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.

Excisions: 1

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.

TMI

This was posted on Facebook on February 21st, 2016. It is the first of a group of memes that deal with being in analysis. (Mostly, in the memes, I use the term “analyst.” Here, for reasons I can no longer recall, I have used “therapist.” My preference for the term “analyst,” I fear, betrays a kind of seedy one-upmanship on my part – of which I am not proud! – as if to say, “I’m not talking about any old therapy but honest-to-goodness, genu-ine psychoanalysis.” I wonder if I wasn’t deliberately trying to slap down that tendency in myself by here going with “therapist.” Indeed, as I write this, I now feel I remember that very thought process.) I decided to omit the meme from the final tally because it is quite similar to, though not quite as good as, another, later meme. Continue reading “Excisions: 1”

Simcha Bunim/simkhe-bunim

When I first created the Yiddish Batman meme, I had to come up with a ‘Jewish’ name for Batman.

Simcha-Bunim-revised

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

I don’t now remember the exact thought process that eventuated in “Simcha Bunim,” other than that I wanted something that would sound a bit comic. (Apologies to anyone whose name actually is Simcha Bunim.) I see now, for reasons briefly mooted here, that I may have taken a first, tottering step towards vicious stereotyping at that point. The question of the meme’s relation to stereotyping is something I have now incorporated discussion of in the commentary on the meme. I was greatly helped on my way to this end by my ‘irascible’ expert (introduced here and further mentioned here). Truth be told, he came to the conclusion that my meme, in the light of the commentary (of which he saw an earlier, unreconstructed version), was “repulsive”! (You can see I am still processing the trauma of this.)

But the point of the present post is not to linger on that calamity, but to express my amazement at just how much there has been to say about the name “Simcha Bunim.” I wonder if I just got lucky and picked a name that raised so many interesting issues, or whether any name would have yielded comparable riches.

Specifically,

Continue reading “Simcha Bunim/simkhe-bunim”

M.12 “They’re Forgetting Slappy”

Here is one of the memes with the commentary that will form part of my book A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!. (I published this on Facebook a while back but am now reposting it here on this blog.)

M.12 They’re Forgetting Slappy

Slappy

——————————————————

M.12 They’re Forgetting Slappy Composed: February 24th. Posted: February 24th. Orientation: Reverse. Font: Arial. TB1: “It’s great! Now there’s also Love, Haha, Wow, Sad…”, black. TB2: “They’re forgetting Slappy!”, black.

——————————————————

This was created and posted on the day that a range of new reactions, to augment the thitherto solitary Like, were introduced by Facebook.

Evnine seemed to devote a lot of thought to Facebook reactions. On the same day on which this meme was posted, he wrote another status update in which, because the number of available reactions were now six, he suggested using a die to determine which reaction to use. (His friend and former student Ryan Lake thereafter consistently responded to the postings of the memes with apparently random reactions.) Later, on May 8th, Facebook rolled out another reaction, Thankful (only available in some places, and temporarily, in honor of Mother’s Day), and this prompted the artist to post the following remarks:

I see today Facebook has a rolled out a new ‘reaction’ option – Thankful. My first thought was to post a joke about being thankful for the new option. But I’m not a thankful person in general and I will never use it – so I’m not thankful for it. However, all those who are likely to use it will, no doubt, be thankful for it!

What about the self-applicability of the other options? I do like the Like option, but I don’t love the Love one; I merely like it, and use it frequently. I do not laugh at (or with), or find funny, the HaHa option, though if it had been designed differently, with more verbal panache,[1] I might have.

I am not wowed by Wow (though I often use it); it’s really commonplace in both design and function. And I am definitely not angry about Angry! As long as there are people who applaud between movements in classical concerts or who park across the sidewalk and force disabled people into the grass to get around them, we need Angry. So I’m thankful for Angry.

Am I sad about Sad? I am sad that there is sadness, and hence a need for Sad. But, as Gavin Lawrence[2] used to ask (and maybe still does! I hope so, because it made a big impression on me, so thanks Gavin!), am I sad that I or others experience sadness when their loved ones are sick or dying? Do I wish for a world in which no-one dies? Would that mean wishing for a world in which no-one was born, or one in which the world got more and more crowded? I don’t know. So I don’t know whether I’m sad about Sad.

Finally, a plea for a new reaction button (are you reading this Ariel?[3]): Grelling Paradoxical!

Continue reading “M.12 “They’re Forgetting Slappy””

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

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

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

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

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

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