Week 12 further at last

And finally, from me, a few belated reflections on Dance Dance Revolution, and on the course; with the disadvantage of a growing distance from our meetings, and the advantage of the same.

First, about Dance Dance, I’ve been wondering what to make of its resemblance to a video game. Or rather, how its timeline moves from something like conventional political and social history (in Korea) into a video game version of the same. If you think about the Desert, it is set up as a series of nationally-themed hotels, each a kind of neon stereotype of itself, set in an otherwise featureless landscape; there is a bridge, and on the other side of the bridge, New City; there are two major classes of characters, guides and tourists, with an interloper historian as our avatar; some of the guides are terrorists, but we don’t know which; the landscape is sown with dangerous mines. The particular abstraction of space into discontinuous zones of interest and the schematized dramatic personae are stock-in-trade for games (or perhaps games of a slightly earlier era, when the gamescape was functionally discontinuous, requiring magical or at least adumbrated transport from zone to zone—I’m no expert, but its my sense that in the newest, you can spend as much time in the in-between as you like, and even find interest there; not so for DDR. Say, anything in that abbreviation?).

If we sense that affinity, what to make of it? Recall the double backstory for the Guide and the Historian. The Guide grew up in Kwangju, to a family of yes-men: her grandfather had collaborated with the Japanese, her father with the Americans (“He like mine grandfather yessed y yessed” [43]); she joins the resistance “to fightim me yesman lineage” (44). At the age of 20 she is the voice of the uprising against the 1980 coup, but after her capture, and a brutal imprisonment in the Ginseng Colony, she moves to the Desert; there, we learn that she fits herself into the system as best she can, even informing against jingo-purist terrorists: her yes-man lineage has apparently caught up with her. The Historian is a generation younger, born to a doctor who participated in the same uprising in 1980, but left the country afterward, to serve with Doctors Without Borders in Sierra Leone. (Her mother died when she was three.) Her father’s ethical devotion is a kind of political quiescence, and when she comes to the Desert, it is in search of a lost connection to her own family history of resistance—for we learn that her father was involved with the young Guide, before he met the Historian’s mother. The Guide, then, is makes for complicated kin: she a figure of bitter, sarcastic, self-lacerating disappointment; her polyglot linguistic virtuosity is anti-fundamentalist, perhaps, but also a versatile complicity with the Desert’s capitalist language-traffic. Her voice was her strength in Kwangju; now it is an ingenious complicity.

I offer up that much background—it is almost novelistic!—because it takes so much effort to work it all out; it is an interesting question, what kind of history you are doing, trying to assemble that narrative from the complexity of the poem. (It is not an archival labor; but it is definitely a labor.) Be that as it may, my point here is that the encounter between the two characters happens in the Desert’s video game space, a translation of history into—what, perhaps a kind of game-stasis, in which action, if that is the word, is meant to be ongoing, contained, resettable; polychronic in the manner of a theme park. The world of the poem is in stalemate between the Desert and New City, and history, of the sort that the Guide and the Historian’s father tried to make happen in Korea, is stalled, reduced to gameplay.

Except that the medium is not pixels, or polygons, but words. Language is the basis of the animosity between the Desert and New City, between the endlessly productive creole and the “jingo-purists” who have been exiled across the bridge. Here I think the poem’s politics are wonderfully thick and sophisticated. There are strong signals that the jingo-purists are to be identified with linguistic fundamentalism, perhaps Islamic fundamentalism, New City being a place “without image” (81); “They can follow their words back to the first tribe” (80) and they “crave for time to stand still” (21). We hear the story of a boy whose brother was killed by Desert officials, and who snuck back into the city as a terrorist disguised as a guide. The Desert creole is, by contrast, endlessly mutating, multicultural, and, one might expect, politically potent. And yet, at the same time, it is a kind of nightmare of reification: linguistic change there is driven by its international traffic, and by a capitalist logic that copyrights words and phrases (see the Historian’s note, 90). The jingo-purists look a little more sympathetic if we see how readily the creole accommodates itself to the state violence that protects the Desert’s free trade. The Guide may distinguish herself by her inventiveness?—but she is a brilliant speaker of a complicit idiom, which is as historically forgetful as it is historically polyglot. Nor does it seem to be a Nietzschean freedom to act that she gets for it. Quite the contrary. Perhaps it is even a freedom only, merely, to continue speaking? To keep playing?

Which brings me back to what came together for me here as a larger theme of the course, the specifically poetic promise of language as a way of thinking history. We have seen it all through the second half, when the structures of syntax and White’s tropes gave way to something that we have often called rhyme. (Perhaps, to abide within White’s frameworks, a species of metaphor?—but one that for Kluge and Smith and Howe and Sebald too seems to have had a polychronic character that exceeds any example White offers; and especially, that queries the structures of emplotment.) The Desert creole generally and the Guide’s speech in particular are above all made out of SOUND, and it is not the first time that we have seen a writer turn to acoustic affinities—which surely organize experience, but not in historically predictable way—to find a way out of some grim necessities of plot.

And yet, with everything I just said about the political ambivalence of the creole, what kind of a refuge or recourse is sound, anyway?—and here I come back to the idea that Hong’s investment in language is not as a code, which in its doubleness might just outwit power; for power is just as good at doubleness, just as savvy with codes, maybe better. (We have arguably seen some of the emancipatory insights of poststructuralism turned against the Left in recent years.) Rather, I think Hong sees in the explosive linguistic energies that she coordinates a kind of raw energy, a reservoir of human ingenuity excess to the markets that would employ it, and still waiting to be used. Which is to say, a Klugean reading of Hong, and of language as uncapitalized labor power. We are, at the end of the poem, waiting, and it is not clear that we have a direction, that history yet has a vector—but there is a strength to draw on.

I hadn’t meant to write so much about the poem, but it’s amazing, isn’t it? And it was a good place to end. I’ll confine myself to just a few summary remarks. Our question about historical consciousness has been a question about how to hold the past in mind, or how to write it down, in a way that helps us make the history, going forward, that we want to make; and I venture we would agree, that is a history that is less violent, more just, more equal. White’s summa remains an extraordinarily powerful statement of the possibilities and the motives of historical narrative. Keene was a voice for counternarrative, the tale told from the other side or underneath. After that, it was alternatives to narrative, alternatives that often made special use of sound—the activation of language in the ear, and the discovery, thereby, of affinities that are universally accessible and historically resonant without being hierarchical (whether within the hierarchies of syntax or of chronological history itself). Such use of sound is playful. It is also egalitarian, at least in the sense that it does not respect existing structures of authority, and is constantly surprising them. So, that’s one question for the end of the course: what might it mean to hear, in counterpoint to the recession of the past (and chronological history is audible), a free association of rhymes, history as a renewable resource, a kind of sporadic, nuclear fusion of the human languages? To do history by ear?

(And as I post, a coda, by way of an open question: what might this mode of attending to history have to do with the project of imitation that was a frequent ambition of our exercises? For it would seem that imitation seeks to identify the sound of a particular moment, as opposed to cross-historical rhyming. But then, perhaps particular moments have their particular, signature polychronicities, their own styles of rhyme?)


Class 12

Cathy Park Hong’s Dance Dance Revolution is an extraordinary work.

I felt that very strongly as I came into the classroom for our final meeting of the semester. Now, in the wake of our closing discussions, I am the more deeply moved by a sense of having been gifted with her tremendous achievement.

Two important insights that came early in our conversation extended my vision.

First, there was Jeremy’s striking comment that memory feels so remarkably secure here in this book, even as both place and language are so manifestly labile (possibly perilous). What a contrast with Sebald! And in the context of that contrast, one suddenly sees that Sebald’s works have precisely the opposite structure: in Vertigo the narrator’s language is measured, precise, reliable; and the terrain (tired old European places) couldn’t be more blatant and conventional; both language and place are rock solid. Memory however, is everywhere fugitive, fleeting, uncertain.

This observation landed with on me with the force of a real and clarifying counterpoint.

The other early moment that palpably pushed my sense of Dance Dance Revolution was Dolven’s underlining of the extent to which the “Historian” figure must be understood to be engaged not only in a general genealogical inquiry (i.e., a questing after something of his/her “pre-origins” through the ethnographic pursuit of his/her father’s lover), but also in an effort to recover/recuperate some connection to an actual tradition of political resistance/solidarity (given the history of the Kwangju Uprising). This is obviously true and important — but I had somehow missed it (probably in the course of all that demanding work trying to parse “Desert Creole” and generally trying to keep track of a pretty intricate plot — one that is by no means easy to work out, given the polyglot delirium and layered voices of this book).

Once one is holding firmly to this idea that the work of the Historian in the story is to try to use genealogical inquiry to establish some form of connection to a meaningful moment of emancipatory politics, the immediacy and urgency of the book’s project squirm with new vigor. The relevance of the book to our questions (about poetics and historical inquiry; about alternative forms of historical consciousness; about the political implications of these various forms of historicity) is felt with still greater keenness.

Not that the relevance didn’t feel pretty keen to begin with.

It is hard to imagine a more powerful conceit for thinking about representation, history, politics, and language than Hong’s Blade-runner-meets-Babel scenario: her volume successfully voices a trans-historical, transnational patois of the disenfranchised of the globe, and that must be said to address the “poetics of history” with uncommon specificity.


We went in here:

And because this poem was one of a relatively small number of pieces in the book not written in the challenging language of the Guide, we moved into a discussion of the “Intermission” section of the volume (pages 69-84), in an effort to understand the status of these evidently (more) “conventional” works of contemporary poetry. How to account for this “middle voice” — neither the expository writing of the Historian nor the phonetic tangle of the Guide’s pidgin?

Several alternatives were offered, ranging from the suggestion that we might be getting some of Hong’s authorial voice in those pieces, across to the interesting idea that the very notion of the almanac in a desert (where there is minimal seasonality and little to no “growing” at all) should be understood as perfectly oxymoronic.

My own feel for the Intermission section (which had troubled me) was much improved when I tried to read these works as the Historian’s somewhat mannered poetizing recapitulation of aspects of his/her research work with and around the Guide.

As far as “The Auctioneer’s Woo” is concerned, it led us to reflection on the implications of the “privatization” of language — in a literal sense. Elements of the language of the Desert are evidently bought and sold, perhaps accounting for some measure of the continuous, rapid mutation of the speech in this trading zone (where one must be careful not to use a word that is owned by someone else, and hence perhaps subject to some royalty fee or other entailment).

Could the sale of the phrase “may I have this dance” (recounted in “The Auctioneer’s Woo”) account for Guide’s fetchingly mangled valediction at the end of this book (p. 119): “If de world is our disco ball, / might I have dim dance”?

It is an amazing thing to think about: the twisting, knotty, archaic-demotic lingo of the Desert as perpetually shifting across an impossible “mine”/field (feel the pun here — seldom do explosives and possessives feel so close…) of traps and tricks and pitfalls. As the Guide puts it at one point (this is the conclusion of “Years in the Ginseng Colony”):


Jeremy made a stinging observation on this dystopian vision of a slippery, traducing, (un)free market for language: he said that, informed by his readings of Wittgenstein, he inclined toward conceiving of language as a kind of “public property” — created by all, available to all, functioning to unify people’s shared domains of sense-making. What a contrast in Dance Dance Revolution, which confronts that Wittgenstinian intuition with a hyper-particularizing and private cant, a language in which every voice a personal palimpsest (layered by cash-money).

The density and intricacy of that palimpsest were very much in evidence when we tapped Jeewon’s philological expertise in the Korean language, and watched him unfold the multi-lingual punning and trickery that percolates along beneath the threshold of perception of those without any Japanese/Chinese/Korean.

So, for instance, when we looked at Karaoke Lounge,

we learned that “Sah” (which recurs throughout the text as a key name/figure) can have the sense of “history” in compound constructions in Korean. And still more striking, perhaps, that “tong-il” in the line “tong-il o tigers in red weather” means “reunification” — which utterly transforms the Stevensian allusion of the italics, by invoking the specific geopolitics of the Korean peninsula.

We took a turn into the question of allusion/inter-textuality more generally, moving from the extraordinary use of Stevens throughout the volume. I was hugely affected by “Dance Hall Song for When You’re in the Mood,” which felt to me, in its conclusion, like nothing less than a leering, skid-row epitome of “The Idea of Order at Key West”:

My sense is that this poem genuinely meets, and in its way, supersedes, one of the great poems of the twentieth century: it contains it (in both senses — “has it inside” and also “cordons it off”), and knows more than it did. Amazing.

Similarly, the final page of the book, the last “Excerpt from the Historian’s Memoir” displaces and restages the central conceit of Stevens’s “Anecdote of the Jar”:

The juxtaposition of the sleepy exile, sitting on the jittery vista of African civil war (“A shot”; “A puff of smoke”), as that jar (“moted with dust”) made the shattered tropics (almost) stand up…it is nearly too much to bear. Recall that Stevens’s original jar “took dominion everywhere.” Well. Did it? Could we place it on a hill in the Desert? And would it make that slovenly wilderness (Dubai plus Las Vegas plus Disney World plus Janjaweed and Bengali ship-breakers?) come to cognitive/linguistic attention? Cathy Park Hong poses the question in an uncanny way. (Wait, had we even thought of that question? Actually, in a way we sort of had: Dolven and I, quite a few years back, did an event in Brooklyn on Stevens and geography — in which people did indeed take jars out along the Gowanus canal, and set them up in various locations to see what happened…).

Stevens felt to me like the dominant poetic referent throughout Dance Dance Revolution. But we also talked a little about a kind of “absent presence”: Ezra Pound. The poem’s poly-vocality, its roving, choked, perverse fluency — these feel to me essentially Poundian. As some of you will know, one of the touchstone essays in twentieth-century poetics is Marjorie Perloff’s “Pound/Stevens: Whose Era?” (1982). Can we understand Hong to be staging a version of that problem in the way she articulates several Stevensian set-pieces in a roiling, archaic Weltsprache that can be thought of as a twenty-first-century update on the Cantos? (I should maybe say that I am myself interested in restaging that problem in different ways: this is an old project of mine; which is linked to this).

There was more in this conversation. We talked about Keats a fair bit as well, since he is also explicitly invoked a number of times. We also talked about talking, meaning the “mouth-feel” of these poems. One of their powers is that they call-out those who would read them aloud: by vocalizing them, one inevitably surfaces one’s biases (prejudices?), in that one speaks the accent that one imagines is that of the (dreamed, global, trans-historical) underclass. It is interesting and strange to have the work function as a kind of diagnostic test — and in so fraught a domain.

That said, we also noticed that there is something prickly and “resistant” in this book. If I look at my endpaper annotations (where I tried to keep track of our discussion), I see that I wrote; “multiculturalism and capitalism are impossible to pry apart in Hong.” Fair enough. But then I also wrote (here recording, I think, a point that Dolven made): “if you want to parse resistance and complicity (which is so much the sorting reflex of our political moment!) this book will NOT help you. There is no purity fetish here.” And that feels very right. It is this aspect of the book, I think, that gives it an interesting autonomy from some of the currents with which one might initially think it would drift. I am not sure I am here saying anything other than: this is one extraordinarily powerful work of poetics (and history).


For me, the closest any of us got to articulating that power came when Dolven reached back to our ongoing conversation about the relationship between a “linguistics” and a “poetics” of history. And what I felt him working to say was that in Dance Dance Revolution one experiences a gradual devaluation of the “code-effects” of language in preference for a kind of “energetics” thereof. It is hard for me now to reconstruct how RIGHT and how POWERFUL this felt at that moment, for me, in our session.

Yes. In that direction lies something. Something with real potential for us as we round out a semester of thinking about poetic form and historical method.


But we weren’t quite done. No. We had break. And an exercise. It looked like this:

Well, it was hard.

I think we all basically failed. Right? I mean, did any of you come up with a new language for history? James smeared his sheet in the grass (reminding me of some of Helen Mirra’s work). Some of you overheard snatches of conversation, and  gently allowed the world to become incomprehensible.

Was progress being made? Or were we a pastiche, finally, of ourselves? Something straight out of Don DeLillo?

I found myself thinking something sort of basic — thinking back to our first session and our “exercises in style” exercises. How little of this we do, as historical and analytic thinkers. When one stops and thinks about it, it is really sort of incredible how infrequently we attend to our essential tools.  Nor need we exaggerate what would be involved in stretching our linguistic range.  After all, wouldn’t we actually activate a new language for doing history simply by pre-committing to write with, say, no verbs? Or obliging oneself to start every sentence with a proper noun? Or, indeed, via any one of a nearly infinite array of Oulipian constraints and permutations.

A new language for history.

It is too ambitious, of course.

But as I said, as we closed our session, there are moments, I feel, in which a good, honest FAIL — a failure in the course of trying to do something that is important, and simply too hard — is essential. The ratio of time we spend, as elite practitioners of the humanistic enterprise in its academic form, shooting bunnies (basketball expression, meaning very easy shots — “gimmies”), as against the time we spend on stuff that is too hard for us to do…it is a ratio, I would argue, on the order of a thousand-to-one. Maybe even that underestimates it.

So if you spent thirty minutes walking around campus feeling a little hopeless about the possibility of conjuring a new language for doing history equal to the articulation of a historical consciousness for our time (as I did)well,…



Thank you for an engaging semester.

(Oh, and here is my final punctum exercise… Looking forward to reading yours!)


And more Class 11 thinking…

NB: Sorry for the lat post on this session! I am following up on JD again, but have yet to read his thing, since I have been slow to finish my own reflections on our Sebald/Ankersmit/Oppenheimer week.


Really strong thematic resonances sounded through the stuff we prepared for seminar this week. The Ankersmit, for all its faults, frames the problem of “experience” in relation to history with, I think, genuine precision — especially in the introductory chapter. Sebald’s Vertigo activates questions of history and memory as lived/literary experience in a very distinctive way (the narrator can even be understood as something like a fictional figuration of an Ankersmitian seeker-after-sublime-historical-experience). Finally, Oppenheimer’s film (which remains for me one of the very most powerful works of art I feel I have encountered in the last decade) uses a destabilizing series of historical-actor-directed reenactments to bring the issues of history, memory, experience, and trauma into a conjunction so implicating/imperiling that the language of sublimity seems quite appropriate.

We launched our discussion from the punctum exercises. Recall the assignment this week: “Render your punctum as an experience. That is: make it available to a reader, viewer, listener, not as knowledge; not as narrative, nor argument; not as fact, nor information; but as … experience. You may use language, but bear in mind Ankersmit’s sense of the fundamental antagonism between language and experience.”

There was, I think, a general consensus that there were no easy escape routes by which to slip out of the “prison house of language.”

Lisa brought cinematic technique to her laptop — and by making a documentary screen capture video of her own searches and researches, she succeeded in creating something a little uncanny (since, watched on one’s laptop, it is possible to experience an odd disorientation in relation to what is happening on one’s screen; I mentioned that this effect is used to notable power in Camille Henrot’s “Grosse Fatigue,” about which I wrote here; also, Greg mentioned Kevin B. Lee’s “Transformers: The Premake”; all of this is related to an emergent genre, the “Desktop Documentary” ).

James also used moving images — but in a more archival key. By sifting YouTube for “home-movies” from the region and time he’s thinking about for his punctum, and then by re-cutting and composing those fragments, James created a “vertigo” of sorts: memories that are not his, but that he started to experience as weirdly his own. I was quite drawn to the way this exercise leveraged the new, strange, cosmic scope of the navigable archive-manifold (the ALL). The newness of this phenomenon (and thereby, the newness of our relationship to it), and the broader implications for our “historical consciousness,” cannot be overstated.

Several of you (Jeewon and Fedor) seized on the paper technologies of “administralia” as a mechanism by which to (make words) do something. A “missing persons” form does indeed create/imply an “experience” in a very particular way — a way that is recognizably different from the language work happening in a short story, poem, or historical narrative. Similarly, language in the shape of an examination is also very definitely the occasion for an “experience” — the experience of taking a test.

Greg offered us a richly narrative account of his own multiple/failed(?) punctum exercise efforts this week which included everything from a trip to the emergency room (Gasp! We are glad you are OK!), to running runic laps around the local schoolyard, to filming his desk as he tried to do the punctum exercise (in what would have been a little like what Lisa did, perhaps). In the end (and I think it is forgivable this week), he recurred to the familiar ground of a written commentary — in this case describing how difficult it is to do something other than written commentary.

So there you go.

I, too, confessed that I had to fall back on a mere “account” of an experiential relationship to my punctum. My preferred strategy for “creating an experience” — the deployment of that bastard genre of the PROTOCOL, which I think of as something like a “recipe” for making something happen, and hence as a kind of “poetics of experience” — failed me in this instance. I just could not think my way to anything that felt even like a minimally responsible “protocol” for “experiencing” 6 August 1945. I tried. But my spirit rebelled. Anything I came up with felt morally repugnant — even under the sheltering rubric of “experimentation.” So here is what I came up with instead.

As I tried to suggest, my efforts toward my punctum exercise this week definitely had the effect of heightening my sense of confusion concerning the essential nature of “an experience.”

What, exactly is such a thing? The whole matter came to feel like something of a koan. At the same time, the reverie to which this confusion led me (manifest in my exercise above) pleasingly defamiliarized the general enterprise of History in its contemporary academic instantiation. One really could do the whole business a lot of other ways…

I know I say stuff like that a lot. But I think the point bears repeating. Because one cannot really do what one is doing with any meaningful sense of freedom and specificity absent a rich feel for alternatives.


We dug in on the materials for the week. I thought conversation around The Act of Killing was a little slower than I might have expected. Dolven was affected, certainly. There was consensus that it was powerful. But I did not sense a rush of strong feeling either way from most of you. I am still a bit puzzled by that. I went back to my notes from the last time I assigned this film in a grad seminar. I am going to link to that discussion here.

Different context. But you can feel the momentum of engagement. And nothing like that quite happened in our session. Yes. Anwar retching hits hard. James and Lisa helpfully held off my gambit that the film ultimately conforms to a (very powerful, but also fundamentally conventional?) structure of contrition/redemption. Working closely with the cinematic language of the climactic scene (the revisiting of that swept-clean terrace where so many of the killings happened), they argued that the camera’s remaining in the space, as Anwar departs, must be read as an expression of the commitment/perspective of the work—which is, finally, with the victims, not with the story of self-transformation through contrition (those of you who want to see Oppenheimer deal directly with the question of victimhood should consider the “sequel” to The Act of Killing — the film The Look of Silence).

It is an important proposition. I want to watch it again with this in mind.

Though it is hard to say that one “wants” to watch the film. Since it is, I think we all agreed, almost unbearable.

Jeewon was interestingly and articulately resistant (is this the right word?) to the film’s powers/virtues — even as he seemed to acknowledge both. The strained question of just who “Joshua Oppenheimer” is/was… lingered for Jeewon. And also questions around the funding for the film. And the issues of insider/outsider, of wealth and power (of race and ethnicity?) — these too were in the air for Jeewon, in ways that he wanted us to consider. No denunciations here. But questions.

Closer to a denunciation? The issue of the ethical implications/consequences of the more brutal and traumatic scenes of reenactment. This was indeed hard to take without compunction.

But in and across all of this, Dolven powerfully asked us to remain sensitive to the extent to which the film “had control” over the domains in which these questions could be found and raised. The posing of the questions could be said to be happening in terms that the film afforded. And this, Dolven suggested, is one of the significant hallmarks of a true work of art.

We took our break.


When we reconvened, we took up Vertigo. “Experience” remained a key term in our discussion — and we threaded back to Ankersmit repeatedly over the course of the conversation. Once again, I have snatches of our discussion inscribed on the flyleaf of my copy:

There is no flow without telos. 

It is a book of doppelgangers.

Memory/remembering as an ALTERNATIVE to “history” — explanation is, thereby, elided.

If, in the end, representation DESTROYS memory, then this whole project is perfectly perverse.

VAGRANT PRAXIS — repeated, wandering efforts to line up past and present.  

Finding any means to make memory possible seems to be the issue.  

Is this text avid to make connections? (or afraid of them?)

The longing for a return to childhood (where not knowing history could be excused/forgiven/easy)

Circled in the middle of my back cover is a phrase that I believe Jeewon introduced to the discussion, and that stuck with me: “weak humanism.” I circled that phrase. My recollection is that Jeewon introduced the proposition in a context slightly different from the work I later wanted to make it do, but, for me, the notion helpfully captured something of what I came to sense as a central paradox of this novel.

I closed Vertigo with a very strong feeling of its achievement. I take Sebald to have used language to “show (the human) spirit to itself” in a genuinely novel/unique way. This book and his others actually capture something of the “stream of (historical) consciousness” as lived/subjective experience. Just as Joyce used language to mirror features of psychological/linguistic “inwardness” (and in doing so created a very different kind of novel), Sebald has a claim, I think, to have conjured something comparably new/distinctive. Joyce gave us the modernist consciousness as a kind of annulus through which everything passed; Sebald gives us post-modern consciousness as an empty opacity lightly drifting hither and yon on the conflicting tides and surging eddies of continuous macro-mechanical/violent change.

Ismael was moved. As he put it, “I experience it being like this.” And I think he meant that he experiences consciousness itself as being something very much like the consciousness Sebald depicts/invokes/conveys in Vertigo.

Greg, by contrast, demurred. Perhaps not. Perhaps being here does not feel quite like this — like a morose and ennobling chorographic nostalgus interruptus.

But even if one recoils from the gentle/hapless anomie of this ever-so-earnest lost soul and his empty-handed grasping at phantasms (or is it at the feelings of phantasms?), I think one must acknowledge that one has been forced to confront/inhabit a form of life.

For my part, though I cannot say that I genuinely enjoyed the book (the sense of pointlessness engendered by the drifting by both the character and the elements of the story left me mostly cold), I very definitely wandered around for several days after finishing it with a strong sense of having met a thing that a human being is/can-be/was.

I stick “was” in there advisedly, since I am inclined to feel that the book invokes a kind of personhood that is mostly no longer that relevant. What do I mean? Well, I mean that the extravagant inwardness Sebald achieves in his narrator feels to me like an endgame proposition. Downward to darkness on extended wing (and slightly disoriented) slips the bookish, historically-minded, self-archiving, older-white-European-male. The relationship with memory that he instantiates, and that Sebald dramatizes, is basically yesterday’s problem for yesterday’s form of historical figure.

Much as Susan Howe’s archive-reverie listening to the hum of the HVAC within the tomb of Beinecke Library could feel a little like a form of archive-intimacy mostly irrelevant to those of us who increasingly access the manifold on a laptop while listening to music in a coffee shop; so, too, some German guy with a mustache checking into a cheap pension in Venice while thinking about Winkelmann (or whatever) in a lonely sort of way cannot be said, I think, to go to the heart of the problem of historical consciousness for our time (please see The Act of Killing…).

But one mustn’t be glib.

The phrase “weak humanism” promises a richer way to evoke what I am getting at.

Veritgo very definitely offers an exquisite evocation of the human in its recognizably “humanistic” avatar — but right as that “build” sort of sinks into the quicksand. “Weak humanism” is humanism humbled, chastened, and in the exeunt omnes phase of the drama. One feels some measure of pity and some measure of the delicacy of an old and imperfect hero closing those watery eyes.

There is no final “thumbs-up” here as the upstretched arm vanishes into the boil (promising us a sequel?) — rather, we glimpse only a sort of ambiguous, open-handed gesture, maybe trying to offer us something, maybe reaching, not very persuasively, for help (which is not forthcoming).

But that final gesture could also be a kind of shrug.

It felt a little like that to me at times…


There are two moments in the novel that I think can function as thematic set pieces. We discussed both of them in some detail. The first is here:

This, above, recall, purports to be a sketch drawn by Marie-Henri Beyle (Stendhal himself), depicting a memory-reverie of his own (and reprised here in the course of the narrator’s own memory-reverie).

The moment of “vertigo” lies in the narrator’s observation that Beyle has depicted the scene from a position he did not occupy — he has depicted himself “in the scene,” but from without. Much of Vertigo can be understood to be disoriented by the historical equivalent of this spatio-perspectival problem.

Again and again we sense the author feeling confused about his own “in-the-scene-ness” of the past (then? now?), and apparently endeavoring to bring the outsider and insider perspectives into some kind of conjunction. Whatever that communion might be, it is perpetually deferred, and the subtending confusion as to what it might actually consist in prevents even its deferral from exerting the organizing libidinal impetus of a proper desire. When the past actually does irrupt into the present (as it does here and there — as when suddenly one is sitting across from King Ludwig II of Bavaria on a train, or when the young Kafka appears in duplicate in the back of a bus), an immediate diminuendo of absurdity and misunderstanding instantly attenuates whatever fleeting satisfaction might have been had. Or, rather, a proleptic diminuendo (the ready state of a subject too uncertain to trust his own intuitions or appetites) suspends both the epiphanic and the ghostly registers of any such “intimacy” in a grey miasma of awkward impotence, shame, and confusion.

I said that there were two moments that can function as set pieces. I take this to be the other one, which is also, I think, a thematic nucleus of the novel:

What do we have here? It comes perilously close to functioning, I think, as an allegory of the whole project of the book: the past haunts us as a kind of formless/nameless bogey; we are drawn inexorably back toward it, in an almost childlike/dreamlike way; queer moments of sudden intimacy with this history-succubus are (almost) possible, but no sooner is some kind of “contact” actually made, than the very act of intimacy itself instantly causes a collapse/evaporation/falling-away of the historical object. The net effect of all of this is a little grey dust-smudge and a sense of loss/confusion/failure. (To be fair, I have cut off a sentence at the end of this page, and it finishes, “some great woe that nothing in the world will ever put right” — which certainly indicates that there are stakes).

I do not mean to tie the whole thing off with a bow, but it really does seem, even with that indelible smudge, a little tidy.


Indeed, at about this time one could, I think, start to feel a little testy about the whole enterprise. One could even get a premonition of some of the controversies that would later (well post-Vertigo) dog the Sebaldian enterprise (e.g., discussions around The Natural History of Destruction).

The After all, is it really quite so simple? Quite so “easy”? The past doesn’t actually dissolve into smudgy powder-dust with a light brush from the hand of an old white German guy. Actually, there are some intractable legacies — durable, dense, barbed. Hello? DO YOU READ ME?

While this kind of critique did not really get rolling with any genuine momentum in our class discussion, it did float, for me, over the latter phase of our seminar. And it had implications for our thinking about the Ankersmit as well.

While I continue to feel that the first chapter of the Ankersmit lays out a very significant problem for historical thinkers, I expressed considerable frustration with what Sublime Historical Experience actually finds itself saying and doing by the end.

Hölderlin? Really? Are you SERIOUS? The effort to discern something — ANYTHING! — that can be said to stand beyond or beneath or against the typhoon-totalizing (non)reality of language winds its way to another freaking teary-eyed Teuton musing about the lyric of Hölderlin? Again? REALLY???

[visualize emoji of Munch’s Scream, but with Munch’s Scream faces for eyeballs, each of which faces has more Munch-Scream-faces for eyeballs all the way down – in a kind of Pokemon-mise-en-abyme]

It is enough to make one side with the most virulent critics of the “experiential turn.” I am thinking, for instance, of Joan W. Scott’s hard-hitting essay “The Evidence of Experience” from 1991, where the we are warned that the language of experience can easily function to veil exactly the categories most in need of critical scrutiny. She concludes:

What counts as experience is neither self-evident nor straightforward; it is always contested, and always therefore political. The study of experience, therefore, must call into question its originary status in historical explanation. This will happen when historians take as their project not the reproduction and transmission of knowledge said to be arrived at through experience, but the analysis of the production of that knowledge itself. Such an analysis would constitute a genuinely nonfoundational history, one which retains its explanatory power and its interest in change but does not stand on or reproduce naturalized categories.

Or take a look at Michael S. Roth’s very forceful (and ultimately negative) review of Ankersmit’s book itself. Roth quotes Ankersmit on the promise of sublime historical experience (“Historical experience pulls the faces of the past and present together in a short but ecstatic kiss,” from p. 121), and then tells us that he (Ankersmit) quickly wants to reassure us that “this certainly does not imply that we have now entered the domain of mysticism and irrationality.” Except, as Roth icily notes, “It seems to this reader that this is precisely the domain that Ankersmit has been forced to enter, for this is the only alternative he has left himself after rejecting pragmatism, hermeneutics, and the problematics of representation.”

It is a stinging charge. Clear and direct. And it demands to be reckoned with. Especially by those of us (and I am calling myself out here) who again and again want to toe up to the very edgey-edge-edge of exactly that threshold. And you all, having endeavored some of the exercises we do in this class, may well have come to feel you have yourselves wandered (been pushed?) pretty close to that edge.

Well, here is what I have to say about all of this:

Disappointed as I am with the Ankersmit, I do believe, in the end, that his work fails in a genuinely noble and absolutely necessary quest. It falls to us, I believe, to stay at this quixotic urgency — and this class has been (is), for me, centrally ABOUT that. It IS that for me.

Why? How?

If Roth is right, the task isn’t “quixotic” in some noble-folly way. It is just stupid and wrong-headed and even reactionary.

Correct. But I don’t think, in the end, that Roth is right.

For here is where he comes out, at the end: “As the tide of language recedes, we may find many things, but I can’t see that purity and a direct connection to the world through something deep and authentic in our souls is among them.”

And you know what? If that is what you think, I am not with you.

Because I think that “a direct connection to the world” is exactly what human beings need. It is what, above all, we seek. We are made of that longing.  And the profound longing for exactly such a connection isn’t going to go away because we have now read some Foucault. Or, for that matter, some Derrida.

And so if the world of historical scholarship renounces that notion of a “direct connection to the world” as simple naiveté, historical scholarship renounces service to what is deepest in human beings. And others (who may or may not be scrupulous or sensitive or good or knowledgeable) will address those needs — without the historians.

I think this would be very unfortunate.

And so, we go onward, working to fail well at something very hard. Something worth attempting. Again and again.







Class 11

A challenging session, this last—I found it a compelling juxtaposition of works, as I prepared over the course of the week, but hard to read and view, in their different ways, both Vertigo and The Act of Killing. A lot of that difficulty derived I suspect from the juxtaposition of the categories of experience and of reenactment. Marx says that everything in history happens twice, yes?—first as tragedy, then as farce. What if that observation were to be adopted as a heuristic? Staging the past over again as farce, in order to understand the original tragedy?

That is more obviously the dynamic of The Act of Killing. It is such an original object that I found myself multiplying genres in an effort to come to grips with it: it is part truth and reconciliation process (albeit one-sided), part Ali G. interview (with all the attendant queasiness), part group analysis (Freudian, Reichian), but none of these exactly; and it has elements of all its film genres, western and detective noir and musical comedy spectacle; there are abounding subplots, including the discovery of the pleasures of performance and of drag. The lure of Hollywood was part of the pitch to the gangsters, but there is a Youtube DIY look to much of what they stage.

And who is it for? For the gangsters? And if so, what is it meant to do for them, to them? To punish them, by bringing them to an awareness of their crimes that could only be excruciating; to dismantle the defenses by which they have protected themselves from their actions? Or is there a therapeutic agenda, on the assumption that killing is a trauma for the killers, and that something like recovery must begin with narrativizing that trauma? (Therapeutic or redemptive, in something like the Christian terms that Graham suggested—taking Anwar’s retching as a kind of confession, and a sign of grace?) There is no denying that Anwar and Adi occupy the structural position of protagonists, and Anwar moves to the center of the film as we see him begin to suffer from the memory work of the reenactments, and particularly from taking the role of victim. Among the film’s many consequences is something like an improvement of historical consciousness for the killers. Is that its objective?

Or is it for the people of Indonesia? As a study in how a generation of killers, still in power, lives with their crimes; a study meant to provoke either a broader improvement in historical consciousness—there’s that phrase again, what happened, how did it happen—or some kind of pragmatic response, like a truth and reconciliation program? Jeewon’s question in class hangs over this warrant, especially what making the movie meant for the extras and bit players recruited to the more spectacular scenes. Are they worse off, for participating in reenactments of what many did not live through (which must have been scary for the children, or mysteriously exhilarating, or both); or are they somehow better for the knowledge, the kind of knowledge (experience?), that they got doing it? Who are we to judge? I wonder if there is an analogue that would help us think about this. Would the Americans among us participate in a reenactment of the Kent State shootings? If you had kids, would you bring them? If it was upsetting, confusing, for you, for them—would that still be better than living as you lived before, when you thought, presumably, less about public order, foreign war, the police state and the jumpy young men with guns who enforce it? And what if someone won an Oscar for that movie you were in? (What if the director were Danish? Or Indonesian?) Such thought experiments are ruined in advance by the asymmetries—but maybe not altogether.

Or, is the movie for us? The moviegoers? For the structure of the situation is of course not that we are reenactors, but that we are spectators of a reenactment. And so there are really at least three positions to account for, from the standpoint of historical consciousness: 1) those who lived through it, and are to live through it again; 2) those who are living it the first time as reenactors; and 3) those who watch (or read about etc.), and watch not only the simulation, but its effect on the simulators. Reenactment itself—doing it—is a complex mode of knowledge, putting your body in for other bodies, and we barely began to think it through. (What is a historically productive reenactment like?—clearly such occasions can be reduced to playing soldier, which is a long way from war; if reenactment is meant to produce historical consciousness, what are the proper tolerances of script and improvisation, of safety and exposure? There must be a whole poetics here…interesting to think, how would a pedagogy committed to teaching history by reenactments work, what would be its principles?) For us—the movie’s bet on experience was vicarious; does it propose for us a different way of knowing history? One that can be generalized? I find this a difficult question. We ought to come away with a sense of how the killings were structured and enabled by an American cinematic imaginary. Maybe we know a little better for having seen this movie how that works—and as Graham pointed out, that cinematic complicity stands in for a much wider military and financial complicity. When I think about how to put its method into practice, I think of casting Donald Rumsfeld as the prisoner in a waterboarding instructional video. But that’s just a kind of revenge fantasy, yes? Very close to very old notions of poetic justice, lex talionis, an eye for an eye—from which our civilized criminal justice system protects us, by translating specific crimes and their violences into metered incarceration?

It is a singular film. Very hard to say, there should be more like it; or, the tactics it uses should be more widely applied. That may be some measure of its claim to being a work of art—a work of art, a disturbing thing to say about it.

Easier to say about Sebald, I think, though Vertigo has its resistances too, including its documentary pretensions. You wouldn’t necessarily set it next to your DVD of The Act of Killing on a shelf, but there are some structural affinities: it is a reenactment of type 1) above, the self going back to the self-same scene; others are only obliquely involved, and as we observed in class, they are sometimes difficult to distinguish from the I; but we the readers, per type 3), are very much engaged in watching the reenactment and the response of the reenactor.

Historical experience in Vertigo is not the experience of the past in any simple, let alone sublime sense; it is the experience of being haunted by the past, the palimpsest that it makes with the present, and memory as the relation between them. Perhaps Sebald does for history something of what Barthes does for for reading, as a congenital skeptic of the myths of understanding that we bring to that chaotic practice: Sebald explores, almost phenomenologically, what it is like to think the past, what it is like to remember, to integrate memory, historiography, documentation.

The literary form that his experience takes is not particularly narrative; though it is not so much that narrative is transcended (in an alternative, redemptive organization, such as we see perfected, formally, by Ali Smith, and ramifying adventitiously in Kluge), as that it fails. The basic structure of the book seems to be palimpsest: most fundamentally,

       S’s trip from Vienna to Venice to Verona 1980

       S’s trip from Vienna to Venice to Verona 1987

The same structure obtains of the 53-year-old Henri Beyle in Civitavecchia “attempting to revisit the tribulations of those days” (5) when he was 17, during Napoleon’s campaign in Italy. As though the vagaries of memory could be redeemed by an act of retracing your steps…

…except that representations of the past, the engravings Beyle will not purchase, “displace our memories completely, indeed one might say they destroy them” (8) (and here Beyle can no longer remember the Sistine Madonna in Dresden, because he has seen an engraving of it; and are we do think of the bombings of Dresden, which mean that same image is lost to Sebald, and to everyone?). Does Sebald propose a basic trade off between memory and understanding? Perhaps because memory always puts you back in the moment before you understood, before you could have understood, before you had the distance that makes for history; so memory is a refuge from understanding, and from history. “One could well end one’s life simply through thinking and retreating into one’s mind” (65); how much of this book is posthumous, S (let’s call the narrator S) as a ghost haunting his past. (Or like Dante, a man in the place of a ghost. There is lots of Dante here, as there is, incidentally, in Hong.)

Childhood—a register or analogue of history we have little explored—is also so important to the book. The move backward in time, from 1987 to 1980, is also a move back to the town of W., where S has not been since childhood, back to the inn that was his house (a palimpsest of home, and the various transitory spaces through which he moves). There is something about the basic predicament of childhood, of being surrounded by histories and forces that you do not understand, that seems to persist with S—a kind of passive immanence; where he is touchingly grateful for the care of adults (for example, the hand of the landlady on his forehead), but does not understand why they are so careful, any more than he understands anything else. They bequeath to him both mysteries of motive, and their habits of silence and suppressed curiosity. Childhood is the time when it makes sense not to know—and perhaps he goes back in order to escape the burden of making sense of the past.

The war, the Holocaust, are tidal forces, but almost never named. It has strange modes of metabolizing other kinds of history, like the near-primal-scene of the rape (is it a rape?) of Romana by the Hunter Schlag (German for strike or blow). The rape of the eternal city by the barbarian hunter? Of the romance world by the Teutonic? A first picture of desire, for S, as a historical rape—of that history-making sort that haunts so much Western mytho-history, Lucretia, Helen? And all S wants to do is to retreat into the ice house with Romana and slowly freeze to death (240). The book’s traffic with allegory is challenging. What about Fräulein Rauch (G. smoke), a figure of death, history, eros, who chronicles the disasters that have befallen W., in her tight green skirt; she makes S’s heart pound in his throat. She is also a figure of small kindnesses, helping students straighten their satchels (241). What a mystery, the past, and how we wish it would take care of us.

We talked in class about the limits of the book: is ours a moment when the melancholy historical consciousness of Mitteleuropa, wandering through the great old cities without encountering their migrants, can help us? Then again, if we are interested in difference—well, Sebald is different, and only growing more so. And while it would be difficult to recommend S’s form or reenactment as a historical practice, we who watch the reenactor, reading Sebald’s novel, if that is what this book is, may learn something about our own manifestly superior skills in forgetting.

…and more class 10

I’ve been thinking today about a basic question that we might pose of our various historians (thinking of all the writers we have read as in some sense historians): how like the past is the work they make; that is, how far does it attempt to imitate, in its form, the form of the past itself; does it make a model? Or is it, in its form, more accommodated to the present needs of the reader? Are Susan Howe’s collages a picture of what the past is really like, a picture more accurate than what the archive gives? (That is: is the past a kind of half-palimpsested crossword of ideology and experience, requiring perspectival rotation for even first-order legibility? Which may also be to say, is that what the present is like, or what that present was like?) Or, are the collages primarily designed to disrupt other representations, to allow us to hear voices and see relationships obscured by historical narration?—but not claiming to be like what the past was like, were we to have been in it?

The distinction gets slippery as I try to write it out—maybe it is roughly between ontology and epistemology? Maybe another way of putting the matter: when is a poetics of history directed to history (to historiography, writing about the past), and when is it directed to the past? Perhaps Howe’s work out of the archives is the most challenging instance of the problem so far. But you could ask: is Hegel’s dialectical mode like the history that it relates? (If the answer is yes, is that because his model for how history works is thinking?) And—I’m really thinking myself as I go here— have I accidentally displaced us from the question of historical consciousness? Are not these various writers modeling historical consciousness, rather than modeling the past? Again, Hegel basically identifies the two, yes? Howe’s collages: are they pictures of the past, or of the mind engaged with the past, managing its traces? Maybe more the latter?

So a revision to my question: how like the mind-thinking-history is the work of our historians? How much does it describe, how much does it model, historical consciousness? And what are you supposed to do with a historical consciousness, anyway? Think that way in the archive? Or all the time? (Can you have more than one—can you, do you, assume alternative consciousnesses as you read; is that why you do it?)

Maybe this line of questioning is provoked by a turn in the syllabus—I wondered near the end of class about the relation between linguistics and poetics as models of history, and that distinction seems more illuminating to me the more I think about it. The first half the class we travelled with Hayden White, who repeatedly invokes linguistic models for understanding historiography, grammar for classificatory and synchronic operations, syntax for dynamics of the historical field considered as process. He also, it should be said, thinks in terms of tropes, which cross from the vocabulary of rhetoric into the vocabulary of poetics—irony, metonymy, synecdoche, metaphor. But now we are in the territory of rhyme, a word Graham used to describe the various ways that sound hooks together words and phrases in Howe’s work. (And that we found ourselves using, too, when we talked about the kinds of resemblances and reminiscences that criss-cross the stories of Kluge’s Dispatches.) On rhyme, linguistics has no purchase; rhyme is no part of the deep grammar, and its relations to morphology are unsystematic. (I would think!—insofar as some rhymes arise from morphological patterns, but by no means all; e.g. “realistic” and “fragile birch stick”.) Which is to say that the basic syntax of agent, verb, object—the syntax of English subject-verb-object word order especially—has no authority. That exemption from causal logics at the sentence level, and from their higher level analogues, allows Howe to assemble or reassemble, to concatenate and to juxtapose, the past in different ways. Kluge’s defiance of historicism is narratological and imagistic, but his sentences are well-formed. Howe carries her query down below the sentence to the level of word and phrase; what’s more, she jumbles their spatial relationship on the page, so questions of their priority and orientation become endlessly arguable. The sentence is no longer available as a model either of historical process or of thinking the past. (Maybe Robin Coste Lewis is after the problem at the same level—though the title may be more important to her than the sentence.)

Well: all to say, we begin to see why “poetics of history” might be a liberating phase, insofar as it permits a series of relations—on scales small and large—uncomprehended by linguistics and perhaps even by rhetoric. (And if syntax is basically beholden to causal logic, rhetoric is similarly dedicated to persuasion; whereas poetry, they say, “makes nothing happen.”)

Just a few words on sound; I loved Fedor’s characterization of it as an instrument of inquiry; and likewise Graham’s sense that the recognition of something like historical truth, or presence, or discovery in the archive, might have the same feel as getting a line right. Worth saying perhaps that the kinds of sonic affinities that lead Howe from word to word and phrase to phrase are not part of the received history of etymology; they are instead more accidental; you might say free-associative, except that what you get is not fluent in the manner of a “stream of consciousness,” but jagged, interruptive, self-interrogating, restless. Listening to the archive in this manner is certainly perverse. (Aren’t archives the quietest of all places?) But these sonic connections defy equally the narrative order of historiography and the filing systems of the archive itself. Perhaps they are therefore the past more raw than we could otherwise get it. Is that because sound is itself some kind of key—that it discloses patterns audible no other way; that it is a hidden principle of what Jameson would call “the political unconscious”? Or because we need some alternative principle, and for poetry, sound is ready to hand, to ear?—one possible mode of recombination, without special privilege. I don’t know.

I’ll conclude by posting our own attempts at Howe’s method—ah, I see Graham already has; this post comes hard on his heels!—and with a residual question, how much these poems disclose to interpretation—whether there is a kind of understanding that resides between large claims about method, of the sort I have been making, and the most local attention to sonic affinity. Perhaps as close as we got was Jeewon’s sense of the final poem as a dynamic picture of the lines drifting and settling, too and fro, like a leaf…

…and how that settling brings us to that polyvalent line, “THE REVISER,” flat at the bottom; is that as much as to say, start again? Re-see? Or does it reflect a trajectory from a catastrophe (“cumbered the ground”), to its affective reception, that freak in the heart, to its titling or naming, to a historical proclamation that can only be a revision of whatever happened? For good or ill? (Is “THE REVISER” the title? And if so, who is the author?)

Class 10

In we went — directly. And this was where we started:

We probably spent close to half an hour trying to get those words into our mouths and into our minds. A central concern was how to “voice” such a poetic proposition. And we made the round through various tactics, technics, and intertextual references. Reading the spaces as forceful silences created undeniable effects. Reading the poem against its own posited order (i.e., from the bottom up, or simply reading around in it) could feel like a participatory activation of its gestures of syntactic transgression. One could read the unusual punctuation explicitly (by naming the signs), implicitly (by musical or oratorical intonings), or even go full Victor Borge (which Dolven pulled off in fine style).

There was, of course, the question of what all of this was supposed to mean — those words on that page.

Most suggestive, the page, taken as a whole.

Like all of the Howe, the language certainly created a mood. But could it be glossed? Could it be paraphrased?

We thought about Anne Carson and her “bracket” translations of Sappho. There, the stuttering square-parentheses bespeak the lacunae. Here, the citation of the technical notation for the transcription of the (multiply-overwritten) manuscript of Melville’s anguished tale (of strangulated silence, injustice, and violence) certainly seems to signal that we should be concerned about what cannot be articulated. That made me what to go here:

But sage Dr. Dolven wisely directed us over this way instead:

Again, we spent some time just saying this poem out loud in different ways.

It was in the course of experimenting with more and less “expressive” oral renditions of this poem that we came to rest on what became an important problem for us in thinking about Howe’s works this week: exactly how “present” was the “author” in these poems?

Which is to say, are we to “feel” a specific human doing the work of expression/articulation in these lines and in these pages? Or would we do better to encounter these fragmentary, automatic, recalcitrant shards of language as something like a raking of the archives — a gleaning? Are we in the presence of the coughed-up bits of history itself (flotsam, blown into the gutter of this volume by the winds of time), or in the presence of an actual glossolalist, who is regarding us with longing eyes as every attempt to communicate produces a torrent of knotty, aphasic incomprehensibles?

It felt like it mattered a lot which way you broke on this. Yes, any given page could be read either way. But which way did the work as a whole, the work of Singularities, want to be read? A principled judgement on all this must, I think we agreed, reckon with this moment and the author-presence/author-disavowal it enacts:

Authorship. The question took us to another poem (but wait, is this a “poem?” We spent a good deal of time talking about the poetic units into which this volume is sectioned) that repeatedly intoned its own version of what might be called “the author problem”:

“I stretch out my arms / to the author” — I must say, I really love this moment. Yes, asking it to shoulder the heavy burden of the intersubjective ambition of Howe´s oeuvre is asking too much, but if someone in the throes of a glossolalic catatonia looked at me with longing eyes as she stammered in the archive’s alien tongue, stretching out my arms to her, is, I think, exactly what I would want to do…

Except, maybe, if she made it clear that that wasn’t what she wanted. And then, I think the next thing I would try attempt would be to try to sing along.

And this is a reference to what I offered as my own “reading” of Howe — my own sense of the work that these poems can do, and the world I felt them trying to articulate.

My first efforts to read Singularities came to little. I lay in bed and read the poems silently. And I couldn’t make much sense of them. I was pretty bored. I took the little volume with me for a few days, and dipped into it here and there (e.g., sitting by myself at a loud sushi bar downtown on a Friday night) to no effect.

I tried reading a few of them with my daughters, though, before bed. And that was interesting. Because then we had to say them out loud. And we had to make decisions (in the ones that are laid out as bomb-shard poésie concrète) about what line to read when, giving the enterprise of saying them a bit of performative verve. It made me realize that my facility for “hearing” the acoustics of a silently read poem isn’t really very well developed. I needed to read them out loud to hear them. And these were poems that really needed to be read aloud.

So I started back at the beginning, and read the whole book again. Wandering back and forth outside (so as not to annoy everyone in the apartment, as they soon tired of my ravings).

But the act of wandering and SAYING every one of Howe’s words gradually gave me a very strong sense of intimacy with “her” (a sense of intimacy with the author; as sense of, as I say, singing along with her). Before long, I was wholly persuaded that this was what these poems wanted more than anything else. They wanted to be felt in the mouth. And that the “grace” or sense of “communion” that they sought (or is it that they merely “posit”) is to be found in this convergence of tongues.

It is possible that my feeling for this queer secret-sharing via voice must be passed through one of Dolven’s own poems (from Speculative Music)— one that I admire:

I will confess that I find this version of the intimacy in question rather sinister. And possibly properly perverse. But that doesn’t mean that I cannot conjure my own redemptive version thereof.

And, with my quick-draw, hair-trigger on the general issue of the redemptive, I may have done just that with the Howe: reading the poems aloud, pacing, I found myself increasingly certain I was “realizing” their power/force/ambition/hope. Yes, you can read two very different senses of “realize” at work in that last sentence…

Right. Well, I am a kind of “serial understander.” (And I mean that in a [somewhat] pejorative way; I know many thinkers who resist understanding longer and more effectively than I do — and to richer effect). So there you go. My understanding. Predictably enough, another epiphanic communion. Parachute me in just about anywhere, and I’ll get you one of those.

[visualize old-school colon-and-parenthesis smile emoji]


Still, I do not think that I am totally off base in relation to Howe.

Take this, for instance, this extraordinary moment in Spontaneous Particulars (from which I launched my punctum exercise this week):

Such an amazing proposition. One I think every “card-carrying” historian should print out on a wallet-sized slip and carry about on his or her person at all times.

What would it be to experience (and dignify) an intuition of the historical within an archive, or while working with a source — an intuition conformal with the poet’s upflaming certainty that a given sound-proposition opened way the to real-beyond-the-real?

Ahhh, now we are genuinely touching the hem of the suprahistorical. No?

And if I read Howe right, she is here offering us an intimation of a genuine “poetics of history,” one shot through with an exquisite humility before the mystifying power of secular “grace.”

I was left thinking of the overwhelmingly affecting (for me, anyway) way that Michael Fried wends his querulous way (in “Art and Objecthood”) from Perry Miller on Jonathan Edwards’s preoccupation with the ecstatic eternity of every moment to his own heart-stinging cry for secular grace (in/through art): “Presentness” Fried tells us, in the memorable last line of his essay, “is grace.”

And history, transformed into a gust of “presentness” is exactly the grace I read Howe (who has some commerce with Jonathan Edwards herself) invoking.

And, further, I think her work opens onto exactly that gift.

Here was the image we sketched on the board as we thought our way through all of this:


All of this feels abundantly significant in the context of our course. Among other things, it suggests (and we discussed this) that we may have reached an escape velocity vis-à-vis Hayden White’s gravitational field. After all, White’s powerful account of the linguistic prefiguration of the historical field was precisely that — linguistic. But beyond linguistics lies poetics. Linguistics cannot tell you anything about rhyme, say. But what we are talking about in what I take Howe to be saying is exactly something like historical rhyme. Can we imagine what that might be? Can we move into the archive looking for these? Ready to sense these? And when we are graced with the sudden intuition, prompted by the logics beyond logic, that the archive is disclosing one of its “rhymes” — one of those moments that permits the unreality of what seems most real to flood over us — what can we do to be faithful to such occasions?

(We will do well, I think, to consider Sebald’s Vertigo, this upcoming week, as a possible answer to this problematic. Is all of Sebald’s “fiction” precisely an effort to answer this last question?)


It is important, I think, to get a word or two in here about a healthy moment of resistance to some of this that happened in the seminar. Greg was, I think, really onto something when he expressed a (respectful) sense of what I might call the “datedness” of Howe’s posture with respect to the archive (specifically), and maybe history itself (more generally). After all, as Greg put it, he doesn’t experience the work with “his” archive as a kind of hermetic withdrawal into the Beinecke-tomb for communing with the spirits through the contaminating red-dust, etc. (e.g., “Downstairs, in the Modernist reading room I hear the purr of the air filtration system, the rippling sound of pages turning…” SP, p. 43). He just opens his laptop. In bed or wherever. And he is in exactly no less communication with everyone in his life under those circumstances. I completely feel the rightness of this. Because this is mostly my archive life now too, and I have lived across the watershed of these two worlds. My trip to the archive to do my punctum exercise this week was the first time I had been in one of those spaces in six or seven years. But I have written a significant amount of history in that period, plenty of it drawing on archival materials.

So in the end, I am still weighing my sense of all this. The Howe is clearly something other than nostalgic. But holding Spontaneous Particulars next to Dispatches from a Moment of Calm — or, for that matter, next to H & O — can lead to a feeling that the Howe is in some sense more genuinely retrospective.


There is more to say. We spent a good deal of time doing our set of “exercises,” and I am going to drop a few of these in here:

Spring was in the air, in much of this. In the sense that a spirit of fun crept in the open windows with the warm breeze — the same one that was scattering the petals of the magnolia blossoms so wantonly in the courtyard. I’ll pass over an effort to summarize what came of our hand-and-thought craft on these, and what came of our efforts to reflect on that conjunction.

Instead, I’ll end where we did, on love, and the page of the Howe where James left us:

The infinite possibility of meaning, as a kind of metaphysical dilapidation of paradise. Sense and sense are the same word for such different things.

“For conversion, there must be a mysterious leap of love.”


– Graham

And Further to Class 9

NB:  I see JD has posted below; I haven’t read his posting yet. I drafted most of what follows here below on Wednesday evening, but then found I had more to say, and kept pecking away on it today.  So these are my thoughts on this past week, but before reading Jeff’s Class 9 post.  -DGB


I really thought today was an extraordinary class — I am still humming a little with the excitement of the thinking I feel we did together today.

I am afraid, however, that this very sense of intellectual exhilaration makes me feel quite hopeless about the task I am setting to now. How the heck to go about recapturing the best of those delicate moments of tender insight into difficult and important texts? For readers of this blog, Week 9 may really be one where “you had to be there.”

That said, I can convey a very precise version of one part of what happened in Dickinson 230 during our 170 minutes – because Greg gave us the OK on uploading his punctum exercise for this week, from which we began.

Recall that this was our assignment:

”Prepare a ‘dispatch from a moment of calm,’ on the model of Kluge and Richter, including both text and image. (Video essays are quite as welcome as paper submissions.) Your moment can be identical with your chosen spatio-temporal punctum, or related to it, bearing upon it by any of the modes of association K & R permit.”

And here is what Greg gave us (remember that his punctum is the “mid-century” watershed; i.e., what we might call, oxymoronically, “the long 1950”):

I really appreciated this as an effort to activate Kluge’s highly idiosyncratic mood of historical inquiry. Greg called the style “nomadic,” referring here to History and Obstinacy. The term feels right in a number of ways. I pressed a little bit on whether his punctum exercise was really a “dispatch from a moment of calm,” and I understood Greg to say that his short film is in fact working the terrain of H & O a little more than that of Dispatches from Moments of Calm. That remains my impression as I look at the punctum exercise again.

After watching Greg’s piece, we spent some time with the simple but challenging question: what sort of thing is this?

Meaning: what is the status of work like Greg’s?

I have certainly been exposed to a number of installation videos in art spaces that I think are frankly inferior to Greg’s punctum exercise this week. But our class is not an MFA studio. And Greg did not make this work (I don’t believe) as a “specimen of video art.” My understanding is that he made it in an effort to think about the mid twentieth century (and questions of nature/technology in the world of art/design) in a manner informed by a critical engagement with Kluge and Negt. My own view is that Greg’s exercise is a very successful effort to do just that. Which is to say, I take it to be a thing like a paper one would write for a seminar — a work of inquiry/research/exposition.

Maybe this is obvious, and maybe my pausing upon the question of the status of work like this (and by extension, the status of the more-or-less “experimental” work that many of us are doing in this seminar) is simply a distraction — symptomatic of an otiose methodological navel-gazing. Maybe the fact that zones of “artistic research” and zones of “experimental scholarship” overlap is perfectly unremarkable at this point, and requires no explanation or special comment.

But as I tried to express in our discussion, I do still find this zone of overlap puzzling. I strongly support work in this area, and endeavor (often with Jeff, though also in other contexts) to encourage work of this sort — which I also think of myself as attempting to make in various forms and settings. But I very frequently find myself seeking some theory for, or even “defense” of, work of this sort. There is a part of me that clearly seeks some principled account of the place of such work in the topology of learning and expressive activities.

I do have some things to say about all this, but I think the most pressing points to make here are simply that: 1) I am keen to see work like this in the seminar; and 2) I feel very non-doctrinaire about the status/value/nature of this kind of work, and am genuinely curious to get your sense of all this.

Relevantly, I did try, in our class discussion, to characterize the cognitive/affective “condition” I associate with work like Greg’s punctum — and I even used a kind of Klugesprache in doing so. What I said was that such work engenders in me a pleasing superposition of tight-grasp and loose-hold. I likened this state to a mental version of the physical posture I ascribe (in my fervid imagination) to Menelaus trying to hang on to Proteus in (book IV of The Odyssey).

Recall that Proteus’s superpower is rapid (and kinda random/unpredictable) metamorphosis. This meant one second you were trying to hang on to an antelope and the next moment you were clutching a branch at the top of a tree. In both cases the thing was trying to shake you, so you really had to hold it tightly. At the same time, you had absolutely no idea what was coming next, and you needed to be ready to shift your grip in a heartbeat. I am very drawn to a mental equivalent of that adamantine/elastic hybrid of SEIZING and RELEASING (it is really a kind of seizing-in-order-to-release and releasing-in-order-to-seize). I feel like I am doing one of the best things I can do with my mind when I am working with it in that way — but you can really only do it on certain classes of objects. I love these kinds of objects, and spend a lot of time trying to figure out what characterizes that class of objects (as a class).

At any rate, I got that feeling good and proper watching Greg’s punctum exercise, so whatever the class is, it includes, for me, his thing.

This all may seem sort of excessively a “loop-into-what-Graham-likes,” and hence merely personal. But my contention would be that this limber synthesis of GRIP AND GIVE is also the posture of mind wanted for reading Kluge. Especially for reading History and Obstinacy – which is itself very interested in questions of grip.


Well, there are two questions there: 1) why is that state optimal for reading Kluge? and 2) why are Kluge and Negt so interested in grips?

On the first: Kluge is himself a very interesting hybrid of critical scholar and creative artist, and thus his work is exemplary of the Protean Problem (hang on, because it is demanding to grasp, and it is gonna change sharply and radically according to a logic that defies easy prediction).

On the second: the “grip” offers a nice example of the kind of “labor capacity” that has mostly slipped the attention of political economists, even of the most progressive and imaginative stripe (see p. 88). I read Kluge/Negt as especially interested in such a kind of “primordial” substratum of our labor, because he/they hope to locate, in this layer of our beings (and our relationship to work) some “emancipatory” potential — some as-yet-not-adequately-activated-but-potentially-politically-important SOLIDARITY that might offer a way “forward,” i.e., out of the crippling/straightening conditions of capitalism as we know them. The analogy (though is it more than that?) would be the moment of “secret sharing” in a glance:


That is from Devin Fore’s very valuable introduction to H & O, which was not assigned, but which you should try if you find yourself wanting more on Kluge. (I found the stuff on Kluge’s relationship to historical “fact” in this introduction really interesting, so I am going to drop in a PDF of those three pages; the conjunction of the subjunctive and indicative moods discussed in here goes to the heart of some of my deepest preoccupations with historical method — those of you curious about my take on some of this could look here or here).


There is just so much to say about all of this. I am going to skip a larger effort to “cash out” (hate that phrase!) this idea of the “subterranean association of all labor capacities,” and instead just put in a quick plug for the “historicizing” observation I tried to offer on H & O. What I said was that I read Kluge/Negt as very much embedded in (or coming out of) the late-70s/early-80s moment of sociobiology. I am thinking of a book like David Barash’s The Hare and the Tortoise of 1986.  In a basic way Kluge and Negt’s story of “History” and “Obstinacy” is working the same terrain as the many thinkers in Barash’s orbit who were trying to analyze the human condition in terms of “Culture” (meaning social and technological evolution) and “Nature” (meaning our “biological” inheritance; our “animal beings,” evolving at the pace of natural/sexual selection).

I do not want to push this point to hard, but if one were, someday, to try to contextualize H & O in a proper intellectual history, I think one would need to reach back into the debates about “human nature” that emerged out of the Cold War (and that are very powerfully recovered by my colleague Erika Milam in her new book Creatures of Cain).


I need to keep moving, or this is going to go on forever!

For me, the real discovery of this week was Dispatches from Moments of Calm. What an absolutely extraordinary book. I felt so strongly the mood of the text all week. And it gave me a sense that writing my own punctum exercise in its key was going to be both easy and a joy. In practice, it was more challenging than I thought (the style is very particular — its “impersonality” does not come easily to me; and the “flatness” of the prose [the very limited use of “tropes” of any kind, the near absence of those winks of structure-signaling that give a paragraph what I think of as its presence-of-thinker] is not my native mode). But my sense was nevertheless right: so thoroughly does the book convey its “quality of address to the world,” and so capacious does that quality feel, there seemed to be NOTHING that could not be folded into its purview, and NOTHING that it could not cause to stand in relation to my specific puctum. This felt like magic.

So much to say, so much to say!

I told you all that, for me, this book opened a tiny and totally compelling peep hole view onto a totally different world of what could be conveyed/achieved under the rubric of “news.” And in doing so it dramatically heightened my appreciation of the implicit social architecture that is referenced in (and, of course, instantiated by) the news-discourse we actually have. I referred to that structure as a kind of monstrous Aztec pyramid/ziggurat — on the flat, empty, cloud-hidden top of which “events” occur. There, some set of “figures” have “agency.” And what they do is essential to “us.” But in another way, “we” have nothing to do with all that. It composes us, but we are not “part” of it.

The Dispatches signal a world of “news” made from and about us. A kind of utopian-anarchist-Fourierist horizontal news-discourse, made of propinquity, chance, obliquity, hesitation, contingency, gesture, impression, experience. Made, in short, of us, of humans. And, for that matter, non-humans too.

I went so far as to suggest that Dispatches should be read as a kind of palinode to Benedict Anderson’s endlessly cited Imagined Communities. That book depicts how everyone reading those cursed daily newspapers together/apart constituted the nation. That collective daily act effected the synchronic choreography of (illusory) participation in the thing called the nation-state. In practice, that newspaper reading can be thought of as the high ritual of that ziggurat I invoked above: up there, on the olympic-sacrificial summit, there were agents and events; the people were made by their knowledge of both, but the people were not part of that world, by definition.

Oh how different it would all be if the newspapers ran Dispatches from Moments of Calm, every day! WE would BE THE NEWS. It is literally a kind of secular-socialist rose of the empyrean. I have not glimpsed a more truly utopian proposition in quite some time. Amazing book. Amazing project.


There was much more in the discussion. There was the large matter of whether (or how?) Dispatches from Moments of Calm may be called “Ironic.” The term was important to Jeff. I resisted it — and resist it still, I think. It is not that I cannot understand what Jeff means. It is true that the “coolness” of Kluge’s voice is legible as a “distance” — and that in that distance one senses a dispassion or remove that one associates with the position/posture/mode of “irony.” But my reading of Dispatches, my sense of its enormous and totally earnest hunger for a totally different kind of human community, leaves me sensing something much closer to the prophetic than to the ironic. Prophets can use irony, to be sure. And it is true that they are sort of “distant” in a way (concerned as they are with another world), but I don’t think of prophets as “ironic.”

That said, James did shake me a bit with his insistence that Richter’s images may be playing a different game. I have not been able to get past that. I think this is correct. I had felt the images and the texts as a kind of convergent/congruent enterprise. My sense was that the images were striving to constellate the same lateral community via counter-news that I felt in the texts. I have come to suspect, now, that this was an illusion. An illusion created by the extraordinary gravitational field generated by Kluge’s stories. I think they literally pull Richter’s images (which are, often, on quite different trajectories) into orbit around the Kluge-vision.


I must must must stop. But not before I just briskly memorialize the very memorable moment in which Dolven juxtaposed Dispatches with Ali Smith’s How to Be Both. So similar, in our interpretations, the way that the two texts work to conjure a kind of “redemptive” historical consciousness via the activation of a special attunement to what we might want to call the pervasiveness of connection. This, we might say, is the “historical consciousness” on offer in these texts (and it is legible, perhaps, as a manifestation of a striving in our time to make the “connectedness” of our mediated networks into a theory of how the past may be made to conciliate with a future-oriented present). But ultimately it is the differences between the two texts that really trills. In the Smith, the connections are virtuosic and tight; there is a mood of system; while sadness is clearly available, it is not clear that tragedy is. In the Kluge/Richter, the connections are loose and casual; there is a mood of stumbling about and upon, and the result feels inviting; while emotions are few, the sense of the fragility of everything leaves a thin tendril of fear — how beautiful it is, and how easily broken. Therein, to be sure, the tragic.


Ok, folks. What can I say? Thank you for a very special class.

(Oh, and here is my punctum exercise for the week, if you are curious).


Class 9

I may just have beaten Graham to the blog this time, unless he posts as I write—so I don’t have the benefit of his usual digest of the class, but let me press on into the question at the end of session, what kind of historical consciousness is Kluge’s, and hopefully catch up some of our discussion along the way. I continue to find it profitable to return to White’s grid of possibilities, albeit in the hope that we’ll be on to something difficult to plot there. Let me take up Dispatches first, and then say a few words about History and Obstinacy.

The most obvious question is about emplotment itself, and it does seem difficult to settle on a kind, among romance, comedy, tragedy, satire. And that largely because the book so resists telling a history with the beginning, middle, and end that at least the first three of White’s kinds require. Instead we have associations that might be called (per Deleuze and Guattari) rhizomatic, ramifying from multiple nodes, equally intelligible from many perspectives. It is capable of containing tragedy, without being either permanently blighted, or unduly ennobled; comedy too, and it does seem to carry a certain optimism, though not, it would seem, exactly the optimism of a happy ending? Satire, no—if division, Marxian Trennung or separation, is the mode of satire, then satire least of all, for the book cultivates instead a mode of compassion. (Though not exactly by asking you to feel the way any of its characters feel; maybe closer to, feel how its characters would feel if what happened to them had happened to you, and they were paying attention? To borrow Ali Smith’s terms, more sympathy than empathy? But not sympathy in the sympathy-card sense, rather in the older sense of a connectedness, which means we affect each other, are affected by each other, without that connection necessitating a radical substitution. Here another difference from Ali Smith, for Kluge does not place any special stock in sacrifice, actual or symbolic.)

Anyway, Hayden White: what about ideological implication? One might say, anarchist, and feel relatively confident; a kind of social transcendence available in ordinary connections that subtend official structures. Formal argument? Maybe contextualist? Trope, certainly metaphor, in that sense again of White’s that entails not substitution (x stands for y) but equivalence (x = y). And thinking this way makes me wonder if this isn’t a deep structure of Kluge’s thought: that he rejects SUBSTITUTION (or empathy, putting myself in for you) in favor of CONNECTION (or sympathy; but again, not condescending sympathy, rather the sympathy of kin).

(I’ll say incidentally that this might find some support in his treatment of photography throughout. The book does strenuously refuse the possibilities of illustration or caption. Image and text are on equal terms. So there are the photographs we talked about in class, of the art photographer mistakenly sent to the war zone, who can see both detail, and history, how the tile burnt by the Islamists recalls the French chasseurs who were there in 1799 [104]. That photograph does not illustrate the connection, it participates in it. So, later: “A photograph should be called a ‘detail’ or a ‘fragment’” [112]: that is, a photograph is part of the world, like a story is; it does not occupy a mimetic remove, because there is no such thing. There is only lateral connection. Mimesis is a form of substitution, the picture that can replace what it is a picture of. Not for Kluge: the picture is, instead, another node. Not a substitution, but a connection. And cf. the account of the shot of the moviemakers shooting the tumbleweed: “IT WAS A DETAIL. We needed the image as a cutaway shot so we could tone down a plot development that had acquired an exaggerated importance” [8]. Something of an ars poetica, that.)

Right. Well, I thought Graham’s account of the book as a kind of counter to the perpetual drama elsewhere of the news (with its insistent contemporaneity, its focus on proximate causes and ignorance of history) was spot on. The stories explore on their own terms problems of cause and coincidence, narrative and experience; life and history as a web of similitudes. It is important to Kluge that the similitudes, the rhymes, though they seem always redemptive in potentia—that is, recognition seems to mitigate violence—in practice are often failures to commensurate and connect. He is a sympathetic but stoic participant/observer in this world, who can record the darkest ironies (or just turns of fate) as well as the most fortunate coincidences or effects of chance. It may be that the book’s brave facing up to tragedy is possible because K can also see so many ordinary moments as untragedy, as barely appreciated comedy, the resistance of chance (or of our obstinate genes and bodies, per History and Obstinacy) to tragedy—paradigmatically the quick reflexes of the boy by the pool who does not hit is head, who does not die, a non-event that K can somehow also see as a miraculous rescue. So ordinary survival is an unappreciated, constant comedy. And that is part of history too, no? Who would we be, if we could remember that?

(Irony! G and I had an interesting conversation before class, about whether K is an ironic thinker or not. If irony carries with it any kind of sneer or self-exemption, no; that seems far from his tone. But he does perhaps have the ironist’s skepticism about causation. That’s important to White’s definition, and important to some of our common-sense, even naive definitions, as well—the way we speak of a coincidence as ironic when it seems to be particularly counter to what we wanted or to how things are supposed to go. So perhaps on those grounds K is to be enrolled among the ironic historians; and perhaps his solvent for their characteristic pessimism is to allow causation and coincidence to become tactfully indistinguishable. That is: instead of linear and proximate causation, and its painful myths of agency [cf. the daily news], we have a web of connections that asks us always to be remembering history, to allow influence to flow freely across time, etc. This is a kind of sublimation of irony; perhaps the harder versions that we know as falling on a scale towards sarcasm are always irony slightly curdled, in anxiety about its own potential freedoms.)

Some of the above I’m not sure I would have seen had we not read Ali Smith together first. She does seem to participate in what I would venture is a particularly contemporary version of historical consciousness—a sense of the redemptive, emancipatory potential of acts of recognition, of affinity, homology, coincidence, kinship; constant small triumphs of similarity over difference, but never so decisive as to make for mere identity, or to annihilate diversity. But again, for Smith, that affinity, that bothness, entails a dynamic of sacrifice and substitution, which Kluge seems to reject. And as we discussed in class, How to Be Both is a stunningly complete, not to say closed system, the consolation of a whole, an aesthetic unity; whereas Kluge’s fictions are much more open, various, extravagant and exogenous, DIY, the stories throwing as many lines out into history as to each other. So they make interesting complements, the two books, in the elaboration of a contemporary attitude.

(And I am hugely sympathetic. I do wonder: for Americans, is this resistance to historicism, to the metonymic plots of history, partly generated in response to the fear that we are all living downstream, and under the fearful determinism of, the nation’s original sin of slavery? Paradigmatic perhaps of history as trapped by causality? Are such accounts answerable to that tragedy and its aftermath? Cf. Keene. Neither Smith nor Kluge is American, of course, but I am.)

Just a couple of words on History and Obstinacy; my hopes of getting this in before Graham are diminishing by the minute. The book itself, as we noted, is obstinate, in its refusal of paraphrase, of systematization; but that Eigensinn is not stubborn or confrontational, rather a graceful deflection, evasion, or just unknowing…it gets close to the obstinacy of stupidity, insofar as it just doesn’t get some of the rules of thinking and arguing that usually bind a book. It does not argue for its method, particularly, it just does it. So perhaps its obstinacy is the opposite of heels-dug-in resistance, rather it is an earnest carrying on, not necessarily in ignorance of the rules against, but with no obvious sense of its own obligation to obey.

Perhaps one mode of its obstinacy is rhizomatic, moving to something like, rather than moving to something deeper or explanatorily prior. So it is not an explanation, exactly, but a connection, an unexpected surplus…surplus of what though? Of meaning? Or just of…reading? And could it be said that these connections do not require expertise, rather imagination? So they are more open to more people, in the manner of outsider science or even conspiracy theory. But it is not a conspiracy theory, precisely not, because it is decentered, and seems basically to mean good.

And further to Class 8

First off, I’ll just say, how well the class—and Graham’s accounting of it—prepares us for Kluge, who has been working as writer, filmmaker, television produces across a succession of media transformations, and has kept his eyes and ears open through all of it. Or rather, how well Kluge will prepare us as we navigate the historical plenum to which Google gives us access. And speaking of Google, what would it be like to stand the search engine up next to White’s historians, as a historian, or as a philosopher of history? Does it have an ideological implication? Do we buy the putative anarchist aspirations of its architects; or is it, by virtue of algorithms that detect and nourish the biases and preferences you already have, conservative; or radical, because it sharpens those biases and strips away their counterarguments? At all events, not liberal. Is Google contextualist, among the formal arguments—explaining by filling in? And tropes—metonymic, metaphorical? Or does it require a new trope, or does it operate at a sub-tropical level, offering up connections that we might dignify with figure, but which are somehow prior? And hardest of all, what is its plot? Does google have a plot? Romance, maybe? But if so, not the teleological romance of Frye or White, but the lost-in-the-middest romance of Odysseus on his journey. Or maybe, satire; and then its trope would be irony, ultimate irony. Interesting to think of Google as fundamentally satirical.

And of course, Google is not the internet, though perhaps it pretends to be. Also it is not a consciousness, is it?

Anyhow, Kluge will help us follow up, I hope, on some of the questions that Ali Smith opened having to do with a plotless history. For now, style, and let me just emphasize again how vital style is as a way of knowing history, and of presencing the past. Some of what I tried to do in the section of Senses of Style that we assigned was to show style’s friendliness and resistance to narrative and with narrative history. Friendliness, because stylistic awareness allows us to stratify the past, and because—as Kubler argues—what he calls “shapes of time” have a reliable structure of primitivism, classicism, and decadence; early, middle, and late. So, style helps tell a recurring story. Resistance, because style so easily compasses everything about its moment, and offers, in itself, no impetus to radical change, disruption, revolution. It is a conservative mode of perception, I think, at bottom, and privileges continuity over rupture, experience (or description!) over narrative. The revolutionary attitude is something else. (Aesthesis?)

We didn’t spend much time on Kubler, but let’s not forget him, since his sense of time’s shapes will be of use to us: particularly that sense that any synchronic slice of history catches many shapes of time (different artistic idioms; one might also say, political forms, customs, etc.) at different and unsynchronized phases of their developments. So, not history, but histories, lots of them all the time. He also has some useful ideas about historical distance (how the past reaches us from faraway sources, like starlight) and the “involuntary act of command” (98) by which the past imposes itself on the present.

All this is important for our ongoing exercises, which may or may not participate stylistically in the different times and sensibilities they visit. I’ll just point out, if it isn’t already obvious, that there is something countercultural about such acts of sympathy. The critical disposition typically insists on being about without being like your subject: i.e., you understand something properly only if you translate it into an ideologically independent idiom. We’re probing the costs and benefits of relaxing this prohibition.

I too found the resistance to style in our in-class exercises to be really interesting, and not altogether surprising; not only are we all trained in a great age of interpretation, but we crave presence, the real and the particular (the press of a thumb into the soft skin under an arm); whereas style is a great coordinator and connector and teaches us to see a network (or family) of objects in any object. Perhaps that is not abstraction, exactly—not in the way, at all events, that form can be, form that discerns an abstraction immanent in the particular. More of a generalization, a feel for context, for at-homeness (or alienation), the salience of the taken-for-granted (by somebody, if not by you). It is a form of ORIENTATION, and hence virtually defines historical fluency. But to know where you are is not necessarily to get what you want, or what you need, and with the last, style may not be able to help. Though it can tell you where to look. And for some sensibilities, it may be enough, its likeness better (safer?) than love.

RCL, briefly, for the day grows short—but I believe I agree with Graham in favoring an account of Sable Venus as a redemptive exercise, one that a) finds unexpected emancipatory energies in its materia historica, and b) organizes itself more generally so that the later sections begin to use the words of Black artists and curators, which give voice to a critical sensibility that is present, in the earlier sections, only by implications of strong enjambment and strategic succession. Though I too take Jackie’s point that the end of the poem hardly proclaims historical victory, and suggests that the work is yet to be done. Here again we confront that question of the relation between transformation of historical consciousness and changes in historical fact. Does the one lead to the other? By what mechanism?

A final note on style, and style as historical consciousness. The juxtapositions of Sable Venus create some notable stylistic dissonances. So, if stylistic perception seeks affinities, style can also be turned against itself to reveal difference, even crisis—it can (per Kubler) take historical leaps that historicism is not allowed. The polystylistic character of Sable Venus is also polychronic, and can teach us to read against style’s tendency to offer constant tuition in what we already know, and already accept.

Class 8

We launched this week with an exercise. In an effort to activate the problems of form and style at issue in our analytic readings this week (and to do so via the institution of the museum, so significant in Robin Coste Lewis’ “Voyage of the Sable Venus”), we walked out into an almost warm Spring afternoon and made our way over to the “Confronting Childhood” exhibition at the art museum. The assignment?

  • Look at the show.
  • Identify a feature/mood/quality in the works on display that can be productively addressed in the language of style.
  • Take 3-5 pictures of the works in question, and get ready to do a two-minute mini-slide-lecture for the seminar.

We allotted 30 minutes for all this.

Back in the classroom, a half an hour later, we did a kind of “Style-Slam” — ten super-quick presentations that brought out a variety of stylistic features within and across the works in the exhibition. Greg examined three different “hands” in the images, asking us to pay closer attention to the styles of gripping/touching/holding they indexed (I was reminded of the fact that George Kubler’s mentor/colleague Henri Focillion did a much-loved book on hands in art history). Ismael focused on the stylistic conventions of the gallery itself, and detailed the sutures where “rents” in the neutral, enveloping envelope of the gallery had been stitched up or bandaged over. Lisa powerfully evoked the gestural self-fashioning of (adolescent/juvenile) masculinity across four of the images; style seemed especially apt here. Jackie was particularly taken with a “punkiness” of gaze and posture, again looking particularly at figures in the liminal zone between child and adult.

For the most part the discussions focused on style in the synchronic sense, but both Jeff and I attempted more diachronic analyses: mine looked at 3 images (I reproduced them here below) and argued for an evolution in the “style” of coordinating the gaze and the gift in a series of images of what might be called “flower girls.”

I discern in these three images something like the following sequence/problem: in the uppermost, the gaze and the flower are both “in the plane” of the image/canvas (they are neither offered nor withheld); in the middle, the Romantic move has been made, in which the gaze has receded into interiority, but the flower is proffered forth (as a substitute/consolation); in the “modern” image below, the gaze and the offering are again “in the same plane,” but both are essentially withheld in wariness (befitting the empty/paranoiac conjuncture of the twentieth century subject and its associated expression in material culture).

Jeff affectingly suggested that photographic portraiture inevitably thematizes its own (in-the-moment/all-at-once) temporality, but that it does so via a latent/dialectical fascination with asynchrony — as if the “unconscious” of photographic group portraits is perpetually manifest in the reliable return of an unrepressed sitter caught wandering out of the temporal frame. Blur was relevant here, and it was something Fyodor had already invoked in a different context. For Fyodor, the blurred subject spoke to photography’s clear propinquity to spiritualism — as if each ethereal softness at the edge of an arm or leg invoked the disembodiment of souls, the ghost-penumbra of those no longer present.

After all this we had a bit of discussion about what it had been like to attempt to use the language of style to group the works, to dissect them, and/or to “find a way” among them. I was left with the sense that the language of style is much more intensely a form of abstraction than I had perhaps previously realized. Which is to say, I found it difficult to get enough “away” from the works themselves to get traction on stylistic matters. Jeff rounded on the observation in the language of style itself: ours is a moment that privileges interpretation, and is therefore a good deal less adroit concerning questions of systematics/taxonomy than previous episodes in the history of criticism/learning.


Post-break we turned to our readings in good earnest, and more directly; though not until we had taken a few minutes around the room reading excerpts from (and discussing) our punctum exercises.

The prompt this week, recall, read as follows:

“‘This week we engage the historicity of form, of style, of things. For our punctum exercises, let’s try to engage ‘museological modes.’ Which is to say, go at your punctum via the texts, paratexts, architecture, and/or material culture of the museum. Let questions of form and style give onto time (and vice versa).”

I must say, after hearing your descriptions of a few of your projects (imagined exhibitions; Robin-Coste-Lewis-like ballads formed out of the text of your punctum-moment, sentences re-written to follow the corridors and galleries of exhibitions spaces, etc.), I am very much looking forward to reading the stack of papers here beside me on a chair.

I had fun myself this week. I, too, imagined an exhibition — and decided to evoke it through a form of stylistic pastiche: I wrote a (fictional) Artforum review of a contemporary art installation built out of my punctum. What was that phrase we used last week? “The ecstasy of self-reference as a mode of historical consciousness”? Yes, that was it. Hmmm. That may have gotten under my skin. Anyway, here it is:

[the painting is Marlon Mullen‘s]


The most intense portion of the class, I thought, came at the end, when we really tried to hear and understand Lewis’s powerful poem. Of perhaps particular importance to the theme of our course was a discussion concerning the poem’s “procedure,” and its relationship to new ways of reading.

I never tire of pointing out the same basic thing: in the last twenty years, access to the historical record has gone from being an affair of laborious text-research in primary source documents mostly stored in research libraries and archival repository and accessible only to specialists, to being pervasively and universally available to pretty much anyone pretty much anywhere using data-intensive word search technologies.

The “manifold” of something like “the all” is now always in our pockets. This is weird, and it is very, very different from the relationship most people in most places have had to the documentary basis for history in its modern form. The implications for something like “historical consciousness” are, I believe, very large (and I am hardly alone in thinking this — though card-carrying historians spend less time on the matter than we might).

Robin Coste Lewis’s poem would have been, if not impossible, extremely difficult to make in the pre-internet world. Perhaps more significantly, it would have been absolutely impossible in that pre-internet world to read it as one can now read it — through Google. And reading it through Google turns the poem into an extraordinary multi-dimensional signpost, a powerful technology for navigating the past. Indeed, I would go so far as to argue, this kind of reading can make a text like this one into a new kind of history writing — one enormously important to our moment, and to the political questions very much upon us.

It was in reading the poem through google that we discovered the remarkable image/context/intertextual “backstory” trembling within the resonant lines that end “Catalog 7”:


(Phoenix Segregation). Enough

reframing the pastI sell the shadow

to support the Substance Runway


The sense that this exercise could be extended to encompass every word of this work (for this was indeed how I read much of it — with my phone in hand, checking and checking) made for an extraordinary read, and succeeded in making me confront worlds upon worlds that had been invisible and silent to me. (Note that for the last word, “runway,” I probably spent an hour scouring different sources “looking for the work of art made-by/’containing’ a woman of color”; and I am by no means satisfied by the Perry Hoberman piece I found [though it seems to me quite impossible that a woman of color was not “in” this piece in some sense] — but I would argue that all of this deranging-manic seeking is exactly what the poem wants us to do/think/experience).

Upshot: This is a poem that has swallowed the hypertext. And asks us to swallow that swallowing. And to be changed by the communion. Here is Lewis in her “Epilogue”:

History was the sea upon which I grew drunk.”

Which is a lovely and odd image (in that one cannot get drunk drinking seawater – one dies; so is the image one of vertigo? Or intoxication? Or both?)

If there was a hard question that hung in the room as we finished, it was, I think, the question of to what extent the poem can be read in an emancipatory key. Is it a singing of the archive, as I tried to suggest? Or is that too rosy? Is it bleaker than that, in its syntactical violence, its empty spaces, its way of repeatedly cornering itself with the brutality of racial oppression? Jackie pointed to a number of ways that the text seems unwilling to celebrate its own acts of recovery.

This is a major issue to confront in reading this poem. And the poem is interested in masks and masking in ways that make it reasonable to be cautious about deciding anything with certainty concerning its program:

That said, I lean on the side of redemption, and offer you this in support of my inclination:

Not that it can be that simple. As I mentioned, Lewis may give us the figure of the conundrum in her own posture in the “Epilogue”: she is on her knees; in order to look at the (Black woman) in the work of art.

What would it be like to write some history on our knees?

I think of another poet, one cited several times by Lewis: Walt Whitman. And the extraordinary poem “The Wound Dresser”:


I onward go, I stop,

With hinged knees and steady hand to dress wounds…


Does the historical consciousness of our time require that the historian have “hinged knees”?

To think on…