Sunday, December 6, 2009


Right, preliminarily, I would say that Akin's coincidences are obscure (reading Daniel Tiffany, Infidel Poetics: Riddles, Nightlife, Substance [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009]).


Fatih Akin's The Edge of Heaven (Auf der anderen Seite Fatih Akin, 2007) opens and closes with scene--a trip to the Black Sea made by Nejat, one of the film's six main characters. Nejat is a professor of German literature, whose father, Ali, is imprisoned after killing a woman whom he paid to come and live with him. This woman, Yeter, has a daughter, Ayten, who escapes from a protest in Turkey to Germany where she meets up, and soon falls in love with a university student, Lotte. The sixth of these characters is Lotte's mother, Susanne (played by Fassbinder's "muse" Hanna Schygulla), who watches on as her daughter follows Ayten to Turkey, and finally travels there to collect her daughter's belongings after she is killed by some Kurdish children who steal the gun that Ayten had hidden. Just in these few sentences, the raveled nature of the plot can be seen. As Thomas Elsaesser suggests, we should assume that Akin knows what he is doing. Elsaesser's evidence for this is the way in which some of the hard, empirical facts of Turkish culture enter into this otherwise serendipitous plot line. Unlike Tom Tykwer's Die Krieger und die Kaiserin (2000), however, the chance encounters made possible do not pan out. Whereas Tykwer's film suggests that coincidence (Zufall) is something that allows for a second chance, Akin does not draw this equation between coincidence and second chance, much less between coincidence and chance.

Elsaesser, a Brecht scholar (and also a scholar of Fassbinder), suggests that some of Akin's other devices, such as the band which plays at the beginning, end, and interludes of Head On (Gegen die Wand 2005), distance and estrange to allow for critical reflection "on the social forces" behind things. This "self-reflexivity," which Elsaesser notes Akin also wants, seems to be what is most aroused by the "intersecting" but not "converging" nature of the parallel lives in the narrative. If it is self-reflexivity that is the result, then, of chance, how does this relate to the fact that seemingly little else is produced by coincidence?

Awareness certainly seems to be one of the things up for grabs in the film. I also happened to watch another film that deliberates (albeit on a different level) on the role of chance, Puccini for Beginnners (Maria Maggenti, 2006), which ends with some commentary on the role of chance--that Freud's comment that there are no coincidences is certainly true because our capacity for awareness is so much greater than for registration. This is my rephrasing, at least. In The Edge of Heaven, awareness refers to both the characters' fated missed passings and their relationships with the social world around them. This is most pointedly portrayed in the contrast between the level of political involvement held by the two women who are together at the end of the film, Susanne and Ayten. In their first encounter, Ayten rails against her for her seeming lack of awareness of how things really are for Turkish people. Susanne's tired, worn gaze tells us more, however, so that the type of political and social awareness that the film is after is here held in tension.

picture: LA in gray/Urban Ocotillo

Saturday, October 31, 2009

receding surfaces

Perhaps one of the differences between literary versions of schizophrenia and delusion at the turn of the century and contemporary memoirs of people with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder is the role of society. Much has happened to society, and to the concept of society, in the interim period of the twentieth century. So it would not be surprising to say that here again the difference is social. In Alfred Schnitzler’s “Leutnant Gustl,” the narrator moves restlessly through the streets of Vienna after hours, and we get some of this external environment through the surface of his perceptions. So it seems that this recedes, the surface of these social phenomenon, Vienna beneath his fingers. Somewhat like touching things that are too close, or trying to see things that are too close, the receding surface of the social mirrors the psychic inability to touch those things that have been disavowed in the process of psychotic mental life. I have gone a long way from thinking about psychosis as a sort of break in the structure of the normal, as it is usually understood, particularly in contemporary memoir literature. In these memoirs, accounts, and experiences, this break with the social is the determining feature of psychotic existence. Society is seen to induce this break, and medicine to repair the rift connections. Emily Martin’s Bipolar Expeditions, which traces the cultural phenomenon of bipolar disorder is one such book that extrapolates the social coordinates of mental illness. Martin’s book is not a memoir, rather it is a sociological study, which includes case studies of bipolar individuals in Orange County, California. But the gist that I am attributing to her work and to contemporary memoirs is that society overwhelms, that the flash of images, the technology of the screen, the rapid pace of life, that all of these things contribute to the structure of mania in contemporary society. In a similar way goes the argument that the violence of video games begets a more violent society.

This is an outgrowth of some thoughts I have had about the difference between attributing an aggressive nature to society and talking about the aggression inherent in individuals. And it begs the question of what the relationship is between these contemporary analyses of the state of society and the decadence of turn of the century Europe? Discussions of Viennese modernism even seem tired or belabored, in a certain way. In Robert B. Pynsent’s concluding essay in Decadence, Decay, and Innovation, he provides a short description of the Austrian fin de Siecle as that which “records the decay of civilization, but also suggests a cure for that decay” (111). And it seems that much of this decay can be attributed to the “world-weariness,” as Pynsent calls it, that is related to the instability and economic disparity of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Despite what seems to be the pressure not to identify Vienna as the center of this activity, or to identity phenomena of Modernity with geographical locations, there are nonetheless the identified “circles” of Viennese intellectual life. In her recent book, Viennese Jewish Modernism: Freud, Hofmannsthal, Beer-Hofmann, and Schnitzler, Abigail Gillman references Edward Timms’s diagrams of the circles of Vienna, and her book involves the overlap of two of the more prominent ones, the psychoanalytic circle of Freud and his followers and the circle of writers associated with “Jung Wien.” However it is called, it does seem that there is something that can be described as decadent art in Austria, which Pynsent does, identifying it with the characteristic of “the instability of the self and the anguished attempt to construct an alternative identity,” and associating it with Schnitzler, Hofmannsthal, Kafka, and Musil.

So it is that decadence seems to be constructed out of the dynamic of self-destruction and self-cure. In Schnitzler’s Gustl, the narrator deliberates over two events, primarily, neither of which ever happens, it seems: an incident at the opera in which he thinks that the baker of the coffeehouse he often frequents, insults him and takes hold of his sword; and his suicide. Given the above notion of narrative uncertainty, it seems that the first event is a hallucination, a delusion, and one which seems to take place in a string of racing thoughts. He wavers between wanting to kill the baker and to kill himself; in the end, neither happens because he hears from the waiter at the coffeehouse that the baker has already died, having fallen on the opera house stairs. His death allows Gustl to live. Schnizler writes, “Die Hauptsach’ ist: er ist tot, und ich darf leben, und alles g’hört wieder mein [The main thing is: he is dead, and I am allowed to live, and everything is mine again].” But it is perhaps not so much his death as the fact that Gustl’s death wish is fulfilled, or, he survives. Nothing of his mental state is resolved; nothing disrupts him nor is he able to confront its contents with the reality he moves about in, and yet, society also does not contribute in a visible way to his state. He experiences a “Mordsglück,” the luck, not the wish, of death.

picture: Lightposts, LACMA

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

science of dreaming, dreams of science

Whorls would be a trope, either way. I'm stuck in the middle of job applications and the desire to move from what has been towards some new other thing. I am thinking about the remnants of the natural world, and the way that they enter dreams, through sleep. Or how to look at the thing in front of you and to try and see what is going on beneath its surface, when that surface is complex and conflicted, full of hidden resentments and knots. Fin de Siecle Vienna might be the same. Or the same to imagine an unmediatized world from the point of view of now. But this crossover between waking and sleeping is the space of madness, either way.

picture: cross-section of fallen tree, Malibu State Park

Thursday, September 17, 2009

the state of sleep

I feel that what is perhaps Philomena’s first night of sleep (8 hours!!!) deserves a blog entry, coincident with my desire to read Jacqueline Rose’s essay, “’On Not Being Able to Sleep’,” and to think about the beginnings of things. Anyhow, I think Philomena slept through the night last night. The reason that there is uncertainty about this is that it is entirely possible (and not unlikely), that I got up with her at some point and that I just do not remember it. However, to the best of my recollection, she did not get up, which means that this is a major event. It could be an anomaly. That’s fine, too. I think it’s just a matter of it being able to happen. I mean, now I’ve seen that it’s possible.

I found it ironic, in a certain way, that in Winnicott’s book, The Child, the Family, and the Outside World, there is no mention in either the index or the table of contents of sleep. Of course I have found this to be the most difficult thing about having a child, seven months in. So maybe my response is a little overdetermined. On the other hand, the hundreds of books on sleep, sleep training, sleep techniques, and etc,.. attest to this problem, at least in contemporary society.

In Jacqueline Rose’s essay, she explores the question of what sleep is, for Freud. She writes, “Although Freud will crucially identify all the features of the dreamwork, not only in symptom formation, but also in jokes and slips, the dream—through sleep—at least partly escapes the mantle of these forms. It breaks the line which Freud—in a gesture which might be seen as the founding gesture of psychoanalysis—runs from the neurotic to the everyday (the ‘approximately normal person’ as he famously describes himself in the preamble to the specimen dream). Sleep changes everything” (106). In this passage, Rose addresses the primary task of psychoanalysis, arguably, the distinctions it makes between the normal, neurotic, and psychotic states of the individual. If sleep breaks the line between or beneath the normal and the neurotic, it is, as she describes, because it is psychotic. The question of how psychotic states of mind intervene in the normal/neurotic continuum is one that is often understated in literature on madness and psychoanalysis, because, I think, it is often assumed that it interrupts or is a rupture in this manner. Perhaps because it seems to follow from the way that psychosis itself is figured as a break, or a rupture with reality. I’ve begun to consider psychosis as less radical and more regressive, perhaps as a reaction to the drama involved in pseudo-psychotic moments.

Regression also turns up in Rose’s essay (also in my above notes that it’s okay if the night of sleep was an anomaly, as if to forestall already the disappointment of regression), several pages later. Rose writes, “Could it be then that the greatest fear for the analyst is not the fear of not knowing, one loss of omnipotence, but another, more tangible, more physical, the fear of slipping backwards (regression is of course also central to this chapter), of turning—with awesome, hallucinogenic vividness—into a frightened child?” (110). For Rose, the idea of the “infantile wish,” which contains the ambiguity of this as a wish that was had as a child or a wish to be a child. Of course regression involves the idea of being “taken back” to something. This is a very abstract and general formula for regression, but it can also therefore include a number of experiences, ones that I would like to think together—certain forms of tradition that are authenticated by being able to be “taken back,” Winnicott’s desire to return to a time when metaphors mean something, recovery from the past or the present, historical reference or citation to an earlier version of an event or idea, the two steps forward one step back theory of progress…

Friday, September 11, 2009

moving on

Reading through my journal of the past months, nothing of much substance is to be found, just lists of things to do, and things done, notes about how tired I am, etc,... There are a few passing comments about wanting to see Philomena's dreams. The blog began as an effort to write alongside the dissertation, and now that that's past, I feel the paucity of new material. Or the overwhelming nature of white space. So, squiggle. I mean, that's one answer. I've been thinking of organizing some thinking on mobility and childhood aggression around the figure of the squiggle, D.W. Winnicott's game for the analysis of children. It's in line with blind contours, at any rate. This is just to mark the end. And, just now, the beginning of the wiggle: meaning, Philomena started crawling today.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

philomena, phenomenophile

Although I had the pleasure of reading almost all of Rei Terada's recent book, Looking Away, before it was published, I must have forgotten most of what I read. Like the flat cow that Philomena had in her crib, as Rei noted, we get to know things, in order to forget, in order to remember, to be reminded of an elusive familiarity. That's the point. So maybe all along, I've known that Philomena is a phenomenophile, and it's just taken a while to put a name to the face. If the woman at the Hollywood farmer's market, who so rudely told me that Philomena's name did not suit her, was just asking a hypothetical question, it's too bad; I thought she really wanted to know how babies think. Like little Isabella's mom, who I met today outside of the Downbeat Cafe, put it, "I try to look at her at least once a day." It's an expression, I think, of trying to see change, to see (if not to remember) its gradations. I tried to tell the woman at the Hollywood farmer's market that I thought babies thought by perceiving contrasts, between light and dark for example, because I have noticed how Philomena becomes fixated by various forms of light--shadows on the wall, or the glow of sun from being a curtain, a certain shine to the ceiling where deflected light is hitting. Or because it seemed like she tried to focus, in her early days, on the contours of things, trying to discern an edge, a line, a frame. Now she can see the cat, but we're still talking about tracking movements, as a form of recognition.
picture: Bellman Bar, Berlin

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

the saga of sleep

i hate going to sleep early. as you might be able to tell from the above picture, someone else hates it too. so that means that i get less and less sleep, because i do things like stay up for hours knitting and looking through my dissertation notes and then feel compelled to write about it. but today is philomena's 4-month birthday, so it seemed like reason enough to write. and we went to a party tonight, at yuting and nasia's, which went okay. philomena slept on the way there at 7:30 and it took us a while to get there in the newly-mufflered mauto, also because we were talking about science fiction poetry and this last chapter. i wasn't there when she and daddy walked in with her in the baby bjorn because i was returning the stroller to the car, but she got upset enough to take them both (and yuting and zen) back outside. she takes a while getting used to a new environment before she can deal with the people. she has to do things like check out the light fixtures and the art collection before she decides that it's okay to look at them without screaming. it's a nice quality. she made a friend with a grad student in applied linguistics who was holding a glass of wine that she was very into. the friend said that she thought that philomena had spotted it when they were walking down the stairs, from across the room. she also liked the little bee magnets on the refridgerator. i will kick myself at 6 a.m. if i don't know to sleep right now (or at the end of this row).

Monday, June 22, 2009


In the back matter to an issue of Science Fiction Studies (#20 volume 7, pt 1: March 1980), Darko Suvin takes note of a new journal of science fiction poetry. He writes, "Starline raised the question of whether there waws such a wordbeast as SF poetry, and if so how was it to be defined or delimited: a theoretically and practically fascinating questsion, so far unanswered (e.g. is something like "the door-handle opened a violet eye, and blinked at him" SF, or poetry, or both?)."

Like Adorno, Suvin is dedicated to genre, and some of his fascination eludes us if we don't acknowledge this preoccupation. His work on the "poetics" of Science Fiction has classified it as a genre that is based on "estrangement and cognition" ("On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre"). Leading scholars following him to adopt the term "cognitive estrangement" in their descriptions of science fiction, Suvin also acknowledged the role of the novum in the construction of the SF text (or "word-beast," following Samuel Delaney). The novum, a concept taken from Ernst Bloch, is an element of novelty or innovation that structures the narrative--"an imaginative framework." For Suvin, it is important both that this framework is something other than the author's "empirical environment," and that all of the fantastic elements are controlled by the logic of this framework. Returning to the question of science fiction poetry, this framework is relevant because it is the distinction between a efficacious (i.e. cognitive) metaphor and its non-cognitive other. The compelling question of SF poetry matters to Suvin because it concerns the role of metaphor. The possibility of SF poetry seems to be something that excites Suvin--something that, unlike poetry, would not merely be metaphor, but that would transport the cognitive aspect of science fiction, its logical narrative unfolding into a poetic form. And though this possibility excites Suvin, it also pushes at the strictly defined generic conventions, for it poses the question: what would ineffacious metaphor look like? In other words, how do uncontrolled "fantastic" elements interact?

The example Suvin gives --"the door-handle opened a violet eye, and blinked at him"-- presents several options for reading. To read it realistically, as SF, it presents the creation of a world in which door-handles have eyes, in which perception is located in structuring objects. Thus, the "violet eye" is a fantastic element, but as part of the novum, becomes a metaphor for the habitation of the faculty of perception within door-handles, suggesting that the inanimate world has agency. To read the "violet eye" as simply an image--that is, to read it as a fantastic element that is not part of a greater framework--would be to read it as an element of fantastic literature, and I would wager that this is what Suvin means by poetry. But if this image takes place within a Science Fiction poem, then it is not simply an image either, that is, it becomes a metaphor that might not be taken literally. In this case, one of the literal referents would be non-literal, the tenor of the metaphor. It could be that "door-handle" is a metaphor for an abstract concept (if we think of something like "love is like the door-handle that opened a violet eye and blinked at him"), in which case we are asked to think about the literal meaning through a fantastic example, without having to take the fantastic element seriously, perhaps, without having to think through the possibility of its logic. Cognitive, or estrangement, or both?
picture: violets, on the Balkon

Sunday, April 19, 2009

the name of place

On the way back from LACMA's The Art of Two Germanies exhibit, Philomena and I drove beneath a canopy of trees, and it made me think of the enfolding monumentality of Berlin's Karl-Marx-Allee. Philomena was literally a pea when I drove my bike beneath those trees last August, turning off to visit the monument to Soviet soldiers with Travis on one of our last nights in Berlin. We had had many conversations about monuments in Berlin, with our friend Dave, who has been attempting to articulate an argument about the relationship between monuments and the filth, trash, or refuse of a city, which are the general terms Adorno uses to describe the problem of culture in his lectures on metaphysics.This is the dialectic of cutlture and barbarism central to his thinking about expression and Auschwitz. In the last of these lectures, he attempts to identify the possibility of metaphysical experience, given this dialectic and the sense that he has of the prevailing barbarism, the corruption, of society. He gives two examples, which are not intended as a dialectical pair, but which are interesting to think as the particulars of the barbarism/culture dialectic. Earlier, he says, metaphysical experiences of the sort theorized by Proust were available to us, experiences related to the feeling of "it" being held in a single word. For Proust, this happens in terms of the names of places, places that seem to offer all possible fulfillment. These experieces are metaphysical because even if the place disappoints (and it always/often? does), the feeling of it being "it" is retained. Adorno also gives the example of looking back on children's literature, of having the feeling of being able to return to the imagined places of childhood. It seems that this would be the monumental version of cutlture. On the other side, and realistically, in the post-Auschwitz trash heap of barbarism, the most we can hope of a metaphysical experience is what Adorno calls "fruitless waiting." Fruitless waiting, bureacracy, a disillusioned promise, a dystopia maybe, and yet it retains something of the metaphysical offer of fulfillment, despite disappointment.
picture: blind shot from driver's seat window, Los Angeles

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

writing with philomena

In his lectures on metaphysics (1965), Adorno writes

One would need to be a very superficial and, if you like, a very nominalistic linguistic philosopher to deny that this experience of being unable to take certain words into one's mouth--which you can all have and which was probably first registered, though in a avery different way, in Hugo von Hofmannsthal's 'Chandos' letter--also says something about what the words stand for. I believe that one of the crucial points on which the theory I advocate, and of which I can present you at least some sizable fragments in these lectures, differs from the currently prevalent one, is my view that the historical-philosophical fate of language is at the same time the historical-philosophical fate of the subject matter to which it refers. This is supported, incidentally, by a viewpoint which was by no means foreign to German idealism, and especially to Wilhelm von Humboldt: that language constitutes thought no less than thought language.

Adorno's comments about the way that language constitutes thought (as more radical than the idea that thought constitutes language) take place only within the "negativity" that he urges his students to be able to "think." To me it seems that the purported radicalness of this formulation does not lie in the role of the constituent, but in the idea that language is in some sense crucial to the type of thinking that Adorno advocates as our way of not merely "adapting" to the ways of the world, of not simply accepting what is. But in what sense language? His version here of something like "silence"--of "not being able to take certain words into one's mouth"--differs indeed from the prevalent notions of silence. In these, silence registers as good or bad: as a mode of resistance, as testiment to the enormity of the referent, as traumatic symptom, as irresponsibility for the past, as the bystander's response to atrocity, and as lack of awareness of real social or political injustice (i.e. a problem of ideology). It might, in fact, be helpful to catalogue these forms of silence. What Adorno grants to silence here is an ambivalence, one that takes place however, only within the need to think about the negativity of the world. This "not being able to take in certain words" is both the fate of language and the fate of the subject matter; it stands not for language's inability to grasp reality, but for the nature of language to be on course with reality--I want here to say to "reflect" reality, but it is not exactly this, at least the mimetic implications. In previous lectures, these "certain words" are "squalid" and "dark" realities necessarily suppressed by the sublime and lofty goals of culture. It is to gain some form of access to these "unsayable" squalids and darks that is the task of philosophy. This silence is thus a silence that is paired with talking out the other side of one's mouth. Perhaps this is also its ambivalence.