Apr 22, 2010

Protestantism and the private self

It seems as if the idea that protestantism shunts religion off to the private sphere is somewhat wrong because there is no private sphere in the requisite sense for religion to be shunted to until the late 17thc. The emergence of the modern private sphere is connected to protestantism but only through its negotiation with state constitutions. Hence the importance of the 1688 settlement for the emergence of the private sphere.
(I know this is very laconic: it's a note to myself really.)

Nov 23, 2009

Rancière and intelligence

I've been reading and rereading a little Rancière in preperation for my graduate class. It's not my kind of thing: it's too tinged with Maoism for me. (Against Rancière's will no doubt, it effectively forms a bridge between Maoism a la 1968 and cultural populism.)  And much of it is written in a heavy-handed, pompous, unnecessarily obfuscating, academic prose which often makes too much of itself. But nonetheless, in its broad contours, it seems like a way of thinking well worth taking account of.
For instance.
For Rancière (and for Jacotot the 19thc outsider educational theorist he is writing about in The Ignorant Schoolmaster),  the relation between the teacher and the student is structured around the distance which separates them. The teacher aims to make the student know as much as she does. But this pedagogical relation becomes interminable.  The teacher continues to distance herself from her pupil, continues to mark him off as an ignoramus,  in order to keep on teaching him.  What such a 'democratic' and 'arithmetical' concept of pedagogy fails to admit is precisely the equality of intelligence. This does not mean that we all have equal amounts of knowledge but that thinking and learning (i.e. intelligence) involves the same techniques for all of us. A scientist in his lab and a barely literate peasant are both involved in "translation", that is in comparing what they know with what they don't know, and verifying the latter by reference to the former.
In other words: we are intelligent, and equally intelligent, not by virtue of what we know but in relation to what we don't know.
Rancière's more recent work on the aesthetic has a different perspective. It turns around the claim that modern aesthetic is built around two contradictory models and aims. First, that art is autonomous and distanced from the lived-in world (and is to be viewed disinterestedly from afar). Second, that art presents a promise for a better, more perfected way of living in the world (i.e. is to be imitated or repeated). 
This aesthetic contradiction (between distance and union) is a version of the pedagogical contradiction as Rancière remarks at the beginning of The Emancipated Spectator: the teacher wants the pupil to know what she knows and be what she is aims for union between teaching and taught; the teacher can only teach by positing the pupil as an ignoramus who does not even know what he does not know requires distance between them.
The problem with Rancière's account is that he seems to take a process for a structure. Both aestheticised art and modern democratic education presuppose that the spectator and the student (and the artist and the teacher) are becoming: the school and the gallery are supposed continually to change things.

Nov 16, 2009

Philosophy and Literature

Let's see if this works.

Our lives are filtered through and shaped by our use of language.  And language (not least as a tool of imagination) allows us to live where what is insects and fuses with what is not.  Philosophy and literature are where this intersection become conceptually organized and self-conscious.  What distinguishes them? Philosophy is organized with reference to the true; literature with reference to the real. 

The modern world is afraid of both philosophy and literature then just because they incorporate that what is not, or, rather, because they show that the will to truth and reality is inseparable from what, within a framework which allows for philosophy and literature, becomes our constitutive relation to what is "false" and to what is "fictive".

The modern answer to this situation: give up the search.

This is noted partly in response to Badiou's very different efforts to think the philosophy/literature relation in Conditions.  And partly in response to Nell's living in a world where what is real has not been separated from what is fictive and where what is true has not been separated from what is false.

Nov 13, 2009

What Saki owes to Trollope

Another bedtime reading illumination: Saki's social comedy, based on the pranks and ploys of alienated, insoucient and cruel young men is established in Trollope's Barchester Towers and in particular in the scene where Bertie Stanhope first attends a party at the Bishop's palace.

Nov 10, 2009

Cavell and Holsinger

Read a couple of interesting works of theory recently.
1. Cavell's 1969 essay on King Lear, the last chapter of Must we mean what we say? It now reads very much as a document in America's Vietnam-war era culture: it's marked by an unusual pessimism and animus towards government. But it's also a virtuoso piece of intellectual chutzpah and energy. What struck me most in it was its account of the distance between the play's fictional world and the spectator's world.  That account goes like this: the spectator is enable to interrupt the play's fictional world, which has therefore no 'presence' for him.  Nonetheless, the spectator is also in the ongoing 'present' of the narrative's tragic unfolding: he's there and engaged in a scripted world he can't participate in.  It's this relation to time that enables the spectator to 'acknowledge' the tragic events rather than just know them.  And that's where the tragic effect is completed too since the spectator's incapacity to interrupt a tragedy unfolding is a type of the way in which individuals can't interrupt (and comes to realize that he can't interrupt) the (also tragic) historical events around them, all the more so because Cavell sketches an account of an American democratic modernity which disperses and extends the uncontrollable social forces which shape individual lives. It's a dark 'tragic' view of democratic state capitalism.

2. Bruce Holsinger's The Premodern Condition, a rather polemical argument for the impact of medievalism on French theory in the fifties, sixties and seventies.  It's a book well worth reading because it really does shift one's sense of French intellectual life in the period.  I most liked the chapters on Bataille (who begins as a medievalist) and Barthes (who, according to Holsinger, is influenced by Henri de Lubac's work on medieval exegisis and hence by the debates over Vatican II).  More specifically, what's great about the book is that it allows one so reconceive 'post-structuralism' as a revival of rhetoric. What's not so great about it is that it doesn't deal with the reasons why this medievalism (if indeed it exists to the degree that Holsinger supposes) has been so occluded. And presumably that's for two main reasons: 1. medievalism in France was so connected to Catholicism, a connection which has immense political resonances which Holsinger downplays, and 2) post-structuralism is in the end so different from medievalism in ways which become most apparent perhaps in Blanchot's work, with its thematics of fragmentation, spacing, interminable existence beyond life and death etc (as becomes especially apparent in Levinas' remarks on him.)  Blanchot being no kind of medievalist I think ......

Anglicanism and Henry James

James does not much concern himself with the Anglican church in his fictions (or, if it comes to that, in his life) I think. But there are some exceptions.  These include 'The Author of Beltraffio" which is about a perfidious wife who effectively  murders her son to protect him against her husband, Mark Ambient, a sophisticated aesthete and novelist a la James himself.  Ambient writes in order beautifully to capture life as it is lived. He resists sentimentalism, moralizing, romantic enhancement. And his means for capturing life for beauty is, of course, form.  Or as he calls it at one point, 'execution'—in a subtle pun.

Ambient is complicit in his son's death since his aestheticism prevents him from preventing his wife's filicide.  And the story's narrator, Ambient's young Amerian admirer, is actually an agent in the murder too since his ill-considered remarks to Mrs Ambient and the child trigger the crime.

And the wife is 'religious' at least in the sense that she's a respectable church--goer and  socializes with the local Anglican clergy. Ambient himself describes his struggle with his wife as belonging to the old old war between the Christian and the Pagan.

What is at stake here is complex since Ambient's literary aesthetic is so close to that of James himself. Ambient is unlike the ideal James writer however in two respects. 1. His interest in the exotic (he is obsessed by Italy, and goes on a tour as far as Asia). And James is dead-set against the aesthete's seduction by the exotic. 2. His uxoriousness.  And Ambient's passivity in relation to wife and its fatal consequence, may mask a certain misogyny on James's part.

Oct 21, 2009

Modernism and newness

A thought after an interesting talk by Michael North yesterday on the catchphrase, "Make it new!".
One branch of what will become "modernism" happens when the oppositions between 1) the general and the particular, 2) the abstract and the concrete; 3) the old and the new begin not just to coalesce but to join together under the force of a will to what is in effect a cultural revolution.  Finally these come together for political reasons: the sense that the twentieth century (and the first world war) will mark the decisive failure of progressive democratic humanism. I am thinking here of the modernism invented by Eliot, Pound and Hulme in London 1910-1920 and which will lead to imagism and to Eliotian literary criticism; not to Mallarmean modernism for instance.
Two other elements of this structure are worth noting: it seems to rely on a physiological pyschological extension of Lockean empiricism for which, to put it too crudely, propositional thoughts, which tend to cliche, are generalised reductions of sensations. (That's how the particular and the concrete come together).
And it thinks of the "new" either as an objectiving subtraction from the abstract, the general, the cliche, or as a recombination of particulars (a montage, a constellation).

Oct 19, 2009

Coetzee and modernism

Here's a proposal for an essay I have been asked to write. It's a bit vague at the moment, but I hope to use this space to firm it out in the year I have to submit it. I guess it's an attempt to align my current work on modernist literary criticism and on Blanchot to the demands of postcolonialism.

Coetzee and the problem of origination.

At the beginning of modernist theorization of literature, T.S. Eliot found the origins of the individual literary text simultaneously in tradition and in experience, even though the latter had been degraded under enlightened modernity. In “The origin of the work of art,” Martin Heidegger proclaimed that the work’s origin was the work itself, albeit an origin that opened a space for the appearance of Being.  Writing after the Second World War, Maurice Blanchot also thought of the origin as the work itself, but now itself configured as an experience which affirms Being’s absence, and indeed exists in the silence the work and its “essential experience” imposes on the endless flow of meanings.
Between them, these formulations provide not just a path into (conservative) European modernism but also a way into Coetzee’s relation to that modernism. His writing endlessly circulate around the problem of their own origin as posed in terms that are at once experiential and ontological and literary. It is no exaggeration to say that Coetzee’s importance as a writer depends largely on his sense of his barred access to a modernist origin for his writing.
This essay will offer a historicist account of Coetzee’s relation to modernism from this perspective. In analyzing his treatment of his work’s origins, it will draw attention both to his position as a colonial writer, as a practicing literary critic and theorist, and to the particular structuration of the late 20th century global literary field for which he writes.