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.

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:

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.