papers to grade, and much end-of-the-semester work to be done, so here's the deal. For each paper graded, I get to read three pages of Pynchon.

Ain't it funny how an teacher of American lit feels slightly guilty about taking time out to read from the latest work by America's greatest living novelist?

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Writing and Resistance: A Response to Coetzee

It is naive to think that writing is a simple two-stage process: first you decide what you want to say, then you say it. On the contrary, as all of us know, you write because you do not know what you want to say ... Writing, then, involves an interplay between the push into the future that takes you to the blank page in the first place, and a resistance. Part of that resistance is psychic, but part is also an automatism built into language: the tendency of words to call up other words, to fall into patterns that keep propogating themselves. Out of that interplay emerges, if you are luckly, what you recognize or hope to recognize as the true.

(J.M. Coetzee, Doubling the Point).

Coetzee's deconstructive account of the writing process directs attention to the materiality of language, the linguistic automatism that is a function of language's materiality, and the writer's stuggle to harness the autopoetic energies inherent to language during the act of writing. In this way, his remarks help explain why writing (and especially teaching composition) can be so challenging.

Writing, as George W. Bush might put it, is "hard work." The successful writer (and here I will resist constructing an extended metaphor of writing as war) must be prepated to encounter opposition and resistance throughout the writing process. Novice writers, and some experienced ones who forget what they've learned, tend to approach writing naively, as the direct expression of a preformed thought or idea.

However, as thoughtful and honest writers will tell you, writing - with a few instrumentalized exceptions (such as, perhaps, writing a grocery list, though Derrida's theory of differance makes even this act of writing more complex that it would initially appear) - is rarely, if ever, so straightforward a procedure.

If, to deploy a familiar trope, writing is a journey towards the truth, or at least some sort of knowledge, the route that the writer must take is a circuitous one in which the available pathways are not immediately recongizable. Indeed, the writer will frequently be disoriented and discover that what appeared to be the safest and most direct path is filled with obstacles that necessiate a rerouting.

Writing is a matter of resistances. Like thinking, or cognition, with which it is virtually synonymous, writing is a recursive process. As we write, the very transcription and inscription of our thoughts, which do not exist independent of the linguistic forms, words, in which they are materialized, makes it possible for thinking to continue into the future.

Coetzee characterizes this compositional proces as a kind of "interplay" during which linguistic pattern formation in which words come to cohere into units that are positioned or arranged in a recognizable and thus sensible and coherent shape. Coetzee's account of writing as a kind of linguistic pattern formation identifies two types of resistance with which the writer struggles.

Both of these types of resistance include an affective dimension.

The first type of resistance is "psychic," Coetzee's term for the psychological obstacles - doubts about one's authority, anxieties about being original, clever, aversions to exposing oneself to the gaze of the Other, etc. - that can generate writer's block and impede the process of composition. Here, then, the affective dimension involves the emotions the writer experiences when facing the space of writing, figured by Coetzee as the blank page.

Lacan and Zizek, not to mention numerous literary writers who offer testimony to the anguish and suffering (jouissance) involved in writing, remind us that these negative affects are a necessary component of writing. The writer must 'tarry with the negative' and work through these affects, which, particularly if one is excessively egocentrically oriented, can become debilitating obstacles. However, when the writer risks becoming a dupe of language and recognizes the impossibility of not falling into error, nonsense, or madness (the terrifying "night of the world" in which relations to the other are literally severed), these negative affects can shift valence. The extreme anguish writers feel when tarrying with the desubjectifying and inhuman force of language can morph abruptly into ecstatic jouissance.

Such shifts occur when these negative affects are not registered immediately as signs of one's personal failure but are instead posited externally as an element immanent to the act of writing. When looked at awry, from a dialectical perspective, these affects appear as obstacles that create productive resistances that exercise and test the writer's constitution or will to power in a way that ultimately makes him or her stronger. In this way the affects can act as catalysts, not obstacles.

The second type of resistance is material. It has to do with the machinic quality of words, which are always and already endowed with significance and meaning that is beyond our control. The connotative and denotative force inherent to language puts constraints on the writer's ability to make use use of them, to shape them into sensible utterances, the meaning of which is fixed within a particular composition.

In another post I will say more about the affective aspects of this second type of resistance.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Chicago Street Studio Project Portrait

Photography by Thomas Marlow.

Believe it or not, this photo was shot out at O'Hare Airport, shortly before Ira had to catch a flight to Sweden. You wouldn't guess it from the photo, but Ira was worried about missing her plane and a bit camera shy during our quick photo session.

Thomas Marlow happened to be at the airport today shooting photos for his Chicago Street Studio Project, which I'd read about in a Chicago Reader article a couple months back. In fact, I'd traveled downtown to The Silk Road Oasis on September 30 to have my portrait taken, but Marlow had already pulled up shop. (The trip was not wasted, however, as I ended up catching a noontime performance by Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, but that's another story). So, I was particularly pleased to spot him and his portable studio at O'Hare and to be able to get my picture taken with Ira.

Marlow's biography is remarkable. He'd never shot portraits when he began his project, which is being sponsored by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs. I suspect that when he wraps up this project, he'll have plenty of potential clients seeking professional portraits.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Aesthetic Ideology: The Politics of Language

Leading neocons exress despair at the Bush Administration's incompetence in Neo Culpa: Politics & Power.

As a literary critic with a keen interest in the relationship between affect and meaning, I'm intrigued by the implicit understanding of how language works in this quote by David Frum:

"I always believed as a speechwriter that if you could persuade the president to commit himself to certain words, he would feel himself committed to the ideas that underlay those words. And the big shock to me has been that although the president said the words, he just did not absorb the ideas. And that is the root of, maybe, everything."

Notice how Frum avoids talking about trying to convince Bush to believe in a particular position. Instead of referring to reasons and arguments, he imagines a sort of understanding via osmosis. In this fantasy, ideas are objectified as the foundational substance of words, and these ideas, once spoken, get absorbed by the body, like lotion. Indeed, it's not even clear that "understanding" is the right term here, since Frum talks about a feeling - a committed feeling - towards ideas rather than a belief in them.

Thank you, Mr. Frum, for providing a textbook example of how a neo-Platonic, logocentric model of language can prove to be disastrous.