Some yeggs ago (I remember reading an article on Oulipo some decemvirs ago that gave as an example of their techniques N+7, in which an author would take a literary text and replace, say, all the nouns with the seventh noun following in a dictionary – “Call me Islander. Some yeggs ago” was quoted as the beginning of an Oulipian Moby-Dick...)…. some yeggs ago, as I was saying (“yegg,” by the way, is US slang for a safecracker), I wrote a post in which I explained that, having just read Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, I realized that if I wanted my book-in-progress A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga! to be taken seriously as auto-theory, I was, like Nelson, going to have to put some “skin in the game,” which is to say, to say some embarrassing things.
Anticipating anxiety on the part of my readers that I was planning to launch myself, in my book, into lurid confessions of a sexual nature (like Nelson), I hastily re-assured them that what I was going to do instead was to include the text of a song I once made up consisting of all the silly names by which I interpellated my then cat Celestino, a magnificent Russian Blue.
If you think this hardly counts as putting “skin in the game,” let me explain. Something that I have known about myself for a long time is how hard it is for me to say out loud many nonsense words. By “nonsense words,” I mean made up family slang, spontaneously made up words (as in philosophical examples or in silly shouting), the kind of patter you get in children’s songs (or in “Bad Romance”) that intermingles nonsense and random non-nonsense words, and so on. Yet despite my difficulty in saying these things out loud to others, they take up an enormous amount of space in my mind. They force themselves out of my mouth when I am alone, minding my business, especially walking the dog. Indeed, my subjective experience of this phenomenon links it to my (possibly quite inaccurate) conception of Tourette Syndrome and I often refer to my “tourettic brain.”
I have no idea whether there is any underlying neurological condition, but there are clearly psychological roots. I strongly associate these kinds of taboo words with my mother and the songs she sang to me as a child. One particular such song is like my heart of darkness! Even alone, my mouth rebels against being made to sing it. I can hardly stand even to think it! As I talk about this issue in analysis, my analyst and I sometimes joke that we’ll know I’m cured when I’m able to say the words of this song.
Writing such words is somewhat easier than saying them, but it’s not nothing. So, you see, putting all those silly, tourettic names of my cat into my book really is difficult for me. I had initially intended to refer to the song but not quote it. The decision to include its text was momentous. I feel that, however timidly, I am putting “skin in the game” of auto-theory.
Another momentous step I have taken in the direction of resolving this conflict between the need both to express and to inhibit my childish babbling is this meme movie I made, using the Galaxy Brain template. The movie puts together a representation of some of my mental processes with a melody that I often find myself compulsively singing nonsensical words to. The movie reaches a climax with one such word.
[Because this post relies on images and captions to images, neither of which renders well on smartphones, in my experience, I suggest you view it on a computer or tablet for an optimal experience.]
As I proceed with my work on A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, I find myself thinking not infrequently “I wish I had paid more attention as a child.” I am time and again led right up to the edge of my recollection of people, events, and objects that populated my childhood, each carrying so much, not just of their own histories, but of my history. They were messengers from the worlds that made me, messengers that I heeded far too little. Now, as I try to comprehend some of those worlds, I am frequently baffled, their inhabitants hovering just beyond my grasp. I wish I had paid more attention as a child.
When I began writing this post, over two years ago(!), I had a dim sense that many of these isolated fragments, these messengers, some material and others lodged only in my memory, were connected with the world of Russian Jewish émigrés in New York (often via London, Paris, and Berlin). As I have resumed and intensified my work on the post in the last week or so, this suspicion has been confirmed. This post, therefore, is something of a companion piece to this earlier one, which it intersects at one point I will indicate when we get there.
On a wall in my home in Miami , there hangs this wonderful picture:
It was painted by Nina Evnin, the first wife of my father’s uncle, and dated 1947, the year my parents were married. My parents were, in fact, introduced through the joint efforts of Nina and my mother’s mother, Lillian Kruskal Oppenheimer. Nina and Lillian were good friends and had probably become acquainted owing to the business connections between their husbands, Oscar Evnin and Joseph Kruskal, both furriers in New York. After he was demobbed from the British Army in 1946, my father went from London to New York to learn the business from Uncle Oscar and, presciently, Nina and Lillian saw the potential for a match.
Given the date of Nina’s picture and her role in my parent’s marriage, I conjecture that the painting was given to them by her as a wedding gift. It was a fixture of my childhood and when, in 1977, my parents disassembled the home in which I was born and grew up, I took possession of it. I have always loved it.
Ubiquitous through my childhood, too, were Kruskal Furs pencils. My grandmother Lillian must have brought them on her visits to us in London, or perhaps my mother had a vast supply as part of her trousseau! They came in two thicknesses, one fatter and one (pictured) thinner than a standard pencil. (Were those odd sizes themselves standard in some place, at some time? I remember feeling their strangeness in my hand as a child.) Now, fifty years later, this lonely pencil, in the possession of my sister, is the only one I know of still in existence.
Joseph Kruskal arrived in America a four-year-old, impoverished, fatherless boy, from Estonia in 1896. Some of the history of the Kruskal family is told in Two Baltic Families Who Came to America: The Jacobsons and the Kruskals, 1870-1970, by Richard Brown. I remember its author, Dick Brown, coming from the US to visit in the early seventies. “Dick is writing a book”, I would hear. Very likely, he stayed with us. But I never really knew who he was! (His mother was a Kruskal.) As for Joseph Kruskal, before he died in 1949, he made, lost, and remade a fortune with his fur business, Kruskal & Kruskal, Inc., which operated, as the pencil informs us, from 150 W. 30th St from 1932 until 1986 (and before that, from another Manhattan address). You can read a brief account of the business here, under “Kruskal, Malvin & Co., Furs.” And here is an (undated) picture of the W. 30th St. building, with a billboard for my grandfather’s firm. If the firm was there until 1986, surely I must have been taken to visit it on one of our not-infrequent trips to the US? But if so, I have no memory of it.
Some time in my mid-teens, under circumstances that now escape me entirely, I was, for a very brief period (possibly as brief as a single day), close to Nina. She and Oscar had divorced around 1949 or 1950 but, I suppose through her friendship with Lillian, she remained in my immediate family’s orbit. She took me on my first visit to the Guggenheim Museum. I do remember walking down the spiral ramp, stopping to look at pictures, and, filled with awe, hearing her tell me how she knew this painter and had been painted by that one. Alas, I don’t now remember which painters she was talking about. Perhaps, among others, her renowned teacher, Sergey Sudeikin, who painted this very beguiling portrait of her?
Above, I said that the Evnin and Kruskal families must have known each other through their common involvement in the New York fur trade. But there is a particular reason why they should have been on familiar terms. The matriarch in the imposing family photo above was, you may remember, Zissia, née Eitingon. She was, in other words, part of the vast Eitingon clan about whom my distant cousin, Mary-Kay Wilmers, has written a fascinating book, The Eitingons: A Twentieth Century Story (2012). One of the most prominent of the Eitingons was Motty, a second cousin to Zissia (whose eldest son, recall, was Motty too). Motty Eitingon was a towering figure in the international fur business. He was almost certainly exploited by the US government to open unofficial channels with the Soviet Union. And in 1928, Wilmers tells us, his company, Eitingon Schild, which according the New York Times was the “dominant skin dealer of the industry,” acquired Kruskal & Kruskal, Inc., “the largest coat jobber in the fur trade” (NYT quoted in Wilmers, p. 91). So the Evnins and the Kruskals were already connected in New York even before Oscar and Nina arrived there from Paris (where they had gone from Russia).
Other prominent Eitingon relatives of mine, about whom Wilmers writes and who will appear in A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, include Max and Leonid. Max Eitingon was a psychoanalyst, a close associate of Freud, and the source of money for much of the early psychoanalytic movement. He was among the founders of the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute, which formalized the method of instruction for trainee psychoanalysts (lectures, training analysis, supervision of cases) that still goes by the name of the ‘Eitingon method.’ Leonid (Nachum) Eitingon was a major figure in the NKVD/KGB. It was he, in fact, who organized the assassination of Trotsky, recruiting Ramón Mercader, developing his cover, and waiting around the corner from Trotsky’s compound, ready to whisk Mercader away if the need arose. (It did not; Mercader was apprehended by the police.) Another of his exploits is the stuff of fiction. Around 1943, Leonid trained Nikolai Khokhlov, a Russian vaudeville performer (an “artistic whistler”), over a year and a half, to impersonate a German officer. When he was finally ready, Khokhlov parachuted into Minsk under the name “Lieutenant Otto Witgenstein” and successfully completed his mission of blowing up Wilhelm Kube, the “Butcher of Belorussia” (Wilmers, pp. 340-1).
Motty Eitingon, with his great wealth, was a patron to many artists, especially musicians. One passage about this in Wilmers’ book especially caught my attention:
In October 1927… when it was announced that the young violinist Benno Rabinof would shortly make his debut at Carnegie Hall, the New York Times reported that for many years the boy from the East Side ‘with a hunger for music’ had been looked after by a guardian angel in the form of ‘Motti Eitingon, a New York merchant, who was so convinced of his future that he took the financial cares off the family’s shoulders.’ … On occasions like this it’s not hard to see — or rather it’s hard not to see — Motty as a money man with a soft heart in the old Hollywood mode. (p. 210-1)
When I read this passage, I remembered another object from my youth, an LP that, at least for a certain period of time, I listened to a lot:
In my mid to late teens, I thought I was going to be a composer. Around 1975 or 1976, just after the death of Benno Rabinof, I went to visit Sylvia Rabinof, his widow, accompanist, and a very prominent musician in her own right, in New York. The visit must have been arranged through the good offices either of Lillian or Nina (was this on the same visit during which Nina took me to the Guggenheim?), one or both of whom must have been friendly with the Rabinofs. Sylvia was nice but did not think much, I understood, of those of my compositions that I showed her. (I had a similarly discouraging experience around that time in London, with the composer Joseph Horovitz, though I don’t remember which mutual friend facilitated the meeting.)
Although Benno and Sylvia did not record much — they preferred live performance and teaching — it seems they were quite significant. Benno studied with the great violinist and teacher Leopold Auer. (Perhaps Motty Eitingon payed for these lessons.) Auer’s other students included David and Jascha Heifitz and Efrem Zimbalist. Zimbalist was another Russian Jewish émigré whose son, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., was the star of The F.B.I., a television show from the mid-60s whose opening (“A QM [Quinn Martin] production, starring Efrem Zimbalist Jr.”) has stayed in my mind for over 50 years. (Efrem Zimbalist Jr., by the way, played Alfred Pennyworth, the Wayne family old retainer, in the animated Batman series from the 60s. In another post, I made a surprising discovery about the actor, Alan Napier, who played Alfred in the live action series from that time!)
Another student of Auer’s was yet another Russian Jewish émigrée, Clara Rockmore (née Reisenberg). Rockmore was forced to give up the violin owing to tendinitis but struck up a connection with another Russian then living in the United States, Léon Theremin, inventor of the theremin, and so became the first player to bring a high level of artistry to the newly invented instrument. (Theremin proposed to her but she declined.) Here she is playing Saint-Saëns’ The Swan. If you’ve never seen a theremin played, it’s worth a look.
As I was writing this, I suddenly recalled that my grandmother, Lillian, herself owned a theremin! In fact, I have now convinced myself that I remember trying it out at a young age, though I suspect this is not a genuine memory. Whether or not I did, when I was old enough to care, Lillian no longer owned it. Surely she, and Nina, must have known Theremin and Rockmore. Perhaps, like Rockmore, her theremin was even given to her by its inventor. While I don’t have Lillian’s theremin, I do have, still in my possession, a book that probably belonged to my mother in the 1930s and 40s (she was a clarinetist of no mean accomplishment) that explains all the different musical instruments. It was invaluable to me in my own attempts at composition, giving the ranges of the different instruments, the clefs their parts are written in, and so on. It also had, for each instrument, a picture of someone playing it. Even as a teenager, I found the old-fashioned quality of these pictures remarkable. Truly up to the minute, the book includes the theremin.
What, I imagine you asking, does all this – interesting as it may be – have to do with A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!? Let me tell you. It has precisely three things to do with it. First, some of the people I discuss here will appear in the book. Secondly, the post itself functions as a kind of personal “cabinet of curiosities,” and the cabinet of curiosities, the Wunderkammer, is one of the forms under which I conceive of my book as a whole. But the third connection is the most significant.
I hope it is evident that my fascination with the image of Batman slapping Robin is fueled by real psychological sources. Among them is the fact that, as a young boy of around seven, I participated in the making of some films by my older brother and his friends (who were around 16 years old). I had, not long before these films were made, been given, as a birthday present, a Batman mask, cape, and vambraces. (I mention this in an interview I gave about my book in which I incorrectly call the vambraces ‘grieves.’) Perhaps because of the presence of this gift, or my evident enthusiasm for Batman, my brother and his friends incorporated a scene into their film in which Batman and Robin appear. Although the Batman gear was mine, and although it was, evidently, comically small on these 16 year olds, I was only allowed to play Robin in the scene while one of the friends played Batman. I will discuss this scene at much greater length in the course of my book – there are depths to the significance of that episode for my current book that I am not even hinting at here. But here is one still from the film. And as you can see, Nina’s painting hangs on the wall behind Batman’s head!
I am honored to have been asked to contribute an essay on philosophy through memes for the Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Public Philosophy (eds. Nancy McHugh, Lee McIntyre, and Ian Olasov), currently in preparation.
Writing the piece is a challenge. I don’t know of any literature on the topic and feel like I am having to think things through from first principles. (If you know of anything that might be relevant, do please let me know.)
You might think that because I am in the middle of writing a book, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, that itself does philosophy through memes, I would have a lot of fairly developed thoughts on the topic. And I suppose I do. But my own attempts to philosophize through memes are not all that helpful. First, they are impure. My medium is not the meme, but the meme plus commentary (and the commentaries are parts of an ‘art catalogue’ in which the writing is done by a notionally different person from the creator of the memes). So my resources for doing philosophy are much greater than the exiguous ones of a solitary meme (or even a sequence of memes). At the same time, those extra resources are so specific and idiosyncratic that they offer no basis for generalization. Finally, the image I use has a distinctive feature which is not as a rule found in memes and which is the source of much of the philosophizing I attempt through it: the speech bubbles that derive from its original appearance as part of a comic.
Speech bubbles allow spoken language to be represented by pictures of writing. It is the space between these three – image, writing, speech – that allows me to explore in a practical way the kind of philosophical issues raised by Derrida, in Of Grammatology, and more recently, by Alva Noë in Strange Tools. The difference between writing and a picture of writing, and the different relation each has to speech, became a major theme in the composition of the memes. (It is the topic of a talk I gave recently, available here in Italian and here in English.) Some of the ways in which it shows up in the memes are : footnotes (an exclusively written phenomenon) appearing in the speech bubbles; text represented in different alphabets, including Braille – a primarily tactile rather than visual alphabet); and text and speech bubble appearing in a mirror reflection. Even the use of punctuation in the speech bubbles raises issues since, like footnotes, it is a feature of writing, not speech. (In addition, the exclamation mark, which I came to use so frequently, is a written element that has distinctly pictorial qualities. From top to bottom, a whoosh and a slap!)
None of this, however, has any general application to philosophy through memes. What, then, is philosophy through memes? It is easy to imagine something bland and boring, like this:
A brief quotation from Paley’s version of the Argument from Design is, in very lightly edited form, superimposed onto an image of Paley himself. If this were the best that could be done for philosophy through memes, it would hardly be worth pursuing.
Perhaps we get to something more interesting with this:
The same text now appears over Salvador Dalí’s painting The Persistence of Memory. Putting the text over this surreal depiction of drooping watches now evokes pictorially an obvious objection to Paley’s argument: the ‘watch’ that needs explaining (i.e. the adaptation of means to ends found in the natural world) is not as perfect as all that and therefore hardly suggests the existence of an omnipotent maker. Furthermore, the positioning of the text itself, which echoes the watch on the left, reinforces the imperfection not just of the world, but of Paley’s argument about it.
Perhaps an even better example of philosophy through memes is evident in a meme which, unlike those above, was not made by me. (I don’t know who made it.)
A well-known meme with this image uses the text “The hardest prison to escape is in your own mind.” This Foucauldian sentiment is clearly at work in the present version but whereas the original has the image simply illustrating the idea, here we see the idea being alluded to by the little boy in his play. This emphasizes the super hetero-normativity of the image, thereby connecting the Foucauldian point to the specifics of white, middle-class American life. (I will be showing my students this meme when I teach the chapter of Ellen Feder’s book Family Bonds: Genealogies of Race and Gender in which she discusses the panoptic design of Levittown, a plausible location for the scene in the image.)
Clearly there is a lot more to say about philosophy through memes – but you’ll have to wait until the finished article to learn my thoughts on it. If you have any thoughts of your own, why not leave them in a comment?
Next week, I am going to teach again David Kaplan‘s wonderful paper “Dthat.” David was one of my teachers in graduate school and although I did not work especially closely with him, I had enough experience of him to be smitten. He had, and no doubt still has, a luminous and humorous intelligence that was utterly beguiling, both personally and intellectually.
It’s a bit hard to explain what “dthat” is to those not immersed in analytic philosophy of language but I’ll give it a try. Kaplan, in the paper of that name, is discussing the semantics of the English demonstrative “that” and makes certain conjectures about how it might be used. Rather than argue over the substantive question of whether the English expression is used in the conjectured way, Kaplan employs a technique not uncommon in analytic philosophy (another instance of which I touch on in my post Shmidentity Politics) and introduces a neologism about which he can stipulate the features that are merely conjectured to apply in the real-life case. “Dthat,” (pronounced exactly like “that”) is a demonstrative device about which roughly the following is stipulated: when it appears in a sentence, what it contributes to the meaning of an utterance of the sentence is nothing other than the object demonstrated. This extends to its use when coupled with descriptive content. So in an utterance of “Dthat slap you just gave me really hurt,” the meaning of the expression “[the] slap you just gave me” does not enter into the meaning expressed by the utterance, but functions in something like the way pointing does, if I point to an ice sculpture and say “Dthat is going to melt pretty soon.” The pointing is, we might say, a parergon to the meaning of the utterance; and just so is the meaning of “[the] slap you just gave me” a kind of linguistic parergon – a paratext – to the meaning of the utterance in question.
A long-standing question for philosophers of language is whether proper names function, semantically, in a way similar to “dthat.” Proper names, Kaplan says, are a “theoretician’s nightmare.” He concludes that “if it weren’t for the problem of how to get the kids to come in for dinner, I’d be inclined to just junk them.” Perhaps because his character is so evident in this sentence, it’s always been one my favorite bits of philosophy! Of course, unsurprisingly, there is a very deep point there too. Names are used not only to refer, which is how almost all philosophers of language approach them, but to address as well, to interpellate (as Althusser puts it). It is, Kaplan suggests, their use as means of interpellation that makes it impossible to get by without proper names.
This the background to a meme, composed several years after most of the others that will appear in my book, that will be the final entry in A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!. In it, I combine the form of the Batman-slapping-Robin meme with that of another meme: Broke-Woke-Bespoke. This allows for some allegedly tired content (though I hope this post makes evident how inappropriate I think it is to regard Kaplan’s original formulation as in any way tired!) to be transformed into a ‘woke’ version, and ultimately into a ‘bespoke’ version, the acme of its possible expressions.
Sometimes, when I am working on a commentary in my book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, I find myself going down a rabbit-hole, frantically researching the most obscure, and apparently irrelevant, things. Whenever that happens, far from trying to discipline myself, I give myself the freest rein. I have an almost superstitious faith that I will always stumble upon something – some detail, some connection – that makes the effort worthwhile. And just so, it usually comes to pass.
I am currently working on the commentary to this meme:
The commentary will be one of the primary places in the book where I talk about shame, a major theme of the work. Well indeed might Robin be ashamed of his mockery of the elderly Wayne-family retainer, Alfred Pennyworth.
Working backwards in my mind from some incidents in my own life, through an obscure chain of connections, I begin the commentary with the story of Sir Charles James Napier (1782-1853), commander of the British forces in India. In 1843, having been ordered to enter the still-independent province of Sindh to engage in some military retribution, he vastly overreached and ended by occupying the whole province. It is told that he communicated both his disobedience and its result with the one-word dispatch to Lord Ellenborough, the Governor of India, “Peccavi” (I have sinned [Sindh]).
Like many great stories, it is not true. Although the joke may have been independently arrived at by several wits over the course of the 19th century, its first appearance was in the satirical magazine Punch, in 1844. There it is stated that Napier outdid even Caesar, whose “veni, vidi, vici” had hitherto held the record for shortest dispatch ever. There is excellent evidence (the virtual margins being too narrow, as it were, I shall not weigh down this post with its recounting) that the peccavi joke first came to Punch from a remarkable sixteen-year-old girl, Catherine Winkworth (1827-78). Apparently, she thought it up, quite spontaneously, in conversation over Napier’s much-discussed exploits with her tutor, Rev. William Gaskell (husband to the novelist Elizabeth), who encouraged her to send it to the recently created satirical magazine, which in turn cut her a check for it! (The evidence does not say for how much!)
In my commentary, you can be sure that I will give some further account of Catherine. But it is not she who chiefly interests me, but her equally remarkable elder sister Susanna Winkworth (1820-84). Both Catherine and Susanna went on to become translators of German religious material. Among Susanna’s accomplishments is an archaic-sounding translation of the Theologia Germanica, the fourteenth-century work of mysticism ‘discovered’ and made famous by Martin Luther (who held it closer to his heart than anything save the Bible and St. Augustine).
It is a moving passage from Winkworth’s German Theology that forms the epigraph to Clemence Housman’s little-read novel The Life of Sir Aglovale de Galis (1905). Here is the epigraph:
When a man truly perceiveth and considereth himself who and what he is, and findeth himself utterly vile and wicked and unworthy, he falleth into such a deep abasement that it seemeth to him reasonable that all creatures in heaven and earth should rise up against him. And therefore he will not and dare not desire any consolation and release, but he is willing to be unconsoled and unreleased; and he doth not grieve over his sufferings, for they are right in his eyes, and he hath nothing to say against them. This is what is meant by true repentance for sin, and he who in this present time entereth into this hell, none may console him. Now, God hath not forsaken a man in this hell, but He is laying His hand upon him that the man may not desire nor regard anything but the Eternal Good only. And then, when the man neither careth nor desireth anything but the Eternal Good alone, and seeketh not himself nor his own things, but the honour of God only, he is made a partaker of all manner of joy, bliss, grace, rest, and consolation, and so the man is henceforth in the kingdom of heaven. This hell and this heaven are two good safe ways for a man, and happy is he who truly findeth them.
Peccavi, indeed! Housman (1861-1955), who was the sister of the poet and scholar A.E. Housman (whose work forms the basis for another meme and commentary of mine which you can read here) wrote this novel in the style of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur. In the most archaic and difficult prose, it tells the story of Sir Aglovale who, in this rendition, cannot extricate himself from a perverse course of deeds of which he is deeply ashamed. He is a man whose entire life is dedicated to shame, dedicated to it, one might say, with a passion, perhaps because it is one of the “two good safe ways for a man.”
Coming to the meme, young Robin is acting in a way that he is sure to feel ashamed of as he gets older. Poor Alfred, for all his English fustian, took care of Robin, “wiped his shitty ass for him,” and deserves much better than Robin’s thoughtless mockery. This is the light in which several events of my childhood now strike me; and I feel as though I would be happy to have been struck at the time, as Robin is here by Batman.
One thing I intend to investigate in the commentary is the link between shame and the slap, each of which brings blood to the face. Krista Thomason has argued it is a desideratum for an account of shame that it explain the link between the experience of shame and the desire to commit violence. Insofar as my memes often play out intrapsychic conflicts, you can no doubt see where all this is going.
And what of that rabbit-hole I mentioned at the opening of this post? The shape of my commentary, as laid out above, was complete in my mind when, following a hunch, I started obsessively tracing ancestry on the internet. And what gold my hunch yielded! Sir Charles Napier, the subject (if not the origin) of the peccavi joke, is the second cousin, four times removed, of Alan Napier, the actor who plays Alfred Pennyworth in the 1960s Batman show!
A recent call for papers by a journal planning a special issue on auto-theory asked contributors to remove any identifying information and prepare their submissions for anonymous review! Not quite a paradox, since the submissions were not intended to be auto-theory, but nearly one, since one might expect even academic journal articles, if they are about auto-theory, to be somewhat personal.
I suppose it is sometimes appropriate to think of auto-theory as coming from the ‘auto’ side of things and sometimes from the ‘theory’ side. (Though no doubt there are cases that cannot be happily classified in either way.) The infusion of theoretical writing into memoir or autobiography need not, though it might, leave the surface form of the writing undisturbed. For example, The Argnonauts, by Maggie Nelson, reads as, indeed is, a memoir, but one that happens to contain a lot of theoretical writing. The inclusion of the theory does not make it anomalous as a memoir. It is there as a manifestation of its author’s own understanding of the events she writes about. But I suspect that auto-theory is more frequently thought of as the infusion of personal writing into theoretical work or theoretical contexts. In this case, disruption to the surface form is likely to be more problematic, as my opening anecdote illustrates.
In another example of auto-theory, Eve Sedgwick writes, quoting herself speaking to her therapist:
“What you completely do not seem to catch on to about these two parts of the kid [my gloss: the childish and the precocious] is that they are not separate. They are constantly whirlpooling around in each other—and the basic rule is this: that each one has the power to poison the other one. So what being a kid was like for me was, at the same time, like being an adult in bad drag as a child, and being a child in bad drag as an adult.” (Dialogue on Love, p. 30)
How perfectly this captures the spirit of my own book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!! I have already reproduced on this blog the following meme and commentary. (The commentary takes the form of embedding the meme as the top panel in another meme format known as Increasingly Verbose in which an image and text are iterated, with the image becoming progressively more abstract and the text becoming progressively more verbose.) I put it here again, now letting it resonate with Sedgwick’s beautiful description of the mutual impersonation of her adult and child personae.
In thinking about Sedgwick’s passage, I am struck by how often the notion of costume comes up in my writing about my book. In the two introductions to a lecture that I posted here, the ideas of concealing oneself with a mask and of Batman’s outfit as fetish wear both appear. In this first post of mine on auto-theory, I wonder if I am like “an organ-grinder’s monkey, preening itself in an ill-fitting red military-style jacket and turquoise fez.” Here, I ruminate on the meaning of Batman’s glove. (In one of the memes that I have since decided not to include in the book, there is a reference to cosplay, as well.)
The form of a work is how it appears, how it shows itself, its costume. This form or appearance can, of course, be talked about within a work, but in being talked about, a new form or appearance is generated. Ultimately, as Wittgenstein says: “What can be shown cannot be said.” For example, my book has the form, the appearance, of an art catalogue in which an artist’s works are reproduced and commented on by an editor. But the artist and editor are, at bottom, the same person. Making this device explicit within the work is something neither the artist nor the editor can do, in their assigned roles. The attempt to articulate the work’s two-facedness (in both senses of that expression) inevitably generates an unarticulated and even trickier threefoldness. (And somewhere in there, though I won’t try to unearth it now, is a connection with the parergon.)
Putting Wittgenstein’s “what can be shown cannot be said” together with the psychoanalytic commonplace that if there is something in an analysis that cannot be said, it inevitably becomes the crux of the whole analysis, one is led, inexorably, to the conclusion that for auto-theory, form is everything. Even relatively straight memoiristic writing, such as Sedgwick’s, typically likes to dress itself up with some formal innovations. (In Sedgwick’s case, passages from her therapist’s notes, and haikus, often seamlessly integrated with surrounding text.) And in other cases, such as Kraus’s I Love Dick, one cannot separate the formal innovations of the work from its auto-theoretical intent. In the best auto-theoretical writing, the personal and the theoretical are “whirlpooling around in each other,” each appearing in the other’s clothes, each with the power to poison the other, to deflate it with a slap. This is the thrilling risk of auto-theory.
It was a real pleasure to talk to the Oxford University Philosophy Society last week (Wed 27th May, 2020). The quality of the recording we made of the event was not great. I have repaired a few of the problems here but you’ll still notice words skipping now and then.
I discuss how the memes in my book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, attempt to ‘enact’ philosophy (rather than philosophizing discursively in the usual way) around the relations between speech and writing, when complicated by the fact that the writing is presented pictorially. I also read an excerpt from the book which deals with John Cage and silence.
I will be talking live about my book-in-progress A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga! and reading an excerpt from it. The event is courtesy of the Oxford University Philosophy Society and will take place, over Zoom, on Wednesday 27th May at 7.30pm UK time (2.30pm US Eastern).
The talk will be an adaptation of the one I gave in Italian last October in Genoa. In it, I will discuss some of the ways that the memes in my book utilize the feature of the speech bubble (derived from the comic strip origins of the image) to explore the relations between speech, writing, and images of speech/writing.
I will conclude by reading an excerpt from the book that pertains to silence, and to my encounter with John Cage.
The link to the Zoom meeting will be posted here before the talk starts.
When I was working on the first academic presentation of my book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, I struggled a lot with how to justify a work that was (partly) about me. Why should anyone be interested in it? I remember trying to compose in my head an introduction to the talk that would address this problem head on and coming up with two totally different ways of seeing the inclusion of self-writing in my otherwise disunified book. Unable to decide which of these correctly described my case, I ended up using them both, and adding two further introductions for good measure, one after the other, with strict instructions to the audience to forget the previous introductions as they heard each new one. (I highly recommend this practice for general use in philosophy. Why do we demand that our work be unfractured?)
Though I have already published the second of the introductions on this blog, I will put it here again, along with the first, because they speak so directly to my concerns about the sense in which my work is auto-theory. Here is the first:
Many people have a strong desire to speak, or more pertinently, to write about themselves. Not because they wish to hog the limelight, or to be the center of attention. I am not here talking about extroverts, and still less about narcissists. What I am talking about is a strong, almost primordial desire, stemming from our earliest years, for visibility – a desire to be seen and known. To be counted. But a desire to be seen depends on others to see us. One must fight for the attention of, and recognition by, others who may have no interest in seeing or counting one. For those, then, who seek to gratify this desire to be seen through self-writing, various strategies present themselves. Humor is one obvious way to mediate one’s desire for recognition – the child learns not to scream, but to caper! Lyricism is another. More complex strategies are also available. The general can be coaxed from the particular details of a life so that in reading about the other, the reader can also read about herself. And, where the events and idiosyncracies of a person’s life are of a kind that are theorized about in some on-going discursive practice, some variety of theory, the possibility arises of intertwining the expression of the desire for visibility with the pursuit of that discursive practice.
Whatever form the accommodation takes, it is a compromise between the childish desire to be seen and the adult realization that being seen requires an other to do the seeing and that such seeing is not simply there for the taking. The childish desire to show one’s face is met, as it were, with a slap by the reality principle that knows that to be seen, a face must mask itself in some way to make it enticing to the viewer. The upwelling or over-flowing needs of the id must be tamped down by the ego and super-ego.
That is what I see in this image:
An enthusiastic, youthful Robin, as yet unsuccessful in making himself visible to us, is schooled by the older Batman. “No-one is interested in you, Robin,” the image itself seems to say. “Your childish capers are insufficient excuse to speak. Wear a mask!”
And here is the second:
In 1969, the expression “the personal is political” was coined by feminist thinkers to challenge the idea that there is a disjuncture between the personal and the broader structures of power in which individuals are inscribed. If we interpret “political” broadly, so as to include all forms of public, institutional discourse, a special case of the expression would be “the personal is philosophical.” This special case would cover efforts to overcome the disjuncture between the personal and the conventions and norms of philosophy as a discipline. Those norms enjoin authors to keep their own personalities out of their work, enjoin readers to focus only on the ‘ideas’ in the text, ideas that are supposed to be able to circulate without any vital connection to the lives and circumstances of their authors. This valorization of objectivity and impersonality, with its effacement of the people who produce philosophy and the ways their individuality affects the contents of their philosophy, has left philosophy shriveled and immature, deprived of the nourishing life-blood of the real people who make it. What is desperately needed for the reinvigoration of philosophy is the rude and forceful interpellation of our stunted disciplinary norms by the subject, in all her strange specificity and individuality. Auto-theory is one form this interpellation can take: the calling out of a moribund modality of philosophy by the subject, slowly and seductively revealing his own face. But because each subject is singular, unique, and real, the face of her desire, even as it reveals itself, will always retain an element of inscrutability to the other. “Fetish” is the name we give to what is inexplicable, what is surd, in desire.
My project is a work of auto-theory, conducted under the sign of this image
in which the joyful, liberating, fetish-clad warrior, in his idiosyncratic singularity, forces the intrusion of the personal onto the stunted, childish discipline of academic philosophy, trying, with a slap, to bring the blood to its face, trying to rouse it from its valorization, at once perverse and torpid, of the production of philosophy without a visible human face.
So, on the one hand, the personal serves only the primal needs of the writer and has to be made attractive – entertaining or instructive – to allow it to serve those needs and render the writer visible to others. On the other, the personal serves a political goal, of challenging repressive institutional and disciplinary norms.
Regarding the first, I have spoken many times of the ways in which my book is intertwined with my analysis and long-standing struggles over the sense of my own invisibility have been a staple of that analysis. I vividly remember an occasion in about 1984 on which Anthony Gottlieb, in the course of a philosophical discussion we were both part of, casually illustrated some point by considering the proposition that there were n people in the room, taking a moment to work out n, and I realized, with a shock of panic and pleasure that is still reverberating more than 30 years later, that I was one of that number! (Hence “to be counted” in the first introduction.)
It is the spirit of the second introduction, though, that puts the “auto” into auto-theory. It is there because the personal is political. But these posts of mine on auto-theory are asking, in effect, whether the personal is always political. Won’t it depend on the person in question?
We trans people live under constant “theoretical pressure.” Theories float on high, dogging our moves, questioning our motives, limiting or opening our options… We have an intimate relation to theory. It gets stuck to our bodies. One of the reasons trans people exist under theoretical pressure is precisely that we don’t conform to everyday expectations—we’re considered anomalous. But, from the other side of the theory, we “anomalies” want to know what’s going on. For us, our very relation to theory needs to be subject to inquiry. It’s an important question: What is it to philosophize from underneath the theory, on the other side of theory? (4)
For ‘anomalous’ people, people who live under “theoretical pressure,” the inclusion of their lives and lived experience in theoretical work is disruptive of the theories that pressure them.
If this is auto-theory, then my work cannot be rightly classified as such. For all the ways in which I feel not at home in the world, ways that I alluded to in my previous post on this topic, I do not, for the most part, live under theoretical pressure. (Qualification: Jews are a group that have lived, for thousands of years, under enormous theoretical pressure. Bettcher’s lovely phrase “living under theoretical pressure,” in fact, perfectly describes the history of ideology around Jews and Judaism so impressively documented in David Nirenberg‘s Anti-Judaism (2013). But in my particular case, that theoretical pressure has been not all that heavy.) Seeking the status of auto-theory for my work, appropriating its language, is a kind of imposture that is far from innocent. (Curiously, the original occasion for the two introductions was a talk at an academic institution, arranged through the good offices of a friend who works there. At some point, after the thing had been arranged, I learned quite by chance that the talk was to occur under the auspices of MAP – Minorities and Philosophy – a group dedicated to diversifying the profession. I’m not sure why that was but it shows that I got off to an early start in my career as an impostor!)
The only thing that gives me pause over the auto-slap of the previous paragraph is this. Surely every theory of Blackness must imply a theory of Whiteness, any theory of femininity a theory of masculinity, and so for all groups that have been treated as ‘anomalous.’ (Perhaps one could coin a slogan for this: no anomaly without an omaly. Sadly the word “omaly” does not exist in English and the word “omalous,” which does, has a purely mathematical meaning.) So in some sense, we all live in intimate relation to theory, it’s just that some of us don’t know it. (This, of course, is what feminist and critical race theorists have been telling us for decades.) Perhaps by appropriating the language of auto-theory, I can work to make myself (and others like me) feel more under theoretical pressure. (Only, I’m not entirely clear as to whether that is something I’m doing in my work, so I won’t stop slapping just yet.)
Finally, there is another sense of auto-theory for which the personal is political regardless of the identity of the person in question. This is a weaker, formal sense in which local features of the disciplinary landscape are challenged by any introduction of the personal into theoretical contexts. But this post has already gone on too long, so the examination of that must await a future occasion.
My colleague from Religious Studies, Professor Robyn Walsh, is teaching a class Star Wars and Religion. Part of how she is continuing to teach her class during the plague is by making podcasts and she has done one with me, on the grounds that there are Baby Yoda memes.
I had a very enjoyable conversation with Robyn and we talked about my book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, auto–theory, the ontology of memes, spirit versus letter in St Paul, Star Wars, and yes, Baby Yoda memes (it’s Robyn who has all the cool things to say about that!).