I am delighted to share with you my further foray into the art world. ASAP/Journal (ASAP is the Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present) has just published a special issue on autotheory (edited by Lauren Fournier and Alex Brostoff). To coincide with the issue, ASAP/J, the on-line open access platform of the journal, is hosting an exhibition on Transmedial Autotheories.
One of the commentaries from my in-process book A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga! is included. Here is the commentary but if you go see it on the ASAP/J webpage, you can zoom in and actually read what is written!
I wrote this piece for a literary magazine that wanted “objects + meaning.” I thought this fit the bill pretty well but they rejected it. So here it is anyway!
Batman, Robin, and Me
Simon J. Evnine
Memes are among the most ephemeral of contemporary cultural artifacts. Yet one of them, the image of Batman slapping Robin, has been an unexpected catalyst of personal and professional growth for me for about five years now.
In Spring 2016 I started making memes with this image and posting them on Facebook, at first just two of them and then, after a month of dormancy, a torrent of over 100. For reasons which were initially obscure to me, I had always gotten a great kick out of memes that used this image. I would experience a little jolt of pleasure every time I saw one. The realization that I could make them myself, and the ensuing creative activity, unlocked doors in my unconscious that I hadn’t even realized were there. As I posted increasingly esoteric memes of Batman slapping Robin on Facebook I came to think of them as constituting what I called The Batman Meme Project. The idea took hold of me that when I had gotten whatever it was that was driving me out of my system, I would gather them together and provide explanations of the things I uncompromisingly refused to explain while I was posting them. Unattributed allusions to the Talmud, Virgilius Maro Grammaticus, Lope de Vega, Thomas Browne, Sigmund Freud, A.E. Housman, Dodie Smith, and John Cage (among others), untranslated bits of Latin, Armenian, and Yiddish, would all be clarified and explained. Thus began my work on A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!. It’s been five years and I’m not even halfway through my commentaries on the memes. Meanwhile, the ambitions of the work have grown enormously, to the point where I am now thinking of it as a new way of doing philosophy, one that incorporates self-writing, humor, and indirection.
What is it about the image of Batman slapping Robin that so affects me? In its original comic book context, the orientation of the panel has Batman on the left but its life as a meme began with a reflected version that puts Batman on the right, responding to Robin rather than initiating the interaction. It depicts a grown man striking a young boy; a man who faces us but from behind a mask, striking a boy whose face we cannot see; a slap to a bare cheek delivered by a heavily gloved hand. It speaks through the cartoon speech bubbles, but what it says must be supplied anew each time it is used. The sound of slap is indicated visually by lines tracing the movement of the hand and the shockwaves it causes. The image is specular. It is simultaneously silent and deafening.
My obsession with the image began when I was already three years into my psychoanalysis but despite its late arrival, it came to be a fundamental point of reference for my analyst and me – a malleable and suggestive metaphor for a welter of psychic processes. It soon became apparent that for me the image played out an intrapsychic conflict in which I identified with both Batman and Robin. My pleasure in the represented scene was both masochistic and sadistic. I hated the precocious and eager child I had been, the child who was still within me and whom I wanted to obliterate. At the same time, I wished that I had been taught “not to make a fool of myself,” that someone had thought to give me a good slap. I wanted discipline, rigor, and control, and I wanted to discipline, rigidify, and control parts of myself that defied and threatened my adult defenses.
In fact, I have a history with Batman and Robin. Here I am at about six or seven years old, playing Robin in a home movie made by my then-16-year-old brother with a few of his friends.
That Batman mask and the barely visible cape and vambraces being worn by my brother’s friend were mine, a birthday gift because I so loved the live-action Batman TV series that was airing around that time. Yet here I am, ‘demoted’ to playing Robin! And as if that in itself were not bad enough, the ‘plot’ required me to crawl away on all fours and pee like a dog.
And was that spot on my underwear there naturally, dirty little boy that I was? Or was it placed there by the director, my much-loved older brother, for comedic effect? Was I being betrayed humiliating myself? Was my eagerness to participate being exploited?
That live-action Batman series was also the site of premature sexual knowledge. I might have seen nothing suspicious in those shots of the Dynamic Duo climbing up a wall, Robin first, then Batman, their bodies locked together in a single crouch. But my two much older brothers and my father certainly understood their significance and so I learned it as well. It was in connection with the series that I learned, from my father, the word “catamite” and he would also refer to Robin as “Batman’s little buggery boy.”
No wonder, then, that shame over my childish self, my adult desire to punish his weakness and childishness, and my childish desire to have been ‘put in my place,’ should coalesce around the image in the meme. How could I not have been gripped by it?
As work at my desk and on the couch have both progressed, in tandem, some of that ferocious self-contempt has abated. That means I find myself increasingly able to play, to be spontaneous and joyful. My book is not only tied to my analysis, though, it is part of my professional output. Philosophy as a discipline, in the Anglophone world, is dominated by rigor, clarity, precision, all the weapons of control and sadism. My book is part of an attempt to free myself from that. It approaches philosophy in a personal and ludic spirit. It is a kind of philosophical free association. The goal of inserting oneself into academic work is something is shares with (indeed, derives from) work by feminist theoreticians. But unlike the brave people who have truly put their lives on the line, it is hard for me, a person of privilege, to justify to myself and others the throwing over of the academic norms of privilege.
The very first time I gave a presentation on my book-in-progress in an academic setting, I remember worrying about this and, in thrashing it out in my mind, I came up with two contradictory ways of conceptualizing the presence of myself in my work. Rather than choose between them, I read the two opposing introductory paragraphs (along with a further two) at the talk. Here is one:
Many people have a strong desire to speak, or more pertinently, to write about themselves… 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!”
My book is a project conducted under the dubious sign of this equivocal image. But the mask I shall wear, the theoretical discourse by means of which events and idiosyncracies of my life will gain expression, will be the dry and dusty discourse of analytic philosophy. You may imagine, if you choose, what expressions and what distortions of my self this will allow and entail.
In this introduction, I am the little boy, desperate for attention, sneaking my person into philosophy that, for others, helps the medicine go down. This little boy needs to be stopped from making a fool of himself, needs to be taught his insignificance. Here is the other introduction:
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 her 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.
For me, the image of Batman slapping Robin is about the relation of adult to child, of work to play, of the settled ways of doing things and the playful impetus to experiment, of id and superego. Working with it, and on it, has been integral both to my analysis and to my philosophical development. It has allowed me to make peace with my childish self. I hope that, at some point in the not too distant future, it will help me erase the distinction altogether between adult and child.
Throughout my philosophical career, one virtue my writing has been consistently praised for is its clarity. Just about every journal referee and every book reviewer has used that very word or one of its cognates. Not its profundity, not its wisdom, not how interesting it is. It’s always clarity, clarity, clarity. And I’m OK with that. I value clarity very highly. Moreover, my discipline, analytic philosophy, is founded on and built around the quest for clarity so my personal virtue is syntonic with the standards of my profession.
But things have been shifting for me lately and, without revoking my approval of clarity, I have come to see it also in other ways. Part of writing clearly is anticipating, and forestalling, potential ambiguities, misunderstandings, and irrelevant but tempting byways. Clear writing, in other words, serves to direct the reader’s thought along exactly the path the author wishes. I would put it in even stronger terms. Clear writing is designed to occupy the reader’s mind, to colonize it, forcing it to renounce its freedom and follow slavishly the writer’s direction of thought.
Deploying a psychoanalytic concept developed by Melanie Klein and her followers, clarity in writing seems to me to be a mechanism of projective identification. Here is part of the definition of projective identification from the New Dictionary of Kleinian Thought (2011):
Projective identification is an unconscious phantasy in which aspects of the self or an internal object are split off and attributed to an external object.
The projected aspects may be felt by the projector to be either good or bad. Projective phantasies may or may not be accompanied by evocative behaviour unconsciously intended to induce the recipient of the projection to feel and act in accordance with the projective phantasy.
In analysis, the patient projects parts of their mind into the analyst and then, subtly and unconsciously, strives to get the analyst to act in conformity with it. If the patient, for example, has aggressive and sadistic phantasies they cannot assimilate, they will attempt to elicit aggressive and sadistic behavior from the analyst. It is both a dangerous and valuable game.
Clear writing, too, is aggressive and sadistic – not in its content but in the domination it attempts. The reader is ‘forced’ to look here and not there (where their own phantasies might take them), to disregard this but to give that a lot of weight, to understand something polysemous in one way and not another. I imagine that what is being projected through this mechanism is the writer’s own anxiety, anxiety about confusion, about uncertainty, about getting lost, about being swallowed up by a messy, stinking pile of conceptual detritus. Writing clearly makes the writer work hard to control what they produce and at the same time, disallows anyone else the freedom to just let it all go.
I, certainly, whose care and intellectual hygiene so routinely earns me praise from my readers, am beset by these anxieties.†
My book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, exhibits my internal struggles around these issues. I have sometimes said that a key way of understanding its organization is through the analytic concept of free association. Free association is a mode of talking which deliberately tries to set clarity aside. As in free association, so in my book, one thing leads to another not through linear logic but through chance associations, phantasy, and play. The book as a whole does not ‘add up to anything.’ Not making any point, it cannot have a telic structure. It can be read in any order. The emphasis placed on the parergon means that the work is not even sharply divided from what lies outside it. ‘The work’ barely exists at all. What could be messier than a work that cannot be distinguished from its frame? Or even from its didactic?
Concurrently with work on my book, anxieties about free association in analysis have been gradually soothed so that now, after 8 years, I finally find myself occasionally able to talk freely. It’s a great feeling.‡ I look forward, too, to writing philosophy that is no longer ‘clear’ but manages to be interesting or profound instead.
† I have written here about my horror of things like nonsensical words in children’s songs .
Several times, now, I have alluded to a song I made up using the many names I bestowed upon my much-loved cat Celestino (c.1992-c.2002). (He was named after Pope Celestine V, the patron saint of bookbinders. Celestine was followed by Boniface VIII when the latter placed a speaking tube in the wall of Celestine’s room and, impersonating the Holy Ghost, urged him to abdicate.) The issue is relevant to my project for two reasons. First, it forms the basis of an objection to a philosophical thesis, defended by the philosopher Robin Jeshion, that our practice of naming is regulated by an ideal that one should not give a name to something if one knows it already has a name. Secondly, I noted that I have a kind of psychological block about saying nonsense words and the revelation of the text of my song is part of an attempt, through the psychoanalysis that my book is largely about, to overcome this inhibition.
Well, here goes nothing:
I have a little grey cat I have a little calico cat And his name is Zemeckis And his name is Tenbrooks And his name is Boon Boy And his name is Farabiano Butel And his name is Macky Bee And his name is Farabutles And his name is Boxim And his name is Bocca And his name is Boyottles And his name is Bunols.
The song is, like Echad Mi Yodea and Green Grow the Rushes, O, a cumulative song. The first iteration consists of the first two lines and the last. The second inserts the penultimate line, and so on, till the last iteration goes through the whole litany.
I will also, in the book, provide the melody but, as you can imagine, this presents a problem of how to notate a cumulative song. Should one just write out the final iteration, as I did with the text, and add an explanation like the one in the previous paragraph? Should one just write the first iteration and then separately provide the melody for the inserted lines? In the end, I decided to write the first and second iterations, setting off the inserted line in the second with repeat marks on either side and a comment above that one should repeat the phrase as many times as one has names to sing.
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.