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After all, I had come to these novels in order to read novels. Lake Success features a despicable novelist as one antagonist of the finance bro, who himself, we learn, once harbored literary ambitions. I know pathetically little about how trading works but learned nothing from this book about it. But all I gleaned was which expensive things were allegedly worth buying, not where the money came from.
I think this is because Kushner is particularly good on questions of inheritance and trauma, how it is that we often do not and cannot fully know our own narratives. Her protagonists, much like Galen Strawson, are transients as opposed to endurers. We are apt to come upon them in the midst of piecing together a narrative that stubbornly refuses to cohere. And within this non-coherence of the self, other events, usually tragic, intervene.
Why depict a white woman whose relationship to identity politics is one of such pure forbearance? I asked myself as I read. Romy, the protagonist and a first-person narrator, seemed not unrealistic, exactly, but an exception, a philosopher with no formal education—which was, I had to assume, part of the point.
Based on recordings and notes Desmond, a sociologist, made while living in poor mostly black neighborhoods and a mostly white trailer park in Milwaukee, Evicted , which has already received its due praise and does not need me to lionize it, explains the political economy of real estate in impoverished communities in the contemporary United States—from housing court, to eviction day, to shelter, to new apartment or trailer, and back again.
The book also explains why it is profitable to provide substandard housing, unpacking the business of being a slumlord. There are deeply engrossing characters their names changed along with a tiny cat named Little who, like at least one infant, does not survive; the reader is moved, even as this remains a didactic text. The book feels literary: people crack jokes, fall in love; coincidences occur.
It is not that Desmond uses a convenient narrative form to illustrate his point, but that he finds narrative forms in social and economic relations indeed, this seems to be a major part of the sort of analysis that interests him.
Then through a weary, looping rhythm—make a friend, use a friend, lose a friend—Crystal found, for short bursts, dry and warm places to sleep. Yet the way Evicted thinks about what analytic philosophers like to call the maintenance of personal identity is not novelistic. It is not drama; it is fact.
In an important sense, we already know what happens. To return to Shteyngart for a moment, I think about a certain scene early on in Lake Success , in which the protagonist Barry engages in a bit of interpretive thick description of a woman he sees in Port Authority,. One of her mesh bunny ears drooped over her face.
Her bottom teeth seemed to be where her top teeth should be and she had no bottom teeth. She was white. Just an hour into his journey, Barry was starting to get something about the Trump phenomenon. Like an idiot, he had thrown 1. What choice did he have?
Op-Ed: UC Berkeley professor turns biographical skills into 'chic lit' (Includes interview)
They should have met this woman first. There was nothing Rubio could do for her. While they are clearly a symbol of extractive systems now inescapable in the United States, they remain symbolic. The same could be said of a homeless man Barry gets high with and gives a blowjob to later on. These characters appear as bodies with interesting qualities, colorful extras; yet, their narratives are fundamentally separate from the central narrative of Lake Success.
And maybe this is the point, that the finance bro really does have nothing to do with poor people and poverty. But if this is the case, why stage these sorts of interactions in a work of literature? In his recent novel, Moving Kings , Joshua Cohen describes movers. Moving Kings , I should emphasize, is a highly episodic work. Rather, the incoherence of the narrative of Moving Kings serves to emphasize the at once repetitive and disruptive nature of the temporal experience of kicking people out of their homes as well as that of being kicked out , along with the sorts of personal disjunction associated with immigration to the United States.
Rather than seek development and interrelationship, Cohen shows how the impulse to construct narrative survives, perhaps pointlessly, in an environment in which it is frustrated at every turn. The effective disorganization of Moving Kings thus furnishes one clue as to where fiction might go if it wishes to maintain its literary chops while also traveling further into the unfolding particulars of the current situation in the United States. This leaves me with the thought that the problem and possibilities of the contemporary social novel are not exclusively tied to genre—i.
And where literature can help is in its combinatory and experimental capacities. Novelists can do things and try things that academics and critics cannot. So I am advocating for that now. In their spectacular and detailed failure, such novels may more closely resemble us. Genre: Nonfiction Link to the essay. Realism is paradoxical: a lie that reads true. What survives is combed into a neat pile, carefully labeled, set out as a sort of snack.
Imitation is deployed with the specific aim of inspiring recognition—of evoking, in a somewhat distant audience, a feeling of pity. Perhaps we resolve not to kill or have sex with our parents or, failing this, not to get married—regarding which topic, more later. Ideas about imitating reality have spiraled up through Western civilization with different, though perhaps related, political ends. They wanted to understand the structure of society and, along with the Russians, took great pains to offer precise depictions of things and persons.
More recent translations tend to replace outmoded words with more familiar, if less specific, ones. I do occasionally cling to this kind of seemingly pointless vivid materiality in prose. It produces not recognition, foremost—though that, too—but surprise. It makes me think for a moment, pace Aristotle, that it might be possible to have a world without psychology, maybe even, pace Hugo, without fate.
There seems to be no reason for this, other than that Hugo wanted to imply that fate is an indelible feature of human history. As you see, I find him to be an extremely annoying writer. We have a pretty different world, despite materialist trends in certain nineteenth-century novels—and despite their resistance to wanton psychologizing. Lynne Tillman is a novelist who seems to me to have thought a lot about the above—and in a uniquely deliberate way. In certain of her stories, there is a character named Madame Realism who goes around living a fairly normal New York City life and who is always contemplating art and illusion everywhere she goes because, well, art and illusion are everywhere in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, and in Manhattan, in particular.
Madame Realism does not shrink from the scene. Yet this is because of the presence of a character, a confection in the close third. American Genius, A Comedy is also about the extremity of Americans. Anderson now overruled meant that her sentence was commuted to life in prison. Protected, in theory, by her whiteness and physical beauty, like the charismatic Manson himself, Van Houten lives out her days in prison, unforgivable if ambiguously responsible for her crime, given her age and mental state at the time of its commission, as well as her gender, this last point being a qualification that must remain unspoken, as it at once exonerates her and leaves her open to endless fantasies of blame that are beyond the scope of the law, at least on paper, to name or know.
The narrator of American Genius, A Comedy , in limbo in her institutional retreat, latches on to this other, discursive limbo, a blank in which America refuses to know itself—as it seems relevant, if ambiguously, to her own identity. And this narrator is a former historian, which may contribute to her reluctance to participate in storylines unfolding in present-day reality, so-called. While she seems to allow that the present, as a distinct moment, exists, she seems none too sure that it is more than a mushy amalgam of past temporalities—the history of chair design, for example—and timeless inevitabilities—the much-touted sensitivity of her own skin—lacking any true newness or uniqueness worth, as it were, writing home about.
But our retreating narrator, though withdrawn, is not alone, and this makes all the difference to the form and tenor of her refusal of plot in the present. The hope that utopia is to be found in retreat is held out. As readers, we occasionally let ourselves think of it. I think, too, that this has to be one of the great scenes of recent American fiction, on par with the unveiling of the P. In it, we catch a glimpse of the structure of the contemporary social world, as well as the limitations of realist description. Because of this adventure of my own into seclusion, I happen to know that the novel had multiple working titles, including American Skin , and that the narrator originally spoke on the first page about writing a novel.
The clarity of that early title and that fake novel has been smudged out, artfully distorted. However, far from ruining the book for me, knowledge of these initial scaffolds deepens its mystery. A certain truism about the reality of novels i. This is not a semiautobiographical novel about a novelist, written by a novelist—what we now call autofiction—nor is it purely a work of invention.
It may be, too, that Tillman is at once ahead of her time and living concertedly in it. She once wrote something similar of Andy Warhol, and I think that, as also for Warhol, one of her ways of being in and with her own time is to describe an imaginary future that infuses all the presents and the pasts enumerated in her fiction. The imaginary future is always there and not there, to envision or make up, to wonder and worry about, to live into and even for. Rather, American Genius, A Comedy , a sort of hypertext of recollection and ingenious displacement, a sort of postmodern nineteenth-century novel, ends on a Tuesday, with a facial.
This essay appears in a slightly different form and with the title, "Realism and Illusion," as the introduction to the edition of American Genius: A Comedy , published by Soft Skull Press.
I go to visit Jon on the A. I sit in one of the two-seat sections, between a door and the front of the train. Occasionally, a text drops down, obscuring the top of the PDF. The messages are all from the same person. I will be meeting this person for dinner later this evening.
All this is certain. The person texting me is my closest friend. I am his editor. I should have read his story earlier. The sneakers have orange treads. I do not care much, although my heart is racing, and somehow I want everyone to know. I live at the bottom of the ocean. I am capable of quick motion but do not warm. I live among the bristlemouths, the viperfish, the anglerfish, the cookiecutter sharks, the eelpouts. The A train is moving as efficiently as one could wish, but I know that I am going to be late.
Across from me are two teenage girls who are rapidly becoming the heroes of this trip. They are tough and impeccably dressed. One of them causes a Fidget Spinner to spin. They are talking about alcohol. They do some work on their phones then conscientiously put the phones away. They focus on one another; the one girl, the taller, the prettier one, manipulates a black and gold Fidget Spinner.
I swoon for them. I imagine they will move to Los Angeles at some point because there is nowhere in New York for them to live now. Chinatown is too expensive. Williamsburg overrun by Europeans. For these reasons, there is nowhere to go and they must become Angelinas. One of them will make a lot of money. One will have kids. They are placid and gorgeous and discussing how they will obtain what sounds like gin. It is very fair. I can tell. A text drops down. Then my friend sends a link to something on Twitter.
I will read these messages in situ later. I absolutely will not click on the Twitter link, I tell myself, as I click through to an image of a tiny black cat whose highly visible pink tongue extends from its all but invisible mouth. I try to think of what I will say in response to this vision.
The animal would ideally like to appear to me as its IRL self, corporeal and gleaming, speaking its own strange language. And what I therefore also mean is, much as the animal desires physical proximity to me, so does my friend. He cannot hide his desire, not with all the Twitter links in the world. Yes, there must be. Because, in fact, you cannot hide. Not from me. Although I seldom mention this to anyone I know. I live at the bottom of the ocean and Jon wants to play tennis. Therefore Jon is trying, in some sense, to match up our respective familial situations.
In other words, Jon thinks we have stuff in common. I encounter him over email, at parties, in fancy bars. I salute him in passing on social media. But here we are beneath fluorescent lights in a reception area straight out of something. I have, suddenly, a memory of what it was like to be a child in the s, when I was the small charge of upwardly mobile parents. I express some vague concern about being an unauthorized visitor, treading on hallowed athletic ground, but he brushes it off.
The sounds of tennis — pops and little cries — are apparent. He nods toward the court where his lanky daughter is demolishing a boy who looks to be a year or two older than she is. The pairing is incongruous and therefore extremely impressive. I have to rush to keep up with Jon.
Or I mean, Open parenthesis. Or, Speak now, memory. By which I mean, to the bottom of the ocean. Where, as mentioned, I happen to live. Here is the story: Imagine that you have died weird , and after your death you awake into what is apparently another world. Meanwhile, it turns out that you are no longer a body.
You find yourself on a shoreline made of clean, gray ash. There is water sitting hazily in a great expanse before you. You can barely hear anything. You realize that you are not the only soul here. There are countless other souls hovering in this place, gazing out across the water. Then you realize that there are lives here, too. Not just souls. All along the shoreline sit countless lives in the bank of clean ash. You begin to examine the different lives. There are so many.
The soul must choose. It has to live eventually, but it does not have to live a life it does not select. And so the soul searches, and it lands. As this ancient story purports to show, everyone has, at some level, chosen the life they live. The story also claims — leaving out the reincarnation bit, which I care less about — that none of us could avoid choosing.
I think, by the way, returning to sports, that the way my father dealt with this problem was to play tennis. Because, to be clear, having chosen to be male does not exempt one from the difficulties! But these are probably only the reasons he was conscious of. It was a form of leisure for him but, given his broader cosmological setup, did not mean that he was either free or having fun. Jon and I are sitting together outside the bubble. Below us, near the water, reeds and cattails grow. Jon keeps laughing at me, but about some things he is deadly earnest. At this moment both of us happen to be staring at a giant blue word, columbia painted on a cliff.
I realize that Jon plays his tennis here because he is an alumnus. I think you were correct about the androids needing to go. I got too excited when I saw that Times article. I try to reassure Jon that although I suggested cutting the android part, it was still pretty good. I tell him that maybe he should devote a whole story to androids. He clears his throat, and I can tell he is about to say something he considers important.
They have to be a side issue. Oh, yeah. When Jon was in grad school, he spent a lot of time observing people. Literature, as everyone knows, is a massive info leak, while scholarship mostly purports to reveal helpful stuff people really ought to know, and all Jon wanted to do while he was obtaining his degree was to give away destabilizing secrets regarding academia. This desire made it difficult to concentrate, among other difficulties. Jon got very interested in sociology, as well as cybernetics. He liked vaguely paranoid theories based on the schematization of the social sphere.
Jon, by contrast, was brilliant and somewhat young. But these, as Jon might say, are side issues. In fact, he was pretty similar then to the person he is now, except that he was unmarried and did not have a daughter. Also Jon had to take classes for a few years, and because of this he came into contact with other students. This young woman had a problem. It was a problem that interested Jon, given his social-scientific explorations, because it both was and was not her problem.
She had a nice face, nice hair. She spoke with an amount of self-assurance that was neither excessive nor too puny. No, the young woman was perfectly visible and in no particular way repulsive, but nevertheless this did not prevent her from being largely unrecognizable in the eyes of others. Graduate school, it seems, is an interesting setting in which to observe such a problem play out. The reason for this is that graduate school, particularly in the humanities, is where people go to learn how to introduce themselves.
This is perhaps the main skill taught to students of the humanities. The lesson was long and particularly difficult for the young woman who was not recognizable, because she was constantly having to reintroduce herself everywhere she went. For Jon it became a kind of private running joke, although one he did not dare to share with the woman herself.
Somehow, the reminding did not serve to reinforce memory regarding the unrecognizable student. It was as if she suffered from a detachable aphasia, an amnesia she herself did not possess. Two, this was a malady to which Jon seemed, among all his peers and overlords, to be the sole person who was immune. Months went by, maybe a full semester, and at last Jon got up the courage to speak to the woman, with whom, if this is not already obvious, he had managed to fall deeply in love.
It was not at all a difficult thing to speak to her. They went out together to a late lunch of desserts and talked a long time. There was a nearly otherworldly quality to the woman, in that she herself seemed completely unaware that most other people never had any idea who she was. She lived, oblivious to the problem, and she was even happy. Jon courted her carefully. In spite of their mutual penury, they went out to many meals with desserts and talked many long talks.
Jon believed that he had discovered a previously unknown plane of existence. His studies took on new meaning. But when summer came again, the woman departed for the West Coast. She said something incomprehensible — to Jon, at least — about how her decision had to do with wanting to live a different sort of life. She told Jon that he knew her too well. I mention that there are two other editors who are reading it, who are perhaps a little less attentive to Jon than I am.
I have to think for a minute. Maybe half a writer? The one really strange thing about her, aside from the unrecognizability thing, of course, was how much she liked puns.
- Sentido y ser en Heidegger. Una aproximación al problema del lenguaje (Spanish Edition)!
- Athens-Clarke County Library.
- Cloud Waltzer.
It stays clear and distinct, even as everything else around us dims to a blue mush. For a while, both Jon and I stop making an effort to speak. Jon is not listening. But of course it was a misreading. But this was when, after all these years, I think I understood. Everyone was just taking things so psychotically literally! He tugs at the lobe of his right ear. The bottle protrudes but not, I think, too alarmingly. The reception area before us is brightly lit, and through the large window I can perceive a huddle of youngish professional men who have arrived to play tennis together. A few of them are wearing white terrycloth headbands in an un-ironic way.
But I recover. I sense a sort of infinite laugh rising in me, and instead of laughing I keep talking. Bitter Tennis. You remembered. I have the impression that all the tennis players in the reception area are staring at us. I want to keep things brief. I have extra rackets. We can find your size. Jon laughs. He really seems to be in a great mood, in spite of the story. Jon is a fantastic human. A gray thought bubble with an animated ellipsis indicates that he is, wherever he is, continuing to type.
I silence the phone and take my time urinating. I wash my hands and examine my hair. Everything about me seems reasonable. I switch the sound on but then turn the phone off. I feel weak but satisfied. It has been a good meeting. I can remember there was — and this is a true story — one afternoon when, freshly returned from his habitual tennis game and having consumed half a beer, my father threatened to kill me.
I was possibly twenty on the day in question and this time he was serious, though I suppose that hardly matters. I used to lock my door whenever I was alone in the house with him. My mother would begin laughing wildly if I tried to recount these sorts of events. This is why I moved to the bottom of the ocean. I packed a suitcase long ago. I like the suborder Ceratioidei. However, save for the clock, the shot is too tight for us to make out these monuments to globalized space and time. We hear house music and see Piper in motion in jeans, blazer, pink scarf, sunglasses.
Some people would come up to it and begin dancing along, sometimes so that their friends could photograph them or make a video. Others would assume an attitude similar to those passing through Alexanderplatz on March 26, they drifted by, commenting on the anomaly of the spectacle. Look at her, they said, sometimes appreciatively, sometimes with an air of confusion.
I studied these responses, enjoying them as if they were works of art in themselves—an echo that seemed part of the point. I wanted to dance too, and maybe I did, shyly, standing off to the side. I began to be subject to fantasies about personal agency and started walking through the exhibition in reverse. It was also, as size-conscious individuals noted at the time, the largest exhibition of work by a living artist held at MoMA, filling the entire floor.
Traveling backward thus had consequences. I experienced trepidation before The Humming Room , a small room I had to pass through in order to access the rest of the exhibition. Above the entrance was a sign: in order to enter the room, you must hum a tune. OK, I thought.
Within the room stood a security guard, who, although currently distracted, was probably empowered to enforce the imperative. With this ellipsis in mind, I ducked into The Humming Room. My humming was literal. I had been so focused on the directive you must hum a tune and, relatedly, on the task of acquitting myself faultlessly as a normal museumgoer, that I had lost track of what was at stake.
I had perceived the letter of the law you must hum without intuiting its spirit, its ironies, its will to distinguish. Though I had focused on Thwarted Projects, Dashed Hopes, A Moment of Embarrassment and Imagine [Trayvon Martin] , there were other works—and other words—to read on the subject of institutional control.
I noted that sometimes I wanted to be independent and sometimes to imitate or join. Sometimes I was thrown back into the problem of not knowing what to do or how to understand the environment, and sometimes problems beyond my own individual actions or experience loomed larger, pointing me out as a subject of history.
Overall, I found that the present—present time, present action, present thought—was getting thicker, more specific, more challenging in its detail. I reflected that—no great epiphany this—contracts, social and otherwise, are tricky. Subject to spontaneous revision, reinterpretation, and disintegration, among other forms of unwanted variance, they tend to function one way in theory and another in practice.
I reflected, too, that the author of these works was a professor of meta-ethics and, therefore, in some non-negligible sense, an expert on trust. I know because I made brief attempts at the close of the last century, as an eighteen-, nineteen-, and twenty-year-old. The Harvard University lecture hall was packed, largely with young men who wore shorts in winter and claimed math courses were a leisure activity. It provoked in me a feeling of extreme discomfort.
Though I was at the time unaware that anything related to my identity could determine which disciplines I could and could not pursue, and though Korsgaard herself was female, there was a definite chill. I chose to believe that the chill was mostly due to the way in which the discipline treated language. The notion that a paragraph could be converted—clarified—into a formal grammar, a raft of specific propositions, felt artificial and alien, at least to me, who was unused to words being valued for the stability of their meanings.
I was otherwise spending most of my time being a comparative literature major who had just discovered German poetry Celan, Novalis and, in a stroke of genius and desperation, had convinced my teaching assistant to let me write a final paper for Korsgaard on a single word in The Metaphysics of Morals. I said nothing all semester, save in the T. Given the tendency on the part of art institutions to casually solicit the tidings of adjacent disciplines, particularly those concerned with language, we are accustomed to encountering professional philosophers in galleries and museums.
Usually these philosophers, phenomenologists and ideologues I use the latter term without pejorative intent , offer broad humanistic themes, not unambiguous logical forms. Piper, in her role as an analytic philosopher, works with logic, deploying specific techniques to address discrete problems with identifiable results, though more popular notions such as value s and history also come in for consideration. I am not proposing to initiate the process of cross-pollination here.
But it does seem worth clarifying that Piper is a distinguished philosopher. As a philosopher, Piper points up her interest in employing means and ends that are congruent. A technical work to be sure, it is also beautifully written, full of humor and broadly applicable wisdom. I found, in reading it, that I wished that as a graduate student I had had such a professor.
Rationality and the Structure of the Self is launched as a theoretical and practical corrective. If I go to adrianpiper. Piper has taken care to treat Rationality and the Structure of the Self as an act with practical and ethical consequences, as well as an object or series of messages. These two publications serve, if differently, as useful gestures in relation to the show. Escape to Berlin , meanwhile, is at once a more and less complex story. Is it reasonable for Piper to have left the United States, to have claimed she did so under mortal threat?
Is there not something missing here, some part of the story withheld from us, some simple written fact or other piece of evidence that might drop from the sky to clarify what has gone on? And, conversely, can critics trust Piper not to dismantle their assertions in public, or, rather, trust that she will do exactly that? Meanwhile, the Mythic Being is a means of inserting a complex persona—a face and accompanying speech bubble that inspire sustained and careful examination—into the everyday circulatory space of an advertising section.
Yet what are we to make of the apparently disingenuous Mythic Being, a male version of Piper in Afro wig and mustache, accessorized with mirrored sunglasses and cigarillo, who appeared as both a performance persona and in a series of images? The Mythic Being was, on the one hand, a disguise and, on the other, a tool for exploring interpersonal perception and behavior, along with the functioning of categories related to identity.
Link to the essay. This article appears in the print edition of Art in America , December I learned about theory in college, where I also met someone whose parents had explained Lacanian psychoanalysis to him when he was thirteen, a fact that impressed me no end. For me, however, there was a clear demarcation, a dividing line. There was the time before theory, and there was the time after it. Indeed, these names were like swear words, like drugs, like magnetized tokens in a game played by mildly sadistic immortals.
This had nothing to do with literature which I studied. This was where all of the secrets concerning human culture lay. Part of me also assumed, because I was nineteen and a college sophomore, that this was a sophomoric phase. I would soon get over theory, and so would everyone else. In this I was, as everyone knows, wrong. Theory was becoming then what it is now. There is the longstanding charge of pernicious cultural and moral relativism, probably more correctly understood as narrative relativism—in other words, the practice of treating any form of discourse, knowledge, or information as a kind of constructed narrative.
In the extended afterlife of theory, in and around the American academy, it has become common to favor accessibility in critical thought, along with conceptual keywords, whose valence is either usefully transdisciplinary or a little vague, depending on whom you ask and, sometimes, when. In the United States, theory has become a utopian experiment and experience: it exists alongside increasingly historicist literary studies as a site of mixture and reprieve; it promises, for example, to help literary scholars moonlight as media theorists and art historians, while reminding them to consider the horrors of colonialism and the errors of the Enlightenment.
Meanwhile, it makes the rounds online, on social media, in popular music, in art world press releases, and in the New York Times , decontextualized and meme-like, sometimes the stuff of conspiracy and outrage and at others the balm of empathy. Through theory we seem to tarry briefly with the notion of history; at least, this is my opinion. Theory is not, as some have suggested, post-historical; it expressly addresses the existence of past times and events, though it is not always concerned with historiographic gestures, such as naming and narrating.
Given that remarks regarding the post-political nature of the contemporary era—as a time so epistemologically balkanized that debate and compromise are impossible a style of description itself derived from dear F —are increasingly widespread, one might well be curious about what aspects of theory tend to accord with a movement away from the possibility of politics, and which tend to resist the shrinking of the public sphere.
Or, to refashion my earlier phrase about politics, the possibility of a generative relationship between academic institutions and public conversation. Anyway, everyone knows where theory comes from. It comes from France. It traveled to the United States at some point in the mid s, metamorphosing into something called postmodernism, which might or might not have already begun coming into being directly after the war, even before theory got here.
I joke, but my serious explanation is not much better. So, Camus and Sartre are the starter texts; the world-weary teen absorbs existentialist disillusionment before moving on to purer anti-humanist heights with an excerpt from The Order of Things in a freshman survey of the history of the West. Or, as it went with the French intellectuals, —45 saw the arrival of surrealists, existentialists, and the work of Annales School historians on American shores.
This varied avant-garde, with its taste for rich general interest writing and weird art, may have given some signal of what was to come. Indeed, the difference between formalism and structuralism is worth pausing on for a moment, because the former had become the pride of modernist literary studies in the United States and was only somewhat awkwardly supplanted by the latter a graft that haunts English departments to this day.
New Criticism privileged knowledge of language and its function, but not to dismantle the assumptions held by elites. Rather, after the G. Bill of Rights, the New Critics had explicitly designed their poetics to be both accessible and constructive. They offered a literary history and a system of values stripped of classical allusion and baroque allegory in the service of transmission to all. New Criticism had little to say about history, but not because its adherents suspected the constructed-ness of fact and philology.
John Crowe Ransom, et al. In the liberal academy, theory could do something more: it could critique disciplinary boundaries and propose new terms for dialogue. The articles published by Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre, though serious works of historical analysis, were at the same time pithy, relatively free of footnotes, and legible to non-specialists. It was in this singular journal, for example, that Lucie Varga published her ethnography of National Socialism, a prescient document that was also unusual for its combination of rigorous method and elucidation of contemporary politics.
Systematic philosophical reflection on the role of history and the humanities in general, as distinct from the sciences, had been underway since the polymathic Wilhelm Dilthey — strove to describe the division of the faculties of the German university, and it was to these questions that a thinker like Michel Foucault, partly influenced by his teacher Georges Canguilhem, turned his attention. If the Annales had demonstrated the political worth of a literary approach to history that validated all possible sources, Foucault expanded this initiative, treating not just the historical text but also the scientific text as a text like any other, in a supreme act of narrative relativism that sought to show how scientific knowledge might be contingent upon conceptual elaboration.
These methodological choices are related to an ongoing turn from from rhetoric and philology in contemporary literary studies—what might be termed either a long process of deskilling or a search for new units of analysis and keywords, or, more complexly, both at once. Thus it could permit American adopters to gesture toward the context of the society of which they were members without speaking about history or politics in so many words, and this quality of its critical voice proved extremely powerful.
It was made for the American campus of the s, which, while still galvanized by the insurgent rhetoric of the s, was at the same time rapidly becoming a space of bureaucratic commerce, as graduate studies grew at a faster rate than the rest of the university and the humanities began to falter and lose funding. Literature departments, activated in progressive quarters by an ongoing golden age of experimental writing Beats et al. This was a challenging science to grasp but, once you got it, broadly useful and a lot of fun. This critical approach permitted a playful relationship to power; it represented an entry into an adventure, a detective story.
Though it spawned a million imitators, adherents, and cottage industries, and was perhaps destined to seem ridiculous due to its ornate performativity, theory went everywhere. In a post—Civil Rights Movement era, it seemed to offer the possibility of education without indoctrination, displacing political struggles onto the terrain of discourse and increasing the prestige and relevance of the literary text.
There were numerous rancorous transatlantic exchanges. And now, approaching the close of the second decade of the twenty-first century, we are here. We still have theory. We also have the Internet, as well as various entities on the right who, perhaps taking inspiration from Benito Mussolini as much as Michel Foucault, have explored narrative relativism as well. If not, you may not have to! By way of which cryptic joke I want to mention that the French have long been aware of the possibility of a good reader of theory making reactionary administrative moves.
Indeed, this is my point. Theory has begun, more and more, to look like an allegedly value-agnostic way of thinking through the circulation of power and the formation of value—which is to say that it looks vaguely formal and vaguely cybernetic and like a lot of other contemporary communication styles in their relationship to contemporary bureaucracy. Certainly, the art gallery press release, one of the prime sites at which the keywords of theory are offered up to contemporary readers anew, epitomizes this trend: a given artist explores and reveals our preconceptions, suggesting that what we thought was the case, a veritable truth, is in fact a context-dependent construction designed to shelter us from an inconvenient view into history and the horrors and disparities of contemporary social life.
This is indeed what a lot of contemporary art does, and I myself have from time to time described it in exactly these sorts of terms and without irony. Until recently, I had a contingent position at a private college where a number of my undergraduate students had either been homeless or faced homelessness, and almost all were going into staggering amounts of debt. Many were involved in gig work; some were sex workers. But it is telling to see this notion arise again here, around the question of what is due to an undergraduate who wants to study art rather than, as Sokal wisely framed it, what is due in a peer-reviewed journal.
It suggests someone deeply out of touch with the state of contemporary discourse in general and upsettingly in the humanities particularly, in that she has no idea where theory currently makes its living—which is hardly in undergraduate curricula. To test that theory out, I decided to ask my students at the private college some seniors if they knew who Jacques Derrida was. The thoughts that have accrued here, about the joys and strangeness of theory, are, therefore, dedicated to them. For they are, as students have always been, the ones who will determine whether academic institutions can contribute anything to the public conversation.
In the spring of , the poet and artist Madeline Gins, then in her late 20s, joined a collaborative effort to make artworks and writing on the streets of Manhattan. Gins was barely better known in US poetry circles than she was in the realms of contemporary art, and her brilliant reimaginings of the American novel and poem have largely been ignored. WORD RAIN — one of the most important works of experimental prose of the later 20th century — is at once refreshingly and depressingly spared academic commentary. The reasons for this amnesia are manifold.
It was concerned with getting the reader to act. In WORD RAIN , she directly engaged the cybernetic qualities of conceptualism by deploying sentences and prose fragments as means for holistic control of discourse, the human body and social relations, confusing the agency of the writer with that of the reader. Gins treated the slow dawning of the computer age as an incitement to produce art. But the speaker of the sentences is not quite the writer, nor is she quite the reader. Read this with me, read that with me, read me with me, read objects tables, toes, toads, tails, tin, trains, type, tears, throat read write read right.
This is still life. Only I write and read. It comes with a room, light, a country, sky and weather. I will arrange for you to be made aware of these in detail. You may look at everything. You will see only what I see. Look at this sentence. Experience — tactile, olfactory, temporal, visual, etc. In the next ten years, it will double again. How do we deal with it? Her appropriation of maritime technology reimagines the flag hoist as a noisy, lyric gesture; previously precise code becomes the seed of a form of address that cannot be assigned a single interpretation.
This string of signals is to be imagined as performable — indeed, even potentially performed — as the poem is read. Given her somatic and cybernetic obsessions — trans-disciplinary concerns if ever there were such — it is additionally difficult to categorize Gins in a professional sense, whether as poet, writer or artist. Though she went on to include lineated poetry in her collection, What the President Will Say and Do!!
In each of these works, Gins blends keen observations about the activity of consciousness, language and syntax — as well as her own body and environment — with wry humour regarding the oddness of the very existence of meaning. Indeed, if readers of this piece know of Gins, it is likely that they know her through her collaboration with Arakawa. Though Gins was a prescient thinker — who foresaw ways in which changes in popular media and technologies would collapse traditional disciplinary and social boundaries, transforming everyday life — her role at the centre of an architectural firm devoted to creating environments that were conceived to prevent inhabitants and visitors from dying has sometimes overshadowed her other achievements.
Distinct from her artistic and architectural collaborations with Arakawa, her writings provide a vital terminological and metaphysical influence, particularly as they comment relentlessly upon acts of perception. WORD RAIN introduces notions about the interrelation between language and sensation that are taken up again in Helen Keller or Arakawa with new emphasis on the possibility of mapping experience by means other than hearing and sight. Gins reimagined the English sentence to enact a way of perceiving the world that would challenge the perceiver, helping them to evade the enervating sensory and spatial habits of contemporary life.
She saw the sentence as at once spatial, temporal and shot through with servers i. This article appears in the print edition of frieze , May , issue , with the title "Visionary Cybernetics. I meet the artist, who does x, for a snack one afternoon. We have the kind of conversation it was more necessary to have previous to the existence of the Internet. We exchange general info about the world. I am attempting to experience a feeling of warmth.
She expresses amazement. I cannot remember if the artist who does x says that we should do this again. Why do I understand this so well? The artist who does x would not appear on this list—and is very unlikely to appear on any subsequent lists of this type—but her behavior suggests that she is concerned about the possibility of a public airing of such a document. For in her mind, she may well have made it. In this fantasy, she lives forever and suffers eternally under the tip of my poison pen. I see she wants to be ready, should it come to pass that my list is aired and she is at the top, number one, where permanent marker forms an escutcheon of loathing.
Arrows point! Emphatic asterisks! Random flowers! How can the artist who does x not know? It should, by the way, be obvious that I am not an artist. And it would be nice if everyone I know recognized this, yet no one does. I have the opposite problem of almost everybody in this industry. If these facts alone make me an artist then, fine, so be it, I am an artist, but I kindly request that somebody for once concede that this is probably not the case.
I do not make art. I do not have a personal website. I do keep my desk neat, which some passersby term art. I use adjectives in email. I am tall and thin and speak softly. Indeed, my current position is not a career and is not intended for individuals of my advanced age In this sense, my friendship with the artist who does x, who is represented by the gallery, is either a piece of professional security with which I am padding my impending fall, or it is emotional labor the gallery farms out to me because it can reasonably be assumed that I am someone for whom a friendship with the artist who does x has its advantages.
I study this in her, along with her expensive hat. She has begun telling a story I realize, with a sharp slide into nausea, is inappropriately long given the impending leaving-taking, the timing of cross-walk signals, not to mention her already apparent wish to be out of my presence. It was during my minimal era when I was trying not to do anything, when I was trying not to make art, you know?
I wanted to be something else, then. I wanted to be anything but an artist, and I was under the impression that if I did little enough, if I did barely enough, the world would just let me go. And maybe I was even a little angry about that possibility? Of being disposable? However this was what I did and it worked so fucking well I was able to work for the rest of my life, which, as you know, I have. I wonder if you can understand that. Others who have lain awake looking? You need to get back? You have a minute? But it was like the notion of trust, which has always been in my life if somewhat out of reach—and for me it is, and perhaps this is part of the problem if not the simple strangeness of it.
Trust is like an image and I am forever trying to see it. I can feel the outlines of it, you know, really can feel imaginatively that there is such a thing as trust, that fixedness of it? There are lots of worlds in my dreams, but not one of them ever contained trust. And so I think that is why, that must be why I so enjoy conversations with you, Justine. I think a lot of people might find you scary, because there is so much to risk, so much at stake for you, and not even because you really mean it.
I feel a kind of responsibility toward you, and not one that I would really have sought out for myself, given the choice. I remember when I saw you, that time we met, how terrifying that was. You really told me everything. The artist trails off. The light advising us as to the advisedness of crossing the street has transitioned between foreboding and denial, denial and continuous permission, perhaps ten times during the course of her speech.
My face is tight.
Probably I want to pee, but I have to make sure that she is done. I have to let the artist who does x continue speaking because this is what she expects. She expects not only to say these things, but to have them absorbed as tidings of great value, which, in some universe they probably are, since what she means is that I clearly do not know how to act. And never will. Anyway, she is right.
Then the toady was describing her own impending marriage to another toady also employed by the gallery system. They were plotting their escape. They would move to the countryside and start a nonprofit and cease to be toadies except, of course, in memory. During the course of this meeting, the artist who does x acknowledged that she was aware that I was in the midst of becoming divorced from someone I had married when I was in my early twenties, a thing not really done in these parts—the child marriage, I mean.
We were in a bar and restaurant, farther downtown. The artist who does x was comfortably ensconced on an upholstered item. I knew her less well, then. I watched changes transpiring on the face of the artist who does x. If I had known the artist who does x better at this time, I would have known that the artist who does x was attempting to gauge the required amount of remorse. I did not know then that she is like a paid griever, a mourner for hire.
She will exchange the favor of sadness with you, but you must offer something in return. I remember that time became slushy and dim. I knew that if I said no, the artist who does x would turn away from me, and that this turning away would be for all time. I knew that the artist who does x did not wish to discuss with me the politics of domestic economies, various forms of entitlement. She was not interested in my identity or gender, any more than she was interested in the identity or gender of anyone else.
These were mere representations, and representations were not her concern. The artist who does x wanted to know what had happened. After having compared various methods of Dutch for foreigners, Dr. Hollander concluded that the Direct Dutch method is especially suitable for instruction to American students. Hollander, who worked as a teacher at the Direct Dutch Institute in the beginning of the nineties, writes in her review of the method:. My students became curious. Where did I get these texts and exercises and could they not use these instead of the regular method?
The Direct Dutch method was developed in when the institute was established in The Hague. Over the years the institute specialized in this didactic method which focuses on conversation. Teachers receive a special training. From the very beginning the teacher speaks Dutch with the students. Reading and writing is taught by means of the course book and the accompanying CD.