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.