Excisions: 9 ( ██████ )

I mentioned in a couple of previous posts that I decided to excise a number of the memes that were going to be part of my book. It was sufficient for a meme to be excluded that I did not envisage being able to write anything of interest (to me) in the commentary on it. I have now set myself the goal of posting the excised memes here, in an occasional series, and trying to write something of interest (to me) about them, thus proving my decision to exclude them mistaken! Also, in this parergonal space around the book, I will write about the memes without the pretense that their maker is someone other than myself. I am curious to see how this affects the nature of my writing about the memes.

When, earlier in this series, I wrote about the excised meme “You forgot the little wounded duck,” I said I liked to think of it as a ‘ghost meme.’ This was because I had posted it on Facebook during the period of the Batman Meme Project (January to March 2016), only to take it down an hour or so later. It was a compulsion for completeness that led me to want to include it in the book – but good sense prevailed and I excised it from the manuscript.

There was another ghost meme,  called █████████, that was also removed from the initial line-up and hence must be dealt with in the Excisions series:

Redacted

The meme is so bad that, as you can see, I have redacted its title and most of its text, leaving only the few worthwhile words in it and the final exclamation mark!

I am writing about this meme out of chronological order. It should have appeared after Excisions: 5 (Happiness) since it was originally posted, for that brief hour, on March 14th, 2016. I failed to write about it earlier because I couldn’t, for the life of me, think of what to say about it – and because I feel so ashamed of it! I finally decided to take the bull by the horns and was rewarded, almost immediately, with the idea of presenting it in a redacted version.

Even redacted, one can glean a fair amount about the meme. Robin is evidently reporting something he has heard. It is likely a rumor, given that it involves “they” and not some more precisely specified person or persons. That Robin may be trying to fool Batman is suggested by Batman’s “falling for that.” If Robin were trying to put one over on Batman, that would make sense of the slap. On the other hand, the slaps don’t always make sense. Perhaps Batman is mocking Robin for his gullibility. We cannot tell.


OK, there was never any prospect that I was going to make myself regret having culled this execrable piece of work. And in fact, I feel nothing but relief over my decision. I do regret, however, not having used the device of redaction in a meme. I think it looks pretty cool, having those black strips inside the speech bubbles. Redaction done by these means is an essentially visual phenomenon. The words inside the bubbles, though, are representations of spoken language, which would have to be redacted by a beep or something. I don’t see exactly how to do it offhand, but there is room for some creativity here with the different modes of redaction. A lost opportunity.

 

For the letter kills, but the spirit gives life

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

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

letter:spirit-again
My measurement by a pauline gauge

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

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

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

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

Wilkins-Moon

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

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

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

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

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


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

Excisions: 8 (That’s all folks!)

I mentioned in a couple of previous posts that I decided to excise a number of the memes that were going to be part of my book. It was sufficient for a meme to be excluded that I did not envisage being able to write anything of interest (to me) in the commentary on it. I have now set myself the goal of posting the excised memes here, in an occasional series, and trying to write something of interest (to me) about them, thus proving my decision to exclude them mistaken! Also, in this parergonal space around the book, I will write about the memes without the pretense that their maker is someone other than myself. I am curious to see how this affects the nature of my writing about the memes.

finis

Like the previous meme in the Excisions series, “Holy Memes, Batman,” “That’s All Folks!” appeared publicly only in the film Evnine’s Batman Memes: The Movie.

It simultaneously closes two quite distinct openings, which makes it of some structural interest. First, as the last meme seen in the movie, it complements “Holy Memes, Batman,” the first meme of the movie. As the bookends of the movie, they share several features.

1. Not only are they the first and last memes of the movie, but they are about the beginning and end of the movie. Or perhaps I should not say that they are about the beginning and end, but that the first begins, or introduces and the second ends, or concludes, the movie. (This too requires some qualification but it’s too boring and unimportant to make. And here you can see that a different spirit is now animating my project – as I have spoken about recently – since some time ago I would have certainly laboriously spelled out the qualifications. I used to say that the whole project was a field for the free exercise of my obsessional pedantry, something I had always struggled, and am apparently again struggling, to keep in check.)

2. Each was made specially for the movie and each appeared only in the movie. (One other meme appears only in the movie but was not composed for it – “I Don’t Care!”.  It appears in the movie at a particularly climactic moment, around 2’22”, and stays visible and stationary for longer than any other meme in the film. It will be commented on at length in the book and is a very important meme in the economy of the whole project.)

3. Each has a specifically cinematic character. The first serves as the backdrop to the movie’s title and Batman’s response to Robin’s “Holy memes, Batman!” is “Yes, Robin, I fear it’s a movie.” The second uses the classic end of the Warner Brothers Looney Tunes cartoons and shows Robin as sad that the movie is ending.

But “That’s All Folks!” is also the very last meme composed as part of the Batman Meme Project narrowly defined, for which Evnine’s Batman Memes: The Movie was the grand finale. All the further memes in my book will be from the parerga to the Batman Meme Project. Thus, “That’s All Folks!” is also a complement to M.1, “… a meme in which I’m being…,” the very first Batman meme I ever composed, and the first that will appear in the book. (You can see the meme and read the commentary on it that will open my book here.) Robin’s desire that “this” might go on and on can be seen as referring, therefore, to the Batman Meme Project itself, the project of making these memes and posting them on Facebook. (The parerga were undreamt of when the movie was made.) As first and last memes of the Batman Meme Project, M.1 and “That’s All Folks!” share a meta quality. In the first, Robin says that he feels as if everything is part of a meme in which he is being slapped. Although the rest of the Batman Meme Project was not envisaged at the point at which I made that meme (just as the parerga were not conceived of when I made “That’s All Folks!”), it made a very apt meta opening to the project. In “That’s All Folks!”, Robin casts his eye back over the project thus anticipated, recognizing that it must come to an end somewhere, sad that it is over, but perhaps also nervously excited about the prospect of life outside of a meme in which he is being slapped.

On another note, there is a formal feature to “That’s All Folks!” that I find very appealing. Many of the memes are about the interplay of between language and the pictorial depiction of speech that is engendered by the cartoon image’s speech bubbles. (I discuss this at some length in my [Italian] presentation “Image, Writing, Speech, Silence.”) In this meme, the picture of writing that represents speech by its location in a speech bubble is replaced by an image, but that image itself includes a pictorial representation of an utterance. (Recall that one often sees the line spoken, with or without the words’ being written at the same time.) So, there would have been lots to say about this meme in the commentary on it.


Well, once again, I have succeeded in bringing myself to feel that it was a sad mistake to omit this meme from the book. There would have been a lot of interesting stuff to write about it, and it would have played a kind of architectonic role that is now unfilled in the book. The Batman Meme Project will simply stop with a meme that has no special relation to the first meme of the project and that is not the performance of an ending itself. I guess my real reason for excluding it, since some of the reflections above were already present to me when I decided to leave it out, is that if I had included it I would really also have had to include “Holy Memes, Batman” and that, together, they seemed somehow of too ephemeral an interest – as if I couldn’t let anything go (which, to be honest, I couldn’t). I’m not sure I was right about that at all.

That’s all, folks!

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 Savage Detectives and my irascible Yiddish expert

About one year ago, I had some contact with an onomast and linguist specializing in Jewish languages. (There are many Jewish languages: Hebrew ancient and modern, Aramaic, Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Persian, Italkian, and others.) I wrote about this in several previous posts about the Yiddish meme in my book A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!. I have been wanting to write more about that experience for some time but have hesitated owing to ethical concerns that make it difficult, concerns that arise mostly (though not exclusively) from my irascible expert’s having forbidden me from publishing any part of their emails.

Simcha-Bunim-revised
Robin: What is your Jewish name, Batman?
Batman: Call me *Mr.* Batman, Boy Wonder! And my Jewish name is Simcha Bunim.

Yes, you read that right. This expert ended by invoking the law, asserting their rights over the contents of their emails, and forbidding me from quoting anything from them!

The whole episode was on the way to becoming quite upsetting to me when my partner enabled a Gestalt switch that led me to find it both entertaining and enriching. “This is like something out of The Savage Detectives,” she said, referring to the Roberto Bolaño novel I was reading at the time. And it was! A literary ‘feud’ over esoteric scholarship, one party becoming more and more enraged precisely as the other party tries to assuage them. The affair was both heated and absurd!

Here follows as much of the story as I can bring myself to relate. (And even this makes me uncomfortable – not, I should add, on my own account.) Continue reading “The Savage Detectives and my irascible Yiddish expert”

On the matter of genre: auto-theory, in the form of philosophy, in the form of an art catalogue

Whenever I have to describe my book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, I find myself at a loss. I literally do not know what kind of a work it is. This is one of the things that makes work on it so exciting. But there are contexts – such as approaching a publisher – where I cannot simply enjoy my own flailing around and have to try to epitomize the book. Here is something I have written for just such a purpose:

My book defies easy categorization or description. Its outer form is that of an art catalogue in which an editor presents a body of art works and provides commentaries on their formal and material features. The art works being catalogued are over 100 memes, made by me, that use the image of Batman slapping Robin.

canvas

Though no secret is made of the fact that the artist of the memes and the editor of the catalogue are one and the same, as editor I write as if the artist were another person, imposing limits on myself about what I can ‘know’ of him and his intentions.

The commentaries, which make up the bulk of the book, vary in form, length, and style. They deal with issues in philosophy, both in a narrow sense (meaning, naming, the relations between spoken and written language, ontology, paradoxes, etc., couched in the idiom of contemporary analytic philosophy) and in a much broader sense, taking in literary interpretation, theology, Judaism, and, above all, psychoanalysis. Thus, at the next level in, the work’s form is that of a series of complexly interlocking essays and reflections, played out through the memes themselves and the commentaries on them, about broadly philosophical themes.

The description above notwithstanding, it is hard to say, more precisely, what the book is about. The main reason for this is that the book is, by design, a statement against the totalization that is characteristic of contemporary academic writing. Such writing is supposed to have a single identifiable subject matter, a thesis, and an organization around that thesis that leaves every part accounted for. My work deliberately defies these norms. Epitomizing my career-wide pattern of wide and unusual interests leading to publications in substantially different areas, this book is marked by an eclecticism that is theorized, in the book itself, under the headings of the cabinet of curiosities and free association (both of which are explicitly discussed). In this respect, the work is, in spirit and form, both pre- and post-modern.

The image of the memes is central to the book. It is a depiction of an act of violence by an older man directed at an adolescent. Before the idea of the book was born, I had made, and posted on Facebook, a number of memes using this image. The book began to take shape as I explored in my own psychoanalytic treatment why I was so attracted to the image. It thus came to serve as a focal point for many personal issues in my life. Some of these issues are confronted in the book, making the form of the book, at its innermost core, that of a piece of self-writing, of auto-theory, in which the personal and the philosophical are inextricably entangled.

So, auto-theory, in the form of philosophy, in the form of an art catalogue.

The tension between the actualities of my book and the norms of contemporary academic writing is encapsulated in the key notion of the parergon. A parergon (or paratext, when the ergon, or work, is a text) is both part of and outside its associated work. It mediates the work’s place in the world at large and defines its unity. The parergon functions at several levels throughout my book. In the title, there is a distinction between the Batman Meme Project (the first 40 or so of the memes, which were posted on Facebook between January and March 2016) and the memes created after the declared completion of the Batman Meme Project. The text in the book is also a parergon to the memes themselves, an editorial frame around them. And this is associated with the crucial split in the work’s voice between the ‘silent’ artist of the memes, the nominal focus of attention, and the parergonal editor whose official role of commentator is belied by his identity with the artist. Finally, the work of the book is itself continued in further writing around it, now published on my blog, The Parergon. In all these cases, the parerga function to put in question just what the work itself is, what is part of it and what incidental to it. Lacking clear boundaries, lacking an identifiable genre, lacking a single voice in which it is spoken, the work is barely a work. There is, instead, a field of activity, a rhizome, to use Deleuze’s and Guattari’s term.

 A Certain Gesture is cerebral, playful, social, and intensely personal. Parts of it are academic philosophy (though written with the non-specialist reader in mind); parts are funny or absurd; parts are intimate and personal; and parts are about wondrous things of general interest. Many parts are all of these things.

The Village Green Preservation Society

As I began work on my book A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, I was uncertain whether to write about the memes as their creator or whether to adopt a separate persona for the editorializing, thus fracturing my voice between the memes and commentaries. My decision to write about the memes in the third person came from my gut. Despite occasional moments of frustration, engendered by the difficulty this fracture creates for saying some of the things I want to say, I have more and more felt thankful for that early decision and I have come to be able to endorse it not just with my gut but with some explicit awareness of why it is significant.

One reason it is significant has begun to emerge in my recent thought and writing about the project and was first articulated in this post. (And how appropriate it should have become conscious in the course of a different exercise in splitting, a self-interview!) The book is a protest against the totalization involved in academic work and perhaps the most basic form of totalization, so basic we would never even think to identify it at all as noteworthy most of the time, is the unity of the author’s voice. The form of my book disrupts this unity. There is no single authorial voice but… well, at least two (I won’t give away more now), the voice of the meme-maker and the voice of the editor.

Half an hour or so ago, I was listening to “The Village Green Preservation Society” by The Kinks and it made me realize another aspect of this splitting of my authorial voice. The splitting emphasizes, or accentuates, a tendency I have in general to move so smoothly between speaking in my own voice, and so meaning what I say, to various forms of parody, and so not meaning what I say, that I often cannot myself tell whether and when I am being serious. Even before I adopted a formal device for explicitly splitting my voice in my book, I have always already been splitting it implicitly.

This is why I have loved The Kinks for so long: such fluid movement between seriousness and parody is the usual modus operandi of Ray Davies. In the song in question, the singer does little more than come up with absurd names of groups that the Kinks are – the Village Green Preservation Society, the Office Block Persecution Affinity – and lists things that God should save. But while many of the expressed values are no doubt sincere, several are absurd and some are very unlikely. Who is speaking and what is going on? Do the things that we might suspect are not really valued mean that we should understand the others as parody? I think the answer is that the voice keeps changing and that, often, Ray Davies himself would not know whether he was serious or not.

I have always been intrigued by this feature of Ray Davies’s songs. (I remember I wrote something about them along these lines for a fanzine a school chum of mine produced back in 1976 or so.) It’s hard to know if I have been influenced by Ray Davies on this or whether I have just always liked him because it resonates with me. But listening to the song just now, I felt my book’s affinity with it!

Excisions: 6 (The girl is mine)

I mentioned in a couple of previous posts that I decided to excise a number of the memes that were going to be part of my book. It was sufficient for a meme to be excluded that I did not envisage being able to write anything of interest (to me) in the commentary on it. I have now set myself the goal of posting the excised memes here, in an occasional series, and trying to write something of interest (to me) about them, thus proving my decision to exclude them mistaken! Also, in this parergonal space around the book, I will write about the memes without the pretense that their maker is someone other than myself. I am curious to see how this affects the nature of my writing about the memes.

she's-mine

This was originally posted on Facebook on March 15th, 2016. The text is from the song by Michael Jackson (with the participation of Paul McCartney) “The Girl is Mine.” There are, I think, three interesting features of this meme.

First, it superimposes two contexts of conflict each of which can function independently of the other, but which together generate a pattern of  “interference waves” because their conflicts oscillate at different wavelengths. The first, of course, is the conflict in the image, an older man perpetrating physical violence on an adolescent whose guardian he is. The second is the conflict between the two rivals in the song, arguing over whose the doggone girl is. This second conflict itself is played simultaneously in two registers. Explicitly, it is presented as good-natured, friendly rivalry. (The music is cool and laid back; the two sing their rivalry in sweet harmony…) But implicitly, as we all know, such rivalries can be deadly – for both the protagonists and the objects of their possessive love. (This duality, it seems to me, is brilliantly emphasized by the use of the word “doggone,” a humorous and mild euphemism, apt for the friendly rivals, but a barely concealed transformation of the violent and explosive expression “God damn” (or “goddam”).) But neither of these two registers coincides with the conflict in the image. The friendly rivalry of the lovers is less serious than the conflict of the image; the potentially deadly rivalry more serious. There are thus three levels of conflicts reverberating, across two media (the visual and the aural) and the result is a highly-charged meme, bursting with tension. Continue reading “Excisions: 6 (The girl is mine)”

M.77 “find this out; but”

I am publishing here a further excerpt from my book-in-progress A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!. The commentary to the meme discusses titles of art works, classical editorial practices, and Aristotelian virtue ethics.

M.77 find this out; but

irksome2


M.77 find this out; but Composed: April 20th. Orientation: Reverse. Font: Comic Sans. TB1: “Three minutes’ thought would suffice to…”, black. TB2: “Thought is irksome and three minutes is a long time!!!”, black.


This meme uses a well-known quotation from the poet and classicist A.E. Housman: “Three minutes’ thought would suffice to find this out; but thought is irksome and three minutes is a long time” (Housman 1905, xi).  … [A]lthough Batman is clearly interrupting Robin, he is not hijacking the conversation to reframe Robin’s sentiment. Rather, the rhetorical effect of the entire original quotation is preserved intact.

What is not preserved intact, however, is the text of the original quotation. The artist has extracted part of the original from Batman’s and Robin’s encounter. Even with this text missing, their dialogue is entirely comprehensible but in fact, the extracted text is not entirely absent and shows up as (or in?) the meme’s title. The context from which it has been removed, in the meantime, has been slightly altered. Robin’s part of the original has had three dots added at its end. Nor, surely, are these the three dots of ellipsis, signaling that some text has gone missing. Their function is to indicate, rather, that Robin’s speech is interrupted. (This function they discharge largely by graphic means. They are like perforations along which the text is torn in two.) Batman’s segment of the original has its first letter capitalized. (It also has three exclamation marks not in Housman but that is not relevant to the title-text’s immediate surroundings.) Thus, having been extracted, the title-text can fit back properly into its original context at neither end. It is like a jigsaw piece the tabs and blanks of the neighboring pieces of which have been damaged. It has, to all intents and purposes, become an orphan, ripped from a home it can no longer return to.[1]

Turning to the content of Housman’s sentence, let us ask the obvious question: what is it, exactly, that three minutes’ thought would find out were thought not so irksome and three minutes not such a long time? The text is from the preface to his edition of the satires of Juvenal. Housman is discussing the principles of textual criticism and taking to task many of his contemporaries and predecessors. One fault many of these are alleged to have is a mechanical reliance on rules in editing. The 18th century, he says, had as its rule to go with the reading (if there is one) found in a simple majority of manuscripts. The rule of the second half of the 19th century, by contrast, is always to go with the reading of the best manuscript unless what it has is utterly impossible (by which he seems to mean principally ungrammatical or unmetrical). (He describes this as the “fashion of leaning on one manuscript like Hope on her anchor and trusting to heaven that no harm will come of it” (v).) This rule might find expression in an editor’s preface in such words as “I have made it my rule to follow a wherever possible, and only where its readings are patently erroneous have I had recourse to b or c or d” (xi) (though Housman writes acerbically that no eminent scholar would state the rule thus baldly, only his “unreflecting imitators”). Housman then poses a dilemma. Either b, c, and d are derived from a, in which case they should never be preferred to it, or they do not, in which case the rule assumes what is clearly false, that all errors in a will be “impossible readings.” It is this dilemma which three minutes’ thought would find out. Instead of the mechanical application of rules, Housman thinks critics should exercise their faculty of discernment and judgment. Each textual uncertainty will be attended by any number of circumstances a critic may take into account. One cannot detect errors only on the grounds of impossibility but must pay attention, above all, to the sense of what is expressed. A manuscript reading may be judged in error because it describes something implausible or inconsistent with other parts of the text too. (Which is not to say, of course, that these should be turned into new rules and an author never allowed, on principle, to be implausible or inconsistent.) Continue reading “M.77 “find this out; but””

Shmidentity politics

What kind of relation is like identity but holds between a thing and itself (rather than between necessarily co-referring names, for example) by stipulation? Why, shmidentity, of course! The term “shmidentity” (actually “schmidentity,” but see infra on the spelling) was introduced by Saul Kripke in Naming and Necessity and, following his example, the “sh-“ or “shm-“ prefix is now often used in philosophy for properties or relations that resemble other properties or relations but have some feature that may be controversial in the case of the prototypes built in by stipulation.

No-commentary-on-a-fool

The linguist David L. Gold, in a paper in the Jewish Language Review (volume 3, 1983) entitled “A Story about Pocahontas, Geronimo, and Sitting Bull in Yiddish,” refers to the fact that languages in decline (such as Yiddish) often become “ludic languages, that is, languages used largely for jocular purposes, often only for low comedy and vulgar humor” (113). Having made this claim he cites, without quoting, a responsum by him to a reader’s query in an earlier issue of the journal which I here excerpt:

Since Yiddish word-initial /š/ + consonant sounds “funny” to a sizable number of English ears, any Yiddish word containing it is automatically recategorized [as humorous] when entering English (e.g. shmir). Perhaps the fact that initial /šm/ is a pejorizer in Yiddish and EAE [Eastern Ashkenazic English]… has contributed to this feeling among English-speakers. (Volume 2, 1982, 302)

The use of the term “shmidentity,” therefore (and similar neologisms in the philosophy literature) is culturally insensitive, appealing to the ‘funny’-sounding phonemes of a language that translated Freud, Einstein, Shakespeare, and Emily Dickinson, among countless others, for a quick laugh now that that language has fallen on hard times and is forced to wear the fool’s motley. I recommend this usage be avoided in philosophy henceforth.

As for the spelling, “schmidentity” (the form used by Kripke himself) reflects the efforts of those who have sought to cast Yiddish as low German and transcribe it into Latin characters on the model of German spelling. It is, therefore, another blow to the dignity of Yiddish. Standard Yiddish Orthography romanizes /š/ as “sh.” If one must, therefore, continue to use this offensive neologism, I recommend that at least the spelling “shmidentity” be given.


This was to have been a footnote to a footnote to a footnote in my in-progress book. If anyone is interested, here is the tree of footnotes. This note on “shmidentity” [3] would have been a footnote to [2] a discussion of the title of Gold’s paper “A Story about Pocahontas, Geronimo, and Sitting Bull in Yiddish” and the question of whether the story, given in his paper, could really be said to be ‘about’ those figures. (I draw on Robin Jeshion’s views about the link between proper names and de re thought and talk and, obviously, on Kripke’s views about historical chains and reference.) This itself is a footnote to [1] a discussion of whether my Yiddish Batman meme commits the same kind of assault on the dignity of Yiddish that I here lay at the feet of “shmidentity.” (See this earlier post and the links to yet earlier posts it contains.) This, in turn, is a footnote to [0] the main text which is the commentary on my Yiddish Batman meme.