Holy podcast, Batman!

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.

BabyYoda
Thing I learnt while preparing for the podcast

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!, autotheory, 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!).

On auto-theory: Bodies that are (not) at home

In my first post on auto-theory in my book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, I raised the question of whether auto-theory, arising as it does out of emancipatory political struggles, is something a multiply-privileged person like me can properly engage in.  Auto-theory is the insurrectionary intrusion of the personal into the theoretical. One way it works, according to some feminist theorists, is by orienting theory to the lived bodily reality of the author. I quoted Sara Ahmed, who describes a ‘sweaty concept’ as “one that comes out of a description of a body that is not at home in the world” (Living a Feminist Life, 13). I remarked that the body of a cis straight able-bodied white male tenured professor is not one that is generally imagined as “not at home in the world.”

But the reality is that I do not experience my body as being at home in the world at all. There are many reasons why my body does not feel ‘at home’ in the world. If I were braver, and if the anticipated result were less pitiful, I would describe a number of them. As it is, I will mention just one: how I hate the sound of my own voice. I cannot listen to recordings of it and when, as occasionally happens, I catch an echo from the inside of what it sounds like from the outside, I cringe. (I believe this is quite a common experience.)

shh
I’m very fond of this meme, which will be included in the book. It is the only one which modifies a speech bubble into a thought bubble. It is, of course, not entirely apropos relative to the point I am making in the text.

To speak in more general terms, Plato’s claim that the body is like a prison to the soul has always resonated strongly with me. I feel my body to be an alien thing, beset by inconvenient (this is hardly the right word) needs and desires.

At this point, though, my thoughts about “at homeness” in the world become confused. Feminist scholars such as Genevieve Lloyd and Andrea Nye (among others) have persuasively argued that such images of alienation from the body, along with the attendant prioritizing of mind over body, reason over emotion, action over passion, etc. (the very priorities auto-theory is aimed at overturning) are staples of specifically male-dominated philosophy. If being at home in the world means embracing the values of white men that are promulgated to the benefit of white men, then my very not feeling at home in the world (manifested in such things as hating the sound of my own voice) is part of what makes me at home in the world!

In one of the commentaries in the book, on a meme entitled Couples Therapy, I quote a passage from Andrea Nye’s book Words of Power: A Feminist Reading of the History of Logic (1990). As a graduate student, I used to be fond of quoting this passage as an object of ridicule.

Desperate, lonely, cut off from the human community which in many cases has ceased to exist, under the sentence of violent death, wracked by desires for intimacy that they do not know how to fulfill, at the same time tormented by the presence of women, men turn to logic. (175)

Now, older, a little wiser, and more humble, I look at myself and see only its truth. (And of course, I contemn the younger man who laughed. But could my fascination have indicated, even then, some shameful self-knowledge?)

The man described in Nye’s passage is both at home and not at home in the world. Can he write auto-theory? What are the terms under which he can join, should he want to, the emancipatory struggle with which auto-theory is linked? As “at home” in the world in the sense of finding refuge in the scared hidey-hole that has been the headquarters of patriarchy, he surely has nothing to say. As “not at home” in the sense of being “desperate, lonely, wracked…,” he should surely keep his mouth shut if he doesn’t want to fall into the we cis white men have it so hard – if only you knew – in fact, we probably have it harder than trans people, people of color, women mode. Is nothing the only thing he can say?


The first part of this series on auto-theory in A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga! can be read here.

A third part will follow in which I discuss “the personal is political.”

“A misstep of monumental proportions”

The other day I woke up to find that the polymathic philosopher Eric Schliesser had written a blog post, “On Analysis,” about my own blog post from a few days earlier, “For the letter kills, but the spirit gives life.” I was, naturally, immensely flattered and excited. (Really I’m just a little boy clamoring for attention.) I was even more gratified when I read the post! I loved what it had to say about rigor in (analytic) philosophy and its connections to psychological fragility. As I said to Eric, thanking him for the post, I feel that my book, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, is largely about making myself vulnerable. So, all in all, I thought that Eric’s post really got the spirit of what I was trying to say.

But of course, nothing is simple. After I conveyed something of the above to Eric, he told me that the original draft of his post was “a bit satirical” of my piece but that he then realized he was “not doing justice” to the way in which I was actually making myself vulnerable in my own post. Intensely curious, I asked to see the original, satirical version but, alas, Eric had not preserved it. So, I feel I have no recourse for satisfying my curiosity but to recreate his draft myself. That way, as is always my preference, I get to be both Batman and Robin in this image that underlies my book project.

canvas

I do not have a vivid enough sense of Eric’s style to imitate him but I will, at least, attempt to suppress my own stylistic tics and mannerisms. I include Eric’s original post at the end, but I encourage you to read it on his own blog.

On Analysis

One recurring fascination is the common root “analysis” in “analytical philosophy” and “psychoanalysis.” I sometimes wonder why analyse and its cognates had such pull over late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century (Viennese and Cambridge) minds. (The sympathetic attitude of many members of  the Vienna Circle to Freud and psychoanalysis has been somewhat studied. And more attention still needs to be given to Roger Money-Kyrle, who studied mathematics in Cambridge in 1919 and then went to Vienna both to be analysed by Freud and do a PhD under Moritz Schlick. I was alerted to Money-Kyrle’s importance by David Livingstone Smith, who has drawn on his work on propaganda in the light of Jason Stanley’s fine work in this area (recall this and this).)

I was reminded of this by Simon Evnine, who sometimes calls my attention to his blog “The Parergon.” A recent post of his there, “For the letter kills, but the spirit gives life,” makes painfully explicit what psychoanalysis can reveal about one of the worst aspects of analytic philosophy. I have noted before (recall) the analytic philosopher’s tendency to describe the toolkit of her craft in terms of surgical (and laser-like) instruments, but in those instances the instruments are meant to heal.  Simon gleefully embraces this (“choosing exactly the right words, multiplying distinctions in order to communicate with laser precision”) but explicitly and alarmingly casts these tools as instruments of destruction (“the obsessively-controlled language that I wield almost like a weapon”).+

It is just this literalism that Simon so extols in his post that leads to the unsympathetic readings that analytic philosophers so typically give to all other kinds of philosophy. The tendency to take some sentence or passage by, for example, Marshall McLuhan or Hayden White out of context and subject it to rigorous logical analysis is so distressingly wrong-headed – missing the spirit of the text for its letter. It is as though (I am now inspired by Simon’s “letteralism”), if even one single letter in this non-analytic philosophy is found to be out of place, such work will be worthless – like a Torah scroll in which every letter must be perfect. The analytic philosopher likes to see herself as the true protector of intellectual purity.

Simon’s embrace of literalism thus seems a sorry spectacle of an all too familiar kind. But what is interesting about his post is the light it inadvertently sheds on this phenomenon. Simon talks of his literalism as arising from “frustrating experiences.” One doesn’t have to buy into the whole of Freud’s theory to see a parallel between the analytic philosopher protecting herself against frustration by obsessive rigour (and it is interesting to remember that “rigidity” comes from “rigour”) and the analytic patient who has built a defensive edifice around her neurotic weakness and fragility. Any badly formulated phrase or behaviour becomes a misstep of monumental proportions. The robustness of the whole collapses with the weakest link. Inside of both is a fragile and dependent child.

A few days ago a lovely blog post by Liam Kofi Bright inspired me to reflect a bit on what the norms of analytic philosophy would have to be if we “conceived of conceptual engineering as a means to enter into lifeworlds of others.” I asserted that the non-dominating way of doing so requires a willingness to be transformed by the experience. What I missed saying explicitly then, and I suspect this omission (recall) is part of my professional deformation, is that one cannot (non-dominatingly) enter into the the lifeworld of another without being vulnerable.

Perhaps philosophers need to think more about the relation between vulnerability and fragility, though. While to be vulnerable is to expose a weakness, the ability to embrace one’s vulnerability, if it is the basis for a transformative experience, is also a kind of strength – even a superpower. It is a paradox where weakness itself becomes strength. (Laurie Paul take note!) If only Simon, in his post, had been able to relinquish his subservience to the rigid letter and embrace his weakness in the quest for transformation, he might have had something to offer analytic philosophy.

+ Simon, of course, is not actually threatening to harm anyone.

Here, for purposes of comparison and contrast, is what Eric actually wrote:

One recurring fascination is the common root of ‘analysis’ in analytical philosophy that it shares with the ‘analysis’ in psychoanalysis. I sometimes wonder why analyse and its cognates had such pull over late nineteenth and early twentieth century (Viennese and Cambridge) minds. I was reminded of this by Simon Evnine who regularly calls my attention to his blog, “The Parergon.” I hope he does not mind too much being the trigger occasion for these impressions. I treat him here as the everyman of analytic philosophy in which all of us can be substituted into his place, opaque contexts be damned!

It is noticeable that Simon treats his precision and “care in expressing” in terms of a “weapon.” Even when used in self-defense, weapons are explicitly designed to hurt others.* I have noted before (recall) the analytic philosopher’s tendency to describe the toolkit of her  craft in terms of surgical (and laser-like) instruments, but in those instances the instruments are meant to heal. Of course, Simon’s intent is not to hurt others, but self-protection (“the only real power I could exert to protect myself.”)+

I do not know a better expression of the fragility at the root of much analytic philosophy. Any badly formulated phrase is a misstep of monumental proportions. The robustness of the whole collapses with the weakest link. This fragility is fueled by “frustrating experiences.” Once primed by psychoanalysis, it’s hard not to discern the dependent child here.

I do not mean to suggest that the analytic philosopher’s attitude toward rigor  and clarity only expresses fragility. One may as well — and here I am inspired by Simon’s “extravagant letteralism” — read it as pure holiness (recall here on Carnap). After all, a Torah scroll is disqualified if even a single letter is added or a single letter is deleted. Every sign must be correct.

A few days ago a lovely blog post by Liam Kofi Bright inspired me to reflect a bit on what the norms of analytic philosophy would have to be if we “conceived of conceptual engineering as a means to enter into lifeworlds of others.” I asserted that the non-dominating way of doing so requires a willingness to be transformed by the experience. What I missed saying explicitly then, and I suspect this omission (recall) is part of my professional deformation, is that one cannot (non-dominatingly) enter into the the lifeworld of another without, as Simon shows without saying, being vulnerable.

*Perhaps the memetic repetition-image of Batman slapping Robin inspired this thought.

+In practice, the toolkit is also deployed to advance careers and schools.

“a glove slapping a human face – forever”

One of the memes of the Batman Meme Project, posted on Facebook on March 2nd, 2016, was this:

doubles

Michael Rosen very wittily and astutely posted as a comment an adapted passage from George Orwell’s 1984:

All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always — do not forget this, Winston — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a glove slapping a human face — forever.

(The original, of course, has “a boot stamping on” where the adaptation has “a glove slapping”.) “a glove slapping a human face – forever” became the meme’s obvious title, and I am greatly indebted to Michael (and also to Tim Watson, who independently referred to the same passage from Orwell when I posted Evnine’s Batman Memes: The Movie, shortly thereafter).

I am currently reading Carolyn Korsmeyer‘s recent book Things: In Touch with the Past (OUP, 2019). Korsmeyer writes:

Dan Lewis, Senior Curator of the History of Science and Technology at the Huntington Library in California, described the thrilling privilege of handling the books housed in the collection… Lewis, who does not wear gloves, says that being able to handle such rare documents is like “being present at the moment of creation.” (25)

On reading this, I was arrested by that parenthetical comment about Lewis’s not wearing gloves. Why doesn’t he? The way the passage is written suggests that this is a remarkable fact, that one would expect him to wear gloves in handling these precious books. Lewis’s haptic experience would be slightly different if he did wear gloves, but I assume it is not for that difference that he forgoes this form of protection. His goal is more likely – this is a key theme in Korsmeyer’s book – to be in direct contact with these rare objects from the past. But is Lewis’s pursuit of the frisson of unmediated touch so important to him that he ignores the damaging effects of his body’s effluvia on these objects, of which he says “Just to be in their presence is an honor”?

Having thought all this, my mind went (forgive my crudity) to men who fetishize not wearing a condom during sex. Their sensory experience will, like Lewis and his books, be different according to whether or not they use a condom. But one might easily speculate that it is not really for the sake of the haptic surplus that they so scorn the use of something that protects their partner from the damaging effects of their body’s products, whether in the form of unwanted pregnancy or STD. Korsmeyer says that experiences like those of Lewis “evoke an impression that gaps of time have been momentarily bridged, bringing the past into the present” (25). It is hardly novel to see sexual relations in terms of bridging a gap not of time, but between persons. Perhaps the sexual cases should be subsumed under the wider rubric about touch, not the usual finger-as-phallus motif, but instead the phallus-as-finger. But men who prioritize the pursuit of unmediated contact over the well-being of their partner are often, rightly, reviled. How should this bear on how we think about putting our grubby ungloved hands on priceless relics from the past? The general public, naturally, is kept from defiling quasi-sacred relics in this way – but what of curators like Lewis who take to themselves the privilege and pleasure of intercourse with these hierodules?

What does all this have to do with Batman and Robin? Despite Rosen’s reference to Orwell, it never really occurred to me until this very day, exactly four years after I began the Batman Meme Project (actually, tomorrow is the four-year anniversary), that Batman slaps Robin with a gloved and not a bare hand. In fact, gloved hands are very prominent in the image. We see two of Batman’s and one of Robin’s, densely clustered in the bottom left corner. How does this detail inflect the image? What does it mean for my book-in-progress A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!? Should we praise Batman because, even in this moment of violence, he holds back from the further violation of Robin’s bodily autonomy that hitting him with his bare hand would represent? Should we pity him because, even in this moment of perverse intimacy, he cannot bridge the gap with another person? I just don’t know how to read it.

As for my project, I have written on this blog about how important to me is the sound effect of the slap that I have used on many occasions in work around my book:

But I realize now that this is the sound of an ungloved hand slapping a human face – forever! (Why did none of you call me on this?) I am so, so disappointed! The internet does not offer me much in the way of sound effects of gloved hands slapping, but the few there are are woefully lacking in the zest I have imagined the slap to express. Here is the best of them:

 

The sound of one hand slapping

It will come as no surprise that one of the memes in my book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, is titled “The Sound of One Hand Slapping.” (To be precise, it is titled “The Sound of One Hand Slapping (11ignj.jpg),” that last part of the title having a very important function in understanding the meme which I shall not explain here.)

In various presentations I have made about the work, when I have displayed some of the memes, I have supplied them with an accompanying sound effect… the sound of one hand slapping. Here is the effect I have used, taken from an on-line repository of free sound effects:

In my preparations for a presentation I will be making in October, I wanted to draw attention to the pictorial ways the sound of the slap is represented in the image: the zip line of the motion of Batman’s left hand and the radiating lines indicating the impact with Robin’s cheek.

canvas-with-annotations

The original sound effect only corresponds to the second of these pictorial elements. I therefore needed something different. But I didn’t want to find an entirely new one since I will also be using it alongside the original and would like them to be obviously related.

Exercising my highly developed sound editing skills, I was able to come up with something I am really pleased with:

That whoosh (I added it on another track); that so-much-chunkier meeting of face and hand (I applied reverberation effects to the original)! Indeed, so pleased am I with it that I have to confess I cannot stop listening to it. It gives me a visceral pleasure that matches the pleasure afforded by the image itself.

In his paper “A Child Is Being Beaten,” Freud describes how the beating fantasies of his patients intermingle both masochistic and sadistic elements and such an intermingling is surely at the root of my pleasure in both the image and sound. The whole scenario represents an intrapsychic arrangement in which one part of myself slaps another part, and each takes pleasure in it for its own reasons. I have talked a little about the role of shame in my book and both the masochistic and sadistic pleasures of the slap are centered around that crushing emotion. The philosopher Krista Thomason writes about the way in which the experience of shame may produce a desire to commit violence on others. But we do well to remember, also, that one of the paradigmatic bodily manifestations of shame is the rush of blood to the face, as if one had been slapped! The sound of one hand slapping is the sound of shame.

 

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.

Interview with the author

The Parergon sat down for an in-depth conversation with Simon Evnine, the author of A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga! (in progress).

TP: Thanks so much for talking with us about what sounds like a fascinating book. Perhaps we could begin with your telling our readers what the book will be like. It’s rather unusual.

SE: Thanks, yes, it is unusual. It is a kind of post-modern literary work that will have the form of, indeed will be, an art catalogue. The ‘art works’ are over a hundred memes I have made using the image of Batman slapping Robin. I will provide editorial commentary on these memes, written as if I, the editor, were not the same person as the one who made the memes. Within that outer form, the book will mix philosophy, psychoanalysis, and literary criticism with writing about myself.

TP: So, I have to ask, are you a big fan of Batman?

SE: Oddly, I am not particularly a fan of Batman. I never read superhero comics as a kid and although I think I have seen one or two of the many Batman movies that have been made since the 1980s, I couldn’t tell you which ones. The only ‘incarnation’ of Batman that has meant anything at all to me, and that still dominates my imagination with respect to the character, was the TV show from the 1960s with Adam West and Burt Ward.

TP: What do you like about that show?

SE: Well, everyone goes on about its campiness. I don’t know how much that was part of my enjoyment of it as young boy but I certainly think I…

TP: KAPOW!!

SE: Er, yes. Right. All that. I’m pretty sure though that…

TP: THWACK! BOFF!!!

SE: Yes. May I finish?

TP: Sorry.

SE: I think I did respond to its campiness in some way. And I think I was somehow, also, identifying with something in the show, perhaps with the character of Robin (I had three siblings quite a bit older than me) though perhaps also with Batman. I had a Batman mask, cape, and… I don’t know what to call them, but you put them over your forearms. Are those ‘greaves’? I got them as a birthday present.

TP: I see.

SE: If I might add, that show was also the site of early, indeed premature, sexual knowledge. I’m pretty sure that I learned the word “catamite” in connection with it. And my father would call Robin “Batman’s little buggery boy.” I would have been between 6 and 9 years old.

TP: Oh wow! And what about the particular image of Batman slapping Robin that features in your book? Does that have some special meaning for you?

SE: The slap. The slap is about shame. Robin’s shame for whatever he’s being slapped for, his shame for being the victim of the slap, Batman’s shame for his capacity for violence towards one he loves. The slap brings the blood to your cheek; it makes you blush – the visible mark of shame. A lot of the book is about shame.

TP: Shame over?

SE:  You’ll have to read the book to find out. Seriously, though, I can’t really say over what. It’s an emotion that dominates my life. I could take a stab at some of the reasons… but really….

TP: In that image, what, reduced to their simplest reciprocal form, are Robin’s thoughts about Batman’s thoughts about Robin and about Batman’s thoughts about Robin’s thoughts about Batman?

SE: Well, he thinks that he thinks that he is a child whereas he knows that he knows that he knows that he is not.

TP: What is the thesis of the book? It’s a philosophy book, I think I’ve heard you say. And philosophy books are books written in defense of a thesis.

SE: Ah! Good question. Several times I have talked about the book and explained how it will be about many different things, connected in various different ways, only to have someone, in the question period, ask me “yes, but what is it saying? What is its thesis?” Let me state here explicitly, it has no thesis. Many things are said in the book, but the book as a whole says nothing. I think, though I’m no expert, that the Deleuzian concept of the rhizome may apply to it. The metaphors I myself use to think about it are free association (as in psychoanalysis) and the Wunderkammer or cabinet of curiosities. It goes from one topic to another, it meanders, it gathers together and juxtaposes things that are initially unrelated but, hopefully, undergo an increase in meaning by their situation. Both of these…

TP: Your book has… oh excuse me. Please go on.

SE: Thanks. I was going to say that both these concepts, free association and the Wunderkammer, will be explicitly discussed in the course of the book. In a sense, the commentaries on the memes will be about explaining the nature of the book itself, or helping the reader to read it.

TP: Oh, that’s interesting. I was going to ask you something about the word “parerga” in your title but I’d like to follow up what you just said. That idea of the book explaining itself. Could you say more? Also, you said above that the book is about shame, that it’s about explaining its own nature, that it’s a philosophy book, that it will be about yourself, that it will be about psychoanalysis and literary criticism. It’s very confusing. Just what is your book about?

SE: That’s really just a variant of the “what is its thesis?” question, no? It’s about all these things. It is a statement against totalization, in favor of the fragmentary, the incomplete, the dilettantish, all those things that are supposed to be suppressed by the totalization that dominates the academic work and the academic career. The totalization of the thesis, the research project, the AOS… My own philosophical career has been such a statement, too, in that I have moved around between many subjects. I have written several one-off papers on topics that I never return to. As a philosopher, I am not easy to categorize and it is only fitting that I should produce a book that is similarly hard to categorize. I could add one more “about” – the book is about my career and situation within the philosophy profession! No truer, but no less true, than all the other abouts you confronted me with. And don’t think we have completed that list!

TP: OK. Now let me ask you about “parerga.” The word appears in the title of your book. Perhaps you could remind our readers of what it means since it is an uncommon word.

SE: Sure. It comes from the Greek words “para” and “ergon” and it is used to describe things that are next to, or supplementary to, a work (usually a work of art). (“Paratext” would describe the special case where the ergon in question is a text.) So the frame of a painting, the title or the preface of a literary work, etc.

TP: And what associations do you have to the word “parerga”?

SE: Well, I first encountered it, as many people do, in the title of Schopenhauer’s book Parerga and Paralipomena. I don’t know much about Schopenhauer (though I will be discussing one of his parerga or paralipomena in my book), but the little I do know comes through lectures about him that I attended in London in the 1980s, when I was just starting out in philosophy. The lectures were given by Brian O’Shaughnessy. Brian was my very first teacher of philosophy and a wonderful and idiosyncratic man. There was a mystique about him and the first lectures in any lecture series he gave would be packed. But one thing he was not was a good lecturer and by half-way through the series only a few die-hards would still be attending. I was one of those die-hards in that Schopenhauer class. Brian was married to Edna O’Shaughnessy, a very important psychoanalyst in the Kleinian tradition. A lot of Kleinian analysis just sounds really crazy. Many years ago I read some of Klein’s Narrative of a Child Analysis. You just wonder what world you’ve stepped into! The splittings, the projections and introjections, a confusing world in which what is inside and what is outside is unstable and ever-changing, the ego being formed (ergon) through these vicissitudes while awash in paranoia over the projected, but now consuming, para-ego (parergon) that…

TP: I’m sorry to cut you off, but we have to stop. It’s been a great pleasure talking with you.

SE: Thank you! I’ve enjoyed it.

TP: Our readers can get an idea of what the book is like from an excerpt posted here, the commentary on this meme.

irksome2

 

 

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.

M.20 “Couples Therapy”

Here is the last of three actual excerpts from my book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, posted a while back on the dedicated Facebook page and now transferred to this blog.

M.20 Couples Therapy

couples-full-size


M.20 Couples Therapy. Composed: February 22nd. Posted: February 29th. Orientation: Reverse. Font: Arial. TB1: “How about couples therapy?”, black. TB2: “I don’t do feelings!!!”, black.


 

Another therapy-related meme. Not only does Robin acknowledge some sense of dysfunctionality in his and Batman’s relationship, he implies they are a couple. (See commentaries on M.27 and M.35 for further suggestions that the two of them may be intimately involved.) Given how they seem to be locked into a pattern of repeated abuse, it is brave of Robin to make the suggestion of couples therapy. (And see M.75.) Batman, however, contemptuously rejects the suggestion, on the grounds that he “doesn’t do feelings.” As Jennifer Matey (a philosophy professor at Southern Methodist University) pointed out in the comments to the post, Batman most certainly does ‘do’ one feeling, namely anger. (Matey’s sensitivity to the high degree of anger crammed into these memes is expressed in the comments to M.25, as we shall see.) This tension, between an attempt to renounce emotion altogether and the hypertrophy of one particular, often (though we should remember, not always) destructive emotion, is a staple of superhero culture – indeed, a staple of the culture of masculinity.

The toxic, hyper-masculine war on feelings and emotions also connects, in a roundabout way, with the logical and philosophical milieu of the artist. In graduate school, Evnine was drawn to a passage from Andrea Nye’s book Words of Power: A Feminist Reading of the History of Logic (1990):

Desperate, lonely, cut off from the human community which in many cases has ceased to exist, under the sentence of violent death, wracked by desires for intimacy that they do not know how to fulfill, at the same time tormented by the presence of women, men turn to logic. (175)

His interest in the passage, at the time, was as an object of ridicule, but given how well these words capture both Batman in this meme (and the superhero in general) and the stereotypical male logician (and analytic philosopher in general), we may perhaps surmise that the artist came to sense not a little truth in these words, at least as they apply to himself. Indeed, his very ridiculing of the passage as a much younger man probably betrayed an uncanny recognition of himself in an unexpected mirror. If such conjectures are not entirely ill-founded, this meme takes on an almost embarrassingly intimate and confessional tone.