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A Tale of Two Prometheuses in Many Parts

November 16, 2015 - 11:55

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I, II ) 

Percy Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound defies easy analysis. Shelley composed his verse drama to illustrate his father-in-law William Godwin’s radical social philosophy, at least in part. Although Godwin could not finish the poem, as he recorded in his journal. Shelley, in an oblique reference to Godwin and the Godwinian school, describes in his Preface to the poem the “great writers of our own age” as “forerunners of some unimagined change in our social condition or the opinions which cement it. The cloud of mind is discharging its collective lightning, and equilibrium between institutions and opinions is now restoring, or is about to be restored.” 

Shelley here echoes Godwin, who viewed inequities of power and the corrupt institutional arrangements of his day as errors to be corrected by an objective Reason in the fullness of time. Truth will specifically emerge through “the clash of mind with mind,” in Godwin’s early and agonistic version of the bourgeois liberal public sphere ideal-type. The work of enlightenment is nonetheless a matter of “private judgment” for Godwin who in this way maintains the form, if not the content, of his early Calvinist formation. It was for effecting enlightenment and converting the reader’s private judgment that Godwin turned to novel writing with his Caleb Williams. Yet, as critics such as Pamela Clemit argue, Godwin eschewed didacticism in favor of formal and thematic ambiguity, specifically to exercise the judgment of his readers. Shelley certainly pushes the Godwinian form to a visionary extreme in his Prometheus Unbound, declaring didactic poetry “an abhorrence,” while seeking to represent cognitive and perceptual processes through analogy with the natural world; a reversal of traditional figurative practice that accounts for the poem’s difficulty.

Yet, while Shelley’s poem offers us an allegorical vision of a utopian future in an arguably Godwinian form, Prometheus Unbound stands in stark contrast with the proto-accelerationist speculations with which Godwin concluded his 1793 Political Justice. This departure is a significant one, as Shelley reworks the myth of Prometheus in a fashion radically distinct from the Prometheanism that would come to dominate the later nineteenth- and twentieth-century political imagination. This “mechanical Prometheanism,"  in the words of Arthur Mitzman, represents one ideologically convenient myth of modernization. The exemplars of this view see in the Titan who stole fire from the gods a shorthand for their preferred flavor of progress: technological determinism and domination of the natural world.

This more familiar Prometheus finds one prototype in the early Godwin, while his anarchist successor Joseph-Pierre Proudhon gives the myth its definitive nineteenth-century form. But it was during the twentieth century that Prometheanism of this stripe reached its zenith, exemplified in the various futurisms and productivisms that shaped modern capitalism and state socialism alike. While certain Second International socialists and their productivist heirs in the USSR carried the torch for this mechanical Prometheus, it was Western Marxists ( such as Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse) who first recognized—in the mechanized slaughter of the First World War, a thoroughly technophilic fascism with its assembly line Judeocide, and the United States’ atomic atrocities—the endpoint of Progress conceived along these lines. These same thinkers shaped the intellectual formation of the sixties era New Left, who in rejecting this radioactive strain of Prometheanism necessarily rejected capitalist developmentalism and its nominally “communist” doppelgänger. As the twentieth century waned, so too did the taste for this techno-scientific drive to mastery, as leftists were forced to reckon with the ecological costs of industrial modernization. Now, as planetary civilization and the planet itself face imminent ecological collapse, techno-utopianism is making a come-back from the cyber-libertarian solutionists of Silicon Valley to the ostensibly left accelerationists, who seek to revive Prometheus, without ever asking which Prometheus they want to revive.

I argue—in this post and the several that follow—that we can discern in the Shelleys, Percy and Mary, an early articulation of an alternative Prometheanism, which Karl Marx develops, despite his undeserved reputation for machine worship.


There are multiple versions of the Prometheus myth from antiquity, but it is Plato’s Protagoras that most definitively identitfies the Titan with techne—a term that for the Ancient Greeks denoted craft, applied knowledge, and the mechanical arts--in an expansive sense. In Plato's version of the myth, Prometheus assigned his brother Epimetheus the task of distributing “proper qualities” among mortal creatures. And so Epimetheus worked according to an implicit principle of harmony with each species’ survival in mind, hence “he gave strength without swiftness, while he equipped the weaker with swiftness; some he armed, and others he left unarmed.” The unwise Epimetheus ran out of qualities to confer when he arrived at humankind, which is why Prometheus found the human being “naked and shoeless, without bed nor arms of defence.” In order to fill these gaps, Prometheus “carried off Hephaestus's art of working by fire, and also the art of Athene, and gave them to man" (Protagoras, 320c-328d). Plato, in the guise of Protagoras, implicitly defines human nature as the absence of instinct, while the human capacity for survival consists in the extra-somatic capacity to alter ourselves and our environments. Plato nonetheless anchors this myth of anthropocentric exceptionalism in Epimetheus’s mistake: a blunder that looks forward to James Whale’s loose film adaptation of Frankenstein, in which Fritz, Frankenstein’s foolish assistant, snatches a “criminal” brain after dropping the normal specimen he was tasked with procuring for his employer’s science project. The bad brain leads to the creature’s murderous antics. 

This Prometheus illustrates Hans Blumenberg’s theory of myth as a functional response to the “absolutism of reality.” Myth, according to Blumenberg, originally offered finite human beings symbolic orientation amid the chaotic contingencies of  living. Self-declared moderns transformed this myth in reviving it during the enlightenment period. What formerly oriented the pre-modern human community to the uncertain conditions of its own collective life was reconfigured to provide a new rationalism, a new science, and a new political economy with a raison d’être: from symbolic to actual mastery over life and nature.

Many modern readers nonetheless view Prometheus Bound—traditionally ascribed to Aeschylus, despite some skepticism on the part of classicists regarding this attribution—as the definitive rendition of the myth, despite some telling differences from Plato’s vision of Prometheus as homo faber. The drama consists in a series of exchanges between the Titan—chained to the rock where a bird gnaws on his self-regenerating liver in punishment for the grandest of larcenies—and various allegorical figures, including Might and Force, the henchmen of Zeus. Prometheus’s theft of fire, in violation of a tyrannical Zeus' prohibition, is just one among many instance of the titan’s intervention on behalf of mortals in Aeschylus’s drama. For instance, in recounting Zeus’s intention to destroy human beings, Prometheus recalls his intervention and his motivation for intervening: “I saved those death-bound creatures [because] I pitied mortals."

The Promethean gifts of fire and the useful arts are similarly justified as enabling human beings to live “a life of purpose.” Prometheus seemingly stands up for justice and mercy. In attempting to redistribute powers monopolized by Zeus to finite and semi-bestial humankind, the play suggests a more democratic ethos. Prometheus recalls how he initially sided with his fellow Titans against Zeus and his Olympian upstarts as they struggled for dominance. Yet, Prometheus, using the foresight implied in his name, switched sides once he realized the Titans would lose. The Titan then worked for the victory of the insurgent gods in their cosmic coup, through the use of his “superior guile” or cunning. Prometheus’s ability to see into the future fails him in the case of Zeus. In spite of its modern afterlives, Aeschylus’s version of the myth complicates one standard enlightenment era interpretation of Prometheus as an embodiment of enlightenment reason and revolutionary justice, as Corey Robin argues, “Prometheus made a mistake: not in giving fire (and much else) to humanity, but in hitching his wagon to such an unpromising star as Zeus. Prometheus’s growing contempt for Zeus and his followers is not that of a revolutionary against a tyrant; it reflects instead his old-regime hauteur, his contempt for the artless and the arriviste.”

Whether we interpret Aeschylus’s play in (anachronistically) progressive or conservative terms, the attentive reader will note that this text is concerned with questions of justice, power, and specifically political conflict.

In writing Prometheus Unbound, Shelley did not aim to provide the missing sequel to Aeschylus’s play, especially since that sequel dramatized “the reconciliation of Jupiter with his victim” as “the price of the disclosure of the danger threatened to his empire by the consummation of his marriage with Thetis." As Shelley makes clear, “I was averse from a catastrophe so feeble as that of reconciling the Champion with the Oppressor of Mankind." Shelley specifically invokes Milton’s Satan as the closest analog to his Prometheus or, Milton’s Satan as refracted through William Blake’s (and William Godwin’s) powerful misreading of Lucifer as a righteous rebel struggling to overthrow an oppressive cosmic order and its tyrannical God. Mary Shelley also invokes the Titan in her own “Modern Prometheus,” written with some input from her husband, a few years prior to the publication of Prometheus Unbound. Though readers usually align Victor Frankenstein with this “Modern Prometheus,” there are two Prometheanisms at work in a novel that should be read in tandem with Shelley’s verse drama (as I will show).

More than a visionary political allegory, Shelley sketches in his Prometheus “the type of the highest perfection of moral and intellectual nature impelled by the purest and the truest motives to the best and noblest ends.” As Earl Wasserman argues in an early and influential study of the poem, Prometheus is arguably the only character in a verse drama that personifies the Titan’s mental processes in the form of various gods and spirits. Wasserman makes one exception to this drama of personification and projection: Demigorgon. Demigorgon—a figure that encompasses the force of necessity in addition to the power of the people and the revolutionary masses in particular— destroys Zeus.

But, if Prometheus is for Shelley an ideal-type for human perfectibility how should we read the mental processes allegorized in Shelley’s verse drama? One answer to this question is that Shelley depicts in his Prometheus a new collective human subject. This subject’s previously unrealized capacities are unleashed through an unbinding that includes the transformation of social relations, especially those social relations Shelley observed first hand in what was then the world’s leading capitalist society, and a reconciliation between human and non-human natures.

Shelley recreates Prometheus, magnifying or—if we take Robin’s reading to heart—transforming Aeschylus’s Titan into a full blown exemplar of emancipated social relations, with an emphasis on collective freedom and love. Zeus, or the “strife” among human beings engendered by this tyrannical god, initially stymies this vision of egalitarian social relations and unfulfilled human capacities, as Prometheus recounts: 

The nations thronged around, and cried aloud
As with one voice, Truth, liberty, and love!
Suddenly fierce confusion fell from heaven
Among them: there was strife, deceit, and fear:
Tyrants rushed in, and did divide the spoil.

Zeus the tyrant is as much a representative of a new and destructive capitalist order as he is the proxy for the ancien régime initially overthrown by the French Revolution only to be reconsitituted in its Thermidorean conclusion. Shelley accordingly depicts Zeus’s reign, and Prometheus’s imprisonment, as marked by ecological catastrophe, when Earth, the Titan’s mother, reacts to Zeus’s punishment, by retreating from the world in despair. This retreat in turn precipitates an ecological catastrophe, when “fire and lightning and inundation vexed the plains” while “Blue thistles bloomed in cities; foodless toads/Within voluptuous chambers panting crawled; and plague had fallen.”

Shelley suggests another Prometheanism even as he critiques the dominant model of modernization, then and now, in poetic form as one of his allegorical spirits sings:

In the void’s loose field
A world for the Spirit of Wisdom to wield;
We will take our plan
From the new world of man,
And our work shall be called the Promethean.

And it is with The Spirit of the Hour’s account of the new dispensation that follows the ruin of “thrones, altars, judgment-seats, and prisons” that Shelley elaborates his version of Prometheanism:

The painted veil, by those who were, called life,
Which mimicked, as with colours idly spread,
All men believed or hoped, is torn aside;
The loathsome mask has fallen, the man remains
Sceptreless, free, uncircumscribed, but man
Equal, unclassed, tribeless, and nationless,
Exempt from awe, worship, degree, the king
Over himself; just, gentle, wise: but man
Passionless? — no, yet free from guilt or pain,
Which were, for his will made or suffered them,
Nor yet exempt, though ruling them like slaves,
From chance, and death, and mutability,
The clogs of that which else might oversoar
The loftiest star of unascended heaven,
Pinnacled dim in the intense inane.

Shelley offers us a powerful image of enlightenment demystification in “the painted veil” that, in falling, reveals man as he is or should be: “sceptreless, free, uncircumscribed...Equal, unclassed, tribeless, and nationless.” Yet, the forces unleashed with Prometheus’ unfettering can only be identified with techne or praxis in the broadest sense of making; or, poeisis,  if we attend to the passage above, the poem as a whole, and Shelley’s work in general. Giorgio Agamben explains the distinction between the two terms succinctly: “The Greeks …… made a clear distinction between poeisis and praxis (poiein “to pro-duce” in the sense of bringing into being) and praxis (prattein, “to do” in the sense of acting). Central to praxis was the idea of the will that finds its immediate expression in an act, while, by contrast, central to poiesis was the experience of pro-duction into presence, the fact that something passed from non being to being, from concealment into the full light of the work.” 

The loathsome mask is, significantly, a bad imitation, “with colours idly spread” of life and its potentials. The Spirit of the Hour insists on the persistence of passion in the new Promethean order she describes in her song. Shelley in this way distinguishes his version of an emancipated social order from the rationalist utopias of the earlier Godwin and his enlightenment fellow travelers, as he details in his contemporaneous Defense of Poetry. Shelley’s most enduring critical work is, as suggested by the title, a defense of poets and the poetic vocation against “reasoners and mechanists” whose sole criterion of value is “utility,” in the Benthamite sense. Rather than the typically romantic—and organicist—diatribe against either incipient modernity or quantification, Shelley’s critique of mechanical science and the utilitarian calculus is notable for its focus on nascent capitalist social relations and the role of what was even then a recognizably modern techno-scientific rhetoric. As he writes, “whilst the mechanist abridges and the political economist combines labor, let them beware that speculations exasperate the extremes of luxury and wealth."

Shelley’s critique animates the distinction his Spirit of the Hour draws between “altars, prisons, their guilty human product” and “chance, death, mutability.” Shelley disentangles the realm of necessity from reified, hence naturalized, modes of human domination and exploitation. Demigorgon, who fuses the new popular power embodied in the French revolutionary-era crowd and the force of necessity, represents for William Keach, “a much more inclusive conception of human agency released from its own self-imposed bondage and capable now in the terms of Shelley’s utopian fiction of establishing unimagined relations to necessity and chance." The end of “Heaven’s despotism,” in the words of Demigorgon, entails a new relationship with necessity and the natural world. 

Obsessed, adj.

November 5, 2015 - 10:50
Tags:  psychology, language change, capitalism, cognition

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I ) 

With two great books over my shoulder —Raymond Williams’s Keywords (1976), and Sianne Ngai’s Our Aesthetic Categories (2012)—I had the notion of a series of essays on mental health keywords: terms drawn, usually, from psychiatric medicine, but circulating freely in pop culture and everyday idiom, where they carry connotations well beyond the clinical. There are perhaps more of these words than you would expect, and the lexicon is diversifying every day.

This post could have been about the term "OCD," which is used in colloquial speech either accusatorily, to criticize someone's unreasonable exactitude about trivialities (he's so OCD about grammar), or apologetically, to excuse an inability to let something go (sorry I took so long to set the table—I'm kind of OCD), or less often boastfully, to suggest that the speaker is more committed to an orderly life than her interlocutor (I'm OCD about my finances). (Note that in each case OCD becomes something one is rather than something one has —grammatically nonsensical, if we were to unpack the acronym, but perhaps picking up on an unavowed feature of psychiatric discourse.) These uses of "OCD," of course, bear little or no resemblance to the actual medical condition, but they do at least reflect the fact that Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is classified as an anxiety disorder. Indeed, one of the primary features of OCD, as articulated by the National Institute of Mental Health, is that sufferers "don't get pleasure when performing the [compulsive] behaviors or rituals, but get brief relief from the anxiety the thoughts cause"; the affective experience of being trapped, unfree to do otherwise, seems to be part of OCD's symptomatology. Similarly, it's understood in the idiomatic "OCD" that a behavior becomes compulsive when it's neither plausibly motivated by pleasure nor necessary for one's thriving: the speaker above didn't spend five minutes adjusting the axes of the knife and fork because she enjoyed it, but because not doing it would feel bad.

It's odd, then, to turn from "OCD" to "obsessed"—another everyday idiom that draws upon clinical language, but that in dropping the "compulsive" element seems to completely reverse its affective charge. For "obsessed," as we find it in our Twitter feeds and Tumblr pages, is a positive, almost elated word; it describes a kind of infatuation with an object or an oeuvre: I am obsessed with platform boots, with health care policy, with the Coen brothers. But if it were simply a matter of intense liking for an object, we have other words for that; what is the difference that "obsessed" makes? A few propositions:

1) "Obsession" implies research. "I'm obsessed" is, in a sense, a socially acceptable excuse for pure intellectual curiosity of a sort that is rarely indulged in either school or adult employment. One gets the sense that such curiosity feels mysterious to most people, even a shade pathological, and that labelling themselves "obsessed" is a way to make sense of the feeling. Indeed, even in its more consumerist iterations, obsession seems to need explanation, to emerge suddenly and mysteriously in a way that demands investigation in its own right. Hence articles in which "scientists" explain "why we're obsessed" with zombie movies, pumpkin spice flavoring, etc. (The "we" here is obviously quite socially circumscribed, but the articles usually don't acknowledge it—we're meant to take this "we" as more or less coextensive with humanity.)

Not all research falls under the "obsession" rubric; a fascination with neuroscientific experiments or space exploration, for instance, would rarely be classified as an "obsession," coming instead under the category of nerdiness. (This has its own chic, of course, but it's not as universally accessible as obsession.) Rather, one is obsessed with a historical figure, a trial (as in Serial, a phenomenon that generated lots of obsessional discourse), an unsolved mystery, even simply a period ("I'm obsessed with the Edwardian era"). Obsession is typically humanistic, and more specifically forensic: it attempts to excavate a past event. Although it frames itself as a quirky impulse, then, obsession of this sort does nonetheless produce work—a podcast, an article, "content" in its most amorphous sense—and the activities it motivates certainly look like labor: compiling, interviewing, researching, writing. One wonders if "obsession" is something like a calling for the age of precarity: a passion overwhelming enough to inspire self-motivated work, but fleeting enough to allow for frequent job changes.

2) "Obsession" and consumption are intimately related. Fashion magazines list their "obsessions" of the moment, and one (InStyle) even has a recurring feature called "We're Obsessed!" (One precursor of this phenomenon might have been Oprah's "favorite things.") Pinterest, that great systematizer of consumer taste, not only traffics in the language of obsession; it can itself be an object of obsession ("How Obsessed With Pinterest Are You?", asks one Buzzfeed quiz). The products with which one can be obsessed are legion, but they tend to fall within a middle-class, mildly aspirational bandwidth: being obsessed with, say, Chanel coats is acceptable only for celebrities, whom it humanizes, and it's similarly hard to imagine being obsessed with, say, Target's house clothing brand Xhilaration. But one might easily be obsessed with, say, the designer Adam Lippes's limited-time collaboration with Target, which hits a sweet spot between exclusivity and accessibility: most shoppers can afford it, but not everyone will know where to look for it, and it disappears within a month or two. (A quick sidebar here to note that one might define “basic,” that aesthetic pejorative, as being obsessed with products and styles so ubiquitous that they merit mild liking at best: pumpkin spice lattes and Ugg boots and, most notoriously, fall itself.)

How does this consumer orientation jibe with the association of obsession with research—seemingly a purely intellectual activity? It's perhaps trite to observe that research is acquisitive; even when she doesn't seek to own the objects in question, the researcher wants to collect them, to have at her fingertips a kind of information trove. (I myself assembled these theses on obsession with the help of an app called Pearltrees, a kind of Pinterest for academics.) What's more, though, obsessional discourse indicates the degree to which consumption is now "powered by" research (to use a favorite information-technology idiom): the same search tools we use to do our jobs, if our jobs involve moving information around, are used at least as often to find new restaurants, new gadgets, or new pairs of shoes; moreover, the latter motivation is often the animating one behind new developments in search technology. It's perhaps fitting that when obsession does enter the sphere of production, then, it names production that frames itself as unconventional, uniquely personal, "outsider"; see, for instance, the company Casper, which advertises its "obsessively engineered mattresses" (primarily on podcasts, which, as mentioned above, are also often examples of obsessional work). Such products address themselves directly to the consumer, who is imagined to be sick and tired of the corporate norm (Big Mattress, for example, and just look here if you think I'm kidding).

It might seem essential to obsession of this sort that it needs an object: one is obsessed with, never simply obsessed. Or is one?

There may be an implied object to these products—fitness, or a sexual partner, or oneself—but the word seems to verge here on describing a personality trait, a kind of intensity ("intense," though not a clinical term, is another interesting psychological keyword—"she's intense," "it was intense") combined with a magnetism that makes one the object of obsession. Here we touch upon what we might call the paradox of romantic obsession, especially as it relates to consumer culture: for a woman to be obsessed with a man is at best embarrassing and at worst terrifying; obsession itself is something a woman is supposed to do in the presence of her female friends, not around men, with whom it would damage her carefully cultivated cool and laid-back aura; but in order to make herself potentially obsessable —to have lips, legs, hair that can inspire obsession in a romantic partner —a woman is more or less required to obsess over her own body in a mode at once critical and oddly erotically charged. All of this suggests that the capacity to be obsessed can itself be a commodity, both on the romantic "market" and, perhaps, on the labor market. (Sociologists, anthropologists, behavioral economists, I put it to you: does "obsessed" ever appear in the self-description of young folks looking for jobs?)

3) "Obsession" is collective. This is true, first, on the level of tastemakers—the aforementioned fashion magazines; news and culture sites like Slate, Salon, Vox, etc.; music and movie reviewers like Entertainment Weekly—for whom the "we" in "we're obsessed" is editorial and frequently evokes the workplace setting ("these days, the office is obsessed with ..."). This smallish social group, in turn, extends itself out to the reader/viewer/consumer, who by adopting this obsession as her own gains access to a community. (The trajectory isn't always top-down, of course; sometimes an ordinary individual discovers an obsession that then pulls others in; this is perhaps the primary distinction between obsessional research and obsessional consumption.)

It's in this feature that colloquial obsession differs most dramatically from its clinical counterpart. Obsessive-compulsive disorder is often isolating: it traps its victims in thought loops and forces them to perform elaborate rituals that make social interaction increasingly difficult. The obsessional discourse I'm talking about here, by contrast, requires collective buy-in, partly so that it feels socially acceptable; to be obsessed with an entirely uninteresting person who lived in the recent past, for instance, may have a certain quirky This American Life-type charm, but also feels dangerously close to mental illness. But the collective also matters to obsession because it enables crowdsourcing, a way to fulfill obsession's impulse to gather information. Indeed, like the idea of crowdsourcing, obsessional discourse seems to point toward the experience not of using but of being a search engine, of having a kind of neural "alert" out for information on certain subjects, of tagging incoming data according to one's needs, of privileging ideas and information that have passed through the hands of as many other people as possible.

If all this sounds dystopian, it's not meant to be; rather, I'm suggesting that obsessional discourse points toward the affective experience of a new way of imagining one's own cognitive processes. And that's what this project attempts to clarify: the subtle, day-to-day evolution of our metaphors of mind, and the corresponding slow changes in cognition itself. In subsequent posts, I’ll draw your attention to a few more ways that we’ve lately been understanding the brain and behavior —not in the responsibly peer-reviewed context of neuroscience or psychology journals, but “on the ground,” in our spontaneously generated accounts of why we act the way we do. Whether they will cohere into a unified model of contemporary cognition, or fragment and disperse our consciously held theories of mind, remains to be seen.

Error: Stabs at an Ecological Dynamic

October 29, 2015 - 08:10
Tags:  ecocriticism, early modern literature, post-sustainability

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I ) 

Like a novice third baseman, I can feel the errors piling up around me. I'll make a few stabs at them here, remembering that error isn't orderly. Quite the opposite. A good thing to!

Crafting a language for ecology in a post-sustainability context, I focus on error. If disruption and change are ecological principles, perhaps error represents a basic truth of Nature. In the atomic rain with Lucretius, waiting for the deviating clinamen, I seek ways to conceptualize ecological change.

Error wears many faces. Philosophical error, legal error, errors in engineering, in grammar, logic, ethics, mathematics, baseball. To err is to wander or deviate, and from that unplanned turn possibilities appear.

Unpacking the depths of my interest in error might require delving into the Little League of my childhood subconscious, but in scholarship my current error-fixation begins with early modern oceanic navigation. I've written about error in cartographic context:

The Age of Discovery was an Age of Error.

In a navigational sense, error is arriving unexpectedly at a place unlike the one you were planning to reach. It causes you to reach Cuba when you're sailing for China or wreck on the Scilly Islands when sailing for Plymouth. These kinds of deviation dominated early modern maritime travel. Global and oceanic errors piled up as early modern sailors reached unknown seas. Error was every voyage's shipmate.

Entangled with this mathematical or geophysical sense of error, which motivated progressive technical fixes from the Mercator projection to John Harrison's maritime chronometers, theological error invokes Original Sin, the deviance of human beings from divine law. To err is human, as the saying goes, but not only in a harmless way.

Being born into error requires humans to undertake endless labors of ineffective self-correction, an imperative that gave rise to such searching programs as the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, the inescapable predestinatory labyrinths of John Calvin (and his Anglophone heirs Hermann Melville and Thomas Pynchon), and the brutal enjambment with which John Milton's Christian epic disposes of classical myth:

               ...thus they relate,

Erring. (Paradise Lost, 1.746-7)

The poet insists that all who told stories before him spoke in error. He knows that he errs too, and that the loss of paradise has never yet stopped erring. After some turns, you can't find your way back to the former path.

On the third hand — how many hands is that? error! — errancy sometimes turns out all for the best. In the literary world of romance, sudden turns become fortunate coincidences, at least as they are revealed over the long voyage. In my favorite genre-joke, Northrop Frye defines classical romance through its use of error:

In Greek romance...the normal means of transportation is by shipwreck (The Secular Scripture 4)

In Spenser's Faerie Queene, Errour is a monster, half "like a serpent horribly displaide" ( and the other half womanly. She frustrates interpretation and for a time immobilizes our knight:

God helpe the man so wrapt in Errours endlesse traine (

Trapped by error and in error, the knight needs faith to set him free. This monster is romance error by definition — the opening enemy in Elizabethan England's greatest verse romance — but where is she taking our knight and our poem?

So what is error? Navigational deviation, original sin, misunderstood cause, romance circuity? Is the narratability of error, its essential work in making stories, related to its corrupting theological presence? Can we err without catastrophe?

Any attempt to solve such problems courts — yes, you guessed it — further errors. But despite the risk of adding one more turn to error's many-forked idea-tree, I'll propose ecology as a cognate language. Linking error and ecology helps to understand the centrality of disruptive social and ecological change in early modern culture. It may also help untangle some eco-knots of our own era of catastrophic change.

Error is ecological because ecological systems include movement and difference in their concepts of unity and change over time.

Ecology is errant because, as "new" or dynamic ecologists have argued since the 1990s, there is no permanent stability in the natural world.

Error, not stasis, typifies natural order.

Human mechanisms for navigating error do not involve correction so much as learning to accommodate change.

I wonder how replacing the over-saturated word "Nature" with "Error" might change ecological thinking. In general, I agree with Tim Morton, Donna Harraway, Bruno Latour, and others who think that any "Nature" separate from culture or the human is a problem, not a solution. I mostly agree with the goal of an "ecology without nature." But I also wonder how we might renovate or reconfigure Nature, both by including humans within it and also considering dynamic change and disruption as essential rather than accidental. What if Nature and Error are not opposites but mutually entangled?

Living in Nature requires — and sometimes rewards — errancy.

Living in Error is Natural.

Nature loves to hide, says Heraclitus. Perhaps Error hides also?

Put more simply: Nature errs. What might follow from this heretical ecological principle?

Popular Andalusi literature and the Arthurian tradition in the Iberian Peninsula

October 27, 2015 - 09:49
Tags:  arabic, medieval, medieval literature, Spain, chivalry

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I, II )

There is very little manuscript evidence of the popular (non-courtly) literature of al-Andalus (Muslim Spain). For this reason it is difficult to assess its importance for the development of Castilian literature, and more broadly, for our understanding of medieval Iberian literary practice as an interlocking set of systems that includes a number of linguistic, religious, and political groups. Ziyad ibn ‘Amir al-Kinani (Granada, 1234) is a work of Andalusi popular fiction that sheds new light on the reception of Arthurian material in the Iberian Peninsula. Ziyad in particular is a fascinating hybrid of Arabic epic, popular Arabic tale, and chivalric romance. It is the first example of an original work of prose fiction written in Iberia to make use of Arthurian material, one that predates the Castilian translations of Arthurian texts by nearly a century.

Ziyad ibn ‘Amir al-Kinani

Ziyad is the tale of the adventures of the eponymous hero Ziyad ibn ‘Amir al-Kinani and is set in a flashback at the court of the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid, where the hero is being held captive. Ziyad has been summoned by the Caliph to regale him with stories of his own adventures, in a narrative frame derived from the 1001 Nights and familiar to readers of medieval Castilian literature from the thirteenth-century work Calila e Digna, and later from Don Juan Manuel’s Conde Lucanor. The character Ziyad ibn ‘Amir al-Kinani is not historical. However, as we will see, the author took pains to situate the fictional world of Ziyad within the historical and literary traditions of the the Arab Islamic world.

Ziyad and Arabic literary tradition

Much as the chivalric romances in Western Latin tradition are linked to earlier chansons de gestes and classical epic material (Brownlee Scordilis 254; Fuchs 39) Ziyyad ibn ‘Amir is likewise in some ways an evolution of the popular Arab epic (sira), beginning with the ‘Ayam al-Arab, the account of the first battles of Muslim expansion protagonized by Muhammad and his companions. By the thirteenth century a second generation of sira develops, one that recounts tales of later heroes of Islamic expansion and their struggles with enemies in the Islamic world, Byzantium, and against the Franks (Latin Crusaders). These include the Sirat Dhat al-Himma, and Sirat al-Zahir Baybars, that flourished in Arabic during the time when Ziyad appeared (Heath, “Other Sīras” 327–328).

The sirat were popular oral epic traditions that produced little in the way of literary manuscripts until modernity. This is an important fact in understanding the relationship of Ziyad vis-à-vis the medieval novel in French and Spanish. While the chivalric romance has its roots in oral epic traditions, it evolves into a courtly literary tradition relatively early, while the Arab epic does not. This may be because vernacular literature does not develop significantly in Arabic until much later than in the romance languages.  

The other Andalusi popular literary texts of the time, such as the 1001 Nights, and its Western variant the 101 Nights, were set at court, but were in no way a courtly product. Rather, they reflected the values of mercantile society, and populated the court of Harun al-Rashid with merchants, artisans, and other members of the middle class (Sallis 1; Ott 260). Ziyad shares the popular linguistic features with the 101 Nights (Ott 266–267), but shows us a world populated with knights and ladies and the occasional slave, a world that more resembles that of the French chivalric romance than the 1001 Nights, with the key exception of its being set in the Muslim East. In this way, Ziyad is a sort of hybrid of the Arab epic, the chivalric novel, and the popular Arabic narrative Nights tradition.

Ziyad is more like the heroes of the chivalric novel in that his excellence is a reflection of his aristocratic background, and as such reinforces the current social order, which is typical of medieval romances (Auerbach 139; Segre 139; Brownlee Scordilis 253). This is perfectly logical when one considers the authorship and audencies of the texts: the popular sirat were composed and transmitted orally, and have very few medieval manuscript witnesses. The same can be said for the Castilian epic Cantar de Mio Cid, which is thought by many critics to be of popular origin. Popular audiences are more likely to promote the transmission of underdog heroes than are courtly audiences.       

Ziyad and the Arthurian tradition in Iberia

In order to understand how Ziyad relates to the chivalric romance in Iberia we need to know a bit about the reception of Arthurian romance on the Peninsula. When do Iberian authors begin to adapt literary representations of courtly behaviors such as are novelized in the Arthurian romances and the songs of the Troubadours? Our best-known examples are of course the Spanish chivalric novels of the sixteenth century, beginning with Montalvo’s Amadís de Gaula (1508), but there is significant evidence of Iberian reception Arthurian-style courtly discourse beginning in the twelfth century, when Iberian troubadours, writing in a variety of Peninsular literary languages, begin to make reference to Lancelot and Tristan in their verses (Entwistle 12; Thomas 22–23). By the first third of the fourteenth century, Peninsular readers have access to Castilian translations of the French narratives of the search for the Holy Grail. However, Ziyad is the first full-fledged work of narrative fiction in the Peninsula to present a chivalric world of such clear Arthurian influence, predating the Castilian translations of Arthurian texts nearly a century.

According to the fourteenth-century political theorist Ibn Khaldun, it is natural for nations who are dominated politically by their neighbor to imitate the cultural practices (including the literature) of the dominant kingdom:

"a nation dominated by another, neighbouring nation will show a great deal of assimilation and imitation. At this time, this is the case in Spain [al-Andalus]. The Spaniards [Andalusis] are found to assimilate themselves to the Galician nations [Galicia, Asturias, Castile, Navarra) in their dress, their emblems, and most of their customs and conditions" (Ibn Khaldun 116)

This idea is born out by other evidence in the plastic arts and to a lesser extent in literary sources. A brief overview of all other forms of commerce and exchange, including commerce, coinage, architectural styles, and eyewitness reports to the chivalric culture of Nasrid Granada demonstrate that the borders between Granada and Castile were culturally porous. Cynthia Robinson has described the thirteenth-century Granadan romance Hadith Bayad wa-Riyad as a kind of Andalusi roman idyllique (Robinson, Medieval Andalusian 172–182). Arthurian chivalric motifs even penetrated the Alhambra itself, as Cynthia Robinson demonstrates in her study of the ceilings of the Hall of Justice (Robinson, “Arthur”). This movement of Arthurian themes and chivalric sensibilities supports Ibn Khaldun’s assertion that the Granadans of his day were assimilated, to some extent, to the culture of the Christian North.

In Ziyad ibn ‘Amir al-Kinani we see a number of traits typical of the chivalric romance but less common in popular Arabic literary tradition. For example, there abound detailed descriptions of architecture and especially interiors, such as the castle of the princess Beautiful Archer where Sadé is being held captive:

"I saw a castle whiter than a dove, whose high walls provided more shade than the clouds, built, for the most part, of carved plaster [like the Alhambra], stone, and carved wood. It was also built from rare bricks, crystals, and marble; it was surrounded by gardens planted with a variety of trees and at its highest point had three towers of fine sandalwood, where damsels, granted by God with beauty, grace, and happiness, played ouds and zithers. The wall of the palace was one hundred times the height of a man, and its diameter would have been eighty thousand arms’ length" (Fernández y González 13)

Descriptions of knightly combat, such as the battle between the lord of al-Laualib castle and Sinan ben Malic, are also strikingly similar to those found in chivalric novels:

"They attacked each other with lances until these broke, and then took to wounding each other with swords until these were dulled, then wrestled. They looked each other in the eyes, rubbed stirrups, and although their arms tired and their brows sweated, they continued to struggle for quite a long time" (Fernández y González 20)

In addition to these we can see in Ziyad something else characteristic of the Western chivalric romance: a consciousness and discourse of the chivalric code itself. The characters do not simply act according to the chivalric code, they discuss and reflect upon it. When Ziyad sneaks into the camp of Alchamuh and his daughter princess Beautiful Archer he reprimands Alchamuh to his daughter’s face: “I behaved correctly with him, freeing him from being struck by the lance in the presence of the Arab tribes [ie saving him face], and he repays me, in turn, robbing me of my wife in my absence, and capturing and killing my subjects and relations” (Fernández y González 12).


Ziyad and 101 Nights both attest to a corpus of Andalusi written popular literature giving voice to a specifically Iberian (or at least Maghrebi) experience vis-a-vis the Muslim East. This corpus is largely latent and we await quality Arabic editions and translations into other languages of Ziyad, the other 11 texts in Escorial Árabe MS 1876, the 101 Nights, and other texts as they come to light. Our findings are necessarily tentative, based as they are on translations, until such editions come to light. What we can state, however, is the following: Ziyad provides us with new, earlier examples of the penetration of Arthurian themes and motifs in the Iberian Peninsula that predate both the Castilian translations of the Arthurian romances.

Works Cited

Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Princeton: Princeton University, 1953. Print.

Brownlee Scordilis, Marina. “Romance at the Crossroads: Medieval Spanish Paradigms and Cervantine Revisions.” The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Romance. Ed. Marina Scordilis Brownlee and Kevin Brownlee. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 253–266. Print.

Entwistle, William. The Arthurian Legend in the Literatures of the Spanish Peninsula. New York: Phaeton Press, 1975. Print.

Fernández y González, Francisco, trans. Zeyyad ben Amir el de Quinena. Madrid: Museo Español de Antigüedades, 1882. Print.

Fuchs, Barbara. Romance. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Heath, Peter. “Other Sīras and Popular Narratives.” Arabic Literature in the Post-Classical Period. Ed. Roger Allen and D.S. Richards. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 319–329. Print.

Ibn Khaldun. The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History. Trans. Franz Rosenthal. London,: Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1978. Print.

Ott, Claudia. “Nachwort.” 101 Nacht. Zurich: Manesse Verlag, 2012. 241–263. Print.

Robinson, Cynthia. “Arthur in the Alhambra? Narrative and Nasrid Courtly Self-Fashioning in The Hall Of Justice Ceiling Paintings.” Medieval Encounters 14.2 (2008): 164–198. Print.

---. Medieval Andalusian Courtly Culture in the Mediterranean: Hadith Bayad Wa-Riyad. London: Routledge, 2007. Print.

Sallis, Eva. Sheherazade through the Looking Glass: The Metamorphosis of the Thousand and One Nights. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon, 1999. Print.

Segre, Cesare. “What Bakhtin Left Unsaid: The Case of the Medieval Romance.” Romance: Generic Transformation from Chrétien de Troyes to Cervantes. Ed. Kevin Brownlee and Marina Scordilis Brownlee. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1985. 23–46. Print.

Thomas, Henry. Spanish and Portuguese Romances of Chivalry; the Revival of the Romance of Chivalry in the Spanish Peninsula, and Its Extension and Influence Abroad. Cambridge: University Press, 1920. Print.

from author website

Frost in translation

October 24, 2015 - 09:45
Tags:  Robert Frost, translation, Shakespeare, colorization

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( III ) 

Inspired by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's laudable decision to colorize—um I mean translate Shakespeare into a more user-friendly demotic, I thought I'd just update Robert Frost's germane and helpful definition:

I could define poetry this way: it is that which is lost out of both prose and verse in translation.


To clarify for a modern audience, the way they're doing at the OSF, with their Shakespeare knock-offs:*

One operational definition of poetry, whether you are referencing officially sanctioned poetry in a recognizable verse form or, more controversially, the elements of prose that impact us perceptually as "feeling like poetry feels" (as one could informally put it) might be usefully analogized as an as yet unsolved and perhaps unsolvable problem for machine translation.


*Shakespeare knock-off, thanks to one contemporary translator who helps us with this update of a line of Macbeth's: "The deep damnation of his knocking-off."

Remember, Scotland runs on Duncan.

It is the Niqab again: Stephen Harper and the Barbarism of Politics

October 19, 2015 - 08:47

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I, II ) 

One of the most pernicious outcomes of fear-mongering politics in today’s electoral world is the splitting of citizens into opposing camps. In the case of Canada’s former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the damage is already done. A recent example of this harm is Canadian Citizenship, which has acquired a new definition after his government passed an unprecedented citizenship revocation law, mostly targeting Muslims.

In June of 2015, the Canadian government passed Bill C-24 which entitles the federal government to revoke citizenship from dual nationalists convicted of perpetrating acts of terrorism, espionage or treason against Canada, whether this conviction takes places abroad or not. The new law affects nearly one million Canadian citizens, including more than 150,000 Canadian-born citizens who are dual citizens through their parents.

Questioned on the un-constitutionality of C-24 and how its adoption compromises the equality of all citizens before the law and creates a two-tiered system, Harper’s Immigration Minister Chris Alexander stated that the law is necessary to combat “the ever-evolving threat of Jihadi terrorism.” Treating naturalized Canadians and their offspring as less than equal citizens makes one think that the law will equally hurt all hyphenated Canadians, including American-Canadians and British-Canadians. However, it is clear from Alexander’s statement that they will not be targeted by this law. The real victim of this act of de-nationalization is every Muslim-Canadian convicted, or accused, or suspected of terrorism, or perceived as “ a person of interest,” or a potential terrorist, or someone suspected of aiding or being associated with any act of terrorism. The irresponsibility of this profiling law is that it ushers in a new standard in Canada’s judiciary principles, allowing Canada not only to fracture its long-standing definition of citizenship, but also, and more preposterously, to abandon its agency and international responsibility to due process in the global war on terror by giving up on its own citizens, either deporting them or subjecting them to trials and acts of torture in countries that have no respect for the rule of law. The case of Mohamed Fahmy, a Canadian-born prize-wining journalist, who has just been released from a prison in Egypt, is a stark example of these brutal and unjust citizen abandonment tactics.

Ever since he took office in 2006 upon forming a minority government, Harper has pulled no punches in adopting policies and making governmental choices that have systematically disenfranchised both Muslims-Canadians and Muslims seeking to immigrate to Canada. Harper's Government continiously boycotted mainstream Muslim organizations, preferring to work solely with selective constituents of the Muslim societies in Canada, namely the Aga Khan Ismailis and the Ahmadis. In 2007, Harper tried to ban niqab wearing women from voting, but his efforts failed when the chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand simply reminded him and Canadians that more than 70,000 Canadian voters, many of them inmates, cast their ballots by mail without having to reveal their faces. In 2012, when Harper’s government succeeded in sunsetting the anti-hate provision of the Canadian Human Rights Act, it did so with the full intention to grant its constituents the freedom to lampoon Muslims and Islam uninhibitedly without being accused of a hate crime. But now that the currents are shifting towards critique of Harper's international policies and governmental biases, absurdly enough Harper’s government wants to silence dissent by threatening to charge supporters of the Palenstinian BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) with a hate crime. The same is true with the principle of religious freedom, where the Conservatives have steadily been sensitive to persecution cases and asylum appeals by Coptic Christians in Egypt, Bahais in Iran, and Christian as well as Ahmadis in Pakistan (precisely people fleeing persecution from Muslim nations, and deservedly so), but turning a deaf ear to Muslims seeking asylum for similar reasons, including but not limited to Muslim Uighurs in China, Shiites in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq, Sunnis in Syria suffering under the iron clutch of the Assad regime. Not to mention the most recent and scandalous treatment of Syrian refugees, delaying their rescue and scanning their admission to Canada based on their faith.

As if this Islamophobia were not enough, Islam has been reduced to the niqab, which is categorized in a set of “barbaric cultural practices” that cannot be tolerated in post-secular Canadian society—especially not when a Muslim woman is taking a citizenship oath. In a desperate attempt to cling to power, Harper, an unpopular and embattled Prime Minister, is now feeding fear into the heart and minds of many Canadians by recklessly blowing the horns of Islamophobia to regain support. Of course, such selfish acts come at the expense of the commonwealth—i.e., the greater good of the citizens—by further polarizing them along the lines of religion, ethnicity, and even race. The Prime Minister’s political move is so pernicious that innocent niqab-wearing Canadian Muslim women are increasingly being attacked in public.

Of the three main political parties in Canada, the Conservatives, led by Harper, stand alone in their demagogic attacks on Muslims. The other two parties, the New Democratic Party (NDP), led by Thomas Muclair, and the Liberal Party, led by Justin Trudeau (son of Pierre Trudeau) have been supportive of women’s rights to wear the niqab and have in their own right been critical of Harper’s fanning of Islamophobia.

To a welcoming, tolerant, and pluralist Canada, one in which the nostalgic dreams of the old stock Canadians—with their commitment to a world free from prejudices—Harper’s vision of Canada as an exclusivist society is felt as a fundamental betrayal of Canada’s liberal values. Consequently, the inevitable lexical slippages have become commonplace in the public sphere. In the post-9/11 era, for instance, “Islam”—the name of a religion of over 1 billion adherents, at least one million of them inhabiting Canada, and more than 7 million Muslims living in the US—has become synonymous for “terrorism.” Watching the Republican Party Candidates debate in the US and Harper’s anti-niqab campaign in Canada, one cannot help but notice the flagrant visibility of this violent rhetoric. It must be experienced as a painful irony for North American Muslim citizens to live in a context in which the new qualifications for the highest political office in the land—of which they are voting members—are based on candidates’ abilities to demonize this community, instead of on the basis of their plans to improve citizens’ work and life conditions, fixing health care systems, or creating new ideas to fight climate change.

Running a campaign whose principal goal is to stop what he refers to as “barbaric cultural practices” from taking place in Canada, Harper has entered a new and dangerous level of divisiveness. The question arises as to when politicians should draw the line between fulfilling their personal ambitions and protecting the rights of all their citizens as they are sworn to do. In this case, Harper’s war against a traditional Muslim face-cover contradicts the very tenants of a civil society where the freedom of its citizens to practice their religion is indeed protected by Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. As politically irresponsible as it is, Harper’s rhetoric is made more appealing by his desperate and hackneyed return to oppositional thinking where Islam becomes, once again, the target of political campaigns, the sole carrier of the “anti-” prefix to everything “modern,” “secular,” “cosmopolitan,” “enlightening,” “progressive,” “democratic,” “global,” you name it.

It is clear that Harper’s invocation of the phrase “barbaric practices” is meant to dehumanize Muslim Canadians. Barbarism though is precisely the failure to comprehend the enormity of one’s contentious rhetoric; it is failure to understand that as Prime Minister one has a responsibility towards protecting the rights of every niqab wearing Canadian woman (and every Canadian citizen who choose to wear whatever she/he pleases) even if one disagrees with them. Barbarism is the confusion of personal biases with administrative authority and the treading on the rights of minority for the sake of poll numbers. History has taught us that great leaders defend minorities first and last, and they put the interest of the country before the interest of the party or their own selfish pursuits. But Islam is not a political party. It is a religion with various persuasions and different sub-belief systems, bringing together men, women, and children who interact with their communities on a daily basis, who work, study, teach, travel, shop, worship, serve in the army, and give their time and blood for their fellow citizens.   

Harper has chosen to fight the niqab and so one might reasonably ask: of what reality is this fighting truly representative? This question takes us to the heart of a major problem in contemporary North American politics: a deep-seated distrust of academics and intellectuals, as if learning is the new enemy of the nation. As the Marxist materialist William Raymond reminds us, “[Conservative] Tories distrust intellectuals and academics as disturbing and empirical people who succeed only in upsetting perfectly satisfactory arrangements by insisting on analysis, historical comparison, projections and warnings.” Set against this “disturbance” is the political interest in preserving the status quo at any price or, as Williams maintains, in pretending “that things are still basically as they have been even when they have visibly changed.” 

Thus when Harper warns Canadian academics and intellectuals not to “commit sociology” in response to 1200 cases of missing and murdered indigenous women, one does not need to be a sociologist to see through the naiveté of this statement. It is not surprising that politicians would seek to defend their own interests, sometimes at all costs, and especially after growing attached to power. It is not unusual for a politician to dismiss protests and demands for inquiry and investigation. It helps Harper immeasurably that the Canadian Left remains divided; otherwise it would be quite unlikely for his political rhetoric to survive much less succeed. In the current context of a politically divided Canadian Left, Harper is given free range to express prejudices and rationalizations, to capitalize on the lack of knowledge and understanding, and to swing the votes of trusting Canadians who tremble at the thought that their national security is at risk. 

The real risk is not a woman wearing the niqab and driving her children to school or going to work, but the ruthless and Manichean exploitation of citizens, the creation of second-class citizenships, and the vulgarity of divisive politics which is practiced everyday against citizens under the garb of protecting Canadians from themselves. All this is happening while serious political discussions are absent from public discourse: the incredible volatility of the Canadian dollar which went down from $US1.10 to $US0.75 in only a few years; the current ratio of unemployment and the rising levels of poverty; the degrading condition of the Canadian economy and its vulnerability to what happens outside of Canada; the lack of alternative and creative solutions; and the deafening silence on ecological challenges and climate change. It is now clear that Harper’s pernicious politics did not help him retain the Prime Minister’s seat, or the question now is whether Canada is now ready to transcend xenophobia and divisiveness, conquer the barbarism festering inside its political offices, and embrace a more pluralistic and inclusive political future that protects the rights and celebrates the diversity of all of its citizens.

Chantal Akerman

October 9, 2015 - 06:56
Tags:  Chantal Akerman, Stanley Cavell, Leslie Camhi

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I ) 

I have spent the last few days thinking about Chantal Akerman who died, apparently by her own hand, on Monday (October 5). I spent a week with her in 2001, just post September 11; we really hit it off and I always hoped to see her again and imagined I would (because who would have thought I'd ever meet her anyhow?). I arranged for the U.S. premiere of La Captive, and she came to discuss it, and to talk about Jeanne Dielman in my film class. (I wrote about the movie a little bit here, in this post.) Leslie Camhi and Stanley Cavell joined Chantal (as it seems more faithful to my memory of that week that I should call her) for a discussion after the screening of La Captive.

Chantal insisted in class and in conversation (which always took place through a cloud of Gitane smoke) that Jeanne Dielman was not a particularly feminist movie—she hated hearing it described that way; she hated seeing it analyzed that way. Stanley talked about it a little bit after the screening of La Captive: he saw it as being about skepticism, about being part of the line of theatrical and cinematic treatments of the desire to be a skeptic, to abolish other minds, to secure oneself from the world, that he has traced from Shakespeare to screwball comedies and melodramas. Jeanne's murderous response to having an orgasm was for Cavell a response to losing control (of course) because of her relation to another, followed then by the abolition of the other. Although he didn't say this, Jeanne's relation to her son would be part of that skeptical dynamic, that skeptical recital which Jeanne's whole life constitutes. Cavell sees the creation of a world for another, so that skepticism can't be the point or the shield, as the reason that Shakespeare's women don't hide within skepticism. They transcend it, but that's something that Jeanne manages to dodge.

Unskeptical myself, at least among the truly great, I worried about how Chantal would respond to Stanley. I needn't have. She was ecstatic. This was one of those rare moments where I felt perfectly happy to embrace the intentional fallacy. Well, that's what was thematized, wasn't it? Chantal's sense of Delphine Seyrig's sense of Jeanne—all of them other minds.

This was partly the case because Chantal had a very intense relation to her actors, and there was some continuity between actor and role (as when she played in her own movies). I liked how much she loved and mourned Seyrig. I was fascinated by her dislike for Juliette Binoche, who starred in A Couch in New York (she liked William Hurt well enough). I liked her arms-length professional-peer memories of Godard, who let her observe him making movies in the late sixties.

After that week, she was off to Douglas, Arizona, to make her documentary on Mexican immigrants, De l'autre coté. I'd been to Douglas, and to Agua Prieta, on the Mexican side. Douglas was a dirt-poor town, Agua Prieta a ridiculously energetic place. It seemed great that we both knew those obscure towns.  We had fun talking about it, and about everything else. I am so sorry that will never happen again.

Race to Washington Part 1

September 22, 2015 - 04:20

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( III 

Neither individuals nor the private sector of the economy has [taken], or can take responsibility for full employment in American society. This is the responsibility of all segments of the society and thus, finally, of the government.

—Bayard Rustin, “The Anatomy of Frustration” (May 1968)

Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland: from Ferguson to Cleveland to New York to Baltimore to Waller County, the effects of systemic racism and racialized violence have once again become acutely visible in the United States. Those with a sense of history know that unchecked police violence against communities of color is nothing new but, rather, comprises a permanent feature of American society from its inception to today. With the rise of digital recording technologies and social media networks, however, such incidents become increasingly impossible to ignore. It is now possible, for instance, to witness a police shooting and its aftermath almost as it unfolds, and do so without establishment figures pretending that the struggle for civil rights ended in the 1960s.

The more present media technologies make racialized violence perceptible, the more we are able to address it. Yet the question remains: beyond expressions of collective outrage, beyond calls to end racial discrimination and brutality, what can be done?

Ferguson, Missouri crystallizes both the direct brutality of contemporary racism and the far less visible systemic violence that conditions it. A recent Justice Department report showed that the city leadership uses the court system as a major source of revenue for the municipality. And Ferguson is not alone. As The New York Times has found, “Ferguson does not even rank among the top 20 municipalities in St. Louis County in the percentage of its budget drawn from court fines and fees.” Effectively, the county and its municipalities are using the courts to finance their operations, while imposing financial and regulatory obligations on its poorest, overwhelmingly Black citizens. Moreover, because of persistently high unemployment, residents are unable to pay the fines. This in turn leads to more fines, warrants and confrontational encounters with the police—encounters that can easily turn lethal. Courts may also directly send people to jail because of failure to pay fines.

In response to the public outcry, Missouri’s governor, Jay Nixon, has signed legislation that is intended to curb revenue-raising and private-profit-making from traffic tickets. While the new legislation will eliminate charges for failure to appear in court, it simply lowers the percentage of revenue most cities can collect in this manner by a mere 10 percent. Missouri municipalities will continue to be allowed to fund their operations by criminalizing, fining, prosecuting, and jailing their poorest and least politically powerful citizens. This is the tiniest of victories and one that leaves the structural core of systemic racism in America firmly in place, as the ongoing confrontations between Ferguson residents and the police visibly demonstrate.

The crux of this order, we wish to suggest, is the Liberal understanding of money that organizes modern political economy and social life. The Liberal conception of money holds that it is a private and finite resource, a commodity like gold, silver or oil. As a limited, non-renewable, not producible resource, commodity money provides one answer to the problem of how a society allocates its goods. Essentially, it substitutes private competition over an artificially scarce ‘thing’ for what should be democratic dialogue and contestation over an unlimited public balance sheet. Imagining government as a revenue-constrained and bankruptable market actor, commodity money's zero-sum metaphysics not only occlude the hidden and often racist policies that coordinate economic life, but also obscure the true possibilities for treating injustice: they accept that the state is powerless over the money form.

Under this view, struggling municipalities have no choice but to find a “recession-proof revenue generator” since cities have few or no businesses from which to draw tax revenue. Local elected officials complain that criticism of the fee-extraction regime is “blaming the police officer or you’re blaming the municipality or blaming the judge for enforcing the law.” By contrast, the critique of commodity money concerns the law itself as a sociopolitical regime and the way this regime's bogus specters of scarcity condition such problems to begin with.

Liberal money asks us to accept that a heavily-armed gang (what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls the police in such instances) sweeping into a community to enforce exploitation and suffering is the only alternative on offer. Smart phones and social media are important tools that have allowed people to expose the sharp end of anti-Black state violence that results from this regime. What is needed, however, is a tool to expose and demystify the fundamental mechanics of money itself.

Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), we claim, is precisely such a tool. MMT economists reveal that money is an essentially limitless public instrument. They argue that government is constrained, not by its ability to borrow from the private sector or earn revenue through taxation, but only by the real resources and capacities that characterize a society and its environment at a given moment. This is a technical point, but one with profound political consequences. It allows us to trace the hidden ways that the Liberal conception of money as a finite commodity both structures and naturalizes the racialized oppressions of neoliberal financial capitalism. But it also radically expands the sorts of political transformations we can imagine and the types of changes we can demand from government.

The most important of these transformative ideas, and the one that goes furthest in immediately addressing racial injustice today, is MMT’s proposal for a federally-funded and locally-administered Job Guarantee. Ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to participate in meaningful work and be compensated with a living-wage and health care, the Job Guarantee promises to enfranchise those who have been systematically subordinated by and excluded from the formal employment market, to actively shape and repair damaged communities, and to raise the foundations of economic life from the bottom up.

MMT economist and Black Studies scholar Mathew Forstater argues that the Job Guarantee answers the racialized, if not outright racist, logics that have long structured unemployment in the United States. Since Reconstruction, unemployment in the Black community has remained stubbornly high. “[It] is well-known,” Forstater explains, “that in the United States the Black unemployment rate is always double the white rate, regardless of whether the economy is performing well or not.” The results not only impoverish the Black community and undermine Black rights. They also reverberate throughout society and damage all social relations in ways that are not always directly apparent. But what is most hidden from view, Forstater shows, is that structural unemployment is a policy choice (not a natural effect of a money economy), that in the United States this choice has been deeply shaped by racial discrimination, and that looking ahead we both can and must choose otherwise. Put another way, MMTers such as Forstater insist that what Friedrich Engels famously called the “reserve army” of the unemployed is, in truth, not a necessary feature of a monetary economy as both Marxist critics and their mainstream interlocutors maintain. It is, rather, an ideological myth perpetuated by the dominant classes to discipline and disenfranchise labor that capitalism’s critics can no longer afford to perpetuate as such.

Understanding Black un- and underemployment as a political decision rather than a market outcome also enables Forstater to throw new light on seemingly intractable problems, such as the growing crisis of state imprisonment, which disproportionately affects racial minorities. First, Forstater contends that “certain kinds of criminal activity are directly related to unemployment,” particularly since those who have been excluded from the formal economy often turn to illegal sources of income in order to survive. Next, he observes that the “official unemployment rate refers to the civilian noninstitutional population, which means that it also does not include… those in prison or jail.” Indeed, a study by Beckett and Western he cites indicates that “the official unemployment rate in the United States during the 1990s economic boom . . . would have been considerably higher if it had been adjusted for the . . . inmate population [which had] . . . surged to more than two million during the previous two decades.” If one extends Forstater’s analysis further, it then appears that prisons and jails become means to warehouse this discounted population, who are often compelled to work for far below minimum-wage.

As a consequence, we have a situation in which the state implements a racist policy of structural unemployment and then creates below minimum-wage work camps to contain and exploit the social fallout. To make matters worse, when prisoners re-enter civil society, their criminal record radically reduces their job prospects, they are typically strapped with private debt accrued both before and during incarceration and, without anywhere to turn, they are the most likely group to be fined by cash-poor municipalities like Ferguson. 

This is the sort of vicious cycle that a public Job Guarantee can play an integral role in reversing. Such a program will not instantly purge American society of racist feelings and practices. It alone will not eliminate wide-spread discrimination and brutality. The legal system must be restructured and the carceral state dismantled. Yet MMT's Job Guarantee would introduce a reparative and potentially revolutionary mode of valuation into present circumstances by involving historically disenfranchised persons in socially meaningful forms of world-making and ensuring their rights to dignified compensation and adequate healthcare.  

MMT’s heterodox understanding of money points the way to a new era of critique and contestation. When we begin to envision money as a public and truly boundless social technology that can be made to serve all, it becomes clear that government’s failure to provide full employment for the Black community (and American society as a whole) is the primary crime looming behind today's viral videos of police brutality. It is a crime of triple exploitation. The first is the creation of structural unemployment. The second is the management of low-wage prison labor that contains and profits from the social repercussions of this unemployment. And the third is the targeting of the unemployed and formerly incarcerated as a source of revenue for local government operations.

Digital cameras and networks are vital for making visible and fighting against directly physical acts of state violence. Still, MMT offers an additional and indispensable conceptual tool for addressing the invisible violence of structural unemployment that variously conditions these more readily graspable acts of brutality.


The Black Lives Matter movement is now actively exploiting the power of contemporary media technology to aggressively confront political leaders. As a recent article in The Nation has characterized it, BLM chapters are demanding that Americans value Black life and that they place this value “above the property rights of Ferguson and Baltimore residents, above the rituals of holiday commerce, and, yes, above the inspiring surge of a socialist presidential candidate.” Given the historical oppression exerted by white supremacy, the BLM intervention is both urgent and necessary.

As part of this intervention, BLM has created a comparatively less publicized list of demands for change wherein full employment features prominently. “Every individual has the human right to employment and a living wage,” states BLM’s “Vision for a New America.” “Inability to access employment and fair pay continues to marginalize our communities, ready us for imprisonment, and deny us of our right to a life with dignity.”

Regrettably, and for reasons that are in part out of the movement’s control, BLM’s demands for full employment have not yet been adequately heard and the Black employment crisis remains largely unknown outside of the Black community and those who make it their business to know. One cannot help but wonder what BLM and other avowedly leftist movements might accomplish with a tool like Modern Monetary Theory and what a revolutionary weapon MMT stands to become in their hands.

Moving forward, it shall be crucial to revisit the historical struggle for a public Job Guarantee waged by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement, as well as to draw upon recent scholarship regarding race and full employment carried out by economist William A. Darity and his colleagues. But in an era defined by myths of insufficient taxation and falsehoods about government debt and “affordability,” addressing the invisible violence of systemic unemployment that undergirds today’s spectacles of police brutality will only be possible if we are willing to expand our imagination regarding what money is and what it can be made to accomplish.

If one believes that full employment is vital to liberation, then Modern Monetary Theory's radical departure from orthodox political economy provides a roadmap for actualizing it.

Taking in each other's laundry

September 14, 2015 - 13:34
Tags:  Work, Labor, Homer, Dante, Ovid, Hesiod, Genesis, Marx, Pascal, Wallace Stevens

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I, II 

“Take my word for it that making your living is a waste of time. None of the great things in life have anything to do with making a living." —Wallace Stevens

It's amazing, isn't it, the number of mythologies which are about the origin of labor, the number of mythological stories that begin with the origin of labor. Genesis, Hesiod, Ovid to take the three most obvious examples that spring to mind.

This always made sense to me though. It's kind of a shock, that we find ourselves in a world in which we feel more or less at home (also cared for, catered to, idle in), and then find that we have to make a living, and that making a living is hard. Part of the origin of religion, as the myths tell us, is in the surprisingly narrow territory that we occupy: we can survive if we work, but if we don't we won't survive. I can imagine another universe, one where you don't have to work at all—call it Paradise or Elysium or the Golden Age or Heaven. That seems vast enough. No need to toil or to spin to be more glorious than Solomon. And alas yet one more universe, where no work is ever enough to survive: hell, "a city much like London" (as Shelley said, as Blake felt) or like Dhaka, the pit (infernal and sulphurous), Dante's Inferno or Joyce's or even Homer's (Achilles would so much rather be a day-laborer than have his light denied in Book XI of The Odyssey), and of course, here, now, the labor exemplified by the camps: Arbeit macht frei, but it doesn't.

The necessity of labor seems an argument from design, like Paley's watch or the alleged 10^-18 probability or whatever it is that the cosmological constants would be consistent with the evolution of life. There's an infinite fantasy of leisure, justified by the infantile reality of helplessness; and an infinite potential for hopeless work, pressed on us by the endless labor of entropy; but somehow we live in the unlikely region between these two infinities, where Marx is refracted through Pascal. How painfully unlikely is that?

But I guess it isn't: it's a restatement of the theory of evolution. Work is what others impose on us to survive. We have to make a living because if we don't, our rivals will make a killing. Equilibria take work. You can survive if you work, and only if you work, since so much is working against you.


September 9, 2015 - 12:49
Tags:  Centenary, centennial, modernism, Modernist Studies, poetry, T.S. Eliot, Vladamir Mayakovsy, Gwendolyn Brooks

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I ) and Wikimedia ( I

There are plenty of reasons one might dread the coming of the year 2022. As a scholar of modernist literature and culture, I derive a particular form of professional dread at the prospect of the commemorative panels and Daily Telegraph articles celebrating the centenary of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. April, 2022 will be an especially dreadful month in this respect. Elsewhere in the world, 2022 will be ruining Trilce for Peruvians, and centennialists may flock to a spate of delusive Blooms-century events in Dublin, brought to you by an overeager International James Joyce Foundation.

I’ve been growing weary of this scenario since 2009, when Italian Futurism got hot and then cold again awfully fast. And again in 2010, the centenary of the year in which everything changed, according to Virginia Woolf. And 2014, with its wave of World War I commemorations. New Directions issues a centennial edition of Ezra Pound’s Cathay this fall. Important though it was, this slender chapbook—originally published in modest brown wraps—makes a dubious inductee into the “monumental” logic of centenaries. Likewise dubious is FSG's spate of commemorative reissues for the 1914 birth of John Berryman. “The anniversary invites a second look at Berryman’s life, art, and reputation,” writes Helen Vendler in The New York Review of Books. Second since when? It is suddenly as if without the centenary, there had been no books available, no poems written under the Berryman influence, no articles or reviews, since...when? 

The Modernist Studies Association’s annual conference in Boston this year explores the theme of revolutions. Yet they also make room for what they call “anti-revolutionary repetition," which looks a lot like centennialism: “The proposed conference theme invites us to consider as well forms of anti-revolutionary repetition: 2015 marks not only the centenary of D.W. Griffith’s controversial but formally innovative film The Birth of a Nation but also the revival of the Ku Klux Klan at Stone Mountain, Georgia.” Even as the committee that authored this sentence passingly acknowledges the historical violence of the KKK “revival,” it bears out the logic of centenaries all too quietly: a shift in the emphasis of “revolution” from rupture to cyclical return.

Indeed, centennialism might be especially incoherent when professed by devotees of the revolutionary historical avant-garde, for centenaries are often anathematic to avant-garde practice. Vladamir Mayakovsky wrote:

"Stop once and for all these reverential centenary jubilees, the worship by posthumous publication. Let’s have articles for the living! Bread for the living! Paper for the living!"

I expect these incitements will be missing from the 2017 centenary of the Russian Revolution.

Even poets who invite the most pious forms of centenary worshipfulness often disavowed this form of attachment to their works. This year is the centenary of Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” but as Prufrock muses, “Would it have been worth while [...] / To say: ‘I am Lazarus, come from the dead, / Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all.’” Here, the bizarre mood of the future past, the arch and artificial tone of “I shall tell you all,” with its lull of double ls, the contentless repetitions, the clamorous pointing to oneself to be heard: this is the hollow time of centennialism. As Prufrock also puts it:  

I am no prophet — and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker

The poem’s only ellipses come as Prufrock later sputters out, lamenting “I grow old… I grow old…” Prufrock bakes his own sense of obsolescence into his verse. His lines themselves grow weary. Let's honor their recognition of their own decay.

Why not view centenaries as natural moments to pause and commemorate some of the great achievements of literary expression, haloed by the vague and fleeting light of public interest? Because the empty occasions of calendrical time impose their false coherence on us. They inhibit the possibility of a critical program guiding our sense of a usable past, celebrating instead only Prufrock’s flickering diminishment. Centennials do not augment historical expressions, they carve them into the thin slices of a party cake, consumed with the last coffee or drink of the evening before a big sleep.

I hear that University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne is pulling out all the stops for a “statewide” Gwendolyn Brooks @ 100 celebration of her birth in 2017. True, she’s easily the most important poet in the history of Chicago. Sign me up. But many aspects of Brooks’s career remain inaccessible, owing in part to the belated sale of her papers. Down with the centenary as long as more durable forms of Brooks stewardship remain in abeyance. Where is the “beyond ‘We Real Cool’” Brooks unit on the curriculum of every CPS student? Why has there been no critical biography since George Kent’s incomplete effort, published after his death in 1990? The most substantial collection, Blacks, is no substitute for an overdue Collected Poems. At least since Ferguson, many have been tacitly celebrating the 46th anniversary of Brooks’s poem “Riot”—a work with a special purchase on our present—by the simple act of circulating and reading and talking about the poem. I join them and will again when it turns 47. How about an immediate, free reissue of the remarkable first-edition pamphlet brought out by Broadside Press with Jeff Donaldson's gorgeous illustration, placed innocuously amid the informational literature at every police station in the country? Let no one wait for a Golden 50th.

There are other centennials requiring our pause. Chadwick Allen wonderfully explores the meaning of the 1976 bicentennial of the American Revolution for indigenous peoples in his recent book, Trans-Indigenous: Methodologies for Global Native Literary Studies. But let the rest pass unannounced. Instead of commemorative holidays, let's have programs for the present, plans for the future, “articles for the living!” Let's remind others of what's neglected at the most inconvenient hours.

Lost Fragments of the Philosophical Investigations

September 6, 2015 - 08:56
Tags:  Wittgenstein, 'philosophy', axe-wielding maniacs

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I, II, III ) 


694. Mr. N. N. says, “I think there’s an axe-wielding maniac outside my door.”—Oh really? How do you know you think that?

695. I want to say: “open the door and see if there’s somebody standing there.” But this would be an error. We have been seduced by a picture.

696. Think of what we mean when we say “axe” and “wielding.” Sometimes we say “use an axe to chop wood”; sometimes we say “try some Axe body spray.” See how the problem melts away?

697. What is the grammar of apologies? (Note to self: must write to N. N.’s widow. Sorry about whole axe-wielding maniac thing, etc.)

698. All philosophical problems are the result of ordinary words being wrenched out of their everyday contexts. For example, the word “determinism.” In everyday life, we frequently use the word: “have some determinism-flavored ice-cream”; “your necktie looks very determinism”; “have a slice of determinism.” These cases form a family. The word has no meaning beyond its uses.

699. Meaning is always use. Pay attention: we’ll come back to that.

700. Idea for a joke: a philosophy that’s designed to clear up confusions and that nobody can understand. This would be hilarious.

701. Note to self: make sure to blame philosophers for using ordinary words in specialized senses. Then use words like “grammar” and “game” unintelligibly. Call prayer a game.

702. A: “But in everyday situations, nobody uses the word grammar the way you do!”
B: “I’m doing philosophy. Who cares about everyday situations?”
A: “I thought you did.”
B: “Be quiet.”

703. What I’m doing isn’t philosophy—philosophy is that awful thing that generates all the confusions. No, what I’m doing is philosophy. Can’t you hear the difference?

704. I should change my mind in mid-sentence!!—no, no, perhaps I shouldn’t.

705. My aim is to teach you to pass from a piece of disguised nonsense (the Tractatus) to something that is patent nonsense (the Investigations).

706. Time for a deep-sounding metaphor. Language is a wave. We try to swim against it, but we are the water. (That’ll get me into Bartlett’s.)

707. I feel like saying “I want to say.” But I want to say “I feel like saying.”  

708. Which of these expressions should I choose? Fortunately meaning is use, so synonyms do not exist (how could two things have the same “meaning” if we sometimes use one and sometimes the other?!).
See, the fly is out of the bottle! And he is now helping himself to my sandwich. ((Grammar of “regurgitation.”))

709. Meaning is often use, but not always. (Did I say something different somewhere else? How could we know? By looking back? Back at what?)

710. Quick, change the subject! Keep ’em guessing.

711. Find a friend. Bring him a jigsaw puzzle. Open the box. Throw all the pieces on the floor. Tell him “you put it together.” (Could one write a whole book of philosophy that way?)

712. A: “My book is a jigsaw puzzle. You put it together.”
B: “Screw you, Ludwig.”
A: “What is the grammar of ‘screw you’?”

713. B: “I swear to God, if you keep this up I am going to hit you in the face.”
A: “That would be a move in the ‘hitting in the face’ language-game.”
B: “How would that be language? How would it be a game? Do you have any idea what you’re talking about?”
A: “My spade is turned. I think perhaps the metal may have been cheap.”

714. You have now hit me in the face. Do I feel pain? Well, I am exhibiting pain-behavior [Schmerzbenehmen]. My nose is exhibiting blood-behavior [Blutbenehmen]. My eyes are exhibiting tear-behavior [Tränenbenehmen]. What is the grammar of “emergency room”?

The New Servility

August 31, 2015 - 14:37
Tags:  Comedy, Plutocracy, Class warfare, Powerful women, Donald Trump

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I ) 

It should surely by now be recognized that the 2006 movie The Devil Wears Prada marked a crucial moment in American bourgeois self-critique. The casting of Meryl Streep as a Bad Career Woman, and Anne Hathaway as an ingenue, is not in itself particularly groundbreaking. (More interesting is the movie’s announcement of the skinny jeans trend.) What I find unsettlingly prescient about the film is its celebration of the perverse role of the “Assistant,” with its acknowledgement that most work involves necessary humiliation and submission to the will of a superior. On the one hand, the “Assistant” fits the movie’s Bildungsroman plot, with its assumption that a period of youthful apprenticeship is a stadial approach to the Guild of Adult Power. But on the other hand the movie suggests that being an “Assistant” is no mere phase. Everyone who works at Miranda Priestley’s fashion magazine is engaged to some degree in the courtiership of flattering and cultivating power. In short, the movie invites us to identify, at least half the time and only quasi-unwillingly, with the glamour of servitude.

The Devil Wears Prada feels to me like an archetypal movie from the mid-aughts: aware that it’s in a bubble economy, aware that celebrity is fleeting and shallow, and yet trapped in a world where these cultural ephemera have real power. Since the financial crash in 2008, things have gotten a bit darker. In 2011, the Occupy movement popularized the growing divide between “the 1%” and “the 99%,”—a statistic that probably helped Obama win a second term. If you combine that class-consciousness with the ongoing fads of reality TV, celebrity worship, and the ITV/PBS hit “Downton Abbey,” you get “Another Period,” Comedy Central’s wicked depiction of rich and famous parvenus of Newport, Rhode Island in the Gilded Age.

I think two main things are being skewered by this hilarious show. First of all, it makes fun of reality TV (the pampered heiresses talk to the camera like Real Housewives or Kardashians) as well as “Downton Abbey,” with its uncritical delight in fabulous hats and gowns. Second, and a bit more interestingly, it foregrounds how distressing it is to see American servants be so grovellingly servile. The lingering postfeudal Tory romance of “Downton Abbey,” with its loyal servants and paternal aristocrats, is not a new genre in 20th century British culture (see large parts of the work of Evelyn Waugh, P.G. Wodehouse, or Vita Sackville-West). But in America, servitude is not supposed to be permanent, much less enjoyable. The servants of “Another Period” collude openly in their own humiliation, inviting their superiors to treat them as monsters and quasi-humans, which they constantly and unthinkingly do. Only Christina Hendricks(!!!)’s character, a maid brutally nicknamed “Chair,” occasionally shows a flash of violent but impotent rebellion. Of course, humiliation is funny, and the heiress daughters (played by the show’s creators Natasha Leggero and Riki Lindhome) are creatively vicious, and the supporting cast of comedy all-stars are peerless in their masochism. I particularly enjoyed watching Gandhi and Trotsky get into a fistfight at Mark Twain’s charity luncheon.

It’s complicated

One of the new things about this bitter depiction of American servility to the wealthy, of course, is that it’s white people who are suffering. Both “Another Period” and “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” (in which Kimmy gets a terrible job as a nanny for an infantile trophy wife) emphasize the pains of servility by focusing on white servitude, rather than black servants (or, um, slaves). But these new comedies strip the narrative of inequality of any pretense of upward mobility or moral uplift. The equivalent of the aristocratic paternalism of “Downton Abbey” can probably be found in saccharine tales like Driving Miss Daisy, in which rich whites and poor blacks touchingly learn to get along. But “Kimmy” and “Another Period” convey absolutely no illusions that the people at the top deserve to be there, or that the people at the bottom are learning anything. It’s a sad world in which the dream of meritocracy doesn’t even work for white people.

Transporting the feudal class hierarchy to America, and gleefully exaggerating the distance between the classes—that’s all okay, of course, because we know the past was a time of inequality and shame. But on another level, “Another Period” is much cannier about collapsing the distance between the Gilded Age and the present than “Downton Abbey.” The reality-TV-style editing is a constant reminder that we, too, are fascinated by preening half-celebrities. I don’t really know what to do with this pop culture connection between celebrity worship and deeper social inequality, which may be the new way we work through the arbitrary nature of privilege. The social subjection of “Another Period” is conspicuously feminized and whimsical—as it is in “Kimmy Schmidt,” in which after escaping from 15 years in a bunker, Kimmy must undergo a new subjection to a tyrannical rich lady played by Jane Krakowski. We know that it’s crazy that the 1% have so much power; is depicting that power as feminized the way we acknowledge that it’s wrong?*

What even is this

Stop now if you don’t want to read about how this new servility connects to (what I hope is the brief summer political career of) Donald Trump. Jodi Dean has written incisively of Trump’s appeal as a figure of naked plutocracy, freed by his wealth from the dreary necessity of being polite. Dean suggests that Trump’s infantile glory represents a kind of jouissance, a pleasure derived completely from the id. In the Trump campaign, rational political choice collapses into celebrity worship and what I find the very bizarre desire to celebrate the free and wealthy billionaire, completely apart from whether this serves the voter’s own self-interest. My examples of the new servility have so far been drawn from pop culture that only indirectly connects the humbling experience of social inequality to the supposedly rational contract-driven realm of the (masculine) capitalist workplace. But I detected some interesting responses to the New York Times’s recent article exposing the abusive work environment at while many subsequent commenters deplored the pointless degradations of the workplace, others suggested that the workers should be grateful to Amazon for hiring them. No price is too high to pay for this opportunity! Working an 80-hour day for a tech startup (or a tech giant) is not supposed to feel the same as being a personal assistant to a bitchy celebrity, but it’s hard to deny that they both participate in a kind of cult of servitude.

This horse will not save you

This post feels like it’s building up to a big defiant American finale, a call to declare your independence by going back to the land in a Jeep Wrangler. But romanticizing the ideals of pioneer masculinity as a response to fears of decadent social inequality is definitely an escapist cop-out. Sadly, undoing the glamour of plutocratic inequality is probably going to be tedious, uninteresting work.

* The link between femininity and bad economic excess goes back a long way of course: see Laura Brown’s analysis of the ideology of femininity and 18th-century imperial trade in Ends of Empire (1993) and Rachel Bowlby’s survey of women and consumer culture in 19th-century naturalism in Just Looking (1985). I would tentatively suggest that there is something new about using the feeling of servitude to a capricious rich woman as an allegory for plutocracy.

Finding Love in the Cavafy Archive

August 29, 2015 - 07:18
Tags:  C. P Cavafy, E. M Forster, Pericles Anastasiades, biography, Greece, Greek poetry

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I , II ) and Wikimedia ( I )

What made C. P. Cavafy write some of the most original poetry in the world? I went to Athens in January 2015 to find out.

Born in Alexandria on April 29, 1863, Cavafy died there, on the same day seventy years later. He came from a prosperous family with aristocratic roots but, when he was a child, his family lost this fortune and, as an adult, he found work as a civil servant.

The Cavafy we know from his mature poetry—he published only 154 poems of the hundreds he had written—seems emotionally distant, dedicated only to his craft. Though he enjoyed company, received visitors regularly, and was admired as a conversationalist, he lived a loveless life.

The letters from his adulthood, often terse, lack affection, personal indiscretion, or self-revelation. Contemporaries paint a picture of a sociable person, eager to talk about his poetry or ancient history but one devoid of intimate friends. No one described him as a loving or empathetic person.

I was greatly surprised, therefore, to discover material that presents a different Cavafy, at least in his youth.

For instance, in a letter to his friend, Pericles Anastasiadis, housed in the ELIA Archive, Cavafy appears as a compassionate friend. Written in English sometime in the 1890’s and sent to Paris where Peri was traveling, the letter exists only in draft form with sentences crossed out, others added, and many words composed in short hand. Reading it is like reading his poem “In the Month of Athyr,” in which a modern reader tries to interpret an ancient inscription.

From my attempts to decipher the text, Cavafy appears to console his friend. He speaks of sorrow, referring perhaps to a death of a family member, friend, or a lover. I’m not sure.

Cavafy opens the letter by saying that he misses Peri “awfully.” After many years of friendship, they “have become necessary for each other.” He writes warmly and empathetically, especially about the unspecified loss. He advises: “Try and compose your soul during this short period of comparative freedom. I would not ask to cease remembering—forgetting is a great wrong to the [?] but to remember without bitterness.”

Cavafy says that he is no stranger to loss, having felt it “too keenly.” Indeed, we know that in addition to forfeiting his family fortune and social standing, he had to attend many funerals: His father died in 1870, his mother 1899; his brothers Petros Ioannis 1891, Georgos, 1900, Aristidis 1902, Alexandros 1905, Pavlos 1920, and John 1923. He lost two close friends in their early twenties. Death was an old familiar.

Critics have often speculated about the effects these bereavements must have had on the poet. In my research this winter I have found evidence of this: the journal of Phillipos Dragoumis, a future lawyer and politician, who visited Cavafy in the spring and summer of 1916.

In his diary Dragoumis writes that Cavafy “thirsted in his isolation for a companion who would understand him.” Interestingly Cavafy told him that after the loss of a beloved brother, he “withdrew from the world and lived like an ascetic, recalling the old things.” Even if, in reality, he was neither an ascetic nor a melancholic aesthete, his adult life lacked intimate connections.

Cavafy’s confession to Dragoumis suggests that the many deaths made him abandon the worldly life of his youth and turn inward. He fused his fallen social status, his homosexuality, Alexandria, and Greek history into a synthetic theory that excites and persuades today. He made his world and his poetry so Cavafian that, as W. H. Auden noted, anybody looking at his poems would recognize them immediately. And he achieved this roughly by 1910, ironically the year when, according to Virginia Woolf, human character had changed.

Cavafy’s contemporaries were beginning to recognize his path-breaking oeuvre. The poet, Myrtiotissa, wrote about her visit to Cavafy in the early 1920’s, describing his eyes which “come from far distant time and which reveal a mystery unknown to us.” She depicted Cavafy as an exotic being who lived in another epoch but who understood our time and put his stamp on it.

By that time of Myrtiotissa’s visit Cavafy had become well known as an innovative poet. And his reputation was spreading in Europe, thanks in no small measure to the efforts of E. M. Forster who met Cavafy during his stay in Alexandria in 1916-17 and who introduced his poetry to the literati of his time: Leonard and Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, T. E. Lawrence, Arnold Toynbee, Robert Graves. Forster referred to his acquaintance with Cavafy as one of his “triumphs.”

Yet the correspondence between the Englishman and the Greek tells us the type of person Cavafy had become. Forster’s letters are animated, effusive, and revealing. He is anxious about the translations of Cavafy he wants to publish in England. Sometimes he complains of Cavafy’s silence, “I have written to you and sent you two copies of the book [Pharos and Pharillon] and a message via Valassopoulo. Do I get a world in reply? Not a word.”

In another letter he writes that, “you fill my post bag this morning. First and foremost a letter from yourself” and then the proofs to one of the translations. And in his responses Cavafy is cordial but phlegmatic: Thank you for this. I am grateful for that. I appreciate your kindness. Perhaps the most telling letter is about Forster’s recently published A Passage to India. Forster writes, “My book (you will rejoice to hear, like the good friend you are) does well.”

Cavafy replies: “It is an admirable work. It is delightful reading. I like the style. I like the characters. I like the presentation of the environment.” How could Forster not have been disappointed by this unimaginative, colorless, and risk-free judgment?

Cavafy’s responses to Forster reveal that he had turned into a self-interested person who had given up on love. The poet who wrote the letters to Forster does not resemble the person who corresponded with Peri.

This is sad for Cavafy the person but a gain for us. By looking inward, Cavafy turned his life into art. Yet he lived alone and seems to have suffered because of this. In his case, poetry won but love lost.

(I appreciate the permission given to me by the ELIA/MIET Papoutsakis archive to quote from Cavafy’s draft letter. ) 

Doing without Texts: Sapiro on Translation

August 26, 2015 - 10:42
Tags:  sociology of literature, translation, world literature, Gisèle Sapiro, Social Networks

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I, II 

If we want to do sociology of literature, let's get away from texts for a bit.

One of the most promising things about the current interest in quantitative methods for literary study is that it offers us some alternatives to reading as a method. There are important questions about literature—above all, about literature as a social and historical system—that cannot be answered with the tools of the expert textual interpreter. Such questions are better answered, I believe, in closer collaboration with our disciplinary kindred in the social sciences.

Thanks to a new special issue of Cultural Sociology focused on literature, we have a chance to look at some concerete examples of what sociological approaches to literary problems currently look like. In this post I'll discuss the excellent essay there by Gisèle Sapiro, Translation and Symbolic Capital in the Era of Globalization: French Literature in the United States. Sapiro, whose work I have been following for a while, works in the tradition of the sociology of fields, and has written on both twentieth-century literary history and contemporary world literature. This latest essay is particularly fun to think with, because I have my greedy paws on some of the same data Sapiro uses, so it will be possible to look in some detail at the sort of evidence and the sort of analysis her approach entails—and, perhaps, to think how to extend it.

Sapiro's essay is about translation and the international circulation of literature. She seeks to explain the conditions under which French-language literature has been recently translated in the USA. How are we to explain the perception in U.S. publishing circles that French literature is dead? (Tell that to my high-school French teachers, who took us right to the cutting edge with...Sartre...and...Camus...and...François Mauriac. Mauriac, I tell you, in the name of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.)

Sapiro adopts a perspective similar to that of Pascale Casanova in The World Republic of Letters: her starting premise is that literary visibility and recognition are unequally distributed geographically. The literary system has a "core" and a "periphery," by analogy with the capitalist world economy. For Casanova, Paris is the capital of the "world republic," still playing the major role in consecrating authors for cosmopolitan readers across the world; but for Sapiro New York is the capital of a "dominant publishing field" (325) with the power to arbitrate the standing of other "national literatures" on the global stage.

The world system is itself mostly divided into national subsystems, and, as in the global system, each subsystem is unequal. At the national level we are to recognize the dynamic of what Bourdieu, whom Sapiro follows quite closely here, called the field of cultural production: a polarized structure, where some agents pursue specifically literary renown or symbolic capital, others pursue commercial success or economic capital, and the two tendencies are generally opposed. We shall have to return to this Bourdieuean assumption, since Sapiro's own analysis adds some nuance to it.

Now Casanova's study is a qualitative and theoretical text, but Sapiro seeks to put this understanding of world literature on an "empirical" footing (322). How does one operationalize the hypothesis of the cultural field? In Bourdieu, the principal empirical technique was an exploratory method called multiple correspondence analysis, essentially a way of summarizing variation in many categorical variables in a two-dimensional space. (I'll say more about that another time, as this technique is still being used in very interesting ways in the sociology of culture.) Sapiro's approach is less esoteric. I want to emphasize the characteristics of her method because they point in very different directions from the lines "distant reading" has tended to follow so far—and, I think, more productive ones.

First: there are no interpretations of literary texts in her essay. There are no quotations from literary titles; there are, however, numerous excerpts from interviews with people in the publishing industry. Whereas literary scholars with a quantitative bent, myself included, have tended to construct text corpora and think about their properties as the dependent variables of interest, Sapiro makes no attempt to obtain or analyze the texts of recently translated French literature. She does not seek to characterize the corpus of translations "in itself." This is the point at which one might say: is this the difference between the sociologist and the literary scholar? But I do not think so: all of Sapiro's questions are literary-historical questions. Her concern is valuation, circulation, and meaning-making in the literary domain. And Sapiro's method allows her to examine the linkages between literary activity and the political and economic domains—linkages that matter centrally to literary scholarship.

To see how Sapiro makes this work, we can observe that the essay does, after all, have some interpretation of literature. Consider Sapiro's discussion of American independent publishers:

The oldest of the 16 firms set up before 1980, and which stayed independent during the fusion-acquisition period, is New Directions, founded in 1936, which concentrates on the reprint of classics from their backlist, all the while making a cautious opening to a more commercial upmarket contemporary author: Amélie Nothomb. By contrast, Burning Deck, set up in 1961 by Keith and Rosemarie Waldrop, and located in Providence, Rhode Island, specializes in poetry, an upmarket non-commercial genre, and has published innovative authors such as Pascal Quignard in the French series launched in 1990. (336)

The interpretation here, at the level of authors rather than texts (I really could not find any remarks about single texts), classifies writers: Nothomb is "commercial upmarket"; Quignard is "innovative." Now the point about these categories is that they are more or less "native" to publishing ("upmarket" is a term Sapiro has taken from her interviewees," "innovative" is immediately recognizable to me as a shibboleth of "advanced" cosmopolitan publishing1). At the same time, they need not refer to "intrinsic" textual qualities: is Quignard really innovative? Who knows? It suffices that he is perceived to be within the field that translates him. And it suffices for the analysis of the system to be able to work with the more or less stable broad classifications that operate within it.2 To this system Sapiro has to add two more categories of non-contemporary writers, what she designates "modern classics" (like my high-school French teachers' choices) and then classics proper (Montaigne, Balzac).

Now we have one dimension of variation, the classifications of the authors translated. Against this Sapiro poses another variable, the category of the publishers. This is more straightforward, since she uses an organizational variable: presses are either imprints in large conglomerates, small independents, or university presses. Sapiro reports that the US presses publishing translations from French fairly consistently are more or less evenly split among these categories in terms of their share of all translated titles. But they do not all publish the same class of texts. The key empirical demonstration of Sapiro's analysis, it seems to me, is thus her Table 5 (335), which shows that there are proportionally more independent publishers with lists dominated by contemporary writing than imprints of big publishers or university presses.3

Thus, it is not simply a matter of counting how many titles translated from French are published in the US and lamenting how small they are, proportionally, especially by comparison with the reciprocal figure. (Still, as Sapiro notes, French continues to top the list of source languages for literary translations in the US almost, both cumulatively and every year, as you can see using the Index Translationum's statistical summary functions.) If we stop there, our only explanatory recourse will be a lazily "cultural" story about US insularity and monolingualism. But what really matters for Sapiro are the channels through which translations enter the US literary field. What the bivariate analysis supports is Sapiro's argument that translations from French contemporary literature are indeed being continuously produced, but only at the small-scale pole of the field. Large presses, even under "prestige" imprints, gravitate towards already-consecrated classics and modern classics.

This conservative strategy reflects the cautiousness of large publishers about the profitability of translations. There is a "self-fulfilling prophecy," says Sapiro, whereby publishers act so as to confirm their own belief in the market unviability of translations. Yet Sapiro's interviews reveal an interesting further factor, which is that acquiring editors at the big publishers simply do not have the linguistic or cultural competence to seek out foreign literatures. Here I would suggest that another piece of the puzzle is the role played by the gradual destruction of foreign language study in the secondary and higher education systems in the US. John Thompson has shown that large trade publishers do take risks all the time in pursuit of the "big book," and that many big publishers continue to maintain significant interests not just in economic but in symbolic profits ("quality"). But the kinds of elective affinity that would guide an editor to acquiring a foreign title become impossible when that editor simply cannot read beyond English.

Sapiro does not discuss another dimension of the field, namely that small-scale and non-profit operators are probably better-positioned and more inclined to take advantage of French state subventions for translation. Whereas the big publishers, always (as Thompson says) "minding the gap" between revenues and profitability goals, cannot do much with the sorts of grants the Ministry of Culture gives, for a small press such support might be decisive. The 2013 list of Hemingway grant recipients, for example, consists almost entirely of small independent presses and university presses (Polity, however, is a medium-sized rather than small organization). Sapiro: "translating literary works is a mode of accumulating symbolic capital for newcomers in the publishing field" (335).

This then is an empirical hypothesis: like the overall publishing field, translations from French are polarized between large and small scale producers. Furthermore, at each pole the kinds of writer published are consistent, and, as Bourdieu would lead us to expect, the degree of investment in symbolic as opposed to economic value is closely linked to the age of the writer translated. Youth or contemporaneity is found at the small-scale pole, age and the "classic" at the large-scale. This is the supposition reinforced by Sapiro's table 5.

It has a further implication for operationalizing the idea of the field, however. It means that we can approximate the field position of publishers by clustering them on author types.

Or, if there are enough prolifically translated authors to go on, we should be able to accomplish the clustering on authors themselves. And this is why Sapiro turns to a network analysis. There should be a duality of translated authors and their publishers: the affinities among the former are coupled to the affinities among the latter. (This fact is also the basis of Natalie Houston's ongoing work on the field of Victorian poetry publishing and of Hoyt Long's analysis of translations in Japanese modernist poetry magazines.4) To see this empirically, Sapiro constructs the network of publishers, where ties represent translated authors shared between them (her fig. 3). And here comes the fun part, because her source here is UNESCO's Index Translationum aggregate bibliography, and that bibliography is available online. It is not too difficult to automate the collection of a series of search results from this bibliography.5

To replicate Sapiro's figure (in part, more or less), we follow her note to restrict to 1990-2003 publications and to publishers that have published at least five translations. Some publishers share no authors with any others: these are the isolates, and they are not part of the network analysis. Eliminating these leaves us 472 titles, 95 authors and 81 publishers. These are the publishers that have a relatively sustained interest in translations from French and some connection with other publishers via authors.

Instead of transcribing Sapiro's coding of the organizational control and publication type of each press, I will use a clustering algorithm to label possible "communities" on the graph. Here is glimpse of the densely-connected "inner core" of this network:

US publishers of translations from French, 1990–2003. Source: Index Translationum, UNESCO.


An interactive version of this diagram—which, unlike this, can actually be read—is available on a separate page. Click through in order to see the clustering tendencies more clearly (and to be able to search for publisher's using your browser's find-on-page function). I have also made an interactive diagram of the publishers' network including titles up to 2008.

Sapiro does not display the dual of this graph, which is the co-publication network of authors. If publishers are indeed grouped by the kinds of writers they publish in translation, then those writer-types should cluster together in the co-publication network. Here is a glimpse of that network:

French-language authors published in translation in the US, 1990–2003. Source: Index Translationum, UNESCO.


An interactive version of this diagram is available on another separate page.

In fact this dual graph lends itself more easily to interpretation, with two clearly defined clusters (I have again used automated community detection to highlight these), of "classics" and of "contemporaries." The role of broker between the clusters is played by high-betweenness-centrality writers: these include Queneau and Flaubert (rather pleasingly, since these are indeed great classic writers who also represent earlier stages of French literature's most radical avant-gardes).

Sapiro does not spend much time on her network analysis, but what she does do tends to fall back on a "reading" of the figure which, for me, provokes the same skepticism as the "readings" of data visualization so prolifically circulated in "DH." I find hairball graphics very hard to read. The major fact that is salient in this graphic, the centrality of the University of Nebraska Press to the network,6 is not straightforward to interpret: it doesn't correspond to its prestige in the field of translation but rather its prolific program of translations and its mixture of modern classics and contemporary writers, linking it to two other kinds of publishers. On the other hand the reprint factory we call Dover Publications is highly central through a conservative focus on classics (and the educational market). These two network "stars" are not homologous according to the rest of Sapiro's analysis.

It is informative but strange to see the largest players in the field of publishing pushed, in general, to the network periphery, like Harper Collins and Random House (which both have a betweenness centrality of zero on the graph). But there is enough clutter and strange variation (Penguin is quite central) that eyeballing this graph and hoping for the structure of field starts to feel like an uneasy process, relying too much on ignoring what we don't want to see. The next quantitative step would be possible for someone with more training than I have: to ask, perhaps using ERGMs, just how much network structure can be explained by the typology of publishers Sapiro proposes.

Part of the problem, perhaps, is the choice to think in terms of titles rather than sales or status. When I drafted this post I noticed that the Index data continues into 2008. I wondered what had stopped Sapiro at 2003 (apart from incompleteness of the data when she did her own compilation; the Index lags). The remaining five years of data present some strange phenomena, however. If we count only titles, we find ourselves weighing quite heavily Gareth Stevens, an educational book publisher, which happens to have worked its way through some series of French children's books (publishing Little Bees, Little Elephants, Little Foxes, Little Wolves...). But this is hardly the same kind of publishing as we thought we were discussing. And what does title production mean, anyway? Might we not be more interested in other forms of circulation, registered by sales, or consecration (in e.g. prizes)?

But perhaps the network is more complexity than this analysis really requires, and I think Sapiro was perfectly justified in using the network for exploration only. Again the literary scholar might be seduced by the desire to "read," or over-read, the elaborated network, perhaps by emphasizing the nodes that are positioned unexpectedly. But Sapiro's answer to the question about the status of French literature did not, remember, really depend on nuanced claims about affinity. Rather, the empirical question was about the distribution of publisher's strategies over publisher control types.

And for this, Sapiro turns to different kinds of evidence. She does not—and I think this is a lesson quantitative literary study needs to absorb—stop with the analysis of the bibliographic data on its own. The Index Translationum does indeed implicitly contain central facts about the sociology of translated texts. But even to make sense of that, it was necessary to adduce the classifications of authors and publishers. And to use, as an interpretive context, the framework of the broader American publishing field itself, characterized by the opposition between small and large-scale producers, the domination of conglomerates seeking high margins and "big books," and so on.

I have left to the side a number of other threads in Sapiro's essay (the changing and diversified nature of French-language writers as represented by US translation; the extreme concentration in Paris of publishers of French source materials). I want to close instead by returning to the premise of a literary "world system."

Sapiro revises Casanova (it seems to me) by granting to Anglo-American book production a central status in the literary world system. Since translations from French are far more marginal in the US and the UK than translations from English are in France, shouldn't the "core" be located at the main export-source of literary goods? But Sapiro herself notes a complication. What is exported from the US to France (and elsewhere) is, especially though not at all exclusively, the outputs of large-scale production: American bestsellers are translated and sold all over the world.7 But what is imported to the US is typically "upmarket" or prestige production from French, driven by the affinities of small-scale US publishers for what seems authentic, innovative, unfairly neglected, and so on. If we pay attention to transfers of symbolic rather than economic capital, the core status of the US does not seem so obvious: the US does not have the power to impose judgments of value on the French market about French texts, precisely because it is the small-scale publishers who translate contemporary French writers. It is in fact remarkable that the golden names of US academic life still include an ever-expanding canon of French writers: I have flown the flag of Bourdieu, but there is a "French Theorist" for every taste. Though the same does not hold for the highbrow novel, it still seems to me that the dominant-dominated model is awkward to apply to the pairing of the US and French in literature. The opposition between forms of capital may mean that this relation between two competing centers of world literary space is not fully explained by the economic power of American cultural industries.

  1. ...and the Modernist Studies Association.

  2. I have some reservations about this: we shouldn't have to assume that the commercial/upmarket/innovative system is stable across the field. It bears the stamp of the consecrated, "purist" pole of the field, and our analysis should not be too quick to accept the hegemony of the purists.

  3. Since in my last post on this theme I said we ought to have more statistical rigor in quantitative literary studies, I should say that the inspection of this table could be enhanced with a statistical evaluation. The numbers are quite small here, small enough that---if I have used my magic R statistics box correctly---one cannot reject the hypothesis that the publisher type makes no difference to the chance of whether the publisher has a majority-contemporary list or not, χ2(2) = 4.15, p = 0.13 (ignoring the "missing information" column of her table). But this indicates only that some more refinement to the choice of indicators is called for; I am not all questioning a multiply-supported conclusion about the structure of the field. To go further we would have to repeat Sapiro's task of hand-classifying the organizational-control of each of the 69 publishers in question and the classic, modern-classic, or contemporary status of each of their titles. She has not made her data available, as far as I know.

  4. For Long, little magazines play the role publishers play here. I particularly admire the lucidity and nuance of Long's methodological reflections. Conducting an analysis at multiple scales, from the densely individual up to that of the networked "map" of the field, Long shows, it seems to me, just how readings of texts have to recede from view as one changes to a larger-scale, systemic object of analysis.

  5. I'm a little nervous about circulating my code to do this, since I don't want to make it too easy for careless people to overload their server (the built-in statistical aggregator asks you not to specify two variables "unless you have a real need," so I sense UNESCO may not be operating an enormous server farm underneath the East Side). Anyway, once you have the bibliographic results, a little data-wrangling and you can derive the affiliation matrix of translated authors and publishers. I have placed the R script I used, together with the the derived TSV data file and the R markdown for this blog post, on github.

  6. This centrality is not just graphical: this press has the highest degree and the highest betweenness centrality of any member of the network, trailed by Dover and Knopf. This can be verified using igraph's betweenness function.

  7. "American hegemony was extreme in cinema and in genres of large-scale production such as mystery and romantic novels, classified as ‘low-brow’ in cultural hierarchies" (324).

Stealing Poetry in North Platte, Nebraska

August 18, 2015 - 13:48
Tags:  poetry, Edgar Guest, popular culture, Is anybody happier because you passed his way, Twain, Howells, reading, Michael C. Cohen

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Images Flickr ( I, II, III 

Michael C. Cohen begins his new book The Social Lives of Poems in Nineteenth-Century America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015) with a few examples of scenes in novels that center on characters' interactions with poetry but that don't, in fact, include the poems themselves. In William Dean Howells's The Minister's Charge (1886), for example, young hotel clerk and aspiring poet Lemeul Baker is asked to read aloud a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier, and although he reads it, and although characters respond to it with sighs and yawns, and although they debate if a Longfellow poem would have sufficed just as well, we are never told the poem's title, nor are we made privy to its actual text. Similarly, in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), Huck finds Emmeline's scrapbook, and although he describes her process of writing "tribute" poems for the recently deceased, and although he describes how he "tried to sweat out a verse or two myself" on the occasion of Emmeline's death, we never get to see what Huck reads or what he writes.

With the text of the poems rendered unavailable, Cohen is interested in what remains—how these scenes produce or record the effects of poems. With no "words, words, words" to distract us, we scholars can use these moments to gauge how "[t]he missing poems structure social relations (private conversations, public tributes) between men and women, individuals and institutions, and the living and the dead." In other words, the poems that Howells and Twain reference "are so generic as to have no identity and need none," because the scenes they structure focus on meanings made via literature but "outside of a model based on literary analysis." Yes, Virginia, there is life beyond literary analysis.

I haven't read all of Cohen's book yet—truth be told, I've only read this far into the Introduction—but his opening discussion made me think about all of the times that someone or other has claimed that poetry is dead or dying, that few if any people read it, or that it's simply not a popular art. I'm so tired of these discussions that I can't believe I'm actually writing about them here, except that Cohen made me realize that such discussions, like the scenes in The Minister's Charge and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, revolve around missing or absent poems. That is, no one ever cites any examples of poems that are not popular or that are in fact declining in popularity. In the big cocktail bar or drawing room or hotel lobby of this "debate," we're told that poems aren't being read. People fret or don't fret about the fact that poem's aren't being read. They sigh. They yawn. And, with no one getting distracted by all of the poems that actually are circulating via all types of media in American culture, the scene of this cocktail bar as some novelist would draw it focuses thus on the effects of those missing poems—on the social relations between men and women, individuals and institutions, and the living and the dead that they structure. Every discussion about poetry's lack of popularity in fact makes poetry both more and less popular. Such discussions make poems "so generic as to have no identity and need none" (thus making poems less popular) but counterintuitively produce and sustain more poetry-related social relations (thus making the subject of poetry more popular).

In such discussions, you're likely to come across (cited as proof positive of poetry's unpopularity) how books of poems don't sell, as if the book were the inevitable or natural unit by which the poem should be packaged, delivered, consumed, traded, bought, sold, given, read, or unread—as if, in other words, the measure typically used to determine the popularity of prose were the best measure to determine or measure to popularity of poetry. But the standard unit of poetry is the poem—right?—so why not measure the popularity of poetry via the individual poem as it gets circulated on the radio (in shows like The Writer's Almanac), TV (in shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, or Orange Is the New Black), the web, the clipping, the quotation, the Chrysler or Mazda advertisement, or the whatever so long as that "whatever" isn't the low-press-run, slim or slender volume that's somehow been designated and fetishized as the best and most legitimate measure of a poet's suceess? I mean, just check out Saul Williams's performance of "Coded Language" on Def Poetry Jam, the YouTube video of which has gotten over two million views. And now that you've checked it out, check out the music video version done with DJ Krust, which checks in at a relatively paltry 300,000 views. How is this not good evidence of poetry's popularity?

I realize that, by citing "Coded Language" and thus mentioning a specific poem, I'm totally breaking the rules of the "poetry isn't popular" conversation, but it finally brings me to the story that I set out to tell you about the string of poetry thefts that's been taking place in North Platte, Nebraska for the past twenty-odd years. It's a fun story. It's an illuminating story that helps to illustrate and even quantify poetry's ongoing popularity away from the world of literary analysis. And while it's the story of a poem that regularly goes missing, I'm going to nevertheless give you the text of that poem in this posting.

I recently completed a six-day, five-night, 2,800-mile road trip from Oregon to Washington, D.C., where I'll spend the Fall 2015 semester writing and researching at the Kluge Center at the Library of Congress. It was a long ride featuring stops in Boise (Idaho), Rock Springs (Wyoming), North Platte (Nebraska), Iowa City (Iowa), and Bowling Green (Ohio). While in North Platte, I stayed at America's Best Value Inn, an independently-owned, 1950s-style motel that I'd recommend to anyone passing by not just because of its cleanliness, affordability, and level of hospitality, but because of the poem "Have You Earned Your Tomorrow?" (pictured here) that they've got tacked to the wall in each of the motel's thirty-three rooms. Here's the full text of that verse:

Is anybody happier because you passed his way?
     Does anyone remember that you spoke to him today?
The day is almost over, and its toiling time is through;
     Is there anyone to utter now a kindly word of you?
Can you say tonight, with the day that's slipping fast,
     That you helped a single brother of the many that you passed?
Is a single heart rejoicing over what you did or said;
     Does the man whose hopes were fading, now with courage look ahead?
Did you waste the day, or lose? Was it well or sorely spent?
     Did you leave a trail of kindness, or a scar of discontent?
As you close your eyes in slumber, do you think that God will say,
     "You have earned one more tomorrow by the work you did today." 

If you Google the poem, you'll find several versions of it in circulation (this is a shortened version), and you'll also find that there's some dispute as to its author and title. The America's Best Value Inn version attributes it to John Hall. It's been attributed to John Kendrick Bangs. It's been credited to "anonymous" and has oftentimes appeared with no byline at all. To my ears, it sounds exactly like the "people's poet" Edgar Guest, and, indeed, it's most frequently attributed to him directly or metonymically via Guest's publisher the Detroit Free Press. (For more on Guest's amazing and ongoing presence in popular culture, see my Arcade posting from October, 2013). Over the years, it's appeared as "The Day's Results," "The Day's Work," "At Day's End," "Is Anybody Happier," and "Consider Today." In the world of popular poetry, such authorial confusion, editing, and re-titling is a common thing; see, for example, the poetry of Rod's Steakhouse which I discussed at Poetry & Popular Culture some time back.

In my estimation, "Have You Earned Your Tomorrow?" is most likely by Guest, and while I haven't found the issue of the Detroit Free Press in which it perhaps originally appeared, it most likely dates to 1916 or 1917, and its publication history is a miniature portrait of just how widely such verse circulated. In January of 1917, it appeared in The Journal of Zoophily, "published monthly under the auspices of the American Antivivisection Society, combined with the Women's Pennsylvania Society for the Preservation of Cruelty of Animals." The Lather, put out by the Wood, Wire, and Metal Lathers International Union, printed it in 1918. The Los Angeles School Journal and The Bessemer Monthly (put out by the Bessemer Gas Engine Company) printed it in 1919. The Gospel Messenger, The Sabbath Recorder, and the Southern Telephone News printed it in 1920. The Chamber of Commerce and State Manufacturers Journal of Scranton, Pennsylvania, printed it in 1921, The Plasterer in 1922, Vision: A Magazine for Youth in 1932, The Railroad Trainman in 1935, and American Flint in 1950. It continues to be reproduced in books and on web sites today.

You get the idea: the poem going by the title "Have You Earned Your Tomorrow?" has appealed to a wide audience—labor unions, religious people, youth, animal lovers, civic stakeholders, etc.—for a long time. All the same, after leaving North Platte, and as I put mile after mile of blacktop behind me, I began to wonder if the version of the poem at America's Best Value Inn tell could tell us anything more about how popular the poem continues to be and how audiences today respond to verse that moves them. So when I got to D.C., I gave the Inn a call and talked for a while with the owner Dave.

Dave opened the Inn in 1988 and almost immediately posted copies of "Have You Earned Your Tomorrow?" in each of the motel's thirty-three rooms. He doesn't remember where he found the poem, and he doesn't know anything about the author, and neither of those things seem to matter much to him. But he did tell me that, over the years, the motel has sustained an average annual occupancy rate of 60-70%. So you can do the math by yourself (but double check mine): at an average of twenty-two rooms per day (65% occupancy), that means that at least 8,000 motel guests (a conservative estimate of only one person per room) have the opportunity to encounter the poem in a single year. Calculate that number over the twenty-seven years the hotel has been open under Dave's management (what I'll call the "poem era"), and you discover that more than 216,000 people have seen "Have You Earned Your Tomorrow?" just in the rooms of America's Best Value Inn alone.

But—I began to think halfway through my conversation with Dave—just because someone in a hotel room has the opportunity to read a poem doesn't mean he or she has actually read it, or read it with any semblance of seriousness, right? That's when Dave spoke up, as if anticipating my question. Once or twice a day, he said, people walk in to the main office and ask for a copy of the poem; he's got a stack of them behind the desk to give out for free. What's more surprising than that—especially considering the poem's content—is that every day poems go missing from one or two of the motel's rooms, so frequently that the maid carts carry stacks of replacement poems alongside shampoo bottles and tissue boxes. So, once again, let's do the math. If someone steals a poem from the hotel room every day, that's 365 copies stolen over the course of the year—or nearly 10,000 copies that have been stolen since the beginning of the poem era at America's Best Value Inn. Combine those 10,000 copies with the 10,000 or more that Dave has given away at the front desk during that time, and you've got 20,000 or more copies of "Have You Earned Your Tomorrow?" that people have read and considered closely enough in their motel rooms to take certain and definitive action. How's that for concrete evidence of the poem's continued appeal?

So, Dave's inn has poems on the walls, poems on the maid carts, and poems at the front desk. He's given or lost 20,000 copies of that poem over the past 27 years, and over the phone he seems more than okay with it all, though he does say that, from time to time, someone will call or approach him because they've been offended by "Have You Earned Your Tomorrow?," thinking that Dave was in some way prejudging them and telling them to be better hotel guests. But Dave says he's not judging them—not even the folks who steal copies, it seems. Rather, he says the poem's title isn't a judgment or warning but a question, just the way it reads. "I'm wanting them to ask it themselves," he says in that matter-of-fact way that Midwesterners have, like it's meat and potatoes for dinner again. Meat, potatoes, and poetry.

Apple’s Modernism, Google’s Modernism: Some reflections on Alphabet, Inc. and a suggestion that modernist architect Adolf Loos would be totally into Soylent

August 11, 2015 - 04:43
Tags:  Adolf Loos, Alphabet, modernism, Apple, childhood, Design, developmentalism, cuteness, the uncanny, primitivism, Naomi Schor, surfaces, google

It's weird how in the "post-postmodern" era (as Jeffrey Nealon has a ruefully called it) what counts as modernity remains so attached to the styles of modernism, a formal signification of newness long after these styles could conceivably be thought of as new (that is, long after they became styles).1

im in ur font library


The modernist aesthetics of Apple are well documented.

Aaron Betsky argued in 2012 that "the company that has already done more to bring the notion of clean lines, abstraction, white, and every other surface attribute of Modernism to the masses than any architect or architectural theoretician." (There's modernism as style again, or even simply as brand—a list of formal features or "surface attributes" to be checked off a list, rather than a philosophical or political engagement with historical modernity.)2 Gordon Bruce has similarly discussed modernist aesthetics not only in Apple's contemporary designs but in those of IBM in earlier decades, seeing in them echoes of Bauhaus design.

The Apple store on 5th Ave., New York.


Lori Emerson notes that even Apple's "flagship store in New York City, which has been made to appear as if it’s within a glass cube (made of nonreflective glass to create an even more convincing illusion of a marvelous, even pure, reality) that sits above ground, when in fact the store is underneath."3 Talk about modernist autonomy—the very fact that it's a store is occluded by a vision of pure structure.

And in 2011 Blake Gopnik complained in Newsweek that "I may be in love with my new Air, but giving it a prize in 2011 is like giving a rave to contemporary paintings that rehash Mondrian’s grids. For me, Apple’s modern styling is like work by Chippendale and Tiffany: you may love it, but you know your love is stuck in the past."

Constantin Brancusi, Bird in Space, marble, 1923.


The joke's on Gopnik, of course; he concludes that Apple's design endgame is pure featurelessness, a design so recessive that it appears as pure function—but there's nothing so modernist as a claim to stylelessness.4 Moreover, to point out that grids, smooth white and metal surfaces, and the refusal of ornament aren't new is to miss that they still mean newness.

The fantasies of purity that animate this style, now applied to the laptop I'm writing on, can certainly no longer be read as a resistance to the mass or to mass production, a sentiment that crops up in the Austrian modernist architect Adolf Loos's famous and weird repudiation of kitschy ornaments, "Ornament and Crime." (That resistance's reputation has taken a beating in the last several decades anyway.)5

Naomi Schor reads Loos as making a fundamentally economic, not aesthetic, judgment about frills and baubles: "it is a crime against the national economy that [in fashioning ornaments] human labour, money, and material should thereby be ruined."6 If modern people are beyond ornament, as Loos argues, it is because they know better than to waste their energies on it; plain things are cheaper and you save money on not buying what's unnecessary and, what's more, is junkily unnecessary, now that lace and color aren't the work of craftspeople but of tacky marketers looking to build obsolescence into what we buy.7

Adolf Loos, Villa Müller, Prague, 1930.


Unadorned aesthetics, here, are no more than an alibi for the supremacy of the economic principle. In that sense, the mass production (safely elsewhere, out of sight) of modernist Apple machines is an apotheosis of the version of modernism Loos seems to propose.8 "Modern man [sic]," Loos concludes, "uses the ornaments of earlier or alien cultures as he sees fit. He concentrates his own inventiveness on other things." Other things like startups, presumably! You can tell that if he could try Soylent, Loos totally would.

My comparison between Loos's "Ornament and Crime" and Rob Rinehart, the inventor-marketer of Soylent, is a bit gratuitous, but not just. Rinehart's minimalism shares with Loos what turns out to be not mere style, but a form of historical engagement after all—in the sense of a deep investment in one's own modernity and, indeed, futurity.9

It's the kind of futurity that depends on someone else being behind, as Loos discloses from his opening sentence: "The human embryo in the womb passes through all the evolutionary stages of the animal kingdom." He'll go on about development in babies and others for a good two paragraphs, concluding with the assertion that any modern person who self-ornaments by getting a tattoo is degenerate, out of phase with their developmental stage (and out of phase in a particular way—backward), and without question literally a criminal: "If someone who is tattooed dies at liberty, it means he has died a few years before committing a murder." (Hence "Ornament and Crime.")

The developmentalism here is thoroughgoing, but notice how Loos starts out with the human embryo as a sort of model system for every other kind of development (which is imagined as highly normative, teleological, and of course concluding with Loos himself). To begin with, Loos rehearses the popular (but basically wrong) notion that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny," but the parallel between human development and evolution soon spreads to a developmental theory of culture and, indeed, of race, which requires "the Papuan"—paralleled, again, to the child—as a figure of primitivism against whose perfectly natural tattoos he can hold up the degenerate, criminal tattoos of the (white) "modern adult."

Leo Frobenius, The Childhood of Man, 1909.


In a course I teach, "Modernism and Childhood," we spend a good amount of time thinking through the ways that various early twentieth-century thinkers (Freud being a prime example) rely on these parallel developmentalisms, using each "primitive" exemplar (the child, the animal, the racially other) as figures and explanations for the others. That's what Loos is up to here. Beliefs about the child—whose relative disempowerment is profoundly naturalized—enable beliefs about many other kinds of processes.

It probably won't have escaped your attention that this modernity is actually less about time than about hierarchy; Adolf Loos hasn't been around any longer than "the Papuan" (nor is he any younger), but somehow he's ahead. Aesthetics—plain style—is his proxy for time rightly met (which is in turn, as Schor argues, a proxy for economic incentives rightly met).

Rinehart's technological futurism is equally about imposing hierarchy, peppered with oddly melancholic refusals of reproductive labor,10 which mark out what is feminized and outsourceable as worthless, unfit for conscious beings, and—as of Rinehart's self-retrofitting—temporally past: "I am all for self reliance but repeating the same labor over and over for the sake of existence is the realm of robots."11

Thoroughly infused by what Dipesh Chakrabarty calls "historicism," in the specific sense of the the temporalization "first the West, then the rest," Rinehart's narrative cleanly (so to speak) encapsulates the interarticulation of modernist plain style qua style and post-postmodern, just-in-time capitalism.12 "The new" is not actually about being new; it's about being ahead of somebody else. It's not much different from what we already knew about post-Fordist capital's love of "innovation," "revolution," and "disruption"; it just brings into relief that rhetoric's modernist antecedents and the developmentalist primitivism that makes it work.

This brings me to Google.

Yesterday, Google announced its restructuring under a new holding company, called Alphabet, of which the G for Google would become just one of many letters.13

G is for Google.


The original Google product, the search engine, has a famously minimal UI design. Here's how a writer for FastCoDesign described it in 2014:

Arguably, there's no better example of efficient web design than the Google homepage. Every little design tweak goes through rigorous A/B testing, and yet the homepage does not look fundamentally different than it did 10 years ago. In fact, it's so simple and iconic that, back in May, lead Google homepage designer Jon Wiley told us that he wasn't sure if the design would ever fundamentally change.

Efficient! Rigorous! Simple! Iconic! Timeless! So far so modernist. But Google's simplicity doesn't go for sophisticated (read: adult) simplicity in the way that Apple's design so openly does.14


Contrast this with the conscious citation of children's alphabet books in the title of Google's Alphabet announcement, "G Is for Google." With its logo in primary colors, the letters in a serif typeface as if on toy letter blocks, and of course a name that's nearly a gurgle and a corporate headquarters (the "Googleplex") that's a pun, Google has never exactly gone for the grown-up look. On the contrary, they are, like Facebook, famous for ping-pong tables in the workplace and Silicon Valley's "youth culture."

Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading, 1934.


One of Google Search's most famous features, in fact, is an ornament: a fast-rotating (24-hour) decoration on the homepage, usually a drawing or an animated cartoon, or sometimes a game, always topical and never repeated, called a "doodle." Google itself describes the doodle feature as "the fun, surprising, and sometimes spontaneous changes that are made to the Google logo to celebrate holidays, anniversaries, and the lives of famous artists, pioneers, and scientists," and, I am not making this up, the first one was made to mark Burning Man. Thus the "simple and iconic" Google Search page is frequently ornamented for amusement ("fun") in just the way that Loos describes in the child and the primitive.

That is not to say that Google's design strategy is antimodernist. Not at all. For the childishly-named doodles don't register as ornaments without the "simple and iconic" reputation of the default search page. More to the point, though, the performance of childishness is a key form of modernist primitivism, a way of superseding modern civilization's (supposed) hypercontrol, not by admitting to being decadent or regressive but rather by appropriating a position of genuine newness in the form of youth (which is also, of course, a proxy for other alleged developmental earlinesses—modernists like Gertrude Stein and William Carlos Williams freely appropriated African-American, Native American, and immigrant positions).15 Thus Loos is a key example for Anne Cheng, in her book on the modernist surface, of the ways that, mediated through racial discourses, ornament and nudity could come out to the same thing.16 In this way the impulse to decorate—to doodle—can signify, not decadence, but rather creativity and a return to the elementary ("primitive") processes of making art.

It's interesting that Google entrenches in this self-presentation as infantile and unthreatening precisely in the act of basically announcing itself to be en route to multiplying itself 26-fold, which is, let's face it, terrifying.17

Don't be evil, it said with its dead eyes.

This has something to do with what I've elsewhere called "puerility," although I don't think it's quite as complex in Google's case. (Soylent, on the other hand, I see as thoroughly partaking of a puerile politics, seemingly enthusiastically running headlong into utopianism while sipping on a food replacement literally named after one of those sci-fi morality tales that reveal the terrible cost of a popular, futuristic tech solution—in this case, famously, "Soylent Green is people.")


It's not that Google/Alphabet's design can be classed as "modernist" in the way that Apple's can; rather, their seemingly opposing design strategies draw on two sides of the same idea. For example, the names the two companies chose for their respective web browsers—Google's Chrome and Apple's Safari—temporarily reverses the polarity between shiny modern surface and primitivism that each brand usually evokes.

Sianne Ngai has brilliantly elaborated "the cuteness of the avant-garde," and perhaps that cuteness, with its violent undertows, helps explain what is happening in the transition from Google (the rounded letters, the repetitive bisyllable that pushes the mouth into a sucking motion) to Alphabet (the Greek word that literally starts you saying your ABCs).18

The danger with cuteness is to read it as a form, rather than as the formalization of a temporal concept, a transformation that the concept of "the child" routinely enables.19 As Ngai so persuasively details, to find something cute is to call up whole histories of its existence. Cuteness's closest relative is the Freudian uncanny, an even more explicit example of an aesthetic concept that formalizes a temporal one. The uncanny is Freud's (rather less repudiated) version of a tattoo, the atavistic return-out-of-time of some laid-to-rest part of oneself.

In Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927), strenuous labor is figured as literally being on the clock.


These temporal aesthetics, Google's included, tell us something about the repurposing of modernist style for post-Fordist capital. Modernist style still succeeds in evoking newnesses even when wholly "unoriginal" because it so successfully dehistoricizes.20 That it still totally works, and that it remains congenial to capital in the face of capital's transformations, hints that we have in modernist ideology a powerful actor.

Consequently, the study of early twentieth-century style can be understood as neither irrelevant nor innocent. The quasi-Darwinian, developmentalist ideologies of Silicon Valley have their correlates in styles that disguise their basic violence as design. Its results are, among other things, political transformations of the Bay Area that seek to do to San Francisco what Rob Rinehart did to his apartment—rely heavily on exploited labor that has been geographically displaced. It imagines people of the future living side by side with people who lag behind—but not literally side by side of course! because the laggards commute from Vallejo. Anyone who isn't on board with the spatial segregation of the temporally disparate is an "enemy of innovation." Again, this is actually less about time than about hierarchy. After all, the temporal difference between any two people in existence at the same time is completely made up: it's an effect of style, which is in turn (if we follow Loos's logic) a proxy for economic dominance. Time is, so to speak, money.

Loos (who was Austrian) wrote in 1908:

The speed of cultural evolution is reduced by the stragglers. I perhaps am living in 1908, but my neighbour is living in 1900 and the man across the way in 1880. ... Happy the land that has no such stragglers and marauders! Happy America!


How will Alphaville look?



This is, as usual, crossposted from my blog.

  • 1. Jeffrey T. Nealon, Post-Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Just-in-Time Capitalism (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2012).
  • 2. I am not, for the record, suggesting that this is any more debased than historical modernism.
  • 3. Lori Emerson, Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014) 188n29.
  • 4. Andrew Goldstone, Fictions of Autonomy: Modernism from Wilde to de Man (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).
  • 5. For example: Kevin J. H Dettmar, and Stephen Watt, eds. Marketing Modernisms: Self-Promotion, Canonization, Rereading (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996).
  • 6. Loos 21, qtd. in Naomi Schor, Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine (New York: Routledge, 2007): 61.
  • 7. Perhaps Apple's modernist aesthetics aim to give off the impression that they aren't building planned obsolescence into their machines, even though anyone who's ever owned an Apple product knows that they totally are.
    By the way, Loos definitely isn't arguing for an Arts-and-Crafts-style return to artisan decoration; rather, he argues that mass production liberates us from the laboriousness of ornament and thereby lets us see how superfluous ornament is.
  • 8. That much of this labor famously occurs in China—long an avatar for a hypertrophied capitalist modernity, as Colleen Lye has pointed out—only adds another layer beneath the sleek cladding of Apple's image. See also Alexander Galloway's critique, in the context of the "Chinese gold farmer" trope in gaming, of displacing the apprehension of global labor exploitation onto an abjected racial-geographic other as if it were a property of the racial-geographic others themselves, as well as Andrew Ross's reading of the tight interlacing of western precaritization and globalized hyperexploitation. See Colleen Lye, America’s Asia: Racial Form and American Literature, 1893-1945 (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2005); Alexander R. Galloway, The Interface Effect. Cambridge: Polity, 2012): 120-143; Andrew Ross, "In Search of the Lost Paycheck," in Trebor Scholz, ed., Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory (New York: Routledge, 2013): 13-32.
  • 9. Rinehart's minimalism bears a striking resemblance to Marie Kondo minimalism in its enthusiasm for externalizing disorder—a sort of hybrid, that is, between the lifestyle outsourcing that Kondo advocates and the literal labor outsourcing represented by the global supply chains that make our hardware.
    By the way, I'm very persuaded by Aaron Bady's reading of "How I Gave Up Alternating Current" as science fiction, and not at all the less for Rinehart's apparent sincerity.
  • 10. "Nevermore will I bumble through endless confusing aisles like a pack-donkey searching for feed while the smell of rotting flesh fills my nostrils and fluorescent lights sear my eyeballs and sappy love songs torture my ears." Compare this with Loos in 1908: "The show dishes of past centuries, which display all kinds of ornaments to make the peacocks, pheasants, and lobsters look more tasty, have exactly the opposite effect on me. I am horrified when I go through a cookery exhibition and think that I am meant to eat these stuffed carcasses. I eat roast beef." Told you Loos would have tried Soylent.
  • 11. I'm taking it for granted here some Marxist feminist accounts of reproductive labor and that, furthermore, you'll have caught the historical resonances between feminized and robotic labor, both of which are devalued under current conditions. See e.g. Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle (Oakland: PM Press, 2012); Arlie Russell Hochschild, The Second Shift (New York: Penguin, 2003).
  • 12. Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2000).
  • 13. At least one Twitter joke about Alphabet pointed out the modernism of this move.
  • 14. When Anne Cheng reads Josephine Baker's skin—so often draped with gold cloth or lit as if to reflect light—as metallic cladding, it makes me wonder what she might say about Apple's attachment to brushed metal finishes: armor as nakedness, nakedness as armor.
  • 15. Lest there be any confusion: this was racist.
  • 16. I know I cite this book constantly, but: Anne Anlin Cheng, Second Skin: Josephine Baker and the Modern Surface. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
  • 17. I don't take "infantile" to be a pejorative because I reject the model of development as hierarchy. For more on the practice of calling adults infantile, see the ever-brilliant Tyler Bickford.
  • 18. Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012). Ngai, following Lori Merish, reads cuteness as an aesthetic of the commodity, emphasizing the plasticity and thingness of the cute object. Perhaps one reason cuteness is a good branding strategy for Google is that its "products" are so much more confusing and elusive than Apple's. Apple can design a sleek metal machine; Google is selling search, targeted advertising, email, and a variety of other less material goods, often for no obvious money. Often, further, it's not clear who the customer is. They can use a little reification.
  • 19. What is "a child" but the remaking of an unmanageable temporal concept of earliness as a set of physical forms? Parents of infants sling biometrics like it's nothing.
  • 20. I don't even really need to trot this out, but I will: Rosalind E. Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985).

The cherry's on top: Celibacies and surface reading

July 29, 2015 - 08:32
Tags:  Benjamin Kahan, queer studies, Gertrude Stein, Eve Kosovsky Sedgwick, Briallen Hopper, spinsters, celibacy, surfaces

So, I'm late to this, but I finally sat down and had a proper read of Benjy Kahan's 2013 book Celibacies: American Modernism and Sexual Life. [1] What strikes me especially about it is that I think it's the first work of criticism I've read that really makes me appreciate the promise of "surface reading." Anyone who knows me probably knows I'm wholeheartedly #teamdepth, not because I love the depth/surface binary in particular but because so much of what's out there about surface reading and the "postcritical turn" seems dedicated to caricaturing some of the most powerful and interesting criticism of the last several decades and reducing them to some kind of find-the-hidden-code exercise where you line up all the puzzle pieces and the answer is—aha!—a kitten! Fig. 1. Allegedly, Fredric Jameson's interpretive strategy.

Hopefully nobody actually thinks that about critique and we're all just trying to make a point. Eve Sedgwick does a beautiful job of pointing out the tendencies of "paranoid" reading without erasing its generativity. [2] I especially appreciate Sedgwick's demurral at making "paranoid reading" (a potentially very pathologizing name) about a critic's unsuitable emotions or state of mind.

Still, the temporalizing effect of the "postcritical" hints that old-school (so to speak) critique is over, not so much wrong as behind the times—it's not "the way we read now," to quote the title of the special issue of Representations in which Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus most famously advanced the idea of surface reading. [3] Or at least, it's not the way we should read now. Paranoid reading is proper to the paranoid 80s and 90s, it's suggested; the criticism of our time must be different. [4]

I've argued elsewhere that what we think of as "surface" in the reading that we have produced as contemporary has everything to do with what people thought reading was a hundred years ago, so, okay, I have a little bit invested in the alleged contemporaneity of certain reading practices. [5]

What Celibacies does differently is show why attending to the surface need not be an ascetic renunciation of interpretive richness at all—just as celibacy itself need not be an ascetic renunciation, although sometimes it is that too. [6] Celibacies sets out to question what Kahan, after Foucault, calls "the expressive hypothesis." If, for Foucault, the "repressive hypothesis" is an erroneous belief that sexual expression has been repressed by social convention (when in fact those very social conventions around sex are an incitement to speech that produces sexuality as a category), "we still have not fully grappled with the immense challenge that the repressive hypothesis poses—namely, how can sexuality studies avoid positioning itself opposite silence, repression, and power?" [7] The expressive hypothesis is another version of the repressive hypothesis: the expectation that every closet will contain a queer (who could, and probably should, be "expressed"—"come out"). The expressive hypothesis forgets the potentially liberatory possibilities (or complex liberal compromises, in some cases) of not saying, not doing, not choosing, not identifying. Hence the epigraph that Kahan chooses for the monograph, from Sedgwick's Epistemology of the Closet: "Many people have their richest mental/emotional involvement with sexual acts that they don't do, or even don't want to do."

In eschewing a depth model, then, Kahan isn't repudiating interpretive richness. Rather, he argues, celibacy taken as celibacy keeps its richness on its surface. Taken at face value, celibacy is both normative (no sex happening here!) and deviant (no sex happening here!). [8]

Is it a cover for queer sex? Is it a positive sexuality in its own right? Is it a repudiation of sex? Is it a woman's regretful renunciation in exchange for rights she could not have under marriage? Is it a queer route to normative citizenship or religious belonging? Is it a lie? If we haven't yet steamed ahead with the expressive hypothesis, then the answers are yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. "While the epistemology of the closet is an epistemology of the open secret," Kahan writes, "celibacy offers an epistemology of the empty secret": in other words, we can know something, or many somethings, even when there's "no there there." [9] Surface, in this "celibate reading," isn't a repudiation of meaning but the place where meanings proliferate—and produce text.

The importance of reframing the expressive hypothesis comes to the fore in Kahan's exploration of celibacy's specific purchase on the social sphere, contra what Michael Warner calls "the deep and resilient moral fantasy...that reproduction is essentially generous," which leaves the celibate "estranged from reproductive sexuality" and "from life itself." [10] "Whereas most sexual formations are associated with private interests (even as they have public elements)," Kahan argues, "celibacy is associated with the public good. ...[C]elibacy is not just a public identity, but one that motivates (rather than merely instrumentalizes) styles of and performances of publicness." [11]

Briallen Hopper's recent, brilliant essay on spinsters brings into relief how truly social the celibate's alleged unsociability is, and how necessary a lingua franca of celibate sociality is in the present moment:

There are urgent reasons why spinsters need to look beyond the self and resist the system. As [Louisa May] Alcott’s insistence on the ballot box [in An Old-Fashioned Girl] suggests, insofar as the conversation about unmarried women remains a conversation about choice and individual temperament and not about politics, it is missing something important. Even though the contingencies of when and whom I marry don’t define my existence, marriage is still an important legal and social category with implications for many practical and symbolic aspects of adult life. Because in our culture, marriage is a choice, but it also isn’t. It’s a rom-com ending and a party with a cake, but it’s also a systemic mechanism that separates the enfranchised from the disenfranchised, the included from the excluded.

And unfortunately, the momentous Obergefell v. Hodges SCOTUS decision remedies some of these injustices while shoring other injustices up. In too many important ways, marriage and the couple form are still the legal and social prerequisites for the sharing of resources and lives, the care of sick, the parenting of children. And this arbitrary conflation of marriage with the commitments and responsibilities of adult life sometimes turns unmarried people into second-class citizens, and devalues many necessary forms of love.


In order to recuperate these "many necessary forms of love," it's important to be able to read the "celibacy plots," as Kahan calls them, that run orthogonally to the marriage plot. (In one of the book's best moments, Kahan reads Andy Warhol's 1965 film My Hustler as portraying "cockblocking as a celibate act that is both auto- and alloerotic.") [12]

As Mark Goble points out in Beautiful Circuits, the scandal of modernist celibacy is actually its surface reading: “Has Gertrude Stein a secret?" Goble asks, citing the title of the psychologist B. F. Skinner's Stein exposé in The Atlantic. [13] "The answer is of course ‘yes’ and by the way, it’s not about sex.” Instead, it's about Stein's history of experiments in automatic reading and writing. [14] But the scandalous thing that is "not about sex," as Celibacies makes beautifully clear, is precisely pluripotential because it remains on the surface—it's a sexual yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, polymorphously perverse in its denials—of authorial subjectivity, of mind's supremacy over body, of writing's "value."

I've argued that women's information work, such as typing (and Kahan notes that when such work was done professionally, it was inevitably by the unmarried, although, as my essay explores, this overlaps with married women's domestic labor), prototypes the kind of compromised reading that has come to be seen as "the way [should?] we read now." [15] Here's an example from Stein's Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas that lets us see what "celibate" surface reading offers:

Etta Cone offered to typewrite Three Lives and she began. Baltimore is famous for the delicate sensibilities and conscientiousness of its inhabitants. It suddenly occurred to Gertrude Stein that she had not told Etta Cone to read the manuscript before beginning to typewrite it. She went to see her and there indeed was Etta Cone faithfully copying the manuscript letter by letter so that she might not by any indiscretion become conscious of the meaning. Permission to read the text having been given the typewriting went on. [16]


The propriety of Etta Cone's refusal to read—her Baltimorean "delicate sensibilities"—is exactly the same thing as its perversity. Celibacies elaborates the logic that locates propriety and perversity the same depthless act.   █

* * *

Benjamin Kahan, Celibacies: American Modernism and Sexual Life. Durham: Duke University Press, 2013. 232 pages.

* * *

This essay is cross-posted from my blog.

* * *

pls make this fanfic happen

[I did actually try to come up with a title that wasn't also a filthy double-entendre but failed. Paranoid reading: still the way we read now.]


1. Benjamin Kahan, Celibacies: American Modernism and Sexual Life (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013).

2. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, Or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You,” In Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, 123–51, Series Q (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003).

3. Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus, “Surface Reading: An Introduction,” "The Way We Read Now," spec. issue of Representations 108, no. 1 (November 1, 2009): 1–21. doi:10.1525/rep.2009.108.1.1.

4. This is why I called dibs on the title "Nobody Cares What You Believe: The X-Files Reboot and the Postcritical Turn."

5. To clarify: my point is not the boringly true one that people did plenty of reading "at the surface" before now, but rather that contemporary surface reading owes a specific debt to early C20 fascinations with compromised cognition, which directly and materially produced the conditions under which surface reading can now be practiced.

6. I think it would be interesting to spend a little time with surface reading's languages of ascesis in light of Kahan's reframing of celibacy.

7. Kahan, Celibacies 3.

8. Kahan, Celibacies 37.

9. Kahan, Celibacies 3.

10. Michael Warner, "Irving's Posterity," ELH 67, no. 3 (2000): 774, quoted in Kahan, Celibacies 54.

11. Kahan, Celibacies 19.

12. Kahan, Celibacies, 133.

13. B. F. Skinner, “Has Gertrude Stein a Secret?” The Atlantic Monthly 153, no. 1 (January 1934): 50–57. 14.

Mark Goble, Beautiful Circuits: Modernism and the Mediated Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010): 128.

15. Kahan, Celibacies, 15; Cecire, “Ways of Not Reading Gertrude Stein,” ELH 82, no. 1 (2015): 281-312.

16. Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, in Writings, 1903-1932: Q.E.D., Three Lives, Portraits and Other Short Works, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, ed. Catharine R. Stimpson and Harriet Scott Chessman (New York: Library of America, 1998).

Walter Pater's Renaissance

July 20, 2015 - 15:14
Tags:  Pater, Ruskin, Emerson, Tillyard, Renaissance, OED

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Images Wikimedia ( I, II 

In the used bookstores of Boston in the late 1980s, the Renaissance section always had multiple cheap copies of two books: E.M.W. Tillyard’s The Elizabethan World Picture and Walter Pater’s The Renaissance. What this fact suggests to me is that these two books were standard fare for undergraduate courses in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s and shaping influences on what “the Renaissance” was taken to mean. I know what Tillyard was: his book (I might as well admit that I find it not very good) subsequently became subject to many attacks, particularly in Britain, for the (allegedly) static, comforting picture of the Renaissance it offered innocent young minds. But Tillyard was a subject of debate, because he felt influential enough to merit rebuttal.

What about Pater? I don’t know if he appeared on syllabi, but he probably did. All those used copies had to have come from somewhere. Yet I can’t think of a single thing written in the last thirty years that felt the need either to denounce or to celebrate Pater’s account of the Renaissance: one reason I am writing this post is to see if anyone out there knows of one, and I will make a more explicit cry for your help at the end. Perhaps Pater seemed so unthreatening or so bland that he just slipped out of Renaissance scholarly time. The one exception I can think of is studies of sexuality. In examinations of, say, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Pater’s book, especially the Conclusion, might be invoked (though not as often as Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Mr W.H.) as code for male-male sexual desire, and hence as part of a broad Victorian shift in sexuality. Yet this invocation is itself a sign: Pater is about the nineteenth century, about its conceptions of art and sex, and readings of his book would get filed under the heading “Pater criticism,” firmly entrenched in the nineteenth-century section of the MLA convention program.

But I have a question: does Pater tell you anything about the Renaissance? Does his account of aestheticism help understand the period? There are a lot of subtle stakes in those questions, of course. I could be wrong about this, but my guess is that one reason Pater is never invoked to describe the Renaissance anymore is that the entire question of art, or at least aestheticism, for a lot of people seems to be inextricably tied to the nineteenth century, and in particular to some vague sense of “universal human values.” And such ideas obscure the Renaissance rather than reveal it. But anyone who has ever used the OED to show how a meaning of a word is anachronistic must realize that relations between the Renaissance and the nineteenth century are…complicated. The OED too is itself a nineteenth-century invention, focused on nineteenth-century questions, and dripping with its own elitism, sexism, colonialism, nationalism…and yet it is indispensible for study of the Renaissance.  

And this paradox leads me back to Pater. It seems to me Pater must have thought he was trying to describe something about the Renaissance, and he thought that the period’s most important characteristic was its art. Of course he was also describing his own time. But was that all he was doing? I’m not sure. So this fall I am teaching a graduate course about Renaissance conceptions of art. The course’s main tour guide will be Rancière’s Aisthesis, itself a dexterous rejigging of Kant, Hegel, and Auerbach that presents some periodizing challenges (Rancière’s thesis: there is no art before Winckelmann). But I wonder if Pater and a few of his contemporaries might not have something to say about current readings of the Renaissance. There has, for example, been a small debate over the last few years in the study of Shakespeare. Did Shakespeare imagine his plays as literature (to be read later) or as performances driven by a combination of economic necessity, political delicacies, and the fickle taste of theater-goers? Could reading Pater help reconfigure that debate? Is “aesthetic” a term that might help sort out the stakes of the argument?

In this spirit, Rancière has a particularly brilliant account of John Ruskin’s love of Gothic (the precursor of the Arts and Crafts movement, and, most surprising to me anyway, twentieth-century German industrial design). But Rancière does not mention that in The Stones of Venice Ruskin’s Gothic is set up against Ruskin’s Renaissance, the period when, as far as Ruskin was concerned, everything that is bad in the world began to happen. Ruskin is a little crazy, but he certainly isn’t stupid. What about his account of the Renaissance-as-evil? Does it tell us something about the sixteenth century, or is it only an expression of Victorian sentiment to be bracketed off? 

Here is another example. Emerson too was a little odd, but he was also a very canny reader. This is what he wrote about Renaissance poetry in his journal in 1828:

Is it not true, what we so reluctantly hear, that men are but the mouthpiece of a great progressive Destiny, in as much as regards literature? I had rather asked, is not the age gone by of the great splendor of English poetry, and will it not be impossible for any age soon to vie with the pervading ethereal poesy of Herbert, Shakespeare, Marvell, Herrick, Milton, Ben Jonson; at least to represent anything like their peculiar form of ravishing verse? It is the head of human poetry. Homer and Virgil and Dante and Tasso and Byron and Wordsworth have powerful genius whose amplest claims I cheerfully acknowledge. But ‘t’ is a pale ineffectual fire when theirs shine. They would lie on my shelf in undisturbed honour for years, if these Saxon lays stole on my ear. I have for them an affectionate admiration I have for nothing else. They set me on the speculations. They move my wonder at myself. 

What does it mean for Renaissance poetry to set you on “speculations?” How do you your wonder at yourself? Does it have something to do with “a great progressive Destiny?” Those are nineteenth century questions, no doubt, but Emerson himself locates one origin for them in Renaissance poetry. Should his love of this “pervading ethereal poesy” be taken seriously as an account of Herbert, Shakespeare, Marvell, Herrick, Milton, Ben Jonson? At the very least, why is Renaissance art so important for him?

So here is my question: if anyone knows of anything—a book, an article, a lecture, a syllabus, whatever—that invokes Pater (or Ruskin or Emerson!) as a guide to the Renaissance, or really anything that insists Pater (or Ruskin or Emerson) be dismissed or bracketed, I would like to see it so I can show it to the graduate students.  They can then make their own decisions. Post a response here or email me, and I promise to let everyone know if this course succeeds or turns out to be a well-intentioned disaster.

Defiance at Despair: On the Meaning of the Greek "No"

July 16, 2015 - 06:48
Tags:  Economic austerity, Greece, Greek crisis, Greek referendum, Europe, Eurogroup, neoliberalism

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Images Flickr ( I ) and Wikimedia ( I 

Why would people seem to vote for their own destruction? Why would they go against their own economic interests? Why would they risk abandoning the Euro?

Perplexed politicians, journalists, and ordinary individuals from around the world posed these questions following the Greek referendum on Sunday, July 5, 2015. Friends, colleagues discussed this with me as well. No one could make sense of how an entire nation could defy the European political and economic establishment and jeopardize its future.

In the hastily arranged referendum the Greek people were asked to vote on whether to accept the latest offer presented to them by their European creditors. The radical-left government of Alexis Tsipras, elected to power in January 2015, had been engaged in acrimonious and fruitless negotiation with the European creditors to alleviate the burden of this debt that had plunged the Greek economy in a depression unprecedented in time of peace. Not only were the creditors unwilling to offer debt-relief but they also presented Tsipras with an ultimatum to accept their latest proposal. Unwilling to buckle to these demands and renege on his elections promises, Tsipras announced the referendum on whether to accept this offer from the creditors.

The referendum was to take place in a week when the social, political, and economic conditions of the country were becoming perilous. Not being able to pay the latest installment to the IMF, Greece was technically in default. Worse still, the Greek people, fearful of an imminent exit from the Euro, emptied the ATMs in one weekend.

In a political move, the European Central Bank refused to offer any more liquidity to the Greek Central Bank. As a result the Greek government imposed currency controls, with each citizen able to withdraw €60 daily (about U.S. $66.00). Lines continued to form everyday, with pictures on television of senior citizens fainting in front of closed banks. There were stories of Greeks hoarding food and medicines and other news accounts reporting shortages.

To many commentators inside and outside of Greece this was going to be a taste of things to come, the chaos that would ensue after a Greek exit from the Euro. People were understandably frightened. And I, having just returned to the US from a five-month research trip to Athens, was worried about my relatives, friends, neighbors, and colleagues.

World attention focused on Greece, with over 1000 correspondents arriving in Athens to cover the referendum. How would Greeks vote? Would they be horrified at the worsening economic state of their country and cross the Yes box? Or would they jump into the abyss outside of the Euro?

Astonishingly, 61% voted against the latest offer from the creditors. People, including myself who had hoped for a Yes vote, were shocked and dumbfounded. Why did they do it? I offer below a provisional attempt to understand.

First, one must remember that for the last five years Greece has been undergoing a severe depression that was orchestrated by the neoliberal policies of the Eurogroup, the IMF, and the European Central Bank. As Thomas Piketty pointed out in the Guardian, the economy has shrunk by 25%, unemployment is 25%, with youth unemployment set at over 60%. Wages and salaries have been cut back by as much as 40%. There is widespread poverty and misery. No modern, western economy has experienced such implosion since WWII.

Believing that they had little more to lose, some people began to think the unthinkable, to take risks, the see themselves beyond fear. Greeks whom I spoke with told me that they could not bear the conditions of life any longer and wanted to send a message to the world.

Above all, they wanted to maintain their dignity. Over and over, they said that their self-worth was more important than their pocketbooks. It was this aspect of pride and defiance that European and American commentators had a hard time understanding—that a people could exist for whom self-respect and honor were more significant than economic well-being.

It is important to keep in mind that “Ochi,” the Greek word for “No,” has symbolic associations in Greek history. In 1821 the Greeks launched the first national revolution in the world to end 400 years of Ottoman rule. In October 28, 1940 they said "Ochi" to the invasion of their country by the army of Benito Mussolini. Indeed October 28 is celebrated as Ochi Day, a national holiday. Subsequently Greeks fought valiantly against the Nazi invasion, even when the Germans took gruesome reprisals against them, prompting Winston Churchill to declare that, “hence we will not say that Greeks fight like heroes but that heroes fight like Greeks.”

It was this boldness that expressed itself during the referendum. Young and old, workers and professionals, showed that in utter hopelessness you could maintain your dignity. And we, accustomed to materialist explanations of human motivation, namely that people would chose their pocket books over pride, have difficulty understanding this.

As Pericles said in his oration to the Athenians in 431 BCE, “happiness depends on being free, and freedom depends on being courageous.” This freedom became more elusive a week after the referendum when the Eurogroup, led by Germany, converted Greece into a debtor’s colony, punishing the Greeks for their defiance.

But we should keep in mind the final words of Pericles. “One’s sense of honor is the only thing that does not grow old, and the last pleasure, when one is worn with age, is not making money” but having one’s self-respect.

For and Against Machines: Beyond the New Jetsonism

July 2, 2015 - 12:13

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Images Flickr ( I 

It is with Peter Frase’s “techno-skeptic vs. techno-utopian dichotomy” in mind that I want to revisit the futurist current that has recently resurfaced on the “new new left” and which was the subject of the debate I excerpted in my initial blog post. We might see one ostentatious example of this tendency in Aaron Bastani’s “fully automated luxury communism” (FALC). Faced with the threat of a jobless future, Bastani proposes the automation of everything plus “Cartier for everyone, MontBlanc for the masses and Chloe for all." As an admittedly utopian critic notes, one problem (among many) with this proposal is that Bastani puts “too much faith in capitalist technology overcoming scarcity and the need for labour,” while he “fails to imagine a more general transformation of social relations." I labeled this tendency and its putative opposite, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as the Jetsons vs. the Flintstones, in a prior post. 

The Jetsons (like the Flintstones, their Stone Age counterparts) were products of a cold war United States very much invested in the possibility of capitalist technology, or the ideological promise of consumerist abundance for all. Although the Jetsons have flying cars and mechanical servants, 1960s-era children still saw in this family of the future the same social relations with which they were familiar: paterfamilias George, pampered housewife Jane, children Judy and Elroy, and their robot maid, Rosie. Apparently 2062 is 1962 with pills for food. The Jetsons were indistinguishable from the Flintstones save for the costumes and the gadgetry, reinforcing the idea that while technical progress is potentially limitless, capitalist social relations are immutable. The new futurism—which differs from a more theoretically-inflected and often defiantly antihumanist accelerationism, despite sharing many of its goals—could in many respects be described as Jetsonism: a Fordist idyll.

We can see this tendency in Rachel Lauden’s plea for “culinary modernism.” Lauden juxtaposes modern industrial food with the artisanal and organic “Luddism” supposedly exemplified by Michael Pollan and Alice Waters, who, despite their status as modern (if romantic) critics of the American food system, are taken to task for their historical inaccuracies. Invented traditions aside, Lauden lets us know that the past and its benighted eating habits were in fact a terrible thing

More to the point is Miya Tokumitsu’s “defense of machines.” In “Why We Should Listen to Frank Lloyd Wright,” Tokumitsu takes up the cudgel for industrial production against the “‘artisanal,’ ‘small batch,’ ‘heirloom,’ and ‘bespoke.’” As the title indicates, the article pivots on architect Wright’s criticism of William Morris, the nineteenth-century utopian socialist, who championed a revived artisanal work ethos in opposition to the degrading and degraded condition of labor under the factory system in late Victorian England. She reminds us how “according to Wright, artists understandably saw the Machine as a threat, an assault on the 'handicraft ideal.' But Wright argued that this ideal had outlived its usefulness. Rather than lament the obsolescence of the handicraft ideal, we should embrace the fact that there is no longer a need for fussy joining and tinkering. Indeed, the Machine could be instrumental in "saving the most precious thing in the world—human effort.”

Tokumitsu in this way argues that machines—and, by extension, industrial production techniques—have liberated us from “needless toil,” while the obsession with “the artisanal production of yesteryear” ignores “the widespread racial, gender, and class oppression that it entailed.” Tokumitsu builds on Lauden’s analysis of present-day “culinary Luddites”—who are blinded by a combination of class privilege and a backward-looking romanticism—to extol the labor-saving wonders of modern technology. That these same labor-saving machines have also enabled employers to exploit, discipline, and monitor their workers in ways unimaginable to the nineteenth-century capitalist, while intensifying the “widespread racial, gender, and class oppression” supposedly ignored by the urban gardener in the act of growing her tomatoes, goes unremarked.

To her credit, toward the close of her article, Tokumitsu acknowledges as much: “And still, the Machine’s liberatory potential remains untapped. It persists as a tool of enslavement, increasing rather than decreasing our workloads by facilitating speedups and allowing professional communication to infiltrate our domestic space.”

In other words, Tokumitsu relies on the productivist reading of Marx alluded to in a previous post, as she waits for the day when forces will be unfettered from  relations of production. Yet, with her telling caveat, we learn that Tokumitsu’s version of technological modernity is as selective in its treatment of “the Machine” as her artisanal opponents' alleged mis-appropriation of the past and its traditions. Although we might see in the artisanal phenomenon a deliberate repurposing of the past for decidedly modern ends, much like Lauden and our other Jetsons, Tokumitsu can only discern in these aesthetic engagements with tradition a dangerous “nostalgia” that threatens to undermine the present. Or not quite, because, the “liberatory potential of the Machine remains untapped” under current, capitalist, conditions. It is only from the vantage point of a hypothetical technosocialist future—like news from nowhere—that today’s capitalist machines (or rather their potentials) are redeemed retroactively. What we have here is indeed a futurist aesthetic posture, and a nostalgic one at that.

Rather than reduce every romantic recreation of tradition to some atavistic longing in need of factual correction, we might instead keep William Morris’s words in defense of his own medievalism in mind: “To those who have the hearts to understand, this tale of the past is a parable of the days to come.” For Kristen Ross, a parable, in Morris’s sense, “is not about going backwards or reversing time but about opening it up,” in order to “recruit past hopes to serve present needs” while providing “clues to the free forms of a whole new economic life in the future” (Ross, Communal Luxury, 75).

And what is this artisanal movement that Tokumitsu bashes throughout her article? If her adjectives (e.g., “heirloom,” “small batch") are too oblique, the subsequent references to Fuck Your Noguchi Coffee Table, Portlandia, and “contemporary markets for mustache wax and obscure herbaceous liquors” should clue you in.  Tokumitsu’s tongue-in-cheek hipster bashing highlights the extent to which present day evocations of the artisanal aren’t expressions of a movement—much less a concerted effort to undo industrial civilization—but a set of niche-branding strategies for luxury goods. She makes her initially tacit critique explicit at several points throughout the article. These include references to one luxury condo developer’s handicraft-oriented advertising copy, the unaffordability of high-priced fair trade goods, and the ostensibly “neoliberal values of individualism and social atomization” that Tokumitsu counterintuitively aligns with “the handicraft ideal,” exemplified in the work of ninteenth-century utopian socialist William Morris.

For Tokumitsu, while the existence of this artisanal capitalism undercuts our artisans' claims for countercultural status or utopian possibility, we are also told to embrace the emancipatory potential of the Machine, despite its currently being a specifically capitalist “tool of enslavement.”

As Tokumitsu admits at one point in her essay, to the extent that the “artisanal” is a thing outside of advertising, it is a DIY hobby. Tokumitsu’s description of this subculture is a mélange of present-day cultural stereotypes whose only common denominator is sucking. Our new artisans are Portlandia-style eco-hippies and haute bourgeois consumers who seek to allay their liberal guilt through ethical consumption habits. Yet we are also told that the “DIY culture of craft is strong on the libertarian right, taking form in home-butchered meat and the construction of bunkers and local militias.” While this sounds more like survivalism than libertarianism, on closer inspection we might find that techno-utopianism is the preferred flavor of the libertarian right.

Like the “hipster," the figure of the “artisanal” yokes disparate social and cultural phenomena into an all-purpose bogeyman that serves to displace any analysis of the structural dynamics—such as gentrication or increasingly precarious and, yes, alienated labor conditions—at play beneath the surface of these cultural and social conflicts.

Embedded within the parable of this artisanal hobby is a dream of emancipated work freely undertaken in a space beyond the compulsions of the market; in this dream, the worker controls every aspect of an aestheticized production process from start to finish. In a de-industrialized and increasingly de-professionalized U.S. labor market, the downwardly-mobile children of a fast-disappearing “middle class” more and more find themselves in contingent positions in which they perform what resembles piecemeal work, only in digital form. Above and beyond this particular group, most of our waking lives are spent in front of screens, on privately-owned social media platforms. Although a certain sort of accelerationist sees in this process the coming cyborg marriage of human and machine, our condition is better described as the Taylorization of everyday life. It is against this background that we should consider the sensuously material allure of craft work. And to the extent that our 24/7 regime of compulsive work-play-performance represents yet another neoliberal seizure of utopian desire—for the fusion of work and play, meaningful self-directed activity and leisure—the artisanal dream seeks to snatch them back by again imagining labor as art. Yet our present-day artisans are certainly no primitivists, combining as they often do a passion for craft beer and heirloom tomatoes with a compulsive desire to display what they’ve grown, brewed, and built on Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook.

We need only look to Morris’s own formulations to see that there is nothing innately individualist or “neoliberal” about the craft ethos. Morris was a late nineteenth-century example of the utopian romanticism inaugurated by William Godwin and his romantic interlocutors during the 1790s, although his romanticism was arguably transformed by reports of the Paris Commune and Morris's own experiences with communards in exile. Morris wanted “to extend the word art beyond those matters which are conscious works of art, to take in not only painting and sculpture, and architecture, but the shapes and colors of all household goods, nay even the arrangement of the fields for tillage and pasture, the management of towns and highways of all kinds; in a word, to extend it to all the aspect of all externals of our life” (Morris, “Art Under Plutocracy,” quoted in Ross, 63).

In this way, Morris resembles the young Marx of the German Ideology, who notably describes his communist society of the future as one that “regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic." Utopia, in this case, is decidedly artisanal or even Thoreauvian. Yet, we should note that Marx’s idyll relies on a “regulation of general production” that encompasses rational and technological means and methods that, in isolation, could be mistaken for a futurism. The artisanal freedom of Marx's communist dilettante depends on the "machine" of a centralized and advanced production process.

Tokumitsu borrows  the “machine” synecdoche from Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright makes for an odd futurist. With his philosophy of “organic architecture,” Wright developed the modernist functionalism promoted by his teacher Louis Sullivan—who coined the phrase “form follows function”—in a decidedly romantic direction. For Wright, form and function are one, as they are in the natural world: “So here I stand before you preaching organic architecture: declaring organic architecture to be the modern ideal and the teaching so much needed if we are to see the whole of life, and to now serve the whole of life, holding no ‘traditions’ essential to the great TRADITION. Nor cherishing any preconceived form fixing upon us either past, present or future, but—instead—exalting the simple laws of common sense—or of super-sense if you prefer—determining form by way of the nature of materials”  (Frank Lloyd Wright, An Organic Architecture, 1939). 

In his effort to craft an alternative modernity, Wright is a forerunner of the present-day devotees of the artisanal and the organic. In a recognizably romantic fashion, Wright sought to overcome the division between “nature’ and “culture,” “the organic,” and the “artificial.” Rather than directly imitating natural forms, Wright proposed that architects incorporate “nature’s principles” in their use of materials and their overall design. Wright’s architecture fuses natural and industrial material, while his structures are integrated within the natural environments that this anti-urbanist preferred (consider Wright’s “Falling Water"). For Wright, the point was to showcase materials such as wood in their unvarnished or “natural” state.

We can see a prefiguration of the architect’s more mature philosophy in the early plea for "the Machine" that Tokumitsu uses to buttress her argument, when Wright argues, “William Morris pleaded well for simplicity as the basis of all true art. Let us understand the significance to art of that word—SIMPLICITY—for it is vital to the Art of the Machine.” The Machine is not an end in itself but a means to achieve that simplicity, or truth to the nature of materials, also advocated by Morris. Wright was in many ways an heir to the arts-and-crafts movement, even as he argues that the artisanal vision can only be achieved in the twentieth century with the industrial methods, materials, and techniques that were unavailable in the nineteenth; both Wright's organic modernism and Morris's Arts and Crafts movements are better described as later instances of what historian John Trensch calls "mechanical romanticism." Tresch excavates an alternative, and decidedly romantic, view of techne among certain European scientists, philosophers, and writers of the early to mid-nineteenth-century who combined rationalist futurism with a visionary ecology, as he writes: "usually studied as opposites, these exactly contemporary cultural formations—a return to a mythical past and faith in a rational future—intersected in the figure of the romantic machine: a concrete, rational, often utilitarian object that was nevertheless endowed with supernatural, charismatic powers" (Tresch, The Romantic Machine, 14). Wright, in this way, argues for exactly the kind of synthesis that is excluded by a dichotomy that pits those who are for machines against those who are against them.

How can we make sense of these seeming contradictions? In spite of the Jetsons’ insistence that theirs is a positivist outlook, despite their insistence that they traffic in the facts and just the facts, perhaps this line of argument is less about argument and more about signaling? In other words, what we have here is a branding exercise—against the backward looking and the incorrigibly crunchy—which is also an exercise in nostalgia for an earlier twentieth century modernism. According to the Jetsons' own implicit criteria, any selective engagement with the past is nostalgic mystification. The Jetsons' accelerationist fellow travellers are more forthright on this point when they announce at the very start of their manifesto that to "generate a new left global hegemony entails a recovery of lost possible futures, and indeed the recovery of the future as such" (Williams and Srniceck, The Accelerationist Reader, 351). As David Cunningham notes, "it is hard not to sense a 'mood' of nostalgia in contemporary acceleration for a moment when, for example, having put the first man in space and apparently achieved extraordinary rates of industrial  growth, the 'alternative modernity' of the Soviet Union could appear as more modern than its capitalist foe." 

If revolutionary programs are also, in Walter Benjamin's words, "a tiger's leap ino the past" the Jetsons should reconsider their dismissive characterizations of so-called "Luddites" and "artisanalists"—Flintstones all—in terms of a backward looking nostalgia, especially if these dismissals are made in the service of a nostalgic modernism. We on the left might instead recall Morris's parables and the value of usable traditions and alternative pasts in the construction of an alternative future.