Friday, September 21, 2007

In the chapters I read (1, 2, and part of 4) of Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West, Susan Buck-Morss argues that the Soviet and American political imaginaries were too similar to each other. The socialist imaginary is based on the divisions between classes, not states; progress is conceived as temporal. The capitalist imaginary is based on divisions between nation-states; here, progress is conceived as purely spatial. But in each imaginary, progress is the motive force, and therein lies the problem. Both imaginaries are perfect successors to the French Revolution: socialism with its perpetual revolutionary terror, and capitalism with its perpetual mass-conscripted nationalistic war. “Progress” is the problem. And yet, we must cling to utopian aspirations, somehow. (Presumably the obvious theoretical difficulty of condemning “progress” while upholding “utopia” is addressed in one of the many pages I didn’t have time to read.)

Buck-Morss distinguishes between the “normal enemy” (e.g. for medieval Christendom, the sinner) and the “absolute enemy” (e.g. the heretic). Any individual instance of the absolute enemy must be violently eradicated, since this enemy’s existence is constructed as a dangerous threat to the existence of the sovereign power. But, as a group, the absolute enemy (whether heretics or, for a half-century of U.S. sovereignty, communists) must survive, since it is this group’s existence that legitimates (or as Buck-Morss would have it, “brings into being”) both the sovereign and the collective that the soverign protects. In a now-chilling passage written at least a year before 9/11, Buck-Morss predicts, on the basis of the 1998 bombings of Afghanistan and Sudan, that the U.S.’s next “absolute enemy” (after global communism) will be global terrorism. I’ll reproduce the entire paragraph:

“In August 1998, U.S. air attacks against a so-called ‘university of terrorism’ in Afghanistan and an alleged weapons-producing pharmaceutical company in Sudan initiated a new stage in the attempt to salvage the legitimacy of the U.S. as a global superpower, its monopoly of the right to possess arsenals of mass destruction and train paramilitary forces in terrorist techniques. These were offensive attacks secretly planned against an enemy secretly identified. With them the United States declared an ‘unending’ war against terrorism with explicit analogy to the Cold War against communism, justifying a secret (wild) zone of violent power of comparable scope. It needs to be understood that, regardless of the intentions of the policy-makers, such a definition of war feeds upon itself. By justifying the use of terror to stop terror, it generates what it seeks to destroy. In this war, the ‘enemy’ is defined not as anticapitalist but anti-American (equated with being less than civilized), so that whoever opposes the rationale of the U.S. use of terror becomes vulnerable to the charge of sympathizing with the enemy camp. Potentially such a war has no limits, short of undermining the legitimacy of U.S. superpower sovereignty itself, which is precisely what is at stake.”

The most frightening thing about this passage is neither its crystal-clear prescience, nor its smug-liberal refusal to consider that such a terroristic absolute enemy might pose a real and horrible threat, but rather the fact that neither of these two frightening aspects matters much in terms of the other. That is to say, something very like her analysis (pre-9/11, remember!) of our post-9/11 situation is now overwhelmingly accepted by attentive observers of the present geopolitical moment (lesson 1: we should fear above all else those who have declared us their responsibility to protect); and also there actually are legions of people outside our spatial borders who devotedly and innovatively seek to kill as many of us as they can, as spectacularly as the can (lesson 2: we should fear above all else those who have declared us their responsibility to destroy). Unlike the progress-utopia paradox I mentioned above, this paradox is theoretically, ethically, and politically insoluble . . .

Friday, September 7, 2007


Male masochism has been understood primarily in one of two ways by psychoanalytic writers since Freud, Suzanne Stewart (now Suzanne Stewart-Steinberg) argues in "Sublime Surrender: Male Masochism at the Fin-de-Siècle." The first alternative holds that male masochism originates in disavowed homosexuality. In this model the Cruel Woman at whose hands the submissive man experiences a gratifying suspension of gratification is a "phallic substitute"--ultimately, a stand-in for the masochist's father. The other traditional interpretation of the masochistic sexual dynamic was initiated by Gilles Deleuze's 1969 essay "Coldness and Cruelty." Deleuze argued that the figure of the Cruel Woman represents not a phallic substitute per se but rather a means for the masochist of undoing the phallus entirely and evading Oedipus. He claimed that the contract with the Cruel Woman constitutes an alliance, a sort of conspiracy, between the masochist and the cruel "oral mother"--the imago of the bad mother from before the phallic stage, thus before the Oedipus complex proper--to erase the father and construct a "new man" from scratch, without reference to the demands of the social order.

Here's how it works: the contract between the submissive male and the Cruel Woman initiates a peculiarly aesthetic sexuality whose chief characteristic is a complex structure of disavowal. That which is disavowed: 1) the mother's lack (hence the regular old fetishism incorporated into the masochistic aesthetic; it's through participating in this fetishism that the Cruel Woman becomes the "phallic mother," i.e. uncastrated woman); 2) genitality (i.e. the genitals as dominant source of gratification; hence the theatrical suspension of gratification, a masquerade of displeasure in the ego put on for the superego's benefit; this suspension itself becomes a prime source of gratification); 3) the paternal symbolic (now that both the phallus and the penis have been deflated, as it were, the father's prohibition loses all authority, specifically the authority to constitute the subject as a normal heterosexual male within the symbolic order of social relations; thus the father is "banished," both the threat that underwrites Oedipus and Oedipus itself are averted, and an incestuous relationship between the pre-Oedipal boy and the maternal imago is able to pertain happily, so to speak, ever after, with a perpetual cycle of masqueraded guilt and punishment as the sole cost to the subject).

Within the Deleuzian "masochistic universe," the subject's superego has been introjected on the model of this cruel, always-punishing mother, rather than on the model of the prohibiting father that most of us guys get stuck with. On the other hand, maybe ours is more like theirs than we realize. Slavoj Žižek has famously argued that contemporary capitalist culture is governed by the law of just such a maternal superego, whose dictum is not "No!" (Lacan's "le non-du-père") but "Enjoy yourself!" That is, the typical subject of Western society today is, for Žižek, a pathological narcissist whose superego "does not prohibit enjoyment but, on the contrary, imposes it and punishes 'social failure' in a far more cruel and severe way, through an unbearable and self-destructive anxiety" (215).

The central argument of Stewart's densely theoretical book is that the male masochistic subjectivity, which in the prevailing Deleuzian model has usually been read as valuably subversive of patriarchal power relations, rather should be thought of as a means by which men, starting in the late nineteenth century, usurped women's place as the rightful source of the critique of patriarchy. Thus women, who had been materially oppressed in countless ways by the patriarchal symbolic, were ostentatiously upstaged by men who redefined their own subjectivity in fundamentally masochistic terms. This is the second masquerade of masochism, put on for the benifit not of the masochist's own superego but of real women. Thus men positon themselves as the primary agents in a "feminism without women," that is, a critique of patriarchy in which the true victims of patriarchy are once again disempowered, this time by being excluded from the dismantling of the patriarchal symbolic itself. Stewart approvingly summarizes Tania Modleski's similar argument about the even more recent figure of the "sensitive guy": "Men's newly acquired sensitivity to women's marginality is predicated upon men usurping that marginality for themselves and thereby writing women completely out of the picture" (196).

This argument relies on something like Wendy Brown's revision of Nietzche's notion of "ressentiment," though Stewart doesn't use this word. (Neither does she mention Brown, and the only mention of Nietzsche to be found in her text refers to his musical taste.) Brown's politics of ressentiment is founded on the claim that "because power corrupts truth and compromises moral authority, those without power are especially qualified to speak" (Nancy Armstrong's summary of Brown in "How Novels Think" p. 141). For the first time in the history of Western culture, masochistic subjectivity pushes women into the central position and forces the male subject to assume the marginal position--just at the moment when that same culture is beginning to recognize that the marginal position is in fact the truly central one. (Though she never once mentions Hegel's name, Stewart may be acknowledging the Hegelianism of this idea by citing another critic's witty phrase "the dialectic of mistress and slave" on p. 121.) Perhaps none of this might matter politically if it what we ended up with after destroying the traditional patriarchal symbolic had turned out to be an egalitarian utopia, but of course this has not turned out to be the case.

As I understand it, although this is seldom if ever articulated, there are two fundamentally distinct forms of sexual experience that tend to get conflated in discussions of masochism. They should perhaps be called "punishment-masochism" and "pain-masochism." The first is the dynamic that has been discussed above, of which Sacher-Masoch is the prototype. In the other, the Other doesn't matter, because here masochism is not a sexual dynamic at all, but rather a means through which to experience extreme bodily intensities, what Foucault called "limit experiences." In this notion of masochism, the nature of the "tormentor" is a matter of complete indifference--it might as well be a machine--because all that matters is the pain itself, not as an encounter with another but as a mute means to trigger a pleasurable failure of stable psychological structures. This self-shattering, or ébranlement, is ultimately constitutive of and accessible through not just specifically masochistic sexual practices but all sexuality, as Leo Bersani has persuasively argued. I wrote my Master's (no pun intended) thesis on Bersani's philosophy and its relation to cinema--but that's a story for another time.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Does that make Buffy the new Trotsky?

When you start reading a book with a cover and title as “tasteful” as this, you don’t expect it to conclude with an argument that we should all start acting more like vampires.

But that’s where Nancy Armstrong goes, in “How Novels Think: The Limits of Individualism from 1719-1900.” Like a good Foucauldian genealogist of ideas, Armstrong treats “the novel” as a formerly powerful medium for the production of concepts, which is to say also for the installation of those concepts within reading subjects. For Armstrong, the history of the British novel in the 18th and 19th centuries is primarily a history of how British subjects conceived of themselves in relation to society. (When in this entry I write “us” I mean it strictly: Armstrong has argued elsewhere for the continuity rather than the distinctness of the British and American literatures.)

She begins with a discussion of the Lockean model of the mind, the famous tabula rasa on which ideas, derived from sensations that originate from objects in the world, are finally synthesized into judgments and emotions, both of which well up from within the mind of, crucially, an individual. The human body is conceived as a container of a unique human subjectivity with a rather strict division between interior and exterior that’s permeable only by sensations and actions (as mental commands to the body). This, Armstrong says, is the model of subjectivity presupposed by realist fiction, governed by what she calls the “logic of sympathy.” That is to say, sympathetic identification with the interior experience of another, his or her frustration and elation, suffering and satisfaction.

Such an individual has a place, of course, within a society: but it might not be the right place. Social mobility may be achieved by those individuals who enjoy (or suffer from) an excess of desire, will, wit, and ability relative to that which is appropriate to their birth position. The protagonist of the picaresque enjoys an excess of this kind in addition to the lack defined by his excess of desire—often, the lack simply of a more fitting adequation between his desire-will-wit-ability and his position. In the early decades of the period Armstrong’s book covers, the protagonist is thus a “misfit” for whom self-expression is a key to success. Here the democratic nation is formed by voluntary self-restraint, which also takes the form of tolerance; the picaresque often ends with the protagonist’s accession to the “society” that formerly excluded him. The community has reformed itself to make room for the misfit individual.

In the 19th century (with Austen as the crucial turning point whose work lies between the two eras), the story shifts. Now the individual with an excess appears as a compulsive violator of bourgeois sexuality, although of course his or her violations seldom if ever appear as directly described sexual deviancies. She or he has two possible fates: gaining entry to society by sublimating the excess desires and thus accommodating his or her sexuality to society’s norm; or else being destroyed as monstrous. Whereas18th-century society accommodated itself to the misfit, 19th-century society is represented as unyielding. The twist lies in the fact that once the C19 moral protagonist either renounces his excess of individualism for social stability (thus paradoxically becoming a complete individual) or is killed as a monster, the reader feels that the fictional world is diminished. For Armstrong, the principle purpose of the novel as a cultural form in these eras is to instruct the reader not to prefer the diminished world, but to settle for it.

But what is the alternative? Armstrong thinks she finds it in Deleuze. Some frustrated students complain that Deleuze’s philosophy is impossibly difficult, perhaps even unthinkable in some profound way. That’s precisely the value for Armstrong of Deleuze’s concepts: only something radically weird can ever hope to think outside of a mode of thought and being as pervasive as individualism. What Deleuze calls the rhizome Armstrong reframes as “vampire thinking” by way of reference to Bram Stoker. This is experienced as a loss of individual boundaries, an infusion of sensations that seem not to be your own, a “compulsion to dance, so to speak, to someone else’s tune.” It is an experience of abandon, a belonging to the “mass man.” Dracula himself, his victims, as well as the transformed group of vampire hunters at the novel’s end provide the model for Armstrong’s elaboration: each member of the group can carry all that group’s knowledge (collective thinking); the group shares a common object of desire (polyandrous desire); the group’s child belongs to no single member of the group (collective parenting); and the group is detached from geography (nomadism). Kant’s ideal representative republic of “universal hospitality,” where anyone has the right of access to anyone else’s society (the “right of visit”), Armstrong implies, may be achieved only by such a collective subject.

So what she’s really getting at, through a conversation about the recent history of feminist scholarship, through a discussion of the distinction between reproduction and repetition as ideals of patterning, and through a deliberate misreading of Freud’s “The Uncanny,” is a sort of belated (in Harold Bloom’s sense) attempt to theorize socialism. Not as a functional political system, but rather as a mode of relations in society. Demonstrating how it became so difficult for us to think that mode of relations—through our long engagement with novelistic narratives—serves primarily to help bring into focus what the alternatives might be, or have been.

Fortunately, Armstrong claims, there has been an alternative current running all along, though it has been far from dominant. Against the “logic of sympathy” that governs the individual’s relation to the collective and structures the classic novel, there has been a “logic of sensibility” that opposes the Lockean model of mind and challenges individualism. For this logic, emotions do not “well up from within the subject in response to sensations and acquire the form of ideas that enrich that subject’s personal storehouse of knowledge” (16). Rather, emotions and judgments originate outside the subject. They are literally in objects in the world, and they spread to us by means of a sort of contagion. Though Armstrong uses the phrase “literature of sensibility,” that refers only to the late early modern* philosophical texts that attempted to theorize “contagion” as the mechanism for the transmission of thoughts and feelings. That is to say, the logic of sensibility seems to be for Armstrong absolutely antithetical to the novel itself. Thus Austen is read as staging a battle between sympathy and sensibility in which sympathy wins every time: “whenever the emotional charge entering the individual from external objects through the senses overwhelm [sic] those genuine feelings that well up from within the individual, Austen’s novels draw a line, as if to say, ‘sensibility, thou shalt go no farther.’” (18) For Armstrong, there is no way for the novel to uphold the logic of sensibility, no matter what formal strategies it employs. “[N]ew varieties of the novel cannot help taking up the project of universalizing the individual subject [i.e., the subject governed by the logic of sympathy]. That, simply put, is what novels do.”

This proclamation raises any number of questions about where and on what grounds Armstrong would choose to draw the line between the novel and competing literary forms—not historically, but formally, and in the present cultural climate. She may be excused for omitting to pass this judgment in a book whose very title limits its concern to a period in which “the novel” was perhaps (perhaps) delimited by less porous boundaries than it is today. But when she ventures to judge absolutely, however briefly and however abstractly, twentieth and presumably even twenty-first century attempts to stretch the novel into performing new feats of imagination, she places herself under a certain obligation to define her central term. On the other hand, Armstrong has authored at least one major previous book I haven’t read that’s principally about “the novel,” so perhaps a satisfactory formal definition may be found there—the kind of definition that is required to underwrite a claim like “that, simply put, is what novels” (rather than most novels or these novels) “do.”

(Oh, and by the way, I read “Jane Eyre” last week for the first time, in preparation for reading this book . . . but that doesn’t mean I have anything to say about it.)

*How does one write this? I mean: the later decades of the early modern period, just before the industrial revolution. “Late early modern” does have the look of a typo. What is preferable?

Wednesday, August 29, 2007


I can't say I enjoyed the experience of watching Tsai Ming-Liang's "The River" (1997). In fact, as a sufferer of chronic neck pain, I found many scenes excruciating. The film's protagonist suffers a motorbike accident in an early scene. His resulting neck trauma becomes more and more debilitating, causing him to seek first modernized medical treatment, then a succession of traditional remedies: chiropracty, massage therapy, acupressure, acupuncture, aromatherapy, etc. Hearing, for instance, the fragile {snaps} of the chiropractic "adjustments" is no fun for any spectator who goes to bed each night hoping not to wake up in pain.

But while I didn't enjoy the film's plot, its cinematic style, on the other hand, was quite beautiful. This is a quiet, mostly immobile, long-take aesthetic in which dialogue plays almost no role. It's a style with a by-now recognizable history, traceable from certain passages in Antonioni, through the films of Chantal Ackerman, all the way up to the work of this director (of which "The River" is the first I'd seen). Its prehistory lies with the Lumiere brothers' actualités and their pre-narrative successors like "Interior New York Subway" (1905). Most shots are their own scenes (i.e., an average scene is composed of only one set-up). The camera does tilt and pan, but never zooms, and tracks or dollies on only one occasion. Often it seems an alien intelligence, some machinic mind, has decided how long to permit a given shot to endure. To cite Deleuze's defining characteristic of the modern cinema, no "sensori-motor schema" dominates "The River." Here "characters" -- I feel the word must be qualified somehow when referring to a film so relentlessly intent on presenting only exteriorities -- are not agents striving toward goals. They are merely bodies enduring what the world (and their bodies) put their bodies through. They withstand terrible physical pain, and they are subject to unbearable drives. The presentation of this pain, these drives, might seem unflinching were it not for the fact that the observer, like the "characters" observed, seems not to possess even that minimal degree of agency necessary for flinching.

The most striking example of any similar aesthetic I've so far seen would have to be Nikolaus Geyrhalter's "Our Daily Bread" (2005). That film puts this style to a use that, at first, seems even more horrible than the human suffering in "The River." As Geyrhalter's sterile camera watches mechanized food production, the viewer encounters gory tableaux: processing of chickens, pigs, and cows, turning organisms into packaged meat. As the film progresses (though it makes no progress as such), the agricultural production (both "natural" and in greenhouses and hydroponic facilities) that's intermixed with these shots of meat finally destroys distinctions between the categories of plant-food and animal-food, leaving the status of the mostly mute human workers deeply unsettled. Both "Our Daily Bread" and "The River" are deeply challenging works. Each constructs for the spectator precisely what only the best cinema can: a space in which to see and think anew about your relations with the world.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

De Sica x2

Laura Kipnis's "Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America" turned out to be very different from my expectations. I hadn't realized it's a crossover academic/mainstream book, a sort of popularization of scholarly ideas (one of the back-cover blurbs euphamizes this quality thusly: "the best general interest book on pornography . . .") That said, the book does play to Kipnis's strengths as a polemicist. The sarcastic quip is her forte. When Jeffrey Masson claims that incest pornography is produced and distributed by the "proincest lobby," Kipnis responds: "I confess I haven't heard of this group. Whom do they lobby exactly--Congress?"

However exciting her prose, however refreshing her no-nonsense attitude, Kipnis's thinking remains uncompelling. Her theoretical stance is both the closest to orthodox Freudianism and the closest to classical Marxism (through Raymond Williams/Pierre Bourdieu) one can imagine getting away with at the present conjucture (or indeed in 1996 when this book was published). So I have little to say about the book.

More excitingly, my wife and I have been enjoying the Boston Museum of Fine Arts' current film series "Signore & Signore," spotlighting Italy's great actresses. A couple of weeks ago we saw "La Signora Senza Camelie," an early (1953), uncharacteristic and largely disappointing Antonioni film. Then, on Thursday, we went for a double feature of Vittorio De Sica. First, as director, De Sica's 1960 "La Ciociara," known in English as "Two Women." Jean-Paul Belmondo is his usual cool self, but to me Sophia Loren was the real surprise. Delivering a performance ranging from carefree playfulness to shattering anguish, she richly deserved her Best Actress Oscar for this film. De Sica's camera choices reminded me of the fluidity and vim of, yes, a Martin Scorsese. Both these films were presented in pristine 35mm prints; they can't have looked much better back when they first premiered.

The print for the second feature on Friday's double bill, "Pane, Amore e Fantasia," was not as impressive as the prints for those other two movies. But this film was even more delightful: De Sica in a typical comedic role, as the bachelor marshall of a carabinieri squad assigned to an out-of-the-way mountain village. Standard screwball antics ensue, especially well-played by De Sica and leading lady Gina Lollobrigida. Both "Pane" and "Camelie" are unavailable in the US in anything but crappy VHS versions. I feel lucky to be living finally in a place where opportunities exist to attend such programming.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

A Pornographic Interlude

One way of structuring a compelling narrative is to promise the reader in an early passage some sort of satisfaction, then to postpone that satisfaction while a problem is resolved. So it is in the interests of compelling narrative that I admit we're nowhere near a blog post on those general continental philosophy books I mentioned back in my first post.

First I was diverted by "The Literary Freud," which I naively thought would be a quick read. It turned out to be densely theoretical, with a broad range of references. Its penultimate chapter tempted me even farther away from the above-mentioned satisfactions. Entitled "The Ontology of the Pornographic Image" (by way of allusion to Andre Bazin's seminal essay "The Ontology of the Photographic Image") this chapter attempted to provide a Freudian-Lacanian rejoinder to various academic scholars of porn, most of whom were themselves operating heavy theory under the influence of psychoanalysis. Meisel's arguments are interesting, though mostly unpersuasive. Perhaps his most original contribution to the now firmly established scholarly field of "porn studies" is to claim that the money shot is a figure of the mother and child in which each has become both subject and object. Of his other arguments -- that porn "does not block or mediate desire" but instead "intercepts desire at its infantile roots, reconstituting object-relations rather than representing them"; that "what pornography presents at any given moment is not a mediated account of someone else's sexual activity, but a vivid projection of the masturbator's own fantasy life in paradigmatic form"; that transgressive porn (gay, bondage, S/M), frequently lauded as resistant to dominant power-structures, in fact requires and ultimately reinforces the rules it seems to subvert; and that the reason porn can't be art or literature has to do not with complexity or intellectuality or craft but rather that the latter "is a series of screens" that "swerves from capturing the infantile sites of pleasure that lie behind" those screens, whereas "like psychoanalysis, pornography removes these screens, exposing what is behind them" -- none constitutes a significant step beyond the existing scholarship. In fact, at least one crucial citation on the topic (Leo Bersani's "Homos") is embarrassingly absent.

But reading this chapter did inspire me to finally go ahead and knock out the literature on porn that's been sitting on my shelf for the last couple of years. I started with the book that now stands as the origin of academic inquiry into the topic of porn: Linda Williams' 1989 "Hard Core."

In many ways this text is now outdated both theoretically and historiographically. A book originally published almost 20 years ago is of course no longer current as a cultural history of the genre. Neither DVD nor the internet (as we know it) existed when the book first hit the market. Fascinatingly, the section that seems the most out-of-date is the 35-page epilogue Williams added for the 1999 second edition, in an attempt to update the text. Giving short accounts of the flourishing of the porn industry in the final decade of the millennium, and of the simultaneous diversification of interests represented by '90s porn tapes (e.g. "upscale yuppie porn," "gonzo fetish porn" etc.), she then proceeds to miss the boat entirely by presenting a lengthy yet uninteresting account of her experience with the flash-in-the-pan medium of interactive porn CD-ROMs, while mentioning the internet only very briefly and the (admittedly new) DVD format not at all.

As is perhaps to be expected, the book is much stronger when addressing moments that had already passed at the time of writing. Her analysis of early stag films reveals that these movies aimed at arousal rather than satisfaction. Many viewers might have masturbated while watching them (historians have little way of knowing for certain), but according to Williams the films seem designed primarily as substitutes for foreplay rather than for intercourse -- that is, to get the almost exclusively male viewers horny rather than (as is typically the case with the porn of today) to get them off. To anyone interested in early cinema, observations such as these are invaluable.

As I mentioned, the theory here is also a bit passé. One thing that Meisel's book does well is to add to the growing swell of voices discrediting the Foucault of the 1980s. By this I mean not Foucault's own 1980s work, but the way in which all his work was assimilated into the English-language academy during that decade. In fact, most of today's voices are now attempting to show that the 1980s reception of Foucault missed the point, and so to "rescue" Foucault in one way or another. One group of such voices insists, as does Meisel, that Foucault, traditionally interpreted as hostile to psychoanalysis, actually amounts to a perfectly logical extension of the project of "Civilization and Its Discontents." (Another group is the Deleuzians, but since A: I'm not sure exactly what they're arguing, B: many of them are much better with computers than I, and C: many of them are vindictive sons-of-bitches -- I plan to leave them well enough alone.) Consequently Williams' Foucault in this book is precisely the Foucault that I have come of age reading snidely dismissive articles about; when she wrote her book, the currently popular Foucault had in English not yet been born. Thus her model for the redemptive reinvention of sex is founded on a drastically undertheorized and internally inconsistent (from our point of view) glorification of polymorphous perversity; and while her writing about the imbrication of power and pleasure may be seen as a step in the right direction (toward the new Foucault, away from the 80s Foucault) it's still not quite adequate.

I hate spending a few days reading a seminal theoretical book only to realize that it has provided me only with a certain foundation for understanding the work that has now superseded it. I need to get a little bit more up-to-speed about porn than "Hard Core" has brought me. Consequently I feel that it would be appropriate to postpone your narrative satisfaction a bit longer. Those continental philosophy books recede farther into the hazy distance of my future reading, and looming monstrously in my path: Laura Kipnis's "Bound and Gagged."

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Meisel the apostle

The "literary Freud" is many Freuds, says the new book that goes by that name. Here, even the notion of "many Freuds" is itself multifarious. And yet Perry Meisel wishes to defend Freud as a systematic thinker, and as a thinker of systems; and Meisel fulfills his wish quite compellingly.

The "literary Freud" is, first, the reception of Freud by literary figures (writers of literature as well as literary theorists). Meisel selects a series of these--D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Mann, Lionel Trilling, Jacques Derrida, Harold Bloom--and draws up, to borrow a phrase from the last of the men on that list, a map of misreadings of Freud. Derrida and Bloom allow Meisel to invoke the first of his major theoretical commitments: the dialectical notion that "deferred action," as chiasmus, oversees all psychical representation.

Deferred action is a term Freud employs in the Wolf Man case to explain the operation of the primal scene. Though the infant does not understand the meaning of what he is seeing as the parents copulate, the experience is repressed and retained. Then, at a later time when the child has acquired the physiological truth about sexual relations, that repressed memory is unconsciously interpreted in light of the new facts and now comes into play psychically more or less as though it had actually occurred not during infancy but during the moment of unconscious epiphany. Freud: "[The] activation of this scene (I purposely avoid the word 'recollection') had the same effect as though it were a recent experience. The effects of the scene were deferred, but meanwhile it had lost none of its freshness in the interval between the ages of one and a half and four years [. . .] At the age of one and a half the child receives an impression to which he is unable to react adequately; he is only able to understand it and be moved by it when the impression is revived in him at the age of four; and only twenty years later, during the analysis, is he able to grasp with his conscious mental process what was going on in him. The patient justifiably disregards the three periods of time, and puts his present ego into the situation which is so long past."

Even in Freud, this description applies to much more than merely the (usually fantasized rather than observed) primal scene. It applies to mental life in general; it is the chief mechanism by which any repressed returns.

Derrida takes this notion pretty far. In Meisel's paraphrase, "the past or, indeed, any object of memory or language [whether repressed or conscious], comes into being only after the fact, as a function of the place language or memory requires it to hold. And not only is the past or the linguistic object always reconstituted belatedly by the operations of memory and reading. The present, too, is always an effect of repetition, since the moment can be grasped, understood as such, only in realtion to something else as well [. . .] The early is put in place by the late." (28)

Passing through the influence of Bloom, Meisel takes the idea even further than (to my knowledge) Derrida did, by combining it with the trope of chiasmus. In a passage that adds at least two more understandings of the book's titular phrase, Meisel explains much of what he means by "chiasmus" so succinctly that there is no need for me to paraphrase: "Chiasmus is a loop or a crossing over--'the pleasure of art,' for example, and 'the art of pleasure.' We see it often in writing, as a way of noting interdepedence and, sometimes, paradox [. . .] Trilling [. . .] describes what he calls the 'reciprocal' relation between Freud and literature through the use of chiasmus: 'The effect of Freud upon literature,' he writes, 'has been no greater than the effect of literature upon Freud' [. . .] On a clinical plane, chiasmus is the structure of psychical defense. The privileged kid becomes a delinquent in order to maintain his or her sense of difference or distinction. Chiasmus is also the structure of the analytic situation. In order to proceed with life, the patient falls ill. In order to fall ill, the patient in the meantime identifies, however symptomatically, all that he or she wishes to repress by producing symptoms. Chiasmus is also key to the conversation with the reader that Freud's writing inspires. Reader and text cross over each other constantly, thereby bringing the play of psychoanalytic discourse into being. Between them, they also mimic or simulate the structure of the Freudian subject. If as a reader one is always at odds with Freud's texts [due to a variety of rhetorical strategies Meisel elsewhere demonstrates Freud to deploy], the Freudian subject is constitutively at odds with itself. According to Freud's revised, structural theory, one is also constitutively at odds with the world, as an organic precondition for hatching or nurturing the ability to be self-divided psychologically. The figure of chiasmus, in other words, structures both the phenomenology and the ontology of the Freudian subject. Chiasmus is the rhetorical structure of the principle of constancy."

This last, ingenious assertion is meant to provide a parallel to the traditional associations of Freudian condensation with metaphor; of displacement with metonymy; and of secondary revision with metalepsis. The last of these associations is complicated when Meisel writes that chiasmus too, in addition to metalepsis, drives secondary revision. Metaleptic secondary revision (the traditional interpretation of this element of the dream-work) is a psychic attempt to unite disparate elements of a dream's manifest content in a way that seems to make some sort of formal sense--any sort of sense, really, so long as it's not the sense of the logical relations among the latent dream-thoughts. It is the tenuousness of the sense of these revised connections that led to a tradition of thinking about secondary revision as metaleptic.

But Meisel asserts that secondary revision appears also as chiasmus. In this way, he claims, it is the "first condition of recall." Chiasmus is a fundamentally temporal dynamic--unlike metaphor, metonymy or metalepsis, which may be conceived (however misguidedly) as atemporal. The notion of chiasmatic secondary revision as the condition of recall means that, in order to recall a memory-thought, some tenuous formal connection must be made between that memory and other memories in such a way as to both minimally motivate that memory (i.e., concoct a minimally plausible justification for its existence) and disguise the logical relation between that memory and the others. But it also means (this is what makes the mechanism chiasmatic) that the already-secondarily-revised body of other already-conscious memories must undergo the same double process (of minimal motivation that serves to disguise logical relations) in relation to the new memory. That body of memories is no more or less than the subject, the self. The self is constantly being altered to fit newly recalled memories, just as newly recalled memories are constantly being altered to fit the self; and, having been revised into mere (and tenuous) personal identity, the logical relations between the subject of one moment and the subject of the next are inaccessible to consciousness.

Meisel has also linked chiasmus to deferred action; in this form, the trope provdes the "first consideration of representability." "Considerations of representability" is the other mechanism of the dream-work, along with condensation, displacement, and secondary revision. In the dream-work it simply means that even abstract dream-thoughts must "exclusively or predominately" [Interp. of Dreams p.545] be represented visually or acoustically. (Freud waffles between that "exclusively" and "predominately"; along with most commentators, I accept the latter.) By "representability" Meisel means much more than any mechanism so narrowly limited to the activity of dreaming. The problem of "representation" is, as Meisel directly admits, at the heart of his book. He believes Freud solved the problem by providing, for the first time, more or less the same account of psychic representation that cognitive neuroscience adheres to today.

I am not quite yet capable of evaluating that belief philosophically, and I'm nowhere near capable of evaluating it scientifically. But I can say that I think Meisel is spot-on when he writes that the dream-work "is no more and no less [. . .] than the conditions of its own representability. Its mechanisms are its readers' responses to it: condensation, displacement, secondary revision, all guided by the master trope of the 'considerations of representability,' which they both anatomize and subtend. This is not only how the dream-work acts but also what the dream-work is. There is no difference between them. Nor is there an identity. The relation between manifest and latent content is not one of difference or identity at all, but of a ratio that comes into being only after the dream's remembrance and interpretation. If the dream reflexively signifies the activity of the dream-work, it is the interpretation that retroactively signifies the activity of the dream [. . .] The dream is at once full enough to be interpreted, but lacking enough to require interpretation. The dream, in other words, is structured by--as--deferred action."

By now the reader's Hegel alarm should be blaring. Meisel readily proclaims the Hegelianism of his mode of thought. Indeed, he credits Freud with both synthesizing the Hegelian and empiricist strains of C19 thinking and with demonstrating how the two strains mutually produced one another. The notion of such a demonstration is itself profoundly Hegelian. Both the synthesis and the demonstration occured in Freud, if they occured in Freud, only implicitly. But if they did not occur in Freud, where did they occur?

For an answer, we should look at Meisel's own relation to Harold Bloom. I suspect (without being informed) that Meisel must have been Bloom's student. I hold this suspicion not due to any delusion that only a pupil of Bloom's could be influenced by him, but rather due to the peculiar ways in which Meisel's prose style seeks to emulate that critic's.

The two most revealing examples of this occur in two moments of parenthesis within a single paragraph near the end of The Literary Freud. Meisel here wants to address a hypothetical attack on Freud. This might seem to be the attack of surely no more than a straw-person, yet I can attest to such flesh-and-blood persons' contemporary existence, having sparred with a few of them: those who believe that Oedipus (as a psychical phenomenon, rather than as a psychological theory) not only cannot be universal but also cannot be anything more than an authoritarian means of installing an oppressive alienating mechanism within the very psyches of the oppressed. Here is Meisel, at length:

"From a Marxist point of view, the family romance has a familiar structure. The grant of authority to the father for the sake of protection tolls reminiscent bells. This is feudalism, although a feudalism that has, as it were, been internalized. It is a feudalism of the unconscious [. . .] For the modern subject--the subject as such--feudalism is the Imaginary mode of thought that misreads or represses the Symbolic order of capitalism. The family romance is its representative. It preserves feudalism in the bourgeois home by making every man a king. In point of fact, value or authority, in wealth or kinship, is in capitalism no more than a position in a system of exchange. The feudal unconscious masks the Symbolic in a more grounded mythology of rule. In doing so, it unmasks it. The sociality that narcissism has uncovered is radically historicizing. Most important, the family romance has a particular discursive form. Like feudalism, it is monological. It has only one tale to tell. Medieval carnivalesque is the foil of the family romance, not its repressed meaning. It augurs the world of capitalism, which is dialogical. Capitalism is a babble of tongues. Freud--modernity--structures the psyche by putting these two discursive modes at odds. Their strife provides us with a picture of the psyche's social history. The tension between them is [. . .] the tension between [. . .] epic and novel." (200-201)

There is much to discuss here, but I'll limit myself to the two parentheticals: "the modern subject--the subject as such" and "Freud--modernity." The former is, perhaps, a dodge. But if it is not, that can only be because it implicitly asserts (as, sometimes explicitly, do many of the so-called postmodern philosophers, e.g. Lyotard, Derrida) that whatever may be new about the moment of postmodernity is not so new as to alter the constitution of subjects. At this point Meisel might still be open to charges of Eurocentrism, until one reaches his second parenthesis, in which his "modernity" is named. To think of a cultural epoch as somehow identical to one of its constituents, and vice versa, would be Hegelian--both chiasmatic and metonymic. But to name that epoch for the constituent because of said constituent's intellectual potency: that is downright Bloomian. Whatever occurs in "The Literary Freud" occurs not in Freud but between Freud and Bloom. An interest in "the anxiety of influence" is crucial here, as is a focus on the dyadic structure of survival as overseeing the triadic structure of desire. If Lacan's project was to become more Freudian than Freud, Perry Meisel's admirable project, now complete, has been to become more Freud-Bloomian than Bloom-Freud. In Baby Perry's primal scene (to take a cue from Deleuze's idealized definition of his own philosophical project), Harold and Sigmund bareback to conception in such a way that both are both topping and bottoming. I mean it in the most complimentary way possible when I say that "The Literary Freud" is Meisel's steaming shit-gift to them both.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Incompetence such as this deserves its own post

This morning I finished reading the splendid (though NOT suitable for newcomers to the man's work) novel "The White Wolf's Son" by Michael Moorcock. The only thing worth mentioning here about this book is an amazing typographical error, without doubt the most egregious such mistake I've ever seen in a professionally published document. Some schmuck apparently conducted a "find/replace" operation on the manuscript to change "lt." to "Lieutenant" -- and then no one ever so much as glanced at the text before sending it off to the printer. In this manner conditions were created under which the reader may be treated to: "Here is one of our favorite subjects, who came to warn us of your revoLieutenant His name is Lord Olin Desleur"; "When he did smile, I responded almost with a joLieutenant I was getting used to sinister threats in ordinary gestures"; and "It was difficuLieutenant I think we shall be safe for long enough."

Someone at Warner Books better have lost his or her job over that, along with three fingers from his or her dominant hand.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Summer of Freud

Every year summer arrives as a seemingly plentiful expanse of leisure time. The final weeks of spring are routinely hectic for me, as they are for most graduate students, and I usually distract myself from term papers by fantasizing about reading and viewing projects to be enjoyed in the summer. The summer before entering the M.A. program that I completed in May '07, for instance, was my "summer of Vic Lit" -- Wuthering Heights, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, The Woman in White, and The Mill on the Floss. I wanted to knock out a few of the classic works of English fiction, because the grad program I was then soon to embark upon included precious little but theory and philosophy.

Usually I come up with so many different projects in any given spring that none of them get proper concerted attention. Take my summer of Vic Lit, which was meant to include a great deal more Vic Lit but kept getting interrupted by the likes of Mssrs. Aristophanes, Alighieri, Moorcock, and Updike (my Athenian Dramatists, Epic Poets, Contemporary British Novelists and, er, Updike projects, respectively).

This summer was different. My project -- my only project -- was certain from the moment in mid-March when, struggling at once through books by Butler, Bersani, and Deleuze, I determined that I didn't know nearly as much as I needed to about Freud.

So this summer I've read: the "Studies in Hysteria", much of the rest of the "Interpretation of Dreams" (I'd read large portions before), the Dora case, the "Three Essays on Sexuality", the Da Vinci book, the "Contributions to the Psychology of Erotic Life," the Rat Man, a good number of the metapsychological papers, the "Introductory Lectures" (Old and New), "A Child is Being Beaten", "Beyond the Pleasure Principle", "Group Psychology", "The Ego and the Id", "Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety" and "The Future of an Illusion". I had already read the Jokes book, the "Uncanny", the Schreber Case, the Wolf Man, "Civilization and its Discontents", and the Outline. This summer also saw readings of Jacques Sédat's theoretical introduction on Freud, Henk de Berg's intro book, Josh Cohen's intro book, Jonathan Lear's intro book, and Peter Gay's "Freud: A Life for Our Time".

I feel pretty much done with Freud for now. But I'm more than glad to have put in the time I did with the primary and introductory-secondary texts, because now I'm ready to graduate to advanced commentators on Freud's corpus -- some of which I'll be re-reading, such as Bersani's "The Freudian Body", which I had to struggle through in order to realize that yes, in fact I was interested enough to want to get this far (and indeed much further, in the future) into psychoanalysis. Freud's inductive argumentative method can lay some claim to empiricism, if only because it has no use for first principles (at least not until the late introduction of Erotic/Thanatotic dualism, and perhaps not even then). But the thinking really operates under the aegis of a wholly rationalistic epistemology. This is absolutely crucial, it seems to me, to the development of continental philosophy, even those writers who don't address Freud's claims about the psyche. Heidegger, from what little I know of him, seems to work in a similar way; and between Sigismund and Martin you've got the two main fountainheads of European philosophical thought for the past century. After the arrivals of Freud and Heidegger, any reconciliation of analytic thought and continental thought looks more or less hopeless. It also seems possible that this problem really goes back as far as Hegel, the first major philosopher to be totally unassimilable into the framework of analytics. Which implies that the problem is really (still!) to be found in Kant.

BUT the summer isn't over: my first semester of classes as a doctoral student don't begin until September. So my next project is to make sure that I know what I'm talking about with that last paragraph. To that end I'll be reading, and posting, over the next few weeks on Simon Critchley's "Very Short Introduction" to continental philosophy and Simon Glendegging's "The Idea of Continental Philosophy" (both quite brief), as well as Andrew Cutrofello's much more thorough "Continental Philosophy: A Contemporary Introduction."

If you don't have much to do with your life, stay tuned.