“What if Batman stops slapping Robin?”

As I have explained on previous occasions, my book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, is connected in many ways with my own psychoanalysis. While the impetus for the book did not originally come from the analysis, that part of my life very quickly infiltrated the creative work, shaping the book and providing the psychic fuel for work on it. Had the analysis not taken up residence in the book, like a cuckoo’s egg, the book would either have dwindled to nothing or been a much smaller, less ambitious and interesting work. I wrote about some of the connections between the book and the analysis in an unpublished paper, the first part of which became a blog post, and later parts of which have either been incorporated into the book itself or are being written up as a free-standing scholarly paper.

While the link to my analysis has been integral to the development of the book, it has also created a ligature between two parts of my life that leaves the book vulnerable, a hostage to fortune. A couple of weeks ago my analyst asked “what if Batman stops slapping Robin?” In other words, what will happen if I resolve or ameliorate the intrapsychic conflict that animates the book (epitomized for me in its central image) before the book is finished? In fact, I had been asking myself that question, in one form or another, for a while. For example, I have sometimes toyed with the idea of ending the analysis – only to tell myself that I can’t do that before I have finished the book!

But things are already beginning to crumble. I can tell that I feel differently about the image that is at the core of the book. I am no longer drawn to it in the same way. It is no longer a source of libidinal release, as it used to be. I am not so worried by the thought that, if the book is finished and published, I will almost certainly not take the same delight in it as I have hitherto. I have experienced that loss in connection with all my previous books – now either lifeless and indifferent to me or rapidly becoming so. What I am worried about is that I simply will not be able to bring the book to completion if I make more progress on the analysis front!

The analysis is not the only source of energy for the book. Perhaps I need to cultivate the others and let the book gradually evolve more under their aegis. It is already, by design, such a hodge-podge (nor is it being written from beginning to end – though even if it were, the reader will be advised that their progress through the book should depend on chance and whim) that such a reorientation will likely have little discernible effect on its character. But will those other energy sources be enough to see me through the crushingly difficult process of laboring in obscurity on a bizarre work that is, at best, an object of mild but puzzled curiosity to my philosophical colleagues? A work whose prospects for publication are frankly dim? Hitherto, these obstacles were outshone by the exhilaration and certainty that the central image always infused me with, a connection to the project at a deep and libidinal level.

At the other end of the ligature, will I encounter (am I already encountering) an unconscious resistance to progress in the analysis on the basis of my fear? Am I desperately clinging to old, neurotic structures for the sake of my book?

A ligature between separate spheres: a key to injustice (Michael Walzer) – a jury-rigged raft on which to navigate a river – a ball and chain to drag you under.

Interview with the author

The Parergon sat down for an in-depth conversation with Simon Evnine, the author of A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga! (in progress).

TP: Thanks so much for talking with us about what sounds like a fascinating book. Perhaps we could begin with your telling our readers what the book will be like. It’s rather unusual.

SE: Thanks, yes, it is unusual. It is a kind of post-modern literary work that will have the form of, indeed will be, an art catalogue. The ‘art works’ are over a hundred memes I have made using the image of Batman slapping Robin. I will provide editorial commentary on these memes, written as if I, the editor, were not the same person as the one who made the memes. Within that outer form, the book will mix philosophy, psychoanalysis, and literary criticism with writing about myself.

TP: So, I have to ask, are you a big fan of Batman?

SE: Oddly, I am not particularly a fan of Batman. I never read superhero comics as a kid and although I think I have seen one or two of the many Batman movies that have been made since the 1980s, I couldn’t tell you which ones. The only ‘incarnation’ of Batman that has meant anything at all to me, and that still dominates my imagination with respect to the character, was the TV show from the 1960s with Adam West and Burt Ward.

TP: What do you like about that show?

SE: Well, everyone goes on about its campiness. I don’t know how much that was part of my enjoyment of it as young boy but I certainly think I…

TP: KAPOW!!

SE: Er, yes. Right. All that. I’m pretty sure though that…

TP: THWACK! BOFF!!!

SE: Yes. May I finish?

TP: Sorry.

SE: I think I did respond to its campiness in some way. And I think I was somehow, also, identifying with something in the show, perhaps with the character of Robin (I had three siblings quite a bit older than me) though perhaps also with Batman. I had a Batman mask, cape, and… I don’t know what to call them, but you put them over your forearms. Are those ‘greaves’? I got them as a birthday present.

TP: I see.

SE: If I might add, that show was also the site of early, indeed premature, sexual knowledge. I’m pretty sure that I learned the word “catamite” in connection with it. And my father would call Robin “Batman’s little buggery boy.” I would have been between 6 and 9 years old.

TP: Oh wow! And what about the particular image of Batman slapping Robin that features in your book? Does that have some special meaning for you?

SE: The slap. The slap is about shame. Robin’s shame for whatever he’s being slapped for, his shame for being the victim of the slap, Batman’s shame for his capacity for violence towards one he loves. The slap brings the blood to your cheek; it makes you blush – the visible mark of shame. A lot of the book is about shame.

TP: Shame over?

SE:  You’ll have to read the book to find out. Seriously, though, I can’t really say over what. It’s an emotion that dominates my life. I could take a stab at some of the reasons… but really….

TP: In that image, what, reduced to their simplest reciprocal form, are Robin’s thoughts about Batman’s thoughts about Robin and about Batman’s thoughts about Robin’s thoughts about Batman?

SE: Well, he thinks that he thinks that he is a child whereas he knows that he knows that he knows that he is not.

TP: What is the thesis of the book? It’s a philosophy book, I think I’ve heard you say. And philosophy books are books written in defense of a thesis.

SE: Ah! Good question. Several times I have talked about the book and explained how it will be about many different things, connected in various different ways, only to have someone, in the question period, ask me “yes, but what is it saying? What is its thesis?” Let me state here explicitly, it has no thesis. Many things are said in the book, but the book as a whole says nothing. I think, though I’m no expert, that the Deleuzian concept of the rhizome may apply to it. The metaphors I myself use to think about it are free association (as in psychoanalysis) and the Wunderkammer or cabinet of curiosities. It goes from one topic to another, it meanders, it gathers together and juxtaposes things that are initially unrelated but, hopefully, undergo an increase in meaning by their situation. Both of these…

TP: Your book has… oh excuse me. Please go on.

SE: Thanks. I was going to say that both these concepts, free association and the Wunderkammer, will be explicitly discussed in the course of the book. In a sense, the commentaries on the memes will be about explaining the nature of the book itself, or helping the reader to read it.

TP: Oh, that’s interesting. I was going to ask you something about the word “parerga” in your title but I’d like to follow up what you just said. That idea of the book explaining itself. Could you say more? Also, you said above that the book is about shame, that it’s about explaining its own nature, that it’s a philosophy book, that it will be about yourself, that it will be about psychoanalysis and literary criticism. It’s very confusing. Just what is your book about?

SE: That’s really just a variant of the “what is its thesis?” question, no? It’s about all these things. It is a statement against totalization, in favor of the fragmentary, the incomplete, the dilettantish, all those things that are supposed to be suppressed by the totalization that dominates the academic work and the academic career. The totalization of the thesis, the research project, the AOS… My own philosophical career has been such a statement, too, in that I have moved around between many subjects. I have written several one-off papers on topics that I never return to. As a philosopher, I am not easy to categorize and it is only fitting that I should produce a book that is similarly hard to categorize. I could add one more “about” – the book is about my career and situation within the philosophy profession! No truer, but no less true, than all the other abouts you confronted me with. And don’t think we have completed that list!

TP: OK. Now let me ask you about “parerga.” The word appears in the title of your book. Perhaps you could remind our readers of what it means since it is an uncommon word.

SE: Sure. It comes from the Greek words “para” and “ergon” and it is used to describe things that are next to, or supplementary to, a work (usually a work of art). (“Paratext” would describe the special case where the ergon in question is a text.) So the frame of a painting, the title or the preface of a literary work, etc.

TP: And what associations do you have to the word “parerga”?

SE: Well, I first encountered it, as many people do, in the title of Schopenhauer’s book Parerga and Paralipomena. I don’t know much about Schopenhauer (though I will be discussing one of his parerga or paralipomena in my book), but the little I do know comes through lectures about him that I attended in London in the 1980s, when I was just starting out in philosophy. The lectures were given by Brian O’Shaughnessy. Brian was my very first teacher of philosophy and a wonderful and idiosyncratic man. There was a mystique about him and the first lectures in any lecture series he gave would be packed. But one thing he was not was a good lecturer and by half-way through the series only a few die-hards would still be attending. I was one of those die-hards in that Schopenhauer class. Brian was married to Edna O’Shaughnessy, a very important psychoanalyst in the Kleinian tradition. A lot of Kleinian analysis just sounds really crazy. Many years ago I read some of Klein’s Narrative of a Child Analysis. You just wonder what world you’ve stepped into! The splittings, the projections and introjections, a confusing world in which what is inside and what is outside is unstable and ever-changing, the ego being formed (ergon) through these vicissitudes while awash in paranoia over the projected, but now consuming, para-ego (parergon) that…

TP: I’m sorry to cut you off, but we have to stop. It’s been a great pleasure talking with you.

SE: Thank you! I’ve enjoyed it.

TP: Our readers can get an idea of what the book is like from an excerpt posted here, the commentary on this meme.

irksome2

 

 

M.20 “Couples Therapy”

Here is the last of three actual excerpts from my book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, posted a while back on the dedicated Facebook page and now transferred to this blog.

M.20 Couples Therapy

couples-full-size


M.20 Couples Therapy. Composed: February 22nd. Posted: February 29th. Orientation: Reverse. Font: Arial. TB1: “How about couples therapy?”, black. TB2: “I don’t do feelings!!!”, black.


 

Another therapy-related meme. Not only does Robin acknowledge some sense of dysfunctionality in his and Batman’s relationship, he implies they are a couple. (See commentaries on M.27 and M.35 for further suggestions that the two of them may be intimately involved.) Given how they seem to be locked into a pattern of repeated abuse, it is brave of Robin to make the suggestion of couples therapy. (And see M.75.) Batman, however, contemptuously rejects the suggestion, on the grounds that he “doesn’t do feelings.” As Jennifer Matey (a philosophy professor at Southern Methodist University) pointed out in the comments to the post, Batman most certainly does ‘do’ one feeling, namely anger. (Matey’s sensitivity to the high degree of anger crammed into these memes is expressed in the comments to M.25, as we shall see.) This tension, between an attempt to renounce emotion altogether and the hypertrophy of one particular, often (though we should remember, not always) destructive emotion, is a staple of superhero culture – indeed, a staple of the culture of masculinity.

The toxic, hyper-masculine war on feelings and emotions also connects, in a roundabout way, with the logical and philosophical milieu of the artist. In graduate school, Evnine was drawn to a passage from Andrea Nye’s book Words of Power: A Feminist Reading of the History of Logic (1990):

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)

His interest in the passage, at the time, was as an object of ridicule, but given how well these words capture both Batman in this meme (and the superhero in general) and the stereotypical male logician (and analytic philosopher in general), we may perhaps surmise that the artist came to sense not a little truth in these words, at least as they apply to himself. Indeed, his very ridiculing of the passage as a much younger man probably betrayed an uncanny recognition of himself in an unexpected mirror. If such conjectures are not entirely ill-founded, this meme takes on an almost embarrassingly intimate and confessional tone.

The size of things: biz hundert un tsvantsik

When I first started on the book A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, I thought to include all the memes (53) that I had posted on Facebook as part of the Batman Meme Project between January and March 2016 (including three that appeared only in the movie Evnine’s Batman Memes: The Movie that was the climactic finale of the Batman Meme Project). Among the parerga were to be six memes I had created at the same time but elected not to post on Facebook (there were others I excluded), and 61 memes I made subsequent to the Batman Meme Project. That made for a total of 120 in all.

I liked that the total was 120 (and determined on it even before finishing all the included post-project memes) for two reasons. First, it is the age by reference to which Jews wish on others a long life (biz hundert un tsvantsik, in Yiddish), in honor of Moses, who was 120 when he died looking over into the promised land he would never enter. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it is the number of the apartment in London in which I was born and in which I lived until, at 18, my parents did cross over into that promised land unattained by Moses, leaving me alone in London, effectively (like both Batman and Robin) an orphan. In a sense, you could say that my delivery was prolonged by 18 years, the apartment being a prosthetic uterus. (I often reflect on the fact that for various periods, my bedroom in that apartment was the very room in which I had been born.) It wasn’t until I was forced to leave no. 120 that I finally, fully, tumbled from fetal grace. That event must have been (I say “must have been” rather than “was” because I struggle to remember my feelings) experienced by me as, well… a slap in the face! (Not that my childhood before then was especially happy. But I was sheltered.)

Screen Shot 2018-08-03 at 2.42.06 PM

In any case, over time, I came to feel that some of the 120 memes were too weak to be included. I also created a few more which I was sorry would not find a place in the book. Finally, after much agonizing, and with the urging of the other University of Miami Center for the Humanities fellows last academic year, I decided to monkey about with the original selection, omitting and adding with the goal of getting the best memes and not trying to conform to this magical number, however personally significant it was for me. There are now going to be roughly 105 memes altogether. I think this is for the best, but I have to say that all of a sudden, the project feels somehow diminished to me. Not just because it has fewer memes in it. Rather, the work as a whole now seems to me less ambitious, less daring. Instead of the envisaged polyphonic texture, in which themes appear and re-appear, cutting across the division into discrete commentaries and the division between memes and commentaries, I now see a series of short essays interspersed with quite a few perfunctory commentaries in which I will have very little to say. Right now, the projected book strikes me as somewhat pitiful.

I am (fairly) sure this is just a phase and that I will eventually recapture something of the original, animating vision. All lengthy projects involve such phases, surely. The phases are the results of interferences between multiple currents. One current flows from the ‘oceanic feeling’ when the work is not fully formed and contains so much in potential to its birth as a diminished actuality. Another comes in bursts as new ideas unpredictably present themselves, new connections appear. A third involves the relinquishing of anxiety over whether one can actually do what one set oneself to do and a growing amazement at the real little fingers and toes that come into being. And all of these, of course, are superimposed on the currents of the rest of one’s life, with their own vicissitudes. Still, let no-one any longer wish me “biz hundert un tsvantsik.” That number is behind me, not ahead.

… in which I am called out (for humorously linking Batman and Yiddish)

In the on-going saga of my commentary on the Yiddish Batman meme, I mentioned, in my previous post, an ‘irascible’ expert who found the draft of the commentary I sent him to be riddled with errors. af a nar makht men nit kin peyresh, he said. (“One doesn’t write a commentary on a fool.”) It turns out that at that point, he had only skimmed what I had written. Now he has read it fully and things have gone from bad to worse, though the focus has shifted from my scholarly shortcomings to my ethical failures.

At one point in my commentary, recounting a little of the history of Yiddish, I write:

Starting in the second half of the 18th century, Jewish proponents of the Enlightenment began to stigmatize Yiddish as merely a debased form of German that kept its native speakers from accessing European high culture. The image of Yiddish as a comic, backward, folksy language began to take shape, in contrast to dominant European languages, on the one hand, and Hebrew, on the other – an image that even many subsequent supporters of Yiddish have been happy to accept.

In earlier versions of the draft, I then inserted a footnote in which I mentioned a recent exemplar of the “Yiddish supporter accepting the comic view of Yiddish” phenomenon, a book that starts with a joke about a kvetching Jew on a train and then says: “If you can understand this joke, you’ll have no trouble learning Yiddish.” (Because the essence of the language is the ability to kvetch in it, and knowing that smooths the way over all the bothersome conjugations, declensions, etc.) I noted that “such works appear to extoll the virtues of Yiddish, provided one forgets that the works of Cervantes, Swift, Marx, Einstein, Gilbert and Sullivan, Whitman, Dickens, Shakespeare, and Milton (to name just a few) were all translated into it.” At one point, I even mentioned, in studied proximity to this footnote, Sander Gilman’s book Jewish Self-Hatred. However, I removed both footnotes because the implication about the book I objected to was clearly offensive.

Continue reading “… in which I am called out (for humorously linking Batman and Yiddish)”

Quotation, camp, and Lagadonian languages

In my previous post, I wrote about proper names versus descriptions and how that issue is inscribed in the world of Batman from the character’s very first appearance in 1939.

Another theme that will loom large in my books, and that also is prefigured in the very first appearance of Batman, is the use and nature of quotation marks. Some of my memes will derive their humor (or ‘humor’) from how quotation marks interact with punctuation, and from words appearing both within and without quotation marks in the same sentence. Quotation marks are one of the primary means we have in English (and in many other languages) for referring to language itself. At least on the face of it, they provide a simple and standard way by which we can refer to any bit of language – simply take that bit of language and put quotation marks around it. We will thus establish instances of the schema: Continue reading “Quotation, camp, and Lagadonian languages”

M.1 “… a meme in which I’m being…”

Some time ago, before I started the dedicated Facebook page which turned into this blog, I posted several excerpts from my book-in-progress. Now I have this blog, I thought I would re-post them here. The first one I posted was the first Batman meme I ever made and will be the first in the book, accordingly. I re-reproduce it below, as close as I can to how I envisage it on the printed page. I now think, however, that the treatment of the philosophical issues in the antepenultimate paragraph is inadequate and will need to be rewritten at some point.

M.1 … a meme in which I’m being…

Picture1


M.1: … a meme in which I’m being…  Composed: January 27th. Posted: January 27th. Orientation: Reverse. Font: Impact, with font shadow. TB1: “I can’t help think of everything as part of a meme in which I’m being…”, white, with black borders. TB2: “Shut up, Robin!”, white, with black borders.


The technique of this, as of all the earliest memes (M.1-M.4), is crude. The default settings of the meme generator used by the artist (Impact font, with font shadow, all capitals, white letters with black borders) are left in place, almost certainly because at that stage, he did not realize they could be changed. They are highly unsuitable settings where there is a lot of text (see the technically disastrous M.3). Even here, where there is not that much text, Robin’s words are quite hard to make out.[1] Continue reading “M.1 “… a meme in which I’m being…””

Names and descriptions

When I composed the bulk of my Batman memes, between January and March 2016, I knew very little of Batman except the 1960s TV series, which I loved and which defines the characters of Batman and Robin for me. (One of the memes uses the image of the Joker, as played by Cesar Romero

jingle-bells

and another that of Burgess Meredith’s Penguin.) In preparing to write my book A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, I thought I should rectify that and so I was happy to find a recent book had been published on the history and cultural significance of the various incarnations of Batman – The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture, by Glen Weldon. From that book, I learned that several of the themes I will deal with in my book are in fact pre-figured in the Batman corpus from the very beginning.

Continue reading “Names and descriptions”

Batman slapping Robin, live!

I just gave a version of my presentation on A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga! at a salon in London. The lack of technology available meant that I could not project images – so I resorted to having some of the memes acted out, by Oliver Black and Jenny Black! As I explain in the video of that small portion of the talk, I attempted to turn that to advantage by choosing memes that lost something important by being enacted.

The personal is philosophical

At my presentation about my book-in-progress (A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!) last week, I used several different introductions (sequentially, not simultaneously!). Here is one of them (note that it may be inconsistent with some of the others):

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 [of Batman slapping Robin] 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.