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 previousposts about the Yiddishmeme 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.
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!
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.
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 awork. 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.
As it stands, the manuscript of my book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, bears three epigraphs. Those three are very dear to me and the fact that there are exactly three of them is important in the book. So I’m not inclined to monkey about with them.
Notwithstanding, I am repeatedly coming across other passages that would make fantastic epigraphs or that somehow encapsulate something vital about my project. Hence, I am currently considering adding to the front-matter of the book a substantial number of these passages, making up their own section. (Fittingly for a book that is so much about the parergon, I see an interesting copyright issue on the horizon if I do pursue this idea. Quotations in the body of a text generally do not require copyright permission but the same quotations, if used as epigraphs, do. On which side of this divide will my Moby-Dick-like collection of quotes about slaps fall, placed, as it will be, between the epigraphs proper and the main text?)
Here is one marvelous passage which so accurately seems to capture how I have used the image of Batman slapping Robin that I gasped when I first read it. I will certainly include it in the envisaged section, if I do decide to go with that. The passage is from David Grossman’s bravura novel A Horse Walked Into a Bar and it concerns a stand-up comic who is failing to get a laugh from his audience:
Now he screams: “No? Not at all? No, no, no?” He slaps his face, ribs, stomach. The spectacle looks like a fight between at least two men. Within the whirlwind of limbs and expressions I recognize the countenance that has passed over his face more than once this evening: he is uniting with his abuser. Beating himself with another man’s hands.
Perhaps this theme is most clearly sounded in my book in the commentary I have provided to a meme in which Robin says only “I am being slapped by Batman” and Batman replies “I am slapping Robin.” The commentary itself is in the form of another meme, in the genre Increasingly Verbose. In this kind of meme a pair of image and text is iterated several times, the image becoming more abstract and the text becoming increasingly verbose with each iteration. Here it is, made public for the first time.
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!
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
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.
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””
as our society changes… the author function will disappear, and in such a manner that fiction and its polysemous texts will once again function according to another mode… All discourses… would then develop in the anonymity of a murmur.
I quoted this striking passage in my paper on memes, “The Anonymity of a Murmur: Internet (and Other) Memes,” because I think it well describes memes. Each, I said, was too ephemeral to be a distinctive work of art; but collectively, they “create a vast susurration that restlessly adapts itself to new technologies and new modes of expression and communication.”
Given this outlook on memes, there is a sense in which, in A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, I am creating anti-memes. By writing elaborate commentaries on my dozens of Batman memes, I am elevating each to the status of a properly-authored text, each one small, to be sure, but made by a real author in a real context that the commentaries, after their own idiosyncratic fashion, will attempt to bring out. Continue reading “The “anonymity of a murmur” and the so-called Intentional Fallacy”
I have previously indicated that the spirit of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn hovers over my own efforts in A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!. I first read the Sebald six or seven years ago. In the course of his loosely connected, almost free associative, wanderings from one reflection on death and destruction to another, he describes a visit to Somerleyton, the seat of an unlikely magnate from the nineteenth century, now a crumbling cabinet of curiosities in which a guided tour takes one through rooms of bygone paraphernalia. A camphorwood chest which may once have accompanied a former occupant of the house on a tour of duty to Nigeria or Singapore now contains old croquet mallets and wooden balls… The walls are hung with copper kettles, bedpans, hussars’ sabres, African masks, spears, safari trophies, hand-coloured engravings of Boer War battles… Nor can one readily say which decade or century it is, for many ages are superimposed here and coexist… How fine a place the house seemed to me now, continues Sebald, that it was imperceptibly nearing the brink of dissolution and silent oblivion.
In order to avail myself of its riches in the execution of my own current project, I recently started to re-read Sebald’s work – with some trepidation, since time leaves nothing unaltered. And indeed my experience of it has been rather different. On my first reading, I recall being enveloped by a single sustained mood, utterly enchanted. Now, owing perhaps to the somewhat difficult circumstances in which I have been re-encountering Sebald’s melancholy ramblings, my experience has been highly fragmented. I have learnt to recognize, and hence occasionally be irritated by, some of his mannerisms. Parts of the book have moved me nearly to tears while other parts have felt forced and predictable. I have little doubt that the differences here come from me and do not reflect substantial variations in the quality of Sebald’s writing.
One mannerism, which I had either not noticed on my first reading or else had forgotten about, is the way in which Sebald mentions a work by some other writer and then begins, without any warning (and hence without the use of quotation marks), to quote from it. One does not always realize this is happening until one runs into the use of a personal pronoun which is clearly the original author’s and not Sebald’s. At this juncture, Sebald will insert text into the quotation that alerts the reader to the dislocation of the personal pronoun, as I did two paragraphs above.
I had determined that I would use this technique to incorporate some of Sebald’s own book into the commentary on a meme that refers to Sir Thomas Browne, who himself is the subject of some of Sebald’s reflections and whose own spirit evidently infuses his work.
How thrilled I was, then, when a friend and student, Ted Locke, suggested that I read a paper by the literary scholar Jane Tompkins called “Me and My Shadow.” Ted and I have discussed auto-theory off and on for over a year. Tompkins’s paper is an early manifesto of auto-theory. In it, she expresses a frustration with academic writing and a desire somehow to incorporate a more personal element into her work that exactly reflects (or I should say, preflects, since her essay was published in 1987) my own motivations for and aspirations in A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!. Having referred to Ursula Le Guin’s distinction between father tongue (which only lectures) and mother tongue (which expects an answer), she goes on to say:
I find that having released myself from the duty to say things I’m not interested in, in a language I resist, I feel free to entertain other people’s voices. Quoting them becomes a pleasure of appreciation rather than the obligatory giving of credit, because when I write in a voice that is not struggling to be heard through the screen of forced language, I no longer feel that it is not I who am speaking, and so there is more room for what others have said.
Sebald’s murmuring prose does exactly what Tompkins seeks to articulate in her essay; it blends the impersonal historical with the personal, it seamlessly incorporates other voices, and it never struggles to make itself heard through forced language. This incorporation of other voices makes his work itself a cabinet of literary curiosities – a work in which one cannot tell what decade or century it is, in which one is as likely to find oneself conjecturing about Sir Thomas Browne’s attendance at a scene depicted by Rembrandt as on the childhood of Conrad, or on the death of Edward Fitzgerald, whose translations of Omar Khayam are so distinctive that they have passed into the English language as something generic – just one of the many ways English can be – in the way that the King James translation of the Bible has. I have yet to finish my second reading of The Rings of Saturn but the frustrations of my re-reading of its earlier parts will, I feel sure, be entirely reconfigured, and perhaps disappear altogether, owing to Tompkins’s invigorating essay. And for anyone keeping track, you might have noticed that I have been silent on my blog for some time now – this post, “Other voices,” is the first new parergonal material I have been able to create for quite some time.
Last weekend, I opened a dedicated Twitter account to go with this blog – essentially as a way of informing people that there are new posts. But the involvement of Twitter in the epitextual writings around my book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, also brings to the fore elements of the project that I have long been thinking about.
It came to me, during the heyday of my production of Batman memes in early to mid 2016, that the memes themselves were a little like tweets. That inspired me to make one meme, which I will not display here since I have to hold back a few good ones for the appearance of the book, in which Robin’s text is in the form of a tweet, #s and @s and all.
The resemblances stem from, though exceed, the limits to the amount of text one can use in both. With Twitter, the limit is hard and clear – 140 characters. With memes, the limit is what can be legibly imposed on the image. This is true for all image macro memes, but with Batman Slapping Robin, there is even less space than usual in the image available for text, if one wants to include all the text in the speech bubbles. I frequently struggled to pare down the text I wanted to use to one I could make legible. A few memes just could not be pared down enough and I had to resort to other measures. In this meme (M.29 “… he was a jew,” published on Facebook on March 7th 2016), I both strained legibility almost to breaking point and overflowed the bounds of the speech bubble:
Gerard Genette (yes, I’m still reading Genette’s Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation – it’s endless!) is now discussing the various functions of different kinds of prefaces (all quotations below from pp. 203-5). One function of the most common kind of preface (by the author; published with the text originally) is to explain the unity of the work it stands before. This is especially the case when the work is a collection of some kind. But some authors, he notes, make a point of eschewing the unity of the work and embracing its disunity. Roland Barthes, writing later of his collection Essais critiques, said “I explained in my preface why I didn’t want to give these texts, written at different times, a retrospective unity” but, somewhat contradictorily goes on to say “The unity of this collection can only be a question: What is writing?” As Genette wryly comments: “The retrospective unity that is virtuously shoved out the door sneaks back in through the window in the form of a ‘question’.” (And, talking of Barthes, how brilliantly the lack of punctuation speaks in his title Sade Fourier Loyola, the preface to which “emphasizes indirectly… the incongruous – indeed provocative – appearance of such a grouping.”) More resolutely, Borges, in many of his prefaces, appears to prize diversity over unity: “This book is nothing more than a compilation,” “God grant that the essential monotony of this miscellany… be less evident than the geographical and historical diversity of its themes,” and so on.
I have come to realize that A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga! is about exactly this – privileging disunity and disorganization over their opposites. The Wunderkammer, again: a curious assortment, a serendipity, a heap. But just how far down can disunity go in the book? Continue reading “Repellent intimacy”
At a recent presentation in London of A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, I structured my remarks entirely around an explication of the work’s difficult title. There, it was a matter of associating each component of the title (including, I hasten to add, its punctuation) with either knowledge an audience would need to understand what the book will be (i.e. what a meme is, what a Batman meme is) or with aspects of the book itself that I wanted to present to the audience. But, now continuing to plough my way through Gerard Genette’s maddening book Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation (maddening because the topic is so interesting and yet the discussion of it so long and boring), I am inspired to say something about the rhetoric of my title.
Genette notes that it is virtually routine for academic books to have a title that “evokes symbolically or cryptically” (by means, often, of metaphor, metonymy, antiphrasis, etc.) and a subtitle that “gives a more literal indication of the theme.” American publishers, he says, call the main title “catchy” (or even “sexy”!!) but the subtitle “is often a complete cure for love.” Occasionally, however, he notes that the relation between title and sub-title, with regards to their capacities to enflame or douse the reader’s ardor, may be reversed.