Some yeggs ago (I remember reading an article on Oulipo some decemvirs ago that gave as an example of their techniques N+7, in which an author would take a literary text and replace, say, all the nouns with the seventh noun following in a dictionary – “Call me Islander. Some yeggs ago” was quoted as the beginning of an Oulipian Moby-Dick...)…. some yeggs ago, as I was saying (“yegg,” by the way, is US slang for a safecracker), I wrote a post in which I explained that, having just read Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, I realized that if I wanted my book-in-progress A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga! to be taken seriously as auto-theory, I was, like Nelson, going to have to put some “skin in the game,” which is to say, to say some embarrassing things.
Anticipating anxiety on the part of my readers that I was planning to launch myself, in my book, into lurid confessions of a sexual nature (like Nelson), I hastily re-assured them that what I was going to do instead was to include the text of a song I once made up consisting of all the silly names by which I interpellated my then cat Celestino, a magnificent Russian Blue.
If you think this hardly counts as putting “skin in the game,” let me explain. Something that I have known about myself for a long time is how hard it is for me to say out loud many nonsense words. By “nonsense words,” I mean made up family slang, spontaneously made up words (as in philosophical examples or in silly shouting), the kind of patter you get in children’s songs (or in “Bad Romance”) that intermingles nonsense and random non-nonsense words, and so on. Yet despite my difficulty in saying these things out loud to others, they take up an enormous amount of space in my mind. They force themselves out of my mouth when I am alone, minding my business, especially walking the dog. Indeed, my subjective experience of this phenomenon links it to my (possibly quite inaccurate) conception of Tourette Syndrome and I often refer to my “tourettic brain.”
I have no idea whether there is any underlying neurological condition, but there are clearly psychological roots. I strongly associate these kinds of taboo words with my mother and the songs she sang to me as a child. One particular such song is like my heart of darkness! Even alone, my mouth rebels against being made to sing it. I can hardly stand even to think it! As I talk about this issue in analysis, my analyst and I sometimes joke that we’ll know I’m cured when I’m able to say the words of this song.
Writing such words is somewhat easier than saying them, but it’s not nothing. So, you see, putting all those silly, tourettic names of my cat into my book really is difficult for me. I had initially intended to refer to the song but not quote it. The decision to include its text was momentous. I feel that, however timidly, I am putting “skin in the game” of auto-theory.
Another momentous step I have taken in the direction of resolving this conflict between the need both to express and to inhibit my childish babbling is this meme movie I made, using the Galaxy Brain template. The movie puts together a representation of some of my mental processes with a melody that I often find myself compulsively singing nonsensical words to. The movie reaches a climax with one such word.
[Because this post relies on images and captions to images, neither of which renders well on smartphones, in my experience, I suggest you view it on a computer or tablet for an optimal experience.]
As I proceed with my work on A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, I find myself thinking not infrequently “I wish I had paid more attention as a child.” I am time and again led right up to the edge of my recollection of people, events, and objects that populated my childhood, each carrying so much, not just of their own histories, but of my history. They were messengers from the worlds that made me, messengers that I heeded far too little. Now, as I try to comprehend some of those worlds, I am frequently baffled, their inhabitants hovering just beyond my grasp. I wish I had paid more attention as a child.
When I began writing this post, over two years ago(!), I had a dim sense that many of these isolated fragments, these messengers, some material and others lodged only in my memory, were connected with the world of Russian Jewish émigrés in New York (often via London, Paris, and Berlin). As I have resumed and intensified my work on the post in the last week or so, this suspicion has been confirmed. This post, therefore, is something of a companion piece to this earlier one, which it intersects at one point I will indicate when we get there.
On a wall in my home in Miami , there hangs this wonderful picture:
It was painted by Nina Evnin, the first wife of my father’s uncle, and dated 1947, the year my parents were married. My parents were, in fact, introduced through the joint efforts of Nina and my mother’s mother, Lillian Kruskal Oppenheimer. Nina and Lillian were good friends and had probably become acquainted owing to the business connections between their husbands, Oscar Evnin and Joseph Kruskal, both furriers in New York. After he was demobbed from the British Army in 1946, my father went from London to New York to learn the business from Uncle Oscar and, presciently, Nina and Lillian saw the potential for a match.
Given the date of Nina’s picture and her role in my parent’s marriage, I conjecture that the painting was given to them by her as a wedding gift. It was a fixture of my childhood and when, in 1977, my parents disassembled the home in which I was born and grew up, I took possession of it. I have always loved it.
Ubiquitous through my childhood, too, were Kruskal Furs pencils. My grandmother Lillian must have brought them on her visits to us in London, or perhaps my mother had a vast supply as part of her trousseau! They came in two thicknesses, one fatter and one (pictured) thinner than a standard pencil. (Were those odd sizes themselves standard in some place, at some time? I remember feeling their strangeness in my hand as a child.) Now, fifty years later, this lonely pencil, in the possession of my sister, is the only one I know of still in existence.
Joseph Kruskal arrived in America a four-year-old, impoverished, fatherless boy, from Estonia in 1896. Some of the history of the Kruskal family is told in Two Baltic Families Who Came to America: The Jacobsons and the Kruskals, 1870-1970, by Richard Brown. I remember its author, Dick Brown, coming from the US to visit in the early seventies. “Dick is writing a book”, I would hear. Very likely, he stayed with us. But I never really knew who he was! (His mother was a Kruskal.) As for Joseph Kruskal, before he died in 1949, he made, lost, and remade a fortune with his fur business, Kruskal & Kruskal, Inc., which operated, as the pencil informs us, from 150 W. 30th St from 1932 until 1986 (and before that, from another Manhattan address). You can read a brief account of the business here, under “Kruskal, Malvin & Co., Furs.” And here is an (undated) picture of the W. 30th St. building, with a billboard for my grandfather’s firm. If the firm was there until 1986, surely I must have been taken to visit it on one of our not-infrequent trips to the US? But if so, I have no memory of it.
Some time in my mid-teens, under circumstances that now escape me entirely, I was, for a very brief period (possibly as brief as a single day), close to Nina. She and Oscar had divorced around 1949 or 1950 but, I suppose through her friendship with Lillian, she remained in my immediate family’s orbit. She took me on my first visit to the Guggenheim Museum. I do remember walking down the spiral ramp, stopping to look at pictures, and, filled with awe, hearing her tell me how she knew this painter and had been painted by that one. Alas, I don’t now remember which painters she was talking about. Perhaps, among others, her renowned teacher, Sergey Sudeikin, who painted this very beguiling portrait of her?
Above, I said that the Evnin and Kruskal families must have known each other through their common involvement in the New York fur trade. But there is a particular reason why they should have been on familiar terms. The matriarch in the imposing family photo above was, you may remember, Zissia, née Eitingon. She was, in other words, part of the vast Eitingon clan about whom my distant cousin, Mary-Kay Wilmers, has written a fascinating book, The Eitingons: A Twentieth Century Story (2012). One of the most prominent of the Eitingons was Motty, a second cousin to Zissia (whose eldest son, recall, was Motty too). Motty Eitingon was a towering figure in the international fur business. He was almost certainly exploited by the US government to open unofficial channels with the Soviet Union. And in 1928, Wilmers tells us, his company, Eitingon Schild, which according the New York Times was the “dominant skin dealer of the industry,” acquired Kruskal & Kruskal, Inc., “the largest coat jobber in the fur trade” (NYT quoted in Wilmers, p. 91). So the Evnins and the Kruskals were already connected in New York even before Oscar and Nina arrived there from Paris (where they had gone from Russia).
Other prominent Eitingon relatives of mine, about whom Wilmers writes and who will appear in A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, include Max and Leonid. Max Eitingon was a psychoanalyst, a close associate of Freud, and the source of money for much of the early psychoanalytic movement. He was among the founders of the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute, which formalized the method of instruction for trainee psychoanalysts (lectures, training analysis, supervision of cases) that still goes by the name of the ‘Eitingon method.’ Leonid (Nachum) Eitingon was a major figure in the NKVD/KGB. It was he, in fact, who organized the assassination of Trotsky, recruiting Ramón Mercader, developing his cover, and waiting around the corner from Trotsky’s compound, ready to whisk Mercader away if the need arose. (It did not; Mercader was apprehended by the police.) Another of his exploits is the stuff of fiction. Around 1943, Leonid trained Nikolai Khokhlov, a Russian vaudeville performer (an “artistic whistler”), over a year and a half, to impersonate a German officer. When he was finally ready, Khokhlov parachuted into Minsk under the name “Lieutenant Otto Witgenstein” and successfully completed his mission of blowing up Wilhelm Kube, the “Butcher of Belorussia” (Wilmers, pp. 340-1).
Motty Eitingon, with his great wealth, was a patron to many artists, especially musicians. One passage about this in Wilmers’ book especially caught my attention:
In October 1927… when it was announced that the young violinist Benno Rabinof would shortly make his debut at Carnegie Hall, the New York Times reported that for many years the boy from the East Side ‘with a hunger for music’ had been looked after by a guardian angel in the form of ‘Motti Eitingon, a New York merchant, who was so convinced of his future that he took the financial cares off the family’s shoulders.’ … On occasions like this it’s not hard to see — or rather it’s hard not to see — Motty as a money man with a soft heart in the old Hollywood mode. (p. 210-1)
When I read this passage, I remembered another object from my youth, an LP that, at least for a certain period of time, I listened to a lot:
In my mid to late teens, I thought I was going to be a composer. Around 1975 or 1976, just after the death of Benno Rabinof, I went to visit Sylvia Rabinof, his widow, accompanist, and a very prominent musician in her own right, in New York. The visit must have been arranged through the good offices either of Lillian or Nina (was this on the same visit during which Nina took me to the Guggenheim?), one or both of whom must have been friendly with the Rabinofs. Sylvia was nice but did not think much, I understood, of those of my compositions that I showed her. (I had a similarly discouraging experience around that time in London, with the composer Joseph Horovitz, though I don’t remember which mutual friend facilitated the meeting.)
Although Benno and Sylvia did not record much — they preferred live performance and teaching — it seems they were quite significant. Benno studied with the great violinist and teacher Leopold Auer. (Perhaps Motty Eitingon payed for these lessons.) Auer’s other students included David and Jascha Heifitz and Efrem Zimbalist. Zimbalist was another Russian Jewish émigré whose son, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., was the star of The F.B.I., a television show from the mid-60s whose opening (“A QM [Quinn Martin] production, starring Efrem Zimbalist Jr.”) has stayed in my mind for over 50 years. (Efrem Zimbalist Jr., by the way, played Alfred Pennyworth, the Wayne family old retainer, in the animated Batman series from the 60s. In another post, I made a surprising discovery about the actor, Alan Napier, who played Alfred in the live action series from that time!)
Another student of Auer’s was yet another Russian Jewish émigrée, Clara Rockmore (née Reisenberg). Rockmore was forced to give up the violin owing to tendinitis but struck up a connection with another Russian then living in the United States, Léon Theremin, inventor of the theremin, and so became the first player to bring a high level of artistry to the newly invented instrument. (Theremin proposed to her but she declined.) Here she is playing Saint-Saëns’ The Swan. If you’ve never seen a theremin played, it’s worth a look.
As I was writing this, I suddenly recalled that my grandmother, Lillian, herself owned a theremin! In fact, I have now convinced myself that I remember trying it out at a young age, though I suspect this is not a genuine memory. Whether or not I did, when I was old enough to care, Lillian no longer owned it. Surely she, and Nina, must have known Theremin and Rockmore. Perhaps, like Rockmore, her theremin was even given to her by its inventor. While I don’t have Lillian’s theremin, I do have, still in my possession, a book that probably belonged to my mother in the 1930s and 40s (she was a clarinetist of no mean accomplishment) that explains all the different musical instruments. It was invaluable to me in my own attempts at composition, giving the ranges of the different instruments, the clefs their parts are written in, and so on. It also had, for each instrument, a picture of someone playing it. Even as a teenager, I found the old-fashioned quality of these pictures remarkable. Truly up to the minute, the book includes the theremin.
What, I imagine you asking, does all this – interesting as it may be – have to do with A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!? Let me tell you. It has precisely three things to do with it. First, some of the people I discuss here will appear in the book. Secondly, the post itself functions as a kind of personal “cabinet of curiosities,” and the cabinet of curiosities, the Wunderkammer, is one of the forms under which I conceive of my book as a whole. But the third connection is the most significant.
I hope it is evident that my fascination with the image of Batman slapping Robin is fueled by real psychological sources. Among them is the fact that, as a young boy of around seven, I participated in the making of some films by my older brother and his friends (who were around 16 years old). I had, not long before these films were made, been given, as a birthday present, a Batman mask, cape, and vambraces. (I mention this in an interview I gave about my book in which I incorrectly call the vambraces ‘grieves.’) Perhaps because of the presence of this gift, or my evident enthusiasm for Batman, my brother and his friends incorporated a scene into their film in which Batman and Robin appear. Although the Batman gear was mine, and although it was, evidently, comically small on these 16 year olds, I was only allowed to play Robin in the scene while one of the friends played Batman. I will discuss this scene at much greater length in the course of my book – there are depths to the significance of that episode for my current book that I am not even hinting at here. But here is one still from the film. And as you can see, Nina’s painting hangs on the wall behind Batman’s head!
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.
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.
When I was working on the first academic presentation of my book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, I struggled a lot with how to justify a work that was (partly) about me. Why should anyone be interested in it? I remember trying to compose in my head an introduction to the talk that would address this problem head on and coming up with two totally different ways of seeing the inclusion of self-writing in my otherwise disunified book. Unable to decide which of these correctly described my case, I ended up using them both, and adding two further introductions for good measure, one after the other, with strict instructions to the audience to forget the previous introductions as they heard each new one. (I highly recommend this practice for general use in philosophy. Why do we demand that our work be unfractured?)
Though I have already published the second of the introductions on this blog, I will put it here again, along with the first, because they speak so directly to my concerns about the sense in which my work is auto-theory. Here is the first:
Many people have a strong desire to speak, or more pertinently, to write about themselves. Not because they wish to hog the limelight, or to be the center of attention. I am not here talking about extroverts, and still less about narcissists. What I am talking about is a strong, almost primordial desire, stemming from our earliest years, for visibility – a desire to be seen and known. To be counted. But a desire to be seen depends on others to see us. One must fight for the attention of, and recognition by, others who may have no interest in seeing or counting one. For those, then, who seek to gratify this desire to be seen through self-writing, various strategies present themselves. Humor is one obvious way to mediate one’s desire for recognition – the child learns not to scream, but to caper! Lyricism is another. More complex strategies are also available. The general can be coaxed from the particular details of a life so that in reading about the other, the reader can also read about herself. And, where the events and idiosyncracies of a person’s life are of a kind that are theorized about in some on-going discursive practice, some variety of theory, the possibility arises of intertwining the expression of the desire for visibility with the pursuit of that discursive practice.
Whatever form the accommodation takes, it is a compromise between the childish desire to be seen and the adult realization that being seen requires an other to do the seeing and that such seeing is not simply there for the taking. The childish desire to show one’s face is met, as it were, with a slap by the reality principle that knows that to be seen, a face must mask itself in some way to make it enticing to the viewer. The upwelling or over-flowing needs of the id must be tamped down by the ego and super-ego.
That is what I see in this image:
An enthusiastic, youthful Robin, as yet unsuccessful in making himself visible to us, is schooled by the older Batman. “No-one is interested in you, Robin,” the image itself seems to say. “Your childish capers are insufficient excuse to speak. Wear a mask!”
And here is the second:
In 1969, the expression “the personal is political” was coined by feminist thinkers to challenge the idea that there is a disjuncture between the personal and the broader structures of power in which individuals are inscribed. If we interpret “political” broadly, so as to include all forms of public, institutional discourse, a special case of the expression would be “the personal is philosophical.” This special case would cover efforts to overcome the disjuncture between the personal and the conventions and norms of philosophy as a discipline. Those norms enjoin authors to keep their own personalities out of their work, enjoin readers to focus only on the ‘ideas’ in the text, ideas that are supposed to be able to circulate without any vital connection to the lives and circumstances of their authors. This valorization of objectivity and impersonality, with its effacement of the people who produce philosophy and the ways their individuality affects the contents of their philosophy, has left philosophy shriveled and immature, deprived of the nourishing life-blood of the real people who make it. What is desperately needed for the reinvigoration of philosophy is the rude and forceful interpellation of our stunted disciplinary norms by the subject, in all her strange specificity and individuality. Auto-theory is one form this interpellation can take: the calling out of a moribund modality of philosophy by the subject, slowly and seductively revealing his own face. But because each subject is singular, unique, and real, the face of her desire, even as it reveals itself, will always retain an element of inscrutability to the other. “Fetish” is the name we give to what is inexplicable, what is surd, in desire.
My project is a work of auto-theory, conducted under the sign of this image
in which the joyful, liberating, fetish-clad warrior, in his idiosyncratic singularity, forces the intrusion of the personal onto the stunted, childish discipline of academic philosophy, trying, with a slap, to bring the blood to its face, trying to rouse it from its valorization, at once perverse and torpid, of the production of philosophy without a visible human face.
So, on the one hand, the personal serves only the primal needs of the writer and has to be made attractive – entertaining or instructive – to allow it to serve those needs and render the writer visible to others. On the other, the personal serves a political goal, of challenging repressive institutional and disciplinary norms.
Regarding the first, I have spoken many times of the ways in which my book is intertwined with my analysis and long-standing struggles over the sense of my own invisibility have been a staple of that analysis. I vividly remember an occasion in about 1984 on which Anthony Gottlieb, in the course of a philosophical discussion we were both part of, casually illustrated some point by considering the proposition that there were n people in the room, taking a moment to work out n, and I realized, with a shock of panic and pleasure that is still reverberating more than 30 years later, that I was one of that number! (Hence “to be counted” in the first introduction.)
It is the spirit of the second introduction, though, that puts the “auto” into auto-theory. It is there because the personal is political. But these posts of mine on auto-theory are asking, in effect, whether the personal is always political. Won’t it depend on the person in question?
We trans people live under constant “theoretical pressure.” Theories float on high, dogging our moves, questioning our motives, limiting or opening our options… We have an intimate relation to theory. It gets stuck to our bodies. One of the reasons trans people exist under theoretical pressure is precisely that we don’t conform to everyday expectations—we’re considered anomalous. But, from the other side of the theory, we “anomalies” want to know what’s going on. For us, our very relation to theory needs to be subject to inquiry. It’s an important question: What is it to philosophize from underneath the theory, on the other side of theory? (4)
For ‘anomalous’ people, people who live under “theoretical pressure,” the inclusion of their lives and lived experience in theoretical work is disruptive of the theories that pressure them.
If this is auto-theory, then my work cannot be rightly classified as such. For all the ways in which I feel not at home in the world, ways that I alluded to in my previous post on this topic, I do not, for the most part, live under theoretical pressure. (Qualification: Jews are a group that have lived, for thousands of years, under enormous theoretical pressure. Bettcher’s lovely phrase “living under theoretical pressure,” in fact, perfectly describes the history of ideology around Jews and Judaism so impressively documented in David Nirenberg‘s Anti-Judaism (2013). But in my particular case, that theoretical pressure has been not all that heavy.) Seeking the status of auto-theory for my work, appropriating its language, is a kind of imposture that is far from innocent. (Curiously, the original occasion for the two introductions was a talk at an academic institution, arranged through the good offices of a friend who works there. At some point, after the thing had been arranged, I learned quite by chance that the talk was to occur under the auspices of MAP – Minorities and Philosophy – a group dedicated to diversifying the profession. I’m not sure why that was but it shows that I got off to an early start in my career as an impostor!)
The only thing that gives me pause over the auto-slap of the previous paragraph is this. Surely every theory of Blackness must imply a theory of Whiteness, any theory of femininity a theory of masculinity, and so for all groups that have been treated as ‘anomalous.’ (Perhaps one could coin a slogan for this: no anomaly without an omaly. Sadly the word “omaly” does not exist in English and the word “omalous,” which does, has a purely mathematical meaning.) So in some sense, we all live in intimate relation to theory, it’s just that some of us don’t know it. (This, of course, is what feminist and critical race theorists have been telling us for decades.) Perhaps by appropriating the language of auto-theory, I can work to make myself (and others like me) feel more under theoretical pressure. (Only, I’m not entirely clear as to whether that is something I’m doing in my work, so I won’t stop slapping just yet.)
Finally, there is another sense of auto-theory for which the personal is political regardless of the identity of the person in question. This is a weaker, formal sense in which local features of the disciplinary landscape are challenged by any introduction of the personal into theoretical contexts. But this post has already gone on too long, so the examination of that must await a future occasion.
My colleague from Religious Studies, Professor Robyn Walsh, is teaching a class Star Wars and Religion. Part of how she is continuing to teach her class during the plague is by making podcasts and she has done one with me, on the grounds that there are Baby Yoda memes.
I had a very enjoyable conversation with Robyn and we talked about my book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, auto–theory, the ontology of memes, spirit versus letter in St Paul, Star Wars, and yes, Baby Yoda memes (it’s Robyn who has all the cool things to say about that!).
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.
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.
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).)
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.)
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):
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.
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.
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.
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 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?
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.