Archive for the History Category

The Built Environment

Posted in Art, History, Tourism with tags , , , , , , on September 16, 2010 by traxus4420

Claude Lorrain, “Landscape with Aeneas at Delos” (1672)

Blueprint for the English garden: meandering routes plotted in ‘nature,’ interspersed with freestanding ‘ruins,’ occasions for a little voyage de la mémoire. Here, a scene extracted from classical epic is made familiar and livable through incorporation into the genre of landscape. So effectively that decades later, gentlemen of means did want to inhabit it, and to the best of their capacity, did. A new kind of professional was born: the landscape architect.

William Wylde, “View of Manchester from Kersal Moor” (1852)

Behold “Cottonopolis” as Manchester became popularly known, after its principle export. Seen today, landscape’s encounter with a realism of disruption and trauma bears more than a subtle resemblance to stock images from science fiction. Whereas the landscape garden opened up to refined sensation figures from refined history, Wylde’s painting locates the viewer on a preserved historical site (the moor, a city park, was heavily associated with Rome) at once surrounded by and comfortably distanced from its present and future. Among the first examples of a place’s complete redefinition according to its function within an integrated national production regime, it also came to be understood as the site where that regime’s excesses were the most visible, striking, ‘sublime.’ Contrast with London, locus of another kind of economic ‘function,’ another brand of ‘excess.’

Joseph Michael Gandy, “A Birds-Eye View of the Bank of England,” aka “The Bank of England in Ruins” (1830)
John Soane’s response to early criticism of his eccentric design for the Bank of England was to display it in cutaway as a ruin. Of course his work was destroyed, but only to have it ‘modernized’ by the late imperial architect Herbert Baker. Pugin used Soane as one of his key polemical examples of the urgent need for a Gothic renaissance which would last well into the 20th century. Soane had taken the contradictory dictates of Enlightenment aesthetics too seriously: the individual freedom (and even the responsibility) to master classical form, unearthing its ‘natural’ core and adapting its timeless laws to modern interests. So seriously that he knew that his work had to persist in time, and thus had to be imbued with a sense of itself as an eventual antique. And this made him a Romantic.

5th Tarantino Flick

Posted in Film, History with tags , on August 26, 2009 by traxus4420

“I love rumors! Facts can be so misleading, where rumors, true or false, are often revealing.”

— SS Colonel Hans Landa

“As a member of the Jewish tribe, I thank you, motherfucker, because this movie is a fucking Jewish wet dream.”

— Laurence Bender


Every review I’ve read of Tarantino’s latest, mainstream or blog, takes it much too literally. No matter what one thinks of the film, to see all these earnest Jewish critics stiltedly commenting (in good faith, mind) on the film’s good or bad representation of WWII or the Holocaust, as if it were a statement from a major public intellectual that forced a reevaluation of established history, is both funny and painful. Under the logic of the public sphere — what Tarantino is really ‘exploiting’ — they are obliged, whether they want to or not, to come up with some sort of moral response to a meta-farcical action-adventure flick written and directed by a gauche white guy raised by a TV/VCR combo. Even Denby, who’s too smart to be drawn in, stops his critique at just this level, using the director’s immaturity, his arrested adolescence and nihilistic form of cinephilia as an escape clause.

I was quoted here as calling Basterds the “morally weightiest” of Tarantino’s films, and while I did say that (not that exact construction of course) it was only because I couldn’t think of anything better. As in the other four, ‘something else’ does emerge from IB‘s genre mashups and citation games, which I’ll get to. In the course of which I hope to point out two things that are often said of Tarantino but aren’t true: that his films are mechanically entertaining conceptual exercises (that is, non-ideological), and, corollary to the first, that his aesthetic concerns are immature (that is, uninterested in ‘serious themes,’ out of touch with reality, etc.).

Comparing IB to other recent Jewish violent revenge fantasies (Munich and Defiance) as Goldberg does in the second link above (and Alex further comments on) is instructive only insofar as it helps us identify ‘the other’ genre the film employs along with the standard Tarantino palette of’60s and ’70s exploitation flicks. Its resemblances aren’t formal in this case but ideological. Munich and Defiance indulge in historical fantasies of Jewish action heroes meting out punishment to cowering fascists/terrorists and feeling kind of bad about it. Then in a classic ‘negation of the negation’ they frame the protagonists’ ‘awareness’ of their loss of humanity as still further evidence of their heroism and the sanctity of their mission. All of this is of course perfectly compatible with the fascist self-image. And ‘serious’ American action films. And the comic books on which they’re based.

Admitting all of this is the first step to understanding what IB is up to.


The last chapter ends the film with three formally and narratively connected moments of ‘catharsis.’ The climax as a whole is, as in all of Tarantino’s ‘big moments,’ the result of multiple characters and storylines (each generated from different combinations of genre tropes) violently colliding with one another.

The first occurs via the film-within-a-film, the Nazi propaganda Stolz der Nation, at the premier screening for the German High Command and their special guests. Frederick Zoller is the star, playing himself at a sniper battle where he fought off a 300-man attack by himself from a ‘bird’s nest’ position on top of a bell tower. As we watch the lame, repetitive action, Zoller’s face lit up to look like a confused Wilhelm Meister, we get reaction shots of the elite Nazi audience: Hitler congratulates Goebbels on a job well done, almost bringing tears to the man’s eyes. Shot of Zoller taking aim, shot of an enemy tumbling down some stairs or out a window, Zoller’s reaction, close up on Hitler laughing like a kid. Etc.

The second occurs after two of the ‘Basterds,’ Donny and Omar, bust into the theater and start massacring the audience with tommy guns. The actor playing Donny is Eli Roth, better known as the director of Hostel, and the real-life director of the propaganda film that his character interrupts. Here the shot-reverse-shot combination from Stolz der Nation is repeated, minus the audience reaction shot: Donny shooting, Nazis dying, Omar shooting, Nazis dying, Donny shooting, Hitler disintegrating, etc. Every cut back to Donny zooms in a little closer — where Zoller was made to look noble, at times even reluctant, Donny looks like a savage animal.

This is a fairly basic relativizing gesture, only unusual because we’re seeing it in a Tarantino movie. The revenge plot that in at least some version runs through every film is here given its clearest formal expression. ‘Evil’ comes first, its subject (Zoller) the pathetic dupe of an ideology that never actually manifests in the film (no one ever says why they’re a Nazi). All we get are its signs, huge swastikas everywhere, Hitler and Goebbels as cackling archvillains. This is the pure or ideological form of ideology, which can only appear as a ridiculous cartoon. The Basterds’ formally identical act of vengeance is carried out by Jewish ‘others’ who are at the same time American, authorized by the state and educated by American movies and pop culture (Donny kills his victims with a baseball bat). They are dupes themselves, purely reactive, and not ‘humanized’ by good acting the way Tarantino’s characters usually are. The structural position left open for us is that formerly occupied by the Nazi cartoon audience, which allows us the privilege of ironic self-awareness, free to interpret this scene as public service, critique, whatever, without fear of emotional manipulation.

All characters appearing so far serve for the invisible audience as ‘idiots supposed to believe,’ buffoons who, through being cinematized, are permitted to unironically and unapologetically live out the cinematic fantasies in which Tarantino has been educating us over the course of his career. They are his version of the film critic’s horny, nihilistic, video-game-addicted violent teenagers, the ‘impressionable audience’ both public moralism and irony require to function.

The third moment comes at the end. The Basterds would not have succeeded if Landa, who instantly saw through their scheme, hadn’t made a deal with the American leadership to stay quiet in exchange for full pardon and a hero’s welcome in the U.S. But, rather than let Landa get off scot-free, thus rewriting history in his own favor (the rightful privilege of victors), the Basterd’s hillbilly (non-Jewish) leader Aldo Raine writes the truth back in, so to speak, by carving a swastika into Landa’s forehead. This is what he does to all Nazis he lets live, giving them, as he puts it, “a uniform you can’t take off.”


Where the Nazis and the Jewish Basterds are ideological dupes, Landa and Raine are not, and their showdown is verbal, far away from spectacular set-piece violence. Landa, thematically and visually linked to Sherlock Holmes (with his absurd Calabash pipe), plays the film’s plot like a chess master. That he’s every critic’s favorite character is not surprising. Raine, on the other hand, is a savage, part Apache even, whose M.O. includes the taking of Nazi scalps. He beats Landa not through Landa’s game of being smarter than the ideological rules by which others (think they) live, but by embodying his country’s exceptionalist ideology in spite of its arbitrariness. This is the film’s last surviving ethical ‘argument’: the Nazis aren’t Nazis because they’re evil, they’re evil because they’re Nazis. So Landa, despite his post-ideological pretenses, is just as much a Nazi as the rest. And we, who have been seduced by Landa (and, one might argue, Tarantino’s roster of amoral hitman heroes as a whole), are likewise punished, forced to take a side vis-a-vis our own compromised position as consumers of violent fascist fantasy. And as Raine scars Landa with this lesson Tarantino is also scarring us with it: after a disgusting close-up of the engraving accompanied by Landa’s screams, the final shot is from Landa’s POV, and the last line is Raine’s: “I think this just might be my masterpiece.” But this is not quite an ethical judgment, or at least not in any conventional sense, as I will attempt to show.

This thematically climactic moment is also the anticlimactic resolution of its emotionally central narrative thread, which takes place entirely behind the scenes of the war. Its cathartic moment — the fourth — contains the deaths of Shoshanna and Zoller, survived by their two warring films going up in flames. Shoshanna, a Gallic Jew hunted by Landa, owns the cinema where Stolz der Nation premiers. Zoller arranges the whole thing because he’s infatuated with her. Her revenge plot, which runs parallel to the military one, involves trapping the Nazis in the auditorium and setting the theater’s archives on fire, while a reel of herself taunting her victims replaces the finale of Goebbel’s film — in American English, of course. Having only seen this once, I’m not sure if it’s suggested that Hitler & Co. could have escaped the theater if the Basterds hadn’t intervened. At the very least, the outcome of the their plot (via Landa’s betrayal) renders Shoshanna’s superfluous (even if the auditorium wasn’t barred, the High Command would still have died). Superfluous but beautiful, and the film’s only real tragedy. The Americans rescue her plan from failure while her film, doubly as the ghostly image of her revenge and the setting and occasion for the depicted fantastical exercise in wish-fulfillment, redeems the war’s ugly and castrating imperfections.


IB is then alternately a deconstruction of and apologia for the pleasures of propaganda, which the film presents as a fundamentally American genre, as American as killing Nazis. The transcendent moment of cinema-love that comes with the Revenge of the (Shoshanna’s) Giant Face (the title of the final chapter) burning up on the screen is an expression of art for art’s sake appropriate to cinema: a work of art is a propaganda piece for its official recognition as Art (a ‘masterpiece’), by asserting the arbitrariness of any distinction between it and non-Art. It’s often been commented that IB is an unexpectedly European film. Most of the film is not in English, and much of its pleasure and tension come from language issues, an area in which the Americans are completely out of their element. But (just like in Kill Bill) they still win.

If one were to reduce IB to a Jameson-style historical allegory (is this the only Tarantino film where it’s possible to do this?), it would look something like this: a fading (feminized, civilized) Europe preserves its cinema’s beauty by recording its self-destruction, acknowledging the arbitrariness of its fate, while a rising (masculine, half-savage) America appropriates power by disregarding the logical (‘ethical’) consequences of its own arbitrariness. IB thus authorizes itself to take that extra, illegal step beyond historical tragedy and aestheticized self-destruction typically glorified by European art film. The first by killing Hitler, and the second by refusing to accept the film’s ‘rightful’ tragic ending: the deaths of Zoller and Shoshanna and the escape of Landa. Here’s Tarantino:

“Now, when it came to writing this movie, naturally, I came across some of those roadblocks. And one of them was history itself. And I was more or less prepared to honor that. Until I came up actually against it. And I go, ‘no, I refuse!’. I’ve never done that before, and now is not the time to start. And what I mean by that is this, I just thought that my characters don’t know they’re part of history – history has not been written yet. They don’t know that there’s things that they can and can’t do. There’s no can and can’t, there’s only action and reaction.”


The film is run through with the sense that only an American film can do this, can master narrative causality by becoming the first among its slaves: though no onscreen American character really drives the action in any significant sense until the very end, no event in IB is allowed to pass that isn’t authorized by the U.S.A. Therefore only America, as the sovereign of Hollywood cinema’s narrative logic (which has always been just as international in style as this film is), can exceed it, and deliver the audience its greatest possible pleasures. Cinematic pleasure is defined as American. Again, not because America is good, but because good is American. When other countries make a ‘fun’ or ‘crowd-pleasing’ film they can only do so in reference to American cinematic conventions. With IB, the ‘meaning’ of the Tarantinoverse is finally clear: the U.S. rules cinema, and the U.S. cannot die until cinema dies a second death.

May Day

Posted in Environmentalism, History, Marxism, Utopia with tags , on May 1, 2009 by traxus4420


According to Peter Linebaugh’s pamphlet history, May Day has both ‘red’ and ‘green’ origins, and has traditionally been a time when humorless commies and libertine tree-huggers can put aside their differences and be excellent to each other.
Here’s my favorite tale:

In 1625 Captain Wollaston, Thomas Morton, and thirty others sailed from England and months later, taking their bearings from a red cedar tree, they disembarked in Quincy Bay. A year later Wollaston, impatient for lucre and gain, left for good to Virginia. Thomas Morton settled in Passonaggessit which he named Merry Mount. The land seemed a “Paradise” to him. He wrote, there are “fowls in abundance, fish in multitudes, and I discovered besides, millions of turtle doves on the green boughs, which sat pecking of the full, ripe, pleasant grapes that were supported by the lusty trees, whose fruitful load did cause the arms to bend.”

On May Day, 1627, he and his Indian friends, stirred by the sound of drums, erected a Maypole eighty feet high, decorated it with garlands, wrapped it in ribbons, and nailed to its top the antlers of a buck. Later he wrote that he “sett up a Maypole upon the festival day of Philip and James, and therefore brewed a barrell of excellent beare.” A ganymede sang a Bacchanalian song. Morton attached to the pole the first lyric verses penned in America which concluded.

With the proclamation that the first of May

At Merry Mount shall be kept holly day

The Puritans at Plymouth were opposed to the May Day. they called the Maypole “an Idoll” and named Merry Mount “Mount Dagon” after the god of the first ocean-going imperialist, the Phoenicians. More likely, though the Puritans were the imperialist, not Morton, who worked with slaves, servants, and native Americans, person to person. Everyone was equal in his “social contract.” Governor Bradford wrote, “they allso set up a Maypole, drinking and dancing aboute it many days together, inviting the Indean women for thier consorts, dancing and frisking together (like so many faires, or furies rather) and worse practise.”

Merry Mount became a refuge for Indians, the discontented, gay people, runaway servants, and what the governor called “all the scume of the countrie.” When the authorities reminded him that his actions violated the King’s Proclamation, Morton replied that it was “no law.” Miles Standish, whom Morton called “Mr. Shrimp,” attacked. The Maypole was cut down. The settlement was burned. Morton’s goods were confiscated, he was chained in the bilboes, and ostracized to England aboard the ship “The Gift,” at a cost the Puritans complained of twelve pounds seven shillings. The rainbow coalition of Merry Mount was thus destroyed for the time being. That Merry Mount later (1636) became associated with Anne Hutchinson, the famous mid-wife, spiritualist, and feminist, surely was more than
coincidental. Her brother-in-law ran the Chapel of Ease. She thought that god loved everybody, regardless of their sins. She doubted the Puritans’ authority to make law. A statue of Robert Burns in Quincy near to Merry Mount, quotes the poet’s lines,

A fig for those by law protected!

Liberty’s a glorious feast!

Courts for cowards were erected,

Churches built to please the priest.

Thomas Morton was a thorn in the side of the Boston and Plymouth Puritans, because he had an alternate vision of Massachusetts. He was impressed by its fertility; they by its scarcity. He befriended the Indians; they shuddered at the thought. He was egalitarian; they proclaimed themselves the “Elect”. He freed servants; they lived off them. He armed the Indians; they used arms against Indians. To Nathaniel Hawthorne, the destiny of American settlement was decided at Merry Mount. Casting the struggle as mirth vs. gloom, grizzly saints vs. gay sinners, green vs. iron, it was the Puritans who won, and the fate of America was determined in favor of psalm-singing, Indian-scalpers whose notion of the Maypole was a whipping post.

Parts of the past live, parts die. The red cedar that drew Morton first to Merry Mount blew down in the gale of 1898. A section of it, about eight feet of its trunk became a power fetish in 1919, placed as it was next to the President’s chair of the Quincy City Council. Interested parties may now view it in the Quincy Historical Museum. Living trees, however, have since grown, despite the closure of the ship-yards.

Perhaps this makes me a reactionary, but I don’t trust utopian stories that don’t end in tragedy — not because of a metaphysical conviction in the impossibility of human happiness, but because I like my tales to be, if only in an oblique sense, historically accurate.

Which means I both like and am uncomfortable with the way Linebaugh ends it:

Where is the Red and Green today? Is it in Mao’s Red Book? or in Col. Khadafy’s Green Book? Some perhaps. Leigh Hunt, the English essayist of the 19th century, wrote that May Day is “the union of the two best things in the world, the love of nature, and the love of each other.” Certainly, such green union is possible, because we all can imagine it, and we know that what is real now was once only imagined. Just as certainly, that union can be realized only by red struggle, because there is no gain without pain, as the aerobiticians say, or no dreams without responsibility, no birth without labor, no green without red.

As a commentor points out, where are the anarchists? It’s an amusing hypocritical foible of mine (and I’m sure is not only mine) that I have a working student-level knowledge of Marxism, am developing one in ecological leftism, and know next to nothing about anarchism; this despite the fact that my few actual experiences of political involvement on the left have been basically anarchist in orientation. This is not very materialist. As usual, I don’t feel guilty. Just incoherent.

Happy May Day.

What is Authoritarianism?

Posted in Hegel, History, Media, U.S. Politics with tags , , , , , , , on August 18, 2008 by traxus4420

Someone just forwarded this NY Times editorial to me, which is like a compendium of all the most tried-and-true rhetorical moves of the closet neoliberal.

The author (the paper’s executive editor, no less) begins by expressing solidarity with the more openly neolib Business Spectator in its fond nostalgia for Fukuyama’s bullshit-from-the-very-beginning end of history thesis. There’s nothing like spooky headlines about foreign governments to make these people forget all about the ‘excesses’ of their own. Especially when these people are responsible for those headlines in the first place. After citing the thoroughly discredited Fukuyama as an ‘ideal’ (in a perfect world…) authority, Keller then tries to retain that mythology of Western supremacy by retaining its perspective, now awakened from its self-satisfied slumber to harsh, cold war-esque realities and ready for vigilance.

The Evil Empire(s) Strikes Back: Fukuyama’s Hegelian telos of a liberal new world order is now confronted with a return of the repressed foreign others — not the a priori passive, poverty-stricken global majority, of course, but the Specter of Communism. With the assistance of ready-to-hand, history-free cultural associations (assisted by the rote sidebar photographs — Berlin Wall! Tiananmen Square!), he can then collect all the bad guys under a single emergent zeitgeist, favorite tool of P.R.-fluent journalists with pretensions to being public intellectuals. The title seems to be the only point of contention between Keller and his Business Spectator compatriot Chrystia Freeland. Either the Age of Authoritarianism (if you’re a 5th Dimension fan) or the Season (should you prefer The Zombies). It’s not just a zeitgeist, it’s also the reboot of a franchise with a proven track record:

“If it is not yet an age, it is at least a season: Springtime for autocrats, and not just the minor-league monsters of Zimbabwe and the like, but the giant regimes that seemed so surely bound for the ash heap in 1989.”

As evidence we get references to China’s suppression of protestors and Russia’s invasion of Georgia, events liberated from their context in order to say that these historic rivals have “evolved toward one another.” As expected, there is no mention of the minor fact that Georgia attacked first (thanks to steppling for the link), and certainly no inquiry into why this might have happened. Since there are no facts to get in the way, we are expected to ‘get’ that China and Russia are really the same thing on the strength of our own ignorance and inflamed prejudice. Any legitimate investigation into the nature of China’s harsh, hypocritical treatment of activists or Russia’s violation of Georgian sovereignty might, after all, be a little too familiar. The point of this sort of propagandizing, after all, is to make actual reporting seem unnecessary.

The author ignores the U.S. until the second to last paragraph, where in a stunning display of journalistic objectivity he refers to the U.S.’s position in Iraq and Afghanistan as “mired,” deftly erasing all possible agents. It’s not important how or why the U.S. is “mired,” only that we “deal” with it, as one of many “legacy issues.” This gets to the point where both Keller and Freeland’s rhetoric (i.e. Russia’s “audacity” and “swagger”) can be applied almost without alteration to the many (belated) criticisms the Times has levelled at the Bush administration. But I suppose the mature thing to do is to pretend a clean slate: once Bush is gone, Iraq is no one’s fault.

And of course this mention of the U.S. is preceded by explicitly positioning the West as the ‘mature’ part of the world, occupying the most advanced stage of ‘historical’ development:

“This time it is not — or not yet — the threat of nuclear apocalypse that limits the West’s options toward our emboldened Eastern rivals. The Chinese, in fact, are acting as if they have gotten past the saber-rattling stage of emerging-power status; they lavish diplomacy on Taiwan and Japan, and deploy the might of capital instead. The Russians may be in a more adolescent, table-pounding stage of development, but Mr. Putin, too, prefers to work the economic levers, bullying with petroleum.”

which simultaneously, in a retraction meant to sneak away beneath all the hot air, subtracts violence from the label ‘authoritarianism.’ If Authoritarianism does not refer to brutal, repressive violence, then what could it possibly mean? The word is reduced to how Keller wants to use it: as an ideological bludgeon. Surely the ‘situations’ in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Israel are completely absent from this action-movie image.

One could go on: Keller’s narrowing of all criticism of his unfounded assertions to “Russian bloggers,” his Orientalizing Russia into China as “Eastern rivals,” the caricature of Russian foreign policy in terms of Dostoevsky (“existential payback,” “bitter resentment in the humiliated soil of Russia”), etc. etc.

But the really jaw-dropping line for me is the last:

“History, it seems, is back, and not so obviously on our side.”

It makes a nice pair with the closing statement of the ’05 editorial:

“Mr. Bush said last Friday that he welcomed debate, even in a time of war, but that “it is deeply irresponsible to rewrite the history of how that war began.” We agree, but it is Mr. Bush and his team who are rewriting history.”

So this is what old Hegel has contributed to American public discourse — his notion of true History as the subsumption of the Bayle-ian history of mere contingent facts (which must be protected from revisionism by non-professionals) into Spirit’s “gallery of images,” a history thenceforth complete because, through manly refusal to repress its internal division, it is actively self-confirming: “the two together, comprehended History, form alike the inwardizing and the Calvary of absolute Spirit, the actuality, truth, and certainty of his throne, without which he would be lifeless and alone.”


Posted in Apocalypse Porn, Art, Environmentalism, Film, History, Noo Yawk, Philosophy with tags , , , , , on August 10, 2008 by traxus4420

I want to know what this word means. The past couple days I’ve encountered it as a problem over and over again, taking a different form each time.

The first was at a screening of John Gianvito’s The profit motive and the whispering wind, taking Zach‘s advice. Short reviews here and here. It demonstrated to me how unaccustomed I am to the visual language of cinema that doesn’t compensate for its low budget with other kinds of excess (gore and sex), i.e. the better part of ‘experimental’ films. Even as I was trying to adjust to the way the images looked and felt, their content, the graves of American socialist and progressive heroes and sites of violent struggle, many of which wear their absence from the cultural memory in the form of overgrowth or intentional concealment, would not allow me to look away. How could I, after having done so for so long?  Good interviews here and here, where Gianvito discusses his decision not to include any information about the sites or the people referenced within the film, that doing so would have given the illusion of mastery over the material (in the manner of something like the History Channel or PBS), and stalled reflection on why general knowledge about these events and people is so spotty. This is didacticism as a confrontation with ignorance as opposed to the false sense of its defeat.

Its effect is different from the ‘hauntological,’ especially in the most recent adventures in electronic music, in that the interruptions of the past and future into the present are not mystified. When the film displays a site in apparent non-relation to its very different contemporary surroundings — fast food restaurants and highways, in the case of the Boston Massacre an unmarked street corner — the specificity of names and dates displayed by intertitles or by the physical markers prompts us to reconstruct that connection, not to dwell on its absence. Zach’s comparison with Terence Malick is appropriate: both summon a certain kind of romanticism with regard to nature and history, unafraid of beauty (Gianvito’s work won me over eventually), and though too intelligent for nostalgia, both resist categorical distinctions between nature, history, and aesthetics. Gianvito is able to achieve similar effects to Malick (and Tarkovsky, whom he has scholarly interest in) while eschewing the ‘excesses’ of fiction or expensive cinematography. Unlike Malick he is not a mythmaker, and so is both more and less direct in addressing his audience.

For exhibit B, an art show named “After Nature” after the poem “Nach der Natur” by W.G. Sebald, an increasingly admired writer whose work I am unfamiliar with, except for the poem, which is (like Gianvito’s film) full of historical references I’m also unfamiliar with. Here’s a short section, translated from German (and virtually annotated):

On the Basel Crucifixion of 1505
behind the group of mourners
a landscape reaches so far into the depth
that our eyes cannot see its limits.
A patch of brown scorched earth
whose contour like the head of a whale
or an open-mouthed leviathan
devours the pale green meadow plains,
and the marshily shining stretches
of water. Above it, pushed off to behind the horizon, which step by step grows darker, more glowering,
rise the hills of the prehistory of the Passion. We see the gate
of the Garden of Gesthemane, the approach
of the henchmen and the kneeling figure of Christ
so reduced in size that in the
receding space the rushing
away of time can be sensed.
Most probably Gruenewald painted
and recalled the catastrophic incursion
of darkness, the last trace of light
flickering from beyond, after nature,
for in the year 1502, when he was working
at Bindlach, below the Fichtelgebirge,
on the creation of the Lindenhardt altar,
on the first of October the moon’s shadow
slid over Eastern Europe from Mecklenburg
over Bohemia and the Lausitz to southern Poland,
and Gruenewald, who repeatedly was in touch
with the Aschaffen Court Astrologer Johann Indagine,
will have travelled to see this event of the century,
awaited with great terror, the eclipse of the sun,
so will have become a witness to
the secret sickening away of the world,
in which a phantasmal encroachment of dusk
in the midst of daytime like a fainting fit
poured through the vault of the sky,
while over the banks of mist and the cold
heavy blues of the clouds
a fiery red arose, and colours
such as his eyes had not known
radiantly wandered about, never again to be
driven out of the painter’s memory.

A good portion of the art in the show seemed to unfold the darker and more morbid currents of the poem out into flat, confrontational snark. Confusion, I think, has a tendency to fall back on sensation. The environmental clusterfuck and the revolution in infrastructure and basic ways of thinking that will be necessary to adequately confront it are rich in interpretive possibilities, as productive of fantasy as the constant holocaust of industrial society’s development and expansion. So it would make sense that most such fantasies would be uninterested in moving beyond their very interesting moment — instead meditating on its possible components, or compiling its imaginary genealogies. Apocalypse, therefore, was all over everything.

Has life without fire become unbearable for them?

After Sebald, Werner Herzog was the show’s elder statesman. The still is from the oil-drilling documentary (with an opera soundtrack) Lessons of Darkness. The New Yorker review notices this:

Something is happening in artists’ studios: a shift of emphasis, from surface to depth, and a shift of mood, from mania to melancholy, shrugging off the allures of the money-hypnotized market and the spectacle-bedizened biennials circuit. (In fact, the underappreciated recent Whitney Biennial hinted at the mutation.) It’s a fashion auditioning as a sea change.

and this:

You suspect that a big change is coming when sensitive young people project (and, because they’re young, enjoy) feelings of being old. This has often signalled a backward crouch preceding a forward leap.

Trying on the clothes of rebels, manic prophets, or admen gives way to trying on those of elders in mourning. Competing for the privilege of manifesting “durable truths” that the institutional art market, having been ‘running on empty’ for quite a while now, so desperately needs to sustain its credibility and self-respect. But the private fantasies it puts on display have even less capacity to make anyone care about anything than they did eight years ago, when it was still cool to glory in superficiality. The best of the art on display was still only ‘interesting,’ like this piece by Roberto Cuoghi, part of a sequence of fanciful maps of the axis of evil:

It seems to me that what’s missing is a sense of shared collective energy, something more than just a vague ‘zeitgeist’ culled from reading the same articles on middle eastern wars, fuel resource depletion, and global warming. I have a hard time seeing how that could ever happen in the mortuary space cultivated by museums and high-end galleries in their efforts to capture the image of a masterpiece.

More than anything else, cultural institutions crave legitimacy in a crisis. To be reassured that we still believe in their ability to tell us what’s important.

Exhibit C, a conversation on architecture:

The hype machine will not let up even for one tiny little second. An unscripted dialogical performance between two aging head honchos of a field is an ‘event’ worthy of this exaggerated self-importance that no one takes seriously, but everyone still seems to feel obligated to participate in.

The theme was performance, which in architectural parlance refers to the field’s digital revolution, with  design programs such as AutoCAD replacing traditional drafting, initiating the explosion of new forms with no relation to anything outside algorithmic variation — some of which could never be actually constructed even if they were somehow granted permission. Eisenman complained of the lack of accepted criteria for ordering a proliferation of forms whose only law seems to be “infinite variability.” Wigley agreed with a few reservations about the language (which is apparently a first for them). As for why this is the case, they eventually concluded that architectural education and production is still very “conservative,” with a rhetoric still based on cultivating individual genius and a practice still rooted in the medieval guild model of each school training students according to a narrow range of institutionally accepted formal principles. According to Eisenman, without an adequate theory to structure the potential of the new technology, the products of the latest generation of architects are little more than “toys”: “Where we are with architecture is really still at the level of the sandbox.” There was some back and forth about the potential for inter-firm collaboration and open-sourcing of formal strategies, and then everything devolved into arguments with the audience for and against the need for theory.

Hearing architects talk is like re-reading Theory articles from the ’80s, with Derrideans and Deleuzians and post-Marxist Foucaultians throwing their overly sophisticated discourses at each other, except the same arguments are happening amongst literary theorists now in the language of ‘political theology.’ The political theologists have mostly ignored technology for Hobbes, Schmitt, and Augustine, and like ’80s Theorists, architects are still wound up about technology, whether it represents order or chaos. Still, the guiding questions seem to be the same: do we need theory, what is theory good for — the word ‘theory’ serving as a vehicle for equating metaphysics, authority, law, order, religion, with ‘genius’ as its honored, structurally mandated exception. Wigley saying, self-critically of course, something like “architecture provides the illusion of certainty in the face of uncertainty.” Is the overthrow of the Power of the Institution an Apocalypse? Is Apocalypse Necessary? Is it Good?

I see intellectuals from the baby boom still dominating the direction of argument, and my generation still following dutifully along with their regression into some kind of bizarre guilt complex for having rejected the illusions of the 1950s, its ideological marriage of authority, comfort and the assumption of plenty. If with the latest set of challenges to industrial capitalist hegemony we are forced to encounter old limits anew, they are not going to fit into the categories once used to contain them, as if they were the only ways anyone has ever knew how to think (as if they were thought itself), the power discourse of yesteryear serving today as a kind of pathetic security blanket.

Science, Philosophy, and University: Fragments of A Historical Approach That Doesn’t Actually Go Back That Far, Nor Range Widely

Posted in Education, History, Philosophy, Science, The French on February 27, 2008 by traxus4420

“In 1888, Josiah P. Cooke, the Harvard chemist, asserted that a large majority of American scientists remained ‘wholly wedded’ to a particular ‘system’ of ideas in a dogmatic sense. Far fewer saw themselves as standing outside all structures of established theory. For many researchers the inductive method still led quickly to the notion of fixed universal law. Amos E. Dolbear, a positivistic physicist, insisted that although the ‘fundamental principles of philosophy’ had been broken up ‘pretty vigorously’ during the preceding century, ‘it is to be noted…that on the scientific side things have from the beginning all been going one way, that is to say every new, broad generalization so far has simply covered the previous ones and has not superseded them.’Indeed, few academic researchers of this period expected that the knowledge they discovered would ever be overturned. Veblen once admitted that he carried in his head a general outline of human knowledge and that he placed each new fact, as it arrived, into this comfortable scheme. ‘Knowledge is increasing with every generation, and the youth of mankind is passing into maturity,’ declared John M. Coulter confidently in 1894. The metaphors used to describe scientific knowledge significantly reveal its assumed permanence. Knowledge was an island whose territory was continually being advanced into the ocean of the unknown; knowledge was a temple, built of monographic bricks (not easily corroded by time or weather). Or, said Coulter, a bit more flexibly, knowledge was a great river. To be sure, it sometimes changed its course and left villages high and dry. But the metaphor presumed a basically stable source. A river obeyed the law of gravity, and it never turned into a mirage. Such images of knowledge sanctified the researcher as one of the lasting contributors to civilization. The quest on every side was for definitive studies — studies that would never have to be done over again….For the intense seeker after new knowledge, research soon came to possess many of the emotional characteristics of a religion…A physicist spoke of the ‘exaltation of feeling which comes from the possession of a fact, which, now, for the first time, he makes known to men.’ Like educational missionaries, a few professors began urging that research begin with the kindergarten and permeate the primary school. But the most revealing experiences of the young researcher were those of private initiation; sometimes these bordered on conversion. A student of psychology, inspired by one of [Stanley G.] Hall’s lectures in the mid-nineties, immediately afterward covered a large carde with the written motto ‘INVESTIGATION,’ and hung it over his desk. According to an anecdote of the early Johns Hopkins — possibly apocryphal — one student arrived in such a state of anticipatory ecstasy that he maintained a night-long vigil in the laboratory where he expected to do his work.”…”The lives of such investigators might seem colorless to outsiders, but they reflected an utter dedication. Many of these men wrote little or nothing about the purpose of higher education or even about the ‘larger’ significance of their own disciplines. And so they tended to be forgotten by all but a few later specialists. For this reason, such men — the representatives of the ideal of pure science — have sometimes been unduly minimized in assessing American academic life of the late nineteenth century.”

— Laurence R. Veysey – The Emergence of the American University (1965)

“While the old line between the sciences and the humanities may be invisible as the equator, it has an existence as real. On the one side are cognitions which may be submitted to demonstrative proof: which do not depend on opinion, preference, or authority; which are true everywhere and all the time; while on the other side are cognitions which depend on our spiritual natures, our aesthetic preferences, our intellectual traditions, our religious faith. Earth and man, nature and the supernatural, letters and science, the humanities and the realities, are the current terms of contrast between the two groups and there are no signs that these distinctions will ever vanish.”

— Daniel Coit Gilman, The Launching of a University (1903)

“The academic philosophers of the period, who became allies of the men of letters, were distinctive enough to require separate comment. The educational opinions of the philosophical idealists coincided with those of the literary advocates of culture so often as to suggest an intrinsic connection. ‘Literature and philosophy cover the same ground,’ said a Yale philosopher, ‘the former in its more immediate relation to ourselves, the latter in its more fundamental aspects…Both imply the assumptions which are taken without analysis in literature but which it is the business of the philosopher to analyze and justify.’ The philosopher and the man of letters shared many of the same intellectual traditions; it was after all no great distance from Goethe to Hegel, and Emerson and Carlyle helped bridge the gap.

The philosopher focused upon one theme in the more general thinking about culture: the unity of the universe. He found in his own discipline the proper crown for the entire academic curriculum. By no means neglecting morality (indeed, in one sense he made it loftily systematic), the philosophical idealist tended, more than other advocates of culture, to respect intellect. He did this not because intellect enabled one to investigate particulars, but because it was a tool by which the basic configuration of the universe might be mapped out. Put another way, he took his rationalism from the ‘constructive’ thinkers, not the Baconians.

There were many varieties of the movement in philosophy known as idealism, both in Europe and in the United States; their complexity cannot be shown here. Most broadly, idealism was (as one of its academic adherents described it) a ‘thought-view of the universe.’ The root of reality was mental, but it was abstract and universal, not confined to the varying subjective mental states of individual human beings. Men’s minds were capable of discerning and making contact with a universal mind — ‘the Absolute’ — which presumably would continue to function unaffected if the earth, and all the philosophers on it, were to disappear in a solar catastrophe. It was the mentalistic universalism of the idealistic view which made it and its derivatives (among them American Transcendentalism) clash with the whole conception of laboratory science. While idealism was not religious in an orthodox theological sense, its adherents thought of themselves as spiritualistic rather than materialistic in their outlook, and as ‘critically affirmative’ in their acceptance of spirituality. (The ‘critically affirmative’ view was believed to be a synthesis, in Hegelian terms, of dogmatism and skepticism.) In such a context the empirical presumption that the nature of reality was to be ascertained slowly and painfully by comparing particular phenomena could only be opposed. The scientist, it was confidently believed, would end up perceiving the same universals that the idealist immediately glimpsed. ‘Mental Life does not begin with ideas of Individual Things, but with General Ideas,’ Josiah Royce was heard to say in 1893. ‘These Primitive General Ideas are unconsciously, or unintentionally, Abstract.’ By the aid of reason, unconscious abstractions would be made conscious, and ‘Genuine Insight into the Nature of Individual Things’ would be attained.

Kant and Hegel provided most of the inspiration for the American idealists. Before the Civil War idealism had gained more advocates outside the academic community than within it, and the specifically Hegelian idealism that developed in the United States after 1865 was first promoted by a group of non-academic thinkers, especially in the St. Louis area. From these men, and from the continuing direct contacts of younger Americans with this side of German thought, Hegelian idealism spread rapidly as departments of philosophy emerged in leading universities during the 1880s. Idealism had its greatest influence, both in academic circles and in America generally, during the nineties. These years marked the vigor of what John Herman Randall has termed ‘that great generation of near-great professors of philosophy.’ After the turn of the century, idealism began rather rapidly to decline as an intellectual force, and literary advocates of culture soon were able to count on fewer dependable allies within philosophy departments. In perspective, idealism can be seen as a diversion rather than a main channel in American thought. Its power was inhibited not only by the rise of natural science but also by the fact that it remained suspect as far as most Christians were concerned. Lacking either of these powerful sanctions, professors who expounded idealism were listened to and admired again and again by young men who quickly drifted away from its particular faith.”

— Veysey, ibid.

“A ‘system of elements’ — a definition of the segments by which the resemblances and differences can be shown, the types of variation by which those segments can be affected, and, lastly, the threshold above which there is a difference and below which there is a similitude — is indispensable for the establishment of even the simplest form of order. Order is, at one and the same time, that which is given in things as their inner law, the hidden network that determines the way they confront one another, and also that which has no existence except in the grid created by a glance, an examination, a language; and it is only in the blank spaces of this grid that order manifests itself in depth as though already there, waiting in silence for the moment of its expression.

The fundamental codes of a culture — those governing its language, its schemas of perception, its exchanges, its techniques, its values, the hierarchy of its practices — establish for every man, from the very first, the empirical orders with which he will be dealing and within which he will be at home. At the other extremity of thought, there are the scientific theories or the philosophical interpretations which explain why order exists in general, what universal law it obeys, what principle can account for it, and why this particular order has been established and not some other. But between these two regions, so distant from one another, lies a domain which, even though its role is mainly an intermediary one, is nonetheless fundamental: it is more confused, more obscure, and probably less easy to analyze. It is here that a culture, imperceptibly deviating from the empirical orders prescribed for it by its primary codes, instituting an initial separation from them, causes them to lose their original transparency, relinquishes its immediate and invisible powers, frees itself sufficiently to discover that these orders are perhaps not the only possible ones or the best ones; this culture then finds itself faced with the stark fact that there exists, below the level of its spontaneous orders, things that are in themselves capable of being ordered, that belong to a certain unspoken order; the fact, in short, that order exists. As though emancipating itself to some extent from its linguistic, perceptual, and practical grids, the culture superimposed on them another kind of grid which neutralized them, which by this superimposition both revealed and excluded them at the same time, so that the culture, by this very process, came face to face with order in its primary state. It is on the basis of this newly perceived order that the codes of language, perception, and practice are criticized and rendered partially invalid. It is on the basis of this order, taken as a firm foundation, that general theories as to the ordering of things, and the interpretation that such an ordering involves, will be constructed. Thus, between the already ‘encoded’ eye and reflexive knowledge there is a middle region which liberates order itself: it is here that it appears, according to the culture and the age in question, continuous and graduated or discontinuous and piecemeal, linked to space or constituted anew at each instant by the driving force of time, related to a series of variables or defined by separate systems of coherences, composed of resemblances which are either successive or corresponding, organized around increasing differences, etc. This middle region, then, in so far as it makes manifest the modes of being of order, can be posited as the most fundamental of all: anterior to words, perceptions, and gestures, which are then taken to be more or less exact, more or less happy, expressions of it (which is why this experience of order in its pure primary state always plays a critical role); more solid, more archaic, less dubious, always more ‘true’ than the theories that attempt to give those expressions explicit form, exhaustive application, or philosophical foundation. Thus, in every culture, between the use of what one might call the ordering codes and reflections upon order itself, there is the pure experience of order and of its modes of being.”

— Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (1966)

Case of the Invisible Author

Posted in Ethics, History, Lit, Plato, structuralism, The French on September 5, 2007 by traxus4420

Madame de Lafayette’s anonymously published La Princesse de Clèves (1678) traditionally marks a pivotal event within several different narratives of Euro-centric modernity. ‘The first modern French novel’ does not tell us much; more helpful distinctions include its status as one of the first romans in which the main action revolves around communication and miscommunication rather than adventure or allegory, it also dramatizes the emergence of the private, interior self from within the intrigues of court society, the triumph of realism over romance, the proto-feminist triumph of the individual female author over the dominant, male-dominated games of politics and politics by other means, and, related to all three, the emergence of critical history, the history of intervention, intertextuality, and subjectivity, rather than gradualist, linear progress from a single teleo-phallo-patho-logical point of view. There are even some reasonably convincing attempts to read proto-psychoanalytic concepts into the work, yet more support for the compelling but probably misleading assertion that psychoanalysis is the twisted stepchild of literary criticism.

What this circulation of readings conceals is exactly what it projects: a singularity that is detached from and indeed disinterested in whatever is said about it, an originating hole within history (of the novel, of the salon society of late 17th-century France), analogous to the hidden author (from the beginning it’s been surmised that La Rochefoucauld, the intellectual center of de Lafayette’s social circle, had more than a little to do with the novel’s creation) and the fictional narrator who by novel’s end learns to hide herself in plain sight.

The game of court as portrayed in the novel is a dazzlingly complex network of relations both known and hidden — the first few pages do nothing but list the important personages under Henri II and their various intrigues. They, men and women both, are motivated by a ruthless pragmatism, interrupted from time to time by impulsive outbreaks of emotion that are strictly speaking unpredictable. Says the one fictional character (Madame de Chartres) to the other (Mme. de Chartres, her daughter, soon to be the titular Princesse de Clèves), “If you judge from appearances here…you will be often mistaken; what appears is seldom the truth.” She is principally referring to the duplicitous structure of court society, running as it does on the production and circulation of secrets, but there is also an indirect warning of the violent emotions that are the secret authors of the court (driving, for example, Henri II to be led by his mistress Diane de Poitiers for much of his reign, the ‘open secret’ at the heart of the court’s separation into factions). The maddening contingency of its social relations projects a seething, passional unconscious into its members, as the disavowed truth of its fictional appearance.

Pierre Daniel Huet, friend and co-conspirator of de Lafayette and the notorious Mlle de Scudéry, was the first to lay the foundation for fiction’s propriety in the form of the novel. His tale is epic in itself: fiction, though a defining capacity of humankind in general, finds its special “genius” in the Oriental fable, which brings together fiction, verse, and fantasy in to a highly addictive, pleasurable art of deception (the ‘Gay Science’), also used to communicate secret knowledge. A dual legacy of refinement and corruption followed its (viral?) profusion across Europe, from Greece to Rome to the unfortunate interruption of Northern barbarians, finding it’s ultimate form in (where else) France. Fiction in its ideal modern form is as follows:

“I say Fictions, to distinguish them from true Histories; I add, of Love-Adventures, for that Love ought to be the principal subject of a Romance. They must be writ in Prose, to be conformable to the Mode of the times. They must be writ with Art, and under certain rules; otherwise they will only be a confused mass without order or beauty.”

Fiction’s power to seduce comes from the same source as its power to offer moral instruction, which is its only defensible objective. That is, from mastery of its form, which, as narrative, is the same in which factual history is written (the battle between true and false histoire rages in earnest now). The ‘Romance’ (modern roman in this context), in contrast to the purely fictional Fable, is probabilistic — “Fiction of things, which may but never have happened.” Its potential for miscommunication, both accidental and intentional, is obvious, though this is not yet a necessity (a more contemporary trope). Huet illustrates this concept through a pseudo-economic metaphor derived from Plato’s retelling of the fable of Porus (Plenty) and Penia (Poverty) in the Symposium and Socrates’ deconstruction of their offspring Love, who is neither god nor man, but mediator between the two. In Huet’s version, Poverty (as Ignorance) is the faculty or form of desire for Riches (as Science), and as such is simply the absence or lack of those riches. Pleasure is the result of their union. But the form/faculty always yearns for more than the ‘reasonable’ satisfaction granted by what at first appears to be its ‘object,’ but which, as either Riches or Science, is actually a new way of being-in-the world, a new form and not the possession of any particular thing. The soul is thus constantly at risk of temptation by “Occult sciences” and “Fictions, Fables, and Romances” which promise a kind of satisfaction more easily attained, since it consists solely of the imagination — the faculty of desire — creating empty figures for itself.

Form (Art) is the element of fiction that allows it to seduce the refined as well as the barbarian taste:

“These are touched with the beauties of Art, and that which proceeds from the intellect; but the former such as are children and the simple, are sensible onely of that which strikes their imagination, and stirs their passions, & they love fictions in themselves, without looking further. Now Fictions being nothing but narration, true in appearance and false in effect; the minds of the simple, who discern only the bark, are pleased with this show of truth, and very well satisfied. But these who penetrate further, and see into the solid, are easily disgusted with this falsity, so that the first love the falsehood, because it is concealed under an appearance of truth; these others are distasted with this Image of truth, by reason of the real falsehood, which is couched under it; if this falsehood be not otherwise ingenious, mysterious, and instructive, and buoys itself up by the excellence of the invention of art. And S. Augustine saith somewhere, that these falsities which are significative, and couch a hidden meaning, are not lyes, but the Figures of truth, which the most Sage and Holy persons, and our Saviour himself have made use upon occasion.”

Pure Fiction = Pure Image (the false effect), Pure Art = Pure Form (the appearance of truth). This split function determines the hierarchy of readers — and the hierarchy of faculties within the reader (intellect over passion, mind over matter, line over pigment) — necessary to grasp the escalating profusion of print narrative within a legal system. The Aristotelean understanding of narrative as above all a philosophical problem has continued unchecked into the present, as modern fiction’s unshakable (but productive) adversary.

The modern critic Claudio Guillén sets up the relationship between literature and its criticism in a rather satisfying way — neatly separating the universal ‘mode’ from the situated ‘genre’ and casting it out into the stratosphere (as the universal only refers to what is undeniably present — narrative, poetry, the basic modes of human expression — it can be ignored). Genre, always under development, is “an invitation to the actual construction of the work of art.” As such it can never just be applied; it has to be reincarnated as the outcome of individual decisions. But it ‘invites’ different decisions from different perspectives. For poets (read: artists in general) it is an invitation to create in relation to a formalized set of traditional expectations, tweaking and disrupting them according to the poet’s aesthetic impulse. For the theorist-critic, genre compels logical deduction and the construction and maintenance of classificatory systems, a “thankless task” that always takes place after the fact. Guillén paints this as an inescapable problem — genre as the condition of existence for “poetics” a provisional, political contest, requiring continuous upkeep, that nevertheless relies for its language on the realm of theoretical abstraction. ‘Poetry itself’ is less stable territory:

“Whether poetry itself — whether the totality of the significant works that come together in the poetic experience and the imagination of an epoch — provide the historian with a genuine order or system, is surely a most difficult question to answer. Yet the shape of poetics need not provoke such doubts. The code, if not the message, is a coherent whole. One cannot but agree with Professor Fubini when he suggests some of the ways in which genres can be regarded not as the evolution of independent norms, nor as the survival of timeless ‘structures,’ but as the history of changing theoretical systems.”

Literature as System: Essays toward the Theory of Literary History

Logic, formerly the perpetrator of ‘timeless structures,’ thus gains from narrative a certain fluidity, now almost able to keep pace with the lurching, shapeless mass of history. It is always a step behind, true, but could the future — or indeed the present — exist without it?

The famously anticlimactic ending of Clèves has the heroine, rather than unite with her secret lover, abandon him and all of court society for a chaste spiritual retreat. This is in spite of the facts as he patiently explains them to her: her mediocre husband is dead, the authorities will not resist her remarriage after a reasonable period of mourning, they are in love. The whole action of the novel — the waylaid letters, the misinterpreted acts of politesse, the overflowing confessions — have led to this point, the opening of the way for repressed passion to finally be consummated. But no, there has been something else secreted behind the all the displaced, sexed textuality, an inner logic, attributed to no higher authority but which appears as the sole, ineradicable remainder after everything else is explained away.

“There is no obstacle,” pleaded Monsieur de Nemours; “you alone thwart my happiness, you alone impose a law which virtue and reason could not impose.”

“It is true,” she replied, “that I make a great sacrifice to a duty which exists only in my imagination.”

An imaginary logic that when acted upon becomes ethical, ideological, epistemic — take your pick. Modes of communication are valued insofar as they create the sense of a secret self hidden just behind them. The act of ‘revelation’ or confession is more important than what is revealed. It was precisely the Princesse’s confession to her husband of her illicit love for Nemours, the secret that eventually drives him to death, that most clashed with the sensibilities of early readers. To them it was a senseless strategic-economic decision — what motive could she possibly have had? — though after two centuries of 19th century novels it seems all too conventional to us. A self that can never simply be revealed, not even to the self, a ‘self’ that seduces its merely apparent double into believing in it, was not at the time an unusual or strange concept, essential as it is for the production and circulation of secrets, a social economy Rochefoucauld called amour-propre and Lacan would later formalize in terms of desire and the split subject.

No, this intrusion into reality of form (which was still located beneath appearance) was the novel’s most ‘subversive’ and disorienting quality. No reference to God, but a counter-egoic union of the self with an imaginary and invisible Law, mirroring de Lafayette’s allegiance to the counter-Reformationist philosophy of Jansenism, its result the Princesse performing the profoundly asocial act of (re?)claiming herself, taking herself out of circulation. Every fictional intervention within the otherwise historically accurate tableau introduces a counter-narrative that presents itself through bizarre causality (contrivance) and (dreamlike) imagery, which, taken together, suggest hidden consistency and predestination with no other purpose. The Princesse’s first act that is not conditioned by the politics of the court or the circumstance of passion is to deny the game of secrets for the fiction of the private. Like the novel’s anonymous author, she transforms her merely apparent, social self into a symbol of her own author-function, a letter addressed to the universal that aims to reground the unwritten rules of communication and inscription. The truest, most complete self, we find, finds itself in theory.