Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Past: There's No There There

An article that I labored over [painfully] for over two years is finally out in print ["On the Hither Side of Time: Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul and the Old English Ruin," Medieval Perspectives 19] and it occurred to me that it relates to our previous discussions on "why history matters," and also to JJC's new "in progress" essay collection Infinite Realms: Archipelago, Island, England, especially in relation to its concern with "how the distant past was fantasized by giving life to material objects . . . who colonized or was made to inhabit that lost past, and how "deep time" might be linked to contemporary genders, races, identities." I wince a little now at its conclusion [so forgive me on that], but in any case, I provide a brief excerpt from the Introduction here, and for those who want to read the full essay, follow the link above.

In 1948, Emmanuel Levinas published an essay in Sartre’s journal Les Temps Modernes, “Reality and its shadow,” where he made the provocative argument that Art does not know a particular type of reality; it contrasts with knowledge. It is the very event of obscuring, a descent of the night, an invasion of shadow. To put it in theological terms . . . art does not belong to the order of revelation. Nor does it belong to that of creation, which moves in just the opposite direction. Because art, for Levinas, is essentially “disengaged” from the world and real being, and also places its objects and subjects into the “non-dialectical fixity” of instants of immobile time (what Levinas termed “the intervals of the meanwhile”), art constitutes a “dimension of evasion.” The artist “exiles himself from the city,” and there is finally “something wicked and egoist and cowardly in artistic enjoyment. There are times when one can be ashamed of it, as of feasting during a plague.” Levinas’s argument poses a great challenge to those of us who might want to argue for the ethical value, not only of literature itself, but also of literary criticism. This is not to say that Levinas perceived no value in art whatsoever. On the contrary, he believed that art’s value lay precisely in its status as myth:
the immobile statue has to be put into movement and made to speak. Such an enterprise is not the same thing as a simple reconstruction of the original from the copy. Philosophical exegesis will measure the distance that separates myth from real being, and will become conscious of the creative event itself, an event which eludes cognition, which goes from being to being by skipping over the intervals of the meanwhile.
In other words, through critical interpretation, the artwork can escape the death of the “eternal instant,” because “criticism . . . integrates the inhuman work of the artist into the human world.”

Through an analysis of Tony Kushner’s 2001 play Homebody/Kabul and the Old English Ruin, this essay explores the tension, anxiety, and isolation inherent in the aesthetic and philosophical enterprises of measuring the distance that separates myth from real being (a project that takes place, I would argue, against Levinas, not just outside of the artwork--as criticism--but also within it, in the relationship between the artist and his medium, and even within the medium itself). This essay also ruminates, with reference to an extremely topical contemporary play and a densely opaque remnant of Anglo-Saxon poetry, the ethical dimensions of the use of the imagination to stage encounters between the present and the past, between being and history. According to Levinas, being cannot be explained in its total reality without “the perspective of the relation with the other”; therefore, following the ethical thought of Levinas, and also the historiographical thought of Michel de Certeau, this essay looks as well at the expression of heterology (or, a discourse on the Other) in both works--an expression, moreover, that, in Certeau’s words, “causes the production of an exchange among living souls” that “fashions out of language the forever-remnant trace of a beginning that is as impossible to recover as to forget.”

11 comments:

emile blauche said...

Hmmm. I shall post something thoughtful anon, but for now, let this CFP suffice (this panel is, remarkably, in its fifth year):

CALL FOR PAPERS

SPECIAL SESSION OF THE MEDIEVAL POPULAR CULTURE AREA

THE COMICS GET MEDIEVAL 2007

PROPOSALS DUE TO ORGANIZER BY 10/15/06

Now in its fifth year, proposals are being accepted for inclusion at
"The Comics Get Medieval 2007," a panel and roundtable to be jointly
sponsored by the Comics & Comic Arts Area and the Medieval Popular
Culture Area of the Popular Culture Association for the 2007 Popular
Culture Association/American Culture Association National Conference
Boston, Massachusetts, to be held from 4-7 April 2007, at the Boston
Marriott Copley Place.


We welcome papers on the following topics for inclusion in a series of
panels and/or roundtables. Completed papers should be delivered in
15-20 minutes. All proposals will also be considered for an essay
collection to be co-edited by panel organizers, Michael A. Torregrossa
and Jason W. Tondro.


**Any aspect of comics (comic strips, comics books, graphic novels,
panel cartoons, manga, comics to film/film to comics, etc.) featuring
medieval themes

**Presentations by creators of medieval-themed comics

**Reading medieval artifacts (tapestries, architecture, manuscript illumination, etc.) as sequential pictorial narratives ( i.e. "proto-comics")

**Teaching the Middle Ages through the comics medium


In addition, a select list of potential topics and a bibliographic
guide to medieval comics appears as part of THE MEDIEVAL COMICS
PROJECT available at http://MedievalComicsProject.org.


Please submit full contact information (name, address, phone/cell, and
email), titles, and abstracts of 200-250 words to panel organizers by
15 October 2006. We will forward them to the respective area chairs.
Address all inquiries and proposals to the organizers at the following
address:

Michael A. Torregrossa
34 Second Street
Smithfield, RI 02917 -3627
Michael.A.Torregrossa@gmail.com
http://Michael-A-Torregrossa.com


PLEASE NOTE: Membership in the PCA is required for participation;
details will be sent from the area chair with letters of acceptance or
visit their website at < http://www.popularculture.org>.

Christian Johnson said...

The Past is Oakland?

Christian Johnson said...

The Levinas quotes are interesting, even if I disagree with them. Particularly for the way they embed a wide variety of philosophic ideas.

His concept of “non-dialectical fixity” is a nice discussion point against, or with, Frankfurt School dialectic aesthetics, one that I think adds to the discussion by making an atypical stand against dialectical analyses of art. Kind of an attempt at flanking the Frankfurters.

What entrigued me even more was his statement that the artist "exiles himself from the city," which seems to me a direct reference to Aristotle's politics. Thus for Levinas the artist is "either a beast or a god" though a beast typically embodies destruction and god's creation (which provides a counterpoint to the assertion that art doesn't lie in the order of creation.

The Levinas piece is like a discussion prompting bomb.

J J Cohen said...

What a rich piece.

I want to spend some more time with it, get to know its contours a bit better, and especially want to understand more deeply the relation of art as immobile time (Levinas) with what I understood to be a more processual (or at least dynamic) version of temporality in Freud's work. Freud's point of departure, after all, isn't so much that heimlich and unheimlich are antonyms that contain each other; it is that, by some uncanny process, they have become synonyms ("heimlich" means "secret" and not, as we would literally expect, homely or intimate or familiar -- there is no opposition, and the process that caused such coincidence is uncanny [I think]). In the same way our Homebody seems a Heimlichtuerin, secret to herself, stranger to herself, but in motion, not frozen in time. And the ruins, or The Ruin, "the scriptural tomb": familiar and strange, but strangely alive despite the forces of oblivion (blood still flowing, lichens creeping, gravity tugging, silence enlivened, the dead revivified ...)

I guess the ending -- right before the coda -- captures the movement ("going over to the Other") best.

These lines are most haunting:
The poet of The Ruin was faced with a similar challenge, and it is precisely in the contrastive structure of the poem that we can witness the desire to overcome the difference of the past, and even its destruction, by joining it, as well as the inevitable silence that redounds across the caesura the poem inscribes between that past and the present moment of the poet.

Not at all like Oakland.

Eileen Joy said...

"The Levinas piece is like a discussion prompting bomb"--good! I would love to hear more of your thoughts, Christian, especially your disagreements. I disagree with quite a bit of the essay [Levinas, "Reality and its shadow"--which Homi Bhaba makes great use of, by the way, in his book "The Location of Culture"], while at the same time, I am very persuaded by its *cautions* against art's potential ethical vacuity [which is where, for Levinas, anyway, philosophy comes in--but isn't philosophy, also, a for of art?]. And you're right, I think, to detect Aristotle in Levinas's remarks, although, as we know, Aristotle saw real social value in the aesthetic in terms very different from Levinas's.

JJC--thank you for your comments [and any others you might still develop]; this essay seems like such a muddle to me now in particular ways. I'm not sure what my real purpose was [at least, by the time I submitted the final version]. The initial intent had been to write an essay about the loneliness of scholarly desire and its misplaced affections; then it morphed a little into an essay about desiring the Other of the past who/which can never be "touched" but only longed for, and how that longing can become a form of solipsism that always passes by the mark of what might be called "the real world" [but how, also, this kind of longing, when it is rooted in a kind of self-negating and deep empathy--Levinas's turning-inside-out--can also be ethical]. I want to agree with Levinas and also disagree with him. I'm not sure I believe that the artwork is ever really 100% static, immobile, frozen, etc., although I think we might need to reckon with it as such [which also brings to my mind out conversations with Emile B. earlier in the summer re: fictional--or "past"--versus real persons/bodies]. I agree completely with what you say about Freud's ideas of heimlichand unheimlich [they are not really antonyms--of course], which is why I cited Terence Hawkes's comment about one "lying at the heart of the other." At the same time, I obviously fudged a little in order to allow myself rook to describe how the Homebody's "uncanniness" relies, to a certain extent, on what is truly *not* intimate, *not* familiar, or as you say, not "secret" [which still means, doesn't it, the "secret" you know but don't realize you know?]--so, as opposed to a moment whereby the familiar or "secret you don't know you know" returns in the guise of the unfamiliar [the traditional notion of the uncanny], for the Homebody, there kind of *is* no "familiar," not secret, at all. She has never felt "at home" [or "at home, secretly"] anywhere, which you obviously understand from your remarks. But let's face it--I blurred the boundaries of some ideas there because I wasn't quite sure how to make that point. You actually made it for me with the idea of The Homebody as Heimlichtuerin. So, thanks for that. I guess, too, I'm trying to get at some mystical [or is it purely cognitive, grounded in a type of physicality we might name "desire"?] relationship that occurs via artworks, spectatorship, the historical imagination, and hence, that "motion" you mention. And I'm also trying to make an argument [imperfect and chaotic, to be sure] about art criticism as a type of ethics [but that's all effed-up at present].

emile blauche said...

Hmmmm (encore). I would like to see it spelled out how (art) criticism is an ethical enterprise. I will be arguing at the Zoo that medieval art & literary crticism are not merely unethical, but, to borrow Mann's neologism, anethical.

If you haven't read Wittgenstein's "Lecture on Ethics," have a look-see at it.

In it, you will find this wonderful and terrible image:

"If a man could write a book on Ethics which really was a book on Ethics, this book would, with an explosion, destroy all the other books in the world."

Anonymous said...

E.B., I would like to see someone point out that ethics are the bourgeois man's politics, or excuse for not having a politics. And art and art criticism have a long and vibrant political tradition--reaching back, in fact, to the Middle Ages. When it comes right down to it, ethics are really a form of manners and a way of marking class distinctions and ignoring serious questions of class and politics. It's Miss Manners dressed up as the Ethicist for the kind of people who read the New York Times but have never lived in New York because the "local rag" is "so dreadful."

emile blauche said...

When it comes right down to it, ethics are really a form of manners and a way of marking class distinctions and ignoring serious questions of class and politics.

I think so. And perhaps most true of the parodic garbage that has been generated in medieval studies under the category of "theory" in the last decade.

I say parody not in the tame form, but in the savage sense pursued by Bataille, in the sense of criticism/theory as a brutal parody of "values" such as care, concern, political engagement, choice, and so on. In short, in contrast to some medieval approaches to the ethical, contemporary art/literary crit. and theory are devoid of consolation.

Or so it can be argued.

Karl Steel said...

Or so it can be argued

Will be?

Your paper I expect will be a highlight of my Zoo experience.

--

Anon: I think you need to read your Miss Manners more carefully. There's a world of difference between Miss Manners and works such as How the Goode Wife Taught Hyr Doughter. Goode Wife fits what you describe, but Miss Manners has been a good feminist and pro-gay people at least since the 70s. And the class experience that her work treats is a great deal more expansive than Randy Cohen's.

And she's much, much funnier.

emile blauche said...

Karl, I'll try not to disappoint you.

Expect something manifesto-like, which is to say that, while I shall only be prepared to defend the less outrageous parts, it will be the parts that I cannot defend that will be most on mark.

Eileen Joy said...

Excuse my 4-day or so hiatus from responding to some provocative comments posted here. I was kind of "hiding" [seriously], but now I'm not. As to Emile B.'s comment that he would like to see how [art] criticism can be ethical would be spelled out, let's just say that that is a subject I am still in the midst of "working through"--the Kushner/Ruin article was my first initial stab at it, and I can see now all sorts of things that I think are wrong with that essay, while at the same time, I won't give up on my objective for formulating [better] arguments on the subject. Starting in graduate school [1993-ish onward] and ever since, I have been very intent on formulating [and obviously, trying to practice] an ethics for humanistic scholarship, a subject, moreover, that is really under-discussed, under-addressed, under-theorized, etc. In other words, I don't often see/hear [if ever] humanities scholars discussing or thinking about the ethics of *scholarship*. Now, they might have all sorts of discussions that include words and phrases like "feminist," "queer," "political," "radical," "Marxist," etc., but generally in relation to a particular object of study--the text, the image, the narrative, the socio-historical setting, and so on and so forth--but rarely is the methodology of the study itself approached as an ethical [or unethical] set of actions. Not counting, of course [and I weary of it, anyway] all the discussions over whether or not one is a "better" or "more current" or "more radical" scholar because of selecting one critical approach over another [i.e., New Criticism over more post-structuralist approaches], and also the idea that pedagogy is the only avenue through which what might be called an educational politics can be practiced [whereas written/textual scholarship is mainly inert and extremely limited in its range of possible impact upon so-called "human" lives].

Think of that wonderful line Emile B. shared from Wittgenstein's "Lecture on Ethics"--""If a man could write a book on Ethics which really was a book on Ethics, this book would, with an explosion, destroy all the other books in the world." But this thought was also formulated in language and expressed in writing. To arrive at such a thought [which is also an image] required a certain intellectual pathway, involving, likely, language--thought, spoken, and written. I suppose the larger point is something like, "stop writing, start doing"? But how to know what to do? How to know--in the truly deepest sense of the term, which also means "to tell, to narrate"?

More troubling to me is Anonymous's comment that, "I would like to see someone point out that ethics are the bourgeois man's politics, or excuse for not having a politics. And art and art criticism have a long and vibrant political tradition--reaching back, in fact, to the Middle Ages. When it comes right down to it, ethics are really a form of manners and a way of marking class distinctions and ignoring serious questions of class and politics. It's Miss Manners dressed up as the Ethicist for the kind of people who read the New York Times but have never lived in New York because the 'local rag' is "so dreadful." Now, I don't want to misinterpret these statements, and there is a little confusion for me in them, because I am not sure if Anonymous is making a distinction here between art and art criticism & ethics [with the former having a long tradition of being "political" and the latter only being bourgeois manners"]. Ethics are in no way bourgeois manners [although I suppose some could formulate and practice them as such], nor are they some kind of faux-politics, OR, if they are [can be] a kind of faux-politics, I would like to see some concrete examples of that. I go back to Aristotle when I talk about and think about ethics, in the [much-reduced, I apologize] idea that ethics is about living the best life possible--meaning, more specifically, not just living the life that best maximizes an individual's happiness [although that is part of it], but rather, living the life that best maximizes an individual's potential to maximize the well-being of his/her society [which, by default, also improves the well-being of the individual]. Forget, too, about the guy who writes the ethics column for The New York Times [and who has a regular NPR slot as well]--he's ridiculous!!! As if placing a phone call to a guy who calls himself an "ethicist" gets you off the hook of evaluating your own behavior--please. Ethics--real ethics--will always be about more than that, and no politics is possible without, first, a consideration of ethics.

Simply put [and stealing from Peter Singer]: how are we to live our lives? Everything else [that matters] follows from this question. Ethics is also about always asking the question of what is unanswered, undone, unaddressed, unregarded, unloved, and unfinished. It addresses all the places of incompleteness in a society--in its laws, its charters, its bills of rights, its institutions. Ethics will always be more important than "rights"--which are political--because rights are always predicated on categories that, by their very nature, exclude someone and something. Ethics attends to these exclusions. Ethics locates itself in all the places the law either overlooks or damages. There can never be, say, a *written* ethical code, because real ethics are, in some sense, unsayable, but never undoable. Ethics, in one sense [and this gets closer to what I was trying to do in my Kushner/Ruin essay, and follows from Levinas's thinking about the caress], allows for the recognition that one can never really touch/repair what needs to be touched/repaired, while at the same time, ethics demands continual reaching, continual touching-toward-repair. Again, following Levinas, ethics is, in essence, the first principle of everything, pre-ontological, and the highest, most selfless good. This has to do, too, with the "consolation" Emile B. references when he writes that criticism and theory are "parody, not in the tame form, but in the savage sense pursued by Bataille, in the sense of criticism/theory as a brutal parody of 'values' such as care, concern, political engagement, choice, and so on. In short, in contrast to some medieval approaches to the ethical, contemporary art/literary crit. and theory are devoid of consolation."

But, I hope they are *not* devoid of consolation, or of they have been, that we can repair this.