asdf – couldnt think of a name

[CN: anti-gay slurs everywhere]

Roberto Bolaño Trans. Natasha Wimmer
Picador 2008

Bolaño the poet only stooped to writing prose fiction when he knew he was dying and needed to get money for his family. I flew through the first part of SD, certainly enjoying myself, but wishing I liked it more than I did. It’s fast. Every sentence scrupulously avoids predication or unnecessary details: it’s all action. There’s no lyrical diction or abstract thought, ie the kind of writing I enjoy most (and from what I’ve read of his poetry, it’s largely the same thing but with line breaks).

The first part, “Mexicans Lost in Mexico,” is a diary by Garcia Maderos over the last two months of 1975. Bolaño makes wise storytelling decisions: Garcia Maderos is young, seventeen, so his writing on his own sexual experiences and encyclopedic knowledge of classical Spanish poetic forms make a little more sense than they would with an older narrator. He’s also green, and so he can transmit to us the bohemian “visceral realist” community of writers and actors in a Mexico City still haunted by the student massacres of 1968, like how Patrick O’Brian uses Stephen Maturin to introduce us to a naval ship.

It’s a loose, rambling, discursive novel full of smaller stories, which gradually reveal the context of visceral realism, and more broadly a world of woefully undertranslated Latin American literature and still more broadly world literature from the Tang dynasty poets to the 12th century Troubadours.

But it’s not an encyclopedic novel — it’s a directory. Obscure names are just dropped, which works because the text is made out of speech. There are two pages in part two made entirely out of names, the “Directory of the Avant-Garde” from the magazine Actual No. 1. You could slow down and check every single name against Wikipedia, if you like, or take the names as givens of a story of a countercultural community where literature is life to the extent that Arturo Belano can’t get hard without it. (The women in Garcia Maderos’s life are an exception.)

But there’s another wrinkle: some of the names are fictitious, like Hans Reiter, of main concern in 2666. And many of the characters are fictional versions of real historical people.

So there’s multiple layers of mythologizing: Bolaño mythologizing his youth in Mexico City (he’s cast as Arturo Belano and Mario Santiago is Ulises Lima, my favorite character I think), then Garcia Maderos mythologizing in his diary, since he too wants to shape how this scene will be remembered in a way that suits him — it’d take a very credulous reader to accept that many of the scenes went down exactly how he recounts them, or if so many events happened in one day. And in the second part, made of scraps of oral history from a huge cast of individuals, the same questions of myth apply, with many cast members trying to correct the record.

An example of the name dropping is in the diary entry for November 22 with the young gay poet Ernesto San Epifanio, who

had said that all literature could be classified as heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual. Novels, in general, were heterosexual, whereas poetry was completely homosexual; I guess short stories were bisexual, although he didn’t say so.

Within the vast ocean of poetry he identified various currents: faggots, queers, sissies, freak, butches, fairies, nymphs, and philenes. But the two major currents were faggots and queers. Walt Whitman, for example, was a faggot poet. Pablo Neruda, a queer. William Blake was definitely a faggot. Octavio Paz was a queer. Borges was a philene, or in other words he might be a faggot one minute and simply asexual the next. Ruben Dario was a freak, in fact, the queen freak, the prototypical freak.

“In our language, of course,” he clarified. “In the wider world the reining freak is still Verlaine the Generous.”

Freaks, according to San Epifanio, were closer to madhouse flamboyances and naked hallucination, while faggots and queers wandered in stagger-step from ethics to aesthetics and back again. Cernuda, dear Cernuda, was a nymph, and at moments of great bitterness, a faggot, whereas Guillen, Aleixandre, and Alberti could be considered a sissy, a butch, and a queer, respectively. As a general rule, poets like Carlos Pellicer were butches, while poets like Tablada, Novo, and Renato Leduc were sissies. In fact, there was a dearth of faggots in Mexican poetry, although some optimists might point to Lopez Velarde or Efrain Huerta. There were lots of queers, on the other hand, from the mauler (although for a second I heard mobster) Diaz Miron to the illustrious Homero Aridjis. It was necessary to go all the way back to Amado Nervo (whistles) to find a real poet, a faggot poet, that is, and not a philene like the resurrected and now renowned Manuel Jose Othon from San Luis Potosi, a bore if ever there was one. And speaking of bores: Manuel Acuna was a fairy and Jose Joaquin Pesado was a Grecian wood nymph, both longtime pimps of a certain kind of Mexican lyrical verse.

“And Efren Rebolledo?” I asked.

“An extremely minor queer. His only virtue is that he was the first, if not the only, Mexican poet to publish a book in Tokyo: Japanese Poems, 1909. He was a diplomat, of course.” (80-1)

And so on for much longer, even getting into the Russians. Is it a substantial theory or just his way to riff? It speaks to the lit scene, where these folks seem to have read everything.

I guess Bolaño knew this book would get translated — it’s an international book in its way — and created a monument to world literature (it’s already made me interested in Heimito von Doderer). It’s depressing that at the same time that so much interesting literature goes untranslated, that a neoliberal market has opened where writers have to dumb down their work in order to get it translated in order to actually make sales.

Maybe I should just learn Spanish.

Single para masterclass

Toni Morrison
Vintage, 2004

The opening paragraph of BELOVED is like the entire strange and beautiful novel in haiku form.

124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old — as soon as merely looking in a mirror shattered it (that was the signal for Buglar); as soon as two tiny hand prints appeared in the cake (that was for Howard). Neither boy waited to see more; another kettleful of chickpeas smoking in a heap on the floor; soda crackers crumbled and strewn in a line next to the doorsill. Nor did they wait for one of the relief periods: the weeks, months even, when nothing was disturbed. No. Each one fled at once–the moment the house committed what was for him the one insult not be borne or witnessed a second time. Within two months, in the dead of winter, leaving their grandmother, Baby Suggs; Sethe, their mother; and their little sister, Denver, all by themselves in the gray and white house on Bluestone Road. It didn’t have a number then, because Cincinnati didn’t stretch that far. In fact, Ohio had been calling itself a state only seventy years when first one brother and then the next stuffed quilt packing into his hat, snatched up his shoes, and crept away form the lively spite the house felt for them.

Not a condensation in terms of what happens, but all the modern operations the text will make. “124 was spiteful” is as interesting as it’s confusing. The reader can’t quite grasp what the opening sentences are really referring to. “Full of a baby’s venom”: baby’s venom is so striking that personally I missed the indefinite article, baby’s venom. Even if you know that this story is based on the Margaret Garner incident I imagine it takes a little extra reading labor to comprehend this curtain-opener. That the first sentence is personifying their house, which will become a motif opening all three parts, is pushed toward the bottom.

We learn who the main players are and that two sons have run away, making 124 a feminine space.

We learn how the ghost of the baby works: it can do poltergeist-like things, and it’s also capable of “relief periods” from weeks to months at a time. Later on we see that the ghost is capable of violence, bashing the poor dog’s eye out: if she can do that to a doggie… That’s the main reason why Beloved’s return is really scary: it’s not that kind of novel, but you feel she could murder everybody and turn it into a horror story (it does have elements of southern gothic without the trappings).

“Within two months, in the dead of winter, [Buglar and Howard] leaving their grandmother…” it’s a slight time jump, from the present action of 1873 to an indeterminate span of two months when the boys run away. There are no plot lines but more like arc segments composing the circle containing a great trauma. It doesn’t feel unfair to defer the trauma to the middle of the book, because this is not the mediocre type of mainstream literary novel that simply leads us on to it: it has lots of other events and backstories going on. BELOVED is both on the McCaffrey 100 and Elias’s metahistorical romance: it’s both an ambitious Great American statement, and an experimental historical fiction. In the latter case, these are the best kinds, the ones that refuse narrative uniformity, which makes the past safe to consume.

Modernist experimentation bears witness to the past in a way that highlights the parts of history that defy representation, and highlight the responsibility it puts on us. Morrison’s 3rd person limited narrator cleverly re-plays the incident of infanticide, Rashomon style, from different viewpoints, including that of the racist posse. Each time we inhabit a new character, except for the white people, we’re get a sympathetic presentation of their ethical stance, and there’s a variety of them. Sethe is more insulted by the forcing of her breast milk to other babies than physical violence, and that may or may not be how we and other characters see it.

The last bit about the opening paragraph is that it tells us Ohio has only been a state for seventy years. This is the narrator working like the Prologue for an Elizabethan play, we are in the author’s present in the late 80s, poised to voyage out.

Must we mean what we telepathically say?

Theodore Sturgeon
Vintage, 1999

Sturgeon’s novel is the most classically SF work on the McCaffery 100, and it helped explain why the commentary I read about him stress the short fiction. This book is actually a fix-up, common during the 50s, and the transition from pulp to book-length publishing, with short pieces getting anthologized into “novels.” MTH is made of three novellas, “The Fabulous Idiot,” “Baby is Three,” and “Morality,” and the form fits the theme: the novel is bearing witness to a gestalt, multiple human bodies comprising a single organism, the next stage in our evolution.

Homo gestaltus arises in the country side, with children and adults developing ESP, teleportation, and telekinesis — strikingly, it includes two little black girls with the rest of the white children, striking given that it was written in the eaerly 50s. The issues of integration are baked into the book’s structure, but I figure it caught the eye of McCaffery because it resonates so much with early 20th century theories, namely phenomenology and psychoanalysis.

 The idiot lived in a black and gray world, punctuated by the white lightning of hunger and the flickering of fear. His clothes were old and many-windowed. Here peeped a shinbone, sharp as a cold chisel, and there in the torn coat were ribs like the fingers of a fist. He was tall and flat. His eyes were calm and his face was dead. (1)

These great opening lines introduce Lone, a mute. “many-windowed” is an elegant way to de-familiarize clothes with holes, voids that expose and reveal but also admit light and with it perception.

The narrator is descriptive but struggles to articulate the “thing” inside Lone:

All around it, to its special senses, was a murmur, a sending. It soaked itself in the murmur, absorbed it as it came, all of it. Perhaps it matched and classified, or perhaps it simply fed, taking what it needed and discarding the rest in some intangible way. The idiot was unaware. The thing inside. …

Without words: Warm when the wet comes for a little but not enough for long enough. (Sadly): Never dark again. A feeling of pleasure. A Sense of subtle crushing and Take away the pink, the scratchy. Wait, wait, you can go back, yes, you can go back. Different, but almost as good. (Sleep feelings): Yes, that’s it! That’s the — oh! (Alarm): You’ve gone too far, come back, come back, come — (A twisting, a sudden cessation; and one less “voice.”)… It all rushes up, faster, faster, carrying me. (Answer): No, no. Nothing rushes. It’s still; something pulls you down on to it, that’s all(Fury): They don’t here us, stupid, stupid…they do…They don’t, only crying, only noises.

Without words, though. Impression, depression, dialogue. Radiations of fear, tense fields of awareness, discontent. (3)

Lone does not yet understand that he can read minds, and is picking up the infantile psychic utterances of the children of the gestalt. The first novella is a bracing string of micro scenes with space breaks — more narrative/thematic dis-integration, and the novel racing to set up all the dominoes which fall across the next two, leisurely paced sections.

I like how the text dives headfirst into the question of thinking and language, stating that psychic thoughts arrive “without words” then immediately proceeding to put them into words. If I could send a message directly to the mind, it seems too easy to imagine a verbal utterance in one’s head, like when a movie puts reverb on an actor’s line. Would it be an incomprehensible mush of abstract feelings and organic sensations? To me the novel argues that however telepathy works here, it operates as a linguistic code, which can be represented with words and tampered with via psychoanalysis and recovery of the repressed.

After an important contact with Alicia Kew, who grew up under an unltra-repressive father,  Lone, mauled and nearly unconscious, is taken in by a kind farmer couple named the Prodds. And indeed they prod him into speech, and raise him as a surrogate son. He leaves them when he can read that they want him gone, but still visits. After breakfast one day:

When he was finished they all sat around the table and for a time nobody said anything. Lone looked into Prodd’s eyes and found He’s a good boy but not the kind to set around and visit. He couldn’t understand the visit imagea vague and happy blur of conversation — sounds and laughter. He recognized this as one of the many lacks he was aware of in himself — lacks, rather than inadequacies; things he could not do and would never be able to o. So he just asked Prodd for the ax and went out. (41)

Brazenly, the word “visit” is categorized as an “image.” If that seems too easy, I think it’s in the service of lucid but not too conventional narration: it highlights the formal sound patterns embedded in language like a structuralist would, as well as the signifying nature of “visions” from the unconscious, as a psychoanalyst would.

Delany has a sophisticated, semiotic distinction between SF and so-called literature, but for simplicity I’ll just say that SF as a genre (genre itself being a bundle of historical assumptions constantly being undermined) is preoccupied with questions of technology. Like I said about Butler’s “Speech Sounds”, language can be related to as a technology in SF. Paul de Man described language as both the material and the tool; it’s embedded in the world as we perceive it, yet fundamentally different from reality. And despite reading and writing being solitary and silent activities, language is fundamentally a social tool.

We shall welcome the gestalt (and the anti-gravity engine, but that’s a McGuffin) as the purest expression of this aporia that has conditioned our existence. It may be clear why SF fans stick with the short stories, but it’s also clear why Delany, in his Paris Review interview, included Sturgeon with Bester, Zelazny, Russ, and Disch as science fiction’s high brow crew.

Reading Derrida part 2: grammar got run over

Last time I mentioned that the difficulties of writing are eased by writing the way one talks. Derrida’s opening critique of structuralist doctrine is that it treats writing as a simple representation of speech. In the second chapter of his book OF GRAMMATOLOGY he quotes Aristotle and Saussure:

“Spoken words are the symbol of mental experience and written words are the symbols of spoken words.” Saussure: “Language and writing are two distinct systems of signs; the second exists for the sole purpose of representing the first (italics added).

Written language is made of secondary signifiers. It operates from the “already constituted units of signification”in our speech, and has no role to play in how those are formed.

The fundamental issue is that the sign’s formation seems so arbitrary that it’s mystifying. Remember that Saussure and Derrida are writing in a language where the oi in qoi sounds like wa. By what magic did these graphemes, these squiggles on the screen, come to evoke specific sounds? Onomatopoeia words are more comforting in how their sounds motivate their meaning, although that doesn’t stop meow meaning the same as nyan. But the majority of the time, there is no obvious reason for a sound’s correspondence to a letter. This situation is known in Derrida’s jargon as becoming-unmotivatedness.

Derrida’s judgement: structuralism is operating on themes of Nature/Culture, Inside/Outside, Reality/Representation: concepts which all trip the Metaphysics alarm. The heading of the subsection we’re in is called “The Outside and the Inside.” In the French it literally translates to The Outside Is the Inside, but the French est (is) and et (and) are homophones. The pun bundles all of the concepts in this reading together and also prefigures what Derrida’s about to do: collapse and reverse the inside outside dualism.

He takes the reader on a fast and loose intertextual history of theory. Plato is well known for condemning writing: “the evil of writing comes from without.” Writing is actually a contamination, an imitation of an imitation, separated from the truth by two degrees. It is the violence of “artful technique” from the outside to the inside of the human soul’s “self-presence.” Keep those creepy writers away from the Republic.

If Saussure isn’t so moralizing, he also falls into a trap in Derrida’s view. Writing can also be seen as “a clothing.” Speech clothes thought; writing clothes speech. And just like poor Adam and Eve, the necessity of clothing only came after Sin.The birth of writing is language’s own original sin, which structuralism repressed and Derrida recovered.

See, the Original Sin is the splitting of the “natural bond” between the the signified and the signifier. I portrayed Derrida last time as attacking this bond single-handedly, but he’s actually merely confirming something that any experimental literature will hint towards. There is always a split between the meaning and the materiality of the word to some extent. Take William H. Gass, that last champion of belletristic literature. In his amazing essay on Freud, he opens the second sections with:

From the first, Freud hoped to place his psychology on a firm scientific footing.

Its sense is clear: Freud wanted to investigate neurology to avoid seeming metaphysical — a tight exposition. But look at the alliteration, the triplet of F’s gets balanced by “firm scientific footing,” psychology and scientific with their unwieldy syllables are pacified by their placement and s-sounds. The way I set it up, there seem to be two ways to read any sentence, one way for its sense, another way for its sound. The “artful technique” of writing does seem to be an imposition; a stylistic surplus on meaning. Does baroque prose get in the way of meaning? Not necessarily. They can be reconciled, or sometimes the sound is the sense.

But for Saussure, the unity of sound and sense, of signified and signifier, was in Eden. What’s devastating about Derrida’s analogy is that it shows show structuralism fundamentally resembles a narrative of Christian humanism — pretty humiliating for a theoretical project trying to pass itself off as a science for the brave new technocratic capitalist word of the 20th century. It’s also only in the garden where writing would be properly subordinate to speech.

The basic point of Derrida’s thinking is that language was never innocent. Still characterizing Saussure’s (and Rousseau’s) thought, he goes on: “Writing is the dissimulation of the natural, primary, and immediate presence of sense to the soul within the logos.” Logos is, mistakenly in Derrida’s view, privileged by these thinkers as the transcendental power of knowledge, the signifier of Being, and having its presence in speech, writing then being an attack on the mother tongue. The misstep happened because of the “unmotivatedness” of writing. In a situation like this, origins are lost, which is sort of traumatizing, and writing just seems like this thing that engenders itself.

But with typical postmodern excessiveness, Derrida wants to go even more hardcore: Writing is not merely a removed form of speech — it is speech that is a form of writing. This is bonkers, and he never specifies in what way speech can be a form of writing. It seems obvious that speech and writing are very distinct linguistic practices — just compare the narration and the dialog in GRAPES OF WRATH. Derrida’s reversal is there not because it makes sense, but because it aesthetically pleases him.

Another thing I’m struck by is how all the most useful insights in Derrida’s work come at the very beginning as solid ingots of reasoning. After such strong claims, his papers fizzle out in overlong intertextual close reading which probably refine and revise his openers in subtle ways, but I always start skimming. We don’t get a clear view of how Derrida developed his ideas or what his methods were. If I can be so unkind, Derrida’s theorizing is sloppy, like action painting with words. But he seems to know what he’s doing with it.

To take the painting notion further, it may be that the aesthetic dimensions of Derrida’s work are more valuable than the traditional rigors of philosophy. I’ve always liked thinking about painting as an index of how the artist actually “sees” the world, in her mind’s eye, at least. Well, Derrida, as well as Baudrillard and Camus (who’s book THE REBEL is a beautiful essay with swiss-cheese reasoning), are not so much building an argument as showing us how they see things, and inviting us to see how we line up with them.

Speech may have been privileged as the site of logos. But it is writing that makes “the idea of ideal objects” possible, as the Adams and Searle put it in their crit theory anthology. This ideal is instrumental in scientific laws and the legal system. Indeed, with social media, our existences are “lettered” in a way that makes seem like language is ubiquitous, which it always is, but in different ways.

How many diatribes have you heard about the modern intellect and attention span degraded by 140-character limits? Twitter and tumblr, despicable corporate machines they are, at least resist the totality of the book, which may encourage us to re-think language not as a sacred practice of presence reserved for the elite. In fact, writing is no presence at all, but the constant re inscription of difference.

We need a word to denote difference as a process, a word about difference that makes no difference in how it’s read or said, but signifies a different way think of difference and deference that is still not a fundamentally different concept. We have to talk, then, about DIFFERANCE.



Reading Derrida part 1: rage against the machine


Jacques Derrida is too eagerly portrayed as a gleeful anarchist. While post-structuralism does resemble the act of ruining a game of Jenga and running away snickering, Derrida’s ethos in his own writing is that of a sage who thinks slowly and carefully.The postwar philosophy I’ve read is experienced more as a leisurely stroll through a Japanese garden than a sprint through flawless logic. Deconstruction doesn’t need any dynamite to plant; it simply re-focalizes any given dualism in human thought so that it undermines itself before our eyes — modest work in practice.

Derrida is pretty hard to read. It’s partly the time and place. He tacitly admits that he’s using the rhetoric of a “Last Philosopher,” except this time he really is the last of an incredible vein of Last Philosophers, from Nietzsche onward, “Last” because they’ve read more widely and deeply than us, and because they are out to destroy metaphysics. His writing is a blow-by-blow grapple with structuralism and semiotics, which get more obscure with each passing day as they fade into memory, so some familiarity with early 20th century theory is needed.

But if he had written out his thought in plain, lucid prose, he would have been a hypocrite. He’s out to prove, after all, that language is slippery, constantly pulling out the ground for its own interpretation.

So, the picture above is a diagram inspired by a model Derrida offers at the beginning of “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” He’s basically outlining the common conception of Structure or structural thought, but teases us with a certain “Event” which will rupture this model. (It should be “metaphorical displacement,” it’s not the only kind.)

It would be easy enough to show that the concept of structure and even the word “structure” itself are as old as the epistémé—that is to say, as old as western science and western philosophy—and that their roots thrust deep into the soil of ordinary language, into whose deepest recesses the epistémé plunges to gather them together once more, making them part of itself in a metaphorical displacement.

The structure is the collection of rules and traditions legislating how we speak and write all day every day. What’s scary is that they existed before we did — how else could we utter anything in the first place? “Free speech” controversies are such liberal sideshows that would be sobered by any serious thinking about how language works: nobody really believes in free speech.

The structure sits on a foundation of our collective knowledge, which Derrida identifies with the greek word epistémé to emphasize its longetivity.

But then we have this image of an infernal machine, or an eldritch cyborg, digging and drilling and penetrating into the “soil of ordinary language,” strip-mining it of its words and concepts, digesting them and assimilating them into its own composition. My inadequate drawing went for limp tree roots because I couldn’t decide on infernal machine drill bits or eldritch cyborg tentacles.

Writing is hard; the easiest course to take is write the way you talk. As a friend once said, America’s southern writers are the best because they talk the best. The written word is just the spoken word in code. And this is the framework of de Saussure’s linguistics.

Derrida is about to argue that this is wrong. The metaphorical displacement machine is an incorrect model. More precisely, it is a dream sign.

What he emphasizes about this model of structuralism is that it is centered, or has a center. It has always been “neutralized or reduced” because we force a center onto the model, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to talk about it in the first place. The machine in my doodle looks stationary and stable enough on its epistemic columns, but the real thing is constantly roaming the landscape of everyday speech (or parole). Like in quantum physics, theorists have an observer effect to worry about: they can only look at a distorted image of their object of study, like the astronomers who find exo planets by looking at the gravitational mirages made by their suns.

The center is what allows for “play” within the system’s totality. The “play” doesn’t become radical — it doesn’t fundamentally transform its structure — because such a move is “interdicted,” and Derrida really wants us to pay attention to his word choice. An interdict is a forbidding of something, but it is also “between diction,” which leaves open another meaning. It’s not that the system is a rulebook-thumping despot, but that it sometimes confounds itself into silence as part of its operation. Theory gently nudges us toward the more interesting ideas, and that’s why it usually deserves our patience and tolerance of its jargon and density — these are counter-intuitive and non-obvious ideas about how things work around here that need to be developed carefully; they could potentially be instrumental in our liberation. Turn on Fox News to see what “straight talk” does for you.

But anyway, this incorrect model is a dream sign. This is because the premise that the discourse’s structure has a center, and that a center-less structure is unthinkable, is “contradictorily coherent.” A coherent contradiction is an oxymoron, but it’s a common thing. We are all pretty comfortable with coherent contradictions in late capitalism: look how much despotism is necessary to protect our freedoms in this century. Derrida writes:

Coherence in contradiction expresses the forces of a desire.

We’re in psychoanalytical territory now. The unconscious is the experimental movie of your life: the power of the id manifests itself in enigmatic signs which we experience in our dreams. Indeed, our recollection of our dreams is another filtered reproduction, as our cerebral ego tries to normalize them. To see the horrible true natures of our desires would be like the film EVENT HORIZON, or something, and we need shuteye.

These dream signs are also contradictorily coherent. They are the synthesis of a given desire (a lack which must be filled) and the counter-desire to repress that desire.

So this machine is a big embarrassing dream sign of Western thinking. What does it repress? That the machine has no center.

Derrida makes his task as difficult as possible, which I suppose is why having done it he ushered in post-structuralism. You cannot claim that the center of the sign system doesn’t exist without rejecting the sign itself.

The sign cannot in itself surpass this opposition between the sensible and intelligible.

But that didn’t stop structuralists from trying. They bracketed off the sensible, the actual existing world and the flesh-and-blood readers living in it, while their Formalist comrades bracketed off the author’s intentions.

The sign is an intense fusion of the signifier and the signified, or the word and the concept the word evokes in context. If the signifier “Open” is in neon red and blue, its signified is that the restaurant is open.

Derrida is outing the signifier as a metaphysical concept. This is the Jenga block that gets plucked out. But that metaphor is too easy. Derrida isn’t so irresponsible as to weed out any metaphysics in the cultivated Western garden on sight. That would have us naively reducing the sign to the signified, which is only half of what a sign is. We are then metaphysically complicit — well, I’ve done worse things.

There are more important insights here. One is that semantic dualisms pave their own way to their deconstruction, because they repress the key thing that sustains them. Take the classic doublet of Nature/Culture. The split represses the problem of incest, which humans have a harder time avoiding than animals do — is human incest nature or culture? Incest is banished to the unthinkable, but it’s also perversely what the opposition depends on by its absence. And indeed, structuralism banishes post-structuralism to the unthinkable. Nothing is safe from deconstruction because ideological doublets can always be questioned. Masculinity depends on a degraded and devalued Woman to define itself against, and it can be a stressful thing, not just because men have to measure up against a negative definition, but because the repressed can always return — Woman is a banished part of men, and men with the behaviors they’re encourage to have, may not take the news so well. Creating a solid core of an identity means you now have borders to patrol.

Which leads to the other insight. These semantic doublets can always be questioned because there isn’t really a foundation to our thought. That’s what people mean when they say “It’s turtles all the way down.” Every foundation is dependent on another foundation. The machine is digging through ordinary speech because structuralism desired (and then repressed said desire) for a natural foundation of language, from whence all other rules came, that was in there somewhere. Ironically, Derrida has the “transcendental signifier” not Out There but sequestered in the earth, like the dead dinosaurs we dig up and burn. The clue was there all along that this framework is not sustainable.

While this whole lecture of his was an intervention on a model, I find myself overwhelmed by the model and the way it was expressed. It’s not every day a work of theory moves me to draw something up. This blog is about literature loosely called modernist, and my biggest take-away point here is that throughout literary history moves a certain bundle of contradictions that bring forth texts we call Modern. They can have different outlets in different times and places: novels in the Anglo-American world, theatre in the Weimar Republic. I see no reason why these outlets wouldn’t include post-war theory.

I didn’t cover everything, but I think that’s pretty much post-structuralism’s opening move. But Derrida’s implicit argument is that writing is way more problematic than we thought, which is, funny enough, not at all a novel claim in philosophy. If writing is a code with a missing cypher, we are then left with the problems of GRAMMATOLOGY.


on pernicious liberal rhetoric

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Many people on the left will be grudgingly voting for Clinton. Many people on the left will refuse to vote as an ethical principle. Too many people on the left will not be voting because they are incarcerated, perhaps because of the Clintons’ “three strikes yer out” and other such racist police state policy-making over the years.

Because of the electoral college and the winner-take-all system, no individual person’s choices regarding the election is worthy of any real scrutiny — that’s the thesis for this post, really. But now I must follow the liberals.

The tweet pictured above is a perfect example of liberal rhetoric, mainly for its brevity. (To be clear, liberalism here and in most leftist discourse broadly means a political philosophy that is committed to preserving the capitalist system, and hence, not radical.) I’ll repeat it below:

If “not liberal enough” is your reason to not vote for Hillary when the alternative is *actual fascism*, your liberalism is just narcissism

I won’t offer a taxonomy of classical rhetorical forms — there’s barely room in a tweet for one — but rather the fundamentals: devising arguments (inventio), putting them in the right order (dispositio) and articulating them with style and elegance (elocutio).

Of course, rhetoric is about shaping language, not truth. The argument made by our liberal rhetor here has no force without the ethical proof behind it, which is an appeal to the speaker’s liberal virtue. The liberal sees the problem clearly, unlike the extreme ends of the spectrum (notice that Obama at the convention listed Communists not because we are taken seriously as a threat, but to create a doublet with Fascists). The problem is that *actual fascism* promises to arrive if we do not all play the quaint game of electoral politics.

I’m gonna refer to the “you” addressed in the tweet as the dissenter. With one tweet plucked out of the swirling discourse, we don’t have any context; the dissenter’s likely a disenchanted Bernie bro who still says #NeverHillary. But the charge of ideological purity has been leveled against leftists who do not vote as well. I don’t think I’m being too unkind when I take this piece of rhetoric to be a liberal interpretation of that position of abstention.

The dispositio: The rhetor artfully takes us from an implicit meaning (Leftists hate Clinton because she is insufficiently pure in ideology) to its repressed meaning (Leftists are narcissists only concerned with keeping up political pureness, for if they really cared they would take the fascist threat seriously enough to hit the polls). There’s little room to argue when the rhetor throws down the magic reductive word just. The good liberal never misses a chance to discipline the dissenters’ anger while delivering the insight. One could also dish out a stale cliche: “Don’t make perfect the enemy of good.”

But in twenty three words a lot of unspoken premises shift the ground right under our feet. By the end of it, a rhetorical audience has been summoned that is on board with these notions:

The *actual fascism* that Trump’s America would promise is a nightmare on the horizon, and not an existing reality for black communities. (Most comrades would counter that fascism augments violent systems that are already in place.)

The horizon of public politics ends with electoral politics and all the gerrymandering, mis-managed polling stations, and poll taxes that entails.

The electorate is chiefly concerned with domestic culture war fronts. That folks here would be upset for any reason about the coup in Honduras, or fed up with drone strikes, or that so many think pieces have appeared in the last two years about how so many black women do not want children because bringing more black children into life under America is too cruel for them to bear, is not even acknowledged as a possibility (to say nothing of deportations and detention facilities.)

Because so many are taxed at the polls (ID registration) or otherwise disenfranchised, those of us who are registered are somehow burdened with guilt;  in penance for our privileges we must enact our civic duty which is also a privilege which is also a right. Like the Taco Bell commercial, in which a man with a steak wrap looks on an exhibit of prehistoric people battling a Mastodon, we must “do it for them.”

Most importantly:

Politics is legitimate (ie within bureaucratic party institutions and on their terms) or it’s narcissistic bullshit — an “anarchist’s wet dream,” as a liberal once snapped at us while she removed the garbage bins from the street, allowing the police to kettle and arrest the protestors not long afterward.

It’s not what you say, but how you say it, the truism goes. In discourse about the discourse, it’s not how you say it, but for what purposes are you saying it in that way. If the goal of liberal rhetoric is to get more people to vote democrat, I’m guessing it fails. If the goal, however, is to deliver judgments that make the dissenter feel cut off — “your liberalism/communism/anarchism is just narcissism” — from a true solidarity that would be the basis of an alternative politics, I think it’s remarkably effective. Good rhetoric makes the dissenter feel alone.

It’s not that Trump does not horrify me — he does. By all means, sound the alarm. I agree 100% that *actual fascism* is immanent; moreover, it is here, organized, armed, and has for decades been intimately working within state, local, and federal government under the banner of the evangelical right, to say nothing of white supremacists who become cops.

Solidarity is necessary against our many existential threats. A forced consolidation under a smiling war criminal does not satisfy our definition.

Liberals, in the decades of neoliberal economics and in my personal experience, have shown more interest in humanizing fascism than taking a stand against it. They act passionately when it suits them, such as when they dog pile on radicals, frustrated by their own refusal to acknowledge our positions; but take on a posture of coolness when bigotry gains a platform in college campuses or elsewhere.

At best, liberal rhetoric is manipulative; at worst, it provides rarefied examples of moral imbecility. And in the coming months there will be no shortage of examples.

the first five pages of “Arisbe”

Susan Howe

New Directions, 2015

If “Creative Nonfiction” is sticking around as a field (I think “the essay” is fine, though), we can claim one of the greatest cultural theorists of the last century, Walter Benjamin, as one of our own. That post has great examples of his work, but there is a concept from his actual theory that doesn’t get mentioned: the constellation.

The constellation is very much wrapped up with Benjamin’s critiques of linear time as a function of capitalism: We should hold historical moments together in our imaginations and see what flashes of revolutionary insight arise — The activist organization Assata’s Daughters puts this radical form of public history into practice, I think.

The constellation is also an aesthetic, one that breaks “with traditional versions of totality,” writes Terry Eagleton in THE IDEOLOGY OF THE AESTHETIC (330). Constellated art resonates with a lot of post-war work: the 80s feminist avant-garde, the intellectual doorstop fiction in the US, Godard’s and Gorin’s as well as Peter Watkins’s cinema. Basically, if a work seems to be made of disjunct fragments with a lot of conceptual “space” between elements (that is, it seems up to you to put everything together), you may have a constellated text on your hands. Benjamin’s ambitious flaneur project about the arcades of Paris was being composed in this way.

Susan Howe’s essay collection has some of the most formally daring experimental essays I’ve read. Her middle piece “Arisbe” opens with a picture of an idyllic cottage. Underneath, an epigraph from Juliette Pierce: “He loved logic,” the alliterative words semantically smashing pathos and logos together. These meanings are not close to apparent until you’ve read the whole thing.

Next page: a reproduction from a manuscript. There are no captions — the whole idea, once again, is to resist totalizing thought; integrating and consolidation strategies are off the menu.

Next page: Some text arranged in Howe’s characteristic poem format: rather squat, double-spaced blocks of print in the center of the page.

Phenomenology of war in the Illiad

how men appear to each other when

gods change the appearance of things

Send him down unwilling Captain of

the Scorned he is singularly doomed

Mortality is a sign for humanity our

barbarous ancestors my passion-self

Each assertion must maintain its icon

Faith in proof drives him downward (59)

The best I can do with this language poetry, even on re-reading, is to reach for more semantic fields: appearance and reality, faith and evidence. We are also being primed for when the Illiad comes into play later in the essay, along with Alexander Pope. (The essay pops in a couple more poems at the beginning, then go away before a seven page poem closes the piece.)

Next page: Another manuscript picture.

One convention of the constellated essay is apparent from this opening: multi-media material cast in a disparate fashion. Along with photographs and reproductions and poems, Howe will also use quotes, manuscript fragments, clippings from indexes and dictionaries.

This kind of essay writing “revolutionizes relations between part and whole” (Eagleton). By focusing almost wholly on parts, it emphasizes the quality most unique to art in any medium — its sensual rendering of specific aspects of existence.

“Arisbe” is an essay about the New England thinker Charles Sanders Pierce. Howe did some research on his quite interesting life, but she does not present an elegant “reading” of him. This essay is a product of her research but it doesn’t seem to be anything more than an index of that research. Making overt the process of artistic production is another imperative of modernist experimentation that the constellated essay meets.

Howe finally gives us a conventional bit of narration — we could say the “main body” of the text has begun, but such a hierarchy would not be in the spirit of the constellation.

During the summer of 1997 I spent many hours in New Haven in the bowels of Sterling Library because that’s where the microfilm room is, almost underground, next to preservation… No one stays for long in this passage or chamber because it’s freezing and the noise from the air-conditioning generators the university recently installed in a sub-basement immediately underneath resembles roaring or loud sobbing. (61)

It’s transparent exposition but the language is still a bit odd. “Because that’s where the microfilm room is” is a semi-obtuse explanation for where she is. Notice she has rhetorically constructed an audience who would be savvy that Sterling Library is sufficient to let us know she’s at Yale (I’m only half-joking when I think that in her own textual transformation of New England and its history, Howe is odd company with Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft).

A microphotograph is a type of photograph nearly as old as photography itself, in which an original document is reproduced in a size too small to be read by the naked eye so here the human mind can understand far from it. Film in the form of a strip of 16 or 35 millimeters wide bearing a photographic record on a reduced scale of a printed or other graphic matter for storage or transmission in a small space is enlarged to be read on a reading machine combining a light source and screen together in a compact cabinet. The original remains perfect by being perfectly what it is because you can’t touch it. (62)

The paragraph develops microfilm into a symbol for the issues of representation and all that, but it is also an example of constellations practice of always pursuing particularities, even when it halts up the essay’s “flow.” Rather than a fully developed insight, the way most essays work, the reader experiences here a series of resistances within the text and between herself and the text. A constellated essay is a constipated once.

Specificity is the idea. In the constellation model, “concepts must cling to the contours of the theme itself rather than spring from the subject’s arbitrary will” (Eagleton 332).

Indeed, Howe soon fills the essay almost entirely with found material; the speaker actually shuts herself out of her own text in her desire to resist subduing the essay’s components into a total vision.

A kind of paradox arises: In resisting totality, the constellation actually pines for some kind of Edenic state when meaning and materiality are one. Constellating a whole bunch of factual data can be mere positivistic prattle with a radical posture. Whether Howe’s amazing avant-garde work falls into this sort of ideological project needs closer reading than what I’ve sketched here.

Like the pile of hat making stuff in MRS DALLOWAY, these essays trade in piles of discursive shit, from physics to philsophy (constellation essays can revel in fusing empirical science with the humanities), to modern history and Homer. I close with an amusing metaphor on the essay’s construction in this aphoristic quote on Pope:

THOMAS WENTWORTH HIGGINS: Look to the physical aspect of your manuscript, and prepare your page so neatly that it shall allure instead of repelling. Use good pens, black ink, nice white paper and plenty of it. Do not emulate “paper-sparing Pope,” whose chaotic manuscript of the “Illiad,” written chiefly on the backs of letters, still remains in the British Museum. If your document be slovenly, the presumption is that its literary execution is the same, Pope to the contrary, notwithstanding. [“Advice to a young Contributor,” Atlantic Monthly, April 1862.] (78)