Saturday, December 8, 2007

Murder as Fantasy: Sex as Violence

One of my favorite films is Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window" (1954). I have the pleasure of teaching it again right now, which allows me to once more trot out my idiosyncratic interpretation.

The film is not about whether or not Thorwald murdered his wife. That is actually a subtext. Rather, the film is about the relationship between Jeff and Lisa. This is the primary concern of the film. It begins with concerns about this relationship and it ends with them unresolved. But in between, it stages a fantasy for the sake of illustrating the tensions that perturb that relationship.

Lisa is a 300 pound gorilla, dominating unhelpfully her besieged beau. He prefers to photograph objects--that is, keep them at a distance for the sake of his dominion over them. The lesson of this film is, objects are ours to the degree that they remain within our gaze and at a distance. Whenver this distance is not respected, people get fucked up. Hence, Jeff's poor broken leg. Hence, Lisa's encounter with Thorwald. Hence, Thorwald's encounter with Jeff.

When bodies encounter one another, bodies which are not reduced to images, they have a violent damaging impact. Nothing passes without suffering in exchange.

Jeff fears these encounters of bodies. He knows that marriage is the institution that sanctifies the act of body encounters. Otherwise, these encounters are forbidden by cultural, religious, even zoning laws (Jeff must inform his landlord if he is going to have a visitor overnight). He fears losing his freedom, signified by the possibility of encounters in strange lands and the multiplicity of choices which his rear window/television offers him. With marriage, he can no longer remain a "window shopper," as Stella (his nurse) scornfully calls him. And he opens himself up to the violence that Lisa poses.

She wants marriage, but perhaps as much she wants sex. One night when they are enjoying each other's company, and she is sitting on his lap and his hard cast, he says that he has a problem. And she says that she has a problem. He asks her why a salesman would leave and come back many times the same night. Because he likes the way his wife welcomes him home. Why would he spend the entire day at home? He wants to do "home work." Why hasn't he gone into his wife's bedroom all day? I wouldn't dare answer that.

Anything to get his attention, but everything fails, because Jeff is not interested in sex. It draws a suspicion which, to Lisa, is "something to frightful to utter."

Yet there is a unique and fascinating symmetry here: Jeff fears sex and he fears marriage. As a palliative, he spies a murder out his window, dramatizing one resolution of the torture promised by marriage. His investigation of this murder is a vicarious enjoyment of the deed itself. Yet his investigation is also horror at the deed, just like his horror of sexuality. Thorwald's wife had, presumably, chosen not to "give it up," and for this reason, her husband murdered her. Would Lisa also murder him, this similarly ill and infirmed individual in the power of a pushy and demanding member of the opposite sex?

And if Jeff's motivation for his murder fantasy is the terrorizing anticipation of sexuality, then what becomes Lisa's motivation for her murder fantasy? Eventually she overcomes her initial disgust at this act of voyeurism and accepts the murder fantasy as her own. But Lisa too is troubled by the failure of her efforts to attract his attention. She is in love with a man that does not want her. Just as Thorwald is in a relationship with a woman that does not want him. His murder of his wife is an imaginative response to the immediate tension of her not-yet-domestic relationship.

But the fantasies of Jeff and Lisa--the collision that their bodies anticipate, just like the one that Stella used to describe, metaphorically we hope, how she met her husband (two taxis running into one another)--do not remain fantasies. Each gets a chance to submit the other to violence. First, Lisa climbs into Thorwald's apartment to recover the wedding ring, the evidence of the murder. Jeff can call her out at any time by ringing the phone, but he does not do so, unwittingly, until Thorwald returns and finds Lisa and ... turns the lights out .... The police intervene, thankfully.

They were called by Jeff on the tip that a woman was being beaten in an apartment. This hadn't happened yet: Jeff had imagined it. But when the police arrive and Lisa has on her finger the wedding ring which will prove that Thorwald's wife is not out of town but in fact dead. She does not tell the police. Instead, she shows the ring to Jeff, across the courtyard, in a gesture that also is revealed to Thorwald. She had shown Thorwald where Jeff was, and then she went quietly with the police. Leaving Thorwald there, alone. Thorwald goes to Jeff's apartment. The lights, anticipating him, are already out.

Sexuality: violence. The invisible, yet the desire driving this entire drama. Sex takes place behind the shades of the newlyweds' windows. There, he is being submitted to her insatiable appetite. Murder takes place in the dark of the Thorwalds' apartment. No one sees it, but it is what everyone is looking for.

And after Thorwald has been blinded (the only weapon that Jeff wields--the capacity to blind others, to disrupt the gaze), Jeff managed to put off the violence for only a few minutes and it didn't save him the trouble of another broken leg. He reenters his cocoon. And while he sleeps in his wheelchair, at a safe distance from the bed. Lisa lies there, in jeans (having visibly assumed the guise of masculinity), reading a book of encounters in strange lands (the himalayas--there's a phonetic joke there). When she notices he is asleep, she pulls out her copy of Vogue. It was all an image.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Against "Belief" (in God), Part 2

Kyle's right. There are a couple of issues in the air here. But they do not come from some sort of overarching mechanistic view of social behavior. What a crass way to put that. What an invective. My heart skipped a beat when I first read that and I thought "et tu Kyle, Leigh" (and then I spent the day in bed crying). And I am not claiming that individuals are not capable of rational determination. It is just that what this rational determination is seems dubious. For example, it seems that certain ethical principles have more meaning and weight than supposed rational principles. Yet frequently the former are called rational principles. It is just that I do not know what a rational principle is. I understand the reasons why certain thinkers think as they do, and others do not, but I am not sure that I would call their reasoning rational. Really, it follows from the primacy of a certain principle which determines the way in which other claims or notions relate to it. If that is rational, then so be it.

But I am claiming that a special status is given to "belief," such that, because it supposedly reflects the individual and some sort of process of deliberation or soul searching, it is given a sort of autonomy and dignity, when I think that is the last thing one can say of it. Example: on Nova the other night they had a show devoted to the effort of the Dover PA school board, back a few years ago, to make intelligent design part of the 9th grade science curriculum. One scene in particular, I recall, where a local journalist finds that this issue becomes divisive in conversation with her father. He asks her if she believes in evolution.

So perhaps I want to limit the disdain that I have for the concept of belief to this particular expression and those kindred thereto. But this seems to me the most absurd of possible questions. Why is evolution supposedly a matter of belief? It is not, unless we are going to weaken the distinction between knowing and belief, such that all knowing becomes a matter of belief. Granted, on a strictly Humean line, it is. But it seems to me that we reserve the category of belief for something less than knowing.

For example, I know that I am sitting at this table writing on this computer. I know that the electricity that illuminates this room and makes this blog possible has travelled miles and miles of wire from a station and farther from a generator somewhere, and that equally the html coding that I am slowly, inadvertently constructing, will be sent as a message to another computer somewhere thousands of miles away where it will be read by someone else (because my readership is so large!!!). On similar grounds, although I have not witnessed the evolution of species, I have seen fossils and reconstructed skeletons, I know an adequate amount about biology and genetic theory and I know that we have evolved from other creatures. I don't "believe" in the theory of evolution, I think it is one of the only reasonable ways to make sense of all of the information we have culled from nature.

Now granted, the notion of belief in God is not attested to in the same way as the supposed "belief" in evolution. And yet, in a certain way, it is. There are these churches everywhere. Everyone uses this word "God" in a certain way that is intelligible such that others can understand what we mean. God is written about in books and discussed on television and on the radio and even on the Internet! Moreover, billions of people, over millenia, have acted and thought in terms of this idea of God. Not all of those thoughts have been the same, clearly, but then neither have all of the thoughts about "nature," although no one would doubt the existence of "nature." For all of these reasons, it would seem to me that God is inarguably real. I don't have to "believe" in God in this sense, but I know that God exists.

Similarly, it seems to me, although lots of Christians would not recognize this evidence of God, for these same reason all of them are "believers." But what that really means is that they have seen the practical, concrete effects of God in their life. They call this "belief" and give it a special status, but this seems to me inadequate. And what of those who don't "believe," are they all the sudden simply idiots ignoring the manifest "reality" of God. I don't know. I guess I would be more inclined to say that they perceive the contradictions in the concept of God and have preferred to express these contradiction in the terms of the lack of "belief."

Okay, maybe I'm finally ready to consider Leigh's claims about normativity. So by normativity we mean, as I understand it, the constellation of values and common notions that constitute the way a community represents itself. According to this concept, there would be vastly normative differences between places like Dover PA and South Philadelphia, or between places like Memphis TN and Sofia Bulgaria ... and even between South Philadelphia and Chicago. These normative values are not necessarily defined geographically or economically or ethnically (or politically or sexually or religiously), but each to some degree and in negotiation with other normative values. And out of this dramatic weaving of stratifications we find individuals situating themselves vis-à-vis these lines of normativity. So, as I understand it, and I admit I probably don't understand it, Leigh's point is that these claims about belief are important because they indicate the way an individual situates themselves in relation to what they understand to be the normative values.

So I just looked up normativity and now I'm less confident that my definition fits it, seeing as how it leaves out the imperativity of normativity--but let's just pretend that this is implicit within my notion of values, which charitably I would say is true.

Are these beliefs then important? Sure, they are very important. And by no means immaterial, they are in fact quite material. So maybe I'm flipflopping. But I think what I'm trying to say is consistent, although the scope may be more limited. I suppose my concern is this: that a special status is accorded to certain statements of belief, such that belief can ignore realities when they do not suit their needs. Perhaps I'm only concerned about notions of belief when it comes to political, religious matters. But seems to me that these are the matters in which the subterfuge of belief is most dangerous. In matters where we might be better suited by accepting certain realities, we choose to cling to belief: global warming, evolution, the existence of weapons of mass destruction, the distinctions between incipient and actual life, etc. This is the ultimate telos of my critique.

And a couple of last words: Kyle's concern that I want to abrogate philosophizing. A really serious concern that became, as all arguments do between myself and Kyle, very contentious while he was here. More on that in another post. This one is too damned long.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Against Belief

As many of you know, like some of my esteemed colleagues, I am a PK (preacher's kid). To me this doesn't ultimately mean a whole lot, other than providing an explanation for why I went to church camps for so many summers and why I have been drawn towards this seemingly eggheaded vocation. It is not something that I think about a lot. But I do occasionallly wonder about the influence of Christianity in my life. I tend to think, since reading the Bible was never an activity forced upon me or one that I voluntarily pursued, that the influence would have been less explicit and more the result of habits of thinking, apothegms repeated, principles practiced. In other words, the results of a surrounding Christian culture rather than an actual intellectual encounter.

To put this another way, Christianity for me is not a matter of belief, but a question of a practice. The distinction here being that belief requires a conscious encounter with the concepts and principles, whereas practice would play out on a non-explicit level, but be captured by the things that I do and the decisions that I make (the latter not necessarily the result of "deliberation" and "rational determination"). I'm drawn to this description, in part, because I strongly distrust accounts of human behaviour in terms of deliberation and rational decision-making. Instead, I am convinced that individuals are shaped by experiences and institutions, stretching from the language that they use to the occupations they take up to the civic groups they populate.

To some degree, this prejudice has informed my comments on the dangers of certain literary experiences.

In the past few years, these ideas have percolated into a specific position on belief, that I must say I am rather proud of. It seems to me like an original idea that I can call my own. So now I'd like to share it with you. To begin with, I am uncomfortable with the question, "do you believe in God?" It mortally offends my sense of good taste.

The reason is that I believe questions about belief are immaterial, and erroneously attribute autonomy to individuals which is fact the effect of institutions (here my sense of institution is extended to the something as amorphous as language, which I take to be encoded with values and prejudices that give it intelligibility and that are the condition for any kind of meaningful communication). In a certain sense, I find the question insulting. As though an omnipotent being would need the affirmation or negation of a particular finite individual. It is a question that does not make sense to me. It is not as though we ask people if they believe in black holes or in quarks, although arguably none of us have ever seen them.

And it seems to me that God is not something we have to believe in. God clearly has effects in our experience everyday. I don't mean by this, God let Musshareff(sp?) put Bhutto under house arrest or God killed all of those Iraqi civilians. That is, if we are asking about the cause of these events being some omnipotent being, intervening in the course of worldly events. But that the concept of God has effects regardless of what I think. For example, "God" has been expressed through the convictions of millions of fundamentalists in their political engagements with infidels. These people act because of their "belief."

But their "beliefs" are also the effect, inarguably, of long traditions of ideas and practices and are not separable from them. Their "beliefs" require numerous conditions for their possibility. But it seems that this idea of belief is important, especially in a world in which we feel alienated in so many ways. Yet precisely for this reason it is deceptive. Because we place so much confidence in belief, opinion polls matter to us. And we allow ourselves to seriously consider a debate between a scientific theory (evolution) and a hodgepodge notion (creationism, intelligible design). We pursue a war in another country on the basis of confidence and belief, rather than evidence.

Belief, it seems to me, has been incredibly damaging, especially insofar as encroaches on "reality." But the latter is not a matter of "belief." This is one of the first illusions I try to disabuse my students of--that philosophy is a series of "beliefs" about the world and reality. It makes my blood boil for them to use the word.

I'm curious what others think about this.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Teen Film Noir?

A few years ago, before they had their lovely daughter, Ammon and Heather and I sat down for a meal. Actually, I know exactly when this way: the fall of 2000. We all had a few drinks and somehow Heather developed (or perhaps it was already well developed) her theory of teen film noir. It was fascinating dinner conversation, really. I have a perverse fondness for talking about film and particularly about idiosyncratic interpretations thereof. This one certainly falls into that category.

The rudiments, even the outlines for this theory escape me. I only recall how much it made me laugh and how Tom Cruise's early film "Risky Business" (1983) was the paradigm. And I am hardpressed to think what could have drawn her to this theory, other than the images of Cruise wearing sunglasses and a detective-style fedora. But if you've seen actual film noir, it's clear enough that these impressions are inadequate to develop a theory. I have always identified film noir with detective stories, usually murders, and very contrasty black and white films. I like to take things pretty literally.

For me, the quintessential film noir is Charles Laughton's "Night of the Hunter" (1955), which is so goddamned black that Nick Cave must have loved every minute of it. And Robert Mitchum, the unsung hophead of the '50s, plays the evil preacher expresses this opaque strength, insuperable amorality, and that voice which stops you where you stand. The latter has been in a few others prototypical film noirs, such as "Out of the Past" (1947) and "Angel Face" (1952). I suggest the former before the latter.

Beyond this diversion, I write now because it seems to me that such a teen film noir has been created--and an exemplary one at that. "Brick" (2005), starring the dubitable Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I saw this about a year ago, but noticed it showing this afternoon. The story revolves around a brick, but is full of the quick, understated dialogue and the clever yet ill-fated narrator that makes a film like this good. At first the dialogue almost seems contrived. But then you don't know why everyone else doesn't talk this way. I mean, it's about the dramas of high school kids, but with a center of gravity, unlike "Clueless" (1995) which finds it too late. And it dispenses with the convenient fiction of how real life still remains at a distance, but without submitting "reality" to plainness. Although I have doubts that J. G-L. will ever amount to anything else, here he excels.

By way of conclusion, kudos Heather. Your imagination has found its way into reality (albeit not via Tom Cruise, Rebecca deMornay and don't forget Joe Pantoliano).

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Perversion versus Neurosis

As far as I understand, the opposition stands as follows (comes out of Freud's Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, which I have recently had the pleasure of "professoring," pace Leigh):

Perversion means that the sexual instinct has found "sexual" ways to express itself, which have not been affected by the resistances of guilt, shame, disgust or morality. Perverts adopt sexual objects or sexual aims outside the group of those included within the conventional determinations. Although they have expressed themselves "sexually," they are pathological insofar as they deviate from conventional morality. I.e. homosexuals are happy in their sex lives, but forced to live under unjust conditions.

Neurosis describes the state of the sexual instinct in which it has not found "sexual" ways to discharge itself, but, due most frequently to a transgression of a social more, instead created a symptom which discharges the accumulated, blocked sexual tension. The neurotic has internalized the resistances (listed above) which shape 'normal' sexual life, but essentially has increased their power to a pathological leve.

The pervert does what the neurotic wants to do. The pervert is punished by society, the neurotic is punished by himself. The rest of us, the 'normal' ones, we have a little bit of both the pervert and the neurotic in us.

I have doubts about what consitutes sexual ways of discharging sexual tension. Especially when we're talking about symptoms. It seems like those symptoms should be "sexual." I mean, essentially they are in their psychic meaning, yet they seem to have no physiological correlate?

Monday, September 24, 2007

Grieving Friendship

I write this without a particular provocation, except that I saw several parts of the Brideshead Revisited miniseries, a month or so ago, and it brought this topic to mind. In the book/miniseries (I'm proud to say I did read the book, no matter how Raoni and Mike derided me for reading a "romance novel"), our narrator, Charles Ryder, recounts meeting the amazing Sebastian Flyte, their "friendship," the demise thereof, and other ensuing events.

Of course, the demise is the part I aim to say something about. Flyte falls into a very serious depression, which he, like the best of us, self-medicates (as they say spitefully) with the most immediate agent, alcohol. Ryder deeply loves his friend, but nothing he can do affects recovery. Although I read the novel without difficulty, the miniseries was too much for me, and I have yet to watch past that fifth or sixth episode (of thirteen).

But I'm kind of a softy. I watch horror films with my hands over my face.

The idea of the demise of a friendship is particularly difficult for me, although I wish I knew why. Of course, here I mean my male friends, not my female friends. The issue is pointed for me because I grew up, practically, with two women, and so I was somewhat starved for the attention of other males. I needed to know what I was supposed to be feeling and thinking. I needed the recognition of others. And I needed the unique desire of a male friendship.

Perhaps it is not surprising that I have more female friendships. Which means, really, that I tell them more. That I can count on them and that their support is vital to me. But again, these male friendships are vital, although I am not able to tell them much. And my two closest male friends both live in other countries. These days, I see them perhaps once or twice a year, and sadly not for very long. Despite this distance, these friendships are very much alive, I think ... and perhaps I like my closest friends at a distance.

So of friendships I've mourned: how did I lose them? One, I missed his wedding because of a conflict. Another, I simply haven't spoken to in years, but our last encounter I was pretty haughty. Another, distance, circumstance. Another, I dated his ex-girlfriend.

God, have you seen the images that appear when you type "friendship" into Google Images? Sad.

Losing a friendship is a harder loss, but it is never felt as such. The end of romantic relationships usually occurs dramatically. Which is not to say that there are not dramatic ends to friendships (of the likes of Heidi and Lauren on "The Hills," zum Beispiel). But I tend to think those were friendships not meant to be, anyway. Losing a friendship, like in the case of Ryder and Flyte, is about the slow deterioration, which is arguably worse. The level of confusion is more severe, precisely because there is no immediacy to underline the symptoms. Even the simplest, friendships lost because of circumstance: those are just wanings because the practical conditions are no longer there. But the common idealistic sense of friendship cannot comprehend this kind of thing. And the last thing we want to realize is that our friendships were chance affairs.

The elephant remains in the pitch black room.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Uses and Abuses of 9/11 for Literature

Part 3: The undesired story continues

After the seeming disinterest in the first two posts, I thought maybe the issue was dead. And even I wondered what I meant in the latter, claiming the exhaustion of the event through images, its inaccessibility in words. I had typical doubts about if there was something meaningful in what I'd said. But today, the poignancy again appears to me, not necessarily in my words, which I freely admit flounder, but in the exigency TO say something.

A word on Claire Messud's book, The Emperor's Children (2005): an abuse of the event. The deus ex machina to solve a narrative that bent towards an uninteresting, messy conclusion. How it has gotten such glowing reviews still fools me. Even the people who like the critical perspective on literary culture must have been baffled by the ending. That is, if they'd had any sense. Essentially, my reaction is, that September 11th can't serve as a solution to a narrative. Lots of things ended that day. Narratives were totally over at that point. That is one of the fascinating, bizarre elements of September 11th. Fuck, all of us had read about historical discontinuities, but to live through one! (And yet, it seems vital to equally emphasize the continuities ....) But one can't help to conclude as well, perhaps the conviction that the event isn't ready for literature provokes my response.

This blog entry from the on the stories of September 11th (pathologically, I've insisted on calling it such, rather than the pedestrian 9/11, which I take great umbrage to, despite my title): "The Thing about these 9/11 Stories." Go read it if you haven't already, but in particular consider the readers' responses, which oscillate between self-righteous disgust and sympathetic appreciation. I suppose ultimately, having read the whole, I appreciated it. The fact is, this event will become dinner conversation. Which is not to say the dinner conversation will then idly turn to French wines with similar levity. Yet, when the date arrives, I can't help feeling offended, upset, even by the memorials devoted thereto. Something about doing justice, I think, pathetically.

A use for September 11th? Isn't a use merely an abuse of September 11th?

I hate the words. And this is a hatred I'm not afraid of expressing. All the rest are contempt surrounding inadequacy or powerlessness, on whatever level of consciousness. This too, likely. But I am comfortable with it.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Chet Travels: sur les bricoleurs de l'angoisse

One of the things I learned on my last trip to Paris was about this special group of individuals in French society. They have been called the "bricoleurs de l'angoisse," which, for those of you who don't speak French, means "the handymen of anguish." I learned this overhearing a conversation when I was in line at the Action Christine in Saint Germain-des-Pres, waiting to see the old Bogart film, To Have and Have Not (1944). This film was made by Howard Hawks, scripted by William Faulkner and based on a novel by Ernest Hemingway, and has the pleasure of casting in addition to Bogey, Lauren Bacall and that guy, born to characterize the chuck wagon chef named Cookie in old Westerns, Walter Brennan. The French title was "Le Port de l'Angoisse."

By itself, none of this would mean much to me. Of course, I adore all of these characters, Brennan especially, as much as the next guy, but it was the anecdote about the "bricoleur de l'angoisse" that piqued my interest. I don't know what it was, but there was something incredibly resonant about this group I heard described, such that, I started to think there might be an American analogue.

Primarily, the bricoleurs come off as a self-involved group. High among their list of priorities is fashion. Yet, they wear the outdated styles of the 1980s, which none of them were old enough to live through. They wear big, ugly glasses. Sometimes they look like this! Their hair is usually, in the best cases, matted, but definitely unkempt. Or, they wear ugly medallions, like so.

But who, really, are these bricoleurs? Well, they are frequently art school students. Or serverati. Or serverati. What is a serverati? Well, they include individuals easily lured by the supposed immediacy of easy money. They like taking home cash at night. And they stand in our coffeeshops, our bars, our restaurants and dinner clubs (if not our after-hours clubs), taking orders and bringing food, pasting fake smiles on their faces and faux interest. Five years ago, we championed these blue collar people. But that was only until they started claiming their rights. Then, we're like, kuchka, get back behind that apron.

In history there is one rule: endurance. History is like the Boston Marathon in which everyone loses. The key to endurance is an intellectual correlate. The closest we can come to eternity. But les bricoleur de l'angoisse is a renegade group. For most of the post-war fashion movements, an intellectual correlate has always accompanied them, regardless of its depravity (I think here of early 1980s upper class "greed is good" thinkers)--but not the bricoleurs de l'angoisse. They are entirely vacuous.

And this is the reason why they are filled with angoisse. Someday there will be a book written by a future Nietzsche (dare I say, a Tim Nutter?), who will add a new chapter to the diagnosis of ressentiment, abridging with an account of the man of ressentiment's not-so-distant cousin: le bricoleur de l'angoisse. What they can do with l'angoisse, we can only imagine. And only the future will tell.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Specter of September 11th in Literature

Part 2: Can Images Silence Us?

These questions might be addressed again through two contemporary examples. I restrict myself to literature, because I haven’t yet seen the cadre of films produced (United 93; 9’11’01; World Trade Center—the list is quite long): Don Delillo’s Falling Man (2007) and Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children (2006).

I hope those who’ve read Delillo’s work will agree with me that he is eminently qualified for this task. As Andrew O’Hagan recently wrote in the New York Review of Books, Delillo’s books have dealt repeatedly with the interpenetration of impersonal geopolitical catastrophes and intimate, individual experience. He does this particularly well, without judgment and drama. Although narrative may be poorly suited for it, as it is the linguistic analogue of the function of attention in perception, his writing disrupts that function and manages to gloss over the surface of things. One wonders how Delillo achieves this state in which events reveal themselves without investment, in which all lives and activities and personal meanings are potentially comical and therefore denuded of all dramatic urgency. I will never forget the poignant choral effect of the television in White Noise, that softens the faces of interfamilial tension and returns life to the quotidian.

O’Hagan claims that Delillo has been silenced by September 11th, the event being the subject portended by his work theretofore. This claim is very powerful. For myself, I admit that I read Underworld during the summer of 2002, picking it up because the image from the cover—the World Trade Center towers marked by the outline of a bird flying across them—had a new significance and I wanted the book to speak to that, somehow, without speaking to it. And this is precisely what the novel did, through narratives of: the so-called “shot heard around the world” inaugurating the Cold War and nuclear arms escalation; the collection of trash in Russia for atomic incineration; an artist taking on the task of painting a graveyard of military aircraft; the construction of the World Trade Center towers; and a famous baseball game. That work was powerful because the events always eclipsed the individuals.

In Falling Man, Delillo is obsessed by images and these images are what have silenced him. The title draws forth the image of a performance artist, who after the event, mysteriously appears at different sites in the city and jumps from an overhang to a position in which he lies treacherously hung over the earth. Technically, the book should have been written about him. But that is a book Delillo is not equipped to write. What he does is wield and work with ideas and words, not images. Although his books produce images, they cannot themselves reproduce images.

Delillo knows this, I think. In the novel one of the character's is a famous art historian. Her daughter and lover repeatedly come together around a painting, which the daughter believes bears the outlines of the towers. There are moments when we join the daughter in meditation on the image. But the narrative fails to bring this painting forth. It cannot reproduce this image. Merely the outlines which we must imagine peopling it.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Spectre of September 11th in Literature

Part 1: “Let’s not talk about it ever again.”

That was my sentiment after it happened, after I heard too many conversations, jarring the ears and . Obviously a hyperbolism—a demand impossible and not really desired. But of a piece, I think, with the commonplace among literary circles that it is a subject not yet ripe for literary … representation. And what really does this mean?

Glibly, we might say that the social or cultural imagination or unconscious must work through, process if you will, the images and ideas attached to this event. But again I wonder what this means. Does it mean, for example, that a specific image needs to be drawn forth capable of encapsulating the event? In other words, cultural reckoning means the reduction of the plenitude of images and words and ideas to a specific few capable of symbolizing the rest? Marita Sturken, in a book entitled Tangled Memories, describes the way that certain images are frequently substituted as cultural memories. Can we extend this thesis to a larger, cultural scope?

But this is not the matter at all. When we value texts which deal with historical events, this is never because they have necessarily reached the touchstone of our own experience, but because they manage to synthesize information in such a way as to bring the complexity of the event forth once more. Rather, it really has to do with an emotional immediacy, an open wound, not yet healed. We cannot write, or should not write, about the event because it still has a profound affective force. But admittedly this also is ultimately disappointing in its implications: literary representations are ways to bring forth what emotionally no longer submits us to the passions of grief and shock, disappointment and silence. Moreover, how would this affective force interact with the reading and writing concerning the event? Is the concern for the audience, or is it a concern directed to the capacity of the writer?

Friday, June 22, 2007

directly from the journals of chet (with mild expurgation):

the inspiration to read it (Macbeth) came from the nyrb article on the play written by stephen greenblatt, I think. commending to our imaginations the anecdote of meeting bill clinton and him reciting, prodigiously, several lines, and then, in an instance, encapsulating the character of macbeth in less than tenwords: a man with ambition for an object inadequate.
which I cannot say, my small mind being so provincial and narrow, I fully fathom. that is, what si this supposed object? is it unfettered power? is it the kingship? it seems not to be the latter. since we see nothing of macbeth’s skills in governing. in fact, the governship and the weal of the people is spoke of in mere clauses, but not as a subject. thus, it must be power.

is it an object inadequate to ambition (suffer me this poor recollection of his actual words)? power is not honor. it is not dependent upon others. but power is acquired through honor, through service, through aptitude, and through violence. if it is acquired at all. but does macbeth pine for power? he seeks the title, but he knows that he will never be worthy of it. and he knows that his ambition is not sufficient to make it his.

macbeth, upon reflection unprovoked, knows that his ambition is not enough. he gives way to it only through the demand of his wife, who mocks his manhood (1.7.40ff), as well as her invocation of what I presume (through the interpretation of the film “Men of Respect” (1991)) is an abortion he demanded. his debt to her demands this deed.

but there is also the element of time. “time and the hour runs through the roughest day” (1.4.151). this passage, which I first appropriated as a gesture to the fact that even the horrible things which confront us will eventually pass, is, as I know see, a reference to the fate that frees humans of responsibility. and time is repeatedly invoked, as necessary to be beguiled, as free from tyranny, as the unending night which day seeks. to this is appended macbeth’s guilty visions in which the future treason appears. thus he sees a dagger and later his friend banquo.

it is curious, particularly, how the sight separates itself from the other senses (2.2.38-49). this happens with lady macbeth when her sight assails her with an indelible blood, and when the birnam woods arrives in dunsinane. of course, I can not fail to think of toshiro mifune’s incipient madness at seeing the walking trees. nature uproots itself.

even malcolm knows that his vengeance will never qualify him for the office he wants to retake. he knows that taking this office through violence immediately disqualifies one for it. as does macbeth, before he is forced by the lady to do it, when he sees that noone will recognize him in their grief for duncan.

to me, all that happens which is important occurs in the first act. there we have macbeth’s meditations on the deed. lady macbeth comments on her husband, who bears the ambition but lacks its accompanying illness (1.5.18). that is, his will cannot follow through his desire. and she implies, in conversation with him, that the desire is but the deed itself. that illness is a will given wholly to its desires? that illness is an insensitivity to humanity: “I fear thy nature;/it is too ful o’th’milk of human kindness.” this line bedevils me: “What thou wouldst highly, that thou wouldst holily; wouldst not play false, and yet would wrongly win.” the highest desires are akin to the divine, but not at the gain of violation, and yet if not by violation would never be properly acquired? that power’s only gain is through violation?

that macbeth is overcome by guilt is not surprising, as he was uncertain before the act. he knows that the act can never be successful. “If th’assination could trammel up the consequence and catch with his surcease success—that but this blow might be the be-all and the end-all! here, but here, upon this bank and shoal of time, we’d jump the life to come” (1.7.2-7). if the act is successful and overleaps its means, then we would have paradise, have obtained heaven. even if the means were overlooked “we still hafve judgmne here, that we but teach bloody instructions,” insofar as all accession would be necessitated through violation. once we have acted in treason, we cannot ever bear a law against it. we have initiated a violence that will necessarily unseat each.

treasonous acts create breakage in the spatiotemporal continuum: “nor time nor place did then adhere, and yet you would make both” (1.7.51-2). but this aspect reminds me that while regimes are overtaken by treason, they reset time and give themselves the law. that is, that il duce recreated time, like napoleon, like hitler. the gesture is for the sake of setting the past apart. for institutionally forgiving one’s actions. time is really the problem for all such agents. they must upset it in order to act. lady macbeth, welcoming her husband, newly thane of cawdor home, speaks of this confusion: “thy letters have transported me beyond this ignorant present, and I feel now the future in the instant” (1.5.54-6).

Friday, May 4, 2007

Mnemnosyne: Gordon Bell and technology

Hugh Kretschmer, “A Head for Detail,” Fast Company, 110 (November 2006), 72-.

The article addresses several issues: how Bell’s memory works, through a SenseCam, a digital audio recorder, and a copy of all of the webpages that he visits; the problems that he has sorting through the incredible amount of information that he/it collects; the effects of this inability to recall on human memory; the promise of this technology for those who are afflicted with memory pathologies; the possibility of idea generation through the organization and associations drawn between different sorts of information.

Writing is an artificial memory. It creates a record of things that we have thought, but without all of the connections and realizations that accompany it during the moments when we think it. Thus, Plato calls this artificial memory dead, and suggests that it induces forgetting, but does not really increase our capacity for remembering.

The problems that Gordon Bell has in finding things from his past that make him think or this or that seem to illustrate Plato’s point. However, there are suggestions that technology is already being developed to find meaningful and effective ways of addressing this problem. When I was reading the article I was thinking about some kind of bioreading that would record affective reactions to ideas and experiences and would catalog experiences in this fashion. The article then claims that we organize memories according to time and people, associatively. Therefore, if everything is indexed in terms of lived events and experience, rather than merely a temporal marker insensitive to human experience, such a cataloging might be very effective.

What is most interesting is the suggestion that ideas can be generated through the associative chains and mappings that occur within the mind. Of course, this seems without possibility of dispute. In order for us to be able to have an idea, we must make a movement from something known to another way of looking at something, in such a way that an element hitherto concealed or unrecognized appears.

When I think of what a genius is, I wonder if this is distinguished from some prodigious memory. I think of Gadamer, who purportedly memorized a poem everyday, and of Bill Clinton, who, according to an article I recently read by Stephen Greenblatt in the
New York Review of Books, apparently could repeat lines from Macbeth having been asked to memorize as a youth. The examinations for the SAT and GRE and perhaps IQ testing then seem less atrocious once our liberal tendencies accept that certain cultural knowledge must be a sign of intelligence. But it is not only remembering these ideas, but also the ability to comprehend those ideas in a way that relates them to others. Comprehension is the thorough working over of events or ideas or images in a way that demonstrates numerous ways of explaining them.

I also thought, that perhaps the problems cataloging this information can be resolved once we make it our own. That is, if this act of writing is itself the creation of a memory. It’s not writing which is to blame, but reading. Those reading are the ones potentially suffering from memory loss. In reading, it is easy not to “make it our own” but rather to skim through information in a way that presents a superficial, one-dimensional representation.