Archive for the structuralism Category

Aesthetics of Apocalypse

Posted in Apocalypse, Cultural Theory, Environmentalism, structuralism, Zizek with tags on May 28, 2010 by traxus4420

In the eons since my last post, Haiti suffered a few more secondary quakes, then Chile had an earthquake, Iceland erupted, covering the skies with volcanic ash, Greece’s ongoing crisis spiked again and got bailed out, Thailand tried to have another revolution, American liberals continued to fantasize about right-wing revolt, then British Petroleum vomited death all over the Gulf Coast. And Tennessee got flooded. Of course it hasn’t been anything close to eons, just a couple of months. Though unstylish, Bill McKibben has the right idea: the bad old days of ‘alienation’ from Nature are over. We don’t even live on Earth anymore.

So let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that we’re living in the end times. Even for someone as preoccupied with the unimportant as I am, the loop linking apocalypse culture product — CGI spectacles of urban destruction, zombie movies, post-apocalyptic video games, David Simon’s new show, Treme — to its critics — academics, magazine critics, bloggers, anyone with a Facebook account — didn’t occur to me as something worth considering until Roger mentioned it in the comments below and elsewhere.

So then I did consider it, and my conclusions are just as depressing as everything else. First, it seems clearer to me now than ever before that that which the authorities designate as ‘popular culture,’ rife for most of its existence (but especially now) with apocalyptic fantasies, is about as helpful for thinking about shifts in public consciousness, utopian desire, and affects, as a BP press release, or one of Obama’s speeches. Films like 2012 or even marginally more intelligent ones like 28 Days Later exist to provide an imaginary audience with the experience of what it’s supposed to think and feel. Reductionist, yes, but to militate too much against reductionism on the consumption end gives a free pass to reductionism on the production end. If the zombie film should be the most self-aware manifestation of long-term cultural regression, its sense of irony has already grown stale and decadent; the basic premise of the genre, the horror of limitless need in a limited world, is a limit on thought and feeling that stopped being productive a long time ago.

We live in the high point of a moment when previously discredited genres like science fiction, fantasy, horror, and superhero bildungsromane have cache among critics, when high and lowbrow just as often refer to different perspectives on the same object as they do different objects. I suspect the vogue for these texts is grounded in an aesthetic sympathetic with modernist architecture’s dictum that form should express function. In the great non-psychological literary tradition of Voltaire or Kafka or Borges, ‘genre’ texts do not assume any relationship between individual psychological experiences and universal significance; they merely announce a set of rules and perform a series of variations, allusions, and allegorizations geared toward maximum readability. The interesting ambiguities lie in just how the pieces fit together: is Deckard an android? Or in the fine points of allegorical reading: does Tolkien’s universe embody a paganized Christianity or a Christianized paganism? Or in how to parse an ethical dilemma: is it ok for Batman to surveil all of Gotham? Does Jack Bauer really need to torture all those Muslims? Whose revenge is justifiable in Hostel (try Martyrs for a more interesting version of this question)? The world is grasped as a theoretical structure that can only be interpreted, known, and/or changed by structural means: the physical actions of a character, the revelation of a secret, the destruction of the world.

Here is Benjamin Kunkel profoundly not getting it in the pages of Dissent from a while back:

“Our literary sci-fi novels are bereft of strongly individual characters—the apocalyptic ones even more depopulated than they know, the clone narratives at least bespeaking the anxiety that their characters are redundant—and the ongoing merger of genre fiction (where the reader is accustomed to finding no complex characters) with literature (which no one would think to accuse of being indifferent to individuality) has allowed the liquidation of character to pass virtually unnoticed. And this, it seems, is likely to be among the most accurately futuristic features of the “literary” genre novels: they will have been the harbingers of a literary sea change in which complex characters are rejected by critics and ordinary readers alike as morally unattractive (compared to generic heros), hopelessly self-involved (because capable of introspection), and annoyingly irresolute (because subject to deliberation). These prejudices are already articulate and operative whenever fiction is discussed, thanks in large part to the incomplete literature-genre fiction merger, and the prestige such prejudices acquire through that merger allows them to be expressed without the taint of philistinism.”

The thoughtful reader of anyone outside the trajectory of Jane Austen, Henry James, and the 20th century American short story will no doubt scoff at Kunkel’s naivete, though it is post-Lacanian, Post-Jamesonian critics whose tastes are being caricatured here. But do his retrograde views on the centrality of psychologically complex characters to fiction imply anything different in practice to this more ‘modern’ taste for structurally transparent riffs on popular genre? Don’t both use their tastes to justify giving special attention to a limited set of individual, ‘properly cultural’ texts? There are clear echoes of the Richardson-Fielding debate over interior account vs. mock epic, or character vs. author, a productive dissensus essential to the ‘rise of the novel.’ As a bored Alec Guinness intoned at the end of Star Wars, death only makes certain individuals stronger. The author-function is now an empty signifier through which any number of historical forces, zeitgeists, and collective fantasies can be read.

As a corollary, a masterpiece today is not necessarily the work of a heroic, individual master, but an individual text that metonymically summons the world on stage. Even better, really, if no one is responsible — a neo-romantic aesthetic, not of nature or natural genius, but of public opinion. Surely the problematic merger between fine art and mass culture Kunkel sees operating in literature is both a) not restricted to literature and b) somehow linked to the perception of ideological transparency of popular genre products, considered more popular the more rigorously processed for the market they are.

The contemporary-apocalyptic impoverishment of the word ‘culture’ to refer to the sterile contradiction ‘lifestyle’ vs. ‘fiction,’ culture’s near-total commodification, is, I think, precisely what creates the expectation that it should ‘tell us something’ about human experience that no other source can. That something includes an associated pantheon: Society, Values, The Unconscious, Desire, The Will to Utopia, Ideology. But what can a discourse so increasingly cut off from everything that might give it content ‘tell us’ beyond itself? Despite its recent topicality, no major blockbuster is likely to reconnect the zombie to Haiti, its place of origin, or Africa for that matter — that would be ‘racist,’ or, rather, would acknowledge in too clear a light the racism that underpins the entire genre (though Japanese video game designers have no such compunctions). There are many other examples. If we grant that the apocalyptic is a dominant discourse in need of parsing, shouldn’t it be more useful to see how it works in the context of actual events than to restrict ourselves to the universe of fantasy conjured by the spectacle (and its supplementary critique)? The same questions can be asked in the context of real-time ideological warfare. On BP’s oil spill for example, the points of entry are too numerous to list more than a few: the company’s cosmetic concern for keeping the oil concealed, underwater, where it can do even more damage; the technocratic fantasies of elite teams of scientists solving our problems a la Armageddon.

By no means am I trying to dismiss the traditional objects and methods of aesthetic criticism once and for all, whether for ideology critique or for anything else. But I do want to make a point about professionalism and myopia.

Take today’s politics of apocalypse. Obscene levels of corruption are publicly announced every day. Everyone is “fiddling while Rome burns.” BP executives wining and dining government officials, the general prostration of public interest to oil conglomerates common to both Obama and Bush Jr.’s administrations, JP Morgan executives inventing credit-default swaps while drinking heavily at a post-fraternity bacchanal. The scandal, that which is in excess of the justice/injustice of the results of the deals, is that they are made unofficially. Any charge of corruption comes after the making-public of a community existing behind the explicit democratic structure of official discourse, in (dialectical) contradiction to it. As has been all too evident lately, the public revelation of what everyone already assumes, even if it is a critique of illegitimate power, can only strengthen it if nothing is done as a result. The critic who speaks from the imaginary position of either the ‘letter’ or the ‘spirit’ of the law thus always risks extending the power of a ruling elite at the expense of democratic legitimacy as a whole. It is in just this sense that the social critic is in league with her target (despite the necessity of her function), a kind of court jester, producing the aura of authority in the very act of ‘speaking truth to power.’

Is it really much of a stretch to say that when we media critics — today we are all media critics (we are all ‘intellectuals’) — discuss a Hollywood film or a bestselling novel, we are in the same situation? Just as the professional ethics of journalistic ‘objectivity’ insist that reporters stick to official public facts and statements, professional aesthetic criticism focuses primarily on ‘culture,’ which (just as in the ‘rational public sphere’ of press releases and stump speeches) is dominated by the official statements of entrenched powers. They will forever be scandalized by the entirely pedestrian difference between a given discourse and everything else. That old insult, ‘idealist,’ should then be updated to refer to anyone who is ‘just doing their job.’ A reporter should never deal only in official facts; a film critic should never only write reviews; a philosopher should never write ‘pure philosophy.’ Impartiality is irrelevance.

This also entails that we suspend the notion of ideology as a unitary discourse, such that no field, type, genre, or medium can contain ‘the key’ to its structure. If searching for and retrieving that key is the only value Arts & Entertainment are thought to have, then they are by definition worthless. The Zizekian argument about ideology (which I borrowed above in modified form) holds that distance from ideology just is ideology — the claim that one ‘really is’ in excess of the law (whether as authentic human being, social critic, or scheming corrupt politician) even while continuing to perform one’s ideological function flawlessly. In typical Zizekian fashion, to be ‘really subversive’ is not to point out the difference between illusion and reality, but to follow the public law in spite of the unwritten law (the law’s ‘obscene supplement,’ aka the ‘way of the world,’ aka the ‘antithesis’ stage of the dialectic), thus embracing, as he puts it, the “‘crazy’ totality in which a position reverts to its Other in the very moment of its excessive exaggeration.” Don’t just do something, sit there! Conformity is dissent! For Zizek everything refers back to ideology, especially its ‘outside.’ He uses the term ‘ideology’ to indicate the transcendental structure of whatever happens to be the ‘dominant social practice,’ with other social practices just orbiting planets unless they perform the impossible feat of usurping the center. This apparent failure to distinguish between the CNN news ticker and its consequences is really a feature; his ‘innovation’ after all is to avoid the complexities of mediating between (say) Hollywood, the Pentagon, and Wall Street by taking screen reality at face value, reading Red Dawn and Afghanistan in exactly the same way.  As tea leaves.

Which is to point out a dead end, an exhausted discourse, and redirect attention to its ‘context,’ for lack of a better, less bureaucratic term — that which the Borg-like pretensions of so many theories of ideology disguise, no less effectively than utilitarian theories of personhood and efficient markets. Ideology is not, for example, prior to class, or gender, or petroleum. It is not a singular ur-text; ‘in itself’ no more than an empty term that brings strangers into contact. The truism ‘everything is ideology’ suggests instead that there is nothing left to discuss once that contact is established. A speculative, aesthetic definition of Apocalypse Culture might then be: a tendency of otherwise unrelated discourses to collapse around their nonexistent center, to hypnotize each other into talking about nothing. My friends and I, I feel (I can’t think it), have lost an ability possessed by earlier generations to speak without paying tribute to a ghostly imperative to negate ourselves, whether through a meticulously defined but meaningless jargon, or stutters, lapses, and interruptions between vague sentence fragments wrapped in protective irony. Since (according to us) we can only speak about ‘the world’ in terms of commodities, doing so always seems like a ridiculous prospect, even if necessary at times. The only grand statement about the zeitgeist I feel capable of making is that when I watch C-SPAN on YouTube, or read press releases and news websites, I see what looks like the same thing. So we are deaf and dumb. But which is ‘dominant?’ The structural void of ideology that supposedly ‘explains’ our ‘failure to communicate,’ or the 39 million gallons of oil devouring the Gulf Coast?

Notes on Structuralism

Posted in structuralism, The French with tags , on February 13, 2010 by traxus4420

An underread (or maybe just underassimilated) genre of intellectual history is the critical history of structuralism, fixing on the linguistic theories of Saussure, Hjelmslev, and Jakobson and their reception by the greater Parisian intellectual scene of the 1960s via Levi-Strauss’s analysis of myth. The ‘debunking’ thesis of Thomas Pavel’s The Feud of Language (given the sexier and less threatening title The Spell of Language in a later edition) is that the dramatic intellectual moment of Levi-Strauss, Lacan, Derrida, et al. — the moment going under the name Theory in North America — is based on illegitimate extrapolations from linguistic models that had already been discredited within their home discipline. Some variant of this critique is probably common knowledge among enthusiasts of the staggering variety of work faithful to the structuralist moment. But it’s unclear what practical consequences critiques like Pavel’s, both foundationalist and methodological, should have on writing that follows a structuralist lineage. Pavel himself preemptively warns against carrying the arguments of his book too far:

“To attempt to exorcise the philosophical singularity of a Derrida or of a Foucault with the help of references to structural linguistics, to Heidegger, or to Nietzsche, or to say that Greimas derived his notions from Hjelmslev, or Levi-Strauss from Jakobson amounts to no more than acknowledging a debt. The most singular part of the enterprise undoubtedly lies in the nature of the decisions taken.”

Rather than a ‘philosophical’ formal critique of the contemporary, he is interested in telling the story of why and how such a towering philosophical edifice was constructed on such shaky grounds, entirely ignoring mainstream (Anglo-American, Austrian, German, and even much French) philosophy of science in the process. I happen to think that a critique of that kind is both possible and called for (I’ll be embarking on Lee Braver’s A Thing of This World in a few days in the hopes of finding it), but will content myself here with mentioning a few of Pavel’s more serious claims.

A big focus is on precisely what problems Saussure’s most influential theses – the arbitrariness of the sign and the subsequent bracketing of the linguistic/semiotic system from its ‘natural’ (causal/functional) context – were intended to solve. Saussure asserted the autonomy of linguistics as a discipline in response to failed attempts to reduce it to evolution, geography, history, or physics. Methodological autonomy of the kind usually invoked was originally based in phonological analysis. Pavel criticizes Levi-Strauss’s generalization of this phonological theory to analysis of morphemes, and his reduction of loosely defined cultural objects like Oedipus to morphemes. In contrast, Chomskian generative grammar (which he is mildly critical of but basically accepts) includes a set of constraints to limit arbitrariness that Levi-Strauss ignored. This allowed him and his followers a “hermeneutical freedom” that makes it impossible to retrace emic (abstract, ‘synchronic’) conclusions – like the symbolic structure of the Oedipus myth – back to their etic (‘diachronic’) constituents – the parts of the different narratives. In this way, Pavel argues, Levi-Strauss repeats precritical, premodern forms of exegesis (scholasticism, cabalism, astrology, etc.). Interestingly, Pavel defines ‘modern’ here as the break initiated by Spinoza’s critique of Biblical hermeneutics in the Tractatus. But this vagueness is what made ‘structuralism’ so attractive to so many different fields, and also what makes it impossible to reduce the later uses of the theory to their common ancestor.

He goes on to point out that further linguistic research has only found differential phonological networks in extremely limited phonetic systems, such as in languages with only thirty or so sounds. And at the semantic level, the differential thesis crumbles: “there is no need for an economy of means in vocabulary, since words can be invented or forgotten on a daily basis,” no verbal structure indeed capable of placing a priori limits on semantic meaning.

Pavel groups the development of structuralist influence on literature and philosophy into a sequence of three partially overlapping moments: “moderate” or “heuristic structuralism,” including literary critics like Todorov and Genette more interested in literary objects than methodological issues (he identifies Jameson as a later member of this group); “scientistic structuralism,” or Levi-Strauss, the early Barthes, and Greimas, who sought complete structuralist models for their respective fields (and I wonder to what extent Franco Moretti should be included here); and finally the “speculative structuralism” of Althusser, Lacan, Derrida, Foucault, late Barthes, who took eccentric or simply loose interpretations of structuralist linguistics well after the discipline had moved on and extrapolated them into reformulations of metaphysical categories.

Pavel identifies their common factor — and common error — similarly to the ‘speculative realist’ critique (I keep the scare quotes because half the group seems not to want the label anymore): that they took language to be the transcendental condition of knowledge. But we can see in retrospect that when we shift to a new transcendental field we inherit all the determinations of the prior discredited one. Positivisitc analytic philosophy encountered the same problem, but the choice of Saussurian linguistics over formal logic has different consequences. Pavel argues that Derrida (for example) has to assume a preexisting harmony between his theory of temporality and objectivity (deferral and writing), and the immanent, arbitrary algebra-governed language posited by Saussure and Hjelmslev. In his attempt to use linguistics to solve a phenomenological problem (the Heideggerian one of the difference between being as presence and being as existence), Derrida has to treat Saussurian/Hjelmslevian linguistics as if their object is metaphysical instead of material — objectivity itself, and not just empirical linguistic phenomena. It’s a translation that tends to be asserted and not argued.

Pavel classifies this key maneuver under linguist C.E. Bazell’s ‘correspondence fallacy’: “the structuralist belief that applying two or more sets of criteria to the same phenomena of language would [necessarily and independently] make the results of the analyses isomorphic, indeed, identical.” One could generalize this: the fallacy of assuming that a given object fundamentally conforms to its initial form of appearance, such that the application of any two or more forms of analysis will produce isomorphic results. This fallacy grounds the transcendental move, whereby we assume both that analysis of the given must start with the way it first appears and that it is not adequately justified ‘in itself,’ concluding that the proper method of critique is to derive the real (transcendental) conditions of its appearance.

There’s more to the book, but I’ll end by emphasizing a few things today’s speculative realists seem to have in common with their speculative structuralist predecessors. The structuralists too were driven by a modernizing impulse, to close a perceived methodological gap between humanist scholarship and natural science. Their anti-humanism was more central to their approach than anti-realism, which they took to require, for reasons that had nothing to do with the provisional autonomy of structuralist linguistics, minimizing or at least ‘bracketing’ intentionality, meaning, and reference (whether physical or functional) from the pure objects of their analysis: signs. Though different in most other respects, the stated justifications for why the speculative realists do, and the form, broadly speaking, of what they’re doing, what moves they want to make within philosophical and cultural (and institutional) discourse, seem unchanged from those of their immediate adversaries. Which is why I suspect the real target here is not the ‘linguistic turn’ per se, but — again same as with the structuralists —historical materialism.

Aesthetics of Stupidity (2)

Posted in Apocalypse Porn, Art/Media, Film, structuralism with tags , , , , on January 21, 2010 by traxus4420

In May 2009 Mark Peranson, editor of Cinema Scope, wrote the following hilarious account of the situation at Cannes, in which he called it “the stupidest Cannes ever”:

A deconstruction of what was wrong must begin, I suppose, with Lars von Trier. It would be futile, and, in a way, pointless, in any year to cherry-pick ridiculous observations made during Cannes, but, to begin with a cliché to end all clichés: After the initial screening of Antichrist, a blogger (having read and physically ingested so much about this film I cannot recall who wrote this) stated that he felt he was present for a crucial moment not only of Cannes history, but cinematic history in general. One can only wonder which month of last year this person started to watch film. But, I digress. To discuss Antichrist in such terms—or, indeed, to seek to destroy it—is to play into von Trier’s game. Despite having nine of his ten features screen at Cannes (does anyone have a greater batting average?), he’s always struck me as an overhyped TV director—his best work remains the first Kingdom—so when he abandons storytelling for disjointed proto-Strinbergian-Norwegian death metal psychohorror, well, the wheels have fallen off Lars’ notorious bus. In the context of Cannes, it was hard to completely discount Antichrist: this was, after all, something, or so the argument went. And something is better than nothing.

Antichrist was certainly one of the most calculated ‘art’ films I’ve ever seen, though I have no idea if its auteur had much to do with that. The viewing experience remains inextricable from its neatly packaged behind-the-scenes narrative: Von Trier wrote the screenplay during a “deep depression” from which he hadn’t fully recovered by the time of shooting; he terrorized actress Charlotte Gainsbourgh (after famously having caused Bjork to claim he “destroyed my soul”) into one of the most abject performances of any actress ever; introducing the film at Cannes he announced, apparently in earnest, that he is “the best filmmaker in the world.” All this lives up to his reputation as a neurotic, egomaniacal, misogynist provocateur, while suggesting he might exceed it. Since he is well aware of his media presence and knows how to make films that polarize critical responses into a few predictable genres, he poses something of an existential challenge to critics, who are his target audience. It’s very easy to write about — the streamlined definition of ‘artistic genius.’

Like much recent non-‘art’ horror film, it tries to make outdated cliches effective again. There is no investigation into the issues superficially referenced: the persistent ideological pull of the Judeo-Christian genesis myth, medieval Christianity’s simultaneous demonization of paganism and women, gender roles in the wake of psychoanalysis and behavioral psychology, psychoanalysis as a ‘modern’ justification for the repression of women. Nor is it a treatise of the Godardian type on the cinematic history of these themes.

Instead, Von Trier imagines a world in which every patriarchal ideologeme feminism fought to repress has returned, through the body of Gainsbourgh’s “She.” Willem Dafoe’s hapless psychotherapist husband “He” mistakes the site of this return for her mind, when it’s ‘really’ her Satanic Nature. The ‘turning point’ of the plot — when she cock-punches him with a piece of wood, jerks him off, then drills a stone wheel into his calf — comes just after he concludes that his wife’s psychosis is due to self-loathing. But her slide into insanity, apparently predating their toddler’s death, is unstoppable. Even before arriving at their surrogate Eden (the name of their cottage in the woods) – at once a retreat from their lives and a confrontation with their suffering – it becomes ‘natural.’

There are two ways in which this deeply annoying film is nevertheless worth paying attention to. In both visual style and in the attempt to recreate for the screen what the movements of the ’60s and ’70s confronted and tried to overcome, it is a kind of summation of the U.S. Aughts’ various horror trends, especially J-horror and ‘torture porn’ (there’s a piece by Christopher Sharrett in the Winter 2009 issue of Cineaste that exposes the pretensions of the latter to recreate ’70s horror). This allows it to be be read as a coda in advance to Von Trier’s unfinished U.S. trilogy (Dogville and Manderlay) — America as an exotic locale, a computer-generated fantasy land. As infinite thought notes here, the forest around Eden looks as if it were always digitally rendered. The landscape shots are also reminiscent of recent photography, such as that of Martina Lindqvist and Simen Johan, where forests, animals, and coastlines are given a properly uncanny quality, their typical (and typically American) significance as reminders of timeless innocence détourned.

Martina Lindqvist, from Rågskär Island, 2008

Simen Johan, from Until the Kingdom Comes, 2006

The film’s inchoate aura of doom links it not only to the work of Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Kairo), Hideo Nakata (Ringu), and David Lynch (everything from Lost Highway on), but also American formalist doomsday films No Country For Old Men, There Will Be Blood, and The Road. But the distinctive thing about Antichrist is that America’s vision of nature, not just its capitalist culture, has become decadent; what at first resembles a Native American vision quest (the three creepy animals who might be spirit guides, Eden’s initial appearance in a hypnosis-induced dream) is revealed to be a regression in the wrong direction, away from settler Enlightenment and toward a distinctly medieval, European vision of apocalypse.

The second way is as a visual example of structuralism. She” is not a proper name, a person with a psychology to be penetrated and rehabilitated, but the name of a set: all women, just as “He” is all men. Adam and Eve are figures of nostalgia when ‘Eden’ is a well-heeled couple’s private vacation spot. “He” and “She” are the archetypes of gender itself, artifacts of psychology’s quixotic (or cynical) and all too liberal attempt to describe in the jargon of personality what it has already determined to be better represented by the jargon of objects. Lacan derisively calls this contradiction ‘ego psychology,’ and the film is equally contemptuous of “His” CBT-inspired theorizing. But Nature rhetoric aside, the hysterical violence of Antichrist’s final act forecloses conservative nostalgia for ‘pre-modern’ gender relations. Something rather different is at work here. I’m reminded of the term catmint coined to diagnose Zizek’s op-eds, ‘structuralist pornography:’

The affectivity of structuralism is built around the logic of (pre whig era) conservatism. Structuralism isn’t selling conservatism but it does dramatically ask: what if conservatism is after all reasonable? It restates the idea of a mysterious quasi-divine social order, not as the basis of political commitment but as a horrifying possibility undermining political commitment. It’s surely of a piece with the vague politics of the middle class; predicated on a worried sort of liberalism. But again it’s not too far from conservatism proper, which was always an orthodoxy of absent arguments; the arguments of conservatives being nearly always bad (there’s also a relation to masochism).

One can hear this almost literally announced in the dialogue, which is that of archetypes talking to each other. As is typical of Von Trier, it would feel more ‘at home’ on the stage (and despite the woodland setting sounds as if recorded in a studio optimized for radio or musical performance), and this is what one notices before anything else. Take this typical exchange:

She: If human nature is evil, then that goes as well for the nature of…

He: Of the women. Female nature.

She: The nature of all the sisters. Women don’t control their own bodies. Nature does. I have it in writing in my books.

He: The literature that you used in your research was about evil things committed against women, but you read it as proof of the evil of women? You were supposed to be critical of those texts. That was your thesis! Instead, you’re embracing it! Do you know what you’re saying?

She: Forget it. I don’t know why I said it.

This dialogue is technically bad because it is too meaningful; both too clear about what it means and too abstract to be clear beyond the ‘domain of the signifier.’ Its transcendental dullness kills the possibility of subtext, reading it is a matter of plug & play. It’s up to the violence and delirious imagery to give affective force to what would otherwise be an unbroken string of banalities. However, Von Trier is unwilling to let horror fans ‘indulge’ in making sense out of the bloodshed, whether merely as visceral thrills, or aesthetic appreciation (like in Dario Argento), or as socially significant (like in George Romero’s zombie movies). Instead the intended audience of cinephiles, professional critics, and academics is made to feel the power of apocalyptic patriarchal mysticism, even to suffer from it (to feel physically sick, emotionally terrorized), all while being unable to interpret it in a way that isn’t repellent. In this way Antichrist is as emptily sermonizing as the rest of the director’s recent oeuvre.

“All determinations become bad and cruel when they are grasped only by a thought which invents and contemplates them, flayed and separated from their living form, adrift upon this barren ground. Everything becomes violence on this passive ground. Everything becomes attack on this digestive ground. Here the Sabbath of stupidity and malevolence takes place. Perhaps this is the origin of that melancholy which weighs upon the most beautiful human faces: the presentiment of a hideousness peculiar to the human face, of a rising tide of stupidity, an evil deformity or a thought governed by madness. For from the point of view of a philosophy of nature, madness arises at the point at which the individual contemplates itself in this free ground — and, as a result, stupidity in stupidity and cruelty in cruelty — to the point that it can no longer stand itself…Stupidity is neither the ground nor the individual, but rather this relation in which individuation brings the ground to the surface without being able to give it form (this ground rises by means of the I, penetrating deeply into the possibility of thought and constituting the unrecognized in every recognition).

— Gilles Deleuze, Difference & Repetition

The presence or absence of the self at the root of every bad thing, the ambivalence of bourgeois morals, rests on a certain spiritualized intransigence, something ostensibly disowned but in fact kept as close as a security blanket. Von Trier, quite knowingly, can only replay what he pretends to punish, in himself as well as his audience: yet one more complex, paradoxical, brilliant route to abject stupidity.

And now I shall make the masses….disappear!!!

Posted in Activism, Apocalypse Porn, Philosophy, Political Theory, structuralism, The Internet, U.S. Politics on October 31, 2008 by traxus4420

Well, here’s a fun little blip:

I have been struck by the absence of collective protest over the actions of those in the financial industry. Free market advocates have been rendered impotent; why aren’t they up in arms that their belief system has been forever invalidated? Leftists watch as our elected leaders hand over the oversight function to the very companies that caused this mess; why aren’t they taking to the streets?

Talk shows and blog postings reveal plenty of individual anger, but there hasn’t been much collective expression. Why is this? And what forms of protest and outcry would be legitimate?

At the risk of being accused of inciting mass violence, I’d like to know whether people would be justified in using the riot at this particular moment in history. More broadly, under what conditions is the riot a rational (and/or justifiable) response to injustice?

Sociologists love the riot, of course, because it offers an opportunity to test theories regarding mass behavior and individual tolerance for oppressive conditions.

Having observed a few riots, I know that they can also be caused by trivial factors: For example, I watched looters take over streets on the South Side of Chicago after the Bulls won their second consecutive basketball championship — hardly an “oppressive” situation.

But in general, riots are responses to fairly serious issues, like the rising price of commodities, police brutality, assassination of political leaders.

So the federal government is now sending $700 billion of taxpayer money to free market scions who, I remind you, spend millions on collective protest (“lobbying”) against any form of government aid — especially to the middle class, to the poor, and to foreigners.

Scandalous! Taxpayers of the world unite, I say!

Here is my theory as to why the riot has gone the way of the Sony Walkman — an appendage of an earlier era:

1) The iPod:

In public spaces, serendipitous interaction is needed to create the “mob mentality,” which by its nature is not rational or formed through petitions. Most iPod-like devices separate citizens from one another; you can’t join someone in a movement if you can’t hear the voices of its participants. Congrats Mr. Jobs for impeding social change.

2) Prescription drugs:

What is the social function of anxiety reduction if not to increase the capacity of individuals to tolerate their social predicaments? Q.E.D.

3) Debt:

This is a tricky one. In the short term, debt straps individuals into society and makes them fearful of acting out: failing to pay could land them in jail, in bankruptcy, etc. But in the long term, they may feel life has become intolerable and there is little to lose — so, why not tear down the walls? (This kind of thinking, by the way, is partly at the root of our current mess. Those who bought second homes walked away from their investments, accepting bankruptcy, when they realized they were never going to make payments in the long term.)

4) “Hey, things could be worse.”:

Riots require collective recognition that a threshold (of oppressive rule, inequity, etc.) has been surpassed and there’s little hope for improvement. In matters of social oppression, apart from a political assassination, it is rare that mass audiences will agree that such conditions hold. Things have to be downright awful, and we haven’t reached that stage yet. Yet.

5) No enemy in sight:

Rioters usually attack symbols of oppression. For example, in a riot in Chicago in 1992, protesters tore down streetlights, broke lamps, burned school buildings, and otherwise attacked government property. In Los Angeles, in the aftermath of the so-called “Rodney King affair,” non-black stores were attacked.

What might be the target of mobs violently responding to the financial mess? Maybe Midtown Manhattan? How about the Milton Friedman Institute at the University of Chicago?

A general rule is that contemporary rioters do not travel, so they would need to find symbols within their own communities: currency exchanges, banks, the offices of Congressional officials who voted “yes” on the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, etc.

It goes without saying that I miss a good old-fashioned riot. But my malaise hardly compares to others who are suffering in these times.

For example, I often pity the poor souls who took out property insurance with A.I.G. and other insurers. In the event of a riot, they might be next in line for a government bailout. Will there be anything left in the $700 billion for them?

Some highlights from the peanut gallery:

Forget a riot, how about a simple mass protest?

— Posted by Andrew M


You raise an interesting question. I refused to be completely forthright in the previous discussion of corruption just for that very reason- as not wishing to cause harm. I think the truth does help so long as it does not knowingly cause others great pain and suffering. There is the matter of knowledge and the use to which it is put. Perhaps sometimes it is better to let sleeping dogs lie. Honesty is not always the best of policies.

— Posted by science minded


Not saying I totally support this idea, but it is a thought I had; is it possible that the lack of riots could be credited to the internet and blogging? Rioting is a way of letting the community know that you are, well, really pissed off and want change. It is a way of venting. With the advent of blogs, myspace, facebook, etc. people are able to (as we are doing know) share their feelings with the “world” and believe, rightly or not, that it will somehow bring about change.

Added bonus: No police. No riot gear.

— Posted by dave


Our societies have been very successful at socializing us that “violence is always wrong” (unless, of course, it’s used by the monopolist of violence, our government) and that if we want to change the system we need to do so from within.

Convincing the overwhelming majority of the population of the evils of violence has been a phenomenal achievement that is all-too-often overlooked. Those in power control the levers of power, and they’ve convinced the rest of us that if we want change, we need to use those same levers. In the words of Leonard Cohen, “There’s a war between those who know there’s a war and those who don’t.”

Society’s ability to “rule out” violence as a legitimate forum of social change has had an impact throughout society. The possibility of violence, preferably never acted upon, helped labor throughout the first half of the 20th century.

Negotiating in the shadow of violence has now been replace by negotiating in the shadow of the law, and the law is a predictable tool of power.

— Posted by Boldizar


There was a protest of the bailout. The media didn’t care to cover it:

— Posted by Matt


My guess would be that the urge to riot is being sublimated into the election.

— Posted by Victor Kava


IF or when Obama’s election is sabotaged, a’la 2000 and 2004, you can perhaps expect to see shocking replays of the fires of Newark, Detroit and Watts.
“Burn, Bay, Burn!” is simply a bottled-up reaction waiting to be ignited — it is not something antiquated. It could get very ugly, and the worst of Euro-Americans will emerge. Excess has its price, and that price is the implosion of the flimsy empire.

— Posted by Frank Little

Ah, democracy. This sort of thing strengthens even further my admiration of J.G. Ballard’s rewriting of the bourgeois psychological novel as its apparent opposite, apocalyptic science fiction. Pundit and basement-dweller alike mind meld over vistas of rubble, the utopian vision of suburb and shantytown coming together in an orgy of violence, the rule of melancholy survivalists, and the binary moral choices so amply generated by these exciting scenarios.

The pundit is of course much more polite about it. The fantasy of the revolt of the masses is posed as a good-natured interactive thought experiment. This is possible because its subject is invisible. And so (where else could it go) the impulse to riot, justified of course, though repressed by the efficiency of 21st century commodity culture, is in the last account explicitly connected with the author’s middle-class “malaise.” Our responsibility, you see, is to avoid violence when it might cause the innocent to suffer, especially members of that unseen, amorphous mass capable of serving all our rhetorical needs. No matter how much we might want to break shit. Oh, we’re so naughty!

The number of commenters capable of recognizing the difference between riots and protests without a prompt is reassuring, at least.

The sad thing is that this convenient anthropology isn’t limited to being a pastime of MSM columnists. I’ve heard and read active and inactive leftists read their own actions in these terms. It’s a comforting fantasy, perhaps even a dominant one, to assume the reasons for collective failure or marginalization can be found in individual neuroses, consumer products, or the favorite modernist lament, lack of the new. The one ‘social’ condition given in the article, debt, is accompanied by a friendly reminder that despair at one’s circumstances is both narcissistic (based in excessive consumption — second homes) and “partly at the root of our current mess.”

It’s undeniable that there is a problem with left politics in America, or even independent politics. The obvious side of the problem is a failure to organize. Here it’s put in rigidly psychological terms, as the psychology of a population, or in at least one jargon, the ‘collective unconscious.’ The problem is therefore conceived in terms of a set of speculative, in this case mostly arbitrary conditions on this unconscious. Just for a moment, however, let’s permit ourselves to take seriously this rather limited context. The fundamental problem is prior to all this fanciful mapping out of opportune and inopportune conditions, and is rather what enables that conundrum to appear in its usual form as amusing intellectual puzzle: subjectification, or the failure to become a political subject.

This topic is an official area of philosophical inquiry which is unfortunately too important for me to get away with summarizing here. My point for now is that a certain type of speculation — social theory as the projection of various myths onto a people or even another person — seems to me delegitimated if one understands subjectification in politics as an unavoidable necessity of social life. Even if a collective product, the myth is applied by someone, irreducibly an attempt by the one to determine the many. Whether luxury or crime, existence beyond the walls of the subject (the obvious fantasized escape) would then be restricted to a temporary, anomalous, or precarious state, brought on by, among many other things, a certain theatrical posture toward writing. ‘Abstract’ discourse about society and Man is then damned to oscillate between fiction and autobiography, with history caked under the fingernails.

Rational Actors

Posted in Apocalypse Porn, Film, structuralism with tags , , , , , , on August 16, 2008 by traxus4420

The comments to my superhero post got me thinking about acting and corporate cinema (if anyone cares to complement my idle musings with references to respectable criticism on the subject, I’d appreciate it). I’m going to hypothesize that there is a new style of acting dominant in ‘mainstream’ corporate entertainment, of the type constructed ‘as if’ intended solely for teenage boys, though versions of it also exist in certain art films of the new absurdist/surrealist variety, i.e. Davids Lynch and Cronenberg.

This style is characterized by an impersonal, flattened affect of the type usually associated with advertisements, bad amateur theatre, and low-level anchorpeople. That is, there is almost no difference between performance, character, and archetype. We can consider George Lucas’s The Phantom Menace as a sort of flagship vehicle, an interesting example because of how vehemently it was criticized, especially for its “wooden” acting. It’s also interesting because of its status as a kind of corporate auteurist project — Lucasfilm is a privately owned corporation, and Lucas wrote and directed the last three movies himself. TPM is also an attempt to repeat the success of a franchise, and though the initial decision may have had more to do with personal vanity than market demand, the production was under the same rigid constraints as it would have been under a less autocratic regime. Almost every major character is a ‘purer’ structural double of a character from the older trilogy. Liam Neeson’s mentor figure is simply a less distinctive version of Alec Guinness’s mentor figure, Natalie Portman is a personality-less Carrie Fisher, Hayden Christensen’s Anakin Skywalker disappointed everyone by being an even more boring Luke Skywalker. The only engaging characters are literally nostalgic repetitions of characters from the old trilogy, often played by the same actor (notably, there is no Han Solo analogue).

I challenge anyone to hold its performances up to those of the critically acclaimed The Dark Knight, and, excluding Heath Ledger for the moment, say what the difference is. There’s the same vacuity, the same open invitation to allegory. One has to assume they’re told to act this way, since both films are full of actors with proven talent. All that’s purchased are their names and faces (I wonder if that’s in the contract). They inhabit their parts with all the smoothness of an automaton, a styleless mode of performance apparently designed for easy exchange with animated versions, comic book images, videogame avatars, concepts.

Almost no one praises this ‘bad’ acting and dialogue; the consensus seems to be that it’s just not worth commenting on, that these are the film’s ‘givens.’

The exception, of course, is the Joker. All the Nicholson-bashing praise given to Ledger’s version aside, the two actors fill the same structural role in both TDK and Tim Burton’s Batman. Where Nicholson was the only actor in Batman given free reign to go completely over the top, giving a hyper-individualistic, Nicholson-esque performance that verged on self-parody, Ledger is the only actor in TDK permitted to act at all. As k-punk writes, he “plays the make-up,” disappearing so completely into the image of the Joker he approaches the impossible trick of performing a surface from the inside out. Compared with the Method ethos that Nicholson was trained in, that of embodying every character with personal autobiography, the channelling of positive excess that overflows the boundaries of the written role, Ledger delivers a negative counterpoint. Neither imaginative nor personal identification, but something more like possession.

Both Jokers, however, are positioned as the product of everyone else’s work, the sole redemptive upshot of their relative dullness. Nicholson and Ledger’s costars come off as failures in a struggle to follow their example. The cast of Batman is allowed to play their limited parts; Michael Keaton and Kim Basinger especially carry off witty, if minor, performances, but next to Jack they look like manniqins. In TDK, where the actors really are used as manniqins, they appear to mindlessly follow the bad script (you can almost see the slavedriver with the whip: “WILL YOU…STOP…EMOTING!”) while Ledger allows himself to be consumed by it, becoming the film’s faux-anarchic king-for-a-day.

In the later work of David Lynch, maybe the features from Fire Walk With Me on, a similarly exceptional performance is given by a woman, and is the product of her intense, irrational suffering. Everyone else is flat, but weirdly, threateningly flat; they are her tormentors, or her gypsy fortune tellers. The dialogue is all ‘bad.’ Some of Cronenberg draws something similar out of its actors — History of Violence, Eastern Promises, and Crash all have these zombielike performances of intensely generic scripts — though closer to mainstream studio output than Lynch in that the only additional importance attached to the actors’ apparent blankness is given by the graphic violence and sexual perversity.

The style or style family I’m trying to pin down is something like the affectation of camp delivered to an audience that doesn’t seem interested in reading the films that way, who instead take their old-fashioned, unreflective ethical injunctions and ‘philosophical’ kernels (“with great power comes great responsibility”), their telegraphed attempts at emotional manipulation,  completely seriously. Or do they? Reading reviews and academic analyses it can be difficult to tell if the critic, immersed in his or her role as cultural commentator of a specific genre, is oblivious to the demands of communicating something of importance outside narrow discursive conventions, this being the basic foundation of seriousness. Maybe the actors share something with the critics: a professional response to the intolerable, one thus infatuated with its (imaginary) opposite.

Some of the differences between, say, Batman and The Dark Knight or Star Wars and The Phantom Menace can be understood if we conclude that the cost of producing what was at one time simply a charismatic, flawed, rebel hero, one among others, and is now this crazy, anarchic rebel (anti)hero and prophet, has, at least in certain genres, been steadily increasing.

More to come…

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Nothing

Posted in Lit, Philosophy, structuralism, Utopia with tags , , , , , , on June 4, 2008 by traxus4420

In his Theory of the Novel, the pre-Marxist Lukács defines the epic (in terms of genre, enabling synthetic analysis and comparison with ‘the novel’ and ‘the drama’), following on Hegel and Schiller’s understanding of Homeric Greece as essentially “naive,” “childish,” etc., as the terrain of absolute empiricism, an ontologically and politically heterogeneous totality complete in itself, without need for a transcendent Other. “In the epic, totality can only truly manifest itself in the contents of the object: it is metasubjective, transcendent, it is a revelation and grace. Living, empirical man is always the subject of the epic, but his creative, life-mastering arrogance is transformed in the great epics into humility, contemplation, speechless wonder at the luminous meaning which, so unexpectedly, so naturally, has become visible to him, an ordinary human being in the midst of ordinary life.” As he will say over and over, the sphere of the epic is the sphere of life, the consistency of subject-object relations, the balance between man and nature, guaranteed by the positing of humanlike gods, arbiters of destiny from whom the heroes derive meaning through endless struggle against their decrees.

The novel by contrast, the “bourgeois epic,” operates in a different historical situation, one in which man has estranged himself from nature through the accumulated residue of his own subjective will. The world has been overtaken by the “second nature” of reification, the “charnel-house of long-dead interiorities.” Against this alienation, the novelist opposes form: “The epic gives form to a totality of life that is rounded from within; the novel seeks, by giving form, to uncover and construct the concealed totality of life.” Or, more forcefully: “The abstract basis of the novel assumes form as a result of the abstraction seeing through itself; the immanence of meaning required by the form is attained precisely when the author goes all the way, ruthlessly, toward exposing its absence.”

This is of course the original quixotic quest, doomed to a whole typology of failures. The novelistic hero, “problematic individual,” invariably reveals him or herself to be nothing but the function of a formal principle that exceeds any given subject, the novelist’s development or pushing to limits of a “certain problematic of life.” Like the epic orator, the novelist abandons his characters to their fates, but where the suffering of epic heroes fulfills their role within the vital totality, the suffering of novel heroes is an impossible dilemma: the destitution of the world of false meanings by negative, formal Truth not only leaves them no place to stand, but no given terms in which to understand their fall. “The novel is the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God,” writes Lukacs the secular utopian, and in so doing he reconstructs the dialectic perhaps most favored by intellectuals for defining modern European culture, Greeks vs. Judeo-Christians.

Fully in the manner of the Lukácsian novelistic hero, a role no philosopher or critic can shake (as it is basically the job description), Auerbach carries this opposition to its formal conclusions in Mimesis:

“The Bible’s claim to truth is not only far more urgent than Homer’s, it is tyrannical — it excludes all other claims. The world of Scripture stories is not satisfied with claiming to be a historically true reality — it insists that it is the only real world, is destined for autocracy. All other scenes, issues, and ordinances have no right to appear independently of it, and it is promised that all of them, the history of all mankind, will be given their due place within its frame, will be subordinated to it. The Scripture stories do not, like Homer’s, court our favor, they do not flatter us that they might please us and enchant us — they seek to subject us, and if we refuse to be subjected we are rebels.”

And in summation:

“We have compared these two texts [Odyssey and the Old Testament], and, with them, the two kinds of style they embody, in order to reach a starting point for an investigation into the literary representation of reality in European culture. The two styles, in their opposition, represent basic types: on the one hand fully externalized description, uniform illumination, uninterrupted connection, free expression, all events in the foreground, displaying unmistakable meanings, few elements of historical development and of psychological perspective; on the other hand, certain parts brought into high relief, others left obscure, abruptness, suggestive influence of the unexpressed, ‘background’ quality, multiplicity of meanings and the need for interpretation, universal-historical claims, development of the concept of the historically becoming, and preoccupation with the problematic.”

We first have to set aside any qualms we may have about historical accuracy in these schematic characterizations and understand them as the creations of philosopher-critics. Two figures are raised up as ideal types, twin extremes the modern subject is understood to define itself by rejecting, the child and the tyrant. Against these theoretical demiurges, undisciplined naiveté and arbitrary power, we come into the “maturity” and “virility” of alienation, the passage from Dante to Quixote and on to all that follows. Child and tyrant are thus linked in their immaturity, their being not-yet-modern. The idealism of pure, immediate sensuousness, and the tyranny (and mystery) of Truth become the stuff of Utopia.

Lukács writes of the modern novel: “The inner importance of the individual has reached its historical apogee: the individual is no longer significant as the carrier of transcendent worlds, as he was in abstract idealism, he now carries his value exclusively within himself.” The jab at ‘abstract idealism’ is one of the few references made to philosophy as a positive influence on the historical process of modernity’s self-definition, not ‘just’ a source for the invisible theoretical edifice. Odd when the whole enterprise, certainly modern and certainly formalist, just like the novelistic hero, is so plainly, irrecusably Hegelian. Hegel and his lineage — ‘philosophy itself’ — are permitted into the form but not the content of this narrative of the modern subject disguised as narrative of the modern novel; in this little glimpse we see only hubris (“carrier of transcendent worlds”), just another shorn vanity. Philosophy gets us from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft, or communalism based on shared myth to organized society based on legal binding, and Lukács has his critiques elsewhere of Kant and Hegel. But what about the ‘style’ of philosophy? Like the Old Testament its concern is Truth, but with an invitation to dialogue, its announced dependence on the testability (if not verifiability) of logical argument? Plato’s dialogues are already tricks of interpellation, a staged conversation wherein Socrates makes pronouncements in the form of questions, fools spout banalities in the form of argument, and Plato silently transcribes. The trail from dialogues to dialectics would be worth following.

Of course, the poststructuralists already tore down the barriers separating myth, theology, philosophy, and literature. Rancière gives a well-practiced version of this argument in “The Body of the Letter,” where he reads the avant la lettre ‘postmodern’ skepticism of Cervantes (via Borges) back down to the Bible, permitting a solution to the antinomy of Christianity — “a Christianity of incarnation that finds its realization in the pagan ‘Bible’ of the epic poem, and a Christianity of absence that founds the ‘modern’ epic of the novel” — by reducing the Bible’s cryptic eschatological promise to so many ‘textual economies’ generated by the in-existent secret:

“Against any facile theory of a god as master of stories, playing with the madness of his characters and the belief of his readers, the modern novel manifests this solidarity of the power of writing with the dispersion of the letter that travels the world without a body of legitimacy. And its story is also that of the inversion of the initial relationship of mastery, which becomes the subjection of literary absoluteness to any characer whatsoever, to any ‘madman,’ caught in the trajectory of the silent and loquacious letter.”

Even the most tyrannical, irrational, inscrutable proprietor subject is expropriated by the a-signifying logic of information processing, hoist by his own petard so to speak. The anti-‘anthropomorphism’ and expansive definition of subjective idealism presented by Brassier and (some of) his speculative realist pals, it should be noted, apply to all of the above, especially the latter (the old and now outdated source of anti-humanist jollies). Where precisely do they differ? Not on the level of form — there are only so many of those to go around — but on the level of Truth, a truth for which form is not the expression, is rather the vehicle for the return of subject to object. Brassier elevates what for Lukács are two unfortunate indulgences of consciousness:

“The desire to know a world cleansed of all wanting and all willing transforms the subject into an a-subjective, constructive and constructing embodiment of cognitive functions.”

“In the Romanticism of disillusionment, time is the corrupting principle; poetry, the essential, must die, and time is ultimately responsible for its passing”

to the realm of necessity — true no matter what ‘you’ ‘think.’ The “childish” naiveté of Lukács’ Homer is non-dialectically combined (a la Laruelle) with the expulsion from Paradise. Reality is Authority, and the subject has the inestimable privilege of being nowhere.

Structuralism and its Illegitimate Offspring

Posted in Linguistics, Marxism, structuralism, The French on March 18, 2008 by traxus4420

“In the discussion of the mind-body problem, or of materialism, it is generally assumed that we understand what is meant by ‘body.’ That is, we come to the problem with a basic understanding of the material world and its principles, and we ask whether the principles and entities postulated in some domain – in this case, the domain of mental representations and processes — can be ‘reduced’ to a material basis, presumed to be understood, or whether the richest concept of ‘matter’ will not accomodate this domain. But a little thought about the history of science suffices to show that the initial assumption is highly questionable. Surely our ideas about the material world have changed radically in the past several centuries. To the Cartesians, action-at-a-distance was incomprehensible, and it seems that Newton too considered it an ‘occult quality.’ The success of Newtonian physics led to the incorporation of this mysterious property of matter within the common sense of the next generation. As physics extended its scope to incorporate electromagnetic forces, massless particles, and other novel ideas, it was the basic concept of ‘body’ that changed. There is little reason to suppose that the fundamental history of science has come to an end. Thus it is certainly imaginable that our present concept of ‘body’ — our basic picture of the ‘material world’ — will be shown to be fundamentally inadequate, as has so often been the case in the past. If so, then the question of ‘reducing’ the theory of mind to a materialistic basis cannot be posed in any clear terms.

Roughly speaking, it seems reasonable to say that our concept of ‘matter’ will be extended to include any domain that can be shown to be in some sense ‘continuous’ with physics. If this new domain requires new physical assumptions that can be integrated with the rest of natural science, then our concept of the material world will have changed, and the new domain will have become part of physics in an expanded sense of ‘physics.’ The question whether linguistics ‘qualifies as materialist’ then can be rephrased. A positive answer might arise in one of two ways: (1) by showing that the theory of language can be ‘reduced’ to physics as now understood, as many biologists now believe that problems of life have in effect been ‘reduced’ to biochemistry, ultimately physics; or (2) by showing that physics can be extended, if need be to include the principle of this new domain, as it has been extended in the past to include many phenomena and principles that were entirely beyond the scope of the ‘material world’ as previously conceived


Consider what is sometimes called ‘the creative aspect of language use,’ that is, our ability to use language freely to express our thoughts, independently of the control of identifiable stimuli. It is this ability to which Descartes appealed as a kind of criterion for the existence of ‘other minds.’ Honesty requires us to concede that we have no insight into any possible physical basis for this normal human ability. Whether this remarkable and apparently unique human ability can be reduced to physics as now understood, or whether physics can be extended in some natural way to accommodate it, remains an entirely open question, a perplexing mystery.”

Noam Chomsky, Materialism in linguistics and the morality criterion (28 March 1977).

“It is likely that the evolution of human cortical structure was influenced by the acquisition of a linguistic capacity so that articulated language not only has permitted the evolution of culture, but has contributed in a decisive fashion to the physical ‘evolution of man’; and there is no paradox in supposing that the linguistic capacity which reveals itself in the course of the epigenetic development of the brain is now part of human nature itself intimately associated with other aspects of cognitive functions which may in fact have evolved in a specific way by virtue of the early use of articulated language.”

— Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity (1971)

“The aim of all structuralist activity, in the fields of both thought and poetry, is to reconstitute an object, and, by this process, to make known the rules of functioning, or ‘functions,’ of this object. The structure is therefore effectively a simulacrum of the object, but it is a simulation that is both purposeful and relevant, since the object derived by this process brings out something that remained invisible, or, if you like, unintelligble in the natural object…The simulacrum is intellect added to the object.”

— Roland Barthes

“Volosinov’s decisive contribution was to find a way beyond the powerful but partial theories of expression and objective system. He found it in fundamentally Marxist terms, though he had to begin by saying that Marxist thinking about language was virtually non-existent. His originality lay in the fact that he did not seek to apply other Marxist ideas to language. On the contrary he reconsidered the whole problem of language within a general Marxist orientation. This enabled him to see ‘activity’ (the strength of the idealist emphasis after Humboldt) as social activity and to see ‘system’ (The strength of the new after Humboldt) in relation to this social activity and not, as had hitherto been the case, formally separated from it. Thus in drawing on the strengths of the alternative traditions, and in setting them side by side showing their connected radical weaknesses, he opened the way to a new kind of theory which had been necessary for more than a century.

Much of his effort went to recovering the full emphasis on language as activity, as practical consciousness, which had been weakened and in effect denied by its specialization to a closed ‘individual consciousness’ or ‘inner psyche.’ The strength of this tradition was still in its insistence on the active creation of meanings, as distinct from the alternative assumption of a closed formal system. Volosniov argued that meaning was necessarily a social action, dependent on a social relationship. But to understand this depended on recovering a full sense of ‘social,’ as distinct both from the idealist reduction of the social to an inherited, ready-made product, an ‘inert crust,’ beyond which all creativity was individual, and from the objectivist projection of the social into a formal system, now autonomous and governed only by its internal laws, within which, and solely according to which, meanings were produced. Each sense, at root, depends on the same error: of separating the social from individual meaningful activity (though the rival positions then valued the separated elements differently). Against the psychologism of the idealist emphasis, Volosinov argued that ‘consciousness takes shape and being in the material of signs created by an organized group in the process of its social intercourse. The individual consciousness is nurtured on signs; it derives its growth from them; it reflects their logic and laws.'”

Raymond Williams, “Language as Sociality” (1977)

“There is no individual enunciation. There is not even a subject of enunciation. Yet relatively few linguists have analyzed the necessarily social character of enunciation. The problem is that it is not enough to establish that enunciation has this social character, since it could be extrinsic; therefore too much or too little is said about it. The social character of enunciation is intrinsically founded only if one succeeds in demonstrating how enunciation in itself implies collective assemblages. It then becomes clear that the statement is individuated, and enunciation subjectified, only to the extent that an impersonal collective assemblage requires it and determines it to be so. It is for this reason that indirect discourse, especially ‘free’ indirect discourse, is of exemplary value: there are no clear, distinctive contours; what comes first is not an insertion of variously individuated statements, or an interlocking of different subjects of enunciation, but a collective assemblage resulting in the determination of relative subjectification proceedings, or assignations of individuality and their shifting distributions within discourse. Indirect discourse is not explained by the distinction between subjects; rather, it is the assemblage, as it freely appears in this discourse, that explains all the voices present within a single voice, the glimmer of girls in a monologue by Charlus, the languages in a language, the order-words in a word. The American murderer ‘Son of Sam’ killed on the prompting of an ancestral voice, itself transmitted through the voice of a dog. The notion of collective assemblage of enunciation takes on primary importance since it is what must account for the social character. We can no doubt define the collective assemblage as the rdundant complex of the act and the statement that necessarily accomplishes it. But this is still only a nominal definition; it does not even enable us to justify our previous position that redundancy is irreducible to a simple identity (or that there is no simple identity between the statement and the act). If we wish to move to a real definition of the collective assemblage, we must ask of what consist these acts immanent to language that are in redundancy with statements or constitute order-words.”

— Deleuze & Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (1980)

“From the user’s point of view, constraints can be more or less difficult, more or less manageable. Obviously a complex relation exists between the requirements of an outwardly imposed rule and the artist’s inner freedom. (This is why the choice of mathematics, arguably in fundamental opposition to poetry, is anything but haphazard: seen from inside literature, nothing looks more artificial than mathematics). There is a true challenge here; which is why the ‘Oulipian Way,’ like negative theology elsewhere, is not to be universally recommended to those in search of literary salvation. It is here that potentiality encounters limitations. (A debate within the Oulipio, dating from early on, bears witness to this: for a proposed constraint to be deemed Oulipian, must there exist at least one text composed according to this constraint? Most Oulipians answer yes. But President Le Lionnais, ever the radical, tended to brush this requirement away. Furthermore, there is a whole Oulipian ‘tradition’ devoted to the search for combinatorially exciting constraints for which possible texts are extremely few in number.)”

— Jacques Roubaud, “The Oulipo and Combinatorial Art” (1991)

We braid the weird

Weavings of rhyme

Whose ensigns furl

To fit a rule

No more than word.

— Jacques Jouet