Sunday, March 29, 2009
Is there a price to be paid for being so incredibly bright that you become really famous and people start using your last name as an adjective, as in Freudian, Derridean or Foucauldian? Does a certain notion of what your writing practice is, in functioning as a descriptive, modify and limit the reception of your works to what readers expect to find? Foucault said the more famous he became the less widely he was read. Derrida frequently said of his critics that they hadn't read him. One can read Freud with Freud or Freud against Freud, but can one read for unFreudian moments in Freud? Cane one read / not read the writer / not writer? I have found moments in Derrida's works that strike me as being very unDerridean, either because they contradict his practice or turn it into a patois (this usually happens in interviews). For example, he regular questions a Heideggerian distinction between the human and technological, between physis and techne. But when questioned about his paradoxical critical practice bears on his political commitments, he responds: "If every project were a reassuring project, the logical or theoretical consequence of a knowledge that was guaranteed--euphoric, without paradox, without aporias, without contradiction, with no undecidability to be resolved--it would be a machine functioning without us, without responsibility, without decision, ultimately without ethics, law, or politics. There is no decision or responsibility without the trial of aporia and undecidability." Bad reading is mechanical, good reading is not. Are moments like these to be dismissed? Or may they be used to produce productively resistant (un)readings? In the case I cited above, there seems to be a potential danger in characterizing one's reading practice in stark binary terms, the danger of being unnecessarily dogmatic, of limiting resistance to one's work by charaterizing it in entirely negative terms; that is, the oppositions Derrida draws self-deconstruct: what Derrida describes as not being a machine could easily be described as a machine or program without resistance. Hence, you find your aporias, paradoxes, contradictions, and so on. Are unreading and nonreading the same thing? Is unreadability a quality one wants one's writings to have?
Sometimes I'm afraid I act like this when I make a new friend: "Out of flowers? OK, let's play 'throw each other in the pond!' Oops, you don't know how to swim?! Oh no, neither do I!"
Then I'm afraid this will happen to me as a result:
Did you have ever have a good friendship that died? I did. I had a friend who connects with friends by disconnecting from them. After tiring of being repeatedly disconnected, I tried to force through a better connection and called him (to re)collect. But my friend refused to accept the charges and so the operator hung up on me. After awhile, because I missed my friend, I tried to force a connection again. But this time, my friend got really angry at me and cut the line. I got a "this number is no longer in service" recording when I dialed his number. I think my friend misheard me and mistakenly thought I was making an obscene phone call. Anyway, the phone friendship went dead. Perhaps it was a phoney friendship all along. Still, I miss it. It was weird to delete his number from my cell phone.
Saturday, March 28, 2009
Isn't it interesting that we use other people (very politely, of course, and kindly) to remind us to tell a story as if our memories / stories were stored somewhere else and had to be postponed to an undefined but near future time before being retrieved and activated by our listeners? As if we were inviting our listeners to press play in the future and rewind us so we could then playback our already taped before a non-live audience story for a now live audience? Here the postponing of our storytelling us in the name of displacing responsible for the telling of it on to a listener with a promise that the story will be good shows us that as narrators of stories we want to retell, we are broken tape machines in need of rewinding and sweeding by and for our listener. All we want is more time to tell. Again. Does this mean that our repetition compulsions are really death drifts rather than death drives since our compulsive narrative repetitions require the listener's hand or voice to (re)activate us?
In a somewhat recent issue of PMLA (2007), Peter Stallybrass responds to an article in PMLA on the database with a polemic entitled "Against Thinking." It's worth a read. But here's a thought about not thinking. By refusing to think the database, Stallybrass presents a host of symptoms, release their own fantasies about data storage, data retrieval, and research (as use, as data processing). Once archival documents have been copied, they assume, a researcher will work on them continuously only his or her research is completed. The data will never be corrupted. Completetion and perfection of archival research (outside the physical archive) are not a problem. Data processing promises a beginning and an end in terms of orienting a research project (you go to the archive, then you go home). Home trumps the library (or the library as Borges imagines it); you can go home again, but apparently you never have to go back to the library because you need more documents or because your photos were degraded or destroyed. This "historicist" account of the archive and database leaves itself up wide open to a psychoanalytic and deconstructive broadside: being against thinking is a necroacademic fantasy of the archive as tomb, the researcher as mummy. The user, once again, reveals the uselessness of his own so-called historicist scholarship masquerading and misrecognized as productive. If you don't think, you sink. Better to think more about the value of uselessness and frivolity. See Derrida on Condillac. I will post soon on uselessness.
Friday, March 27, 2009
Is thinking the unthinkable unthinkable because the unthinkable is worth thinking if you could or because it isn't? Is the unthinkable thought the most valuable or least valuable of thoughts? Is thinking about the unthinkable the next best or the next worst thing?
One of Freud's most famous sentences is "Wo Es war, soll Ich werden." The German has been translated into English in various ways, among them: "Where Id was, there shall Ego be" and "Where it was, shall I be." The translation teaches us something about psychoanalysis as a textual practice involving spatial and temporal impossibilities. The German cannot be translated literally become a tense problem as well as a preposition problem. Consider the tense problem. "Sein" is the German verb for to be." "War" means "was," and "werden" means "to become." "Werden" is also a helping verb in German for the future tense, as in "Ich werde gehen" ("I will go"). But one can drop "werden" in German and use the same words for the present and future tenses. "I go to the store" could mean I go to the store or I will go to the store (later). So transliterated Freud's sentence would be "Where I was, shall I become." And that's an ungrammatical sentence. Moreover, the helping verb "soll" may also mean "should." Though "soll" clearly means "shall" here, it may also call up the sense of "should be," as in the tentative "well, he should be there (as far as I know)" or even the more urgent "he should be here by now" where "should" takes on moral urgency as in "I should do that." So "soll" does not predict the future of the Ego but gives a kind of qualified temporal trajectory--the Ego should be there, but maybe it isn't or won't be there; maybe it has taken a wrong turn, a (yo)uturn, a detour or been unavoidably delayed. There is another problem of translating Freud's sentence in terms of location: "Wo" means "where" the Id was but the Ego's future has no corresponding "there." Freud does not use the word "da" (German for "there"), though some translators supply the word. Freud, by the way, he did make a big deal about "da" in his discussion of "Fort Da" in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Moreover, the Id does not exist either. "Where Id was" means that the Id no longer is there, that it has expired and cannot be placed. So what does Freud's sentence mean about? Well, a number of things: 1. It's a theory about about learning, about self-understanding and self-misunderstanding. 2. The Ego is never itself, never unified, but always beside itself, split as it goes toward the place it will be eventually and driven there (nowhere) by the Id, or unconscious, which cannot be mapped or made present. 3. The place the Ego "shall be" at also does not exist. The ego has no destination. Something, namely, the ego always gets lost in translation, so to speak. (I still wonder the film Lost in translation has such a long opening take and close up of Scarlet Johansen's rear. Anybody?) the Ego has no destination, and will arrive at itself, where it should be, only in its annihilation; that is, it will "be" only in death. 4. There is no final destination. There is always a deja revu or redo, a sequel, Final destination 2, Final Desitnation 3. I hear there will be a Final Destination 4.I look forward to seeing it. 5. You cannot "be yourself" or "self-help yourself" as ego psychologists Fritz "this is the first day of the rest of your life" Perls and Dr Phil, or Dr. Swill as I like to call him,(you can improve yourself, find yourself) would have it. For Freud you just can't help yourself because you are never progressing or regressing but going in circles, compulsively repeating your past but never returning to where you started exactly. In Dr. Phil's self-help terms, you start in a bad or not so good place and go to a better or great place (sort of like heaven--these AA people are all alike when it comes to higher powers; personally, I am into the High 5 power). It's like you could take a plane from one place to another. Your narrative is progressive even if it involves repetition (if you fall off the [fill in the blank] wagon, get back on; if your flight is cancelled, rebook it). Put in terms of a cinematic analogy, Run, Lola, Run is like Dr. Phil and Blind Chance is like Freud. Both films have the same narrative structure: the same story is told three times, each time in a somewhat different way. In Run, Lola, Run, we move from an unhappy ending in the first version to a happy ending in the last one. This is pre-Freudian notion of will power. You can will your future. Just be yourself, and your gamble will pay pay off eventually; the third times a charm, and so on. By contrast, in Blind Chance, the story begins each time with a man trying to reach a train so he can leave Warsaw and get a plane to Paris. The first two times,he misses the train. The last time he gets it. The film ends with a shot of a plane in the air just after takeoff, as if the guy made it. But then the plane explodes. So the happy ending is exploded, as it were. For Freud, there is no happy ending. There are only unhappy endings. We all die. What a bummer. Here's what's wrong with ego psychology in a nutshell: The very fact that you have "be" yourself means that you are always already never yourself. If you were yourself, you would not have to be it. So you will always need S(h)elf-help.
One thing I dislike about the empiricist and positivist turn in recent so-called materialism is that reading goes missing. It's all about the device and how it may be used. Nothing goes missing, supposedly, and nothing gets lost. Reading is processing information. Texts thus become irrelevant. It's all about the data. Today I returned to Geoffrey Hartman's The Fate of Reading (1975) and was drawn to the subheading of his lead essay, entitled "Reading: Alive or Dead?" Hartman's humanism gets in the way of an analysis of reading and writing machines (he wants to keep reading and writing mutually reenforcing activities), but it's still worth a look. See p. 272 for example:
"I hate to end on a question that sounds like a dignified whimper. but modern "rithmattics"--semiotics, linguistics, and technical structuralism--are not the solution. They widen, if anything, the rift between reading and writing. They convert all expression into generative codes needing operators rather than readers."
From a Freudian perspective, however, all readers are operators, their close readings driven by their obsessive compulsiveness. reading is not "semi-automatic," it is always already automatic (the essence of the human is a machine). Avital Ronell maintains in the Telephone Book that readers and writers are always effectively telephone operators, subject to hang ups, obscene phone calls, dropped calls, time lags, belated transmissions, missed calls, and so on.
For a more probing account of writing and reading, I recommend Derrida's Paper Machine and Lacoue-Labarthes on the auto in Tyopgraphies.
A number of very famous philosophers who regard their writings as resistant nevertheless sometimes get angry and defensive when they think they have been misread or not read at all.
Foucault is both hilarious and angry about the reviewing / nonreading process in his essay "Monstrosities of Criticism," diacritics 1.1. (1971).
Jacques Derrida frequently complains about how his works or the works of others have gone unread, especially by those who attack.
Here are just three examples:
The Haunting in CT is a decent, campy horror film. The template is Amityville Horror (with some Monster House) and bits of The Exorcist, The Sixth Sense, The Others, Firestarter, The Shining, and so on. The most interesting thing about the film is the way it camps out Catholicism so that the sick boy (with cancer) merges with a badly burned dead boy who are then successively literally resurrected (back to life). First, the wounded cancer boy comes back to life, his wounded body now healed, while the other (dead) boy returns as a ghost, but his burned body restored to its pre-burned state, before he disappears. The father is a drunk (on and off and back on the wagon) while the Mom is good, a Virgin Mary type. All in all, a good laugh. Many teens in the audience screamed when I saw it, and two said things about having done things that required them to go to the bathroom.
I am totally into Georges Didi-Huberman's work, especially his book Confronting Images (see the chapter, published also as an article, entitled "The Absent Wound."). he's the most interesting intellectual around, and almost the best writer.
Did you ever notice that the sentence "It was his time" or "It's your time" is about time that you never have because it is the instant of a person's (or your own in a film like The Seventh Seal) death? So if given your time, you always want to give it back, as in, "No, it's not my time yet. Come back later." Of course, you can have the time of your life, but that's not a lifetime of time, it's your life but not your time. So life and time remain forever separated, as if your lifetime excluded your time. I think this is another case of Death being a practical joker: "Here, have your time. Ha ha, time's up!" Your time does not belong to you; it's like a debt you owe that may be called in at any moment.
Why is that you can update but not downdate? Why can't you nowdate? Or latedate? Or belateddate? Up and down and front and back go together, but not in the case of updating. You can, of course, go up a hill and back down it, or go back and forth, but in those cases you are always going and returning to the same two places. Backdating is not apposite updating the way back and forth are but the opposite of updating: to backdate is to lie, falsify, to forge a date that didn't exist. To update, by contrast, is to revise and give the most correct, accurate account. But is updating really totally opposed to forgery? If you are always saving by erasing earlier versions (like Freud's mystic writing pad), is the saved version not also a forgery of sorts, a cover up?