Week 12 further at last

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Class 11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

       S’s trip from Vienna to Venice to Verona 1980

       S’s trip from Vienna to Venice to Verona 1987

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

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

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

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

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

…and more class 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Class 9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And further to Class 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And continuing…Class 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Class 6 again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Class 4 again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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