Sunday, October 23, 2011


Of the several panels and talks that I attended last weekend as part of the University of Minnesota`s graduate student conference in the Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature, Aesthetics/Class/Worlds, many explicitly addressed the question of aesthetics, perhaps even explicitly formulated in this way: as the question of aesthetics, and much of what I heard seemed to be invested in insisting on aesthetics, as if it was in some danger of being lost, or revoked, or done away with. Such projects are perhaps easy to understand, if we consider, for example, that it is perhaps not so much a matter of aesthetics disappearing, but the problem of reconciling the political and aesthetic, which is perhaps a rough way of phrasing the problem of Marxist literary and cultural theory. It is not really surprising then that aesthetics would seem to be the object that might be lost, since insistence upon the priority of the political almost always takes the place of further examinations about how exactly these things are related, except that they are.

In the panel, ``Marxism Today,`` my observation about the occurrence of the above coincided with the pointed tendency of each paper to discuss through its own theoretical apparatus, the problem of conceptualizing (much less inhabiting, if this was a part of it) the point of resistance. It seems to me that this resistance is an aesthetic matter. But I may need to be more descriptive about what this aesthetics is, because my thinking about aesthetics derives from Freud`s observations about the principle of fore-pleasure, and ideas about the relative indeterminency, or the ambivalence of activity and passivity that pertains to thinking about how the role of the observer or spectator can be acted out. There is a moment--or at times, a series of moments--when these roles of activity and inactivity become articulated with one another and the ability to identify with fictional entities, or the ability to see oneself in this position of another--and to mistake one`s movements for another`s--becomes possible. This is the gist of what Freud writes about in also writing about seduction in ``Creative Writers and Day-dreaming,`` but his observations about the function of this principle also extend to the function of the economics of movement that govern his later writing on pain and pleasure and the dynamics of these principles. In this regard, aesthetics is more fundamentally about the politics of identification, and this conceptualization of two interdependent but antagonistic spheres has as much to do with taste as beauty, qualifying such notions about the qualities by which we judge aesthetic work with the fact of our own perception of that work. Pleasure, as much about fore-pleasure, and the non-teleological, non-normative implications of the concept. Taste, I think works on beauty in much a similar way, always undermining its seeming obduracy or self-evidence.

picture: Franklin Bridge, Minneapolis

Friday, October 21, 2011

late autumn

The turn to late autumn was marked today by the return of temperatures upwards of 60 degrees. It is not that this change, marks the turn, but rather that it functions as a reminder both of the autumn or late summer that has passed (the ``long summer days``) and, as it is somewhat needless to say, of the winter days to come.

In his essay ``Autumn of the System: Poetry and Financial Capital,`` Joshua Clover uses this figurative language of the change of seasons--Braudel`s ``sign of Autumn,`` which must already be the ``onset of Winter``--to describe a challenge to narrative, the problem of time. The narrative mode that he details here, of ``Autumnal literature,`` is one that takes as its organizing trope ``the conversion of the temporal to the spatial.`` The fact of this conversion, something like the synchronization of diachronic passages, leads Clover to argue for the aptness of poetics--including as variants the non-narrative and poetry, to grapple with these situations of ``manifold absence`` (46), ``discontinuity`` (47), and ``dislocation`` (46).

Such situations refer to the gap between our experience of daily life and our material role in the economy, what Clover calls a ``phantom space`` (48) between the financial and real economy, which represents the inability to ``forward its accumulation via real expansion.`` Similar reflections seem to abound in the Zizek- and non-Zizek-inspired discourse of the end times, with its varying degrees of fantasy about life and non-life.

The feeling is, if not easy to take up, at least ubiquitous. How could it not be? Riding home on my bike tonight, it occurred to me that the unseasonableness of the weather reflected, more than anything, the ephemerality of existence, the basic fact of non-existence that is so aptly characterized by the season.

Winter becomes a trope for this state, in ways that belie this more fundamental presence of non-existence in life. In riding home, so pleasantly--one of the truly enjoyable activities that I undertake in the city--it was easy to imagine that in a month, this form of activity would no longer take place. It is not much of a revelation, and trying to recapture some of it makes it less so, but it is the case that the summer (and as the summer moves to fall) produces the sublime effect that winter is unimaginable. Not just undesirable (in fact it is quite desirable), but actually impossible to imagine that the terms of accessibility and environment are so altered (buried, to be precise) that the prior form of existence can really appear not just to be altered, but actually gone.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

on no longer being a student-in-debt

the irony being that one is never no longer a student-in-debt...

It is hard for me to know where to stand right now; at a time that many experience as a hoped for or even waited for moment, a time of occupation that carries all varieties of forward-oriented activity. My lost feelings of collective action are hard to come to terms with, pushing as they do beyond the colloquial notion of "guilt" for not being more active, or activist, a feeling which several friends confessed to, tossing it around the other day. I feel I should be able to inhabit more profoundly something of the position that Mia McIver refers to in a facebook photo album titled, "We lost our jobs and found our occupations."

The idea of the student-in-debt, to which I refer above and elsewhere, is Morgan Adamson's brilliant rendering of the counterrevolutionary transformation of the "energy of student life" (the "life of the mind") into surplus value through the institution of debt. The sense of loss--the lost job--above pertains to both the conditions of unemployment within and without higher education, but perhaps also to the vulnerable position of labor to which McIver refers above all, to the position of one for whom the loss is not even the loss of a job, but the loss of this potential. What I mean to try and compel thinking about and understand in terms that express frustration with systems other than the job market is my own status of transitional unemployment.

In the economic sense, I never was a student-in-debt, and realizing this helped me the other day, to move a little bit past thinking of myself as the victim of market forces and a little bit in the direction of thinking about how such a position represents the inconsequential and superfluous elements of the global financial system. The position of transitional unemployment is occupied by those disregarded by a system that derives value from the equation between investment and return--and not the humanist value of academic labor, but the surplus value of student labor. It is thus the experience of oneself as an element of surplus value that represents the necessity and inevitability of student professionalization as a means of also sustaining oneself within this state of indebtedness. So having eschewed professionalization, it of course seems logical to conclude that one would have no hopes of entering into the profession, it being the case that from this position, one produces nothing of "value."

It is from this position that it becomes possible to understand the loss of a job and the experience of never having had one (i.e. never having had a job outside of the job of being employed or exploited as a graduate student instructor), or the actually more concrete realization of what it means to be only a student-in-debt.

picture: from at OccupyMN