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 Gr├╝nbein, 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]