Saturday, October 27, 2007

individuals, marx, and the loving hope of weblogs

Today at the University of Pittsburgh, (my “haunts” these years) a symposium was held by the journal boundary 2 , with talks by the likes of William Spanos, Jonathan Arac, and Pitt’s new creative writing/poetry hire Ben Lerner (if you have not read The Lichtenberg Figures or Angle of Yaw you should begin tonight!). All of the talks were quite excellent. But while I was musing on why this journal, which I admire as urgent and pressing the way one might admire the Hedghog Review , can gesture no further back than the Early Modern Period in its areas of study in which they find a way to deal with the present and the future, a number of thoughts coalesced and began to come to a more conscious form of crises with respect to my thinking in general than they were, say, yesterday.

Lindsay Waters (currently of Harvard U P) gave a talk on the “The Shape of a Humanist’s Career.” The final upshot of the talk was basically that tenure for Humanities scholars is being forced in the standards of tenure for science scholars, and that this is generally a bad thing—both producing generally bad effects and a symptom of a kind of lack of willing to “trust our FEELINGS” in the Humanities—forcing scholars to produce at a rate incommensurate with thinking appropriate a rigorous standard of Academic freedom. Great. I agree.

But, Lindsay proceeded to say some other things along the way, by way of proving his point, which brought to the fore the things I was not previously sure were haunting me. He suggested a number of examples by which scholars of severe importance would never have received tenure by today’s standards: Said, DeMan, et al. He noted that many scholars require much time to really do their “most important work” but often scholars that do create immensely important works early in their careers do so with the aid of a Working Group , and that it is immensely strange how much we demand an “individual” to prove of her/himself in these parts. Lindsay proceeded to note the potential importance and untapped resource of more communal work—for to the benefit of the young scholar struggling, and to the general end of fostering truly innovative work in the name of a radical hope which is needed in the face of despair in this country. And yet, Lindsay noted in a comment, later, that it seems there is a shift to return to considering a “subject” or an “individual” in the face of the despair produced by the internal colonization of the American empire: and this is what is at stake in Spivak’s recent turn to teaching “reading” and “aesthetics” (in a meeting with grad. students at Pitt. last year she told about 15 of us: suspend yourself in the text. You do not know how to read...people do work, and it is good work or it is bad work, they impose a political reading on a text without reading it and what do you have, you have a wasted life [paraphrased from notes and memory]) as a kind of practice of reinforcing some semblance of individuality. This is why “the subject” is still a viable concern of American poetry and why the “I” can be a dramatic and contested staging in a contemporary poem in an attempt to deal with life and take on power that can’t be taken on effectively. He acknowledges a sort of productive tension between the individual and the community as key to producing work that can foster a radical hope.

Lindsay thus pulled together, to risk abstracting, the following terms: hope, futurity, the individual, community: and the private and public aspects of intellectual work as property and in terms of its means of production. In my mind, they come to crises in the following ways:

In some recent conversations with Sarah of danaidean , I have been prompted to ask why the workings of an individual mind in isolation is expected to produce the work of the intellectual, and if this is not symptomatic of a general sense of “private” property which holds back a kind of radical communalism of thought which might allow for a radically more productive kind of academic work. I ask this only with much anxiety, as, to be honesty, while I benefit immensely from In The Middle, Babel--, these places and people in fact make possible for me, thinking and feeling as intellectual and Ethical labor which I could never imagine in isolation—actually surrendering my work to an Other is frightening experience. I performed a reading of poems last year with my friend Robin Clarke, and we, instead of reading separately, constellated our poems into a single performance, taking turns reading poems or a series of our own poems, and letting them speak between each other rather than in isolation. The labor and the product were communal between two individual, and even this was a scary experience—risking “intention” or “individuality” even on the smallest scale. One of the reasons one may write poems may, to psychologize, involves the dance of control and lack of control a writer experiences with her poem which is, often quite private. But, I cannot help but wonder seriously, very seriously, at the merits of rethinking how and why we value the work of the individual. We test individual students. Individual minds must on their own come up with the ideas that we take refuge in Affective Communities of readers and colleagues in order to accomplish. And, a marxist critique of access to the means of academic production, and private ownership of academic material, may be one untimely way of thinking about this, however uncomfortable.

All of this is said in the name of a kind of futurity. A kind of radical hope. The radical rootless hope one catches a whiff of in the midst of the absolute anxiety of OUR present when watching Alfonso Cuorón’s Children of Men. For a while I have engaged with futurity in my studies and production of literary texts, as a possibility, and a desirable one, I have done so unsure of how I felt about it. See, aet the same time, I have read the work which Eileen Joy at Kalamazoo last spring called symptomatic of the White Man’s last Stand: Leo Bersani, Lee Edelman, etc., and been absolutely riveted by the generous but ruthless spirit of Negative critique which they are able to inhabit. To be honest, it can excite me, no matter how cynical. One only needs to read a sampling of Auden’s verse to know that disenchantment can be absolutely enchanting. I have been on the fence quite a bit, not only for my own affective reactions to work concerned with futurity or No futurity (on the side of futurity I am intrigued from Heidegger to Dinshaw—and in my department, Heidegger can hold some serious sway), but also concerned that Futurity can only result in a kind of Religious Humanist project when what is at stake is the Disciplining of Bodies and state power itself.

But, the more I consider problems of temporality, and the problems of the sacred and the secular, I am no longer sure that this is the real trouble. I mean—the trouble is that while we can’t give up the terms sacred or secular, they need radical reconsideration, and I need to admit the myriad of concepts and bodies which trouble them in a way that produces a radical hope. Secular or not. So. The problem, futurity, or no futurity (most reductively). Can futurity and the excitement in the spirit of negative critique be commensurate? Can there be a futurity without an unfounded religious hope and religious notion of time? (I feel like late Derrida is my hint here...despite the fact that this material has already been “in” and perhaps has run its course as “popular.”)


So. I don’t claim this as my own personal crises. I am certainly not thinking about this problem for the first time, nor the last, and, really, its not a set of questions that plenty of people are not and have not asked before. But I like these questions. Can I be "for" the future or not--ethically, do I need to decide? What is a subject? Can we want one? Why? Radical hope seems to both need the individual AND a radical communalism. It seems that what might emerge as a possibility from all of this, not as an answer to the dilemma, but as a way of thinking though it—is to get out of thinking about economics, and instead think about Love. Believing what we feel seems key to this, which takes me back to today’s lecture. While we cannot simply insist something is true for the hell of it, we do need to trust our feelings. A student in a seminar I am in recently accused Dinshaw of simply repeating a bunch of pop-culture sentimentality about past—I think this person is wrong, but I do think that the risk of sentimentality is eminent and priceless. I think that to start negotiating this problem, we need to feel for each other.

EDIT, 10/28:

Part of what I am perhaps failing to say above, is that affect may take us beyond economy in the problem of sharing ideas and work, in the problem of negotiating the individual and collective in thinking the future on utopian terms, in a radically secularized way. And this is what I mean when I say secularization, to preempt Sarahs's inevitable comments: a wearing down of the machinations of thurmatological and credal belief which enforce and discipline bodies into compulsory relations to other bodies and temporalities--and are so often complicit in state power; radicalized this secularization responds to the potential e(/a)ffects of queer bodies in time, resistances to power which are not clearly "secular" (when secular itself calls forth a concept rooted not in eliminating thurmatology but, relocating it in the Human and (always) his Reason. I had been thinking that Caputo's insistence on a kind of faith which could happen for believers and non-believers alike must be called the theology that he calls it, and that theology MUST be a dirty word. Insofar as he and his ideas use the word 'god' perhaps this is the case. But, perhaps not. Certain events are not secular according to the old style Humanist project. I think the time of this potential communal intellectual labor, in which individual intellects mediate and are mediated by effectual relations, and ideas emerge from that relation, may require and produce certain of mechanism of radicalized faith, or impossible radical hope in the possibility of an entirely Other event, arriving.

Friday, October 19, 2007

dedicating poems to the children of people i have never met

I gave a reading last night with my good friend Sten Carlson (click and see page 9) in Oakland, Pittsburgh. I read the poem reproduced below, which owes a debt to the discussion on In the Middle here, about Lindow man. I do not know that I have ever dedicated a poem before.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

a sample of current labors

This is an abstract for a possible project for a seminar I am taking called "History and Representation," with a focus simultaneously on historiography from the middle ages, and "modern" histioriographies about the middle ages. We'll see where it will go from here.

Desiring Auden Desiring “Wulf and Eadwacer”: Towards a Poetics of Anglo-Saxon Historiography

This paper will investigate, as a historiographical relationship of desire, the Exeter Book poem “Wulf and Eadwacer” and W.H. Auden’s early poem “The Secret Agent” (or “control of the passes was the key...”). Starting from the possibility of Carolyn Dinshaw’s “touch across time,” the paper reads the history of the interpretive and philological enigmas of the Anglo-Saxon poem. Acknowledging the Old English poem’s own complex discourse of physical pleasure, desire, and pain/longing, it reads the history of the poem and its scholarship as a historiographical riddle provoking a set of questions about the possibilities of taking pleasure in Anglo-Saxon texts. The paper then will closely read Auden’s poem and relevant archival material as a site that provokes a certain pleasure in being haunted by the painful enigmas of “Wulf and Eadwacer”: the convergence of linguistic, sexual, and poetic histories that seem impossible to represent because of a contemporary reader’s condition of having always already been, like those both in Auden’s poem and the Anglo-Saxon poem, naefre gesomnad . I thus intend to ask what it means to desire/take pleasure (across time) in a poem with such enigmatic status as a poetic and historiographical practice. In the interest of brevity, despite the interest in pleasure “across time,” I can only gesture at what it means that this paper partakes of the “recent” turn to questions of temporality in queer and medieval studies. What the paper attempts to provoke, in a preliminary manner, is the possibility of a poetics (of pleasure and desire) of medieval historiography: what it means to take pleasure in, and to desire, the impossibility of our (plural, not OE dual) giedd geador with Anglo-Saxon texts.


other possible 'informants' for the project: Specters of Marx , Karma Lochrie's Heterosyncrasies ....

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

the time of translating syntax

Le signe n’est-il pas autre chose qu’un étant, n’est-il pa la seule “chose” qui, n’étant pas une chose, ne tombe pas sous la question “qu’est-ce que”? La produit au contraire à l’occasion?
(Derrida, “La voix et le phénomène”)

It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language which is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work. For the sake of pure language, he breaks through the decayed barriers of his own language” (Benjamin “The Task of the Translator”)

I spend a lot of time with dead languages. In fact, I probably spend too much time with them, given that I prefer to think of them as languages not currently in use. Thinking about my difficulty with translation and Old English, I can't help but wonder if my ambivalence with translation of late is a part of the larger problem: I don't know if the necessity of translation helps or hurts these dying languages, particularly when there is no way to keep them from being pushed out of linguistic currency by the 83 global languages. (Mary Kate Hurley, on In the Middle , 9/19/07)

I am thinking about a set of disagreements I am having with a trained-as-a-linguist reader and translator (NOT MKH or anyone you know, dear readers--this person may in fact be fictional) of Old French over some of the difficulties that arise which are common to events of translation between any two languages when one is “dead” and the other “living,” one is analytic and the other synthetic. I would like to frame one aspect of this debate theoretically, with reference to the problem of the Real and with recourse to pedagogy.

If one encounters, say, some Marie de France—because it has some “famous” passages--:
“Mut est Lanval en grant esfrei;/ de s’aventure vait pensaunt/ E en sun curage dotaunt,” one might encounter a whole host of regularized translation options—for an often-translated and often-read text, to boot. What stands out to me as an initial decision, is a choice concerning word-order. Lanval est mut en grant esfrei would run better in Modern Fr. and Eng. The “literal” translation, preserving as much word-order and syntax as possible is lambasted as un-poetic. One says that this poem follows poetic conventions in one language and should also follow them with respect to the destination tongue. Now, Benjamin saw his concern for pure language brought down most importantly to the level of the word—and in a way, this allows a certain freedom with word-order. Now, this is philological in the love of the word, but less so in terms of the love of the traditions of rhetoric that the great philologist-critics (read Auerbach, and hell, even Lewis) employed. The linguist, to get the “meaning” right demands a little less faithfulness to individual words, so that idiom can be better accounted for. But all of these practices to me seem to work to keep the volatility of one language clashing with another under control. All of them want to work with the kind assumption—desiring to help readers and translators as much as possible—that the text is a thing which exists in a real world, and that its words and phrases are things with being that can be explained by equivalent words and phrases. Anything which “is” can be identified, categorized, and labeled to an Aritstotealian “t.”

Now, before I go on—I realize the place and the importance of linguistically-informed translation, of these sorts of “scholarly” translations. But, my contention is that these efforts conceal a more problematic effort to contain the possibility of an event harbored by translation, by allowing the effect a bit of writing intends on one language to come to blows with another (and here, I am following Benjamin to the letter). In a class teaching the reading and translating of OF, of Latin, or OE, we are often taught, for examination purposes especially, certain procedures to follow by which an instructor can determine that a student has perceived the proper linguistic information in the source language. So, William Kibler writes in his An Introduction to Old French that one should translate “Qui sor atrui mesdit et ment/ Ne set mie qu’a l’ueil li pent” as “If one slanders and lies about another/ He cannot see beyond the nose on his face.” This translation demonstrates that one perceived that this statement is hypothetical, denoted by this “Qui” which is “followed by the present, future, or –roie form,” but also that in OF the word order was not a cause for concern. That, one can place “mesdit” and “ment” right after the subject of the sentence, and that in fact one should, to show that she understands this a clearly-stated sentence which can be rendered smoothly in English. This sort of thing happens perhaps most clearly when the narrative present and perfect forms are alternated with a compound past all in the same sentence. Because this was “normal” or “conventional” for a scribe to do, we are often told translate all of it in terms of past tense appropriate to the narrative moment. This makes sense on one pedagogical level, it demonstrates that a student “got” the reading.

But, if we listen to Benjamin, and read him more closely than himself, we cannot simply leave our attention on just the level of the word. Old French provokes something in modern English. Something simultaneously and uncannily (untimely) the same and different from the language. It can do something to English which makes us recognize the language as English, but at the same time see it differently: I am willing to hazard that this is the provocation of an event. This would be an event that fully strips these poems of some magical ontology, but opens them to a truly difficult (in the beautiful Caputo-ian sense of the word) hermeneutic event/opportunity.

So: “Who(ever) of an other ill-speaks and and lies/ doesn’t know a bit what before his eye hangs”

sounds perhaps archaic, or clunky, or just like bad verse, or whatever. But perhaps it offers the possibility of letting off of the containment operation surrounding the scandal of translation—that the text is not an answer to a question that begins with what(qu’est-ce que). That a text is much more spectral than that, and so are its potential effects. These pedagogical practices, left unchecked creep into all of our translating, into our reading and thinking about the texts we work with, and into our problems of thinking of the problems of the difference or sameness of the past (when the text is indeed an old text). But what if the meeting of a dead and a living language can be a event which allows a temporal fold or short-circuit, inscribing dead within living and living within dead without recourse to a religifying discourse? Moreover, it can recall, in discussions of the sameness or difference of the past in relation to a specific text, the possibility of the past as a “not-yet” as calling into a possible future. When two languages are allowed to meet, they might clang like a bell in their clashing, which lets loose a trembling—the sort that that might provoke the kind of event Baudriallard hopes for in saying “make illusions to make events,” after he has perhaps reductively—but nevertheless productively—put the whole world into two camps: those that believe there is something, and those that do not. But there may be room to have the cake and eat it too. Who ever said “nothing” wasn’t hopeful?