Friday, February 17, 2012
(I'm freely, and gleefully pillaging Levi Bryant's Democracy of Objects in developing my Free University class: Revolutionary Narrative: Toward a Poetics of Power. Free on-line or as PDF, and highly recommended.
I remember someone once challenging the merit of Joyce’s Ulysses because it doesn’t exist as a completed whole. His argument went something like this: in the thousands of minor and some not so minor differences in the existing manuscripts and proofs, there is no way to decide what a definitive, authorial edition would look like. What we have, then—is a collective assemblage representing no single aesthetic vision, and therefore, does not exist as a unity. Setting aside arguments for how collective, even accidental productions, might come together as unified systems—which is how I would have responded at the time—the more basic, and unexamined assumption here, is the idea of unity itself—that there can ever be such a thing as a ‘whole.’
There is no such thing as ‘a’ novel. Or poem. Or story or… as a single, aesthetically (or otherwise) coherent, systematically organized structure or system, such that every part relates to every other to create a unified, and unifying whole. And it is this, not because there are as many readings as readers, or because every possible interpretive translation (all interpretations are translations) is necessarily limited, that we can never comprehend a literary production as a whole—as convincing and these arguments might be—but because there is no such thing. It does not exist. That is not to say, Joyce’s Ulysses doesn’t exist. It does. In different versions, and each version is made of parts that are always greater than any hypothetical, always inconceivable whole. I say ‘inconceivable,’ not that we can’t conceive of the possibility of an aesthetic whole—but that it will be impossible to point to what that might actually be. Sort of like the way we talk about God. Imaginable in general, but inconceivable in the particular. Or for that matter, how we think of collectives of power… of the State…which has more than a little in common with the way we think of God.
It will be a working principle of this class, that any narrative is both a collective allowing for variation and internal contradiction at the deepest structural level, and even, like Theseus’ ship--the addition, deletion and replacement of parts--yet still retain an identity. Plutarch’s paradox vanishes when Identity no longer assumes Unity.
further thoughts along these lines in comments to a post on Written Word, Spoken Word. As I wrote there...... this increasingly suggests to me that the turn from content based criticism to inter- and intra- textual linguistic analyses, all signifier and no signified, may be in part, an anxiety reaction to avoid moving to a more dangerously revolutionary mode of reading and constructing narratives.
Wednesday, February 15, 2012
Occupy Philly Free University
Revolutionary Narrative: Toward a Poetics of Power
Classes meet, South Philly Free Library, 1700 Broad (Broad & Morris)
For Curriculum, Text Search this post for 'Class Description'
Class 1: Text Search: 'Class 1: Reading beyond the Human'
Suggested only: Levi Bryant: (Free PDF or on line )The Democracy of Objects. if you're interested in philosophy, or have a background in critical theory, this is richly suggestive for ways we might reimagine how we read fiction. Also available from Amazon.
For Class 2: February 3
by Stephen O’Connor June 29, 2009
New Yorker short fiction: This is available on line: HERE
If you have that issue, or can print this out, it would be helpful. Otherwise—take notes, questions. I have a review on my blog.
For later readings: To order:
Cooperative Village, by Frances Madeson
This is short novel—would hope to begin talking about it for class 4 or 5, so order it now!
For those who can't afford it, we'll talk about how we can share--or even read it in sections in class--out loud. In fact--that might be the best way to do this.
Not yet available: Kim Gek Lin Short: China Cowboy. This I hope we can discuss in depth. Kim has agreed to visit our class later in the ‘term.’ Some sections are available on line < http://www.pen.org/blog/?p=7691>. Listening to Kim read is part of the experience of this text.
Also for Class 2: Narrative Game Theory? What is a 'character' made of?
The novel as self-generating game. What it generates is the game, the rules of the game, rules to reconstruct old and generate new rules. What are rules? Rules are what they do. What do they do? Rules define the parameters of change.
If everything changes change will be invisible, undetectable. Everything does change but in pretending to hold some elements constant in memory comparison is possible. What it was, what it is (what it will be?) What it will be is the unknown to solve for. In fiction time can go backwards. The unknown-that-will-be can be either in the past or the future. This is, of course, figurative time. In a novel the future, the novelistic future--the unknown that will be--is the end of the book, the next chapter, the next page, the next sentence, the next hyphen comma dash colon semicolon period word phoneme letter
That is true even if we read backwards. Reading backwards only reverses forward and back, past and future. The future, the novelistic future, lies in what we've not yet read. The future lies. We read to expose the lie. To solve for the unknown. Solving for the unknown generates new unknowns. Why? Because of the rules. The rules are always making and remaking. Making and remaking themselves.
For there to be change there has to be something to change, different kinds of things changing in the novel. "Characters" for instance. We like to think we know what that is, the "character." I ask my students this question. You finished reading Emma. What did Jane Austin make Emma out of? What did Jane Austin make Mr. Knightley out of? We are made of a complex interaction of cells, and organs--interacting with each other and to what is outside the organism. What is Emma made of? What is Mr. Knightley made of? We are all made in basically the same arrangement, of the same material, the same general design. If I hold up a picture, one at a time, of every man woman and child on the planet and ask: what is this? --you could give the same answer for each one: a human being. And yet they are all different. We are all different. Emma is not Mr. Knightley.
Emma and Mr. Knightley must be made of the same things, held together by the same sort of operations... rules that govern change in "characters." Then how can we tell them apart? Are we to believe they are both the same and different--at the same time? Like the animals we believe them to represent? Or is that the fabric of illusion? What we bring to the novel, project onto, into it--from what we believe the world to be? I don't think we can speak of that part, not yet. That's the usual method: mix up what is in the novel with what is in us and what is in us with what is in the novel. Even if that's the most important part--where the meaning lies... that mixing up of us and it, how can we understand what we're thinking about if we can't answer the question: what is Emma made of, What is Mr. Knightley made of? What is in the novel that stays in the novel, that stays the same? Anything? Nothing?
Life is made up of chemical and physical reactions. What distinguishes life from other chemical and physical reactions is the cell, the cell membrane. Without inside/outside there is no life. Characters live in the novel. We live outside the novel, imagining ourselves inside it, imagining the characters outside the novel.... Emma Bovary in Woody Allen's Manhattan. Inside the novel Emma "exists" in space that is not-Emma, and not-Mr.Knightly. What are the rules that tell us what is Emma and what is not-Emma? Emma is one part of the much larger set: not-Mr. Knightly, and Mr. Knightly is one part of the much larger set: not-Emma. Negation makes them visible. Inside/outside.
Place in the novel. Another negation. Each element defined by what it is not, inside meeting outside, outside penetrating, engendering, driving, destroying. Rules taken apart, discarded, replaced by new ones.
In the game of the novel characters are action figures, figures appearing to initiate and suffer action. We speak of character "depth." What is that? A compliment of the complex opperative sets of stasis > encounter > penetration > reaction > adjustment > interaction > stasis.
Two poles of narrative, character, action: where the change is all in the between--and no account is offered of what has penetrated and assimilated into the character--not x becoming x: novel as action movie. The other pole, where everything, even what is presented as not-x, is within, interactions within the organism, the psychic furniture of the assimilated world of out-there. The Metamorphosis ? Endgame? Ferdydurk, Death of Virgil--very close to the end of the graded scale.
Establishment (realist) Literary Fiction pretends to hold to the middle--though it is closer to the Action Movie end than to the Intra-organic.
Jacob Russell, Facilitator
Relevant Experience: Novelist, published writer of poetry & fiction. 12 years teaching Freshman Composition and Introduction to English Literature, Saint Joseph’s University. Involved in many forms of political and social action over the past fifty years.
We make a humanly habitable world with stories. Every story, by engaging us in the how & why of events, is about power, & is itself a struggle for power. This will be a class about the stories we carry in our heads—on how to put them into words, to identify the elements of powe: an experiment in imagining our way toward what might become the narratives of another possible world. I expect this will engage us in wide ranging discussions of politics and power our lives, & in the world around us.
Nine to 12 weeks
Hour & a half, once a week.
Prerequisites: adult reading skills
Class will involve:
A. Writing: free & experimental. No previous experience with fiction or poetry required.
B. Discussion: group analysis of found narratives, those we find in ourselves, & those we find around us.
C. Keeping a journal
D. Outside work: aside from journaling, we will try to keep writing assignments to class time, but some outside work may be needed, for writing and gathering story material.
writing implements, a notebook, a marble composition book or anything else suitable for keeping a journal.
Jacob Russell: Revolutionary Narrative
Preliminary Class Plan
As ‘power’ will be our concern, we will begin by talking about power in the classroom setting, finding agreement on terminology we can use for Elements of Power—drawn from our own experience. In our first class we will work out and agree on a code of mutual respect, create a contract to define relationship and responsibilities between student/participants and those taking on the role of class leader.
At the end of the first class, we will write a brief statement in our journals of our expectations for the course.
Writing assignment: a brief, elemental narrative description of what each of us think happened as we worked out our contract and code of respect. Analysis & discussion—were our terms for Elements of Power useful. How might we revise them.
At the beginning of each class, one person will bring a story--verbal or written, whatever they feel comfortable with--about anything that seems to fit the story teller’s idea of a story. Followed by analysis & discussion.
Every third class we will review what we’ve done, compare this to what we wrote in our journals. Discuss where we would like to go for the next three weeks—more of the same? New ideas? Branch out, different people pursuing different objectives? After nine weeks, we can decide what we want for the final two weeks—what we think we might like by way of evaluation or confirmation (if anything)—in lieu of grades… or if we have consensus that we’ve completed at least a phase of this experiment.
Class 1:Reading beyond the Human
It will be a working principle of this class, that any narrative is both a collective allowing for variation and internal contradiction at the deepest structural level, and even, like Theseus’ ship, the addition, deletion and replacement of parts--yet still retain an identity. Plutarch’s paradox vanishes when Identity no longer assumes Unity.
In a narrative, things, social units, locations, ideas & beliefs, (both explicit and implied), can all be actants. Let’s call them Object-Actants (O-A). A “character” in a narrative is both an O-A, and a receptacle and carrier of multiple O-A’s. An O-A may be in itself, autonomous, but still a part in a larger whole, as the cells and organs of an organism exist both as parts, and objects in themselves. Dependency in the relationship, then, indicates limits of freedom, but does NOT determine independence of identity.
The centrality of human Object-Actants (or their representations) in a literary work is as limiting to the range of possible interpretations or readings as it is in thinking about the natural world. That is—a human-centric understanding is in no way necessary to the ways we might understand a story.
We tell stories to impose a semblance of coherence over the incompressible reality we fear. We can begin to recognize the truth of a story when we begin to acknowledge it for the lie it is—that its being a lie is not incidental--not the mere recognition of its artifice, but that its untruth is the very gateway to the truth the lie has been created to hide.
This is no less and no more true of the life-stories we invent about ourselves than of literary narratives—the advantage of the later being that the artifice is less disguised, and always to some degree, foregrounded as an end in itself.
We call this ‘aesthetics.’
The disadvantage of the former lies in our need to insist that the lie is the very truth, refusing to accept that its very purpose is to protect us from the reality we dread.
We can’t reveal what we’ve hidden by cracking open the narrative shell and prying out the nut of truth. Every interpretation will only be another mask; a story about the story is no less a lie. Yet we are not completely without resources. (To echo Longinus … between story and story, between story and its translations--there flashes forth the lightning bolt of the sublime. An interpretation does not replace, it dis-places, and the friction of displacement is generative, here as on the level of metaphor. Between the visible two there emerges an invisible third, discernible not in it itself, but in its effect—in the difference it makes.
I remember someone once challenging the merit of Joyce’s Ulysses because it doesn’t exist as a completed whole. His argument went something like this: in the thousands of minor and some not so minor differences in the existing manuscripts and proofs, there is no way to decide what a definitive, authorial edition would look like. What we have, then—is a collective assemblage representing no single aesthetic vision, and therefore, does not exist as an unity. Setting aside arguments for how collective, even accidental productions, might come together as unified systems—which is how I would have responded at the time—the more basic, and unexamined assumption here, is the idea of unity itself—that there can ever be such a thing as a ‘whole.’
There is no such thing as ‘a’ novel. Or poem. Or story or… as a single, aesthetically (or otherwise) coherent, systematically organized structure or system, such that every part relates to every other to create a unified, and unifying whole. And it is this, not because there are as many readings as readers, or because every possible interpretive translation (all interpretations are translations) is necessarily limited, that we can never comprehend a literary production as a whole—as convincing and these arguments might be—but because there is no such thing. It does not exist. That is not to say, Joyce’s Ulysses doesn’t exist. It does. In different versions, and each version is made of parts that are always greater than any hypothetical, always inconceivable whole. I say ‘inconceivable,’ not that we can’t conceive of the possibility of an aesthetic whole—but that it will be impossible to point to what that might actually be. Sort of like the way we talk about God. Imaginable in general, but inconceivable in the particular. Or for that matter, how we think of collectives of power… of the State…which has more than a little in common with the way we think of God.---
Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Saturday, February 11, 2012
Isn’t there a problem in thinking about religion as though religion were primarily a system of ideas—as though religion, whatever that is, were reducible to ‘philosophies of religion,’ or for that matter, to the objective claims some forms of religion make about the world (what Establishment Atheist Publications make of it?
Religion seems always to be—whatever it seems to be about, to be primarily ‘about’ something other than what it appears or presents itself to be about. In that—Blake’s take on religion as failed poetry is more than a rhetorical trope, as those aspects of religion he attacks are like in kind to what he attacks in philosophy—or the rule of law in established power, or conventional notions of male & female sexuality. Blake’s poetry throbs with images and tropes drawn from religious sources, and likely thought of himself as a Christian. To see this as contradiction, or as Shirley Dent put it, a ‘confused thinker’ , does him a grave injustice. There is something in Blake’s critique worth thinking about—though not as philosophy, not as what Blake understood as ‘reason’ (the rule of Urizon…
bring out rule and measure in a year of drought)
Not to over simplify, but for Blake, what poetry and the remainder of religion, that which had not been corrupted by reason and failed imagination, had in common—is that they are always about ‘something else.’ Here I think Blake was on to something. What makes this even more difficult to recognize than it was at the turn of the 19th C, is the thoroughly reactionary usurpation of most of what we see and recognize as religion—reactionary, in that religion—in its defenses and rationalizations—which is pretty much all that we notice or think worth thinking about, has translated itself into an ersatz modernist self-reflection of itself. That is—if science offers a new version of our origins that seems threatening—defenders reverse the order of importance and meaning of whatever their mythical narratives might have once meant (how would we ever know?), recast as counter-claims to what they assume they mean to science—so we have ‘creationism’ as, not only pseudo-science, but pseudo-religion… or rather, a remaking of religion as a negative image of a modern counter-religion (the creationists have to make evolution a kind of religion to find common ground to opposite it).
Back to Blake… and this is not a defense of religion, but a plea to get beyond the reductive miscasting of religion as a kind of ‘idea,’… a badly twisted misguided idea… no matter how strong a hold these ideas do in fact have, and how dangerous they are… but that the persistence of religion has very little to do with those ideas, with its high-theological re-constructions, and can’t be adequately explained by them. The social and political rhizomes of religion are so intimately entangled in every other aspect of life—so much more than “what people believe’ – that we miss what may be the only thing the indefinably diverse stuff we label as ‘religion’ has in common… it’s being always about ‘something else.’ And in that… I think Blake was no confused thinker—but right on target, in seeing the deeper roots of religion and poetry as one.