Tuesday, June 26, 2007

chose consequence

In a 1934 essay titled "In the Fight against Injustice even weak Weapons are of Use" ("Man muss das Unrecht auch mit schwachen Mitteln bekampfen"), Bertolt Brecht defends The International League of Human Rights, against leftist criticism for its "individual aims" in its efforts to prosecute rights violations. The organization was banned by the Nazis in 1933. He writes:

"I did not go as far as many, who claimed to be observing a wholesale, long-term collapse of the large-scale organizations which aimed to change the social structure completely, but I too saw the tough and important small-scale activities of frequently disparaged organizations like the League of Human Rights, which actually saved many people, which constantly and untiringly exposed injustice with its small voice, and which galvanised many to return to the struggle. So we saw that the fight against injustice must not only be waged in the most ultimate way, addressing all of its causes, but also in the most general way, i.e., using all the means available, even the most feable. For even worse than the illusion that it is possible to eradicate unnecessary misery without removing its causes is the illusion that we can fight the causes without their consequences, separately, without recourse to the weakest and most feable of means. I have seen how knowing about these terrible things actually prevented many people from combating their terrible consequences." (Brecht on Art and Politics 140-141)

Brecht is here writing about the transformation of Germany into a Nazi state, a moment and a historical shift which remains inaccessible. I find it interesting that he is talking about this moment--one that the historical record tries to shore up in various ways. The problem that he describes is what counts as "doing enough" and he here argues that even the smallest effort needs to count. The position that he takes here is one he is characteristically criticized for, since it is often read as a moment of compromised investment (in communism vs. capitalism at all costs even to the extent of praising Stalin), of failed dialectic (see David Pike's inflammatory argument in Lukacs and Brecht), or of apologetic politics (as reform socialist); in one way or another he doesn't hold the line. In other places, in his poetry, for example, Brecht seems to phrase this conflict between possible action and principled action in terms of "the times"; with a pseudo-utopic nostalgia he documents the things disallowed by the darkness of the age--and this darkness is the spread of fascism, of the imperial rule of Germany, and therefore and in turn the spread of the capitalist mode of production. To an extent, the equation of fascism and capitalism seems to be the confused relation behind each of the above-mentioned positions he is criticized for. Confused, not in terms of interpretation alone or in terms of the history, but in reality, i.e. for Brecht. Whether or not this equation was right (or true, as Brecht might claim) seems to be a question that is lost to us, but the question of the political efficacy of small actions is one that constantly circulates in places where intellectual labor is a form of political activity.

So it could be said that Brecht's phrasing of these pairs--capitalism/fascism, condition of possible action (unfriendliness)/principled action (friendliness), cause/consequence--represent a strained equality. I am not sure that this is the best way to phrase a relationship that seems to have the markings of a base/superstructure form, but I feel that given the moral weight of the terms, the type of conflict and commensurability that Brecht presents is a version of his "realism," and thus of his reality. In other places (such as most of the ones cited by David Pike), Brecht seems to hold blindly to the "conditions of production" as the bearers of reality. This might be especially clear in his address at the First International Writers' Congress in Paris in 1935 ("A Necessary Observation on the Struggle Against Barbarism"), where he is clear that the conditions of ownership bear upon every relation man has in society. It might also be clear in places where he equates these conditions to the "truth" of communism (and the lie of capitalism). But in this little piece, it seems less clear that one's project need always be with the conditions, or the cause. That the weakest weapons might be what is needed to fight some of the consequences seems to formulate still a need for weapons, a clarity of "a cause," and the sense that any action counts.

image: Dragon, Tim Hawkinson (2007)

Friday, June 22, 2007

the state of poetry

The announcement that President Bush is considering an early closure to the prison in Guantanamo Bay has been accompanied by news of the release and forthcoming publication of 22 prisoners' poems. The collection, Poems from Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak (University of Iowa Press, August 2007), has roused a fair deal of commentary on translation, bad poetry, and the particular threat posed by the "code" of poetry. Among the commentaries is one by former poet laureate, Robert Pinsky, which is the subject of a Mike Nizza's blog in The New York Times on June 20 http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/06/20/ex-poet-laureate-on-guantanamo-poetry/. Pinsky, in an interview on PRI's The World, cast doubt (and judgment) on the artistic merit of the poems: "“I havent found a Mandelshtam in here,” he said, referring to the great Russian poet who died in a Stalinist labor camp." Nizza's piece echoes the general concern that the media has with the "goodness" of the poems--this was for example the first question asked by the PRI interviewer (hear interview http://www.theworld.org/?q=node/10275); Pinsky, although he refers to the urgency of the poems, nonetheless seems unable to escape the idea of greatness. There is also a news blurb in today's Washington Post:

Do They Write In Iambic Pentameter?

The following might be the first bit of uncontroversial news out of Guantanamo Bay. Prisoners at the U.S. military prison there can now add “poets” to their (questionable) resumes, the Wall Street Journal reports. "Poems From Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak," an anthology, will be published in August by the University of Iowa Press. It would probably be unfair to call them tortured artists.

The transparent assumption behind the goodness reveals itself in the ghost meter reference to "iamic pentameter." The Wall Street Journal (see the article also for two of the poems: "Humiliated in the Shackles" by Sami al Haj and "Is it True?" by Osama Abu Kabir), which ran the article on their front page on June 20, 2007, included a quote by Cmdr. J.D. Gordon, a Defense Department spokesman: "While a few detainees at Guantanamo Bay have made efforts to author what they claim to be poetry, given the nature of their writings they have seemingly not done so for the sake of art. They have attempted to use this medium as merely another tool in their battle of ideas against Western democracies." What is so incredible about the above bytes is the aesthetic grounds upon which the argument for moral goodness also lies--or perhaps better, the aesthetic grounds upon which moral goodness is waged. Given the conditions of censorship and translation, it remains remarkable that such a valuation of goodness could even be made, particularly by Pinsky--who notes but passes over the fact that the poems are prohibited from being published in the original and the translations had to be done by those with secret-level security clearances, rather than literary translators.

Leonard Doyle's article in The Independent
http://news.independent.co.uk/world/americas/article2686838.ece reports that "As far as the US military is concerned: "poetry ... presents a special risk, and DoD [Department of Defence] standards are not to approve the release of any poetry in its original form or language." The fear, officers say, is that allegorical imagery in poetry may be used to convey coded messages to militants outside." I thought about this line a bit last night--the idea of the coded message, the double meaning which poetry is seemingly especially well-equipped for; it was this that I thought might begin to get at my feeling of the paucity of poetry that "does" something today, to reference Yeats, in passing, and other greats who posed questions about the silence of poetry--something I think about when I think about the 400 plus poets that Brecht dismissed as "useless" in 1927. This is another story, but I wanted to keep it in mind.

The collection of poems was organized by defense lawyer Marc Falkoff after he received 2 poems in letters from inmates. These poems, like many others, remain classified; only 22 will be published in the collection. He refutes the idea that there is a "real" risk involved in the censorship of the poems and states: "If the inmates were writing words like 'the Eagle flies at dawn,' the censors might have a case, but they are not. I fully accept their right to stop any coded messages to militants outside. But what the military fears is not so much the possibility of secret messages being communicated, but the power of words to make people outside realise that these are human beings who have not had their day in court." This thread--the "risk" of the code is picked up on by "liberal catnip" in her June 20th blog http://liberalcatnip.blogspot.com/2007/06/poetry-of-mass-destruction.html?referer=sphere_related_content. On the other side, though, there is just hatred, I think, like allahpundit in hotair, and like this blog http://www.debbieschlussel.com/archives/2007/06/hot_off_the_pre.html?referer=sphere_related_contentby Debbie Schlussel (Best Conservative Blog 2005 finalist), which mocks the sentimality generically associated with poetry.

I don't know why I find the conceptions that people have about poetry in this discussion so compelling--and I'm not sure either why I feel that in some way the politics of this situation is more delicate than it might first seem. Perhaps one of the reasons is that the question of poetry provokes the need for more sensitive reading practices--and indeed, this seems to be exactly the thing that is so easily targeted by both the far right and defenders of the idea of democracy. The distinctions between these positions seem much less clear once the aesthetic pronouncement of "bad" poetry has been made. On the other hand, there is Ariel Dorfman's message of hope http://comment.independent.co.uk/commentators/article2686788.ece, which asserts the universality, primeval, and originary practice of poetry. And that is, on the other hand, something to think about as well.

image: pin with Brecht slogan, Ruth Hecht (owner, father inscribed words from never-found poem)

Thursday, June 21, 2007

for the love of

transference-love. Reading Freud's essay, "Observations on Transference-love" made me wonder if there is love other than transference love, or if, in fact, all love is transference love (and, what would this would mean!?). This distinction in the essay is so strained--rescinded and then reinvoked again--that the insistence is notable. In order to deal with the clinical problem of transference love, he must also detail what it is that "real" love is. One of the things it seems that Freud would like to say is that we should be able to rid ourselves of at least most of our childhood inclinations towards love, that the definition of love as transference-love depends upon the degree to which the love feelings can be adequately attributed to the present object of desire rather than than they would remain fixated in the past. Certainly this is how the relationship comes to stand for transference, but it also seems that one of the implicit consequences of this lies in the distinction between infantile and mature sexuality, or between sexual perversion and sexual satisfaction. This distinction is one that Freud also describes in terms of the type of pleasure that can be attained. Forepleasure, in Freud's discussion of infantile sexuality, is contrasted to the end-pleasure of mature sexuality, which relates pleasure to the release of tension. It seems, though, that to draw out the consequences for forepleasure, that the release of tension would not be the measure of pleasure, since the possibility of release is here something difference. Forepleasure is something that, for Freud, is always "dependent" (like passive forces) upon the pleasure of tension release. Forepleasure, in other words, seems to count only insofar as it augments the pleasure of the end--this is Freud's description in all his uses of forepleasure--in jokes, in art, in psychopathic characters on stage, in sex. But as I am thinking about in other contexts, especially for poetry, this "dependence" seems to rely on a pathos-oriented, dramatic, identificatory model of art in relation to reality.

The question of transference-love brings the issue of resistence to bear on this "dependence." It seems that the issue of transference allows us to talk about resistances as things that are meant to be overcome, unconditionally, almost, as similarly, passive forces could also be seen (like suffering) to be something only to get over. And the unquestionable "good" of this is always there for us to read in the cure, in the love. And the question of what this priority on overcoming means for transference (as the relationship between the analyst and analysand) and for love is probed far less often. Freud writes: “But above all, one gets an impression that the resistance is acting as an agent provocateur; it heightens the patient’s state of being in love and exaggerates her readiness for sexual surrender in order to justify the workings of repression all the more emphatically, by pointing to the dangers of such licentiousness.” And thus the logic of "dependent" passions, guided by the priority of overcoming or of love, runs: resistance, as agent provacateur, is only greater resistance; this goes for forepleasure as well: pleasure, as incentive bonus, is only pleasure. As resistance, the transference-love must be registered without being renounced, but must nonetheless not be acted upon. The course of action for the analyst involves making a distinction between real love and unreal love: "He must keep firm hold of the transference-love, but treat it as something unreal, as a situation which has to be gone through in the treatment and traced back to its unconscious origins...." The status of the "unreal" nature of this love is put on hold briefly as Freud discusses an exceptional case, "women of elemental passionateness who tolerate no surrogates." He writes, "They are children of nature who refuse to accept the psychical in place of the material, who, in the poet's words, are accessible only to 'the logic of soup, with dumplings for arguments'." The transference-love in this case refuses to be unreal, and this presents an impossibility for the analytic scene: "With such people one has the choice between returning their love or else bringing down upon oneself the full enmity of a woman scorned. In neither case can one safeguard the interests of the treatment. One has to withdraw, unsucessful; and all one can do is to turn the problem over in one's mind of how it is that a capacity for neurosis is joined with such an intractable need for love." The extreme ambivalence here between love and resistance for the loving subject and the loved object (if we can say this) is worth noting, for it is this that presents the "danger" and the seeming impossibility of working-through.

I don't know exactly what to make of Freud's dismissal, or the case of the woman scorned (but he did abandon fantasy), but it leads him to attributing the quality of submissiveness to real love: "Genuine love, we say, would make her docile and intensify her readiness to solve the problems of her case, simply because the man she was in love with expected it of her." Real love should, as it would, contain no resistance, a distinction that Freud dismantles in the next step: "can we truly say that the state of being in love which becomes manifest in analytic treatment is not a real one?" The nature of love, Freud continues, is one that is characterized by its departures from the norm; each of the differences he had tried to outline he now retracts, which is explained "by the fact that being in love in ordinary life, outside analysis, is also more similar to abnormal than to normal mental phenomena." Case closed, perhaps, was my sneaking suspicion--love is transference-love, which necessarily implies that it is also not, in its "real" (i.e. requited) form, only this. And this logic, if it is coming through at all, presents the dependence of passive forces. The problem provoked by this logic is perhaps revealed when we are forced to think about the object common to resistance and love. In Freud's essay, the object of resistance is never fully articulated--it is to treatment, generally, as can be assumed also by the dynamic of transference, but this has a more explicit description as Freud makes clear when he attempts to speak more directly to the analyst (and with an awareness of a public weary of psychoanalysis). The issue of transference-love compels a dynamic within analysis that the analyst is forced to fight against; this analysand is the scorned woman, those "who first behave like opponents but later on reveal the overvaluation of sexual life which dominates them...." Here, the initial resistance seems to be to the idea of "overvaluation of sexual life," but the resistance of transference-love seems to be of a different sort, and not easily assimilable within the logic of passive forces, since it takes the form itself of this overvaluation. At this point, the resistance-as-love-as-transference-love phenomena seems to overtake the transvaluation of infantile sexuality as mature sexuality.

image: Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Finch, midwest perfume action (2006)

Mistranslated Kites: une Chose without a Cause

“Ernst Jones, in his biography of Freud, has called the mistranslation
‘a singular lapse in Freud’s knowledge of natural history.
Kites were as common in Italy as vultures in Egypt.’”
—Alan Bass, “On the History of a Mistranslation in the Psychoanalytic Movement”

James Wagner’s “Auralgraph 6” reads like a joke; in fact, commentary on Wagner’s contemporary “homophonic translation” or “ear writing,” treats it as a joke, as a language game, an aesthetic exercise that surprisingly yields a little more than nonsense, but a nonsense that, for some, sounds like every other homophonic translation.[1] “Auralgraph 6,” a translation of a poem by the German poet Paul Celan, is one of fifteen auralgraphs published in Wagner’s 2003 collection, the false sun recordings. The auralgraph presents a case in which the correspondence between the original and the “translation” resembles hieroglyphic inscription, a correspondence of sound that also registers a certain sameness in content.[2] But what is this certain sameness? Here is Celan’s English version:

“The eternities struck / at his face and / past it, / slowly a conflagration extinguished / all candled things, / a green, not of this place, / with down covered the chin / of the rock which the orphans / buried and / buried again.”

Like other translations of Celan, Hamberger’s negotiates the paradoxes of the original, its preservation and transformation. Wagner’s auralgraph presents (or perhaps exposes) the problem of the original (i.e. in the generic way that Celan’s German is not German) as the paradox of “original” language. Wagner’s choice of “original” (Vallejo and Reverdy, in addition to Celan) reveals his interest in the internal difference of language, one that might begin in dialect, or with an accent. The auralgraph, even if we don’t take it seriously, presents the problem of a version that is simply more interesting than either the original or the translation. I will read the German, now, if you would follow along with Wagner’s English translation.

[Die Ewigkeiten]
Paul Celan

Die Ewigkeiten fuhren
Ihm ins Gesicht und druber

langsam loschte ein Brand
alles Gekertzte,

ein Grun, nicht von hier,
umflaumte das Kinn
des Steins, den die Waisen
begruben und wieder

Auralgraph 6
After Paul Celan’s [Die Ewigkeiten]

The highway kite in foreign
Hymen gets sick and drew bare
In house

long song locks brandy
all is get hurt

A groan, nicked veneer,
O, flower dump that can
Destine eyes, then the wayside
by grubbing and wider

“Auralgraph 6” interprets the erotic content of Celan’s original, and in so doing, we lose sight of if that erotic content was there in the first place. The erotic content of Wagner’s poem is superficial—better: it is the surface translated—“him in,” “ihm in,” as “hymen, or as in another of the auralgraphs, “I hear,” “Ich hore,” as “Each whore. The auralgraph is a poem presented as dream, one that ironically defies interpretation based on the wish-fulfillment.

The erotic content of the poem is apparent in the “foreign Hymen,” and, as we know, once we open the door to reading innuendos, it is difficult to shut, and this, perhaps is the impossibility that translation affords. It is the process not of reading either what is or is not there, but the uncertainty of reading both at the same time that replaces the original paradox of translation. I would like to suggest that the case of the auralgraph allows us to think about translation as being not only proper, as in the transporting of meaning from one site to another, but as a particular mode of exchange that is not only not based on the transference of content, but that positively values another mode of transference, a method of dream interpretation that is not based on wish-fulfillment.[3] The auralgraph presents a limit for thinking about psychoanalytic translation as the movement from the unconscious to consciousness.[4] In this sense the parallel between the movement from the unconscious to consciousness can be seen as a model of translation in which priority is placed upon moving from unknown to known, of bringing dark to light, something that transference, in a sense, is all about. But the problem of keeping things in the dark in transference is another altogether different problem.[5] What is the practice of psychoanalytic translation, or transference, that takes seriously the case of the auralgraph’s defiance of wish-fulfillment as a means of interpretation?

According to Alan Bass (translator of Derrida and psychoanalyst), psychoanalysis, and more precisely transference, is a mistranslating machine. In his article, “On the History of a Mistranslation in the Psychoanalytic Movement,” mistranslation is a fetish, similar to translation that if not good, is bad. The problem of being so good that you are bad follows a logic of the fetish that Bass describes in terms of a mistranslation that is, for one reason or another, too “precious” to give up.
[6] Bass gets here by pointing to a logic in which the fetish, or mistranslation, is a fantasy, a childhood memory, and notably, one that “may become unconscious” (118).[7] His topic is Freud’s mistranslation (and the many subsequent mistaken translations) of the Italian nibio (kite) as the German Geier (vulture) in his study of Leonardo’s notebooks.[8] Freud not only translates nibio as “vulture,” the bird of prey, but uses this to discuss the role of the vulture as mother in Egyptian hieroglyphic in relation to the fantasy of the maternal phallus. Bass writes, “the vulture, then, is a mistranslation as precious as the “precious object” for which the fetishist searches so passionately.” Bass’ threadlike question: “What is a mistaken translation in psychoanalysis?” results in the end in the positive content of mistranslation, the confusion of “transference-translation,” something pointing to transformation as the nature of transference.

One of the ways that I want to think differently about transference and the “impossibility” of translation is by questioning the common and somewhat homophonic practice of translating “translation” [übersetzen] as “transference” [übertragen]. Bass’ articulation of the fetishistic, substitutive logic that combines translation and transference puts the “impossibility” of translation to work; he shows that the latent content resides in transference, and describes the process of translation as a code that transforms “baffling inscriptions” into “everyday language” (103). Derrida’s presentation of translation in “Des Tours de Babel” as “necessary and impossible” looks for the limits posed to theories of translation by the paradoxical nature of the necessary impossibility.
[9] He considers more radical the complexity introduced by needing to translate more than one language within one language—thus to translate the internal difference of language.

The mistranslated poem, “Auralgraph 6,” repudiates but also registers the difference within language. My reading here, of its ironic and erotic tension hopes to disturb the double fantasy of Benjaminian “pure language,” on the one hand (the fantasy of “essential” language), and on the other hand the fantasy of coming as “close as possible” to the original, something like the unity of form and content (the fantasy of the completeness of expressive voice).
[10] Both of these logics, I think, are based upon a homophonic model of language, one that holds that learning to speak (and thus to translate, and to interpret) consists of identifying a given originary language in which expression is total.[11] In this model, expression and activity are modes in which obscurity and passivity signal the inhibition of the wish-fulfillment, and thus represent stages to be worked through in order to attain the clarity of expression or the decisiveness of action. The logic is one of a “homophonic method” of translation, noted by V.W. Quine in Word and Object, which involves the idea that sound—and perhaps best to say not only “sound,” but the correspondence of sounds, “creates” meaning.

Quine’s discussion in this section is on “Translating Logical Connectives” and the example he follows in his discussion of the “normal” homophonic method has to do with negation: “That fair translation preserves logical laws is implicit in practice even where, to speak paradoxically, no foreign language is involved. Thus when to our querying of an English sense an English speaker answers ‘Yes and no’, we assume that the queried sentence is meant differently in the affirmation and negation; this rather than that he would be so silly as to affirm and deny the same thing” (59). The homophonic model defends against both nonsense and difference within the same language, against what Quine calls “the hidden differences of language” (59). Here Quine wants to think about examples that would suspend the homophonic method, instances in which “the hidden differences of language” even in the same language create a problem for translation. For him, the hidden differences can account for bad translation, “or in the domestic case, linguistic divergence,” and this is interesting, since he says that “beyond a certain point” bad translation is more likely to account for these differences than “the interlocutor’s silliness.” What happens to the “hidden differences” in the case of an interlocutor’s silliness that is also a bad translation?

The mistranslated auralgraph presents the impossibility as something we can feel differently about and pushes us to think about situations in which “becoming unconscious” is more compelling, or “too precious,” in other words, in situations in which our interest in the other is simply more compelling.
[13] The interest in one that Freud identifies as erotic—in the form of liking, love, and lust; this erotic content, or the mere possibility of it, presents the difference between thinking of the other as an ethical bind and thinking of the other as one liked. The difference in such a case involves the occurrence of unavoidable feeling for the other in a situation, such as transference or interpretation, where one is best instructed to keep feelings, especially those of the erotic interpreter’s, out of it. The erotic interpreter (could he be someone like Balibar’s “vanishing mediator”?) is there on both sides, to obscure and make ambiguous, to keep some things in the dark. I have articulated this problem of the “impossibility” of translation differently because I saw the metaphysical problem of individuality presented by the necessary impossibility of translation to be the same as the ontological failure of the subject to find its origin. Although the ironic transposition of erotic content in “Auralgraph 6” exposes the fantasy of complete translation, the hope or wish for complete transference might be more difficult to dislodge. These problems, in particular that of equating the moment of the self’s failure with the recognition of the other, are ones that seemed to me to need another logic that is not the interpretive logic of wish-fulfillment, of making conscious, or of translation as transference proper.[14]

Ironically, the erotic interpreter does not deal with the erotic content of wishes, but with the model of the joking unconscious. I would like to turn to the case of the joke as a way of situating the work that the auralgraph does and the work that it frees us from. The auralgraph, unlike other translations, takes the job of mistranslation seriously.
[15] It is, perhaps surprisingly, jokes and the logic that Freud develops for them that can tell us most about this process of “reverse censorship,” in which the obscurity of the form is preserved by the sense that it has meaning. Unlike the process of censorship that uses the form to obscure the content of a potentially damaging or dangerous transmission, Freud writes that jokes cause pleasure by the “alternation between ‘thinking it senseless’ and ‘recognizing it as sensible.” He continues, “The psychogenesis of jokes has taught us that the pleasure in a joke is derived from play with words or from the liberation of nonsense, and that the meaning of the joke is merely intended to protect that pleasure from being done away with by criticism” (131). Freud calls this process of “reading” “reducing”; he writes, “It will be recalled that when we had succeeded in reducing a joke (that is, in replacing its form of expression by another one, while carefully preserving its sense) it had lost not only its character as a joke but also its power to make us laugh—our enjoyment of the joke” (112). Throughout these sections on both purposeful and innocent jokes, Freud continuously makes the point that the source of pleasure in joking is related to what we don’t know; he writes: “Thus, strictly speaking, we do not know what we are laughing at” (121).

In the case of innocent jokes, like the wordplay of “Auralgraph 6,” pleasure seems to be something aesthetic, something derived merely from the form. Freud seems to suggest here a sense of the aesthetic that might not be in his other writings on art and literature. Here, the pleasure is not something that is merely aesthetic, rather, the aesthetic is that which seeks “to derive pleasure form its own activity.” Freud’s emphasis on the idea that the “from its own activity” counts as a form of pleasure refers us again to his main point (as he winds about a variety of possible causes for the pleasure) that the pleasure of jokes relies on the obscurity of cause. He here presents cases in which the pleasure principle, which functions to assure the equivalence of exchange or translation, is suspended in some way so that a qualitatively greater pleasure can be attained. It is important to note that the logic of this “suspension,” like the “precious mistranslation,” is not an exception but is all too caught up in pleasure. The suspension is a descriptive difference that amounts to a reason for keeping things in the dark. Freud writes, “What we have before us here is in fact no simple effect of force but a more complicated situation of release” (134). The shift “to release” instead of “force” serves to introduce the complex situation in which factors of pleasure (and in other cases, pain) become quantitatively indistinguishable. Freud writes here, “we have said above (p. 94) that a good joke makes, as it were, a total impression of enjoyment on us, without our being able to decide at once what share of the pleasure arises from its joking form and what share from its apt thought-content. We are constantly making mistakes in this apportionment” (italics mine).
[16] The “mistake in apportionment” is the characteristic unconscious of jokes; it is not that jokes allow for greater pleasure, but that the joke relies on what is unknown as its source of pleasure. In so doing, it creates situations of complex release, and therefore it also creates new forms of satisfaction, new forms, I might say that come “from its own activity.” This ambivalence of activity is something I will return to in a moment.

I would like to note that I have moved through this discussion of joking without being clear that the questions posed by the translation of jokes differs from the “mistaken” translation of Freud’s “kite,” his vulture, since the translation is situated within one language. And this returns us to the case of the auralgraph, which refers the impossibility not to the sameness of content between languages but to the representation of difference via the sameness of sound. The joke’s unconscious is a pervasive, unknown code. The ambiguity that arises in the situation is most interestingly related to the joke’s capacity not to increase the force of expression of the first person (and who is the first person? The analyst? The patient? Celan? The auralgraph?), but to complicate the situation of release by introducing a third person. The complication seems to result from the fact that the first person speaks as the patient. The relationship is not just one in which the analyst is the translator who is making conscious the unconscious of the analysand, but that in doing so, he creates a third position, similar to the case of innocent jokes, in which the second person becomes the third person. Freud writes: “But this second person in the case of jokes does not correspond to the person who is the object, but to the third person, the “other” person.” As I have been suggesting, the third person is the erotic interpreter, one who brings, and “always with some irony,” the transference of the individual consciousness through the common possibility of mistranslation, of mistaken apportionment.
[17] Jokes present an alternative to wish-fulfillment, to expression as a gesture or outcome of satisfaction and most importantly and obscurely, they offer a theory of a passivity that is itself a form of activity. I have wanted to think about passions and passivity that do not inhibit the possibility for activity and thus to think about the types of situations in which holding off expression of something would result in an increased capacity for action. Here, even “holding out for action” seems that it would detract from the ability to care for the actions or activity that you take in receiving the impressions of others, the passions, and in dealing with your own passivity as something that is itself a form of activity.

The auralgraph interrupts the desire to even know the meaning of the original, to get to pleasure, and taking seriously this interruption, or suspension, in turn recalibrates the relationship between desire and pleasure. The “total impression” of the auralgraph allows the mistaken apportionment to become the substance of the unconscious, hidden “differences,” not hidden content. It is not so much the “unknown” or the “impossible” as such, but rather that the movements between what we know and don’t know take place not in the realm of consciousness, but in the realm of the unconscious. The antagonism—the “convergence without mutual contradiction”—of what we know and don’t know is the unconscious content.
[18] The erotic content of “Auralgraph 6” is ironic; Wagner’s kite, like Freud’s absent kite, tells us only more of what we don’t already know.
Image above (Not a Kite): Egyptian Shrew, Cleveland Museum of Art

[1] In a journal publication of several of the auralgraphs, Wagner writes: “Maybe the term “auralgraphs” (or ear writings) is new, but that’s about it. I believe my initial interest came via writing experiments mentioned by Bernadette Mayer on the web somewhere. Charles Bernstein’s interests in these things, and a phonetic translation of a Henri Michaux poem in Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets, were also components.”
[2] See Derek White and Jessica Fanzo’s brief commentary on Wagner’s 2005 translation of Caesar Vallejo’s Trilce. From “Terrestrial Visitation to the Contemporary Zapotec Underworld” (http://www.sleepingfish.net/5cense/Maya_3.htm) “I picked up a copy of Cesar Vallejo's Trilce in Spanish on my last day. Reading it now on the plane. My Spanish is not good enough to fully comprehend, at least the poeticness of it, but in a sense this makes it more interesting, reading into it. I can appreciate James Wagner’s obsession with his parasitic and “homophonic” translation of Trilce (some of which are going to be in the forthcoming SleepingFish). You can read it for the sound or pure language of it, more than for the content, and from the sounds alone create something entirely new of your own invention. It's like viewing Mayan hieroglyphics without a codice, without fully understanding the original intent. Appreciating it just for the superficial look or sound. Or like appreciating mole without knowing what goes into making it. The meaning surfaces on its own and hits the sense organs directly without any cerebral processing from the brain.” (July 17, 2005). For a full on discussion of hieroglyphic interpretation, see Derrida, “Freud and the Scene of Writing” in Writing and Difference. See also Freud (cited in Bass 103) in The Interpretation of Dreams (V): “The productions of the dream-work, which, it must be understood, present no greater difficulties to their translators than do the ancient hieroglyphic scripts to those who seek to read them.”
[3] For an account of the significance of improper transation, see Dina Al-Kassim, “The Faded Bond: Calligraphesis and Kinship in Abdelwahab Meddeb’s Talismano” in Public Culture 12:1 (2001), in which she describes the practice of “transgraphing” which “shifts the emphasis from a concern with semantic meanings toward a search for new terms and new forms of writing that might materialize the social transformations of kinship that are evident in the modern postcolonial state.” In Des Tours de Babel, Jacques Derrida cites Jacobson’s definition of a “proper” translation in One Tranlsation (1959) as being (in contrast to interlingual (rewording) and intersemiotic (transmutation)) interlingual, transferring content from one language to another.
[4] As such, psychoanalysis seems to consistently offer a compelling analysis of how the transference from individual to collective organization is made.
[5] Bass’ book, Difference and Disavowal: The Trauma of Eros (Stanford 2000), describes resistance to interpretation in the psychoanalytic setting as a problem of the concrete patient, a term that he provides a psychoanalytic genealogy of, surrounding Edith Jacobson’s description of such patients as those who “treat their psychic strivings as if they were concrete objects.” (cited in Difference and Disavowal 14-15. Cf. Jacobson, “Denial and Repression” (1957)).
[6] See also Freud’s essay on “Fetishism” (1927) in which he writes: “In the last few years I have had an opportunity to study analytically a number of men whose object-choice was dominated by a fetish…. For obvious reasons the details of these cases must be withheld from publication; I cannot therefore show in what way accidental circumstances have contributed to the choice of fetish. The most extraordinary case seemed to me to be one in which a young man had exalted a certain sort of “shine on the nose” into a fetishistic precondition. The surprising explanation of this was that the patient had been brought up in an English nursery but had later come to Germany, where he forgot his mother-tongue almost completely. The fetish, which originated from his earliest childhood, had to be understood in English, not German. The “shine on the nose” (in German, Glanz auf der Nase) was in reality a “glance at the nose” [Blick auf die Nase, Blick = glance: Glanz]. The nose was thus the fetish, which, incidentally, he endowed at will with the luminous shine which was not perceptible to others.”
[7] See Bass page 119, cf. Freud in “Leonardo” page 85. emphasis in this quotation Bass’.
[8] Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood (1910), in SE XI.
[9] For a related notion of the effect of co-constitution, see Fechner’s principle of aesthetic assistance: “If determinants of pleasure that in themselves produce little effect converge without mutual contradiction, there results a greater, and often a much greater, outcome of pleasure than corresponds to the pleasure value of the separate determinants—a greater pleasure than could be explained as the sum of the separate effects.” (Vorschule der Ästhetik 1: chpt V), see Freud’s reference in Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious 135.
[10] Adorno has a similar account of poetic language in “Lyric Poetry and Society.” He writes: “The moment of unself-consciousness in which the subject submerges itself in language is not a sacrifice of the subject to Being. It is a moment not of violence, nor of violence against the subject, but reconciliation: language itself speaks only when it speaks not as something alien to the subject but as the subject’s own voice.” (in Notes to Literature page 45).
[11] Quine, in Word and Object, refers to the “homophonic method” “so fundamental to the very acquisition of language.”
[12] The logic that I am interested in is that which is not “rhymes,” as Derrida notes in his foreward to The Wolf Man’s Magic Word. Taking “tieret,” the magic word of the wolf man, Derrida writes: “tieret, on the other hand, tieret alone produces no speech at all. The pleasure it gives rise to is only that of a living tableau. But tieret is not contrasted with this tableau-fetish in the way that the thing itself is traditionally opposed to its fetish. This thing is not the thing-in-itself philosophers speak of. It is a mark or cipher, a piece of a cipher that can only be translated into a vast interminable sentence or into the scene of a tableau with more than one object, more than one entrance or exit. A trace with no present in its wake, a Thing, ein Ding, une Chose without a cause, “Cause” to be designified in the crypts of anasemia” (xlv).
[13] I’m thinking here of both David Berman (“the feelings about the feeling…”) and Rei Terada’s comments on the importance of the matter being how you feel about the feeling (the demand, in this case, of impossibility).
[14] See Daniel Tiffany’s reiteration of the “impossibility” that defines translation in Radio Corpse: “What distinguishes translation historically—and what makes deconstructive theorists so enamored of it—is its nihilism: its repeated admission that extreme literalism—the very principles that condition translation itself—is impossible. In other words, translation discourse proclaims with self-destructive candor what is often forgotten or submerged in the history of aesthetic philosophy and literary criticism: a realistic image is no more possible than an exact translation” (200).
[15] I see the implications of this as being three-fold, and all are related to what Etienne Balibar describes as “problematic individuality,” and what I understand as the problem of coincidence of self-ownership and the “desire” for a community. The first is in terms of transference and the work of psychoanalysis as the “mistranslating machine”; the second is in terms of non-literary translation and the political stakes of the mistranslation of essential “inessential” information; and the third is in terms of literary translation and a practice of textual interpretation retains the registration of difference (i.e. in paradox).
[16] In German, the passage reads: “Wir täuschen uns beständig über diese Aufteilung.”
[17] The logic of the traumatic dream is similar, since Freud acknowledges it as a situation in which wish-fulfillment is interrupted. Freud writes, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, “We may assume, rather, that dreams are here helping to carry out another task, which must be accomplished before the dominance of the pleasure principle can even begin. These dreams are endeavoring to master the stimulus retrospectively, by developing the anxiety whose omission was the cause of the traumatic neurosis.” See further: “If there is a ‘beyond the pleasure principle’ it is only consistent to grant that there was also a time before the purpose of dreams was the fulfillment of wishes. This would imply no denial of their later function. But if once this general rule has been broken, a further question arises. May not dreams which, with a view to the psychical binding of traumatic impressions, obey the compulsion to repeat—may not such dreams occur outside analysis as well?” (page 38)
[18] This phrase is taken from Gustav Fechner, one of Freud’s strong influences on the matter of psychophysical phenomenon. The effect of “convergence without mutual contradiction” is based on a ‘principle of aesthetic assistance or intensification,’ which Fechner describes in Vorschule der Ästhetik as the Vorlustprinzip (the “forepleasure” principle”).

Saturday, June 9, 2007

affective thought

When Spinoza makes the distinction between active force and passive force, he also weighs in indirectly about materiality. Deleuze sums in Expression and Philosophy: Spinoza, <<But on a deeper level Leibniz asks: should passive force be conceived as distinct from active force? Is its principle autonomous, does it have any possibility, is it in any way assertive? Answer: "Passive force has no autonomy, but is the mere limitation of active force.">> It is perhaps not immediately apparent how materiality, per se, enters into a discussion of the limited assertiveness of passive forces, but I would propose that both of these aspects--materialism and the duality of active and passive force--are components of a theory of work, for Spinoza, which might always be "working for a cause." And it is the question of the cause that Spinoza poses by asking whether or not passive force is autonomous. Even as he asserts the non-autonomous character of passive force (something which seems to be a logical consequence of the idea of adequate thoughts, and notions, of the adequacy of cause and effect), he nonetheless raises the question of why it is that the "autonomy" is the question. Of the passions (those things that we suffer, passively), there are those of joy and those of sadness. Because passions are only understood as the inhibition of action (and Spinoza acknowledges the differential in inhibitions based on the particular passion), they are not understood, or perhaps, they don't count until they become translated into activity (this translation, I have been thinking, is one way of thinking about affect). Maybe it makes sense that passive joy needs to be taken as active (as part of the conatus) in order for it to be "real action," but it makes less sense for sad passions, things for which there seems never to be an "adequate" cause. Sad passions seem to be a part of the Spinozan unconscious, things you know you should be able to turn to active but which perhaps instead dwell in a realm of affective thought (something I need to return to Freud's 1912ish papers for). But work, in the above quotation, is what makes this transference to activity possible, I think. And somehow, this seems to put off work, and put off the cause, as well.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

for they know not what they do

i have been reading Zizek on enjoyment lately. He writes: "The external law regulates pleasure in order to deliver us from the superegotistical imposition of enjoyment which threatens to overflow our daily life. Carpe diem, enjoy the day, consume the surplus-enjoyment procured by your daily sacrificing--there is the condensed formula of 'totalitarianism.'" Here, enjoyment involves a notion of surplus. I have always had a really hard time thinking about surplus, in Marx as well as as a remainder, an excess, or as something that exceeds a particular system, and a hard time thinking about this surplus as the material. So I wonder what things Zizek assumes when he assumes the existence of this remainder, and what things can remain untheorized if this is the governing construct of materiality. In another passage, he makes clearer the distinction between pleasure and enjoyment. He writes:

"And it is precisely at this level that the opposition of pleasure and enjoyment is to be located: a simple illicit love affair without risk concerns mere pleasure, whereas an affair which is experienced as a "challenge to the gallows"--as an act of transgression--procures enjoyment; enjoyment is the "surplus" that comes from our knowledge that our pleasure involves the thrill of entering a forbidden domain--that is to say, that our pleasure involves a certain displeasure."

Enjoyment involves desiring that which might also be threatening to us, or this is Zizek's rationale and explanation for the phenomenon of totalitarianism, something that he theorizes as the disappearance of a distance between the external law and the internal moral law, or between knowledge and belief. The distinctions here raise some questions, namely: is pleasure so innocent? And, correspondingly, is knowledge ever so certain (and belief) that they remain fixed poles between which a difference could be measured?

photo: Mask for production of Dead Souls, Evan Williams