Tuesday, November 13, 2012



Friday, October 26, 2012

"Argo, F Yourself!"

 saw Argo yesterday at the Cobblehill Theater in Brooklyn with my friend Hai-Dang Phan.  It’s a well-made, entertaining thriller, but especially interesting to me for the way it displays so clearly the way people in the U.S. understand their history as a deferred wish-fulfillment.  (Btw, Argo, fuck yourself! is a running joke in the film.  Alan Arkin, the producer says it to a reporter asking what the film is about.) The ending of the film is the worst part but also the most interesting. Spoiler alert.  Affleck’s character, who is separated from his wife and a very heavy drinker, if not an alcoholic, comes home and asks his wife if he can “come in.”   She hugs him and says nothing, but she is smiling and all happy, happy.  The first shot of Affleck on the veranda shows a big American flag blowing in the upper left part of the screen.   Male hero equals national hero.  The family is restored.   But not really.  The next shot is of Affleck in bed with his son, who is sleeping in Affleck’s arms, but totally awake, and the camera tracks left to show part of the son’s star wars collection of action figures or figurines. They are pretty small scale.  There are at least three dissolves to close-ups of the collection, each take feeling extraordinarily long, at least to me, until finally we get to a storyboard for the bogus film that we saw Affleck keep back from the archivist earlier (Affleck was supposed to turn over all the other docs and did so, except for this one).  The storyboard, around which text about what happened later, shows the hero on some kind of space motorbike with a little boy holding on to him.  Mirror image of Affleck and his son.  Two points about the film's delivery of U.S. history as yet to be fulfilled fantasy:  first, the family is not really restored.  The wife is hardly there and immediately drops out.  The son is safe and asleep, but Dad is still on duty, his heroism invisible (what he did remains classified). Second, national history is only intelligible indirectly, through the sci-fi movie. History begins returns only through science-fiction fantasy. The Star Wars shots recycle the film as Reagan’s never built anti-ballistic missile defense system, called Star Wars.  The length of the takes at the end grant the wish or family reunion only through deferral which looks forward to Star Wars in a future anterior, since the film has already been released but Reagan has not yet been elected, and back via the stolen storyboard, to the sci-fi film Argo that one of the hostages used to get himself and the other five hostages through the final checkpoint, which was itself a story of he Iranian revolution, and back to the moment when Affleck got the idea for the op while watching Battle for the Planet of the Apes on TV with his son.  The son is father of the man.  Son is watching it at his home, Mom is gone, and Affleck turns the channel in his hotel room so he can watch it too at the same time.  The clips from Battle the Planet of the Apes show the black astronaut with two apes and ends with a close up of an orangantan.  That film is openly an allegory of the race wars of the 60s and recycles racist images of blacks represented as apes. (Think King Kong.)   Affleck notices the make-up and gets the idea to call the guy who did it, who has also done work for the C.I.A.   There are lots of clips of TV news anchors (Peter Jennings, Walter Chronkite, Ted Koppel) reporting on the hostage crisis, but Affleck only gets it, the rescue op, when he tunes into his son’s channel.  And he only pursues it after calling his son and missing him (shot of phone, no one home). So he writes a birthday card to his son and wife and drops in the mail at the airport.  Communication delay, letter never arrives at its destination.  The film begins with a sequence about the US involvement in Iran that derives from Persepolis.  It is narrated by a girl in voice-over as a kind of animated graphic novel (anticipating the Argo storyboards later and also echoing in advance an Iranian servant of the Canadian ambassador who is forced to leave to Iraq near the end of the film).  From start to finish, we get history delivered in pre-production movie form or animated storybook form or in collectible sci-fi film merchandise.  This sequence is refreshingly critical of the U.S.  it sort of drops out as the Argo fantasy recodes it as a story of miniature American and Canadian triumphalism (the rest of the hostages remained in captivity, of course).  So the scale of the story is the scale of the toys in the son’s Star Wars toy collection, and the son’s collection forgets the history of U.S. race war and remembers what is to come rather than what has happened.  The re-collection is already compulsive, looping back and forward a moment when the wish can actually be fulfilled, a moment that never arrives and never will, or does so only as a moment represented as the deferral of said wish.  Every covert op is part of a lo-“op.”  No op is opt(imal).

Friday, October 12, 2012

Til Death Do Us Depart: Cold Feet in Trollope's _Can You Forgive Her?_

Can you be happy as a woman and not marry?  That is the question Trollope poses in Can You Forgive Her?  The answer is no.  Yes, Alice knows John Grey loves.  Yes, she knows he loves her. But nevertheless she cannot marry him.  Why? In part because because she misreads him. But this novel is no Pride and Prejudice. A woman can't marry and be happy either.  This novel is about marriage being death. Here is what the narrator says about Planty Pall, Gencora's husband, after he has decided to refuse the once in a lifetime offer he has sought his entire adulthood trying to obtain, namely the office of he Chancellor of the Exchequer, in order to save his marriage by taking his wife on a tour of Europe for a year:  "All his friends knew, or believed they knew, that he had left town.  His death and burial had been chronicled, and were he now  to reappear, he could reappear only as a ghost. He was being talked of as the departed one;--or rather, such talk on all sides had now come nearly to an end." p. 561  Glencora wants to leave her husband because she cannot give him an heir.  When John Grey finally gets Alice to accept his proposal, she does so in a graveyard.  In my view of the novel, a woman who doesn't marry, like a woman who does, already has one foot in the grave.  The central scene of the novel occurs when Alice go for a walk in the ruins near Matching, her home, and Glencora keeps them out to long.  They come home with cold feet, and Planty blames Alice.  The scene is mentioned again and again in the novel, even near the very end. "Cold" iS used again and again. Planty gives Glencora a "cold kiss." A dead husband is buried in the "cold sod." Funny when you think of it. Trollope's The Warden is missing its second volume. The heroine who gets married in a narrative rush at the end is already a widow at the beginning of Barchester Towers. The story of their seemingly happy marriage is never told. Trollope seems to be even more anti-marriage than Hardy. Who'd have thought?  

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Resident Evil Attribution

The first 30 seconds of this trailer are actually interesting as an illustration of an infinite regress or mise-en-abyme of framed transnational big screen films within  films on hand held iPhones within films on big screen, etc.

My career resembles Battleship - Official Trailer [HD]

What's resemblance, you may ask?  No, it's not the beach scene even though my wife is super hot.  No, sad to say, but my career resembles the scene where the football player scores a touchdown partly because everyone else has been blown away as the football field was detonated.  Assuming I make it to retirement, (the end zone in the trailer), my job will be history (I will not be replaced).   I assume that I will still be standing and scoring even after all weapons have been fired by my admin.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Critics, Clerks, and Other Cryptkeepers

What are some of unconscious determinations of literary criticism?  Let's start with religion, the clerical origins of commentary on sacred texts and the secularization of these texts as memorials such as statues of the writer along with quotations as well as the tombs of the writer in sacred spaces like Poets' Corner in Westminister Abbey.  The literary text is metaphorically a crypt.  Some critics restrict themselves to diplomatic transcriptions, editions of the text the tremens in the crypt (otherwise known as an archive in the narrow sense of a named building with an address).  They may read the text aloud, as if it were liturgical.  Others may go further and paste to comment on a word or a line.  But these comments remain this side of interpretation.  To actually interrupt the text would be to endanger it.  It would be like grave robbing.  Priestly recitation and clerical commentary are both willing to be exceedingly boring because both forms of non-reading appear to save the text, keep it in stable condition though the life support of the critic.  Hence the fierce resistance to theory, to critical questions of any sort about the text's form.  The model critic is Borges' Pierre Menard (author of Don Quixote).  Criticism is simply a word by word, line by line transcription of the original.  Hence the tendency to demonize critics like Paul de Man.  You can't have a secular sacred text unless you have a demon who's trying to possess it.
  It is easy to dismiss this kind of childish, anti-intellectual clerical criticism, which demands a non-reading celebratory moment as closure--go in peace, via con Dios, my children. However, read as a reaction formation to unconscious forces, its often ugly kinds of resistance to reading can be made productive, can help us to understand something about the the uncanny relation between theology and demonology in literature.  Here is Zeitblom, the narrator of Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus: "I have already said that by its very nature theology tends--and under certain conditions must always tend--to
become demonology."  The tendency that is more than a tendency (and hence almost but not quite dialectical or dialogical) contaminates without collapsing opposite terms.   Mann writes similarly about German nationalism and the Enlightenment.  Mann's narrator is both biographer and critic of the main character, whose burial the narrator attends in the last two pages.  Clerks are right to think that reading is dangerous.  Attempts to sublimate or save what is buried can turn the dead into the undead and the worshippers into feeders off the corpse and drinkers of the blood of the living dead.  Reading with resistance has its own tropes--statues, marionettes, the reanimation of feet or hands, mutilations of the body.  There is no way to avoid a certain tendency in criticism.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Getting Used to Not Getting Used to Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain

All great literature invites and rewards close reading, but only Mann's The Magic Mountain tries to help you read it. Whereas literature generally resists reading, even close reading, Mann's narrator now and then explicates, or makes explicit something about its  form you may have already noticed if you were paying close formal attention.  I don't regard this as a failing of the novel, though at first I thought Mann was overdoing it a bit, providing a laughtrack of sorts telling the reader how to respond (literally "laugh").  In the idioms of the novel, reading is a matter of making its formal, as it were, "acquaintance" (169, 726, 728), (re)acclimating to it (7, 101, 134, 193, 124, 287, 460-62, 598), becoming aware of its modes of "formal address" (731), and "getting used to not not getting used to" (460, 560 461, 574, 689) it.  (All citations to John E. Woods translation, Everyman edition, 2005).  The narrator interrupts the third person narrative now and then (and the author once interrupts the narrator) to speak in the first person plural and make something explicit. For example, the narrator asks “Is it really necessary for us to spell out those private experiences, which both weighed down on Castorp’s days and gave them wings?” (167).  But this "explication" is, to imitate another of the novel's idioms, "a paradoxically unparadox" or "a unparadoxical paradox" (440, 466, 556, 644, 703, 707, 713, 733).  One can follow out  one if its various metaphors for  characters as well as for the novel itself: "blurred" time or personality or "tangle," to take two examples. The narrator's interruptions get looped back into the narrative.  More subtly, some sentences read like metacommentaries on the novel only to be absorbed back into it. Consider, example, this sentence: "In the framework of a week or larger units of time, however, there were certain recurring deviations that made their appearance little by little—one variation might appear, for instance, only after another had repeated itself” (124). One is tempted to classify Mann's style according to the distinctness of various kinds of repetition.  Some non-signifying repetitions might seem almost lazy.  The concierge is always the "limping" (731) concierge; Mynheer Peeperkorn's dimple is always "sybaritic"; Settembrini is always the "organ-grinder,"his manner of speakingalways Stemmbrini’s “graphic” (73, 116, 323, 388, 438, 422, 154, 330). Some repetitions seem like defects (see the bit on music p. 195 and 211—almost identical; or writing a letter on 221 and 223).  Sometimes plot incidents are recalled to the reader explicitly (as when Hans asks Clavdia for a pencil at the Mardi Gras as he had asked the student he had a crush on years earlier).  Other incidents are not (Hans stands over Peeperkorn's corpse in its bed (742) the way he stood over the teenage girl's corpse and the way he stood over his cousin's Joachim's corpse.  But the repetition goes unremarked upon by the narrator). Sometimes the plot makes two incidents parallel but without any comment from the  narrator.  For example, Peeperkorn's incomprehensible speech (Peeperkorn is compared to an orchestra conductor) is repeated literally at the waterfall when he his guest are all "deaf-mutes" (738) because they can't hear him over the thunder of the waterfall.  In both cases, Mann's descriptions of Peeperkorn are hilarious (653; 739-40).  Sometimes incidents seem like literalizations of the novel's departure from the Bildungsroman or adherence it (hard to decide which), as when Hans gets lost in the snowstorm and can make no progress, other as made "false progress," then discovers he has come full circle to the same hut, then cannot get in the hut because it is locked, then has an amazing dream turned nightmare from he has no "genuine awakening" but says three times he will remember it only to have the narrator end the subchapter ("Snow") by gently showing Hans forgetting: "He did justice to his supper. His dream was already beginning to fade. And by bedtime he was no longer sure what his thoughts were" (590).  The novel is strongest in the way it keeps redividing time and undoing hierarchies.  For example, Settembrini, who has been consistently paired and opposed to Nahpta and suddenly paired with Krowkowski, who has been paired similarly with Behrens; this new pairing is  then superimposed over Castorp's two grandfathers, 462. Other plot repetitions don't lend themselves to being read by the narrator, however, as when Nuhpta commits suicide (841), recalling Peeperkorn's suicide (742).  Ditto for Hans' dream returning in the very last sentences of the novel (853) or his singing the same verses from Schubert's Lindenbaum Leid from Die Winterreise he sang earlier in the novel as he engages in trench warfare near the very, very end. There's nothing compulsive about Mann's repetitions.  The narrator's gentle, expansive insistence on the indeterminacy of time ("visit" becomes "residency") and space (the Berghof becomes "home") and difficulty in deciding or resolving major questions, including whether Hans dies in the trenches or survives WWI,  all help you get used to not getting used to understanding the novel, even when the narrator talks explicitly about its theme (not narrating time but about narrating time) and then turns to a metaphor--a "stroll along the shore"--to develop it (641-49).  

Friday, January 27, 2012

Photos of the Hotel and Schatzalps in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain

These photos were taken in 2008 by my friend Neils Herold.  The painting below is mentioned in the novel.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

For Idiosyncratic Reading

This is an autobiographical  brief on behalf of the academic as autodidact.  Since I was an undergraduate English Major, literary criticism has been defined as a certain practice of reading: close (as opposed to far--the New Critics); professional (as opposed to amateur--Said, Fish, Garber); competent (as opposed to incompetent--J. Culler, Structuralist Poetics; Roger Chartier), and technical versus thematic (De Man); slow versus fast (Brower; Garber); intensive (Deleuze); and rigorous (as opposed to flaccid--Guillory).   Neil Hertz was one of the few, perhaps the only critic to ask what reading involved, where to draw the line, what was a reading took far, and what was a reading that permitted itself to stop.  De Man's technical reading practice was written off as a new formalism in the late 1980s (forgetting that de Man had written an essay entitled "Return to Philology" and his colleague G. Hartman had written book entitled Beyond Formalism), and the various returns of formalism in the past decade have been concerned to accommodate historicism, not deconstruction.   I had the good fortune to meet De Man, hear Derrida and Foucault lecture and be taught by brilliant close readers of literature as an undergrad (Greenblatt, Booth) and grad school (Michaels, Fish, Booth, Adelman) and, in the last eight and a half years the opportunity to teach whatever I want however I want to do.  I have followed out a kind of Hertzian and Ronellian trajectory with respect to De Man,  understanding technical readings to be subject to break down, as all technologies (writing machines) are.  I have been able to learn by doing, teaching courses on literature of historical periods in which I have published zip and taught  literature and philosophy in translation and written originally in languages in which I am "technically" semi-competent.  I can read only read, in Schiller's terms, as a sentimental as opposed to naive reader.  Even if I watch a bad action film, I pay attention to the editing, lighting, etc.  I cannot watch a film like Jams Cameron's Avatar because I think every shot is formally atrocious.  When I read a novel I've known about since I was 18 but still have never read, like The Magic Mountain, I may start reading without a pencil, but by 20 pages in, I've picked up the pencil and started taking notes.  My "professional" reading habits take hold as I erin to appreciate how interesting the work of literature is.  My increasingly idiosyncratic departures allow me to random access read the novel.  So I read the gramophone chapter first, then the one on seances after it first.   Then I read about the first 60 pages.  Then I read the X-ray chapter.  Then I went back to the gramophone chapter and saw that it explicitly recalls the X-Ray chapter. Now I am reading the novel in a traditional linear fashion though I keep rereading parts I've already read as I've started taking notes.  I end up going to the library (on campus and online) researching areas I find interesting.  I can get up to speed fairly quickly (learn the history of criticism on a given work and writer), though I read literature and philosophy both because I have always wanted to read it and the thanatological clock is ticking and because theorists and philosophers I admire like De Man, Derrida, Heidegger, Ronell, Rickels, and Kittler can't be read without reading what they have written about.  I have nothing against the notion of a canon or of literary history.  I just feel free to wander off from my "professional" field as I respond to call of hospitable academics who sometimes work outside their field.  I just wish tenure meant one could be free to do peripatetic criticism, if they wish, as I am free to do at UF.    

Why are tenured academics against academic freedom? For/ced Faculty Development

This will be a post about my utopian proposal allowing academics with tenure to move as easily as possible into other fields of study.  I am talking only about Literature Departments.  In my experience, tenure means death for 80 percent or more of the profession.  You just keep on what you've been doing and try to police "the field"and how other faculty in your Department teach what they teach.  Everyone is supposed to stay were the were when they were hired.  Some people train themselves and move from one field (say, Joyce) to another (say American lit). But the notion of fields remains intact.  What if the American system were to become more like the German? In Germany, you dissertation and you Habilitationsschrift have to be in two different fields on completely different topics.  When I say "more like," I mean that that tenured faculty could be encouraged to train themselves in new areas of study, including already established fields. After writing a second book, you would get a year off and, in addition to your raise, a 15-20k grant to develop two different,  new upper division courses in fields other than those you have already taught and published on.  All you would have to do is produce a research bibliography, attend the annal conference in the field, and teach the new courses.  The assumption is that even advanced faculty (in rank and in years of age) need to keep developing and deserve support (time off and cash) as much as do untenured faculty.  Freedom is inseparable from force.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Are textual critics more literary than the literature they edit?

Gallimard published a very handsome, very readable edition of Proust's Carnets or notebooks, in 2002.  The ink on the page is darker than average and the font is clear and fairly large.  But the text itself is unreadable, perhaps even an allegory of unreadability, even though it presents itself as genetic criticism.  The book is divided up into four sections, each devoted to one of Proust's four notebooks and each introduced by an editor who also provides footnotes to the chapter.  But the text of Prout's notes includes many sections with strike throughs in large swaths and notes that cross-reference a line or passage with a novel of Al la recherche.  One has to ask:  how does one "use" this rather Borgesian (linear yet labyrinthine) book?  As a research "tool" it seems not to work very well since the notes do not fit into a genetic narrative of literary production:  notes, first draft, published work.  But read as a work of art, the edition of the notebook becomes really interesting.  Proust's pages in print form start to look like French modern (20th ct) poetry that  defines its poetics against the order of genetic criticism, progressively producing "finished" literature to a rougher and rougher draft  of the poem that would have been, if finished, published.  Facsimile editions are even more radically unreadable works of art in that they convert text into image.  Next time: how genetic criticism defaults both to metaphors of birth and of death (skeleton).

Monday, January 23, 2012

Can "Proust" write? Or, Proust's Invalid/ation of Literature

Teaser for the post to come:
From his publisher Gallimard we know that Proust's proofreading habits were the despair of typesetters.  The galleys went back covered with marginal notes, but not a single misprint had been corrected; all available space had been used for fresh text.
--Walter Benjamin, "The Image of Proust," in Illuminations. Trans Harry Zohn, 202.

From his publisher Gallimard we know that Proust's proofreading habits were the despair of typesetters.  The galleys always came back covered with writing to the end of the page, but not a single misprint had been corrected; all available space had been used for fresh text.
--Walter Benjamin, "On the Image of Proust," in Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 2, 1917-1934 [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999], p. 238).

Can Marcel read?

In his wonderful essay “The Image of Proust,” Walter Benjamin observes that A la Recherche du temps perdu is really about forgetting, involuntary memory, not memory:
We know that in his work Proust described a life not as it actually was [wies gewesen ist] but a life as it was remembered by the one who had lived it.  Yet even this statement is imprecise and far too crude. For the important thing to the remembering author is not what he experienced, but the weaving of his memory, the Penelope work of recollection [Eingedenken].  Or should one call it, rather, a Penelope work of forgetting?  Is not the involuntary recollection, Proust’s mémoire involuntaire, much closer to forgetting than what is usually called memory?  And is not this work of spontaneous recollection, in which remembrance is the woof and forgetting the warp, a counterpart to Penelope’s work rather than its likeness?  For here the day unravels what the night has woven. (“On the Image of Proust,” in Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 2, 1917-1934 [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999], p. 238).
The famous madeleine episode in Swann’s Way remains central to Benjamin’s essay, (246), as it does to De Man's chapter on Proust in Allegories of Reading, who returns to it after first discussing what he takes to be the novel's scene of reading (while keeping in question whether reading any passage allows you to reduce it to a themebut instead is what the novel is about, that is, an allegory of the impossibility of reading).  What happens to the madeleine episode's presumed centrality, however, if we attend to other scenes of reading in the novel, scenes that Benjamin and De Man to have forgotten?  Consider the scene of reading on the first page of Swann's Way. The unnamed narrator falls asleep while reading a book:
For a long time, I went to bed early.  Sometimes, my candle out, my eyes would close so quickly that I did not have time to say to myself: “I’m falling asleep.”  And, half an hour later, the thought that it was time to try to sleep would wake me; I wanted to put the book I thought I had in my hands and blow out the light; I had not ceased while sleeping to form reflections on what I had just read, but these reflections had taken a rather peculiar turn; it seemed to me that I myself was what the book was talking about: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between François and Charles V. (3)
A la Recherche begins with in a recurrent and occasional scene of reading in bed in which the  “sometimes ” falls asleep.  But it is a scene of not reading that precedes a scene of involuntary memory in which the book Proust can’t remember:  he wants to book down has already fallen off his bed. Moreover, reading does not end when sleep begins; reading rather takes a different form. If reading is the resistance to reading, to paraphrase De Man, then we might say that for Proust  “not reading” means falling asleep and writing about it in such a way that readers, it would appear, don't even know they are reading about "not reading."  

   Well before the madeleine episode, there is more about dozing off while not reading (please forgive the ellipses):
A sleeping man holds in a circle around him the sequence of the hours, the order of the years and worlds. He consults them instinctively as he wakes and reads . . . If toward morning, after a bout of insomnia, sleep overcomes him as he is reading, in a position quite different from the one in which he usually sleeps . . . If he dozes off in a position still more displaced and divergent, after dinner sitting in an armchair for instance, then among the disordered worlds will be complete, the magic armchair will send him traveling at top speed through time and space, and, at the moment of opening his eyelids, he will believe he went several month earlier in another  country. (5)
In my next post, “Can Proust Write?” I will discuss some scenes in which reading is a productive disability for Marcel and writing a disability for Proust.  (I don’t mean that books are soporifics for Proust.)  
In the meantime, let me put my copy of Proust down and ruminate on how reading Proust reading might helps us understand academic reading practices better.  We should not be surprised to hear from the now former MLA President a few years ago that we are not reading enough of each other's books. One of the first things one learns to do in graduate school is distinguish between MUST read for professional reasons and HAVE PERMISSION TO IGNORE.   The percentage of must read is of course relatively small.  We may not be surprised that academic conventions mainly function to let people know that what they fear they MUST READ they can actually IGNORE.  It's kind of like reading a book review. Your reviewer has read the book under review to spare you the trouble of reading it yourself.  In the slumber of academic reading, someone else does the reading you are disabled from doing, much like a TV laugh track does your laughing so you don't have to do.  You get to put your brain  on sleep mode.  

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Complete but smaller

Did you know that Gilles Deleuze's Proust and Signs: The Complete Text (200) is about half the size (physically) of the original edition (1972)? I bought the original my freshman year from Moe's Books on Telegraph Ave.  Deleuze was really good on literature.


After reading about the yet to be unnamed narrator, Marcel, talk about falling asleep while reading or reading but daydreaming in Swann's Way yesterday, I reread Derrida's essay "Telepathy" on Freud deliberately hypnotizing (putting asleep) his readers / lecture audience in Freud's "Psychoanalysis and Telepathy." 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The most interesting I've learned from reading In Search of Lost Time (in reverse, starting with Finding Time Again) is that Proust's maid referred to his manuscripts as "manuscribbles." He also wrote on"paperoles." (She wrote a book about it herself entitled Monsieur Proust.) Today I went to the library and checked out the Pleiades edition and the Laffont edition. Both have variants, "notices," and appendices that have dropped out of the new Penguin translations. Le Temps perdu du temps perdu en traduire, peut-etre? As I re/read and recerche Proust I will be posting some comments from time to Time.