Throughout my philosophical career, one virtue my writing has been consistently praised for is its clarity. Just about every journal referee and every book reviewer has used that very word or one of its cognates. Not its profundity, not its wisdom, not how interesting it is. It’s always clarity, clarity, clarity. And I’m OK with that. I value clarity very highly. Moreover, my discipline, analytic philosophy, is founded on and built around the quest for clarity so my personal virtue is syntonic with the standards of my profession.
But things have been shifting for me lately and, without revoking my approval of clarity, I have come to see it also in other ways. Part of writing clearly is anticipating, and forestalling, potential ambiguities, misunderstandings, and irrelevant but tempting byways. Clear writing, in other words, serves to direct the reader’s thought along exactly the path the author wishes. I would put it in even stronger terms. Clear writing is designed to occupy the reader’s mind, to colonize it, forcing it to renounce its freedom and follow slavishly the writer’s direction of thought.
Deploying a psychoanalytic concept developed by Melanie Klein and her followers, clarity in writing seems to me to be a mechanism of projective identification. Here is part of the definition of projective identification from the New Dictionary of Kleinian Thought (2011):
Projective identification is an unconscious phantasy in which aspects of the self or an internal object are split off and attributed to an external object.
The projected aspects may be felt by the projector to be either good or bad. Projective phantasies may or may not be accompanied by evocative behaviour unconsciously intended to induce the recipient of the projection to feel and act in accordance with the projective phantasy.
In analysis, the patient projects parts of their mind into the analyst and then, subtly and unconsciously, strives to get the analyst to act in conformity with it. If the patient, for example, has aggressive and sadistic phantasies they cannot assimilate, they will attempt to elicit aggressive and sadistic behavior from the analyst. It is both a dangerous and valuable game.
Clear writing, too, is aggressive and sadistic – not in its content but in the domination it attempts. The reader is ‘forced’ to look here and not there (where their own phantasies might take them), to disregard this but to give that a lot of weight, to understand something polysemous in one way and not another. I imagine that what is being projected through this mechanism is the writer’s own anxiety, anxiety about confusion, about uncertainty, about getting lost, about being swallowed up by a messy, stinking pile of conceptual detritus. Writing clearly makes the writer work hard to control what they produce and at the same time, disallows anyone else the freedom to just let it all go.
I, certainly, whose care and intellectual hygiene so routinely earns me praise from my readers, am beset by these anxieties.†
My book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, exhibits my internal struggles around these issues. I have sometimes said that a key way of understanding its organization is through the analytic concept of free association. Free association is a mode of talking which deliberately tries to set clarity aside. As in free association, so in my book, one thing leads to another not through linear logic but through chance associations, phantasy, and play. The book as a whole does not ‘add up to anything.’ Not making any point, it cannot have a telic structure. It can be read in any order. The emphasis placed on the parergon means that the work is not even sharply divided from what lies outside it. ‘The work’ barely exists at all. What could be messier than a work that cannot be distinguished from its frame? Or even from its didactic?
Concurrently with work on my book, anxieties about free association in analysis have been gradually soothed so that now, after 8 years, I finally find myself occasionally able to talk freely. It’s a great feeling.‡ I look forward, too, to writing philosophy that is no longer ‘clear’ but manages to be interesting or profound instead.
† I have written here about my horror of things like nonsensical words in children’s songs .
I’m excited to share with you an edited version of a talk I gave in Genoa a couple of years ago, now in virtual printed form. The piece is about one of the themes that runs through my book-in-progress A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga! – the relations between speech represented in writing that appears as part of an image. Many of the memes exploit the possibilities raised by these interrelations.
Thanks to Caterina Gualco, owner of the contemporary art gallery UniMediaModern in Genoa, Italy, the Batman Meme Project has now hit the international art world. Caterina invited me to submit something to an exhibition she is mounting called 20×20 eventi 2020 (pronounced in Italian “venti per venti eventi venti venti”). It is a ‘magic box’ containing many different art works, all 20x20cm. After the exhibition of the box’s contents, the whole will end up in the Museo d’Arte Contemporanea di Villa Croce, Genoa’s contemporary art museum.
My piece is in the fifth column from the right, second row down. Here it is by itself:
In honor of the momentous event of my being displayed in an art gallery, I am here publishing the full text of my commentary on the meme from my book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!.
M.42 The Sound of Your Blood…
M.42 The Sound of Your Blood… Composed: March 13th. Posted: March 17th. Orientation: Reverse. Font: Comic Sans. TB1: “I can’t stand this noise. If only we had an anechoic chamber, its six walls…”, white. TB2: “Fool! You’d be deafened by the sound of your blood in circulation and your nervous system in operation.”, white.
When the meme was posted on Facebook, on March 17th, a friend of the artist, Edmund Fawcett, commented:
In the prehistoric late 1950s, MoMa in NYC had for a time an anechoic chamber in the garden. I visited as a kid. Batman’s right or half-right. I recall hearing the sound of blood circulating. The leaflet said I’d also hear the electrics in the brain. I tried hard to hear them but didn’t. Maybe thoughts about thoughts were inaudible?
The language used in the meme clearly echoes a story the composer John Cage told in a number of places of a visit he made to an anechoic chamber at Harvard University. For Cage, the moral of the story seems to have been that where there is life, there is music (“until I die there will be sounds”) – something he took to be a joyous state of affairs. The artist, apparently, was fascinated, perhaps even obsessed, by this story, or by the thought of an anechoic chamber, but seems to have made of the whole thing just about the opposite of what Cage took it to mean. As a young man, he wrote what he called a ‘book,’ entitled The Incoherence of the Incoherence (after the work by the Islamic philosopher Averroës). This piece of near-juvenilia is a strange jumble and we shall defer until the commentary on M.96 (“The Origins of Neo-Platonist Metaphysics”) a closer look at it. But the book contains a passage we will quote here in which the artist gives us his own perspective on Cage’s anecdote:
‘Darkness there was, but no silence.’ Such might be an apt description of being in an anechoic chamber with the lights off.
“For certain engineering purposes, it is desirable to have as silent a situation as possible. Such a room is called an anechoic chamber, its six walls made of special material, a room without echoes. I entered one at Harvard University several years ago and heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, and the low one my blood in circulation. Until I die there will be sounds.”
Think what this means. One day, here in the city, listen to the noises around you. Music blares, the traffic roars, people shout. What a din! What a hubbub! In order to escape this inconvenience, remove yourself to the countryside. Enjoy the bird song and the murmuring of the brook (never mind the hurdy-gurdy and the loutish accents). Enjoy them. Sing them to yourself, once, twice, then again, and again and on and on until they grow into a clamorous uproar, until the cricket booms in your ear at night and the whippoorwill screams to you of death.
Then take up thy substance and get thee hence; take thyself and go. Go to the wastelands or the deserts where not even the beasts and insects live. Ah desolate solitude. Let us live together in silent ceremony. But what is this? Can it be that I hear something? Yes, it is coming from over there. No, now it’s here. And there, and there, and there. It’s everywhere. “Yes, everywhere,” howls the wind, in hollow mockery. “As long as this planet moves about the sun there will always be alternate patches of hot and cold air. And the hot air will always displace the cold air and I, yes I, the wind will live forever. And for me, living is screaming. From now on, for you who have seen the barren places of the earth, will my slightest stirring, unheeded by all else, be as the trumpeting of a thousand elephants and when I raise my voice you shall stop your ears and cower, lest you are overcome.”
Fly, fly from here quickly! But where can I go? Where shall the wind not find me? Shall I take refuge from mankind with the wind, or from the wind with mankind? But wait! Has not the ingenuity of man provided me with that with which I can avoid both man and the wind? Is there not the anechoic chamber, its six walls made of special material, a room as silent as technologically possible? But imperiously, the voice of Being laughs: “Get thee to an anechoic chamber, and hear there thy nervous system in operation and hear there thy blood in circulation.”
The piece is strange and somewhat overwrought (and involves a jarring switch from second to first person in the course of the penultimate paragraph) but it strikingly illustrates the artist’s constant, almost existential, struggle against noise, something that also makes itself felt in M.71 (“Shhhh”).
There is more to the story of the artist’s interest in the anechoic chamber and John Cage. We are in possession of a letter he wrote, almost certainly at the end of May or in early June, 1982. Here is the relevant part:
You’ll never guess what happened. It was brill-to-the-max ciudad. I went with Miranda to some of the 70th birthday bash for John Cage at the Almeida. Between two of the events we went to the caff across the road for a cup of tea. We sat down at a large table and then noticed that right next to us, was Cage himself, being interviewed by a couple of wankers. As you know, I’m obsessed by the story he keeps telling about that time he was in an anechoic chamber. So I asked him if he’d been in one in London. He said he’d been photographed in one but it wasn’t operational! What a pity. If only it was working I could go myself. Then we got talking about philosophy. He was absolutely sold on Norman Malcolm’s memoir of Witters., Only he pronounced it as “meeeeemoir,” the first vowel long, in both the phonetic and temporal sense. It sounded so strange. Then, cos me and Miranda are trying to eat a macrobiotic diet, and he wants to write a macrobiotic cookbook(!), he gave us this recipe. (I quote, almost verbatim.) “Take a carrot, a turnip, and a parsnip. Put them in the oven and roast them. It’s delicious.” Ha ha ha. We tried it and do you want to know what it was like? A carrot, a turnip, and a parsnip that had been roasted. Not too thrilling. I hope his cookbook has some recipes in it that are more exciting and tastier than that! Anyway, he was really nice and it was so amazing to chat with him. I feel like a scrofulous peasant that’s been touched by royalty! It’ll be a story to put in a meeeeemoir of my own.
 [Editor’s note:] This quotes the beginning of the artist’s ‘book.’
 [Editor’s note:] Cage (1961, 8). The passage continues: “And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music.”
 [Editor’s note:] Possibly a reference to Genesis 12,1.
 [Editor’s note:] Brilliant to the max city. On the model of “weird city,” a construction the artist learned from the American conductor John Morris Russell when they were students together at Kings College London some time between 1978 and 1981.
 [Editor’s note:] “Cage at 70,” the opening event of the Almeida Festival of 1982, was a series of performances at St James’ Church, London N7 (not at the Almeida Theatre itself, as Evnine suggests in his letter) from Friday May 28th to Sunday May 30th.
 [Editor’s note:] A strangely (or perhaps not) uncharitable reaction to two perfectly innocent people who, no doubt, had banked on this time with Cage and felt it was the artist and his companion who were the ‘wankers.’
 [Editor’s note:] Norman Malcolm’s Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir. For the style of abbreviation manifested in “Witters,” see the commentary on “Distinguo.” The philosopher Grice recalls J.L. Austin’s having said “Some like Witters… but Moore is my man” (Grice 1991, 381). Given that Grice’s book was not published until 1991, the artist’s use of this slang is almost certainly coincidental.
 [Editor’s note:] Cage’s enthusiasm for this work around that time is borne out by a passage from a letter he wrote to Ornella Volta, the author of two works on Satie, on May 25th 1983, a year after the conversation reported here: “I have finished reading your book (in French; no English has arrived); I love it. I can say that for few others. Like yours they are profoundly touching: Norman Malcolm’s Memoir of Ludwig Wittgenstein [sic] and Templier’s Erik Satie (not in the English translation, which I find impossible to read). This making reading matter touching must be what death does to biography” (Cage 2016, 529).
 [Editor’s note:] Again from a letter not long after the reported conversation (Feb 28th, 1983, to Lindsey Maxwell) : “Through John [Lennon] and Yoko [Ono] I changed my diet and that of Merce Cunningham to the macrobiotic diet” (Cage 2016, 528). This makes the artist a kind of culinary grandchild to John and Yoko.
 [Editor’s note:] Cage says this, of his projected cookbook: “instead of just being about cooking, it will be about everything that interests me. But I will arrange the use of chance operations so that cooking comes up more than anything else” (Montague 1985, 206). (How can one do anything other than love that second sentence.) The book was never written but on the website of the John Cage Trust there is a page with Cage’s notes on macrobiotic cooking and a selection of recipes. Amazingly, one can find on the page, under the heading “Root Vegetables,” the following: “Carrots, Turnips, Jerusalem Artichokes, etc. Place in a Rohmertopf (clay baking dish) in a hot oven for an hour or more with a little, very little, sesame oil. They may be covered with leeks and topped with a mixture such as one of those suggested for roast chicken” (http://johncage.org/blog/cagerecipes.html, quoted here with the permission of the John Cage Trust). It is possible that Cage did not recommend to Evnine the use of sesame oil, or that he did, but that the artist ignored the advice.
 [Editor’s note:] Though the present work is hardly a memoir of Evnine, it is, perhaps, a meme-oir, as Cage would have called it, so the artist’s prediction is, literally in a manner of speaking, here being fulfilled.
Several times, now, I have alluded to a song I made up using the many names I bestowed upon my much-loved cat Celestino (c.1992-c.2002). (He was named after Pope Celestine V, the patron saint of bookbinders. Celestine was followed by Boniface VIII when the latter placed a speaking tube in the wall of Celestine’s room and, impersonating the Holy Ghost, urged him to abdicate.) The issue is relevant to my project for two reasons. First, it forms the basis of an objection to a philosophical thesis, defended by the philosopher Robin Jeshion, that our practice of naming is regulated by an ideal that one should not give a name to something if one knows it already has a name. Secondly, I noted that I have a kind of psychological block about saying nonsense words and the revelation of the text of my song is part of an attempt, through the psychoanalysis that my book is largely about, to overcome this inhibition.
Well, here goes nothing:
I have a little grey cat I have a little calico cat And his name is Zemeckis And his name is Tenbrooks And his name is Boon Boy And his name is Farabiano Butel And his name is Macky Bee And his name is Farabutles And his name is Boxim And his name is Bocca And his name is Boyottles And his name is Bunols.
The song is, like Echad Mi Yodea and Green Grow the Rushes, O, a cumulative song. The first iteration consists of the first two lines and the last. The second inserts the penultimate line, and so on, till the last iteration goes through the whole litany.
I will also, in the book, provide the melody but, as you can imagine, this presents a problem of how to notate a cumulative song. Should one just write out the final iteration, as I did with the text, and add an explanation like the one in the previous paragraph? Should one just write the first iteration and then separately provide the melody for the inserted lines? In the end, I decided to write the first and second iterations, setting off the inserted line in the second with repeat marks on either side and a comment above that one should repeat the phrase as many times as one has names to sing.
I am honored to have been asked to contribute an essay on philosophy through memes for the Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Public Philosophy (eds. Nancy McHugh, Lee McIntyre, and Ian Olasov), currently in preparation.
Writing the piece is a challenge. I don’t know of any literature on the topic and feel like I am having to think things through from first principles. (If you know of anything that might be relevant, do please let me know.)
You might think that because I am in the middle of writing a book, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, that itself does philosophy through memes, I would have a lot of fairly developed thoughts on the topic. And I suppose I do. But my own attempts to philosophize through memes are not all that helpful. First, they are impure. My medium is not the meme, but the meme plus commentary (and the commentaries are parts of an ‘art catalogue’ in which the writing is done by a notionally different person from the creator of the memes). So my resources for doing philosophy are much greater than the exiguous ones of a solitary meme (or even a sequence of memes). At the same time, those extra resources are so specific and idiosyncratic that they offer no basis for generalization. Finally, the image I use has a distinctive feature which is not as a rule found in memes and which is the source of much of the philosophizing I attempt through it: the speech bubbles that derive from its original appearance as part of a comic.
Speech bubbles allow spoken language to be represented by pictures of writing. It is the space between these three – image, writing, speech – that allows me to explore in a practical way the kind of philosophical issues raised by Derrida, in Of Grammatology, and more recently, by Alva Noë in Strange Tools. The difference between writing and a picture of writing, and the different relation each has to speech, became a major theme in the composition of the memes. (It is the topic of a talk I gave recently, available here in Italian and here in English.) Some of the ways in which it shows up in the memes are : footnotes (an exclusively written phenomenon) appearing in the speech bubbles; text represented in different alphabets, including Braille – a primarily tactile rather than visual alphabet); and text and speech bubble appearing in a mirror reflection. Even the use of punctuation in the speech bubbles raises issues since, like footnotes, it is a feature of writing, not speech. (In addition, the exclamation mark, which I came to use so frequently, is a written element that has distinctly pictorial qualities. From top to bottom, a whoosh and a slap!)
None of this, however, has any general application to philosophy through memes. What, then, is philosophy through memes? It is easy to imagine something bland and boring, like this:
A brief quotation from Paley’s version of the Argument from Design is, in very lightly edited form, superimposed onto an image of Paley himself. If this were the best that could be done for philosophy through memes, it would hardly be worth pursuing.
Perhaps we get to something more interesting with this:
The same text now appears over Salvador Dalí’s painting The Persistence of Memory. Putting the text over this surreal depiction of drooping watches now evokes pictorially an obvious objection to Paley’s argument: the ‘watch’ that needs explaining (i.e. the adaptation of means to ends found in the natural world) is not as perfect as all that and therefore hardly suggests the existence of an omnipotent maker. Furthermore, the positioning of the text itself, which echoes the watch on the left, reinforces the imperfection not just of the world, but of Paley’s argument about it.
Perhaps an even better example of philosophy through memes is evident in a meme which, unlike those above, was not made by me. (I don’t know who made it.)
A well-known meme with this image uses the text “The hardest prison to escape is in your own mind.” This Foucauldian sentiment is clearly at work in the present version but whereas the original has the image simply illustrating the idea, here we see the idea being alluded to by the little boy in his play. This emphasizes the super hetero-normativity of the image, thereby connecting the Foucauldian point to the specifics of white, middle-class American life. (I will be showing my students this meme when I teach the chapter of Ellen Feder’s book Family Bonds: Genealogies of Race and Gender in which she discusses the panoptic design of Levittown, a plausible location for the scene in the image.)
Clearly there is a lot more to say about philosophy through memes – but you’ll have to wait until the finished article to learn my thoughts on it. If you have any thoughts of your own, why not leave them in a comment?
Next week, I am going to teach again David Kaplan‘s wonderful paper “Dthat.” David was one of my teachers in graduate school and although I did not work especially closely with him, I had enough experience of him to be smitten. He had, and no doubt still has, a luminous and humorous intelligence that was utterly beguiling, both personally and intellectually.
It’s a bit hard to explain what “dthat” is to those not immersed in analytic philosophy of language but I’ll give it a try. Kaplan, in the paper of that name, is discussing the semantics of the English demonstrative “that” and makes certain conjectures about how it might be used. Rather than argue over the substantive question of whether the English expression is used in the conjectured way, Kaplan employs a technique not uncommon in analytic philosophy (another instance of which I touch on in my post Shmidentity Politics) and introduces a neologism about which he can stipulate the features that are merely conjectured to apply in the real-life case. “Dthat,” (pronounced exactly like “that”) is a demonstrative device about which roughly the following is stipulated: when it appears in a sentence, what it contributes to the meaning of an utterance of the sentence is nothing other than the object demonstrated. This extends to its use when coupled with descriptive content. So in an utterance of “Dthat slap you just gave me really hurt,” the meaning of the expression “[the] slap you just gave me” does not enter into the meaning expressed by the utterance, but functions in something like the way pointing does, if I point to an ice sculpture and say “Dthat is going to melt pretty soon.” The pointing is, we might say, a parergon to the meaning of the utterance; and just so is the meaning of “[the] slap you just gave me” a kind of linguistic parergon – a paratext – to the meaning of the utterance in question.
A long-standing question for philosophers of language is whether proper names function, semantically, in a way similar to “dthat.” Proper names, Kaplan says, are a “theoretician’s nightmare.” He concludes that “if it weren’t for the problem of how to get the kids to come in for dinner, I’d be inclined to just junk them.” Perhaps because his character is so evident in this sentence, it’s always been one my favorite bits of philosophy! Of course, unsurprisingly, there is a very deep point there too. Names are used not only to refer, which is how almost all philosophers of language approach them, but to address as well, to interpellate (as Althusser puts it). It is, Kaplan suggests, their use as means of interpellation that makes it impossible to get by without proper names.
This is the background to a meme, composed several years after most of the others that will appear in my book, that will be the final entry in A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!. In it, I combine the form of the Batman-slapping-Robin meme with that of another meme: Broke-Woke-Bespoke. This allows for some allegedly tired content (though I hope this post makes evident how inappropriate I think it is to regard Kaplan’s original formulation as in any way tired!) to be transformed into a ‘woke’ version, and ultimately into a ‘bespoke’ version, the acme of its possible expressions.
It was a real pleasure to talk to the Oxford University Philosophy Society last week (Wed 27th May, 2020). The quality of the recording we made of the event was not great. I have repaired a few of the problems here but you’ll still notice words skipping now and then.
I discuss how the memes in my book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, attempt to ‘enact’ philosophy (rather than philosophizing discursively in the usual way) around the relations between speech and writing, when complicated by the fact that the writing is presented pictorially. I also read an excerpt from the book which deals with John Cage and silence.
I will be talking live about my book-in-progress A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga! and reading an excerpt from it. The event is courtesy of the Oxford University Philosophy Society and will take place, over Zoom, on Wednesday 27th May at 7.30pm UK time (2.30pm US Eastern).
The talk will be an adaptation of the one I gave in Italian last October in Genoa. In it, I will discuss some of the ways that the memes in my book utilize the feature of the speech bubble (derived from the comic strip origins of the image) to explore the relations between speech, writing, and images of speech/writing.
I will conclude by reading an excerpt from the book that pertains to silence, and to my encounter with John Cage.
The link to the Zoom meeting will be posted here before the talk starts.
When I was working on the first academic presentation of my book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, I struggled a lot with how to justify a work that was (partly) about me. Why should anyone be interested in it? I remember trying to compose in my head an introduction to the talk that would address this problem head on and coming up with two totally different ways of seeing the inclusion of self-writing in my otherwise disunified book. Unable to decide which of these correctly described my case, I ended up using them both, and adding two further introductions for good measure, one after the other, with strict instructions to the audience to forget the previous introductions as they heard each new one. (I highly recommend this practice for general use in philosophy. Why do we demand that our work be unfractured?)
Though I have already published the second of the introductions on this blog, I will put it here again, along with the first, because they speak so directly to my concerns about the sense in which my work is auto-theory. Here is the first:
Many people have a strong desire to speak, or more pertinently, to write about themselves. Not because they wish to hog the limelight, or to be the center of attention. I am not here talking about extroverts, and still less about narcissists. What I am talking about is a strong, almost primordial desire, stemming from our earliest years, for visibility – a desire to be seen and known. To be counted. But a desire to be seen depends on others to see us. One must fight for the attention of, and recognition by, others who may have no interest in seeing or counting one. For those, then, who seek to gratify this desire to be seen through self-writing, various strategies present themselves. Humor is one obvious way to mediate one’s desire for recognition – the child learns not to scream, but to caper! Lyricism is another. More complex strategies are also available. The general can be coaxed from the particular details of a life so that in reading about the other, the reader can also read about herself. And, where the events and idiosyncracies of a person’s life are of a kind that are theorized about in some on-going discursive practice, some variety of theory, the possibility arises of intertwining the expression of the desire for visibility with the pursuit of that discursive practice.
Whatever form the accommodation takes, it is a compromise between the childish desire to be seen and the adult realization that being seen requires an other to do the seeing and that such seeing is not simply there for the taking. The childish desire to show one’s face is met, as it were, with a slap by the reality principle that knows that to be seen, a face must mask itself in some way to make it enticing to the viewer. The upwelling or over-flowing needs of the id must be tamped down by the ego and super-ego.
That is what I see in this image:
An enthusiastic, youthful Robin, as yet unsuccessful in making himself visible to us, is schooled by the older Batman. “No-one is interested in you, Robin,” the image itself seems to say. “Your childish capers are insufficient excuse to speak. Wear a mask!”
And here is the second:
In 1969, the expression “the personal is political” was coined by feminist thinkers to challenge the idea that there is a disjuncture between the personal and the broader structures of power in which individuals are inscribed. If we interpret “political” broadly, so as to include all forms of public, institutional discourse, a special case of the expression would be “the personal is philosophical.” This special case would cover efforts to overcome the disjuncture between the personal and the conventions and norms of philosophy as a discipline. Those norms enjoin authors to keep their own personalities out of their work, enjoin readers to focus only on the ‘ideas’ in the text, ideas that are supposed to be able to circulate without any vital connection to the lives and circumstances of their authors. This valorization of objectivity and impersonality, with its effacement of the people who produce philosophy and the ways their individuality affects the contents of their philosophy, has left philosophy shriveled and immature, deprived of the nourishing life-blood of the real people who make it. What is desperately needed for the reinvigoration of philosophy is the rude and forceful interpellation of our stunted disciplinary norms by the subject, in all her strange specificity and individuality. Auto-theory is one form this interpellation can take: the calling out of a moribund modality of philosophy by the subject, slowly and seductively revealing his own face. But because each subject is singular, unique, and real, the face of her desire, even as it reveals itself, will always retain an element of inscrutability to the other. “Fetish” is the name we give to what is inexplicable, what is surd, in desire.
My project is a work of auto-theory, conducted under the sign of this image
in which the joyful, liberating, fetish-clad warrior, in his idiosyncratic singularity, forces the intrusion of the personal onto the stunted, childish discipline of academic philosophy, trying, with a slap, to bring the blood to its face, trying to rouse it from its valorization, at once perverse and torpid, of the production of philosophy without a visible human face.
So, on the one hand, the personal serves only the primal needs of the writer and has to be made attractive – entertaining or instructive – to allow it to serve those needs and render the writer visible to others. On the other, the personal serves a political goal, of challenging repressive institutional and disciplinary norms.
Regarding the first, I have spoken many times of the ways in which my book is intertwined with my analysis and long-standing struggles over the sense of my own invisibility have been a staple of that analysis. I vividly remember an occasion in about 1984 on which Anthony Gottlieb, in the course of a philosophical discussion we were both part of, casually illustrated some point by considering the proposition that there were n people in the room, taking a moment to work out n, and I realized, with a shock of panic and pleasure that is still reverberating more than 30 years later, that I was one of that number! (Hence “to be counted” in the first introduction.)
It is the spirit of the second introduction, though, that puts the “auto” into auto-theory. It is there because the personal is political. But these posts of mine on auto-theory are asking, in effect, whether the personal is always political. Won’t it depend on the person in question?
We trans people live under constant “theoretical pressure.” Theories float on high, dogging our moves, questioning our motives, limiting or opening our options… We have an intimate relation to theory. It gets stuck to our bodies. One of the reasons trans people exist under theoretical pressure is precisely that we don’t conform to everyday expectations—we’re considered anomalous. But, from the other side of the theory, we “anomalies” want to know what’s going on. For us, our very relation to theory needs to be subject to inquiry. It’s an important question: What is it to philosophize from underneath the theory, on the other side of theory? (4)
For ‘anomalous’ people, people who live under “theoretical pressure,” the inclusion of their lives and lived experience in theoretical work is disruptive of the theories that pressure them.
If this is auto-theory, then my work cannot be rightly classified as such. For all the ways in which I feel not at home in the world, ways that I alluded to in my previous post on this topic, I do not, for the most part, live under theoretical pressure. (Qualification: Jews are a group that have lived, for thousands of years, under enormous theoretical pressure. Bettcher’s lovely phrase “living under theoretical pressure,” in fact, perfectly describes the history of ideology around Jews and Judaism so impressively documented in David Nirenberg‘s Anti-Judaism (2013). But in my particular case, that theoretical pressure has been not all that heavy.) Seeking the status of auto-theory for my work, appropriating its language, is a kind of imposture that is far from innocent. (Curiously, the original occasion for the two introductions was a talk at an academic institution, arranged through the good offices of a friend who works there. At some point, after the thing had been arranged, I learned quite by chance that the talk was to occur under the auspices of MAP – Minorities and Philosophy – a group dedicated to diversifying the profession. I’m not sure why that was but it shows that I got off to an early start in my career as an impostor!)
The only thing that gives me pause over the auto-slap of the previous paragraph is this. Surely every theory of Blackness must imply a theory of Whiteness, any theory of femininity a theory of masculinity, and so for all groups that have been treated as ‘anomalous.’ (Perhaps one could coin a slogan for this: no anomaly without an omaly. Sadly the word “omaly” does not exist in English and the word “omalous,” which does, has a purely mathematical meaning.) So in some sense, we all live in intimate relation to theory, it’s just that some of us don’t know it. (This, of course, is what feminist and critical race theorists have been telling us for decades.) Perhaps by appropriating the language of auto-theory, I can work to make myself (and others like me) feel more under theoretical pressure. (Only, I’m not entirely clear as to whether that is something I’m doing in my work, so I won’t stop slapping just yet.)
Finally, there is another sense of auto-theory for which the personal is political regardless of the identity of the person in question. This is a weaker, formal sense in which local features of the disciplinary landscape are challenged by any introduction of the personal into theoretical contexts. But this post has already gone on too long, so the examination of that must await a future occasion.
My colleague from Religious Studies, Professor Robyn Walsh, is teaching a class Star Wars and Religion. Part of how she is continuing to teach her class during the plague is by making podcasts and she has done one with me, on the grounds that there are Baby Yoda memes.
I had a very enjoyable conversation with Robyn and we talked about my book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, auto–theory, the ontology of memes, spirit versus letter in St Paul, Star Wars, and yes, Baby Yoda memes (it’s Robyn who has all the cool things to say about that!).