Holy podcast, Batman!

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.

BabyYoda
Thing I learnt while preparing for the podcast

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!, autotheory, 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!).

On auto-theory: Bodies that are (not) at home

In my first post on auto-theory in my book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, I raised the question of whether auto-theory, arising as it does out of emancipatory political struggles, is something a multiply-privileged person like me can properly engage in.  Auto-theory is the insurrectionary intrusion of the personal into the theoretical. One way it works, according to some feminist theorists, is by orienting theory to the lived bodily reality of the author. I quoted Sara Ahmed, who describes a ‘sweaty concept’ as “one that comes out of a description of a body that is not at home in the world” (Living a Feminist Life, 13). I remarked that the body of a cis straight able-bodied white male tenured professor is not one that is generally imagined as “not at home in the world.”

But the reality is that I do not experience my body as being at home in the world at all. There are many reasons why my body does not feel ‘at home’ in the world. If I were braver, and if the anticipated result were less pitiful, I would describe a number of them. As it is, I will mention just one: how I hate the sound of my own voice. I cannot listen to recordings of it and when, as occasionally happens, I catch an echo from the inside of what it sounds like from the outside, I cringe. (I believe this is quite a common experience.)

shh
I’m very fond of this meme, which will be included in the book. It is the only one which modifies a speech bubble into a thought bubble. It is, of course, not entirely apropos relative to the point I am making in the text.

To speak in more general terms, Plato’s claim that the body is like a prison to the soul has always resonated strongly with me. I feel my body to be an alien thing, beset by inconvenient (this is hardly the right word) needs and desires.

At this point, though, my thoughts about “at homeness” in the world become confused. Feminist scholars such as Genevieve Lloyd and Andrea Nye (among others) have persuasively argued that such images of alienation from the body, along with the attendant prioritizing of mind over body, reason over emotion, action over passion, etc. (the very priorities auto-theory is aimed at overturning) are staples of specifically male-dominated philosophy. If being at home in the world means embracing the values of white men that are promulgated to the benefit of white men, then my very not feeling at home in the world (manifested in such things as hating the sound of my own voice) is part of what makes me at home in the world!

In one of the commentaries in the book, on a meme entitled Couples Therapy, I quote a passage from Andrea Nye’s book Words of Power: A Feminist Reading of the History of Logic (1990). As a graduate student, I used to be fond of quoting this passage as an object of ridicule.

Desperate, lonely, cut off from the human community which in many cases has ceased to exist, under the sentence of violent death, wracked by desires for intimacy that they do not know how to fulfill, at the same time tormented by the presence of women, men turn to logic. (175)

Now, older, a little wiser, and more humble, I look at myself and see only its truth. (And of course, I contemn the younger man who laughed. But could my fascination have indicated, even then, some shameful self-knowledge?)

The man described in Nye’s passage is both at home and not at home in the world. Can he write auto-theory? What are the terms under which he can join, should he want to, the emancipatory struggle with which auto-theory is linked? As “at home” in the world in the sense of finding refuge in the scared hidey-hole that has been the headquarters of patriarchy, he surely has nothing to say. As “not at home” in the sense of being “desperate, lonely, wracked…,” he should surely keep his mouth shut if he doesn’t want to fall into the we cis white men have it so hard – if only you knew – in fact, we probably have it harder than trans people, people of color, women mode. Is nothing the only thing he can say?


The first part of this series on auto-theory in A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga! can be read here.

A third part will follow in which I discuss “the personal is political.”

On auto-theory: can it be done by the privileged?

For some years now, I have thought of my writing, in and around my book project, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, as auto-theory.  I even occasionally use the term in my  parergonal writings,  some of which will be quoted in the book.

I would like to tell you something about auto-theory at this point, but I am absolutely unqualified to do so. First, I simply don’t know enough of it, or about it. I can speak in vague generalities – the creative mingling of self-writing and theory/philosophy, with both formal and thematic implications – and I can point to some prominent examples – Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (which I briefly mention here, anticipating some of the themes of this post), Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life, Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals. But for anything better, you will have to consult the experts. (I have found these recent writings by Lauren Fournier and Arianne Zwartjes helpful, as also this much earlier piece by Jane Tompkins.)

But a more profound reason why I am unqualified to speak about auto-theory is that it is a practice that springs, initially from feminist theory, and now from other identity-based approaches: queer theory, critical race theory, disability studies, trans studies, and others. It has, in my understanding, been developed as a tool of the oppressed, who have felt their oppression extended through the traditional idioms and norms of academic discourse, which privileges mind over body, abstraction over concretion, the general over the particular, the impersonal over the personal. Auto-theory’s formal novelties, its genre-b(l)ending intertwinings of the personal and the theoretical, are thus allied to a political project of liberation. Although this political project is, or should be, everyone’s, it belongs to different people in different ways. Given my position of privilege along so many dimensions, it does not belong to me, I feel, to say “what auto-theory is.”

I worry, too, that it does not belong to me to write it.

Arianne Zwartjes says that auto-theory’s

imaginative act is putting body on the same plane as intellect. What the term autotheory describes are ways of mixing “high theory” with our panting, sweating physicality, the embodied experience.

Panting and sweating. Sara Ahmed calls a “sweaty concept” “one that comes out of a description of a body that is not at home in the world” (Living a Feminist Life, 13). The body of a cis straight able-bodied white male tenured professor is not, typically, one that would be imagined as “not at home in the world.”

sweaty(1)
When I was a child, my father often quoted the saying: “Horses sweat; men perspire; ladies feel the heat.” In auto-theory, the ‘ladies’ are definitely sweating.

Consider the bravura opening of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, which within ten lines gets to a brief, raw, somewhat abject description of a sexual encounter (“my face smashed against the cement floor of your dank and charming bachelor pad… a stack of cocks in a shadowy unused shower stall”). Three years ago, I promised my readers they would never have to endure such writing from me. What is edgy and cool in Nelson’s work could only be sad and sordid (both in the wrong way) coming from one situated as I am.

Or take this example from Sara Ahmed. Talking of her first feminist essay, written at university, she adds this footnote:

Though one funny detail: I spelled patriarchy wrong throughout! Patriarchy became patriachy. Maybe that was a willful desire not to get patriarchy right. (271)

This anecdote is simultaneously charming and weighty. How can the anecdote pictured in this meme, from my own early educational days, compare?

Kant
Batman represents the philosopher Anthony Savile, my tutor for one term in AY 81-2 at Bedford College London.

It has some charm but none of the weight of Ahmed’s story, which comes from  someone who has fought on the front-lines against patriarchy. Ahmed writes:

It should not be possible to do feminist theory without being a feminist, which requires an active and ongoing commitment to live one’s life in a feminist way. (14)

Perhaps her point applies more generally: it should not be possible to do auto-theory without being committed to a life of emancipatory political work, work deriving from one’s body, from the very fabric of who one is.

Am I, then, just an interloper, wearing the vestments of auto-theory like an organ-grinder’s monkey, preening itself in an ill-fitting red military-style jacket and turquoise fez?


A second post on this topic follows up this one.

“A misstep of monumental proportions”

The other day I woke up to find that the polymathic philosopher Eric Schliesser had written a blog post, “On Analysis,” about my own blog post from a few days earlier, “For the letter kills, but the spirit gives life.” I was, naturally, immensely flattered and excited. (Really I’m just a little boy clamoring for attention.) I was even more gratified when I read the post! I loved what it had to say about rigor in (analytic) philosophy and its connections to psychological fragility. As I said to Eric, thanking him for the post, I feel that my book, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, is largely about making myself vulnerable. So, all in all, I thought that Eric’s post really got the spirit of what I was trying to say.

But of course, nothing is simple. After I conveyed something of the above to Eric, he told me that the original draft of his post was “a bit satirical” of my piece but that he then realized he was “not doing justice” to the way in which I was actually making myself vulnerable in my own post. Intensely curious, I asked to see the original, satirical version but, alas, Eric had not preserved it. So, I feel I have no recourse for satisfying my curiosity but to recreate his draft myself. That way, as is always my preference, I get to be both Batman and Robin in this image that underlies my book project.

canvas

I do not have a vivid enough sense of Eric’s style to imitate him but I will, at least, attempt to suppress my own stylistic tics and mannerisms. I include Eric’s original post at the end, but I encourage you to read it on his own blog.

On Analysis

One recurring fascination is the common root “analysis” in “analytical philosophy” and “psychoanalysis.” I sometimes wonder why analyse and its cognates had such pull over late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century (Viennese and Cambridge) minds. (The sympathetic attitude of many members of  the Vienna Circle to Freud and psychoanalysis has been somewhat studied. And more attention still needs to be given to Roger Money-Kyrle, who studied mathematics in Cambridge in 1919 and then went to Vienna both to be analysed by Freud and do a PhD under Moritz Schlick. I was alerted to Money-Kyrle’s importance by David Livingstone Smith, who has drawn on his work on propaganda in the light of Jason Stanley’s fine work in this area (recall this and this).)

I was reminded of this by Simon Evnine, who sometimes calls my attention to his blog “The Parergon.” A recent post of his there, “For the letter kills, but the spirit gives life,” makes painfully explicit what psychoanalysis can reveal about one of the worst aspects of analytic philosophy. I have noted before (recall) the analytic philosopher’s tendency to describe the toolkit of her craft in terms of surgical (and laser-like) instruments, but in those instances the instruments are meant to heal.  Simon gleefully embraces this (“choosing exactly the right words, multiplying distinctions in order to communicate with laser precision”) but explicitly and alarmingly casts these tools as instruments of destruction (“the obsessively-controlled language that I wield almost like a weapon”).+

It is just this literalism that Simon so extols in his post that leads to the unsympathetic readings that analytic philosophers so typically give to all other kinds of philosophy. The tendency to take some sentence or passage by, for example, Marshall McLuhan or Hayden White out of context and subject it to rigorous logical analysis is so distressingly wrong-headed – missing the spirit of the text for its letter. It is as though (I am now inspired by Simon’s “letteralism”), if even one single letter in this non-analytic philosophy is found to be out of place, such work will be worthless – like a Torah scroll in which every letter must be perfect. The analytic philosopher likes to see herself as the true protector of intellectual purity.

Simon’s embrace of literalism thus seems a sorry spectacle of an all too familiar kind. But what is interesting about his post is the light it inadvertently sheds on this phenomenon. Simon talks of his literalism as arising from “frustrating experiences.” One doesn’t have to buy into the whole of Freud’s theory to see a parallel between the analytic philosopher protecting herself against frustration by obsessive rigour (and it is interesting to remember that “rigidity” comes from “rigour”) and the analytic patient who has built a defensive edifice around her neurotic weakness and fragility. Any badly formulated phrase or behaviour becomes a misstep of monumental proportions. The robustness of the whole collapses with the weakest link. Inside of both is a fragile and dependent child.

A few days ago a lovely blog post by Liam Kofi Bright inspired me to reflect a bit on what the norms of analytic philosophy would have to be if we “conceived of conceptual engineering as a means to enter into lifeworlds of others.” I asserted that the non-dominating way of doing so requires a willingness to be transformed by the experience. What I missed saying explicitly then, and I suspect this omission (recall) is part of my professional deformation, is that one cannot (non-dominatingly) enter into the the lifeworld of another without being vulnerable.

Perhaps philosophers need to think more about the relation between vulnerability and fragility, though. While to be vulnerable is to expose a weakness, the ability to embrace one’s vulnerability, if it is the basis for a transformative experience, is also a kind of strength – even a superpower. It is a paradox where weakness itself becomes strength. (Laurie Paul take note!) If only Simon, in his post, had been able to relinquish his subservience to the rigid letter and embrace his weakness in the quest for transformation, he might have had something to offer analytic philosophy.

+ Simon, of course, is not actually threatening to harm anyone.

Here, for purposes of comparison and contrast, is what Eric actually wrote:

One recurring fascination is the common root of ‘analysis’ in analytical philosophy that it shares with the ‘analysis’ in psychoanalysis. I sometimes wonder why analyse and its cognates had such pull over late nineteenth and early twentieth century (Viennese and Cambridge) minds. I was reminded of this by Simon Evnine who regularly calls my attention to his blog, “The Parergon.” I hope he does not mind too much being the trigger occasion for these impressions. I treat him here as the everyman of analytic philosophy in which all of us can be substituted into his place, opaque contexts be damned!

It is noticeable that Simon treats his precision and “care in expressing” in terms of a “weapon.” Even when used in self-defense, weapons are explicitly designed to hurt others.* I have noted before (recall) the analytic philosopher’s tendency to describe the toolkit of her  craft in terms of surgical (and laser-like) instruments, but in those instances the instruments are meant to heal. Of course, Simon’s intent is not to hurt others, but self-protection (“the only real power I could exert to protect myself.”)+

I do not know a better expression of the fragility at the root of much analytic philosophy. Any badly formulated phrase is a misstep of monumental proportions. The robustness of the whole collapses with the weakest link. This fragility is fueled by “frustrating experiences.” Once primed by psychoanalysis, it’s hard not to discern the dependent child here.

I do not mean to suggest that the analytic philosopher’s attitude toward rigor  and clarity only expresses fragility. One may as well — and here I am inspired by Simon’s “extravagant letteralism” — read it as pure holiness (recall here on Carnap). After all, a Torah scroll is disqualified if even a single letter is added or a single letter is deleted. Every sign must be correct.

A few days ago a lovely blog post by Liam Kofi Bright inspired me to reflect a bit on what the norms of analytic philosophy would have to be if we “conceived of conceptual engineering as a means to enter into lifeworlds of others.” I asserted that the non-dominating way of doing so requires a willingness to be transformed by the experience. What I missed saying explicitly then, and I suspect this omission (recall) is part of my professional deformation, is that one cannot (non-dominatingly) enter into the the lifeworld of another without, as Simon shows without saying, being vulnerable.

*Perhaps the memetic repetition-image of Batman slapping Robin inspired this thought.

+In practice, the toolkit is also deployed to advance careers and schools.

For the letter kills, but the spirit gives life

Seven or so years ago, near the beginning of my analysis, I explained to my analyst, after some frustrating experiences, how important it was to me that they always engage with the actual content of what I was saying. I took a huge amount of care in expressing myself – choosing exactly the right words, multiplying distinctions in order to communicate with laser precision – and I didn’t want to be ‘interpreted’ before the letter of what I was saying had been fully attended to.

Paul says in 2 Corinthians (3:6), distinguishing between Jews and the new Jesus movement, that “the letter kills, but the spirit gives life” and as a Jew, I have always understood that my job is to be for the letter. This has meant two things.

letter:spirit-again
My measurement by a pauline gauge

By “the letter,” Paul means the old covenant, the Mosaic law and its development by the rabbis of his day, whose views are recorded in the Mishnah. This he took to have been annulled by the advent of Jesus with a new covenant. Accordingly, the text of the Old Testament could no longer be read literally, but only ‘spiritually,’ by means of allegory, typology, and so on. The Jews were stubborn in continuing, in the face of the new covenant, to read their sacred books by the letter. So, one part of being “for the letter” has been a determination to treat the language I am exposed to from other people literally and precisely – not to try and get the gist or spirit of it, not to look beyond it to see where its originator is coming from.

But there is, alongside this, another way of being “for the letter.” R. Akiva, a near contemporary of Paul’s, was said to interpret “mounds of rules from every tip of the letters” (TB Menachot 29b). The ‘tips’ were ornamental ‘crowns’ that adorned the Hebrew script of the time. This type of reading, truly and radically literal (perhaps we should say “letteral”), can stand as synecdoche for a panoply of more or less perverse methods of interpretation associated with the Jews. In the words of John Wilkins, the 17th century inventor of a ‘real character’ (an ideal language which mirrors the structure of reality):

Amongst the Jewish Rabbies, is not any opinion, whether in nature or policy, whether true or false, but some of them, by a cabalistical interpretation can father it upon a dark place of scripture, or (if need be) upon a text that is clean contrary. There being not any absurdity so gross and incredible, for which these abusers of the text, will not find out an argument.

(The quotation is from his The Discovery of a World in the Moone of 1638.)

Wilkins-Moon

So Jews were taken to task, under the guise of the letter, for being both too literal and too fanciful. I have endeavored to honor these twin heritages: a laborious literalism with respect to what I read and write, hear and say, and an extravagant letteralism, a willingness to associate anything with anything by means of some devious chain, to father monstrous conjunctions of words and meanings through textual abuse. It feels to me as if there must be some relation – quite other than monstrous conjunction – between these two ways of being for the letter, but I cannot easily identify what it is. They are, perhaps, both subsumed by the term “pharisaism.” The historical Pharisees, and their successors who compiled the Talmud, stubbornly adhered to the plain meaning of the Bible (in some of their moods) and yet developed complex and sometimes rebarbative methods of interpretation partly to reconcile that text with a much more humane standard of conduct. I would like, therefore, to re-appropriate the term “Pharisee” from the infamy with which the fevered Christian imagination has painted it.

Those seven or so years ago, when I implored my analyst to take me at my word, it was, almost needless to say, only the first way, according to which it contrasts with “spirit,” that I had in mind. Two or three years after that, well into the analysis, I was becoming more comfortable and more curious. The tight control over my words – the only real power I could exert to protect myself and ensure the analysis did not unleash anything too scary – came to feel constricting, even suffocating. It was, I suppose, a Damascene moment. I relented, and gave my analyst permission to listen to the spirit of my words and report back on what they heard. (I have no reason to think my analyst’s behavior was in any way affected by either my initial injunction or my subsequent permission!) It was around that time that I composed this animated meme, which will appear in my book A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga! (perhaps even with commentary based on this very blog post):

text_subtext1
White – Robin: “I assumed you meant…” Batman: “Listen to my words!”
Black – Robin: “But you said…” Batman: “Listen to what I’m not saying!”

Fast forward in the analysis to last week and a very exhausting and disspiriting session. At the end of the previous session, I had said I thought my presence in our sessions now was very different from how it used to be. My analyst agreed, adding that they, too, were a different analyst now from what they had been. The next day, I said that I would love – if not now, then perhaps towards termination – to hear about the ways in which they thought they had changed as an analyst during the course of my treatment. When my analyst asked what exactly I wanted them to explain, we set off on a frustrating tussle, lasting the whole session, in which I said, over and over again, in every way I could think of, what I wanted and my analyst kept alleging that they didn’t understand. Somehow, I don’t really understand how, I kind of got through; and my analyst conveyed how their attempt to hear the question behind the question kept them from seeing what I wanted to communicate. At the end I exclaimed “I’d like to go back to that injunction I made right at the start. Please make an effort to engage with the letter of what I am saying before trying to hear what is unsaid.” To which they replied, with some, subsequently confessed, hyperbole: “You do realize that is literally the exact opposite of what I’m supposed to be doing?!” (One reason to think that the designation of psychoanalysis as “the Jewish science” may be misleading.) In some sense, of course, what they said is obvious. They are listening for what is unconscious, which is unlikely to be found in the obsessively-controlled language that I wield almost like a weapon. But it startled me nonetheless and I decided to write this post to help work through it.

Unsurprisingly, being for the letter, in both senses I identified, is, deliberately, a large component of A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!. It shows up in the commentaries themselves and in the relations of the commentaries to the memes they comment on. (I don’t think it anywhere shows up wholly within memes, which are too compact really to allow such devices.) Sometimes those commentaries pound away at the most minute aspects of a meme, trying to work out just what the artist (myself) meant by using a question mark where an exclamation mark seemed to be what was called for! Other times, they join with their memes in a monstrous conjunction. Occasionally, I confess, I even have something already written which I want to include in the book and so search out a dark place in the memes on which to father it.


After publishing this post, Eric Schliesser wrote a kind of response, On Analysis. I re-imagined his response in my follow-up, A Misstep of Monumental Proportions.

Shells

I have written a couple of times, recently, about my gradual loss of libidinal interest in the image that forms the heart of my book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, the image of Batman slapping Robin. (Even these last three words now have the unnatural and slightly repellent feel of something recently dead.)

This morning, as I mulled over the implications of this for my book for the millionth time, I thought bitterly to myself, “the operative metaphor for this project is no longer parergon but husk.” But not a minute later, it hit me that, of course, a husk is a parergon! A husk (in the sense of a shell) surrounds a seed in just the way a frame surrounds a painting. And a husk (in the sense of a dried-up, useless exterior – the sense in which I meant it as a new metaphor for the book) is a parergon without its ergon – an empty frame, an index pointing nowhere, an orphaned epilogue.

Each of my Batman meme movies (Evnine’s Batman Memes: The Movie and Gone!) carries an epigraph taken from a single episode of Angel (season 5, episode 16), entitled “Shells.” (Spoilers ahead.) Both epigraphs – “It’s gone. My world is gone” and “Is there anything in this life but grief?” –   are spoken by the newly introduced character Illyria, who has taken up residence in the recently dead body of Fred, a body which is now a mere shell.

Illyria

Illyria is easily my favorite character from the Buffyverse (and “Shells” one of my favorite episodes). I need to find some way to infuse her spirit into the husk that my book currently is. The image of Batman slapping Robin, as I have made clear on numerous occasions, initially appealed to me because of its representation of the sadomasochistic relationship between different parts of myself that was very prominent in my psychoanalysis around that time. Now my analysis is haunted by loss and grief that appears to me in thoughts about its termination. Not that I am yet considering termination – but I keep circling round and around that idea. I suppose that until one is ready for termination, its prospect must strike one with all the force of Illyria’s “It’s gone. My world is gone,” as she confronts the husk that is all that is left of her once-magnificent palace. But isn’t all life, after all, saturated with the fore-knowledge of loss? Is there, then, anything in this life but grief?

loved-and-lost

 

 

Gone!

Gone! was my second Batman meme movie. It’s about the harsh slap in the face that is loss, in its many forms. Its title derives from the moment, in episode 16, season 5 of Angel, when the newly resurrected demon Illyria goes to call on her vast armies to dominate the world once again, only to find her palace of old deserted and in ruins. “It’s gone,” she says. “My world is gone.” (There is a brief shot of that moment at 1’13” in the movie.)

 

Back in February of this year, I wrote a post called “What if Batman stops slapping Robin?“. I talked about a growing sense that the image of Batman slapping Robin was losing its hold on my psyche and my concern about what that would mean for my book. Although it is hard to be precise about such matters, I shall designate November 5th 2019 as the day that Batman did, indeed, stop slapping Robin. The sadomasochistic relation to myself that made the image so activating for me has shifted. I now see it without any of the thrilling emotions it elicited at the height of my involvement with it. (My work on the slap sound effect that I wrote about here appears to me now as a last, desperate attempt to arouse those feelings again, to convince myself that nothing was happening.)

And what about the book, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!? The initial memes, posted on Facebook between January and March, 2016, formed its nucleus and were driven by that deep libidinal connection I had to the image. Gradually, as I started to work seriously on the book, it became a magnet, attracting to itself all sorts of strange obsessions and hobby-horses of mine. I hope that the work done by the image and my fascination in it will be like the first stage of the Saturn V, the large booster needed to propel the rocket out of its inertia and which was then jettisoned over the ocean. And that the newly-attracted hobby-horses will be like the second stage, taking the rocket to the moon! (Actually, the second stage too was uncoupled and a third stage got it to the moon.) But it’s possible a more apposite metaphor is that the libidinal connection to the image was the head of a now decapitated chicken.

Mostly, this whole business is making me sad and aimless. I long for the zest provided by that sadomasochistic relation to myself. I long for the desire for self-humiliation. All I have to offer is this feeble simulacrum, a sort of last hurrah.

Done!

The presentation of Immagine – Scrittura – Parola – Silenzio

[Italiano sotto]

So, I went to Genoa to deliver my presentation about A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!. I presented four of the memes from the book and talked about how they played with the relations between speech, the written representation of speech, and the picturing of the written representation of speech – a theme that is quite prominent in the memes in the book and in the commentaries on them. After discussing these four memes, I presented another one, about John Cage and the anechoic chamber and read aloud the commentary on it that will be part of the book. It was an exciting challenge, all the more so since I did it in Italian.

You can see the talk below. There is a slight break between the two parts, so some of the presentation is missing. I finish talking about the meme “The Sound of One Hand Slapping” (and play the slap sound effect I wrote about here) and begin reading the commentary on the John Cage meme. The missing text of the commentary is presented below in Italian.

anechoic

Allora, sono andato a Genova per fare la mia presentazione su A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!. Ho mostrato quattro meme nel libro e ho parlato di come giocano con le relazioni fra il parlato, la scrittura come rappresentazione del parlato, e l’immagine della scrittura. E’ un argomento molto diffuso fra i miei meme e i loro commentari. Dopo questo, ho letto la traduzione di un commentario su un meme che riguarda John Cage e la camera anecoica. E’ stata una sfida eccitante, soprattutto perche’ l’ho fatta tutto in Italiano.

Ora potete vedere la presentazione. C’e’ una rottura fra le due parti, quindi qualche parola manca. Nella rottura, finisco di discutere il meme “Il suono di una sola mano che schiaffeggia” (e faccio suonare l’effetto sonoro su di che scrivo qui) e commincio di leggere il commentario sul meme “Il suono del sangue.” Il testo che manca e’ qui:

Robin: Questo rumore non lo posso sopportare. Se solo avessimo una camera anecoica, con sei pareti…

Batman: Cretino! Il suono del sangue nelle vene e il fruscio del sistema nervoso in funzione sarebbero assordanti.


Le parole usate nel meme sono una chiara allusione a una storia raccontata varie volte dal compositore John Cage riguardo una sua visita della camera anecoica di Harvard. La morale della storia per Cage sembra essere che dove c’è vita c’è musica (“sino alla fine dei miei giorni ci saranno suoni”) —  un pensiero che per Cage è motivo di gioia. Sembra che l’artista fosse affascinato da questa storia o dall’idea della camera anecoica, forse addirittura ossessionato, ma che le conclusioni che ne trabbe siano il contrario delle conclusioni di Cage. Quando era giovane l’artista scrisse un “libro” che chiamò L’incoerenza dell’incoerenza (il titolo ispirato da un’opera del filosofo islamico Averroè). Questo scritto, composto dall’artista quasi ragazzo, è un miscuglio strano. Per il momento mi limito a dire che il libro contiene un passaggio in cui l’artista ci dà la sua prospettiva dell’aneddoto di Cage:

Immagine – scrittura – parola – silenzio

On Wednesday October 23rd, I will be giving a lecture entitled “Image – Writing – Speech – Silence” at the Museo Villa Croce (a contemporary art museum) in Genoa, Italy. I am going to talk about the ways in which some of my memes play with the representation of speech through writing and of writing through images.

I wanted to include in the presentation an extract from the book. The event was co-organized by Caterina Gualco, of Unimediamodern. Since she works with artists associated with the Fluxus movement, I thought it would be appropriate to read a commentary that deals with John Cage and silence. Here it is, in an Italian translation by Giovanna Pompele (transcribed by me, so little errors may have crept in). This marks the first appearance of any part of the book in a language other than its original English. (And I have nowhere made public the English original, so this is the only way to access it.) If you do read it, let me say that the footnotes, especially to the letter quoted at the end, are vitally important. *Le note a piè di pagina sono importanti!*

anechoic


Robin: Questo rumore non lo posso sopportare. Se solo avessimo una camera anecoica, con sei pareti…

Batman: Cretino! Il suono del sangue nelle vene e il fruscio del sistema nervoso in funzione sarebbero assordanti.


Le parole usate nel meme sono una chiara allusione a una storia raccontata varie volte dal compositore John Cage riguardo una sua visita della camera anecoica di Harvard. La morale della storia per Cage sembra essere che dove c’è vita c’è musica (“sino alla fine dei miei giorni ci saranno suoni”) —  un pensiero che per Cage è motivo di gioia. Sembra che l’artista fosse affascinato da questa storia o dall’idea della camera anecoica, forse addirittura ossessionato, ma che le conclusioni che ne trabbe siano il contrario delle conclusioni di Cage. Quando era giovane l’artista scrisse un “libro” che chiamò L’incoerenza dell’incoerenza (il titolo ispirato da un’opera del filosofo islamico Averroè). Questo scritto, composto dall’artista quasi ragazzo, è un miscuglio strano. Per il momento mi limito a dire che il libro contiene un passaggio in cui l’artista ci dà la sua prospettiva dell’aneddoto di Cage:

“L’oscurità c’era, ma il silenzio no.”[1] Questa sembra una descrizione accurata dello stare in una camera aneoica con le luci spente.

“In certe circonstanze tecniche potrebbe essere auspicabile ottenere una situazione la più silenziosa possibile, ossia quell’ambiente chiamato camera anecoica, sei pareti di materiale insonorizzante allestito in modo da ottenere una camera priva di eco. Parecchi anni fa a Harvard sono stato in uno spazio del genere e ho sentito due suoni, uno acuto e uno grave, e quando li ho descritti al tecnico incaricato questi mi ha spiegato che quello acuto era il mio sistema nervoso in funzione, quello grave era la circolazione del sangue. Sino alla fine dei miei giorni ci saranno suoni.”[2]

Lettore, pensa al significato di tutto ciò. Un giorno, anche qui in città, prova ad ascolatre i suoni che ti circondano. La musica ad alto volume, il fragore del traffico, le urla della gente. Che frastuono! Che inferno! Ecco, scappa in campagna. Godi il frullio degli uccellini e il gorgoglio di un ruscello (lasciamo stare le zampogne e gli accenti volgari). Godili. Lasciali risuonare dentro una volta, due volte e poi ancora e ancora e nuovamante finché non diventano un clamore insopportabile, finché i grilli non ti chiassano nelle orecchie durante la notte e il gufo ti urla di morte.

Poi vattene dal tuo paese e dalla tua terra; alzati e vai.[3] Va’ nelle terre desolate o negli scabri deserti dove non ci sono ne’ bestie ne’ insetti. Ah, infinita solitudine: stiamocene insieme io e te in solenne silenzio. Ma, aspetta, cos’è? Cos’è che sto sentendo? Viene da là. No, adesso è qui. È lì, è là, è lì. È dappertutto. “Si, dappertutto,” grida il vento con vuota derisione: “fintantoché il pianetta girerà intorno al sole ci saranno sempre bolle di aria calda e di aria fredda. E l’aria calda rimpiazzerà sempre l’aria fredda ed io, sì, io, il vento, soffierò per sempre. E per me soffiare è urlare. D’ora in poi, per voi che avete visto i luoghi spogli della terra, ogni mio sibilo, anche se nessun altro lo sentirà, sarà come le trombe di mille elefanti, e quando alzerò il tono vi coprirete le orecchie e vi acquatterete nel terrore d’essere soprafatti.”

Via, via da qui, andiamocene! Ma dove andare? Dov’è che il vento non mi troverà? Dovrei fuggire dall’umanità dove c’è il vento, o dal vento dove c’è l’umanità? Ma un attimo! L’ingenuità umana non mi ha già fornito qualcosa con cui possa evitare sia l’uomo che il vento? Non c’è forse la camera anecoica, non ci sono le sue sei pareti di materiale unico, una stanza che più silenziosa la tecnologia non ne puo creare? La voce dell’Essere scoppia in risatte implacabili: “O uomo, porta le tue ossa mortali in una camera anecoica e sentivi il suono del sangue che circola, e sentivi il suono del sistema nervoso in funzione.”[4]

Questo scritto è strano e piuttosto convoluto (nel penultimo paragrafo c’è anche un cambiamento stridente dalla seconda alla prima persona), ma illustra con gran forza la lotta costante, quasi esistenziale, dell’artista contro il rumore.

Ma la storia dell’artista e del suo interesse in John Cage e nella camera anecoica non si ferma qui. Siamo in possesso di una lettera scritta da lui alla fine di maggio o all’inizio di giugno 1982. Qui è la parte che ci riguarda:

Mi è successa una cosa incredibile, strafighissima! Sono andato con Miranda ad alcuni degli eventi organizzati per il settantesimo di John Cage all’Almeida.[5] Nel intervallo tra due eventi siamo andati al bar di fronte per un tè. Ci siamo seduti a un tavolo grande e dopo un po’ abbiamo notato che proprio vicino a noi c’era Cage con due pirla che lo intervistavano.[6] Come sai, sono ossessionato dalla storia che Cage continua a raccontare di quando è andato nella camera anecoica. Così gli ho chiesto se era andato a quella di Londra. Mi ha detto che c’era stato fotografato ma che non era in operazione! Che peccato. Se funzionasse, c’andrei volontieri anch’io. Ci siamo messi a parlare di filosofia. Era assurdamente inamorato del memoir di Norman Malcolm su Witters.[7],[8] Solo che invece di pronunciare “memoir” alla francese, lo pronunciava “Miiimoir”, allungando la seconda lettera sia foneticamente che temporalmente. Era cosi strano. Poi, dato che Miranda e io stiamo cercando di mangiare macrobiotico e lui vuole scrivere un ricettario macrobiotico(!) ci ha dato questa ricetta[9] (la ricordo praticamente parola per parola): “Prendete una carota, una rapa, e una pastinaca. Mettetele nel forno e arrostitele. Saranno deliziose.” Ahahahah. Abbiamo provato a farla e vuoi sapere il risultato? Una carota, una rapa, e una pastinaca arrostite in forno. Niente di più, niente di meno. Spero che il suo ricettario abbia ricette più interessanti e più buone di questa.[10] Comunque era veramente simpatico ed è stato incredibile parlargli così. Mi sento come un servo della gleba scrofuloso che è stato guarito dal tocco di un re! Sarà una storia da mettere nella mia miiimoir.[11]

 

[1] [N.d.C] Questa citazione è l’inizio del “libro” dell’artista.

[2] [N.d.C] Cage, Silenzio, 2019, 41. Il passaggio continua così: “… e seguiteranno anche dopo la morte. Non c’è nulla da temere riguardo il futuro della musica.”

[3] [N.d.C] Possibilmente un riferimento a Genesi 12,1.

[4] [N.d.C] Cage, Silence, 1961, 51.

[5] [N.d.C.] “Cage a settanta” fu l’evento d’apertura dell’Almeida Festival del 1982. Consisté in una serie di concerti nella chiesa di Saint James a Londra da venerdì 28 a sabato 30 maggio (nella sua lettera Evnine dice che i concerti ebbero luogo al teatro Almeida, ma questo è incorretto).

[6] [N.d.C.] Questa reazione da parte di Evnine è, stranamente (o forse no), poco caritatevole verso due persone perfettamente innocenti che avevano senza dubbio contato di parlare con Cage e pensarono che fossero l’artista e la sua compagna ad essere “pirla”.

[7] [N.d.C.] Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir. Per lo stile di abbreviazione dimostrato da “Witters,” vedi il commentario su il meme Distinguo. Il filosofo Paul Grice racconta che J. L. Austin disse “A qualcuno piace Witters… ma io sono con Moore.” Dato che il libro di Grice fu pubblicato solo nel 1991 l’utilizzazione di questo termine colloquiale da parte dell’artista è quasi certamente una coincidenza.

[8] [N.d.C.] L’entusiasmo di Cage a quel tempo per quest’opera è comprovato da un passaggio da lui scritto a Ornella Volta, l’autrice di due opere su Satie, un anno dopo la conversazione qui riportata. “Ho finito di leggere il tuo libro (in francese; l’inglese non è arrivato); lo amo, ed è una cosa che posso dire di pochi altri libri. Questi, come il tuo, sono profondamente commoventi: il Memoir di Ludwig Wittgenstein di Normal Malcolm ed Erik Satie di Templier (non nella traduzione inglese, che trovo impossibile da leggere). Rendere materiale scritto commovente dev’essere ciò che la morte fa alla biografia.”

[9] [N.d.C.] Da un’altra lettera scritta non molto dopo la conversazione riportata: “Grazie a John e Yoko ho cambiato sia la mia dieta che quella di Merce Cunningham e abbiamo adottato una dieta macrobiotica.” Questo rende l’artista una specie di nipotino culinario di John e Yoko.

[10] [N.d.C.] Del suo futuro ricettario, Cage disse: “Invece di riguardare solo la cucina, sarà di tutto ciò che mi interessa. Però modificherò l’uso di processi aleatorici in modo che la cucina venga fuori più del resto.” (Come è possibile non amare questa seconda frase?) Il libro non fu mai scritto ma sul sito del John Cage Trust c’è una pagina con annotazioni di Cage sulla cucina macrobiotica, con alcune ricette. È sbalorditivo che in questa pagina, sotto il titolo Tuberi, ci sia il seguente: “Carote, rape, topinambur, ecc. Mettetele nel piatto di terracotta da forno e poi in forno caldo per un’ora o più con un po’, molto poco, di olio di sesamo. I tuberi possono essere coperti con porri e una mistura come quella suggerita per il pollo arrostito.” È possibile che Cage non abbia raccomandato ad Evnine l’uso del olio di sesamo; e anche possibile che gliel’abbia raccomandato, ma che l’artista abbia ignorato la raccomandazione.

[11] [N.d.C.] Malgrado il fatto che questo volume non sia esattamente un memoir di Evnine, è possibile che sia una “meme-oir,” pronunciata proprio come l’aveva pronunciata Cage. La profezia dell’artista, dunque, letteralmente per modo di dire, si è realizzata.

 

The sound of one hand slapping

It will come as no surprise that one of the memes in my book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, is titled “The Sound of One Hand Slapping.” (To be precise, it is titled “The Sound of One Hand Slapping (11ignj.jpg),” that last part of the title having a very important function in understanding the meme which I shall not explain here.)

In various presentations I have made about the work, when I have displayed some of the memes, I have supplied them with an accompanying sound effect… the sound of one hand slapping. Here is the effect I have used, taken from an on-line repository of free sound effects:

In my preparations for a presentation I will be making in October, I wanted to draw attention to the pictorial ways the sound of the slap is represented in the image: the zip line of the motion of Batman’s left hand and the radiating lines indicating the impact with Robin’s cheek.

canvas-with-annotations

The original sound effect only corresponds to the second of these pictorial elements. I therefore needed something different. But I didn’t want to find an entirely new one since I will also be using it alongside the original and would like them to be obviously related.

Exercising my highly developed sound editing skills, I was able to come up with something I am really pleased with:

That whoosh (I added it on another track); that so-much-chunkier meeting of face and hand (I applied reverberation effects to the original)! Indeed, so pleased am I with it that I have to confess I cannot stop listening to it. It gives me a visceral pleasure that matches the pleasure afforded by the image itself.

In his paper “A Child Is Being Beaten,” Freud describes how the beating fantasies of his patients intermingle both masochistic and sadistic elements and such an intermingling is surely at the root of my pleasure in both the image and sound. The whole scenario represents an intrapsychic arrangement in which one part of myself slaps another part, and each takes pleasure in it for its own reasons. I have talked a little about the role of shame in my book and both the masochistic and sadistic pleasures of the slap are centered around that crushing emotion. The philosopher Krista Thomason writes about the way in which the experience of shame may produce a desire to commit violence on others. But we do well to remember, also, that one of the paradigmatic bodily manifestations of shame is the rush of blood to the face, as if one had been slapped! The sound of one hand slapping is the sound of shame.