subversive vs. coopted fantasy

our discussion on monday emphasized the subversive and liberating function of fantasy (eg. how keats’s embrace of an illicit, corrupted version of Homer undermines the authority of a literary establishment invested in distinction of the canonical Homer); but we also talked about the vulnerability of such fantasy to being manipulated or ‘coopted’ (along the lines – arguably – of how the dreams of obama’s supporters were manipulated to get him elected, or how a utopian dream of “writing the future” is exploited by the nike ad).  Such cooptation effects a ‘matrix’-like scenario where my fantasies are anticipated or prescribed by forces beyond me and put to uses i’m oblivious of.  Ultimately i think the inherent ambiguity of fantasy means that fantasy is unavoidably always potentially conducive to both subversion and cooptation:  we can never have 100% confidence that we stand on one side or the other since to have such confidence would be to dispell the ‘dreaminess’ of the dream.  Indeed, exposing oneself to the risk of cooptation is arguably key to what makes fantasy potentially subversive (remember the notion that, since consumer ideology is essentially a promise of escape, the only way genuinely to escape such ideology is to give up the claim to escape it).  the subversiveness of fantasy is (not wholly but in crucial part) a matter as nietzsche says of “living dangerously:”  forgoing the assurance of knowing ahead of time (i.e. reifying) the determinate value and purpose of what i’m doing (e.g. becoming “nothing more than something i invest in”).  in other words the subversiveness of a dream hinges on asserting a ‘negative capability’ that needn’t “grasp after fact or reason” to justify itself, but is instead self-justifying: justified just by the act itself of ‘wild surmising,’ or as plato says, ‘bringing to birth’ new worlds, and, concomitantly, new forms of radically autonomous political and erotic agency a la keats’s ‘crew.’

walt whitman’s poem ‘o pioneers’ celebrates the liberating potential of such ‘pioneering’ negative capability; so its use in the ad below–titled “go forth;” i.e., break free, let yourself explore unencumbered, negatively capable–is a good case for considering this liberation vs. cooptation problem.  the ad offers an amazing, haunting reading of the poem, the poem’s call to arms is bracing and dangerous-seeming in our age of the ‘war on terror,’ the ad’s imagery has an (arguably) transgressively non-heteronormative eroticism, and the levi’s brand has some undeniable connection to the american dream of youth, freedom, individualism, etc.–the dream whitman clearly has in mind when he calls on us to be pioneers.  yet can we heed whitman’s call just by buying some pants? by suggesting that we can does the commercial preempt the subversive potential of the dream? finally what does pioneering mean according to whitman vs. according to the commercial?  the full text of the poem is below.

Pioneers! O Pioneers!
By Walt Whitman

Come my tan-faced children,
Follow well in order, get your weapons ready,
Have you your pistols? have you your sharp-edged axes?
Pioneers! O pioneers!

For we cannot tarry here,
We must march my darlings, we must bear the brunt of danger,
We the youthful sinewy races, all the rest on us depend,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

O you youths, Western youths,
So impatient, full of action, full of manly pride and friendship,
Plain I see you Western youths, see you tramping with the foremost,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Have the elder races halted?
Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied over there beyond the seas?
We take up the task eternal, and the burden and the lesson,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

All the past we leave behind,
We debouch upon a newer mightier world, varied world,
Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the march,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

We detachments steady throwing,
Down the edges, through the passes, up the mountains steep,
Conquering, holding, daring, venturing as we go the unknown ways,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

We primeval forests felling,
We the rivers stemming, vexing we and piercing deep the mines within,
We the surface broad surveying, we the virgin soil upheaving,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Colorado men are we,
From the peaks gigantic, from the great sierras and the high plateaus,
From the mine and from the gully, from the hunting trail we come,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

From Nebraska, from Arkansas,
Central inland race are we, from Missouri, with the continental
blood intervein’d,
All the hands of comrades clasping, all the Southern, all the Northern,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

O resistless restless race!
O beloved race in all! O my breast aches with tender love for all!
O I mourn and yet exult, I am rapt with love for all,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Raise the mighty mother mistress,
Waving high the delicate mistress, over all the starry mistress,
(bend your heads all,)
Raise the fang’d and warlike mistress, stern, impassive, weapon’d mistress,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

See my children, resolute children,
By those swarms upon our rear we must never yield or falter,
Ages back in ghostly millions frowning there behind us urging,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

On and on the compact ranks,
With accessions ever waiting, with the places of the dead quickly fill’d,
Through the battle, through defeat, moving yet and never stopping,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

O to die advancing on!
Are there some of us to droop and die? has the hour come?
Then upon the march we fittest die, soon and sure the gap is fill’d.
Pioneers! O pioneers!

All the pulses of the world,
Falling in they beat for us, with the Western movement beat,
Holding single or together, steady moving to the front, all for us,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Life’s involv’d and varied pageants,
All the forms and shows, all the workmen at their work,
All the seamen and the landsmen, all the masters with their slaves,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

All the hapless silent lovers,
All the prisoners in the prisons, all the righteous and the wicked,
All the joyous, all the sorrowing, all the living, all the dying,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

I too with my soul and body,
We, a curious trio, picking, wandering on our way,
Through these shores amid the shadows, with the apparitions pressing,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Lo, the darting bowling orb!
Lo, the brother orbs around, all the clustering suns and planets,
All the dazzling days, all the mystic nights with dreams,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

These are of us, they are with us,
All for primal needed work, while the followers there in embryo wait behind,
We to-day’s procession heading, we the route for travel clearing,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

O you daughters of the West!
O you young and elder daughters! O you mothers and you wives!
Never must you be divided, in our ranks you move united,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Minstrels latent on the prairies!
(Shrouded bards of other lands, you may rest, you have done your work,)
Soon I hear you coming warbling, soon you rise and tramp amid us,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Not for delectations sweet,
Not the cushion and the slipper, not the peaceful and the studious,
Not the riches safe and palling, not for us the tame enjoyment,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Do the feasters gluttonous feast?
Do the corpulent sleepers sleep? have they lock’d and bolted doors?
Still be ours the diet hard, and the blanket on the ground,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Has the night descended?
Was the road of late so toilsome? did we stop discouraged nodding
on our way?
Yet a passing hour I yield you in your tracks to pause oblivious,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Till with sound of trumpet,
Far, far off the daybreak call–hark! how loud and clear I hear it wind,
Swift! to the head of the army!–swift! spring to your places,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

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burkean gravity/platonic impregnation

“In the summer of 1978, when he was 9 years old and growing up in the Marcy housing projects in Brooklyn, Shawn Carter — a k a Jay-Z — saw a circle of people gathered around a kid named Slate, who was “rhyming, throwing out couplet after couplet like he was in a trance, for a crazy long time — 30 minutes straight off the top of his head, never losing the beat, riding the handclaps” of the folks around him, transformed “like the church ladies touched by the spirit.” Young Shawn felt gravity working on him, “like a planet pulled into orbit by a star”: he went home that night and started writing his own rhymes in a notebook and studying the dictionary.”

full review of jay-z’s ”decoded”

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that bob dylan song

Darkness at the break of noon
Shadows even the silver spoon
The handmade blade, the child’s balloon
Eclipses both the sun and moon
To understand you know too soon
There is no sense in trying

Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn
Suicide remarks are torn
From the fool’s gold mouthpiece the hollow horn
Plays wasted words, proves to warn
That he not busy being born is busy dying

Temptation’s page flies out the door
You follow, find yourself at war
Watch waterfalls of pity roar
You feel to moan but unlike before
You discover that you’d just be one more
Person crying

So don’t fear if you hear
A foreign sound to your ear
It’s alright, Ma, I’m only sighing

As some warn victory, some downfall
Private reasons great or small
Can be seen in the eyes of those that call
To make all that should be killed to crawl
While others say don’t hate nothing at all
Except hatred

Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
Make everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That not much is really sacred

While preachers preach of evil fates
Teachers teach that knowledge waits
Can lead to hundred-dollar plates
Goodness hides behind its gates
But even the president of the United States
Sometimes must have to stand naked

An’ though the rules of the road have been lodged
It’s only people’s games that you got to dodge
And it’s alright, Ma, I can make it

Advertising signs they con
You into thinking you’re the one
That can do what’s never been done
That can win what’s never been won
Meantime life outside goes on
All around you

You lose yourself, you reappear
You suddenly find you got nothing to fear
Alone you stand with nobody near
When a trembling distant voice, unclear
Startles your sleeping ears to hear
That somebody thinks they really found you

A question in your nerves is lit
Yet you know there is no answer fit
To satisfy, insure you not to quit
To keep it in your mind and not forget
That it is not he or she or them or it
That you belong to

Although the masters make the rules
For the wise men and the fools
I got nothing, Ma, to live up to

For them that must obey authority
That they do not respect in any degree
Who despise their jobs, their destinies
Speak jealously of them that are free
Cultivate their flowers to be
Nothing more than something they invest in

While some on principles baptized
To strict party platform ties
Social clubs in drag disguise
Outsiders they can freely criticize
Tell nothing except who to idolize
And then say God bless him

While one who sings with his tongue on fire
Gargles in the rat race choir
Bent out of shape from society’s pliers
Cares not to come up any higher
But rather get you down in the hole
That he’s in

But I mean no harm nor put fault
On anyone that lives in a vault
But it’s alright, Ma, if I can’t please him

Old lady judges watch people in pairs
Limited in sex, they dare
To push fake morals, insult and stare
While money doesn’t talk, it swears
Obscenity, who really cares
Propaganda, all is phony

While them that defend what they cannot see
With a killer’s pride, security
It blows the minds most bitterly
For them that think death’s honesty
Won’t fall upon them naturally
Life sometimes must get lonely

My eyes collide head-on with stuffed
Graveyards, false gods, I scuff
At pettiness which plays so rough
Walk upside-down inside handcuffs
Kick my legs to crash it off
Say okay, I have had enough, what else can you show me?

And if my thought-dreams could be seen
They’d probably put my head in a guillotine
But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only

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nov. 29


If you can read the whole thing, great.  If not:  be sure to read Socrates’s speech (198b to the end) and the short introductory dialogue; if you have time for one more dialogue then read Aristophanes’s.  Here are some notes on what I think are the main themes.

1.  The methodological distinction of Socrates’s speech. Socrates casts his eulogy to Eros as a total repudiation of his forerunners’ speeches.  Socrates rebukes his companions for taking the goal of their competition to be that one “should be thought to eulogize Eros, and not just eulogize him,” and consequently for “attribut[ing] to the matter at hand…the greatest and fairest things possible regardless of whether this was so or not” (198e).  Like the ritual of Agathon’s “victory sacrifice,” they take eulogy to involve a ritual of homage and thanksgiving, invoking what is greatest and fairest in praise and thanks for gifts whose particular character they do not pretend to understand.  This characterization of his competitors doesn’t appear altogether fair; but in any event it makes Socrates intention for his eulogy clear:  Socrates’s speech will play an altogether different game, it will not be mere praise for praise’s sake, a mere obeisance which maintains an absolute separation between divine and mortal, but praise that somehow responds to the specific nature of the object praised.  This responsiveness to the specificity of eros already implies the possibility of narrowing the separation between divine and mortal or, (to frontload the key term of Plato’s account) of a human ascent toward the divine.

2.  Eros defined by its indefiniteness (i.e., obscurity, sublimity). So Socrates intends his eulogy to demystify and secularize Eros, emphasizing that it is “about this very word” (199d).  Thus Socrates begins by pointing out its peculiar logical structure:  Eros requires a genitive object; it is always of a particular object.  The implication of this logical structure is that “the desirous thing desires what it is in need of, and does not desire unless it is in need” (200b) and, consequently, that “Eros is in need of and does not have beauty…is neither beautiful…nor good” (201b).  Eros represents the negative form of human desire, the fact that we want what we do not have, that we want to make ours only what is not ours.  The fact that Eros functions in this negative way opens up an intermediary space between complete knowing and ignorance, beauty and ugliness:  a middle ground of practical ambiguity which Socrates’ competitors’ hegemonic appeal to conventional religious authority tends to suppress.  In turn, Eros himself is not in fact a god at all but a demon, an intermediary between the human and the divine.  Indeed, the practical consequence of Eros’ logical negativity, his constitutive dependence upon what he lacks, is to make his fundamental function that of mediation:  “‘Interpreting and ferrying to gods things from human beings and to human beings things from gods’” (202e).  So whereas Socrates claimed his account would be distinguished from his companions’ by determining Eros’ specific truth, he does so only to reveal that Eros’ defining function is to inject a radical indeterminacy or ambiguity into human practical life, and thus to preclude such conclusive determination.

3.  Eros can’t be defined but only enacted. Thus there is a profound and characteristically Socratic irony to this account; an irony which tends to push the account from the exclusively theoretical onto the practical plane, such that we come to see Socrates’ claim to state a singular truth also, and perhaps more importantly, as an exemplary instance unto itself of the ubiquitous “interpreting and ferrying” that truth entails.  This irony is I think the key to understanding Diotima’s famous and odd formulation, “eros is not of the beautiful,” but of “bringing to birth in the beautiful” (206b).  Diotima claims that the activity of “ferrying and interpreting” “shares” in immortality without actually being “the immortal” (immortality itself does not share in erotic activity but “has a different way” (208b)).  As Diotima characterizes it, “the pregnant draws near to beauty,…becomes glad and in its rejoicing dissolves and then gives birth and produces offspring” (206d).  This reproductive activity manages to share in the divine, Diotima suggests, not in virtue of successfully seducing or capturing it and “ferrying” it home, nor of arriving at an interpretation so correct that it goes beyond interpretation and becomes simple truth; on the contrary, it comes to participate in the divine precisely in virtue of its own, eminently temporal and concrete self-propagation.  Hence the ultimate object of desire is always the regenerative activity itself to which desiring gives rise:  eros is “of engendering,” Diotima says, “because engendering is born forever and is immortal as far as that can happen to a mortal being” (207a).  The activity of bringing to birth is itself “born forever:”  birthing gives birth to birthing in perpetuity.  Consequently, we approach the beautiful object of our desire only to discover that it ultimately devolves to, or, in Diotima’s term, “dissolves” into the activity itself of our approaching.  (This is just what Shelley is getting at when he writes in the Defense that “[m]an in society, with all his passions and his pleasures,…becomes the object of the passions and pleasure of man; and additional class of emotions produces an augmented treasure of expressions; and language, gesture and the imitative arts, become at once the representation and the medium, the pencil and the picture, the chisel and the statue, the chord and the harmony.”)

4.  The interdependence of comedy and tragedy. Socrates’ famous last words in the dialogue, according to Aristodemus’ hazy memory, are to the effect that “the same man should know how to make comedy and tragedy; and that he who is by art a tragic poet is also a comic poet” (223d).  The problem with Alcibiades’ love for Socrates can be characterized along these lines:  he only knows how to love tragically, which leads him hubristically to exceed his erotic means, and, falling far short of his aim, to confuse compulsive suffering, which he likens to a viper’s “burning poison,” with meaningful tragedy (218a).  Hence Socrates’ advice to Alcibiades is to “consider better:  without your being aware of it—I may be nothing.  Thought, you know, begins to have keen eyesight when the sight of the eyes starts to decline from its peak; and you are still far from that” (219a, my ital.); how far from that is measured according to Diotima’s account of erotic ascent:

From one to two, and from two to all beautiful bodies; and from beautiful bodies to beautiful pursuits; and from pursuits to beautiful lessons; and from lessons to end at the lesson, which is the lesson of nothing else than the beautiful itself; and at last to know what is beauty itself….[O]nly here, in seeing in the way the beautiful is seeable, will [a human being] get to engender not phantom images of virtue…but true….[O]nce he has given birth to and cherished true virtue, it lies within him to become dear to god, and, if it is possible for any human being, to become immortal as well (211c-212a).

Sustaining the “pregnancy” of desire is not a matter of disavowing the “phantom images” in which beauty may appear to us; on the contrary, the example of Alcibiades demonstrates the ‘deflating’ or ‘evacuating’ effect of such overweening pretense.  Alcibiades needs to acknowledge that he sees too well, Socrates says, to bear witness to the higher order beauty of thought he claims to love in Socrates.  Alcibiades thinks higher order beauty may be captured in the tangible physical forms of lower order beauty; in effect, he makes a fetish of Socrates’ body, attributing to it qualities that it is not in the nature of a body to have.  In doing so he emblematizes what Nietzsche criticized as philosophical clinging of clumsy lovers, and Diotima as a “calculating” and “enslaving” “contentment with the beauty in one” (210d):  Alcibiades needs to know he’s possessing the object of his desire in the same compulsive way a child needs to know he’s got his favorite toy in his hands, or an adolescent needs to know his love is reciprocated.  For Plato, growth or ‘ascent’ describes the way in which what formally seems exclusively tragic comes to assume a comic aspect as well:  part of tragic anagnorisis, of genuinely learning something from my tragic fate, is to become incapable of repeating the same disappointment in precisely the same terms.  The effect of such learning is to “bring to birth” a new person, for whom the prospect of repeating the same disappointment in the same terms would involve a comic misrecognition on my part, both of my self and my world.

5.  The end:  immortality and Socrates’s body. There is no denying that in her account of the ascent, Diotima appears to hold out the possibility of achieving immortality despite her claim that the immortal itself “has a different way” than, is not implicated in, erotic ascending.  Socrates’ impassive response to Alcibiades erotic advances clearly lends itself to the inference that Socrates is supposed to represent the actualization of this possibility. What is remarkable about the dialogue’s ending, however, is the emphatic way in which Plato nonetheless insists on Socrates’ abiding implication in the inexorable corporeal repetitions of temporal existence:  Plato’s provocative concluding sentence evokes precisely the inertia of Socrates’ sleeping body, its intransigent, mechanical “order.”  Socrates’ evidently extreme bodily discipline only accentuates the fact that the compulsion to sleep is no less involuntarily imposed upon him than Aristophanes’ hiccups:  in a sense, we may see Socrates’ sleep as merely the final iteration in the series of corporeal compulsions evoked in the dialogue, proceeding through hiccups, sneezing and laughing.  If we chose to see Socrates as pregnant with immortality, Plato insists that we understand that he is only pregnant with it, that he is pressing up against the limits of earthly existence, perhaps, but not pushing beyond them.  Thus Plato suggests that even the final stage of Diotima’s ascent is inexorably tragic insofar as immortality or beauty itself may be temporally ‘realized’ only at the cost of reducing it to an “image.”  The comic aspect of this scenario, then, is the flip side of the tragedy:  Socrates ‘loss’ of immortality simultaneously “brings birth to” new possibilities not for immortality itself, but for temporally “interpreting and ferrying” immortality.  If the tragedy is the way in which his seeming actualization of immortality was revealed as only an actualization of seeming immortality, then the fruit of this tragedy is a new perspective that is capable of retrospectively reconstruing it as a comedy of misrecognition, and that, consequently, may no longer be tragically enchanted by quite the same image of the one true immortality.  This is not to say that it cannot subsequently be tragically enchanted by another such image; but, having watched the prior tragic enchantment “dissolve” into a comedy of misrecognition, this perspective has ‘ascended’ in the sense that it no longer sees quite so much distance between the object of desire and the activity of desiring, the immortal itself and the mortal activity that merely “shares” in it.  By the same token, it no longer sees quite so much distance between tragedy and comedy.

The Ignorant Schoolmaster

1.  Why does “the logic of explication call for the principle of a regression ad infinitum” (4)?  How does this relate to what Ranciere calls “the singular art of the explicator:  the art of distance” (5)?  Note that this art is not just one of asserting distance but of alternatively asserting and eliminating it:  “The explicator sets up and absolishes this distance” (5).  How is this “art of distance” related to what Benjamin described as the traditional notion of art as something that takes place at two meters distance from the body?

2.  Why is it “the explicator who needs the incapable and not the other way around” (6)?  what is the explicator’s “double inaugural gesture” (6)?

3.  Why does Ranciere say that “before being the act of the pedagogue, explication is the myth of pedagogy” (6)?  How does this myth “divide intelligence in two” (7)?  and how does it “enforce stultification” (7)?

4.  In Ranciere’s claim, “this word [understanding] brings a halt to the movement of reason” (8), is the distinction between understanding and reason, word and movement, or both?

5.  What does Ranciere mean by saying “there is nothing beyond texts except the will to express, that is, to translate….to say what one thinks in the words of others” (10)?  So is translation the paradigm of non-hierarchical relationships among people?  how does this notion of translation relate to the translation and ekphrasis we’ve discussed in Keats?

6.  Why does Ranciere call “the true movement of human intelligence taking possession of its own power” the “blind” and “shameful method of the riddle”(10)?  explain the connection among all the terms he applies to this method:  besides a method riddle he calls it a method of chance, of equality “and above all a method of the will” (12).

7.  What does it mean to respond to language “not as students or as learned men, but as people; in the way you respond to someone speaking to you and not to someone examining you:  under the sign of equality” (11)?  do you find this distinction tenable?

8. What’s a master who isn’t a master explicator (12f)?  how can “obedience to another will” result in “emancipation,” and “the master’s domination result in an entirely liberated relationship between the intelligence of the student and that of the book” (13)?

9.  Explain Ranciere’s claim that Jacotot “was experimenting, precisely, with the gap between accreditation and act” (15); how does an act without accreditation appear?  does the notion of sheer action without (need of) accreditation help clarify Ranciere’s similarly enigmatic claim that “to emancipate an ignorant person, one must be, and one need only be, emancipated oneself, that is to say, conscious of the true power of the human mind” (15)?

10.  Hence Jacotot’s principle of “universal teaching:”  that “each ignorant person could become for another ignorant person the master who would reveal to him his intellectual power” (17).  Ranciere correspondingly heaps contempt on “progressive” norms of development, but does he go as far as Lacan and Benjamin’s equation of the notion of development per se with tyranny?

11.  Does Ranciere’s critique of the “stultification” of hierarchical pedagogy apply to the Platonic erotic ascent?  is Eros as Plato presents it implicitly hierarchical?  could Ranciere’s “universal teaching” effect Platonic eroticism?

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sublimity of consciousness

…I no more wrote than read that book which is
The self I am, half-hidden as it is
From one and all who see within a kiss
The lounging formless blackness of an abyss.

How could I think the brief years were enough
To prove the reality of endless love?

In case you’re interested, here is a good interview on the nature of consciousness which focuses on a number of the terms we’ve discussed in class, like music, dance, rhythm, anonymity, interdependence, forced choice and depression.  They quote the poem above, and reminded me of the poem below:


One of me stuttered and one
of me broke, and one of me tried

to fasten a line to one of
me untying it from me.

One of me watched a fisherman haul
a sand shark from the breaker,

while another was already years later,
returned to where a local man

baited for striper but landed a shark.
One of me sat under olivine clouds,

clouds of cerise, a courtesan sky,
and one of me sunned himself

as a child, imagining a fish-rod
turned fermata. One waved a sash

of cornflower blue, one heard
a windmill, one heard the wind,

one waved goodbye to an imminent
leftover love. And one strolled

barefoot and sunburnt across
the nickel inhibitions of afternoon,

tossing amber bottles at a smoke tree,
the gun lake, swimming toward

his family on the dock as twilight fell,
as the same boy stayed behind

to look at him swim. One believed
a father could be killed by falling rock,

and one woke up to find he’d only
dreamt, although his father was dead,

and one believed in a beautiful house
not built by any hand. One promised

nothing would break, and nothing did,
and one saw breaking everywhere

and could not say what he saw.


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nov. 22


1.  Explain Sartre’s distinction between revealing (e.g. perceiving, reading, conjecturing) and producing (e.g. creating, writing, projecting).  Sartre says that a creative writer – as opposed to say “a carpenter or potter working according to traditional patterns” – can’t look at what she creates in the same way as a reader uninvolved in its creation.  The difference, Sartre argues, is that the writer “produces the rules of production.”  To ourselves our writing lacks the opacity and open-endedness (or “obscurity”?) that is the condition of objectivity (and likewise of reading): “without waiting, without a future, without ignorance, there is no objectivity” (50). So Sartre says the writer can never read, i.e. become an object for, himself:  “if he re-reads himself, it is already too late.  The sentence will never quite be a thing in his eyes.  He goes to the very limit of the subjective without crossing it” (51).  Hence Sartre claims that writing as a readable object is implicitly a “joint effort of author and reader which brings upon the scene that concrete and imaginary object which is the work of the mind.  There is no art except for and by others” (51-2); do you agree?

2.  what does Sartre mean by the related claims i) that reading “posits the essentiality of both the subject and the object” because “the reader is conscious of disclosing in creating, of creating by disclosing” (52); and ii) that the “literary object, though realized through language, is never given in language,” but “is by nature a silence and an opponent of the word” (52)?  the implication of these claims for Sartre is that the literary text is inexhaustible:  “while [the reader] reads and creates, he knows that he can always go further in his read, can always create more profoundly, and thus the work seems to him as inexhaustible and opaque as things” (54).

3.  Sartre says two things in one paragraph concerning all literary works, but the connection between these two claims isn’t obvious: i) that every such work is an “appeal” (54), and ii) that the appearance of every such work is “a new event which cannot be explained by anterior data” (54).  What’s the relation between these two claims?  what is a literary work appealing for if not an explanation?

4.  what’s the difference between a “regulative function” (e.g. “playing”) and a “constitutive” one (e.g. “recomposing”)? (55)  between being and having an end (56)?  Sartre insists that freedom is a matter of acquiescing to an imperative (56) and that “at the heart of the aesthetic imperative we discern the moral imperative” (67):  what does this mean?  how does it relate to Lear’s claim that being a Crow isn’t just a matter of having certain empirical properties but of “making an ideal one’s life’s task” (43)?

5.  why is reading an “exercise in generosity” (58) and art “a ceremony of the gift” (60)?

6.  why does Sartre say that “with the realist we are closest to absolute creation” (62) but that our freedom is “never called forth by natural beauty” (59)?  do you agree?

7.   why is the bulk of this essay titled “why write?” not about writing but reading?  do you find this rationale compelling?


1.  What are the implications of defining a classic in terms not of intrinsic properties but of the “influence” it exerts on personal and cultural history (127-8)?  For Calvino the defining effect of a classic is its surprising richness:  “The classics are books which, upon reading, we find even fresher, more unexpected, and more marvelous than we had thought from hearing about them” (129).  What do you think of this claim?  How does it relate to Sartre’s dialectic of writing and reading?

2.  Why does “no book that talks about a book say more than the book in question” (129)?

3.  Calvino says that a classic must be both intensely personal–that to function as a class means to function on some level as “your” personal classic (129f)–but also that it “takes the form of an equivalent to the universe, on a level with the ancient talismans” (130); how does the classic reconcile the radically particular/personal with the absolutely universal?

4.  Calvino describes the classic in terms of its “echo effect” (130f); how does this relate to other accounts of echoing we’ve discussed in Kierkegaard, Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats?

5.  Why does Calvino claim that “you have to know ‘from where’ you are reading…otherwise both the book and the reader will be lost in a timeless cloud” (132)?

6.  How do you interpret Canvino’s ultimate justification for reading the classics, “that to read the classics is better than not to read the classics” (134)?  how does this relate to the concluding anecdote about Socrates?


1.  Kundera addresses Husserl’s account of the “crisis” caused by the modern “reductive” (17) “passion to know” (3) in terms that echo those of many theorists we’ve discussed, above all Nietzsche on the will to knowledge as a will to death, and Adorno/Horkheimer on enlightenment.  In turn this crisis is associated with a “forgetting of being” and an end of history akin to the end of history discussed by Lear.  Kundera does not oppose the novel to knowledge–on the contrary he claims “knowledge is the novel’s only morality” (6); yet he suggests that novelistic knowledge is irreducible to any other kind of knowledge.  Hence espousing novelistic knowledge amounts to an “insistence in repeating:  the sole raison d’etre of the novel is to discover what only the novel can discover” (5); “the novel cannot live in peace with the spirit of our time.  If it is to go on progressing as novel, it can only do so against the progress of the world” (19).  What can such unworldly, novelistic progress mean?  Kundera’s conclusion doesn’t explain so much as demonstrate that his answer lies in a precisely quixotic devotion, which like Nietzschean love compels not in spite but in virtue of its apparent purposelessness and indefensibility.

2.  what does it mean to read a novel as an “inquiry” as opposed to “moral position” (7)?  Kundera criticizes ‘the desire to judge before understanding,’ but what does nonjudgmental understanding amount to?

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now i’m just free associating

but if you haven’t seen this you must.  I think it figures sublimity in a number of different ways at once:  there’s Benjamin’s eternal now, the momentary release from normal time, there’s the sublimity of the spectacle (of the Lyciusian god-like athleticism, and popcultural celebrity), and there’s also a sublimity of spectatorship, of this vast global audience and media matrix through which the spectacle gets infinitely reprocessed and refashioned.  But the real genius of the piece I think is the deep interplay it suggests between the spectacle and spectatorship:  that the essence of the sublime athletic feat was from the beginning an anticipation of the spectacle it would become, how it would be appropriated by its spectators.  The sublime spectacle is nothing but the way it anticipates itself (hence “write the future”).  By the same token, this means that what the spectators admire is in a sense nothing but their own spectatorship which the spectacle reflects back to them.  This relates to the role of celebrity in The Searchers addressed in question #3 below:  Ford uses Nathalie Wood to bring the audience’s fantasies into the action of the narrative, just as the fans’ fantasies of the soccer star become a part of the action that constitutes the star as such.

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sublime lincecum

I was just reading something about world series winning pitcher tim lincecum and came across this verse which is a variation of the theme of the longinus quote on our syllabus:

The speed of light

Is a vision

That looks right

Back at you

Tiburcio Garcia-Gray

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nov. 15

The Searchers

1.  The Searchers revolves around the question articulated by its very first word:  who is Ethan?

Ethan’s apparent aim is defending or establishing a home in inhospitable circumstances.  But this aim is complicated in two ways:
First, Ethan’s definition of home is evidently very vague and changeable (he fought for the Confederacy but also became a mercenary, and now is fighting the Indians to secure the west for white Americans even though he doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of the U.S. government and doesn’t respect the customs (such as the funeral service he interupts) of the white community he’s defending).  Ethan mocks the captain of the rangers for also wearing the hat of reverend, but Ethan himself may be guilty of an even graver hypocrisy if it is the case that he is the lover of his brother’s wife, effectively undermining the home he would defend.  The film director John Ford joins Ethan in mocking at least the artifice and perhaps also the fraudulence of the captain’s dual roles when the latter is shown putting on a fake white shirt to serve as reverend in Laurie’s wedding.  However this whole issue of hypocrisy is itself complicated by the fact that Ford also and even moreso emphasizes how endearingly human such hypocrisy is in the carnivalesque scenes of domestic life he displays throughout the film.  Could one conclude that a certain duplicity and ambiguity are integral to home itself?
Second, Ethan also deeply identifies with what he views as the enemies of home, the Comanches, and he acts out violently in ways which directly demonstrate this identification:  digging in the sand after discovering Lucy’s raped and murdered body, shooting out the dead indian’s eyes, and finally scalping his nemesis (this latter, like the moment Ethan goes into a rage killing as many buffalo as he can just to deprive the indians of food)  is even an excessively barbaric act–more barbaric even then any barbarism he could impute to the indians:  because Ethan did not kill Scar but came upon his corpse, Ethan had no right of warrior’s honor to Scar’s scalp.  He desecrates corpses to steal an honor even he can’t believe in, the lowest of the low, by his own lights. A raging self-contempt is a crucial part of Ethan’s character.
An analogous conflation of hero and villain is involved in the pivotal shock of the movie, which happens when we realize that Ethan is not trying to find Debbie to rescue her but to kill her. Ethan apparently believes that any white girl raised to be an Indian squaw would be better off dead (although this is never explicitly articulated) and the brutality of this intention and the ferocity and near insanity with which it is pursued stuns the viewer.
But it would be a mistake to reduce this insanity to an idiosyncratic crazyness peculiar to Ethan; Laurie, the longtime presumptive fiancée of Martin, is a minor but crucial character. We learn to admire her for her beauty, generosity, intelligence, spunk and humor, all of which are accentuated in the wedding party scene in which she is dressed in virginal white. Laurie seems to represent the most innocent, unreflectively held and common views and hopes of her social environment.  Thus it is terribly jarring when Laurie  offers exactly the kind of explicit rationalization of Ethan’s insane plan to kill Debbie which Ethan himself never voices.   “Fetch what home? The leavings of Comanche bucks, sold time and again to the highest bidder, with savage brats of her own? Do you know what Ethan will do if he has a chance? He’ll put a bullet in her brain! I tell you Martha would want it that way.”
Does Ethan obtain a kind of Darcy-like weight through his reticence, his refusal to articulately explain himself?  If so, the fact that Ethan is in another respect defined in very anti-Darcy-like terms as totally property-less, rootless, is striking.  What are the implications of making the Darcy figure, as the film’s theme song puts it, wander far from home?
The movie’s final shot, which so dramatically and famously emphasizes Ethan’s persistent outsider status – his inadmissibility into the home he is responsible for reconstituting (remember that not just Laurie but basically everybody else had given up on Debbie, except signally the halfbreed Martin) – should be taken with a grain of salt since the insiders like Laurie are evidently deeply complicit in at least some of the dangerous barbarity that would seem to keep Ethan outside.
Note that the insiders do not exactly reject Ethan in this final scene. They rather ceremoniously ignore him. They pretend he does not exist; no one speaks to him, says goodbye, tells him he can or cannot come in. He is instantly “forgotten,” as if literally invisible.  I take this as Ford’s indicating some aspect of their willful ignorance of their own racism (or their blindness to go back to the theme Ethan invokes after shooting out the corpse’s eyes:  “Ain’t got no eyes, can’t enter the spirit land”.)

So if the Searchers’ conclusion gives us a family that is somewhat fraudulent, and that threatens to enclose the audience in its deception, then what would it mean by contrast to have eyes and genuinely see?

The audience is potentially similarly blinded by the humor we are invited to indulge about Martin’s inadvertent “wedding” to the squaw named (not coincidentally) “Look.”  This humor turns vicious and ugly when he kicks her brutally down a hill. And the jocularity appears especially cruel when we later find Look killed at the hands of white soldiers.
The incredibly frank treatment of racism in the movie consistently suggests that the heart of the problem is both the fear and fantasy of transcultural sex, the cultural intermixing that was evoked by the film’s first shot of the white homestead festooned with Indian blankets.  The film’s persistent question–what does it mean to break and transform established social boundaries?– was an explosively topical issue in 1956, the time of the Montgomery bus boycott and the murder of Emmet Till.
So although the insider/outsider distinction is central to racist thought, the film seems to encourage us both to accept and resist it; can you explain why?
2.  Following conventional movie logic we’re unlikely to expect that Ethan will ever actually kill Debbie.  But we are preparing for Martin to stop Ethan somehow, and not for whatever internal transformation leads Ethan to lift Debbie aloft (just as he had done in one of the movie’s earliest scenes, confusing her for Lucy) and say “Let’s go home.”  But exactly why Ethan does what he does here, and even what exactly it is that he does, what happens to him, is left unexplained. 

So the defining question posed by the movie–Why does Ethan seek to kill Debbie?—isn’t answered so much as compounded by the question Why doesn’t Ethan kill Debbie?

What does it mean that Ethan’s own expectations about himself turn out to be wrong?  And what does it mean that all of us were wrong who shared Laurie’s certainty, if not her enthusiasm about it, that Ethan fully intended and desired to put a bullet in Debbie’s brain?

3.  What is the significance of the fact that the second marquee star of the film, Nathalie Wood, doesn’t appear until so late in the movie?  For The Searcher’s original viewers, the question of when the recent star of Rebel without a Cause would make her appearance must have weighed increasingly heavily until she ultimately shows up only in the film’s final chapter.  In a way, from Wood’s fans’ point of view, her absence from the bulk of the film parallels Debbie’s absence in the film’s narrative. This compounds the significance of the fact that when Wood finally does appear she’s wearing an exotic Indian costume, speaking Indian language, and above all she appears in a group of Scar’s concubines and then holding several of his trophy scalps.  So Woods is not only withheld from her fans for most of the movie; when she’s finally revealed she’s basically framed in the the sights of the hero’s gun, the emblem of everything the movie’s disparaged up until then.  Ford is clearly toying mightily with his audience’s affections:  just as he has the lovely Laurie spew the movie’s worst racial invective, he has its biggest female star and sex symbol appear as the very embodiment of the racist caricature Laurie describes; why?


1.  on the third page Lethem names two kinds of worry provoked by the film; what are they and how are they related?

2.  “By overestimating it, then claiming myself as its defender, I’d invented another, more pretentious way of underestimating it.”  Explain what this means both in Lethem’s life and in the movie.  how does this relate to the essay’s conclusion:  “…caring has worm me out.  The Searchers is…too willful to be bounded in my theories…The Searchers strides on…everywhere shrugging off categories, refusing the petitions of embarrassment and taste, defying explanation or defense as only great art or great abomination ever could.”

Radical Hope

nb.  this is simply amazing; i really encourage you to take the time to read and absorb it.

1.  Explain the difference Lear emphasizes on p. 4 between a claim about the world and a claim about one’s psyche (which amounts to the difference between saying i am or my people are depressed and saying events or history or the world has come to an end).

2.  The wager of Lear’s book is that the latter claim offers some “insight into the structure of temporality:”  (5) that at a certain point things might stop, and that this possibility is an aspect of human vulnerability generally (6).  like Zizek’s second death Lear casts this at a higher order than other familiar human vulnerabilities, and says it’s a vulnerability we “inherit” as a “a result of the fact that we essentially inhabit a way of life” (6); this relates to the claim that “an event become such as it is interpreted” (9), but there can be no ‘cultural’ way of responding to the devastation of one’s culture; like the second death the possibility of such devastation “will tend to be the blind spot of any culture” (83).  So for Lear Plenty Coups’ claim that ‘after this nothing happened’ is “as radical a claim as is humanly possible” (10): it’s a claim about the death of the possibility of (interpreting) events; an (implicitly sublime) limit-case of claim making.

3.  What makes the planting of the coup stick “an existential declaration of impossibility”? (14)

4.  What does Lear mean by saying “there is a certain symbolic excess in counting coups”? “Why should the tribe treat such an act as bravery, rather than as unnecessary, and thus as foolhardy showing off?” (16)  This question is tantamount to the question of what distinguishes the fight for recognition from the fight for survival (16), and both serve to highlight what it means to live “in a way of life,” and for events to depend upon interpretation.

5.  How does the law of the excluded middle relate to Lear’s account of the cultural destruction (25)?  what is the difference between “failure” to fulfill a certain cultural norm and lapse in “insistence” upon the relevancy such a norm (34)?

6.  what is the difference between the question of who gets to tell a narrative and that of whether one has or hasn’t “lost the concepts with which they would construct a narrative” (32)?  what does Lear mean by saying that “the planting of a coup-stick has ceased to be an intelligible act” (32)?  To what extent could this problem of having lost concepts to interpret action apply to Ethan’s actions in The Searchers?

7. Why does Lear say “the Crow ran out of time” (41)?  What’s the difference between describing something as part of a way of life and as a symptom of the loss of a way of life?  One symptom of the loss of the Crow way of live according to Lear is that a new irony becomes possible, namely the question:  “among the Crow is there a Crow?”  (44ff).  The irony juxtaposes a use of the term Crow (or warrior, or chief, etc.) as a merely empirical identity label, and another use linked to the lost Crow way of life; so the question is tantamount to:  among those whose ancestors lived the Crow way of life, is there one who still lives the Crow way of life?  According to Lear this is particularly the case because “the idea of a Crow subject requires more than [merely empirical identification].  It requires internalizing the ideals associated with the standards of excellence associated with social roles.  And it requires making those ideals a life’s task” (43); “part of what it is to be a Crow subject is to be aiming at being excellent as Crow” (49).  Would you say that this is true of your subjectivity identity?  how would you evaluate the question?  can one ask, for instance, ‘among the students is there a student?’

8.  What is the point of Lear’s chess analogy on pp. 48f?  Why does he claim that “intending and hoping and wondering and desiring are not just up to me:  they are not just a matter of exercising my will.  And my inability to do so is not just a psychological issue:  it is a question of the field in which psychological states are possible” (49)?

9.  Explain the following statement (reminiscent of Nietzsche on friendship and nemesis):  “One of the ironies that comes to light is that groups of people can be the bitterest of enemies in real life, yet ontologically they are on the same side; and a real-life ally can turn out to be one’s ontological nemesis” (50).  Do you agree?

10.  Why does Lear claim that poetry is the condition of hope in the face of cultural devastation?  what does the following mean?  “the possibility for such a poet is precisely the possibility for the creation of a new field of possibilities.  No one is in a position to rule out that possibility” (51).

11.  What’s the difference between saying that anxiety is “about nothing,” an emotion without meaning, and saying that “with anxiety there is a systematic and enigmatic unclarity as to what it is about” (76)?  how does Plenty’s Coup’s dream provide an “unusual resource” for dealing with the latter (76)?  what makes this dream “an act of radical anticipation” (78)?

12.  How does the dream “use the chickadee to radicalize a second-order virtue” (82)?  Lear’s term for this second order virtue is radical hope, the notion that it is possible to be practically committed to a kind of goodness or value without understanding it (95). Do you share Lear’s belief in this possibility?  why does Lear say irony is the condition of such commitment? (97).  Consider such commitment in comparison with Kierkegaard’s “teleological suspension of the ethical” (92), Benjamin’s angel, and to Lacan’s claim that the “ethical imperative is the mode of existence of the real in the symbolic.”

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poetic exuberance/surfer interview win!

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