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…


And continuing…Class 7

My second espresso of the afternoon, comrades, and I am moved to start my reflections with a big question, What do we mean, historical consciousness? How about, “a way of knowing the past,” maybe an unilluminating paraphrase—but it does get the word “history” out of the way, temporarily, and might remind us of all the ways that the past is present, not only in the writing of history, but in art (especially the past of its making, a matter of style, as opposed to the past it represents) and in ritual (with its sense of the long sanction of its liturgies), as well as what we might call the natural past, the way age manifests itself in the physical world as abrasion, ruin, decay, etc. So our interest in the writing of history rides alongside these other ways that we recognize another time in our own. It is also potentially athwart them: history writing is not always respectful of the claims of ritual, in myth or doctrine, and indeed, not always of art, either; there is a project of demystification built into many versions of historicism. (Especially those that lay a claim to “realism.”) So, historical consciousness, of whatever kind, can come at a price. Must it?

And another very general reflection. Our interest in a new or a reformed historical consciousness implies a hope that to know the past better will make for a better future. We saw a whole range of approaches and attitudes to that question in White, who steers us through one crisis of irony (the eighteenth-century historians, and their abandonment of meaning or plot) into another (our own, and ditto). His hope was that by ironizing irony, by recognizing that it is itself a contingent position rather than an inevitable outcome, we might be able to reactivate some of the other available tropes, which guided the thinkers he most admired toward different varieties of historical optimism. What good can a better historical consciousness do us? It might offer the comfort of knowing that history bends towards justice, and galvanize us to act toward that ideal—whether or not our philosophy of history allows for individual agency to have historical influence. (Marx and Hegel, in their different ways?) It might liberate us from concerns about long time, about state and religion, and permit us to exfoliate the gifts of our own moment (Burckhardt?). There is a large question of whether historical consciousness is as it were active or passive, whether it implies or points to action, or to (artistically generative?) knowledge or awareness; and what the relation between the two might be. We know history can be put to desperately evil uses. When it is, is that a failure of historical consciousness? Might other modes mitigate fanaticism, for example, or model or provoke peace and justice?

Which is all just by way of saying, what ways of living and acting are implied by the varieties of consciousness that we are entertaining?

Right! Class this past week—I thought we did an especially thorough job with Lukacs; that article gained a lot of force for me as we read. Not least thanks to Greg’s opening wager that it cut a little close to his art-historical object-fetishism (if I may paraphrase!); and, as I think all of us would uncomfortably allow, to shared vulnerability to what Nietzsche might dismiss as a descriptive antiquarianism. Lukacs’ historical consciousness demands of epic narrative that it select the important details and shed the unimportant, where importance is a matter of the relation of narrated events and actions to the “motive forces of social development and their unremitting influence on even the superficial phenomena of life” (122). Description is leveling, and “contemporizes everything” (131), so is poor for doing the kind of history—history as vital change—that matters, that gets us somewhere. It was very interesting to test this, however swiftly, against the claims of Speculative Realism or Object Oriented Ontology, as that philosophical project is variously called; what good comes of the kind of attention that does away with the distinction between subjects and objects (or extends the franchise of the subject universally across existent things)? Is description potentially itself a mode of justice? One might set this question alongside Barthes, whose account of the “reality effect” entertains the object-in-novels that has nothing more or less than the real itself as its signified. (The real in novels, and perhaps in houses?—do you own anything that is there just to show that you belong to your time; that you are real?) The realist object, it should be said, is not a particular desideratum for Barthes. (He is more interested in what he elsewhere calls the punctum, one tributary of our term, the secret center of interest and pleasure in a photographic image, the occasion of the species of uncategoried pleasure he calls jouissance.) His realism still may be a mode of historicity more interested in presence than progress—and that perhaps considers presence to have more emancipatory potential than any emplotment could give us.

I hope the Jameson will come back. In some ways, his account of realism puts Lukacs and Barthes together, defining realism as the dialectic of narrative and affect, where affect is the present tense of feelings that have not been reduced to name (as the repertory of passions and emotions have).

But this is getting long and I want to say a few words about Ali Smith. We talked a bit about queerness and history—with Keene and Smith, especially, sexual variety and gender complexity seem to open a more capacious historical consciousness. Why? A question to keep active. Lee Edelman (No Future) and Jack Halberstam (In a Queer Time and Place) are working similar questions, and there’s a lot more writing behind them. Graham’s sense that there is something prophetic in the position of bothness ought to stay with us. There is Tiresias, and also Woolf’s transhistorical Orlando, moving from man to woman (and back) and woman to man, respectively. If not back and forth in gender, why not back and forth in time? Smith may take a step farther with Francesco and George, who are, in their different ways, possibly both at once.

I’ll say a few more words about that basic problem of the relationship between ANALOGY and FORGIVENESS in the book. For the book is pervasively self-referential, so much correspondence of image and event both within its parallel narratives and between them, and it seems to argue that there is something redemptive in that fact about the world, and something beneficent in recognizing it. Why should interconnection itself, including historical interconnection, conduce to the good?

Let’s say that it is a basic wager of the book that a world so structured is a better world than one governed by a sequential, causal, not to say historicist logic. In the most general sense, such patterns of connection mean a) that things (and people) are never truly lost, for they ripple and recur; b) it is as easy to go backward as to go forward, and so no error or injustice or loss is permanent; and c) there is a recurring affect of wonder at coincidence, and play in its discovery, that makes for a kind of antidote or solvent to grief and anger. Such a world tends towards monism, towards everything seen all at once. But the novel, in its two parts, holds that happy metaphorical apocalypse at bay, in favor of an ongoing, miraculous perception not of one but of both, in countless forms. (Another way of answering Jeewon’s question, why no free indirect discourse, which would be something like a completed synthesis of first and third person, rather than a dialectic?—though I could imagine Smith making use of it.)

There is a corresponding promise in Christian doctrine: that Christ’s bothness, man and God, blood and wine (water and wine), is of the essence of His power to forgive, to sacrifice, and that his death and assumption may be paradigmatic of other redeemed losses (and of the rising/falling pattern throughout the book, as with the helical helicoptering maple seeds and their sprouting). So BOTHNESS is a condition of REDEMPTION. The book’s transposition of that sacrifice from a single religio-mythico-historical figure to the sempiternal sacrifice of mothers is one of its strongest moves. As Nietzsche would agree, there is potentially paralyzing guilt for the surviving children in both cases; we must learn to forgive the sacrificer for leaving us, forgive ourselves for hating Him/her, etc.

Something like this recognition allows for the transformation of George’s attitude to history: “History is horrible,” she says to her mother: “It is a mound of bodies pressing down into the ground [not rising]…George is appalled by history, its only redeeming feature being that it tends to be well and truly over” (248). And then later, after her death, “What if history, instead, was that shout, that upward spring, that staircase-ladder thing, and everybody was just used to calling something quite different the word history?” (304-305).

Anyway—I could keep going and going, and that is the point (the point: that great pun for Smith, a singularity with multiple meanings; so, really, a node, as every property in the book is a node). Let me just try to put it in a bigger perspective before this third espresso runs out. Does White have a way of thinking about all this? Not an emplotment, I don’t think; we observed the paucity of plot, and even if there is something comic for George and H, and perhaps for Francesco released from his purgatory, both comedies are dominated by pathways other than the causal/chronological. Nor a mode of argument, which is a unidirectional business as much as plot is. Among the tropes, perhaps metaphor? Insofar as that is White’s figure of both-andness. If How to Be Both is basically metaphorical in its orientation to history, can we link it, for example, with Nietzsche’s ultimate image-frolic? Or Marx’s utopia? It lacks the self-assertion of the former. It does have an interest throughout in equal pay, and asks tough questions about talent and worth. (The conundrum: should everyone be paid equally, or should the better artist be better paid for the better painting? A tough one for us Princeton meritocrats.)

I am myself very sympathetic to Smith’s way of seeing the world, or her book’s, at least. I do think it undercuts the stark, essentialist difference-making upon which unjust acts of scales large and small depend. I feel the wonder of the book’s generous recognitions and I feel better for it, more alive, alert, and generous, forgiving. (It is almost Buddhistic—though bothness, again, is not oneness.) There is still a question whether How to Be Both is answerable, as a mode of historical consciousness, to tragedy, to the worst of the past. The book does not test itself against crime, let alone against crisis or horror, only against loss. And as I said at the end of class—what is the model of this extraordinary, miraculous connection for its own sake, if not the fantastical connectedness of the internet and global capital? Which, um, surely bend to the good if they are only allowed to flourish freely? Don’t they? Don’t they?

And then I’ll restate that final thought, a big one I haven’t processed, but am wondering about. The particular good of studying the past as a kind of alterity is that it cannot trade with us: we cannot exploit it, at least, not the way we can our historical peers. The past stands outside the economy, or can, or should. A useful historical consciousness then would have to recognize that the past happened and that however hard it may be to know, we cannot change it.

Class 7

So here I am on another Wednesday evening, looking back over the notes I scribbled on the flyleaf of Ali Smith’s How To Be Both. Much of what I’m reading here are catchphrases from our discussion in class earlier today:

“What realism does is ask us to pay attention.”

“Connectedness as forgiveness.”

“The ecstasy of self-reference as a mode of historical consciousness.”

Then there is a little mini-essay by me on the question of whether How To Be Both should in fact be understood as an extended riff on Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, where the dichotomous choice is between the ethical and the aesthetic life, between “willing one thing” and “the flight to the charms of the manifold,” between marriage and children (on the one hand), and art and eros (on the other), between (masculine) law and (feminized) sensuality. Not impossible to read Ali Smith as replying to Kierkegaard’s Either/Or with a Both/And.

And then, below all that, circled, one word:


The loose snatches of thought above are all unattributed, I fear — so I invite any of you who wish to claim them to do so here. Failing that, we will treat them as orphans, up for adoption…

Over the last several weeks I have tended to draft these fast write ups as mnemonic exercises, and have endeavored to create mini narratives of the events (contributions, propositions, exchanges) transpiring across our two hours and fifty minutes together. Today, after a class on the narrative tactics of realism, one is immediately hyperconscious of that resort to récit.

 Why wouldn’t I begin with a description of the room? Begin, perhaps, with the way a little bristle at edge the trap door in our seminar table — that small panel that opens onto the electrical outlet — had caught a long human hair, which I noticed when I went to plug in my laptop?

Or begin with what we were wearing, or the sound of the wall clock (which, at one point, during a pensive silence, I heard ticking)?

In fact, I think I’ll experiment here with doing neither a narrative of our seminar discussion (we began by sharing a number of the punctum exercises, we ended up spending a good deal half of the class on Lukács, we touched on Barthes a bit before the break, but only really got to the Jameson and questions of affect when we delved the Ali Smith novel in the last hour of our session), nor with a scene painting of Dickinson 230 as we inhabited it (the blue-green hue of the fluorescent lights, Ismael’s furrowed brow at the far end of the long table), but rather with a gesture perpendicular to the plane of realismus: an “idea.”

It is one of the ideas with which we closed, and it may only merit to be called a ghost or shadow of a proper idea — a shade. What if it is truly and only a Tiresian figure (a both/and figure, a “queer” figure) who can lead us out of the ironic catastrophe of historicism (Hayden White’s master conundrum) and toward some “suprahistorical” mode — not Nietzsche’s version of this, exactly (since that is untenable), but something out that way, in the zones indexed by the Zarathustra-historian. Out there somewhere where, reborn as amphibious hermaphrodites, we can become gloriously unmoored in time, and move within it freely.

I confess that I cannot quite say what I mean by that. But after finishing How To Be Both, I find myself hugely seduced by a vision/fantasy of a kind of labile, polymorphous historicism.

So, in this vein: Why don’t we think more with ghosts? Why the endless “retrospection” of historical “recovery,” and the total absence of a healthy school of historical uncovery whose practitioners haunt their epochs, or endure purgatorial exiles in other times?

I have begun at the end of our class.

Or something like that.

After all, at the end of the class I found myself dreaming of jumping out of time altogether


But, really, that was where we started: with James’ lovely punctum exercise about David Smith and sculpture and time (the jangle of those coins in the pocket like a little alarm-clock; the thermos in the photograph made a genie-lamp that, rubbed, made time run both ways). It was James who most strongly felt that the problems of realism were ultimately problems of time-management in text-form: memory, presence, artifacts, documents all arbitrage the distance between then and now, between me and that. The realism in his punctum exercise was, in a sense, that of momentary disorientation occasioned by the mind’s mobility in time.

Oh, wait, perhaps that strange vision of the time-amphibious-hermaphrodite was really just me invoking the mind all along.

For what is the mind if not a time-amphibious-hermaphrodite?



(Something to think on there).


Class 6 again

I’ll start by taking up per Graham’s suggestion that question of what we get trying to abstract Nietzsche’s arguments from his style—it gets close to the motives of our exercises, which have aspects both of praxis (let’s try this ourselves) and pastiche (let’s see what it does for us, to us, to sound like this thinker/writer). We postmoderns tend to dismiss out of hand the idea that style and substance can be separated, and we’ve got some good reasons for that. Practically speaking, however, the distinction is often a useful heuristic, and White, who rarely if ever sounds like Nietzsche, nonetheless translates his argument into usefully alternative terms; and you can go back to your Nietzsche and find your way around better, even if you do not take White’s account to be comprehensive or always true to its subject. So, White succeeds in being about Nietzsche without being like Nietzsche. Substance yes, style no.

I think it gets interesting when the question is, does a given thinker offer their work to translation; is it written into a preexisting vocabulary, within which it can be received, argued, modified, etc.; or is it written to resist such appropriation, such ready and open commerce? Can you easily criticize it in its own terms, as you can with most academic writing (by producing academic writing in response), or does it encourage or oblige you to refashion your own idiom, even to begin to engage it? One might measure the ambition of a poetics of history (as opposed to a philosophy of history) by its wager on the latter possibility. Nietzsche has certainly been digested into patient argument, but he has also produced many stylistic outliers among his readers, from Derrida to Kristeva to Nehamas.

And another angle on the problem: there are some philosophers for whom the reform of linguistic usage (not just our terms, but how we understand language itself to work for purposes of argument) is basic to the philosophical project. That’s a question I’ve brooded about in my book about style, so forgive me quoting myself briefly:

A philosophy that believes in changing minds by argument, once and for all, need not cultivate a style. (It may, but it need not.) A philosophy, or a theory, that understands itself as a therapy for intransigent habits of mind cannot do without style, may even consist in style.

That’s to say that systematic philosophy could be and certainly wants to be the notation of an abstract structure of argument; translation should not be a problem. Philosophy post-Hegel is no such thing. Style cannot vary across different accounts of the system; rather, it is the way of thinking proposed to the reader. The historical split (and we’re talking Western philosophy here) isn’t clean. Socrates (especially as opposed to Plato) might have to fall on the nineteenth-century side of the divide, if it were. But the difference nonetheless might help us see why something happens to Nietzsche when we try to propositionalize his insights. Not something fatal, but something important, maybe diminished. Contempt is part of his critical energy, part of the work he is doing to jolt us out of our historical malaise; and enthusiasm even more, a human, all-too-human bid for the post-human, a deeply historical yearning to overcome history, or at least, historicism. It is at moments hysterical, as Graham says, but I am partly held in Nietzsche by his humanizing irony, his mighty effort to bring us in on a joke he tells on himself, to be laughing with us and us with him, a laugh which is both triumphant and knowing. (As you can see, Graham is a binary thinker, and I am not.)

Anyhoo, I too enjoyed going in with the exercises, and we’ll do more of that. The second half of the semester will spring us from our philosophers, and make the exercises’ relation to the week’s reading and problems less predictable—application or impersonation of a thinker will still be a possibility, but new variants will arise; and hopefully, provocations to some experiments in medium, too. I think we’re assembling a striking portfolio of cases, which demand a wide range of relations to time and to evidence. A day in Passaic; a time in Maghreb when things must have changed, we know they did, but when, how exactly? An exhibition, a pivotal year, the opening of a particular door. They are coming alive for me as I read and for you all I hope as you, seen so many times and so many ways…

…and then there’s Keene. I thought that toward the end of class, the question we got to of his own sense of historical encumbrance was powerful. On the one hand, why write Counternarratives if you think we already have too much of the past too much with us? Why is it is a book so entailed to fact and record? On the other hand, its freedoms, its departures from and expansions of what the past gives us are equally obvious. Are they superhistorical—that is, are they myth-making? Or does Keene write his stories into gaps in the record, to describe experiences that did not change history, but are nonetheless part of it—a record of epicyclical experiments, against the larger currents of history in a long and unfinished epoch of colonial slavery? Are Keene’s stories too small for Nietzsche? Mere scribbled epiphenomena? (I think again of those “Outtakes,” of Zion who takes advantage of historical disorientation to live a life of musical transgression and racial violence, received and given.) Or are they prophecies, or examples for emulation, a curious genre, which Nietzsche did not quite envisage, but might have, of micro-monumentalism? (A succession not of torches, maybe, but of sparks, from which a great fire might someday be kindled?)

Or do the stories really agree with one another in these matters?—a possibility raised by Jeewon. “The Aeronauts,” for example, gives us the early years of the Civil War from the standpoint of the memory-prodigy Theodore, who sees so much, recalls it all, but understands nothing (from the science to sex to his own desires to the war and so on). Is he a Fabrizio? Is he Keene’s satire of Fabrizio, and of so many other naive heroes who populate the history of the historical novel? What to make of this strategy for doing history, tracking it through a character whose mobility is enabled by his obliviousness? What does that vision of the subject recommend to us, now, as a way to live with the past? This historical consciousness that Keene offers…it clearly has common ground with the contemporary project of writing into the margins, or at least against the existing, big books; and with the longstanding tendency (see Erich Auerbach) of the novel to investigate the lives of ordinary people, to bring the high genres down to earth. What is different about Keene? Does the problem of slavery make that difference? (And what about gay desire, so important in so many stories, so inchoate for many of the men who feel it?) Does White’s dominant question of emplotment help us see Counternarratives? (As a whole, in its parts?) Or is Keene’s book an attempt to escape from the predicaments of emplotment, from the sort of history that participates in the big stories that grind people in their gears? Narratives against the old narratives, or narratives against narrative?

And what a nightmare, the final story. History as a history of rivalry and mutual mutilation, driven by a will to power not to be distinguished from sexual desire—and unlike any of its predecessors, a story with no apparent outside to the postcolonial catastrophe, historical or otherwise. What is it doing at the end? A monitory fable? A bitter allegory? Nietzsche seems implicated in the desire for untimeliness there. Is his strong, creative forgetting a possible antidote to a past that is burned in the minds and written on, or carved out of, the bodies of the two speakers? Or is the only way out the way through, more memory, more context, the sort that might situate the cell and the conversation in it?

I didn’t mean to end so darkly. It was a great class; but I wonder why Keene drops us there and what we can do about it. Tragedy, per White, after all? Or…realism?

Class 6

Over these last few weeks we have tended to launch either from our fictions or from the Hayden White. Which is to say, in a basic way, the structure of these seminars has tended to be either a trajectory from poetics to history/philosophy-of-history, or the trajectory from history/philosophy-of-history to poetics. This has been explicit in the conversations Jeff and I have been having as we prepare for our meetings. Sometimes we’ve said, “let’s begin with the Hayden White, and then talk about the Stendhal after the break,” or we’ve said, “this week, let’s dive in with the Keene, and find our way to the White through the questions that come up talking about the fiction.”

This week we tried something altogether different from either of these moves. We agreed that today we would launch from the punctum exercises that everybody has been working on. The logic there was that, speaking from my own experience, these exercises take up a fair bit of my time and course-thinking every week (I very definitely find myself reading our “master thinker” of the week with a peculiarly pragmatic set of questions on my mind — how am I going to do this), and yet we haven’t really hit on a formal, or even informal, structure for sharing/discussing them. So now, as we crest to the midterm, it felt right to put them in the middle of the table and see what’s going on.

I thought the result was really satisfying. Ishmael actually spoke up at the end of our session today, and said as much — namely that he had found it both interesting and congenial to dig in on the Nietzsche (and on Hayden White’s reading of Nietzsche) via the workshop-style emphasis on everybody’s individual punctum exercise writings. My feelings exactly.

So what happened?

Well, we heard from just about everyone, and we got to hear both some wonderful bits of writing (I still have Lisa’s lovely Nietzschean set-piece at the foot of Vesuvius very much before my mind’s eye; Jeewon’s image of the “spirit of progress” peering paradoxically over the horizon through a spyglass has similarly stuck with me), and we also got to hear some super interesting reflections on the insights/puzzles/ambitions that hedged your efforts (I think immediately of Jackie’s wonderful story of pursuing some kind of archaicizing parable-form of her punctum, only to end up in a remarkable and serendipitous meander across the archives of her moment; and then there was Ishmael’s admittedly as yet unborn vision of creating a genuine foundational MYTHOS for the political identity of the peoples of Northern Africa).

And there was much more: Jeremy caught some bright spark of rage-glory as he ventriloquized Nietzsche’s hypothetical dismissal of Descartes; Greg worked some of his own central questions (architecture, exhibition, technology) through Nietzsche’s analytics of the monumental and the antiquarian and the critical modes of history writing. Finally, you all were very gracious in permitting me to dilate upon my own swipe at the task, which I append here:

(Once again nudging: do feel free to share these pieces either via the website or through blackboard, or via email — anyway you like, and only if you wish…)

Reading this material around, we actually dug in pretty deep on the question of Nietzsche‘s “historical consciousness.” You all had a chance see Jeff and I gently emphasize complementary (I think), but not homologous accounts of Nietzsche’s orientation to the historical. I really tried to dramatize the late and visionary ambition genuinely to leave the condition of the human behind. In this sense, I take Nietzsche to be obliged to gesture toward a form of “historical consciousness” that we cannot (given that we are human) discern or comprehend. My own think piece, while legible as a satire, is very definitely intended to take that proposition absolutely seriously. The truth is, I am actually quite sympathetic.

Jeff, as I heard him, wanted to insist on just how completely entangled with history (its modes, its forms, its tools) Nietzsche’s apparent desire to transcend history actually turns out to be. This is very definitely the case, and I would not dispute it. The question that hung a little in the air, for me anyway, was whether Jeff was willing to follow me as I gesture to a Nietzsche who was gesturing past any form of historical consciousness that we could recognize as such. By disposition, I think, I am the more “hysterical” thinker in our teaching duo, and in that sense our respective accounts of Nietzsche can be seen to have played to type.

About here in the discussion another very large and difficult question arose and, as I saw it, did not really “land.” I am referring here to the question of “style” in Nietzsche’s work: I adopted a somewhat flat-footed posture (insisting that, while I certainly have some feel for Nietzsche’s characteristic style, I nevertheless am possessed by a distinct sense that I “understand” his “arguments” and would be perfectly happy to see them rearticulated in some other style — indeed, I went so far as to suggest that Hayden White’s chapter on Nietzsche served as an example of what Nietzsche’s arguments look like when written by someone who doesn’t sound like Nietzsche at all); Jeff’s position was, I think, more subtle (I will leave it to him to gloss his view on this matter if he chooses).


Gloss. The word puts us in mind of John Keene’s story “Gloss, or the Strange History of Our Lady of Sorrows.”


After the break we settled in to a conversation about Counternarratives. It was a good conversation. Not easy. The final story, “The Lions” is brutal, and troubling. We sat with it, and with what it implied about the structure of the book as a whole.

If there was an insight that came out of the conversation that sticks with me, it would be the realization of the way so many of the stories are “dead ends” or are “cut off.” Greg showed us the way several of the formal gestures (the peculiar typography that begins and ends “Acrobatique”) instantiated this theme, which was manifest in narrative content elsewhere (e.g., the end of “The Aeronauts”). This sense of things being disrupted, clipped, even amputated finds its most dramatic and haunting expression in the mutilations of the final story of the volume. But we noticed that the text powerfully foreshadows that conclusion in the striking “news item” overture of the decapitated young man from which “On Brazil, or Dénouement: The Londônias-Figueiras” departs (and to which, one might argue, it returns — if in a ghostly/uncanny way).

Ultimately, the highest stakes in this closing conversation lay in the question of whether Keene’s book can be read as gesturing toward, or, indeed, seeking to generate, some new form of historical consciousness. And here, it was very tempting to invoke Nietzsche’s notion of the “superhistorical” after all, we are abundantly aware (or we should be) of the extent to which “proper historians” and “proper history” have been incapable — are, it would seem — incapable of “doing justice” to the people and peoples and stories with which Keene is concerned. Sure, we card-carrying academic historians have tried. We have tried to “recover the voices” of those who are, in one way or another, “lost” to “history.” Yes, we have developped different techniques to get at lives and experiences not well represented in the archives. But the reality is, it will always be easier to write “histories” of slave holders than it will be to write the “histories” of slaves — and that is not an accident. That is 100% baked-in to the structures of power that make slavery and make history (as we know it). And when you look at it that way, it might be time for some superhistoricism — it may be past time.

And it is, in my view, not impossible that this is what we are holding and reading and discussing in these last two weeks with Counternarratives.

Lots to think about.


Class 5

Jeff’s post (below) provides a perfect hinge on which to swing slowly across from the fiction of Stendhal to that of Keene, and from the wry omniscience of Burckhardt to the engaged outrage of Marx.

For it is with Marx that we found ourselves concerned in week 5.

Questions of action, of what one does with history or through historical analysis, all of this was very much on our minds in the class discussion today, particularly when we again took up the recursive loop of Hayden White’s own historical mode. I am not quite sure I can recover how we got there. But the temptation to apply White’s method to White himself was too strong, and so we spent some time across the middle zone of our seminar working to make sense of the move by which irony can be turned on irony (with an eye on the transcending of irony). We read again this powerful passage from the end of the preface, where White offers what I take to be the sharpest formulation of his program:


I went so far as to claim that I read White as quite literally performing a kind of burlesque performance of structuralism, whereby the proliferating quaternaries of Metahistory are pushed to, and then passed, their breaking point, and are thereby meant to fall away, leaving…

Well, leaving what? On the one hand, the work may be merely a cleaning out of the stables of the giant old barn of historicism. But I tried a few other metaphors too: the image of using a kind of firehose of irony to stem the irony geyser flooding the realm. Or what about Seamus Heaney’s Scaffolding:

Perhaps as the “scaffoldings” of structuralism fall away something solid will be left behind — something for us.  If not a historical consciousness adequate to the conditions of our late modernity, then perhaps at least some foundations of such a thing, some component of that architecture.

Metaphors, metaphors, metaphors.

It isn’t that we can put aside the figures, but we can try to keep in mind what Hayden White actually wants for us: a kind of history (nay, something larger — a historical consciousness) that can be adequate to the science, poetry, and philosophy of our time. This is what Hayden White did not think existed in 1972 — and I, for my part, both think he was correct in his diagnosis of that moment, and believe that his diagnosis is no less relevant today. At the same time, as I suggested in our discussion, I believe it is possible to discern in our moment signs that we are trembling closer and closer to something like the genuine demise of the forms of historical consciousness White can anatomize. Something is likely to come in to the space that will be left…

Ah! Vatic, nebulous…and perhaps simply hooey.


Bracketing all this grandeur, what we do know (and chapter seven of Metahistory lays out in great detail) is that a transformation of historical consciousness is possible, and can have profound effects. This is the story of Karl Marx.

We spent a good deal of time working through the structure of Marx’s novel form of history/philosophy (as White lays it out). This meant trying to understand the relationship of base to superstructure, the relationship of the proletariat to the bourgeois, the relationship of mechanist to organicist explanations – and, most urgently, the relationship between the individual and the society (both before and after the Communist revolution).

Without trying to rehash all that here, I want simply to underscore the suggestive parallels we discerned between Marx and White himself. Just as Marx wants us to understand that the paradoxical condition of being simultaneously “free” (in our subjective experience of personhood) and “determined” (in our social condition as victims of structures and dynamics beyond our control) will be definitively resolved by the transformation in the conditions of production that permanently abolish society as we know it, so we can read White as gesturing toward a future historical consciousness that will be unmarked by a pervasive sense of the essential contradictions between poetry and science, and between either/both and philosophy.

Beyond the torments of the ironic condition lies… something.

But what?


We cannot simply slot Keene in at this point. Counternarratives cannot be read as a specimen of some new historical consciousness aborning. Or, well, I am not ready to try to impose that reading upon it. But do I think that it is a text that is meaningfully responding to the untenability of the form of historical consciousness White mercilessly anatomizes in Metahistory? Yes, I very much believe it is.

Our conversation about the Keene ranged. I thought we did a good job working closely with several specific portions/features of the text: looking at how specific sentences worked; examining analogous patterns (suspension, “ballooning,” retrospection) that operate at the grammatical and the semantic levels. We discussed how the text both establishes, and violates (perhaps better, renews/revises?), several contracts that it establishes with the reader.

Opinions seemed to vary about the different techniques used by the stories — and perhaps rather than try to work those through here, I’ll save further discussion of the Keene until next week, when we will have the full book behind us. I think many of you felt that you were yourselves a little “suspended” at the midpoint of this volume, and our waiting to see where it is going to go.

Onward! To next week…


P.S.  Here, for those of you who are curious, is my latest effort on the Punctum Exercises; my date, in the key of Karl Marx…

Class 4 again

Alright—Jeff here—I’ve been slow to join in; I blame my High Office. But it is a snowy night in Brooklyn and good for ruminating and so let me set down some reflections especially on Stendhal but also on the class more generally…

…beginning with that idea Graham has mooted, via White, of historical consciousness: our project being, both to develop a sense of the variety of possible forms of such consciousness, especially as kinds of making; and to wonder, what new forms (or what old forms, or hybrids) might be adequate to our own moment? In what shapes can we know the past; how can we make our history both most true and most useful (and discover what relation or ratio between those two criteria we need)? Our basic wager is that we will get a better grip on the problem for having tried it ourselves.

Another way of posing the problem, a little closer to the terrain of literary criticism: what do we mean when we historicize a text; what kind of history are we making, when we do? Literary critics can sometimes be naively deferential to the historical record, as though it were the real against which the fancies of criticism must be tested. But to invoke history, in making a literary argument, is always to invoke it in a particular shape, and to engage in the sort of tendentious narrativizing that White so determinedly taxonomizes. Where does the new historicism fit among the emplotments of Metahistory? What is implied by particular ligatures between text and event, text and context—do they conjure a genre, tragic or comic? A structure of argument, contextualist, for example? Such questions may be asked on the largest and the smallest scales, and should be, but we do not always ask them.

For the historians, all the more important—how would you emplot the books you most admire; how about the essay you last wrote?

I should say, White’s large questions about plot will not be our only questions. The poetics of history certainly operates at that level of total narrative. But the techne of getting the past in, presenting the past, whether in literature or historiography or criticism or anywhere else, includes other instruments, at other scales. There is detail, for example, the stuff of the past, things that bear implicit dates, properties. Closely related, style, how ways of speaking and writing date their speakers and writers. White showed us some things about syntax that we might do well to follow up, too. The parataxis of Burckhardt, for example, as both a symptom (for us readers) and, arguably, a tool (for him) of a kind of history that abjures overarching logic. We might compare the implications of such sentences to the magnificent, suspended period that ends Keene’s “Mannahatta.” What does that sentence imply for Keene’s metahistory?

But Stendhal, Stendhal. Let me try to gather up a few threads from the past couple of weeks’ discussion. I thought we did a good job with Fabrizio, as a charming, volatile, distractible cipher at the center of the book—impressionable hero of a Bildungsroman, who may not learn anything at all. He stands athwart a thousand contradictions, in his boyish naiveté, his sense of aristocratic privilege and honor (in spite of, because of, his illegitimacy?), his intimations of the general value of human life (the Liberals’ sense of the happiness of the many?), his church career and his susceptibility to omens, his classicism; his desire to be in the middle of things, to be part of history, of battle, but his perfect delight in the altitude, solitude, and semiotic poverty of his tower. As James Merrill says of the mirror, “You embrace a whole world without once caring / To set it in order.” (Recall Stendhal’s aphorism re the novel as a mirror out for a walk.) What sort of historical consciousness is this?—or does his character consist in the very limitation of his consciousness; in its passing appetites and affinities, not even properly ironic?

Around him, however, are constellated other characters of more determinate vantage: the Count, who seems to be such a perfect steward of a precarious aristocratic order, who thinks Parma is not yet ready for a republic (407), and so deftly postpones it; he is an immaculate tactician, unconcerned with strategy (and also strongly tempted into a different code again, that of companionate marriage—a formation not at all to do with the courtly world he sustains; his love for the Duchess is among the book’s great achievements). How would White characterize him: a satirist, a conservative; somewhere between mastery of small metonymies, and an ironic dissociation between politics and history? (His “satirical subtlety” [282]; he likes games, whist and backgammon.) And the Duchess, as intelligent as the Count, as subtle, if somewhat less adroit in her calculations—if only because she puts her wit at Fabrizio’s disposal, and is willing to make change on a scale that the Count never assays; she sets in motion, after all, an assassination and a rebellion, and uses a flood just to send a signal. Is there a theory of history behind her actions, a comic emplotment, a synecdochic dedication to the well-being of a favored son? How about Palla? A Romantic? Or does he tend toward those ideological implications that White sees as generating no serious history—fascism, even?

So there are a number of different kinds of history focalized in the characters (including more minor characters, Marshall Ney, even Giletti). What of the novel as a whole? Its great reputation for ironic realism does seem to bear up under White’s definition. Satire is a basic mode; comedy and tragedy are invoked at different moments, and romance too (the atavistic aspects of the tower and of Palla’s character, which we raised in class), but what is most striking is its ironic collation of contradictory vectors and markers, pointing backward and forward, indexing many pasts. It might be possible to argue that there is a seismic liberalism underneath all of it, that Stendhal wants to show us that beneath all of these erotic maneuverings, history is moving, whether in a Hegelian or a Tocquevillian sort of way, toward the priority of the people. Then again, perhaps the book’s fragmented consciousness—as distributed across its dramatis personae; as concentrated, or perfectly dispersed, in Fabrizio—is historically inert, and what it is good at is not emploting a historical story, but (more like Burckhardt) giving us a slice of time without identifying in it any impulse to necessary change. That, to be sure, is a kind of poetics of history…

…and raises the question of activism. That is, parallel to the question of whether we like the book, feel sympathetic, love or forgive its characters, is the question of what we might do about it. Is this a book that might motivate a reader to some action? If so, what, and how? If not, what does it give us instead—what kind of pleasure, what kind of understanding; to what relation to history does it enjoin us? This too will continue to be an important question, for some books we read will seem to have strong designs on the reader’s own historical agency; others, not.

“To the happy few”!—it is hard to see this as an activist novel, exactly. How ironic is that final dedication, that final toast? Fabrizio seems to have had another happy three years of improvised trysts with Clèlia, living, as he did in the tower, in the interstices of history, improvising undisruptive, perhaps even insignificant forms of satisfaction. His great mistake is to try to establish his paternity, and gain custody of his son—wrenching what seems to be a double illegitimacy into a proper genealogy, as though he could claim his place by main strength in that oldest sort of history, the family tree. What to make of the tragic outcome? Should Fabrizio have forged some new relation, and a new politics for it?—do we stand in need of a notional republic where divorce is possible and family life can be renovated? Or, and this seems much more within the novel’s ken, should he have accepted that life is lived best by tactics of local irony, assuming a disjunction between larger social forms and private affect? Acquiescing to the present, at history’s expense; or at least, the sort of history that moves?

That’s more than enough for now. But as we think about how White’s historians do history, how they make the past present, let’s keep in mind the way Stendhal does it too—the modernity of his irony, as we characterized it in class, which could be said to produce an awareness of history that, in its wry, tolerant, affectionate breadth, teaches little about how things might be otherwise, but everything about how they were. Keene will be different, yes?