Batman, Robin, and me

I wrote this piece for a literary magazine that wanted “objects + meaning.” I thought this fit the bill pretty well but they rejected it. So here it is anyway!

Batman, Robin, and Me

Simon J. Evnine

Memes are among the most ephemeral of contemporary cultural artifacts. Yet one of them, the image of Batman slapping Robin, has been an unexpected catalyst of personal and professional growth for me for about five years now.

canvas

In Spring 2016 I started making memes with this image and posting them on Facebook, at first just two of them and then, after a month of dormancy, a torrent of over 100. For reasons which were initially obscure to me, I had always gotten a great kick out of memes that used this image. I would experience a little jolt of pleasure every time I saw one. The realization that I could make them myself, and the ensuing creative activity, unlocked doors in my unconscious that I hadn’t even realized were there. As I posted increasingly esoteric memes of Batman slapping Robin on Facebook I came to think of them as constituting what I called The Batman Meme Project. The idea took hold of me that when I had gotten whatever it was that was driving me out of my system, I would gather them together and provide explanations of the things I uncompromisingly refused to explain while I was posting them. Unattributed allusions to the Talmud, Virgilius Maro Grammaticus, Lope de Vega, Thomas Browne, Sigmund Freud, A.E. Housman, Dodie Smith, and John Cage (among others), untranslated bits of Latin, Armenian, and Yiddish, would all be clarified and explained. Thus began my work on A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!. It’s been five years and I’m not even halfway through my commentaries on the memes. Meanwhile, the ambitions of the work have grown enormously, to the point where I am now thinking of it as a new way of doing philosophy, one that incorporates self-writing, humor, and indirection.

What is it about the image of Batman slapping Robin that so affects me? In its original comic book context, the orientation of the panel has Batman on the left but its life as a meme began with a reflected version that puts Batman on the right, responding to Robin rather than initiating the interaction. It depicts a grown man striking a young boy; a man who faces us but from behind a mask, striking a boy whose face we cannot see; a slap to a bare cheek delivered by a heavily gloved hand. It speaks through the cartoon speech bubbles, but what it says must be supplied anew each time it is used. The sound of slap is indicated visually by lines tracing the movement of the hand and the shockwaves it causes. The image is specular. It is simultaneously silent and deafening.

My obsession with the image began when I was already three years into my psychoanalysis but despite its late arrival, it came to be a fundamental point of reference for my analyst and me – a malleable and suggestive metaphor for a welter of psychic processes. It soon became apparent that for me the image played out an intrapsychic conflict in which I identified with both Batman and Robin. My pleasure in the represented scene was both masochistic and sadistic. I hated the precocious and eager child I had been, the child who was still within me and whom I wanted to obliterate. At the same time, I wished that I had been taught “not to make a fool of myself,” that someone had thought to give me a good slap. I wanted discipline, rigor, and control, and I wanted to discipline, rigidify, and control parts of myself that defied and threatened my adult defenses.

In fact, I have a history with Batman and Robin. Here I am at about six or seven years old, playing Robin in a home movie made by my then-16-year-old brother with a few of his friends.

Screen Shot 2018-10-16 at 2.30.09 PM

That Batman mask and the barely visible cape and vambraces  being worn by my brother’s friend were mine, a birthday gift because I so loved the live-action Batman TV series that was airing around that time. Yet here I am, ‘demoted’ to playing Robin! And as if that in itself were not bad enough, the ‘plot’ required me to crawl away on all fours and pee like a dog.

Screen Shot 2018-10-16 at 2.28.56 PM

And was that spot on my underwear there naturally, dirty little boy that I was? Or was it placed there by the director, my much-loved older brother, for comedic effect? Was I being betrayed humiliating myself? Was my eagerness to participate being exploited?

That live-action Batman series was also the site of premature sexual knowledge. I might have seen nothing suspicious in those shots of the Dynamic Duo climbing up a wall, Robin first, then Batman, their bodies locked together in a single crouch. But my two much older brothers and my father certainly understood their significance and so I learned it as well. It was in connection with the series that I learned, from my father, the word “catamite” and he would also refer to Robin as “Batman’s little buggery boy.”

The-Crouch

No wonder, then, that shame over my childish self, my adult desire to punish his weakness and childishness, and my childish desire to have been ‘put in my place,’ should coalesce around the image in the meme. How could I not have been gripped by it?

As work at my desk and on the couch have both progressed, in tandem, some of that ferocious self-contempt has abated. That means I find myself increasingly able to play, to be spontaneous and joyful. My book is not only tied to my analysis, though, it is part of my professional output. Philosophy as a discipline, in the Anglophone world, is dominated by rigor, clarity, precision, all the weapons of control and sadism. My book is part of an attempt to free myself from that. It approaches philosophy in a personal and ludic spirit. It is a kind of philosophical free association. The goal of inserting oneself into academic work is something is shares with (indeed, derives from) work by feminist theoreticians. But unlike the brave people who have truly put their lives on the line, it is hard for me, a person of privilege, to justify to myself and others the throwing over of the academic norms of privilege.

nietzsche

The very first time I gave a presentation on my book-in-progress in an academic setting, I remember worrying about this and, in thrashing it out in my mind, I came up with two contradictory ways of conceptualizing the presence of myself in my work. Rather than choose between them, I read the two opposing introductory paragraphs (along with a further two) at the talk. Here is one:

Many people have a strong desire to speak, or more pertinently, to write about themselves… 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.

canvas

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!”

My book is a project conducted under the dubious sign of this equivocal image. But the mask I shall wear, the theoretical discourse by means of which events and idiosyncracies of my life will gain expression, will be the dry and dusty discourse of analytic philosophy. You may imagine, if you choose, what expressions and what distortions of my self this will allow and entail.

In this introduction, I am the little boy, desperate for attention, sneaking my person into philosophy that, for others, helps the medicine go down. This little boy needs to be stopped from making a fool of himself, needs to be taught his insignificance. Here is the other introduction:

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 her 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.

canvas

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.

For me, the image of Batman slapping Robin is about the relation of adult to child, of work to play, of the settled ways of doing things and the playful impetus to experiment, of id and superego. Working with it, and on it, has been integral both to my analysis and to my philosophical development. It has allowed me to make peace with my childish self. I hope that, at some point in the not too distant future, it will help me erase the distinction altogether between adult and child.

Batman AI

I’ve been playing around with one of these AI image generators using the instruction “Batman slapping Robin in the style of…” and altering some of the other parameters pretty much at random. Some of the results are really striking so I thought I would share them with you.

 

Just “Batman slapping Robin”
Here in the style of Dali
Caravaggio
A Leonardo cartoon
A Mapplethorpe portrait
… and Rothko

I’ve generally liked the AI-generated images people have been creating and I must say, I find these ones really evocative.

Image, writing and speech – in Italian

I’m excited to share with you an edited version of a talk I gave in Genoa a couple of years ago, now in virtual printed form. The piece is about one of the themes that runs through my book-in-progress A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga! – the relations between speech represented in writing that appears as part of an image. Many of the memes exploit the possibilities raised by these interrelations.

The sound of your blood: The Batman Meme Project hits the international art world

Thanks to Caterina Gualco, owner of the contemporary art gallery UniMediaModern in Genoa, Italy, the Batman Meme Project has now hit the international art world. Caterina invited me to submit something to an exhibition she is mounting called 20×20 eventi 2020 (pronounced in Italian “venti per venti eventi venti venti”). It  is a ‘magic box’ containing many different art works, all 20x20cm. After the exhibition of the box’s contents, the whole will end up in the Museo d’Arte Contemporanea di Villa Croce, Genoa’s contemporary art museum.

20x20-Eventi-2020

My piece is in the fifth column from the right, second row down. Here it is by itself:

 

Robin: I can’t stand this noise. If only we had an anechoic chamber, its six walls…
Batman: Fool! You’d be deafened by the sound of your blood in circulation and your nervous system in operation.

In honor of the momentous event of my being displayed in an art gallery, I am here publishing the full text of my commentary on the meme from my book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!.

M.42 The Sound of Your Blood…


M.42 The Sound of Your Blood… Composed: March 13th. Posted: March 17th. Orientation: Reverse. Font: Comic Sans. TB1: “I can’t stand this noise. If only we had an anechoic chamber, its six walls…”, white. TB2: “Fool! You’d be deafened by the sound of your blood in circulation and your nervous system in operation.”, white.


When the meme was posted on Facebook, on March 17th, a friend of the artist, Edmund Fawcett, commented:

In the prehistoric late 1950s, MoMa in NYC had for a time an anechoic chamber in the garden. I visited as a kid. Batman’s right or half-right. I recall hearing the sound of blood circulating. The leaflet said I’d also hear the electrics in the brain. I tried hard to hear them but didn’t. Maybe thoughts about thoughts were inaudible?

The language used in the meme clearly echoes a story the composer John Cage told in a number of places of a visit he made to an anechoic chamber at Harvard University. For Cage, the moral of the story seems to have been that where there is life, there is music (“until I die there will be sounds”) – something he took to be a joyous state of affairs. The artist, apparently, was fascinated, perhaps even obsessed, by this story, or by the thought of an anechoic chamber, but seems to have made of the whole thing just about the opposite of what Cage took it to mean. As a young man, he wrote what he called a ‘book,’ entitled The Incoherence of the Incoherence (after the work by the Islamic philosopher Averroës). This piece of near-juvenilia is a strange jumble and we shall defer until the commentary on M.96 (“The Origins of Neo-Platonist Metaphysics”) a closer look at it. But the book contains a passage we will quote here in which the artist gives us his own perspective on Cage’s anecdote:

‘Darkness there was, but no silence.’[1] Such might be an apt description of being in an anechoic chamber with the lights off.

“For certain engineering purposes, it is desirable to have as silent a situation as possible. Such a room is called an anechoic chamber, its six walls made of special material, a room without echoes. I entered one    at Harvard University  several years ago and  heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he  informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, and the low one my blood in circulation. Until I die there will be sounds.”[2]

Think what this means. One day, here in the city, listen to the noises around you.      Music blares, the traffic roars, people shout. What     a din! What a hubbub! In order to escape this inconvenience, remove yourself to the countryside. Enjoy the bird song and the murmuring of the brook (never mind the hurdy-gurdy and the loutish accents). Enjoy them. Sing them to yourself, once, twice, then again, and again and on and on until they grow into a clamorous uproar, until the cricket booms in your ear at night and the whippoorwill screams to you of death.

Then take up thy substance and get thee hence; take thyself and go.[3] Go to the wastelands or the deserts where not even the beasts and insects live. Ah desolate solitude. Let us live together in silent ceremony. But what is this? Can it be that I hear something? Yes, it is coming from over there. No, now it’s here. And there, and there, and there. It’s everywhere. “Yes, everywhere,” howls the wind, in hollow mockery. “As long as this planet moves about the sun there will always be alternate patches of hot and cold air. And the hot air will always displace the cold air and I, yes I, the wind will live forever. And for me, living is screaming. From now on, for you who have seen the barren places of the earth, will my slightest stirring, unheeded by all else, be as the trumpeting of a thousand elephants and when I raise my voice you shall stop your ears and cower, lest you are overcome.”

Fly, fly from here quickly! But where can I go? Where shall the wind not find me? Shall I take refuge from mankind with the wind, or from the wind with mankind? But wait! Has not the ingenuity of man provided me with that with which I can avoid both man and the wind? Is there not the anechoic chamber, its six walls made of special material, a room as silent as technologically possible? But imperiously, the voice of Being laughs: “Get thee to an anechoic chamber, and hear there thy nervous system in operation and hear there thy blood in circulation.”[4]

The piece is strange and somewhat overwrought (and involves a jarring switch from second to first person in the course of the penultimate paragraph) but it strikingly illustrates the artist’s constant, almost existential, struggle against noise, something that also makes itself felt in M.71 (“Shhhh”).

There is more to the story of the artist’s interest in the anechoic chamber and John Cage. We are in possession of a letter he wrote, almost certainly at the end of May or in early June, 1982. Here is the relevant part:

You’ll never guess what happened. It was brill-to-the-max ciudad.[5] I went with Miranda to some of the 70th birthday bash for John Cage at the Almeida.[6] Between two of the events we went to the caff across the road for a cup of tea. We sat down at a large table and then noticed that right next to us, was Cage himself, being interviewed by a couple of wankers.[7] As you know, I’m obsessed by the story he keeps telling about that time he was in an anechoic chamber. So I asked him if he’d been in one in London. He said he’d been photographed in one but it wasn’t operational! What a pity. If only it was working I could go myself. Then we got talking about philosophy. He was absolutely sold on Norman Malcolm’s memoir of Witters.[8],[9] Only he pronounced it as “meeeeemoir,” the first vowel long, in both the phonetic and temporal sense. It sounded so strange. Then, cos me and Miranda are trying to eat a macrobiotic diet, and he wants to write a macrobiotic cookbook(!), he gave us this recipe.[10] (I quote, almost verbatim.) “Take a carrot, a turnip, and a parsnip. Put them in the oven and roast them. It’s delicious.” Ha ha ha. We tried it and do you want to know what it was like? A carrot, a turnip, and a parsnip that had been roasted. Not too thrilling. I hope his cookbook has some recipes in it that are more exciting and tastier than that![11] Anyway, he was really nice and it was so amazing to chat with him. I feel like a scrofulous peasant that’s been touched by royalty! It’ll be a story to put in a meeeeemoir of my own.[12]

[1] [Editor’s note:] This quotes the beginning of the artist’s ‘book.’

[2] [Editor’s note:] Cage (1961, 8). The passage continues: “And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music.”

[3] [Editor’s note:] Possibly a reference to Genesis 12,1.

[4] [Editor’s note:] Cage (1961, 51).

[5] [Editor’s note:] Brilliant to the max city. On the model of “weird city,” a construction the artist learned from the American conductor John Morris Russell when they were students together at Kings College London some time between 1978 and 1981.

[6] [Editor’s note:] “Cage at 70,” the opening event of the Almeida Festival of 1982, was a series of performances at St James’ Church, London N7 (not at the Almeida Theatre itself, as Evnine suggests in his letter) from Friday May 28th to Sunday May 30th.

[7] [Editor’s note:] A strangely (or perhaps not) uncharitable reaction to two perfectly innocent people who, no doubt, had banked on this time with Cage and felt it was the artist and his companion who were the ‘wankers.’

[8] [Editor’s note:] Norman Malcolm’s Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir. For the style of abbreviation manifested in “Witters,” see the commentary on “Distinguo.” The philosopher Grice recalls J.L. Austin’s having said “Some like Witters… but Moore is my man” (Grice 1991, 381). Given that Grice’s book was not published until 1991, the artist’s use of this slang is almost certainly coincidental.

[9] [Editor’s note:] Cage’s enthusiasm for this work around that time is borne out by a passage from a letter he wrote to Ornella Volta, the author of two works on Satie, on May 25th 1983, a year after the conversation reported here: “I have finished reading your book (in French; no English has arrived); I love it. I can say that for few others. Like yours they are profoundly touching: Norman Malcolm’s Memoir of Ludwig Wittgenstein [sic] and Templier’s Erik Satie (not in the English translation, which I find impossible to read). This making reading matter touching must be what death does to biography” (Cage 2016, 529).

[10] [Editor’s note:] Again from a letter not long after the reported conversation (Feb 28th, 1983, to Lindsey Maxwell) : “Through John [Lennon] and Yoko [Ono] I changed my diet and that of Merce Cunningham to the macrobiotic diet” (Cage 2016, 528). This makes the artist a kind of culinary grandchild to John and Yoko.

[11] [Editor’s note:] Cage says this, of his projected cookbook: “instead of just being about cooking, it will be about everything that interests me. But I will arrange the use of chance operations so that cooking comes up more than anything else” (Montague 1985, 206). (How can one do anything other than love that second sentence.) The book was never written but on the website of the John Cage Trust there is a page with Cage’s notes on macrobiotic cooking and a selection of recipes. Amazingly, one can find on the page, under the heading “Root Vegetables,” the following: “Carrots, Turnips, Jerusalem Artichokes, etc. Place in a Rohmertopf (clay baking dish) in a hot oven for an hour or more with a little, very little, sesame oil. They may be covered with leeks and topped with a mixture such as one of those suggested for roast chicken” (http://johncage.org/blog/cagerecipes.html, quoted here with the permission of the John Cage Trust).  It is possible that Cage did not recommend to Evnine the use of sesame oil, or that he did, but that the artist ignored the advice.

[12] [Editor’s note:] Though the present work is hardly a memoir of Evnine, it is, perhaps, a meme-oir, as Cage would have called it, so the artist’s prediction is, literally in a manner of speaking, here being fulfilled.

Philosophy through memes

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.

nietzsche

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.

The original slap, from DC Comics World’s Finest #153, 1965. Art: Curt Swan Story: Edmond Hamilton

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:

Paley-meme

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:

paley-Dali-meme

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.)

Foucault-meme-for-class

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?

Image-Writing-Speech-Silence: Memes and Philosophy (The full lecture)

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.

Hear me talk live about the Batman Meme Project: “Image-Writing-Speech-Silence: Memes and Philosophy”

philsoc event draft (003)[6558]

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.

On auto-theory: Is the personal political?

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:

canvas

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

canvas

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?

In her wonderful paper “What is Trans Philosophy?“, Talia Bettcher says:

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.


Check out my first two posts on auto-theory: Can it be done by the privileged? and Bodies that are (not) at home.

“a glove slapping a human face – forever”

One of the memes of the Batman Meme Project, posted on Facebook on March 2nd, 2016, was this:

doubles

Michael Rosen very wittily and astutely posted as a comment an adapted passage from George Orwell’s 1984:

All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always — do not forget this, Winston — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a glove slapping a human face — forever.

(The original, of course, has “a boot stamping on” where the adaptation has “a glove slapping”.) “a glove slapping a human face – forever” became the meme’s obvious title, and I am greatly indebted to Michael (and also to Tim Watson, who independently referred to the same passage from Orwell when I posted Evnine’s Batman Memes: The Movie, shortly thereafter).

I am currently reading Carolyn Korsmeyer‘s recent book Things: In Touch with the Past (OUP, 2019). Korsmeyer writes:

Dan Lewis, Senior Curator of the History of Science and Technology at the Huntington Library in California, described the thrilling privilege of handling the books housed in the collection… Lewis, who does not wear gloves, says that being able to handle such rare documents is like “being present at the moment of creation.” (25)

On reading this, I was arrested by that parenthetical comment about Lewis’s not wearing gloves. Why doesn’t he? The way the passage is written suggests that this is a remarkable fact, that one would expect him to wear gloves in handling these precious books. Lewis’s haptic experience would be slightly different if he did wear gloves, but I assume it is not for that difference that he forgoes this form of protection. His goal is more likely – this is a key theme in Korsmeyer’s book – to be in direct contact with these rare objects from the past. But is Lewis’s pursuit of the frisson of unmediated touch so important to him that he ignores the damaging effects of his body’s effluvia on these objects, of which he says “Just to be in their presence is an honor”?

Having thought all this, my mind went (forgive my crudity) to men who fetishize not wearing a condom during sex. Their sensory experience will, like Lewis and his books, be different according to whether or not they use a condom. But one might easily speculate that it is not really for the sake of the haptic surplus that they so scorn the use of something that protects their partner from the damaging effects of their body’s products, whether in the form of unwanted pregnancy or STD. Korsmeyer says that experiences like those of Lewis “evoke an impression that gaps of time have been momentarily bridged, bringing the past into the present” (25). It is hardly novel to see sexual relations in terms of bridging a gap not of time, but between persons. Perhaps the sexual cases should be subsumed under the wider rubric about touch, not the usual finger-as-phallus motif, but instead the phallus-as-finger. But men who prioritize the pursuit of unmediated contact over the well-being of their partner are often, rightly, reviled. How should this bear on how we think about putting our grubby ungloved hands on priceless relics from the past? The general public, naturally, is kept from defiling quasi-sacred relics in this way – but what of curators like Lewis who take to themselves the privilege and pleasure of intercourse with these hierodules?

What does all this have to do with Batman and Robin? Despite Rosen’s reference to Orwell, it never really occurred to me until this very day, exactly four years after I began the Batman Meme Project (actually, tomorrow is the four-year anniversary), that Batman slaps Robin with a gloved and not a bare hand. In fact, gloved hands are very prominent in the image. We see two of Batman’s and one of Robin’s, densely clustered in the bottom left corner. How does this detail inflect the image? What does it mean for my book-in-progress A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!? Should we praise Batman because, even in this moment of violence, he holds back from the further violation of Robin’s bodily autonomy that hitting him with his bare hand would represent? Should we pity him because, even in this moment of perverse intimacy, he cannot bridge the gap with another person? I just don’t know how to read it.

As for my project, I have written on this blog about how important to me is the sound effect of the slap that I have used on many occasions in work around my book:

But I realize now that this is the sound of an ungloved hand slapping a human face – forever! (Why did none of you call me on this?) I am so, so disappointed! The internet does not offer me much in the way of sound effects of gloved hands slapping, but the few there are are woefully lacking in the zest I have imagined the slap to express. Here is the best of them:

 

Parents with dirty hands

As it becomes apparent what a terrible company Facebook is, I feel more and more strongly that I want nothing more to do with it. Leaving Facebook would come with loss and with gain, both substantial. Beyond the obvious considerations, there would be a special loss to leaving connected with my book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!.

I always publish on Facebook (both in my feed and on the special page devoted to my book) the eperga to the parerga that are these blog posts. Without the hits generated this way, what I write here would have almost no readers! But the book’s connection with Facebook goes beyond the latter’s role as a means of broadcasting.

Slappy

Facebook has been a place where I get to share with others some of the quirky contents of my mind. Without it, I would never have begun to make Batman memes in the first place. Why would I, if I hadn’t had the immediate gratification of posting them and receiving some acknowledgement? The first idea for a book around the memes (for what eventually became the book I am now writing) came from the desire to explain what was not obvious in them to the people on Facebook who had been seeing what I published there and interacting with me about it. Even as the book expanded in scope, for a long time I conceived of it as the record of a social media art project that would incorporate  some of the conversations my memes provoked. The very distinction in the book’s title between the Batman Meme Project and its parerga hinges on which were produced and published in that burst of Facebook posting from January to March 2016.

For a while, I even entertained the fantasy that Facebook might publish my book on the grounds that it was born on and concerned their platform. I also reasoned (how foolish I feel admitting this) that if DC Comics tried to prevent me from publishing, Facebook would have the pockets to stand up for all those of its meme-making users who creatively rework copyright-protected images in a sub-culture that, as Patrick Davison puts it, prioritizes “creative freedom over security” (“The Language of Internet Memes,” p. 132).

Although the social-media origins of my book have somewhat diminished in importance, they are still there to some extent. One of the memes (pictured above) is even about Facebook. There is just no getting around the fact that my book owes its very existence to Facebook. And given how important the book has been to me, my analysis, and my conception of my place in the philosophy profession, you could say that who I am today is deeply, deeply dependent on Facebook.

I suppose I am in the position of a grown child who comes to realize that his parents are involved in something terrible that he cannot ignore.