Batman, Robin, and me

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.

canvas

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.

Screen Shot 2018-10-16 at 2.30.09 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2018-10-16 at 2.28.56 PM

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.”

The-Crouch

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.

nietzsche

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.

canvas

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.

canvas

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.

Batman AI

I’ve been playing around with one of these AI image generators using the instruction “Batman slapping Robin in the style of…” and altering some of the other parameters pretty much at random. Some of the results are really striking so I thought I would share them with you.

 

Just “Batman slapping Robin”
Here in the style of Dali
Caravaggio
A Leonardo cartoon
A Mapplethorpe portrait
… and Rothko

I’ve generally liked the AI-generated images people have been creating and I must say, I find these ones really evocative.

Is there balm in Gilead?

One theme that suffuses my book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, a theme I have not written much about on this blog, is exile. I was moved to write something about it today when, by a series of fortuitous connections, it ran up against one of the memes from my book.

raven

(The book’s commentary on the meme, however, deals with quite different issues.)  I was reading a review, by Nathan Goldman, of Joshua Cohen’s recent novel The Netanyahus. The novel is a fictionalized account of the coming to America of the Israeli historian Ben-Zion Netanyahu, along with his family, including his son Benjamin, future prime minister of Israel.

In the novel, the elder Netanyahu is asked to teach a class on the Bible as part of the hiring process. In the course of this class, he says:

Zion, because it was remembered not as written history but as interpretable story, was able to exist again in actuality, with the founding of the modern state of Israel. With the establishment of Israel, the poetic was returned to the practical . . . Now that Israel exists, however, the days of the Bible tales are finished and the true history of my people can finally begin.

In life, Ben-Zion Netanyahu had worked as an assistant for the Zionist Revisionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Goldman, the reviewer, quotes Jabotinsky as having said, during a speech in 1938:

Eliminate the Diaspora or the Diaspora will eliminate you.

1938. It would have been then, or perhaps a year or two earlier, that my father heard Jabotinsky speak in London. (Jabotinsky lived in London from 1936 until his death in 1940.) That encounter left an indelible mark on my father who from then on remained a faithful adherent of Jabotinsky’s brand of Zionism. Perhaps he heard that very sentence from Jabotinsky’s own mouth. It certainly expresses a sentiment my father fervently shared. It was this sentiment that I had to work so hard to free myself from, separating myself from the tents of my father and striking forth into the wilderness, into a kind of exile. (This was happening right around the time my parents picked up and moved, finally, to Israel, leaving me, aged 18, effectively an orphan in London.)

I particularly like Cohen’s imagining of Netanyahu’s words because it so readily offers me the language for my own view. For Netanyahu, the “days of Bibles tales” extend all the way up to the founding of the state of Israel. It is only with this event that the history of the Jews begins. My own, more melancholy, take on founding of Israel is that it marks the end of the history, if not of the Jews, at least of Judaism. It is the point at which a large segment of Jewry turned its back on the particular ‘genius’ of Judaism and plunged bloodily and enthusiastically into being a nation like any other.

The ‘genius’ of Judaism, of course, is exile. The Bible (and here I agree with Netanyahu) does not detail the early history of the Jews. It is a pre-historic myth, an origin story, needed to establish the basis for the real beginning of Jewish history – the exile of 70CE. It is not the Bible that is the book of which Jews are the people, it is the Talmud. The Talmud itself, by a clever trick, manages even to be in exile from itself. It exists in two versions, the Jerusalem (or Palestinian) Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud. The latter, naturally, eclipses the former in prominence. Since that time, the Jews have embodied unrootedness. Unrootedness is something that anti-Semites have used to foster hatred and suspicion of them. I think a similar accusation lies barely concealed beneath the surface of Ben-Zion Netanyahu’s words – words not at all uncommon in Zionist circles.

Life in exile is a terrible burden and a precious gift. Though it has brought me suffering I would not give it up for the world. (I hope my book will express something of how exile has characterized my life.) I spoke in an earlier post of being, as a Jew, for the letter. I can’t yet explain precisely how but this seems, in my own mind, to be the same as being for exile.

In the book’s commentary on the meme above, I discuss many things, among which is the influence of Poe on the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. (You will get an inkling of why if I tell you my main source is a paper by the Pessoa scholar George Monteiro entitled “The Bat and the Raven.”) Pessoa translated Poe’s poem into Portuguese. One of the elements of Jabotinsky’s hagiography that I grew up with was his having translated “The Raven” into Hebrew. In fact, he translated it into both Hebrew and Russian. (He was a gifted linguist.) You can see the MS, in which he used Latin characters (I don’t know why) here. It was in my pre-exilic years, in the bosom of my family, that I first learned “The Raven” from my father.

That is not it, at all: clarity and sadism

That is not what I meant at all;
               That is not it, at all.
T.S. Eliot
 
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 .

‡ Anton Kris, in his book Free Association: Methods and Process, emphasizes the effect of free associating on the patient’s well-being.

An Increasingly Verbose meme. A grandmotherly Melanie Klein becomes sketchier as the jokey example used to illustrate the importance of proper punctuation becomes more verbose and, in the final panel, more Kleinian.

Image, writing and speech – in Italian

I’m excited to share with you an edited version of a talk I gave in Genoa a couple of years ago, now in virtual printed form. The piece is about one of the themes that runs through my book-in-progress A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga! – the relations between speech represented in writing that appears as part of an image. Many of the memes exploit the possibilities raised by these interrelations.

The sound of your blood: The Batman Meme Project hits the international art world

Thanks to Caterina Gualco, owner of the contemporary art gallery UniMediaModern in Genoa, Italy, the Batman Meme Project has now hit the international art world. Caterina invited me to submit something to an exhibition she is mounting called 20×20 eventi 2020 (pronounced in Italian “venti per venti eventi venti venti”). It  is a ‘magic box’ containing many different art works, all 20x20cm. After the exhibition of the box’s contents, the whole will end up in the Museo d’Arte Contemporanea di Villa Croce, Genoa’s contemporary art museum.

20x20-Eventi-2020

My piece is in the fifth column from the right, second row down. Here it is by itself:

 

Robin: I can’t stand this noise. If only we had an anechoic chamber, its six walls…
Batman: Fool! You’d be deafened by the sound of your blood in circulation and your nervous system in operation.

In honor of the momentous event of my being displayed in an art gallery, I am here publishing the full text of my commentary on the meme from my book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!.

M.42 The Sound of Your Blood…


M.42 The Sound of Your Blood… Composed: March 13th. Posted: March 17th. Orientation: Reverse. Font: Comic Sans. TB1: “I can’t stand this noise. If only we had an anechoic chamber, its six walls…”, white. TB2: “Fool! You’d be deafened by the sound of your blood in circulation and your nervous system in operation.”, white.


When the meme was posted on Facebook, on March 17th, a friend of the artist, Edmund Fawcett, commented:

In the prehistoric late 1950s, MoMa in NYC had for a time an anechoic chamber in the garden. I visited as a kid. Batman’s right or half-right. I recall hearing the sound of blood circulating. The leaflet said I’d also hear the electrics in the brain. I tried hard to hear them but didn’t. Maybe thoughts about thoughts were inaudible?

The language used in the meme clearly echoes a story the composer John Cage told in a number of places of a visit he made to an anechoic chamber at Harvard University. For Cage, the moral of the story seems to have been that where there is life, there is music (“until I die there will be sounds”) – something he took to be a joyous state of affairs. The artist, apparently, was fascinated, perhaps even obsessed, by this story, or by the thought of an anechoic chamber, but seems to have made of the whole thing just about the opposite of what Cage took it to mean. As a young man, he wrote what he called a ‘book,’ entitled The Incoherence of the Incoherence (after the work by the Islamic philosopher Averroës). This piece of near-juvenilia is a strange jumble and we shall defer until the commentary on M.96 (“The Origins of Neo-Platonist Metaphysics”) a closer look at it. But the book contains a passage we will quote here in which the artist gives us his own perspective on Cage’s anecdote:

‘Darkness there was, but no silence.’[1] Such might be an apt description of being in an anechoic chamber with the lights off.

“For certain engineering purposes, it is desirable to have as silent a situation as possible. Such a room is called an anechoic chamber, its six walls made of special material, a room without echoes. I entered one    at Harvard University  several years ago and  heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he  informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, and the low one my blood in circulation. Until I die there will be sounds.”[2]

Think what this means. One day, here in the city, listen to the noises around you.      Music blares, the traffic roars, people shout. What     a din! What a hubbub! In order to escape this inconvenience, remove yourself to the countryside. Enjoy the bird song and the murmuring of the brook (never mind the hurdy-gurdy and the loutish accents). Enjoy them. Sing them to yourself, once, twice, then again, and again and on and on until they grow into a clamorous uproar, until the cricket booms in your ear at night and the whippoorwill screams to you of death.

Then take up thy substance and get thee hence; take thyself and go.[3] Go to the wastelands or the deserts where not even the beasts and insects live. Ah desolate solitude. Let us live together in silent ceremony. But what is this? Can it be that I hear something? Yes, it is coming from over there. No, now it’s here. And there, and there, and there. It’s everywhere. “Yes, everywhere,” howls the wind, in hollow mockery. “As long as this planet moves about the sun there will always be alternate patches of hot and cold air. And the hot air will always displace the cold air and I, yes I, the wind will live forever. And for me, living is screaming. From now on, for you who have seen the barren places of the earth, will my slightest stirring, unheeded by all else, be as the trumpeting of a thousand elephants and when I raise my voice you shall stop your ears and cower, lest you are overcome.”

Fly, fly from here quickly! But where can I go? Where shall the wind not find me? Shall I take refuge from mankind with the wind, or from the wind with mankind? But wait! Has not the ingenuity of man provided me with that with which I can avoid both man and the wind? Is there not the anechoic chamber, its six walls made of special material, a room as silent as technologically possible? But imperiously, the voice of Being laughs: “Get thee to an anechoic chamber, and hear there thy nervous system in operation and hear there thy blood in circulation.”[4]

The piece is strange and somewhat overwrought (and involves a jarring switch from second to first person in the course of the penultimate paragraph) but it strikingly illustrates the artist’s constant, almost existential, struggle against noise, something that also makes itself felt in M.71 (“Shhhh”).

There is more to the story of the artist’s interest in the anechoic chamber and John Cage. We are in possession of a letter he wrote, almost certainly at the end of May or in early June, 1982. Here is the relevant part:

You’ll never guess what happened. It was brill-to-the-max ciudad.[5] I went with Miranda to some of the 70th birthday bash for John Cage at the Almeida.[6] Between two of the events we went to the caff across the road for a cup of tea. We sat down at a large table and then noticed that right next to us, was Cage himself, being interviewed by a couple of wankers.[7] As you know, I’m obsessed by the story he keeps telling about that time he was in an anechoic chamber. So I asked him if he’d been in one in London. He said he’d been photographed in one but it wasn’t operational! What a pity. If only it was working I could go myself. Then we got talking about philosophy. He was absolutely sold on Norman Malcolm’s memoir of Witters.[8],[9] Only he pronounced it as “meeeeemoir,” the first vowel long, in both the phonetic and temporal sense. It sounded so strange. Then, cos me and Miranda are trying to eat a macrobiotic diet, and he wants to write a macrobiotic cookbook(!), he gave us this recipe.[10] (I quote, almost verbatim.) “Take a carrot, a turnip, and a parsnip. Put them in the oven and roast them. It’s delicious.” Ha ha ha. We tried it and do you want to know what it was like? A carrot, a turnip, and a parsnip that had been roasted. Not too thrilling. I hope his cookbook has some recipes in it that are more exciting and tastier than that![11] Anyway, he was really nice and it was so amazing to chat with him. I feel like a scrofulous peasant that’s been touched by royalty! It’ll be a story to put in a meeeeemoir of my own.[12]

[1] [Editor’s note:] This quotes the beginning of the artist’s ‘book.’

[2] [Editor’s note:] Cage (1961, 8). The passage continues: “And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music.”

[3] [Editor’s note:] Possibly a reference to Genesis 12,1.

[4] [Editor’s note:] Cage (1961, 51).

[5] [Editor’s note:] Brilliant to the max city. On the model of “weird city,” a construction the artist learned from the American conductor John Morris Russell when they were students together at Kings College London some time between 1978 and 1981.

[6] [Editor’s note:] “Cage at 70,” the opening event of the Almeida Festival of 1982, was a series of performances at St James’ Church, London N7 (not at the Almeida Theatre itself, as Evnine suggests in his letter) from Friday May 28th to Sunday May 30th.

[7] [Editor’s note:] A strangely (or perhaps not) uncharitable reaction to two perfectly innocent people who, no doubt, had banked on this time with Cage and felt it was the artist and his companion who were the ‘wankers.’

[8] [Editor’s note:] Norman Malcolm’s Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir. For the style of abbreviation manifested in “Witters,” see the commentary on “Distinguo.” The philosopher Grice recalls J.L. Austin’s having said “Some like Witters… but Moore is my man” (Grice 1991, 381). Given that Grice’s book was not published until 1991, the artist’s use of this slang is almost certainly coincidental.

[9] [Editor’s note:] Cage’s enthusiasm for this work around that time is borne out by a passage from a letter he wrote to Ornella Volta, the author of two works on Satie, on May 25th 1983, a year after the conversation reported here: “I have finished reading your book (in French; no English has arrived); I love it. I can say that for few others. Like yours they are profoundly touching: Norman Malcolm’s Memoir of Ludwig Wittgenstein [sic] and Templier’s Erik Satie (not in the English translation, which I find impossible to read). This making reading matter touching must be what death does to biography” (Cage 2016, 529).

[10] [Editor’s note:] Again from a letter not long after the reported conversation (Feb 28th, 1983, to Lindsey Maxwell) : “Through John [Lennon] and Yoko [Ono] I changed my diet and that of Merce Cunningham to the macrobiotic diet” (Cage 2016, 528). This makes the artist a kind of culinary grandchild to John and Yoko.

[11] [Editor’s note:] Cage says this, of his projected cookbook: “instead of just being about cooking, it will be about everything that interests me. But I will arrange the use of chance operations so that cooking comes up more than anything else” (Montague 1985, 206). (How can one do anything other than love that second sentence.) The book was never written but on the website of the John Cage Trust there is a page with Cage’s notes on macrobiotic cooking and a selection of recipes. Amazingly, one can find on the page, under the heading “Root Vegetables,” the following: “Carrots, Turnips, Jerusalem Artichokes, etc. Place in a Rohmertopf (clay baking dish) in a hot oven for an hour or more with a little, very little, sesame oil. They may be covered with leeks and topped with a mixture such as one of those suggested for roast chicken” (http://johncage.org/blog/cagerecipes.html, quoted here with the permission of the John Cage Trust).  It is possible that Cage did not recommend to Evnine the use of sesame oil, or that he did, but that the artist ignored the advice.

[12] [Editor’s note:] Though the present work is hardly a memoir of Evnine, it is, perhaps, a meme-oir, as Cage would have called it, so the artist’s prediction is, literally in a manner of speaking, here being fulfilled.

A problem of notation

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.

And-his-name-is-Bunols-score

… and his name was Boyottles…

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.

Fragments of another world

[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.

Moscow 1904. Great-uncle Oscar is the little boy on the floor. Brunya (that is, Abraham Jonah, from whom I get my middle name Jonah), my father’s father, is second from the right. The parents are Bezalel and Zissia (née Eitingon; we will meet her again). Bezalel was the son of Nosen Neta Evnin, whose rabbinic writings are listed in my post A Yiddish Meme. Nosen Neta, a rabbi in the Pale of Settlement, certainly spoke Yiddish. Did Bezalel, a member of the Moscow bourgeoisie? I remember a spirited argument across many years between my father and my brother-in-law’s uncle over this question – but unfortunately I cannot now recall the details. One of them, I think, maintained categorically that all Moscow Jews did not (or perhaps did) speak Yiddish.

Brunya and Oscar were the lucky ones among the children. The two daughters, Julia standing and Raya sitting, died young, possibly both by suicide over unhappy love affairs. Another brother Mordecai (Motty – an Eitingon name), standing next to Brunya, was killed in World War I. The saturnine man on the left was Julia’s husband.

This photo is itself an artifact that pervaded my childhood, no doubt influencing my, and certainly my father’s, conception of what a family is. I will spare the reader the sight of an attempt my immediate family made to produce our own comparable photo in 1973.

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?

Portrait of Nina Schick by Sergei Sudeikin. I believe the painting is in the possession of her son, Tony Evnin. The photo, from The Oklahoman, is by Steve Sisney. The painting was in Oklahoma for an exhibition “American Artists from the Russian Empire” at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, 2008-9.

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.

Picture of a theremin in Arthur Edward Johnstone’s Instruments of the Modern Symphony Orchestra and Band, revised and augmented edition by Dr. Edwin J. Stringham (New York, 1930). The instruments are pictured with members of the New York Philharmonic Society, the Metropolitan Opera House Orchestra, and the Goldman Band. The book sometimes calls the theremin a “Victor Theremin” or “Victor-Theremin.” Theremin sold the production rights for his machine to RCA in 1928, and RCA acquired the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1929, the outcome of which was RCA Victor (and the Victrola). I assume this is the origin of the name of the theremin in this book, though I have seen it used nowhere else.

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 still from a film made by my brother and his friends. The author, age seven, is Robin.

Philosophy through memes

I am honored to have been asked to contribute an essay on philosophy through memes for the Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Public Philosophy (eds. Nancy McHugh, Lee McIntyre, and Ian Olasov), currently in preparation.

nietzsche

Writing the piece is a challenge. I don’t know of any literature on the topic and feel like I am having to think things through from first principles. (If you know of anything that might be relevant, do please let me know.)

You might think that because I am in the middle of writing a book, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!,  that itself does philosophy through memes, I would have a lot of fairly developed thoughts on the topic. And I suppose I do. But my own attempts to philosophize through memes are not all that helpful. First, they are impure. My medium is not the meme, but the meme plus commentary (and the commentaries are parts of an ‘art catalogue’ in which the writing is done by a notionally different person from the creator of the memes). So my resources for doing philosophy are much greater than the exiguous ones of a solitary meme (or even a sequence of memes). At the same time, those extra resources are so specific and idiosyncratic that they offer no basis for generalization. Finally, the image I use has a distinctive feature which is not as a rule found in memes and which is the source of much of the philosophizing I attempt through it: the speech bubbles that derive from its original appearance as part of a comic.

The original slap, from DC Comics World’s Finest #153, 1965. Art: Curt Swan Story: Edmond Hamilton

Speech bubbles allow spoken language to be represented by pictures of writing. It is the space between these three – image, writing, speech – that allows me to explore in a practical way the kind of philosophical issues raised by Derrida, in Of Grammatology, and more recently, by Alva Noë in Strange Tools. The difference between writing and a picture of writing, and the different relation each has to speech, became a major theme in the composition of the memes. (It is the topic of a talk I gave recently, available here in Italian and here in English.) Some of the ways in which it shows up in the memes are : footnotes (an exclusively written phenomenon) appearing in the speech bubbles; text represented in different alphabets, including Braille – a primarily tactile rather than visual alphabet); and text and speech bubble appearing in a mirror reflection. Even the use of punctuation in the speech bubbles raises issues since, like footnotes, it is a feature of writing, not speech. (In addition, the exclamation mark, which I came to use so frequently, is a written element that has distinctly pictorial qualities. From top to bottom, a whoosh and a slap!)

None of this, however, has any general application to philosophy through memes. What, then, is philosophy through memes? It is easy to imagine something bland and boring, like this:

Paley-meme

A brief quotation from Paley’s version of the Argument from Design is, in very lightly edited form, superimposed onto an image of Paley himself. If this were the best that could be done for philosophy through memes, it would hardly be worth pursuing.

Perhaps we get to something more interesting with this:

paley-Dali-meme

The same text now appears over Salvador Dalí’s painting The Persistence of Memory. Putting the text over this surreal depiction of drooping watches now evokes pictorially an obvious objection to Paley’s argument: the ‘watch’ that needs explaining (i.e. the adaptation of means to ends found in the natural world) is not as perfect as all that and therefore hardly suggests the existence of an omnipotent maker. Furthermore, the positioning of the text itself, which echoes the watch on the left, reinforces the imperfection not just of the world, but of Paley’s argument about it.

Perhaps an even better example of philosophy through memes is evident in a meme which, unlike those above, was not made by me. (I don’t know who made it.)

Foucault-meme-for-class

A well-known meme with this image uses the text “The hardest prison to escape is in your own mind.” This Foucauldian sentiment is clearly at work in the present version but whereas the original has the image simply illustrating the idea, here we see the idea being alluded to by the little boy in his play. This emphasizes the super hetero-normativity of the image, thereby connecting the Foucauldian point to the specifics of white, middle-class American life. (I will be showing my students this meme when I teach the chapter of Ellen Feder’s book Family Bonds: Genealogies of Race and Gender in which she discusses the panoptic design of Levittown, a plausible location for the scene in the image.)

Clearly there is a lot more to say about philosophy through memes – but you’ll have to wait until the finished article to learn my thoughts on it. If you have any thoughts of your own, why not leave them in a comment?