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.

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