“What if Batman stops slapping Robin?”

As I have explained on previous occasions, my book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, is connected in many ways with my own psychoanalysis. While the impetus for the book did not originally come from the analysis, that part of my life very quickly infiltrated the creative work, shaping the book and providing the psychic fuel for work on it. Had the analysis not taken up residence in the book, like a cuckoo’s egg, the book would either have dwindled to nothing or been a much smaller, less ambitious and interesting work. I wrote about some of the connections between the book and the analysis in an unpublished paper, the first part of which became a blog post, and later parts of which have either been incorporated into the book itself or are being written up as a free-standing scholarly paper.

While the link to my analysis has been integral to the development of the book, it has also created a ligature between two parts of my life that leaves the book vulnerable, a hostage to fortune. A couple of weeks ago my analyst asked “what if Batman stops slapping Robin?” In other words, what will happen if I resolve or ameliorate the intrapsychic conflict that animates the book (epitomized for me in its central image) before the book is finished? In fact, I had been asking myself that question, in one form or another, for a while. For example, I have sometimes toyed with the idea of ending the analysis – only to tell myself that I can’t do that before I have finished the book!

But things are already beginning to crumble. I can tell that I feel differently about the image that is at the core of the book. I am no longer drawn to it in the same way. It is no longer a source of libidinal release, as it used to be. I am not so worried by the thought that, if the book is finished and published, I will almost certainly not take the same delight in it as I have hitherto. I have experienced that loss in connection with all my previous books – now either lifeless and indifferent to me or rapidly becoming so. What I am worried about is that I simply will not be able to bring the book to completion if I make more progress on the analysis front!

The analysis is not the only source of energy for the book. Perhaps I need to cultivate the others and let the book gradually evolve more under their aegis. It is already, by design, such a hodge-podge (nor is it being written from beginning to end – though even if it were, the reader will be advised that their progress through the book should depend on chance and whim) that such a reorientation will likely have little discernible effect on its character. But will those other energy sources be enough to see me through the crushingly difficult process of laboring in obscurity on a bizarre work that is, at best, an object of mild but puzzled curiosity to my philosophical colleagues? A work whose prospects for publication are frankly dim? Hitherto, these obstacles were outshone by the exhilaration and certainty that the central image always infused me with, a connection to the project at a deep and libidinal level.

At the other end of the ligature, will I encounter (am I already encountering) an unconscious resistance to progress in the analysis on the basis of my fear? Am I desperately clinging to old, neurotic structures for the sake of my book?

A ligature between separate spheres: a key to injustice (Michael Walzer) – a jury-rigged raft on which to navigate a river – a ball and chain to drag you under.

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.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.

Excisions: 2

I mentioned in a couple of previous posts that I decided to excise a number of the memes that were going to be part of my book. It was sufficient for a meme to be excluded that I did not envisage being able to write anything of interest (to me) in the commentary on it. I have now set myself the goal of posting the excised memes here, in an occasional series, and trying to write something of interest (to me) about them, thus proving my decision to exclude them mistaken! Also, in this parergonal space around the book, I will write about the memes without the pretense that their maker is someone other than myself. I am curious to see how this affects the nature of my writing about the memes.

graduation

Posted on Facebook on March 1st, 2016. The meme represents a cross-over between the world of Batman memes and the real world, my world, of academia in both content and circumstance. It was occasioned by an email from my department chair to the faculty, asking (for a second time) for volunteers to go to an impending graduation ceremony at which philosophy students would be walking. To the best of my knowledge, neither the locution “walk with x at graduation” nor the suggested practice exists, but I needed a way to imply that Batman was expected to wear academic regalia and not merely be in the audience in his Bat-Civvies, so to speak, to watch Robin graduate.

In fact, the meme was was not just occasioned by my chair’s email. It constituted my reply-to-all to it. So in this sense, the cross-over between Batman and academia was not confined to the meme’s content. It was the first time in which there was a real connection between the Batman Meme Project and my academic world. It was also the first time I confronted my colleagues, en bloc, with evidence of the Batman Meme Project. (A couple were Facebook friends and may have seen some of the previous 20 memes I had posted there by that point.) Even though I had not yet fully conceived of the philosophical work that these memes would become a part of, sending the meme in an email to my colleagues was nonetheless a sort of  philosophical ‘coming out.’ So in a way, given its content and history, and the way they are intertwined, the meme epitomizes the entire book, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!.

I remember, after I sent that reply-to-all, being a little apprehensive at the step I had taken. What would my colleagues make of my conducting departmental business with Batman memes? What would they make of the meme itself? Predictably, I need not have worried. No-one gave any acknowledgment of it at all. My meme fell still-born from the meme generator. Not a smile in the corridor (or smiley face in an email). Not an irritated “what?” Not a concern that I was having a midlife crisis. And now, here I am, joining in the silence by excluding the meme from the book. Am I trying to reassure my colleagues? “Don’t worry! That was an accident. Won’t happen again! Look, it’s gone!”

If the meme and its initial distribution somehow represent the collision between Batman memes and academic philosophy that the book as a whole embodies, its chilly reception by a bunch of philosophers anticipates the subsequent vicissitudes of my project. Somewhat to my surprise, as I have made parts of the project public and talked about it in various places, I have encountered a small amount of outright hostility and a much larger amount of what I would call “baffled indifference” (if that isn’t too much of a contradiction in terms).

I have, as you would expect, thought long and hard about the reaction my project elicits. I don’t think it is a result of wanting to use Batman memes in philosophy per se. I can imagine ways of using them that I guess would not get the same response. But the particular use I make of them is to heighten all the peculiarities and dissatisfactions that have attended my own trajectory through philosophy.  I won’t attempt a full accounting of those here. The book itself is for that. But super-briefly, I have not settled anywhere; my work has repeatedly shifted its focus and a number of papers are one-off interventions in areas I am not expert in. As a result of this, I have found I have had to struggle to be heard. As happens to all those who engage in this struggle, my voice has had to contort itself and express itself, finally, through acting out. A ‘slap’ delivered by email to my philosophical colleagues or underlying an experimental philosophical work is an utterance in the language of hysteria. And for those not highly attuned to it, the language of hysteria must always elicit baffled indifference.


OK, that’s two for two! Once again, what I have written about this meme makes me sorry that it is being cut from the book. But here is a case where it would have been much more difficult for me to write a commentary on these lines in the book, where the commentator is notionally distinct from the meme-maker. (More difficult, but perhaps not impossible, since I approach some similar issues in my commentary to another meme.)

Excisions: 1

I mentioned in a couple of previous posts that I decided to excise a number of the memes that were going to be part of my book. It was sufficient for a meme to be excluded that I did not envisage being able to write anything of interest (to me) in the commentary on it. I have now set myself the goal of posting the excised memes here, in an occasional series, and trying to write something of interest (to me) about them, thus proving my decision to exclude them mistaken! Also, in this parergonal space around the book, I will write about the memes without the pretense that their maker is someone other than myself. I am curious to see how this affects the nature of my writing about the memes.

TMI

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

The adventitious

In a philosophy paper I am presently working on, I lean heavily on the term “adventitious.” I say that the changes an ordinary artifact undergoes over time with respect to its parts are adventitious to it (and hence that a theory of such artifacts that ‘builds in’ these changes to an object’s identity is mistaken). I liked the term “adventitious” here but thought, mistakenly, that I was using it merely as a stylistic variant of “contingent.” I now think, in fact, that it gets at something deeper, or at least other, than contingency (though you’ll have to consult the paper, when it’s ready, to get a sense of what I’m gesturing at).

A few days ago I posted here about how I was re-thinking which memes would be included in my book A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!. The book, you could say, was undergoing an adventitious change in its parts. But I am made anxious by these changes. Not because I fear for the identity of the book. It is, in my mind, the very same book, only now with (slightly) different parts. I fear, rather, a different kind of loss.

How have I made the decisions about which memes to retain and which to remove? There are two ways a meme can keep its place. It must either be of sufficiently high quality itself or it must provide me with an occasion for some interesting commentary. While I feel fairly confident in my judgments of quality (only once or twice have I dithered over some meme, wondering if it is good enough for inclusion), I cannot tell, in advance of trying to write the commentary on it, whether a meme will occasion interesting commentary. And that is not an adventitious fact about the work. It is deeply central to what I am doing that I should be open to the adventitious in writing the commentaries. That is the process that underlies the work’s resemblance to the Wunderkammer, the Cabinet of Curiosities.

For example, take the commentary on the Yiddish meme which I have recently posted about three times. It is true that I did have some ideas of what I wanted to write about prior to starting on the commentary (some of which persisted into the final version and some of which did not), but it wasn’t until I wrote about a friend’s remark that the Romanization of the Yiddish gave the meme a “Lithuanian slant” that I took off in the direction of Lita (Jewish Lithuania), the Vilna Gaon, and my own Litvak ancestors. I ended up, quite spontaneously, composing a bibliography of these ancestors’ rabbinic works.

O9g4m

Continue reading “The adventitious”

Becoming another

The idea for A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga! was born with the impulse to (re)present the memes I had published on Facebook but with the explanations of their more esoteric aspects that I had purposely withheld the first time round. Thus, it was always going to take the form of memes with commentaries thereon. Something that was not built into that very idea, but that fairly quickly took hold of me, was that the commentaries should be written as if by someone other than the creator of the memes.

Why did I make this fateful decision? The whole character of the work is profoundly different from what it would have been had I written about the memes ‘in the first person’ and yet I hardly know why it felt so right to me to do it this way. In 1710, somebody said: “This was, among the ancients, that celebrated Delphic inscription, ‘Recognize yourself!’, which was as much as to say ‘Divide yourself!’ or ‘Be two!'”¹ Was the division of myself performed in unconscious obedience to a demand for self-knowledge? Certainly the project as a whole has been connected to the progress of my psychoanalysis, which is an extended exercise in gaining self-knowledge – but has that quest been abetted by my decision to “be two” in this work? Or has that decision served to help me keep my own counsel under the scrutiny of an over-inquisitve commentator? Both, is the likely answer.

The general form of the challenge raised by my self-division is this. A meme, to be comprehensible, must be supplied with context concerning my own life, thoughts, activities, or writings. The ‘editor,’ being ‘distinct’ from the creator of the memes, does not have automatic access to those elements of context that are not, in principle, accessible to anyone. How, therefore, can he introduce them into his commentary on that meme? I have employed a variety of different solutions to this common problem, ranging from manufactured (i.e. fake) documentary evidence to imaginative recreations of the artist’s state of mind on the editor’s part.

In attempting to solve this common problem again and again, now in one way, now in another, I have come to have the strangest experience. The memes on which I am commenting were produced about two years ago. (Yes, time really does fly.) As they recede further and further into the past, they really do come to appear to me as the work of another! In some cases, I no longer remember what I was thinking or what I meant. The fictional split between the artist of the memes and the editorial author of the commentaries is gradually becoming a reality in a way I had not anticipated. Perhaps, if the preparation of the book takes enough time, I will truly come to forget what some of the memes are about, or even whether I created them at all.

¹ The somebody was in fact the Earl of Shaftesbury, in section 2 of his Soliloquy: Advice to an Author.

Increasingly Verbose: Let’s eat(,) Grandma

Increasingly Verbose is a meme in which a number of panels are placed in a vertical column. Each panel has an image and some text, usually the text adjacent to the image. In the top panel, the image is rich in detail and the text sparse. In succeeding panels, the original image is rendered increasingly abstractly and the original text increasingly verbosely. (Other names for this meme emphasize the progression of the image component – “Deconstructed Memes,” “Meme Decay,” etc..) Here is an example, taken from the webpage linked to above:

9f7

Continue reading “Increasingly Verbose: Let’s eat(,) Grandma”

Tweets and memes

Last weekend, I opened a dedicated Twitter account to go with this blog – essentially as a way of informing people that there are new posts. But the involvement of Twitter in the epitextual writings around my book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, also brings to the fore elements of the project that I have long been thinking about.

It came to me, during the heyday of my production of Batman memes in early to mid 2016, that the memes themselves were a little like tweets. That inspired me to make one meme, which I will not display here since I have to hold back a few good ones for the appearance of the book, in which Robin’s text is in the form of a tweet, #s and @s and all.

The resemblances stem from, though exceed, the limits to the amount of text one can use in both. With Twitter, the limit is hard and clear – 140 characters. With memes, the limit is what can be legibly imposed on the image. This is true for all image macro memes, but with Batman Slapping Robin, there is even less space than usual in the image  available for text, if one wants to include all the text in the speech bubbles. I frequently struggled to pare down the text I wanted to use to one I could make legible. A few memes just could not be pared down enough and I had to resort to other measures. In this meme (M.29 “… he was a jew,” published on Facebook on March 7th 2016), I both strained legibility almost to breaking point and overflowed the bounds of the speech bubble:

ulysses-third-version

Continue reading “Tweets and memes”

Repellent intimacy

Gerard Genette (yes, I’m still reading Genette’s Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation – it’s endless!) is now discussing the various functions of different kinds of prefaces (all quotations below from pp. 203-5). One function of the most common kind of preface (by the author; published with the text originally) is to explain the unity of the work it stands before. This is especially the case when the work is a collection of some kind. But some authors, he notes, make a point of eschewing the unity of the work and embracing its disunity. Roland Barthes, writing later of his collection Essais critiques, said “I explained in my preface why I didn’t want to give these texts, written at different times, a retrospective unity” but, somewhat contradictorily goes on to say “The unity of this collection can only be a question: What is writing?” As Genette wryly comments: “The retrospective unity that is virtuously shoved out the door sneaks back in through the window in the form of a ‘question’.” (And, talking of Barthes, how brilliantly the lack of punctuation speaks in his title Sade Fourier Loyola, the preface to which “emphasizes indirectly… the incongruous – indeed provocative – appearance of such a grouping.”) More resolutely, Borges, in many of his prefaces, appears to prize diversity over unity: “This book is nothing more than a compilation,” “God grant that the essential monotony of this miscellany… be less evident than the geographical and historical diversity of its themes,” and so on.

I have come to realize that A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga! is about exactly this – privileging disunity and disorganization over their opposites. The Wunderkammer, again: a curious assortment, a serendipity, a heap. But just how far down can disunity go in the book? Continue reading “Repellent intimacy”