Class 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


We went in here:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

Well, it was hard.

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

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

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

A new language for history.

It is too ambitious, of course.

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

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



Thank you for an engaging semester.

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


And more Class 11 thinking…

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So there you go.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We took our break.


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

There is no flow without telos. 

It is a book of doppelgangers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But one mustn’t be glib.

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

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

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

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

It felt a little like that to me at times…


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why? How?

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think this would be very unfortunate.

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







Class 10

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

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

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

Most suggestive, the page, taken as a whole.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


– Graham

And Further to Class 9

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


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

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

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

Recall that this was our assignment:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

So much to say, so much to say!

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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


Class 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…


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

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

Back to it! A brief summary of our conversation yesterday. Brisk, brisk — a mnemonics of the occasion…

So we reconvened. And, reversing our pattern from last week, we launched with Stendhal, and moved only to Metahistory after the break.

Part II of La Chartreuse de Parme. That was where we focused. But having now completed the book, we were newly in a position to assess it in its totality.

So in we went, for a close look at a key moment: Chapter 16, and Mosca’s encounter with the Duchess in her new post-Fabrice-imprisonment mode. We read. And we thought. And we talked.

We considered the insides and the outsides of these characters, and the way they are depicted as inhabiting themselves and the world. Mosca, the consummate courtier. (But is that all he is, in the end?) The Duchess, a flame of brilliance, whose spontaneity and capacity for the gesture (for theater, for cutting the figure) gives her an affinity for the “Romantic” mode, even as she can seem so quick (of wit, of thought, of decision) that she seems, sometimes, to me, to be getting around herself before she is permitted to be herself — whatever that might mean. (One thinks of Wallace Stevens’ Theory: “One is not duchess / A hundred yards from a carriage”; and then one thinks that this might function as an epigram for the whole novel — but only if one were to put a question mark at the end of the couplet…)

In discussing this (heart-breaking, if you are fully immersed in the story at this point) section in Chapter 16, we ended up focusing on the passage in which the Duchess details her sense of Fabrice’s special perfection:

We found ourselves puzzling over the ways that the Duchess seems to find a certain kind of awkward failure-to-self-cognize-in-context as Fabrice’s “grace.” It is a strange idea. With implications for the status of “self knowledge” and “interiority” in this book. (Those of you who are interested in pursuing the intellectual-historical context for this fascinating problem, should try Jan Goldstein’s superb book, The Post-Revolutionary Self: Politics and Psyche in France, 1750–1850; you could get a sense of what is going on in the book from this strong review by John Carson).


This line of inquiry took us across to another extraordinary moment in the text: the Duchess’s peculiar moment of self-and-Fabrice knowledge (but is it that?) that irrupts at the close of her encounter with the poet-assassin Ferrante Palla in Chapter 21:

Do with this what you will. At the very least it tells us exactly what it says: that the author wishes us to understand that the Duchess understands Fabrice to be incapable of understanding her. Is this what she was saying in Chapter 16 as well?

Before the break we took a turn through the question of gender in this book, and specifically the question of whether its use of the structuring norms of gender-identity effectively cut us off from some aspect of “pleasure” in the text. Or that was my question. Jeff offered, I thought, an affecting invocation of what it is when a text can resonate with questions put to it from outside of its ethical and historical “frame.” He feels this one can, on this matter. And it may be so.

* * *

We took our break, and when we came back we talked a bit about the “Punctum Exercises.” I am going to go ahead and post a PDF of mine here (click on image to open):

These should in no way be taken to be normative. They are, I fear, in important ways, not that great. But since we are asking you to do something a bit odd, it feels important to get out in front of this a bit, and offer you an example of what plausible experimentation in the idiom can look like.

And I want to say here again what I tried to express in our meeting: for me, I certainly feel myself thinking my way into Burckhardt in a very particular way when I know I have to try to “reproduce” his style (of thought, of voice).

That is what we are aiming for here, and the work we did with Hayden White after the break (especially the close look at the section on “History and Poetry” in Chapter 6), came out of that struggle.

Keen to see what you made of the Burckhardt yourselves!


Class 3

Graham here.  Revisiting Wednesday…

We began by canvasing the room concerning the first set of punctum exercises. What had it been like to attempt to hold your historical moment using Hegel’s hands? What happened when you tried to “deploy” the understanding of Hegel’s historicism that you were able to reach (through your reading of Hegel himself and Hayden White on Hegel) – deploy this understanding through some “activation” of your chosen date/moment/time?

Replies were mixed – perhaps even a little hesitant. Jeff and I get the sense that the assignment is sufficiently peculiar that there is perhaps a sort of natural inclination to adopt a slightly “wait and see” posture. Fair enough. It is indeed a wide-open space. I think it is our hope that you all are going to help us come to know what it is that we all want from the exercise. Let us find our way!

I talked a little bit about my own effort, which as I explained, departs from three quotes from the White. I’ll give them here:


“Comedy is the form which reflection takes after it has assimilated the truths of Tragedy to itself.” (White, p. 94)

“It would seem that, for Hegel, the reason for writing history is to be sought in the transformations of consciousness which the attempt to do so effects in the minds of the historians themselves.” (White, p. 100)

“Hegel thus fully credited the immediate perception of the historical field as a ‘panorama of sin and suffering.’ But he set his perception of this panorama within the means-ends question which he insisted in raised in the consciousness by moral reflection on it (‘to what principle, to what final aim these enormous sacrifices have been offered.’) ¶ In short, ‘sin and suffering’ must be viewed as the means for the realization of some principle that is superior to them.” (White, p. 107)


As I explained, my think piece consists of a brief meditation on my own punctum (6 August 1945) within something like the triangular space I take to be defined by these three propositions about Hegel in Metahistory.

Ultimately, it was the third of these that created, for me, the most difficult/productive sense of wrestling with Hegel’s historical mode. There is something provoking – to the point of disgust – in being asked to discern some forward-unfolding of Spirit, some disclosure of reason achieving consciousness in/of/for the real, in the nearly instantaneous death of some eighty to one hundred thousand human beings in the city of Hiroshima at 9:15 in the morning, Tokyo time, on that fateful day.

Nor does the temporal conjuncture that drew me to my punctum in the first place (the tragic/comic fact that my maternal grandfather fell onto Japanese soil in the crash landing of his P-51 Mustang at more or less the same moment as Little Boy dropped from the Enola Gay) do anything to alleviate the sense that there is something grotesque about the project of seeking some ordering “plan” or higher “meaning” in this historical moment – on the contrary, the juxtaposition of microcosmic individual drama and macrocosmic horror rather heightens the general queasiness of the whole enterprise.

In this basic way, I found that simply sitting with the Hegelian challenge (as honed by White), and experiencing not only a despairing sense of the impossibility of the exercise, but also a genuine feeling of repugnance in relation to the whole enterprise — all this gave me a very definite feeling that I was laboring to achieve an inwardness with Hegel’s historical program.

That’s about as far as I got on my own.

But the first two-thirds of our seminar, amounted, at least for me, a pretty sustained effort to attempt some sort of “defense” of Hegel’s “apparent” position on all this – a position that can be résuméd in White’s terms as something like “in the end…Comedy.” Which is to say, we literally banged our heads against this idea that in the end, for Hegel, whatever of tragedy is disclosed to consciousness in the unfolding of historical consciousness, ultimately a “comic emplotment” holds the whole story in its gentle, hopeful, reconciling hands. The comic emplotment gets the last laugh.

That was a dumb joke, there, at the end of the last paragraph — because, of course, there is nothing “funny” about a comic emplotment. At issue is the (temporary? Yes, always, temporary, but also for Hegel, apparently, always recurring…) consilience of what had seemed unassimilable, and antinomous, even antagonistic.

That this diastolic complacency (however provisional) belongs over and beyond and above the sober acquiescence to conditions (known as tragedy) would be glad tidings indeed — if true. But is it? On what grounds could Hegel assert the truth of this proposition dictated by reason itself?

This was our question.

Here was our answer:



Glib. Again. Too glib.

But I did feel my way toward feeling a kind of intuition of the idea. To write it here will, I think, make it sound stupid. Because, in a way, to write it, you probably have to write the Hegel itself (shades of the Menard here…). But if I had to try to explain what makes me feel like I sort of get it, I would say something like: look, what consciousness does is understand, and so if consciousness turns to history, the result of that is going to be understanding. Or, to put it another way: sure, it might all just be random and meaningless, except, consciousness in “amidst” what obtains, and therefore that cannot be right — mind is here, moving. And so, what we know is mind will move with and in history and the result of that will be some mind-ordered history-in-consciousness. And so, well,…there you go! Or, rather, there you will continue going. In the end the “truth” is the whole thing, and the whole thing is a sequence of understandings (see left side of picture above).

Don’t send this to Robert Pippin. I’ll get flamed. (I’m not a Hegel scholar! I am a civilian, trying to make sense of this stuff!)

[visualize old-school smile emoji here; wordpress auto-converts to a little egg-yolk that I do not like…]


We took a break. And when we came back we turned to the Charterhouse of Parma. And we asked our question: Where is history in this book?

Many answers (in the names of the “great families” of Italy; in the “world-historic” figure of Napoleon; in the central socio-political change that the book documents, from the world of wigs to the world without, from the world of ministers, to the world of lawyers, etc.).

For a moment, we trembled on the threshold of a question equally “deep” and “foolish”: What is this? What kind of thing is this thing that is a novel? And what relationship does it have to the form of historical consciousness that is at the center of White’s book?

A big question, with which we have not finished, I think. We will pick it up next week, I hope…

Thank you, all!