On auto-theory: Form as dress-up

A recent call for papers by a journal planning a special issue on auto-theory asked contributors to remove any identifying information and prepare their submissions for anonymous review! Not quite a paradox, since the submissions were not intended to be auto-theory, but nearly one, since one might expect even academic journal articles, if they are about auto-theory, to be somewhat personal.

I suppose it is sometimes appropriate to think of auto-theory as coming from the ‘auto’ side of things and sometimes from the ‘theory’ side. (Though no doubt there are cases that cannot be happily classified in either way.) The infusion of theoretical writing into memoir or autobiography need not, though it might, leave the surface form of the writing undisturbed. For example, The Argnonauts, by Maggie Nelson, reads as, indeed is, a memoir, but one that happens to contain a lot of theoretical writing. The inclusion of the theory does not make it anomalous as a memoir. It is there as a manifestation of its author’s own understanding of the events she writes about. But I suspect that auto-theory is more frequently thought of as the infusion of personal writing into theoretical work or theoretical contexts. In this case, disruption to the surface form is likely to be more problematic, as my opening anecdote illustrates.

In another example of auto-theory, Eve Sedgwick writes, quoting herself speaking to her therapist:

“What you completely do not seem to catch on to about these two parts of the kid [my gloss: the childish and the precocious] is that they are not separate. They are constantly whirlpooling around in each other—and the basic rule is this: that each one has the power to poison the other one. So what being a kid was like for me was, at the same time, like being an adult in bad drag as a child, and being a child in bad drag as an adult.” (Dialogue on Love, p. 30)

How perfectly this captures the spirit of my own book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!! I have already reproduced on this blog the following meme and commentary. (The commentary takes the form of embedding the meme as the top panel in another meme format known as Increasingly Verbose in which an image and text are iterated, with the image becoming progressively more abstract and the text becoming progressively more verbose.) I put it here again, now letting it resonate with Sedgwick’s beautiful description of the mutual impersonation of her adult and child personae.

Slap-Itself-commentary1slap-itself-commentary2slap-itself-commentary3

 

In thinking about Sedgwick’s passage, I am struck by how often the notion of costume comes up in my writing about my book. In the two introductions to a lecture that I posted here, the ideas of concealing oneself with a mask and of Batman’s outfit as fetish wear both appear. In this first post of mine on auto-theory, I wonder if I am like “an organ-grinder’s monkey, preening itself in an ill-fitting red military-style jacket and turquoise fez.” Here, I ruminate on the meaning of Batman’s glove. (In one of the memes that I have since decided not to include in the book, there is a reference to cosplay, as well.)

The form of a work is how it appears, how it shows itself, its costume. This form or appearance can, of course, be talked about within a work, but in being talked about, a new form or appearance is generated. Ultimately, as Wittgenstein says: “What can be shown cannot be said.” For example, my book has the form, the appearance, of an art catalogue in which an artist’s works are reproduced and commented on by an editor. But the artist and editor are, at bottom, the same person. Making this device explicit within the work is something neither the artist nor the editor can do, in their assigned roles. The attempt to articulate the work’s two-facedness (in both senses of that expression) inevitably generates an unarticulated and even trickier threefoldness. (And somewhere in there, though I won’t try to unearth it now, is a connection with the parergon.)

Putting Wittgenstein’s “what can be shown cannot be said” together with the psychoanalytic commonplace that if there is something in an analysis that cannot be said, it inevitably becomes the crux of the whole analysis, one is led, inexorably, to the conclusion that for auto-theory, form is everything. Even relatively straight memoiristic writing, such as Sedgwick’s, typically likes to dress itself up with some formal innovations. (In Sedgwick’s case, passages from her therapist’s notes, and haikus, often seamlessly integrated with surrounding text.) And in other cases, such as Kraus’s I Love Dick, one cannot separate the formal innovations of the work from its auto-theoretical intent. In the best auto-theoretical writing, the personal and the theoretical are “whirlpooling around in each other,” each appearing in the other’s clothes, each with the power to poison the other, to deflate it with a slap. This is the thrilling risk of auto-theory.


Check out my previous three posts on auto-theory: Can it be done by the privileged?Bodies that are (not) at home and Is the personal political?

On auto-theory: Is the personal political?

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:

canvas

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

canvas

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?

In her wonderful paper “What is Trans Philosophy?“, Talia Bettcher says:

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.


Check out my first two posts on auto-theory: Can it be done by the privileged? and Bodies that are (not) at home.

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!).

“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.

For the letter kills, but the spirit gives life

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

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

letter:spirit-again
My measurement by a pauline gauge

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

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

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

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

Wilkins-Moon

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

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

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

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

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


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

Parents with dirty hands

As it becomes apparent what a terrible company Facebook is, I feel more and more strongly that I want nothing more to do with it. Leaving Facebook would come with loss and with gain, both substantial. Beyond the obvious considerations, there would be a special loss to leaving connected with my book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!.

I always publish on Facebook (both in my feed and on the special page devoted to my book) the eperga to the parerga that are these blog posts. Without the hits generated this way, what I write here would have almost no readers! But the book’s connection with Facebook goes beyond the latter’s role as a means of broadcasting.

Slappy

Facebook has been a place where I get to share with others some of the quirky contents of my mind. Without it, I would never have begun to make Batman memes in the first place. Why would I, if I hadn’t had the immediate gratification of posting them and receiving some acknowledgement? The first idea for a book around the memes (for what eventually became the book I am now writing) came from the desire to explain what was not obvious in them to the people on Facebook who had been seeing what I published there and interacting with me about it. Even as the book expanded in scope, for a long time I conceived of it as the record of a social media art project that would incorporate  some of the conversations my memes provoked. The very distinction in the book’s title between the Batman Meme Project and its parerga hinges on which were produced and published in that burst of Facebook posting from January to March 2016.

For a while, I even entertained the fantasy that Facebook might publish my book on the grounds that it was born on and concerned their platform. I also reasoned (how foolish I feel admitting this) that if DC Comics tried to prevent me from publishing, Facebook would have the pockets to stand up for all those of its meme-making users who creatively rework copyright-protected images in a sub-culture that, as Patrick Davison puts it, prioritizes “creative freedom over security” (“The Language of Internet Memes,” p. 132).

Although the social-media origins of my book have somewhat diminished in importance, they are still there to some extent. One of the memes (pictured above) is even about Facebook. There is just no getting around the fact that my book owes its very existence to Facebook. And given how important the book has been to me, my analysis, and my conception of my place in the philosophy profession, you could say that who I am today is deeply, deeply dependent on Facebook.

I suppose I am in the position of a grown child who comes to realize that his parents are involved in something terrible that he cannot ignore.

Shells

I have written a couple of times, recently, about my gradual loss of libidinal interest in the image that forms the heart of my book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, the image of Batman slapping Robin. (Even these last three words now have the unnatural and slightly repellent feel of something recently dead.)

This morning, as I mulled over the implications of this for my book for the millionth time, I thought bitterly to myself, “the operative metaphor for this project is no longer parergon but husk.” But not a minute later, it hit me that, of course, a husk is a parergon! A husk (in the sense of a shell) surrounds a seed in just the way a frame surrounds a painting. And a husk (in the sense of a dried-up, useless exterior – the sense in which I meant it as a new metaphor for the book) is a parergon without its ergon – an empty frame, an index pointing nowhere, an orphaned epilogue.

Each of my Batman meme movies (Evnine’s Batman Memes: The Movie and Gone!) carries an epigraph taken from a single episode of Angel (season 5, episode 16), entitled “Shells.” (Spoilers ahead.) Both epigraphs – “It’s gone. My world is gone” and “Is there anything in this life but grief?” –   are spoken by the newly introduced character Illyria, who has taken up residence in the recently dead body of Fred, a body which is now a mere shell.

Illyria

Illyria is easily my favorite character from the Buffyverse (and “Shells” one of my favorite episodes). I need to find some way to infuse her spirit into the husk that my book currently is. The image of Batman slapping Robin, as I have made clear on numerous occasions, initially appealed to me because of its representation of the sadomasochistic relationship between different parts of myself that was very prominent in my psychoanalysis around that time. Now my analysis is haunted by loss and grief that appears to me in thoughts about its termination. Not that I am yet considering termination – but I keep circling round and around that idea. I suppose that until one is ready for termination, its prospect must strike one with all the force of Illyria’s “It’s gone. My world is gone,” as she confronts the husk that is all that is left of her once-magnificent palace. But isn’t all life, after all, saturated with the fore-knowledge of loss? Is there, then, anything in this life but grief?

loved-and-lost

 

 

Gone!

Gone! was my second Batman meme movie. It’s about the harsh slap in the face that is loss, in its many forms. Its title derives from the moment, in episode 16, season 5 of Angel, when the newly resurrected demon Illyria goes to call on her vast armies to dominate the world once again, only to find her palace of old deserted and in ruins. “It’s gone,” she says. “My world is gone.” (There is a brief shot of that moment at 1’13” in the movie.)

 

Back in February of this year, I wrote a post called “What if Batman stops slapping Robin?“. I talked about a growing sense that the image of Batman slapping Robin was losing its hold on my psyche and my concern about what that would mean for my book. Although it is hard to be precise about such matters, I shall designate November 5th 2019 as the day that Batman did, indeed, stop slapping Robin. The sadomasochistic relation to myself that made the image so activating for me has shifted. I now see it without any of the thrilling emotions it elicited at the height of my involvement with it. (My work on the slap sound effect that I wrote about here appears to me now as a last, desperate attempt to arouse those feelings again, to convince myself that nothing was happening.)

And what about the book, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!? The initial memes, posted on Facebook between January and March, 2016, formed its nucleus and were driven by that deep libidinal connection I had to the image. Gradually, as I started to work seriously on the book, it became a magnet, attracting to itself all sorts of strange obsessions and hobby-horses of mine. I hope that the work done by the image and my fascination in it will be like the first stage of the Saturn V, the large booster needed to propel the rocket out of its inertia and which was then jettisoned over the ocean. And that the newly-attracted hobby-horses will be like the second stage, taking the rocket to the moon! (Actually, the second stage too was uncoupled and a third stage got it to the moon.) But it’s possible a more apposite metaphor is that the libidinal connection to the image was the head of a now decapitated chicken.

Mostly, this whole business is making me sad and aimless. I long for the zest provided by that sadomasochistic relation to myself. I long for the desire for self-humiliation. All I have to offer is this feeble simulacrum, a sort of last hurrah.

Done!

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.