Friday, December 31, 2010

Darkness stands
the door, a brightly lit
room. The barred things
also, at arm's length.
Not, to within
looking out.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Unordinary Rain

Louis Althusser’s elliptical and unfinished book project, “The Underground Current of the Materialism of the Encounter,” begins with a “semi-autobiographical” chapter, which I would just call it autobiographical, and then turns, at a later point, to rain. I am interested in this text for many reasons, not least among them its elusive autobiographical details, its fragmented and interrupted nature, and the end that it marks of a period of silence, at least of writerly silence. He begins in October 1982, writing “For, in November 1980, in the course of a severe, unforeseeable crisis that had left me in a state of mental confusion, I strangled my wife” (Philosophy of the Encounter: later writings, 1978-1987, 164). The essay that is included here as what the editors call the core of his ideas about the materialism of the encounter, “Portrait of the Materialist Philosopher,” was written during a period of rehospitalization, from June to July 1986. He begins:

"It is raining.

Let this book therefore be, before all else, a book about ordinary rain.

Malabranche wondered ‘why it rains upon sands, upon highways and seas’, since this water from the sky which, elsewhere, waters crops (and that is very good), adds nothing to the water of the sea, or goes to waste on the roads and beaches.

Our concern will not be with that kind of rain, providential or anti-providential.

Quite the contrary: this book is about another kind of rain, about a profound theme which runs through the whole history of philosophy, and was contested and repressed there as soon as it was stated: the ‘rain’ of Epicurus’ atoms that fall parallel to each other in the void…"

The rain that he goes on to detail is the rain of Lucretius’ atoms, the “’rain’ of the parallelism of the infinite attributes” (167). In particular, he is discussing the moment of breaking from this parallelism: the instance of the swerve, the presence of the clinamen, and the non-anteriority of meaning. It is only in the matter of a few lines that the book goes from being about ordinary rain to being about unordinary rain. “Before all else” it is “about” ordinary rain, but “quite the contrary,” it is also “about” another kind of rain. What indeed holds these rains in common? At first Althusser seems to dismiss from consideration the impact of the rain, that is, the meaning of the rain as it pertains to where it falls, i.e. “providential or anti-providential.” But in fact, this point returns in his discussion of the parallelism of atoms in a void, for it colors the impression of the void with this determination that falling lands upon something. His point is to foreground the role of contingency over necessity, and to counter the long history of the rewriting of the materialism of the encounter as the “ideal of freedom” (168). For Althusser, the materialism of the encounter, the “swerve,” contingency, has been “interpreted, repressed, and perverted” into a moment that requires, rather than produces, its opposite. The subordination of contingency to necessity always results in an idealization of freedom. The import of the dynamics at play in this moment—in the difference between Althusser’s mode and the mode that he finds elsewhere—is their relation to political activity. Everywhere it is implied that this is the stake. The production of the ideal of freedom is equal to depoliticization, and describes how acts of depoliticizing occur as acts of rewriting—how the contingent encounter becomes a necessity, in the process evacuating all of the particulars of the contingency of their political content. I am thinking of arguments about how, for example, the history of resistance literature has become rewritten as the history of prison literature, but there are many other ways to think about how discourses that take “freedom” as an ideal actively work against political activity. Althusser’s insistence on the originary and non-derivative nature of the swerve involves a figure of transformation that is non-compulsive, that mandates nothing, including change.

The introduction and retraction of “ordinary rain,” the figure which begins this fragment of his thought, resembles this operation. “Before all else,” he will go on to say, there is “nothing,” and nothing is also the whole, the entirety of all that there is (it is why Spinoza, for example, begins with god and not with the world or with man). Wishing to let the book be “before all else” about ordinary rain, about the “accomplished fact” of the rain, Althusser can only observe this rain, a sign of an world outside the hospital. The question that arises about ordinary rain, of whether it is “good” or “bad,” depending upon where it falls, is one that does not matter for the type of unordinary rain that Althusser goes on to say this book is really “about.” Still, this question which has first been raised only to be dismissed, lingers in the text. The question of providentiality becomes one of how fleeting encounters can become lasting, indeed how durability and perseverance can and cannot be assured simply by the “reality of the accomplished fact.” He writes, “Nothing guarantees that the reality of the accomplished fact is the guarantee of its durability.” The statement is not merely negative, that durability cannot be guaranteed by reality, by the fact that something has happened. The rain, for example, will stop. “Nothing,” “ordinary rain,” that which comes “before all else,” makes a guarantee; it establishes the relation between contingency and necessity, the non-equivalence between “reality” and “guarantee,” by making itself the subject. “Nothing” can only take place as the subject, however, by containing an internal difference between providentiality and anti-providentiality, one which announces the political being of the subject, its usefulness, its capacity to be used by others. Rain, raining.

picture: Patton Place, bien sur.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


In A Theory of Literary Production, Pierre Macherey formulates several fallacies of literary criticism, which detail problems with contemporary reading practices. The point of identifying these--the empirical, normative, and interpretive fallacies--is to make a distinction between the modes of textual consumption and production, and this distinction amounts to an anti-Platonic materialism that nonetheless seems to maintain an idea of substance. In the section "Positive and Negative Judgment," Macherey writes, "Because it is powerless to examine the work on its own terms, unable to exert an influence on it, criticism resorts to a corroding resentment... Both the "taste" which asks no questions and the "judgment" which dispenses with scruples are closely related. The naive consumer and the harsh judge are finally collaborators in a single action" (18). The complicity between "naive consumer" and "harsh judge" that Macherey asserts has to do, for him, with the intent that both have in regarding a work. Here the tasteless and the tasteful, otherwise polarized to all appearances, conspire. Whether to regard and evaluate the value of a work, or to consume and own it, the act is one and the same on the basis of how little object remains to the object after this exchange is complete. The psychological correlate of this process, resentment, exhibits a quality of "corroding" similar to the damage we can imagine is done to the object. But on what terms can we regard the carrying out of an action to the same effect as a collaboration? Would they not just be unwitting participants who whose coincidence is rather just that, a chance? Their common disregard for the object turns to resentment when it is not able to know the work "on its own terms," and this seems to indicate such an option is foreclosed when something like neglect, on the one hand, and principled interests on the other, overtakes our capacity for relating to a work. Resentment seems to come in when these dynamics of relation fail to produce something that could be called having "an influence" on the work. Similar questions occupied Ingeborg Bachmann in her 1960 lectures on poetry. How do we look at a work of art without taking on these roles, without resentment?

picture: pair of dice, MOCA, from the exhibit pieces from the current collection 2008. photo taken by Rebecca Ellen Bowden.

Saturday, November 20, 2010


After listening to Rachel Greenwald-Smith give a paper on Aldo Leopold and the contemporary Naturalist, Charles Bowden, titled “After the Land Ethic,” I have been reading from A Sand County Almanac, and thinking about the literature and theory that inhabited Greenwald-Smith’s work. At the same time that I have been drawn towards this body of work, it continues to provoke my feelings of alienation from academic work, as well as uncertainty about what constitutes my own field and area of study. In part, the seeming flexibility but ultimate rigidity of defining and redefining oneself for the diminishing market offerings can be a process that threatens, challenges, or destroys one’s feelings about one’s own work. I don’t know if it’s this that has seemed to destroy my own work, or if my work was destined to some sort of end in itself that began, perhaps, in the claustrophobic office space of Andrej Warminski, who found my writing so unintelligible and my German so in need of correction that the only comments he could muster were dramatic x’s across entire pages. I was incredibly fortunate to find the counsel and friendship of Rei Terada, who cared to read my writing and to try and sort out its terms of intelligibility. Still, there were gaping periods of white noise, of things that did not come across: the mess of my qualifying exams, for example. The dissertation ended up being a more affirmative process. The chapter on Brecht remains a disaster, but the next chapter that I worked on, on Durs Grünbein, which ended up being the third, has been published and reviewed and presented, and I like it while still not entirely getting what it’s all about. The chapters that I wrote after having Philomena, on Ingeborg Bachmann and on the Science Fiction poet, Ann K. Schwader, were inspired acts of writing, as were the introduction and conclusion. And now it has been a year since this last bit of really necessary work has been completed. Since, I’ve applied to two rounds of job postings, and to over twenty adjunct positions. I have given one conference paper, submitted one essay for publication (not accepted), and submitted two conference proposals. I’ve listened to a handful of talks, read drafts of peers’ papers and work, and done some research work in German.

Nothing exactly seems to stick. I have the feeling that I am a tourist, passing through these worlds and feeling the emptiness that often accompanies these feelings of estrangement. Or I would feel like I was co-opting someone else’s something. In California, I felt hugely distant from the lived experience of the student protests, even while attending some and while having at many other points in my graduate student life taken on these activities. I wonder if it was because I was no longer a student, or if it was because the causes that were so worth fighting for were ones that had already demoralized me and that even now I have not found an adequate response for. And so I settle for wallowing, a pathetic defense, and feeling instead like I have suffered injustice on top of injustice for the way that my life has been affected by these political and structural realities. And amidst the wallowing, I kind of bob up to realize that I have lost the ability to talk about these things in an intelligent way. I am so self-absorbed, in other words, that I have given up trying to think about the variety of aspects that are expressed in any one thing, and that even on this level, reading is a choice.

I think that this was the meaning and import of encountering Greenwald-Smith’s work at this point, and of talking to her about her work and my own. The desire for a space of non-coercive writing, such as is also found in Rei Terada’s. Reading Aldo Leopold, there is room to think about the profundity of this process. The main target of his critique is conservation economists, and he calls for a supplemental ethic, one which “presupposes the existence of some mental image of land as a biotic mechanism” (214). In contrast to the image of “the balance of nature,” which I think for Leopold involves the logic of exchange between populations and species, according to each its rightful place, the biotic image is a pyramid consists of layers “alike not in where they came from, or in what they look like, but rather in what they eat” (215). Energy is thus in movement up and down, in life and death. Such a dynamic, which recalls to my mind Rei Terada’s figure of the erosion at work in Hegel’s logic in her essay, “Hegel’s Bearings,” is a compelling anti-Hegelian logic, since it displaces the dynamic of conversion from A to B, and the coerciveness which is also a part of this logic, with the variety of connections that can link chains across layers. In a sense, I am sure, this is what is compelling to so many about the rhizome, but I have never felt convinced of wanting to take up its abstraction until now, since the biotic not only redefines how we think of “the land,” but it also simply and fundamentally reorganizes the place of the human, and not in contrast to the animal, but as a matter of this schema: “Proceeding upward, each successive layer decreases in numerical abundance. Thus, for every carnivore there are hundreds of his prey, thousands of their prey, millions of insects, uncountable plants. The pyramidal form of the system reflects this numerical progression from apex to base. Man shares an intermediate layer with the bears, raccoons, and squirrels which eat both meat and vegetables” (215). The human being takes his place in this scheme according to how he uses the land, that which is the common ground for all things. Perhaps this is also in line with Jane Bennett’s construction in Vibrant Matter (reference to this book was made by Greenwald-Smith in her essay, thanks) of the vital materialist, in contrast to the historical materialist when she claims that it is a “dogged resistance to anthropomorphism” on the part of the vital materialist that constitutes their difference. Despite or because of this, the vital materialist paradoxically needs to “cultivate a bit of anthropomorphism,” highlighting for me a contradiction that inheres, both productively and unproductively, within the discussion of the human and nonhuman. I feel like Leopold’s bioticism swerves much of the contention about the human nonhuman without deflating the political and obviously ecological impact of making such designations. Bennett’s project of giving agency to nonhuman actors as a way of attempting to establish a more equatable and non-instrumental relationship between things and nonthings still involves characterizing humanity at the very beginning as “complexity,” and even while she offers this as a way to break apart the ontological divide, in which humans remain distinct on the basis of intellect or a rational soul, I can’t quite help but to want to know more about what drives this apparently ethical question for her, of establishing the affective agency of all material. Would Leopold find a similar desire for the “balance of nature” lurking here? An argument that is economic because of the way in which it attempts to correct injustice, to balance and counterbalance according to continued anthopomorphic standards?

picture: trees, biotica, Minneapolis.

Friday, November 19, 2010

gray zone

In the middle of working on the essay, "Double Speak: Poems from Guantanamo," it was somewhat weird to listen to the NPR/ABC hosted debate on whether or not the detainees should be treated as "enemy combatants" rather than "criminals." The debate, for the program "Intelligence Squared," was a joke, in more ways than one, perhaps. Because of whatever the format of the airing was (as an "Oxford style debate in the U.S.") stage laughter was cued in at various moments during the program, especially to highlight moments in intractable difference. A joke because the political difference between the debaters seems to amount to very little, in the end. And so little was brought to the table. A question for the audience about the definition of "enemy combatant" for example, yielded no clear answer from either side. Perhaps this murky realm of "political debate," the staging of a supposedly clear difference between two sides, is also exemplary of the results of the trial of Ahmed Ghailani, the first civilian trial of a Guantanamo detainee. Ghailani, who was convicted on only one count of the 285 brought against him in a 4-week trial that ended on November 17, 2010, was found guilty of conspiring in the 1998 African embassy bombings. The results of the trial seem to indicate that, in contrast to what those engaged in debate about whether or not so-called terrorists should be convicted in civilian or military courts had thought, hoped or feared, the civilian court put terrorism, not counter-terrorism on trial.

In the forty page transcript of this debate, there is one attempt to get near the import of the difference between civilian and military trial, and while I had thought that this might also include some wisdom as to what the demarcation of enemy combatant means, this was never approached, not by a long shot. Instead, the terrain of the debate was marked by attempts to prove that we are at war, and followed by the logic that since we are at war, and since the enemy is ununiformed, then the battleground is everywhere, and since the battleground is everywhere, then enemy combatants are also everywhere. This caused formed Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen to respond by saying this is "not about guilt." But his statement is more telling than any of the things that he or others might find it to be about. He means that once everyone is an enemy combatant, guilt no longer needs to be proved. All that is required is "reasonable belief" that individuals are members of al-Qaeda or the Taliban. The threat posed by treating these cases emerges at this point, since entering into civilian courts would threaten the security provided in the creation of the culture of the enemy combatant.

picture: Sidewalk, Los Angeles. Becky Bowden

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


To try and describe how things are right now seems like an over-tired or daunting task. I can't quite get over just how bad I feel and I can't quite make adequate connections between this feeling and the state of my academic work, or of academic work in general--which has been (or had been) the defining feature of my life for the past ten, twelve, fifteen years. I wonder now where to look in people's writing for this issue of when to continue along and when not to continue along, as if it would be possible to find something that might suggest not so much yes or no, but how to read this problem as one other than self-worth, merit, or vocational aptness. Sheer proliferation is often seen to be the answer, as if in this case "doing thinking" needed to be necessarily different from thinking about thinking. But here I am, I feel, getting nowhere thinking about thinking, and thinking about writing and about the visual. Unlike the eloquence of Rei Terada's recent writings on the University, on student activity and minority existence, on the plight of radicals during the Vormarz, on Klein and negative states, and on Deleuze and cinema, postwar, the dullness of my writing indicates the collapse of the space of my mind inwards, rather than moving along various iterations of the problem of institutional, academic life in the twenty-first century. I can't get past it. I mean, I think that that is the most resounding return I've gotten from the resonant absence of returns that have come my way: all of my efforts to put myself out there, in the world of academia, so to speak, return to me with the message that there is something to get over.

Bela Balasz wrote that the close-up produced a contradiction between "spoken word and hidden thought." The phenomenal effect of the close-up can be read as a description, therefore, of one of the early cases for the particularity of film, and for its appeal over and against other forms of art. I think rather, as Balasz also does, that it attached to the divergence of word and thought an ever-present human head, the image of a figure. The irony of the close-up / is / in its seeming to be all about the human, whereas the close-up moves in the realm of the psychological aesthetic, or something like that. The point would be that many things register this discrepancy and are evocative of dimensions of activity, such that it is worthwhile to think about how these discussions relate to the non-contradiction of word and thought and to the realm of the political more properly.

Rosemarie Trockel raised this question in relation to her use of knitting in the field of fine art: the question of whether the medium issues a specific form of appeal against itself. She said, in a 1980's interview, that her purpose in using wool and knitting was to bring up the question of whether the negative cliches of female handicraft lay in the medium itself or in the way that the medium was handled. In her "wool-paintings [Strickbilder]," the question is figured apparently in the play of ground and form, or of canvas and work done on the canvas, a relationship inverted, reversed, neutralized and unified. The question obviously has political and aesthetic valences, and serves to disrupt or trouble the categories that it invokes, such as the history of art and painting, gendered labor and the process of artistic creation. But the involuted form of these issues is different; it signals the questions touched by these aesthetic and political concerns, but it becomes invested in the way that, for example, Trockel's stated concern with media is related to aspects of this question that linger at its surface, such as whether pattern [Muster] and instinct [Trieb/Instinkt] are equivalent powers.

picture: Squall [woolwork, by author]

Thursday, September 30, 2010

another side

Yuksel Yavuz's film, Kleine Freiheit, was so engrossing I didn't even think about knitting. There was something utterly seductive about it, about the way that it constructed mobile, exterior space and left you sitting around in interiors that you should have exited or never been invited into. The film is framed by video footage of Baran's grandfather in southern Turkey, footage which Baran watches repeatedly during the course of the film, all the while also recording excerpts from his life in Hamburg. The film is intended, we learn, for his younger sister, who, like him, was left orphaned when her parents were killed in clashes between the PKK and the Turkish army. This loss constitutes the film's aporetic center, a loss which was not merely a casualty of "war," but an injustice, a result of betrayal and torture, as is revealed when Baran meets the "traitor" who reported that his parents had taken in a wounded PKK guerrilla in the streets of Hamburg. This acute and still vivid loss is brought into contrast by Baran's new friend, Chernor, who doesn't know where his parents are. Chernor is illegally in Germany from somewhere in Africa, but we also never know where. Unlike Fatih Akin's recent popular films, which present the effacement and unreliability of identities constructed in terms of binaries, like Turkish-German, an identity which Akin also eschews, Kleine Freiheit doesn't even go there. It presents the problems of diasporic life not in terms of cultural acclimation or integration (i.e. Turkish with German), but political conflicts and violence at home persist in the diaspora. Yavuz also, and importantly, seems more interested in showing their morphed and distorted forms of expression, the intelligibility of these acts to those who are both members of the same diasporic group, on the same side politically, or even in the same family, and the intelligibility then to others, figured in the final scene where Baran goes to the police with a gun to protest against the arrest of Chernor. Chernor, who has before called all Kurds "crazy," yells at Baran, "what are you doing?? you're crazy!" The issue is not the fact or lack of intelligibilty; the film presents the audience with a sympathetic view of assorted acts of violence. We are asked to understand some supposed perpetrators: the restaurant owner who fires Baran, the traitor who ends up crying in the street, Chernor's "friends" who attack him for being gay, Baran's cousin who accidentally shoots his friend in the stomach. Others, however, are hardened as leaders of the oppressed in their various forms: the guy who lets Chernor and his friends rent from him, and the police, including the plainclothes policemen who come upon Chernor and Baran. The power of these individuals is flaunted, and self-referential. Their violence does not refer to or seem to have any other reason; it is generated by playing the system, by being the system, to a certain degree. This, then, is the border, the edge that is shakily perceptible in Yavuz's film; the edge that Baran seems to cross psychologically at the end, and the border that both he and Chernor will be forced to cross back across.

picture: Cagdas Bozkurt in Kleine Freiheit (2003), from the Deutsches Filminstitute Bildarchiv

Saturday, May 15, 2010

here and there

The margins of my notebook from the past weeks contain phone numbers, instructions to self, shorthand knitting patterns, arrows, reminders, and squared off, boxed in words. The pages, similarly referential, pointing to things that should take me somewhere else, consist of notes from Sara Guyer's Romanticism after Auschwitz (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2007) and Brigid Doherty's lecture, "Rosemarie Trockel's Monsters" (UCLA, May 10, 2010). I can't decide whether this represents the paucity of my own intellectual work, a desire to return to old work after writing out some notes for a paper on Fatih Akin's Auf der anderen Seite, or the emergence of new connections between both, all, none. Not that it's necessary to decide, it's more a matter of enumerating possibility at a point when it seems incredibly slim. And more, perhaps, it seems to signal, on my own behalf, the deep and riveting need for continuity, for a sense that there is in fact a getting from here to there.

At the end of her winding, suggestive, and image-laden discussion of the artistic works of contemporary German artist Rosemarie Trockel, I asked Brigid Doherty, if she could say a litttle more about the relationship between her own development of a logic of ambivalence (or the value of ambivalence) throughout, something akin to the logic of disavowal that she described or even the logic of liquidity which she alluded to at the outset in her introduction of Trockel's wool works, and her discussion of animism at the end of the lecture. I am not reading my question as one which simply asks for some elaboration on how the here to there was gotten. I think that the question was just like the one asked before it (about the relationship between the wool pictures and castration), which underlined the need to have continuity underlined. So Doherty's response, which among other things, struck me as the conveyance of a kind of deep-seated belief in referentiality, continued this vein of my thinking by indicating that Trockel's work "frames sites at which subjectivity comes to a stop." The suspension of subjectivity occurs through the works' play between artifice and convention, which effects the ambivalence of the boundary between discursive and non-discursive moments, what might also be called the referent. Doherty, who described animism as where live objects equal death, characterized Trockel's work as reminding us that "we can lose the capacity to make contact with live objects." What, in her response, she describes otherwise as the "metaphorical concept of the castration complex [that] takes us to the threshold of certain experiences." The limits for experience are also what is at stake the opening parts of Sara Guyer's book, although differently. The coincidence of these two texts lies not just in their discussion of the figure of the Gorgon, the Medusa's head, but in the attention given to the details of figuration: on the one hand, the artistic and technical aspects of construction that play at the art object's artifice; and on the other, the prosopopoetic nature of testimonial language which designates its ultimate conjoint with lyric poetry.

Guyer begins by linking lyric and guilt, after Auschwitz, and already here the relationship between the performative and referential functions of language is at stake: "Levi's poem can be understood, on the one hand, to incorporate the performance of a guilt for which the poem accounts, correlating the guilt of a survival with the guilt of writing poetry (even poetry about Auschwitz); and on the other hand, it can be understood to dramatize the claim that there can be no poetry after Auschwitz in an altogether different sense: poetry belongs to another time, for "from now on" poetry will be from before Auschwitz" (4-5). The correlative passage follows some thirty pages later: "Yet, de Man also recognizes subjectivity as a tropological structure, that is to say, as an initially substitutive structure (i.e. I as referent, I as referee, whose substitution marks autobiography) that confounds the distinction between performative and referential language" (37). I think it is a similar shift (perhaps not in nature, but in tone) that Doherty wants to effect for the spectator of Trockel's art, that is, to suggest that the liminal experience of her artwork is a reimagination of spectator and author that correspondingly emphasizes the way in which the id/es/object world impinges upon the identity of the second-person "you" in poetic, artistic, testimonial texts.

picture: Rosemarie Trockel, Eisberg (1986)

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


A few weeks ago, it was Philomena's 14-month birthday. Reminding myself that it was okay to still count things with this in mind, I took her picture, thinking "Philomena: 14-month-old." More a title than a descriptor. The truth is, I don't know where I am anymore. This title seemed to be the most accurate and comprehensive sense I could get of being somewhere, in a way that I have not felt I needed to for quite some time. It makes little sense to me to make an account or to take account of all of the factors that have pushed me overwhelmingly into this situation, but in lieu of such a thing, which also always comes in as a matter of course in conversation, I wonder if there is something that can be said for images that work, not to account, but to give a sense.

picture: Philomena, at Chango Coffeehouse in Echo Park. April 23, 2010.

Friday, April 23, 2010

in mind

In the flurry which was the writing of the final two chapters on my dissertation, there has been one idea which has returned in various ways in the last eight months. It is one that Adorno wrote about, of course, in his lectures on metaphysics, which were also a constant companion of this writing. Adorno is talking about the divergence between individual human interests and the interest of humanity at large. His sense is that the interests of humanity at large win out over the individual because the false "instinct" of self-preservation has replaced instincts which are more general, natural, or ideal. Both the nature of the false self-preservative instinct and the real instincts remains elusive, or if not elusive, at least opaque through dialectic opposition. I have since, in part, thought about this situation as one which characterizes the postwar, with its schema of profitability and survival, and with this as a sort of starting point for these considerations, I have wondered how this general state of the postwar relates to both the current discourse of war and the contemporary sense that war is something total, inevitable, and endless.

Still, and in the desire to have some sort of project that most immediately requires collecting as its form of labor, I would find it useful to catalog (empirically!) the false instincts (that is, to do the positive work with the negative). It could be said that psychoanalysis, which operates with a theory of the instincts in mind, in like fashion moves from its false versions in the form of its cases (neurotic and psychotic alike), to affirm and to redraw the characteristics of normal functioning. If the question of the "normal" is raised centrally here, it would be least of all as a part of the complex of questions that surround the notion of the human and of humanity...

(for now).

photo: covering of ice grass, airplane, and massive re-built environment in San Diego (old barracks now shopping complex and playground)

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


In her recent book, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable?,” Judith Butler returns to ideas that have informed her notion of the precariousness of life, and that refer to her earlier thoughts on violence and ethics in Giving an Account of Oneself. Here, in Frames, she extends the notion of norms and of normativity (and the corresponding idea of primary impressionabilty) to the media-sensitive sense of “frames.” In some ways, the notion of the frame (as both a visual determination and an overdetermined gesture, as in “to frame someone”) is the link between Butler’s methodological post-structuralism and the problem of post-war surviving. The close residence of this methodological belief and the questions that are posed to “living” by war comes to a point in the following passage: To say that the norm is iterable is precisely not to accept a structuralist account of the norm, but to affirm something about the continuing life of poststructuralism, a preoccupation with notions such as living on, carrying on, carrying over, continuing, that form the temporal tasks of the body. (169) Although her notion of the “frame” has itself disappeared from the field of reference in this passage and in the last chapter in general, it seems that theoretically, the “iterable norm” does much of the same work. In earlier chapters, the “frame” indeed added aspects of sentience to her discussion of social processes, but it also seems that its larger function was to give a more substantial form to processes that take the form of an imperative in Butler’s work. These processes, which involve the work of being “enacted through” (73ff), signal the problem of selection. For her, the problem is how to act within processes and systems that have not been self-selected and this results in her resolve against the self (or the ego), on the one hand, and in her repeated theoretical discussions of processes of how situations compel and constitute us, which are, more or less the same. Such fixation on the processes of “enactment” is therefore not surprising, but as it seems to happen, the discussion of framing and surviving ends up being about life, or life-as-methodology What this means is that there comes a point at which the series of connections and processes long at work in Butler’s writing seem to crystallize around her belief in the location of life in its processes. The point, however, would not be to catalog the forms of life damaged by war, but to reconceive life itself as a set of largely unwilled interdependencies, even systemic relations, which imply that the “ontology” of the human is not separable from the “ontology” of the animal.” (75) My emphasis is on the similie, “life itself as a set…,” since for life to be “as” a set, even a negative set, and of something unwilled, indicates that the frame, like norms, interdependencies, and relations, dissolves as a matter of perception and reemerges as a matter of apperception. She describes this imperatively, as “to learn to see the frame that blinds us to what we see is no easy matter” (100). The point is that as the task shifts from cataloging to reconceiving, all other functions that could be assumed become automatic. The similiac, analogical relationship between life and system is a figure for the leap of faith, if we can call such a movement between the eyes and the mind, that Butler’s writing seems to exact. This illuminates the nature of the work that Butler imagines our task in the world: not to account for damaged lives, for the particular harm done to a thing, but to rethink the whole, in the form of a new absolute spirit, perhaps, and to let this whole set the terms for iterability. Butler describes this task imperatively: “to learn to see the frame that blinds us to what we see is no easy matter” (100). Butler’s prescription, to my mind, follows a logic of the relationship between self and other which emerged in Goethe’s humanist concerns about the “narrowing” of his world as a national writer, and one which emerges commonly enough in presuppositions about the degree of reflexivity felt by the one for the other.

What I have in mind can perhaps be made more clear by taking an example from Butler’s literary topic in Frames of War, the poems of the detainees of Guantanamo. She puzzles lightly over the words of Marc Falkoff, lawyer of several of the detainees and editor of the poetry, who wrote that according to the concerns of the U.S. government, there was something particularly dangerous about the “content and format of this poetry. Butler’s only comment on the lyric genre is parenthetical, referring to the citational quality of the lyric “I,” and her investigation of what it is about the form seems disingenuous. She finds them, however, to be structured, or revolving around “a repeated and open question, an insistent horror, a drive toward exposure” (57). The question is located in Sami al-Haj’s poem, “Humiliated in Shackles”: “How does a tortured body form such words?” Butler locates the meaning and importance of the question in the fact that it comes from another, the fact that it is an appeal that comes from somewhere else, and this, she contends, means that in turn we can read these poems for the “set of interpretations …. they deliver in the form of affects, including longing and rage…” (57). She imagines this “set of interpretations” as a way of reconceiving the relationship between the forming of words and survival, between the post-strucuralist effort and carrying on. She writes, “The poems communicate another sense of solidarity, of interconnected lives that carry on each others’ words, suffer each others’ fears, and form networks that pose an incendiary risk not only to national security, but to the form of global sovereignty championed by the U.S.” (62). She locates the incendiary threat not in the “content and format” of the poems, but in the structure that is generated by this aporetic question, one which is both a question of the text and of the form of communal life that is imagined as its outcome. Here is Butler’s finest vision of what “responsiveness” is, what interpretation “as a consequence of a certain field of intelligibility that helps us to form and to frame our responsiveness to the impinging world” is (34). The problem of this type of imagined collectivity is that in the end it puts all of the critical pressure on the perceptive (turning apperceptive) powers of the “I,” even where these terms are shifted to the “we,” and where it seems that indeed there is something like the “constitutive sociality of the body” (51). At the same time, however, this “I” totally disappears from the field; I mean that he is not allowed to go there, that we lose a way of talking about the interaction between the “I” and the “sociality of the body,” which is both singular, interpretive, and interconnected. To pause at the level of the poem as a poem, at the level of the questions that it poses for the identity of its speaker, who, in confrontation with a the ugly social fact of his torture, his subjection, his confinement, creates an expressive document which, though it might not itself stand trial, evinces some of the conflicts that constitute appeals to “humanity.” Indeed al-Haj’s question is insistently this one: how does a tortured body make an appeal to humanity? In this sense, the question of what language forms is less a question of survival, although it is also this, and to a much greater extent a question of defense, here of one human being or many human beings, who are in a situation where both the inhuman nature of their treatment and the supposed “humanity” that they are supposed to represent work against the humanness of their particular need for defense. This defense and our role in it, is in large part a matter of the civilian concerns of war suffering, which is not about the guilt of survival, but about the guilt of not being about to do anything to prevent atrocity. For me, this shift involves the difference between Sami al-Haj being a representative of this collective, tortured body, and Sami al-Haj being one who raises a question about the human limits of appealing to humanity.

Thursday, January 28, 2010


In "Intuitionists: History and the Affective Event," Lauren Berlant searches for a way to talk about what she calls the "historical present." She argues that the present has undergone some serious neglect and defamation in theories that prioritize the past, the future, or that mark the present as simply an effect of these pasts and futures. Instead, her theory of the present is one that also argues for a notion of "embeddedness," in contrast to structure or agency. Berlant's argument for a strong, substantive third is unmistakable--that is, for the substantiality of an alternative option. Perhaps this is what I have been struggling to describe in posts and project-beginnings since the more or less formal completion of my dissertation, a work which, I must add, I'm still sorry to be done with, even as I realize that being done only means that I must also pick it up again and continue along. Since it seems that being "done" means that the anticipated liberatory feeling of being able to now write about anything has actually been experienced as not that.

The third, as it occurs in Berlant's work, is an argument for ongoingness, one that could be seen to complete with Brodsky's argument for building, as the equal meeting of theory and praxis in technology. These are, however, different forms of materialism. Berlant writes, "But Cayce is no modernist flaneuse: the aleatory is a professional style by the time of Pattern Recognition" (857). Referring to William Gibson's 2003 novel, Berlant implicitly compares the protagonist here with Lila Mae Watson in the other novel she discusss, The Intuitionist (1998). In the time of five years, then, and given the crises to which Berlant also refers, namely 9/11, the mode of sensory detection inhabited by Lila Mae has become something not just to make a profit on (Berlant suggests that Lila Mae's profession turned non-profitable at the point where she experienced the crisis), but to make a career out of. Berlant does not emphasize or discuss this point, but sees professionalization as an outgrowth of an earlier mode of inhabiting the present, and indeed of seeking ways of theorizing, although not actualizing, utopia. Such a career based on the style of the aleatory, however, is perhaps a way of returning to some of my earlier thoughts on Fatih Akin's films. Here, the first word that came to mind was "aleatory," "dependent on chance," in particular the notion as it occurs in Althusser, as "aleatory materialism," the materialism of the encounter. What Berlant reminds me of, even as she discusses the move into professionalism of a mode that is attached to chance, is that embeddedness has a price, at least, as the story goes.

picture: San Diego Zoo, built chimpanzee environment (eternal present)

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


I have had the experience, in the past couple of days, of feeling okay where I am. It seems like a new feeling, or at least one newly experienced after months of bad moods, bitterness, and unjustness. I don't know why; I mean, nothing seems to have changed, and chances are, the old will return tomorrow, but here it is. The coincidence of this state with my continued reading of Claudia Brodsky's In Place of Language has led me to think about the significance of this feeling for Brodsky's discussion of the immediacy of the present--the pastness of present words--involved in what she calls building. Brodsky describes the non-metaphorical qualities of building, how it does not transfer anything, carry anything over, or exchange one thing for another; instead building, in the first part of her discussion, refers to building as a form of technology, and to the technological grounds of freedom that arise from theory and praxis becoming "at once" one another (57). Brodsky wants to get at an "ungrounded" place, that is, the inessential aspect of the deictic act (which is itself essential), which marks "here" as here, "there" as there, and "here and there" as here and there. This is the meeting of poesis and technology, of "poetry making," in her marked Heideggerian discussion. Brodsky writes, "Rather than a body or an idea, technology dazzlingly embodies the break with bodies and ideas, the caesura that allows these to be stored and transferred at will" (53). The referentiality established here, not unlike the contested hyphen of identity, imagines the freedom that is offered by the "here and there."

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Nejat’s conversation with the owner of the German bookstore in Istanbul is one of many exchanges that occurs within the paradigm of Turkish-German entanglement in Fatih Akin’s The Edge of Heaven (Auf der anderen Seite). The conversation sticks out in my mind as a moment in which Akin speaks. Commenting that it would truly be remarkable for a German man in a bookstore in Istanbul to meet a Turkish man who is a professor of German, the bookstore owner expresses a naïve wonder at the serendipity or irony of such a form of cultural exchange. Nejat’s response, a slight nod and glance aside, assures the viewer that the stakes of the exchange do not reside in the apparent referentiality of this here and there. In other words, Akin redirects our attention from the apparently ambiguous and unstable relationship of here and there—in short, the problem of the hypen in “Turkish-German”—towards something else. Relocating the problem of here/there, self/other, homeland/diaspora, Akin’s films nonetheless remain composed of these dyads of cultural and national belonging, the problem of identity and activity. I should like to think about what Akin looks aside to, about how his construction of global Germany suggests some alternative conceptualizations of contemporary film that attempts to navigate globality. This thinking is situated somewhere between Leslie Adelson’s desire to get out the “inbetween” of two worlds. I understand the problems of this model, and would like to take up Adelson’s initiative to find other ways of thinking about this space. However, I cannot help but feel that much contemporary writing which seeks to describe film as something mobile, transient, transitional, interrelated, entangled, etc,… somehow serves to flatten out the radical nature of global rotundity. It seems tantamount to discovering, all over again, that the earth is round—a second, or third, Copernican Revolution.

In her book, The Turkish Turn in contemporary German Literature: toward a new critical grammar of migration, Leslie Adelson develops a model of Turkish-German literature that stands as an alternative to what she calls the “two worlds” approach. She criticizes, in this way, the standard interpretation of hyphenated identity as being “in between” two rigid and fixed cultural identities. Indeed, in part, it seems like what she is arguing for is a dialectical understanding of ethnic and national belonging. She calls the model that she develops and discusses “touching tales,” to emphasize the entanglement of cultural identity that she finds at play in the literary works she reads. Adelson’s notion of “touching tales” involves an understanding of “referentiality,” which she defines as “the conjoined effect of literary figuration and narrative development” (17). Such tales allow for an added dimension of the imagined relationship between textual and lived worlds (Adelson here refers to David Hermann’s Story Logic: Problems and Possibilities of Narrative). Adelson directly refers to (and disputes) Katrin Sieg’s discussion of her notion of referentiality, because she disagrees with Sieg’s reading of the relationship between the literary referent and social reference. Adelson writes, “I apparently did not make it clear enough that the combined effect of figuration and narrative in the novel precludes social reference indexing political claims tied to ethnic identities or anti-racist coalitions” (19). As she moves into a discussion of Claudia Brodsky’s writing on referentiality, it occurs to me that these discussions of the cosmopolitical claims of a “transnational aesthetic” (see Cosmopolitan Screen Schindler and Koepnick) are in this way a matter of the problem of the referent, or of referentiality, more generally. The problem of the referent takes place, as Claudia Brodsky describes, in the form of “demarcation” rather than “signification.” As I hope to develop, this problem involves, at its heart, the contradictory relationship and confusion between reason and cause (see the discussions of Wittgenstein and Freud—Richard Allen, “Psychoanalysis after Wittgenstein”). Adelson’s critique of Sieg seems to emerge out of her perception that Sieg does not make a similar distinction between representation and demarcation. For Sieg, the importance of referentiality is that it is able to exceed, but nonetheless fix, “the representation of clearly recognizable social and ethnic milieux” (see B. Venkat Mani’s discussion of Sieg and Adelson in Cosmopolitical Claims). This is the construction of the “here and now.”

In the context of questions of the cosmopolitical (that is, the negotiation between universal and particular identity and difference), this question of referentiality also takes on the question of the extent to which self-referentiality constitutes a model of referentiality at large (re: analogies between individual and cultural models of psychoanalysis). In East, West, and Others: The Third World in Postwar German Literature, Arlene Teraoka asks, “If discourse about others is self-referential, how do the specific Third World constructions of these authors reflect reciprocal, imaginative constructions of German or Europe?” (1). Teraoka’s question, and her project, reflect the inescapable grounds of Goethian Weltliteratur: the imposition of humbling self-reflection that arises from a concern that one’s own environment would become too narrow. For Goethe, this cures the writer of his feeling that he himself is great (i.e. his realization that he is one among many). Indeed the problem of self and other referentiality introduces to the discussion of general referentiality a tension, which, it seems to me, makes inadequate the argument that pits the undialectic “two worlds” approach against the entangled dialectic of touching tales. For the problem of self-referentiality helps us to think about the way that such a notion of entanglement becomes ascribed as an essential, rather than referential, reality of something called a transnational aesthetic, or, as B. Venkat Mani writes, the “accelerated human mobility” that becomes characteristic of the relationship between nation and diaspora. As a way of working through the tension that arises from self-referentiality, I should like to turn to Kant’s essay on cosmopolitanism, “On Perpetual Peace,” in which he describes global living as a result of geographical space: “Since the earth is a globe, they cannot disperse over an infinite area but must necessarily tolerate one another’s company” (106). He continues to describe the repercussions of global living in his definition of cosmopolitan right, of a universal community “where a violation of rights in one part of the world is felt everywhere.”

In Auf der Anderen Seite, globality is figured not just by or through or as transit, but as the missed meetings, passing non-recognitions, as when Yeter is pictured passing by Ayten, her daughter, on a train, or when the coffins of Yeter and Lotte pass by one another as they are unloaded from the airplane, or when Ayten is sleeping in the corner of a room where Nejat is giving a lecture. This globality, a specific version of "modernist travel," one could argue, could be considered in its rotundity, something that might give form to the impossibility of entanglement.

picture: the MIssisssippi River, from the air.