Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The shock of recognition

From an honor's thesis by Amy Baily, composed here at GW, a nifty piece of work in which various people were interviewed about authors, fictions, and illusions of presence:

I asked Jeffrey Cohen whether he’d trade reading Chaucer for being able to spend time with him.
COHEN: No.(laughing) Amy, I'm sitting in this office not because I like people; I don't really like people; I like books and texts. If Chaucer hadn't written his books I wouldn't be interested in him. I wouldn't want anything to do with Chaucer the person.

AB:Who makes books?

COHEN: People, who get transformed by them and lose themselves in them. The person is not the book.
Sure, I get that little thrill of meeting an author when I go to a book signing ... especially if the author exceeds my fantasy of who that author is going to be. Most of the time they don't.

For me the book is different from the person, and the book doesn't necessarily make me want to meet the person or idolize that person, or give me a fantasy of "I could be that person's friend, or pick that person's brain." No, I'm just happy to be in the textual world, and that's enough.

Paging Molière: it's official, I'm a misanthrope.


Anonymous said...

I'm afraid I can't let this pass--Jeffrey Cohen a misanthropist? Hardly. A misanthrope really really hates and despises other human beings, even the ones in texts. While I can totally relate to not necessarily wanting to hang out with other authors [I have an MFA in fiction writing and have put in my time at places like Breadloaf and Sewanee where everyone behaves so badly you almost lose faith in literature], the man who wrote "Medieval Identity Machines," and with such depth of feeling for characters--both real and imaginary--such as Little Hans, Chretien's Lancelot, and Margery Kempe--just cannot be a misanthrope. Nope. No way. Sorry.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

(Thank you, Eileen. You are too kind.)

Anonymous said...

I'm sitting in this office not because I like people; I don't really like people; I like books and texts.

I'll take a different tack on this comment. I will commend Professor Cohen for having the honesty to admit that what animates his scholarship is an attachment to inanimate textual objects rather than living subjects. I would venture this is true of the vast majority of literary scholars, but they lack the guts to declare it. Such an attachment to and animation by texts is one reason why literary scholars have precious little to say about problems--human problems--in a way that might, just might, make a genuine difference or improvement in the lives of others.

I am not censuring Professor Cohen whom I know personally and know to be a good man and an excellent scholar. My point is simply that his statement is rather exceptional in that there are a great number of self-important literary scholars who labor under the illusion that their work somehow matters, that it can be translated into real social, political, or human action. Professor Cohen does not wish to appear as one of those scholars.

Or, so he appears not to wish to appear as one of those scholars.

Anonymous said...

One doesn't have to have spent too much time in an English department to recognize that most of the faculty there definitely prefer inanimate objects like books over other human beings. And I agree with "Anonymous" that there are too many self-important literary scholars who labor under the illusion [and even, claim, often and loudly] that their work somehow "matters"--socially, politically, etc.--and that it is, indeed, admirable that Prof. Cohen, perhaps, does not want to appear as one of those self-important literary scholars. But I myself do not want to practice what I really believe is a humanistic scholarship--whether literary studies, philosophy, historical studies, etc.--that sets aside "the human" as somehow beside the point, or irrelevant. To be a good teacher, I think you have to love books *and* other human beings. To care about books, even passionately, isn't just to care about their language, but the persons, situations, and worlds that language creates--persons and worlds, moreover, that always have "one foot," as it were, in this world, and one foot somewhere else "other than this world," just as the scholar, while reading, is both "here" and "out there, somewhere else." Of course, there is a pretty happy solilpsism one can create for oneself as a scholar of almost anything, and if you're lucky, you can get away with it, while still lamenting the fate of everything else [think: George Steiner], and I myself have gotten pretty sick of all the so-called "radical" theorists [whether feminists, Marxists, whatever] who claim their work is "political" when it's really just writing about writing for highly-specialized audiences; at the same time, I'm not sure it's wise for scholars working in the humanities to completely turn away from the question of whether or not humanities study, at the university level, might have some kind of important public function--what that might be, I'm still trying to figure out. Given the state of intellectual life in America at present, I think it might be dangerous not to.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

To my anonymous poster from Austin, TX (and of course it is easy to tell who you are): let's not forget the tone of my original post. The conversation Amy captured into text well illustrates the way I banter with my students. I sometimes say silly things for a laugh. But that doesn't mean I'm not serious about what I do, nor that I actually prefer inert texts to breathing people (though in all honesty I don't think good texts are ever inanimate, and I also believe that the dead deserve the same justice as the living -- what's up with your stark binaries, Mr. Anonymous?)

So, hold your congratulations for my honesty, and keep "self-important" in reserve, ready to hurl. My sympathies are with Eileen Joy's vision of the world, where you don't have to choose between the past and the present, the troubles of today and the allures of history.

Anonymous said...

I allowed for some wiggle room in my reading of your comment to the student in my last sentence, but you are right to reorient me to the context in which such a "misanthropic" statement might be made.

Nonetheless, I wanted awfully damn bad to take your comment unironically if only because my tolerance for irony has long worn thin. The thinkers I venerate right now are not known for their irony, and they're admirable to me for their wish to transform the human, utopically.

Professor Joy writes about caring for language and caring for the worlds (people, etc.) that language creates. That's cool, but at the end of the day that world remains an imaginary one, whatever its ties to the real one. Are literary figures generated from the real? Sure, but to choose them as objects of analysis pulls you away from the real subjects around you. If the closest you can get to the real is the gap between the real and the fictional, the present and the past, then you haven't really positioned yourself to change the real.

In other words, I submit you do have to choose, you do have to make a commitment to the inanimate and/or the past or to the living and/or the future. This is an ethical choice, and it should be owned as such. This is not to say that if I opt for the living then I somehow forget the past, downplay it, or ignore it, or whatever, but that I consciously direct my energies as an agent of change to the living without pretending that I can be truly effective merely by inhabiting the interstices--between past and present or "between the troubles of today and the allures of history," as Professor Cohen put it.

There was a time when I believed that all change must issue from the interstice, the between. I even tried to imagine what a life within that space might look like, what it might be capable of. It was a pleasant exercise. But then I started responding to people in crisis, and while I would have thought that if there's any in-between state then crisis is it, I learned quickly that such in-betweenness brought only anguish. In other words, phenomenologically speaking, there was no such state. And to be effective as a counselor, I couldn't give the illusion that I was anything but unironical.

Last week, a UT professor shot himself. My partner and I were the crisis response team for that case. We got to his home about 20 minutes after a neighbor found his body. We were there for 5 hours, counseling relatives and the neighbor and her son who discovered him. What I did that night in real human terms is not really or finally measurable, but I know that the salutary energy that had to be created from tragedy could not have been produced from anywhere other than the real. No ambivalences, no ironies, no post-anythings.

Anonymous said...

What Anonymous says in his last post is precisely the argument I always fear the most [it's kind of unanswerable, in a way, partly because it is so true], although it also requires a further parsing out of what we mean when we start talking about the Real. When I was a graduate student, I walked out of a "theory discussion group" meeting, during which, at the time, we were reading Judith Butler's "Bodies That Matter," and apartheid in South Africa was in its final, bloody throes, and I had also just finished reading Rian Malan's "My Traitor's Heart." I was having kind of a bad day, and I don't remember what, exactly, happened, except that I was mainly disgusted [at the time] about Butler's "political" posturing re: the performativity of gender viz. certain literary texts and films and what good was any of it if you were being tortured in a cell somewhere, and the short version of this story is that I literally walked out of the meeting and then dropped out of grad. school and worked as a gardener for three years, during which time I mainly shoveled mulch and dug holes. For three wonderful years I planted things and it felt good and useful and I was surrounded by people who mainly just wanted to talk about hostas and lilies and trees, and it was all just solid and . . . Real. Physiology took over, though, and my body informed me that I couldn't do this work forever. I returned to school, and . . . blah blah blah. I decided to pursue what I knew I was good at and had a desire for, while at the same time, in the back of my mind I'm always concocting fantasies about running off to work for Human Rights Watch or the Chechen rebels.

The thing is: if someone tells me that, as a crisis counselor, they work every day with REAL people with REAL problems, and that those problems cannot be intellectualized or ironized, I have to concur [although, through the writings of someone like a Maslow or a Jonathan Lear or a Freud, aren't they intellectualized in way that might be meaningful for productive change in real people's lives?--but I think that's partly Anonymous's point: choice of reading material matters!]. Anonymous's argument is actually designed, in a way, to shut down any possible response because, what he and his partner did that night at the home of the professor who shot himself will always matter *more* than my blatherings about "Beowulf," if we're talking about the possible impact we can or want to have in the lives of others. But I think Anonymous should therefore also read someone like Dominick LaCapra, especially "Writing History, Writing Trauma" (but also "History and Memory After Auschwitz"), whose body of scholarship for the past ten or so years has been directed precisely to the matter of Real Trauma, and how those persons caught up in the maelstrom of traumatic events "work through" those events. And literature, it turns out, has a great role to play in helping us work through trauma, as does psychology, as does cognitive science, as does theory. LaCapra would likely argue a great deal against the idea that, in a traumatic event, there is no "betweenness"--in fact, there may be too much of it.

I'm going to go out on a little bit of a limb and say that, even in the very heat of a traumatic moment, that "inbetween" space does, in fact, exist, and is actually critically important to the future operation of "working through," and also to what I would call the "recuperation" of self. Yes, when certain events are unfolding, one simply acts, sometimes as quickly as possible--you run into the burning building to save someone, you embrace someone who you may not even know because they need to be held, you defy a cruel authority on someone else's behalf, etc.--and all of this comes out of what Anonymous calls a care for "the real subjects around you." But the "realness" of those subjects is not just epistemological, it also hinges on the imaginary, on what we *imagine* a person to be, and how we *imagine* our obligations to her, our care for her, our love for her [which we have to *invent* as a necessary hedge against the ultimate non-being of everything]. And on a purely cognitive level, immediate action is likely predicated on some kind of narrative circulating in the brain, and the only way to "recount," later, what happened, to *make sense* of it [in other words, to create *meaning* in our lives] will likely be through those same narrative circuits. Books are real. Persons are real. A university is composed of those same "real subjects around you" who are also in need of care. It's interesting that Anonymous's anecdote of "crisis" involved a university professor who shot himself--was not his home, through which passed Anonymous and his partner, the neighbor and her son, and the relatives, a space of the "inbetween"? And did this tragedy not have, at its core, as all suicides do, ambivalence--ambivalence about life and whether or not it is worth living, ambivalence over how to insert meaning into what may very well be meaningless, ambivalence over how best to comfort those who remain behind? I like to think that ethics always has something of the ambivalent in it.

And thanks to Anonymous for helping me to think through some things I don't always like to think about--whether or not what I do *matters* and how. It is not a question to ever be definitively set aside.

Anonymous said...

Another thought, or addendum to my previous post, regarding Anonymous's comment that "you do have to choose, you do have to make a commitment to the inanimate and/or the past or to the living and/or the future. This is an ethical choice, and it should be owned as such." I worry a little bit over whether or not having to, say, make this choice actually moves us further away from the real ethical work that, as difficult as it may be [and perhaps, ultimately, impossible], has to also, I would submit, be done: answering the question, somehow and some way, "what do the dead want from us?" while also tackling the even more urgent question, "what do the living need from us right now?" In other words, I think you have to do both [granted, the first question may smack of a certain religious or spiritual imperative], while at the same time, I always have in the back of my mind the idea that the best way for the future to unfold in the most ethical, politically progressive way might be to erase the past completely. In other words, sometimes forgetting is just as important as remembering [and sometimes, remembering can even be harmful]. I always think of the ending of Toni Morrison's "Beloved" [a novel about a very Freduian type of "acting out" against and also "working through" a traumatic past] where she writes, "This is not a story to be passed on," and yet that is exactly what Morrison is doing--passing it on, writing and rewriting it endlessly [in all her novels, actually] while also erasing its tracks, because the final images of the narrative, interspersed between the refrain, "this is not a story to be passed on," are the deep imprint of Beloved's footsteps just at the edge of the stream from which she originally emerged and to which she eventually returns [i.e., the country of the dead, where all the "bodies" are pressed upon each other], and then a lighter imprint, then no imprint of footsteps at all, and finally, one day, the only thing we can see there, is "only the weather"--in other words, the oblivion of memory. In Morrison's novel, the memory of the past is like an open wound that cannot heal over because it is constantly being picked at, gone back to, and remembered *too much*. The novel is like a warning about not being able to let go of the ghosts of the past [who are actually quite destructive] and how important it is to understand, as Paul D. says to Sethe near the end, "you're your own best thing." But Morrison, the novelist, is also always returning to the past, always fingering with her language its ghosts, resurrecting them, letting them wreak havoc, as it were, and to what end? To keep posing, I think, a certain question to historical memory--to ask, over and over again: what did it mean, to those who were there and were silenced, but whose footprints are everywhere? This, too, is ethical. It is also literature. It is also about transforming the human, utopically.

Anonymous said...

I can and did intellectualize crisis. I found all kinds of "in-betweenness." I never found LaCapra terribly compelling nor any of the other theorists like Ramadanovic (who, funny enough, lived above me for one summer) or Caruth.

Because I or anyone else can theorize it does not make it so, and it certainly doesn't bring it into being. I'm not suggesting ideas don't matter; I guess I'm saying you got to judiciously choose the contexts in which they do, and don't pretend that just because they're smart and convincing and elegant, that they work.

We should hold on to why we might find Butler intolerable in certain contexts, but too often we don't. And or we don't say loud enough that we did or do.

Professor Joy grasped my point about whom you read. It's not just whom you read, of course, but how, and why. LaCapra might help me with a person in crisis, but somehow I suspect that person would have to be someone who read LaCapra. And it's worth reminding ourselves that those people are rare, very rare. Maybe I'm lucky, I could counsel a post-humanist and someone who finds that concept (and we should remember that what is) alien.

I got to shower...there's more to say....

Anonymous said...

I probably shouldn't say any more until Anonymous can post again, but just two quick questions regarding Anonymous' last post: can *anything* be done without thinking [so: aren't ideas really really important, not just important *some of the time*]? And: would Freud have had his patients read his writings [or: isn't theoretical writing sometimes a way, or avenue, for, say, the therapist, to work out certain processes of therapy which he/she then applies to a particular patient, but is not necessarily something th patient has to read/understand, just as engineers design plane engines which I can't comprehend but the fact that planes can fly helps me immensely when I want to get somewhere]?

Enjoy the shower. I myself must now turn to some early English law codes in Dorothy Whitelock's "English Historical Documents" [frail useless things of the past that they are] but when I am sitting later in the Arts Picturehouse and drinking wine while people-watching, I will check back in. Cheers.

Dr. Virago said...

At the risk of sounding twee or glib, I'm going to tell two anecdotes that I think speak to just how real literature is and how it matters ethically, emotionally, socially, and psychologically.

Anecdote #1:

One of my students this semester told me that Marie de France had changed him morally and ethically. I have no idea how because I didn't want to press and he didn't seem to want to be specific. But nevertheless, imaginative texts from the past, which take place in a fantasy world that has never quite been, had changed him here in the present.

Anecdote #2:

My mother died last week. There were counselor-types galore surrounding me from the moment it happened to the day we rested her ashes in the cemetery niche: hospital chaplains, crisis counselors, nurses and their aides, funeral directors and their counseling staff, etc. None of it seemed real. (Which is not to say that they weren't compassionate, competent, caring people, but just that it wasn't really what I needed at the time. I needed less of that "concerned voice" thing and more matter-of-factness, more "here's what needs to be done now" so I could do it and go home and mourn by myself.) I felt like the kids in the Chalie Brown cartoons and the "adults" all sounded like their were speaking gibberish. I couldn't cry, either. They were all in the way. And in their presence I felt like some kind of freak because I couldn't cry.

Here's what was real: a sonnet by Christina Rossetti. In the middle of the night after Mom died, because I couldn't sleep and needed to do something "useful," I started thinking about what she'd want for a memorial. For some reason I knew there was something in her Victorian poetry anthology that would tell me what she wanted. I took it down from the rather hallowed place it had on the living room mantle and started flipping through it. It was published in 1930, the year she was born, and she'd used it in the 1940s, in college. It was full of her student marginalia. Not only because that was my Mom's writing at such a young age, long before I existed (I was born in 1969), but also because I'm an English professor, I found that marginalia utterly charming and suddenly I was connected to my Mom at a stage I never could have known her, all through her responses to poetry.

But I also found something else -- she had marked a Rosetti sonnet, "Remember," with as asterisk. It's a memorial poem -- I recently posted it on my blog, if you wish to read it (scroll down to the second most recent post) -- and clearly she meant it for her own memorial. *That's* when I cried. And I wouldn't cry again until I read that poem at her memorial. Christina Rosetti spoke to my Mom when she was in her 20s, and in her 20s, my Mom imagined her own funeral, which wouldn't come until she was 75 years old. And because of my Mom's conversation with the text in the form of her notes, I was able to "eavesdrop" and hear what she wanted. The sonnet of a 19th century woman spoke to my mother the college student just after WWII and I heard the conversation here in the 21st century. And so did her other mourners when I recounted the story and read the poem at the memorial. Had I not been an English major and later professor myself, would I have taken down that volume?

In other words...every time I work on my research writing, I do wonder what the hell it matters. (And like Eileen I have some of the same frustrations with the so-called "radical" writers who think they matter oh-so-much when their only audience is more of themselves.) But I DO know that teaching matters and the texts we teach, no matter how old and dusty -- from Rosetti to Marie to Beowulf -- still matter to living, breathing, ethical and moral human beings, and not just to those of us teaching them.

Oh, and as a footnote, my Mom always called herself a misanthrope, too, but she wasn't. In fact, up through the last day she was in the hospital, she wanted her room door open so she could watch what was going on at the nurses' station outside of it. People fascinated her, and the reason why she enjoyed literature so much (and film and television) was because it provided an intimate encounter with the lives of others, real or imagined.

Anonymous said...

Well, to be fair [and now I'm arguing with myself!], Anonymous didn't say he was against "ideas" [i.e., theory], but rather, as he so eloquently put it, "I'm not suggesting ideas don't matter; I guess I'm saying you got to judiciously choose the contexts in which they do, and don't pretend that just because they're smart and convincing and elegant, that they work." In other words, theory without praxis can be a rather empty exercise, with which I concur. Scientists don't have the luxury that humanities scholars often have of just throwing ideas out there without also testing them and then having the results of those tests verified through multiple tests of the test! But I guess I also like to think of a university as a kind of haven for a wild pluralism of thought and of thought-experiments, some of which can't really be tested, except through other thought experiments, while, at the same time, I guess I wouldn't want that university to become Jonathan Swift's Academy of Legado. Ultimately, the way I have personally made my own peace with myself over what I do is that I never ever pretend that my scholarship is really about the "real world" in what might be called a "material effect" kind of way [whether that means my work could be said to reveal a certain "real materiality" of a "real world"--whether medieval or more modern--or could be argued to have an actual "material effect" *upon* the "real world" that would lead to some kind of "real" political or other kind of "change"]; instead, I look at what I do as art, in the same way fiction writing or painting is an art. I try to make things--sometimes scholarly essays, sometimes short stories--that are aesthetic, primarily, but that I also believe have *something to say* that is "real"--but "real" how [?] is a question I am still trying to figure out.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the anecdotes, Dr, Virago; they attest to the power of ideas, books, and people in particular contexts. For some, emotional connection must, in certain contexts, be textually mediated; for others, that does not work.

What I'm saying is that it is must finally be a question of what works. In my experience, LaCapra has little utility for talking to a room of Vietnam vets, several of whom either participated in or witnessed war-time atrocities. In my experience, Caruth has little utility for counseling a husband ad father who had three drinks with dinner and on the way home hit and killed a 5 year old year boy who ran out in front of his car and has just been told, based on his breathalizer, he's looking at a long jail sentence.

Literature can be real, and for the record I think that. It may even be a lamentable fact that literature seems to matter less and less, be less real, as wars erupt, as technology ascends, as capitalism unwinds, dot dot dot.

Your questions, Professor Joy:

1. More than I ever realized can be done without thinking, without narrativizing. I don't think when I scan the face of a victim in 250 milliseconds and gather the information I will need to help him or her. And, don't forget the victim sees my eyes...the beauty of right-brain-to-right-brain connection. It's why some people's mere presence can heal.

Freud practiced on the left side--his therapy is predicated on interpretation, making the right go left. That is important, and I practice it, but what Freud left largely uninterrogated was how the right side of the therapist's brain can be used as an effective tool in bringing about change...even before we go left.

It's Freud's writing on transference and countertransference which is now getting play (and confirmation through neuroimaging) in the emergent literatures on mentalization, compassion, acceptance and commitment, and positive psychology.

2. Sure, writing up a case study helps work out the processes of therapy, as you put it. But it still remains independent of what happened in the room between therapist and client. A write-up forfeits immediacy, ignores chaos by linearizing, and tends not to convey the micro-events which may make all the difference in the therapeutic outcome. (D. Stern's new book on time addresses this and puts out a new method of analysis designed not miss those micro events, those 5-10 second happenings in therapy.)

Anonymous said...

" . . . literature seems to matter less and less": no kidding; sometimes that's why I want to do nothing but talk and write about it, precisely because it seems to matter so little in "these our times," while I am also mindful of Levinas's reminder of Dostoyevsky's story about the woman who spent each evening in the theater, weeping over the drama being enacted on the stage, while her coachman shivered in the cold outside.

As to encounters, person-to-person, without "thinking" [or, let's say, without left-brain thinking], this idea accords well with a really cool recent article in "The New Yorker" about a guy who makes a living training dogs who are supposedly so violent and un-trainable that their owners have resorted to the idea of euthanizing them. Interestingly, for the purposes of the article, the author had well-known dance teachers analyze videotapes of Carlos's interactions with these dogs, and said dance teachers were blown away by his physical movements--almost everything he accomplished with the dogs was through body movement, a certain kind of eye contact, speaking a certain way, and touching, and the dance teachers detected in Carlos's physicality a certain fludity of movement that they normally only see in well-trained dancers. According to Rodney Brooks, who heads the robotics lab at M.I.T., consciousness arises, not out of language, but out of a "living" object's *movement* in the world and in its "traffic" with the things [rocks, other people] it moves beside and against. I think there likely needs to be much more discussion regarding how much of our experience & consciousness is *not* necessarily always mediated by language, but also occurs in ways that are more purely "embodied," but this will also entail understanding how consciousness--including language--is always embodied; how there is not mind *and* body, or mind *or* body, but only body, and we have to stop opposing, say, "rational" to "irrational," or "theory" to "praxis," or "idea" to "feeling." Feelings *are* ideas. What "happens" in that room between therapist and client, that "micro event," is not really "other" to theorizing, later, what happened in that room, although it may be that, in the moment of the micro-event, thought *feels* its embodiment more keenly, and only later tries to estrange itself.

Anonymous said...

And here's another thought: I'd like to believe in a radically pluralistic world [partly from having read one too many books by William Connelly] that refuses all binaries and embraces the goodness of everyone being everywhere at once--so, in Austin, TX, we have Anonymous, a medievalist *and* a crisis counselor--he reads Maslow and thinks about trauma but also engages in right brain-to-right brain encounters in the midst of actual traumas and also jumps into overly-intellectual blog-dialogues and god knows what else, and in England, there is someone thinking about Plato and early English law codes who is also a fiction writer who also believes spending a life devoted to medieval scholarship *might* be a folly of sorts but can't let it go, regardless, and who also believes that talking to her dog with a certain regard and affection and *need to connect* might be the best thing she can do on certain days. It's about a certain affectionate regard for the world--about caring at all what happens to the persons in that world, on any level, at any time, in books, in real rooms in real houses, in the staged encounters of the imagination and the chance encounters of the streets of real places. It's like Dr. Virago's mother who loved her books but also wanted the door of her hospital room open so she could see the goings-on at the nurses' station--it can be both, and we can want and practice both.

Anonymous said...

Professor Joy, who would you like to see do the work entailed in your penultimate sentence (beginning "I think there likely needs to be much more discussion...")? What kind of work would this be? And what is the audience for this work?

I want to press that issue, and really not so much you yourself, because it would be my hunch that the vast majority of academics to whom those and similar questions have occurred or would occur would much rather pursue them in ways that are:
--partial: limited to a particular discpline or to the scholars of the day. (Is an English professor reading LaCapra who's an historian or Connelly who's a political scientist really cross-disciplinary engagement? I don't think it is.)
--connected in only the most tenuous ways to the lived experience of those who might being experiencing their bodies in ways that are unrecognizable to a scholar who thinks it is somehow enough to apply Foucault or Agamben or Butler or Blanchot or whoeverthefuck to those bodies and their activities.
--and, to beat the horse more, sterile, in the sense that the utility of those ideas is squelched either because of the language used or because of the publication venues chosen.

I know you already know all this, and have thought about it, but when is there a point at which one stops, stops reinventing the wheel or stops writing and teaching in a vacuum?

Thanks for your eloquent thoughts on care and affectionate connection. Those two things, for me, have trumped a great deal I once thought of paramount importance and value.

We can want it all--the care and the rarefied stuff--and we can argue that someone like Maslow is an example of a thinker who not only wanted it, but lived it. But how many of us are really willing to follow his example? As for example when he participated in the seminars at the Esalen Institute in the 60s, to the extent that he was deeply critical of their excesses?

It's kinda like why I don't worry about Dr. Virago's mother, but I worry about the daughter who couldn't cry and couldn't sleep.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I'm keeping my quiet because I've found the unfolding of this conversation so enthralling ... but I have to ask: does it matter that Dr Virago DID cry, at home, with the poem and its marginalia? Does it matter that that her beautiful post made me cry?

Anonymous said...

I don't question the reality of the emotional response, but rather I doubt the power of the poem per se to generate it. To attribute tears to the poem in the context of the death of one's mother strikes me as naive. The poem didn't produce the emotion, the person did, or, better, the reality of a person-to-person bond did. The poem was a trigger, while what was far more personal did the actual ignition. I can't say what that was, obviously, but the absence of tears prior to the encounter with the poem speaks more loudly about what was responsible for the eventual tears than the poem itself.

In short, I don't see a parable here about "the power of literature"; I see a parable about personal relationships, grief, and control.

Does it matter that that her beautiful post made me cry? By asking in such a revealing and humble manner, you answer your own question in the affirmative.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to Anonymous's most recent [and searingly honest, if--ouch!--sharply damning] two posts, I feel we have hit the real vein of what we are [perhaps clumsily] trying to parse [argue?] here. I think Anonymous is raising prickly and annoying yet *truly* important questions that we need to confront if we want to claim, "literature matters" or "literary studies" matter. At the same time, I think Anonymous's viewpoint is also colored by an "either/or" binary that I am finding hard to fully accept. I just can't live in a world supposedly determined by such . . . determinism, intellectual or otherwise.

First, can we stop thinking of literature [and literary studies, for that matter, which are, in my opinion, just another form of creative writing] as something separate from "real life". I am one of those "real subjects" who are all "around us," and my intellectual "thought-work" and my writing [of any generic variety] is not separate from the world--it is in it and of it, in and of me, rooted in my consciousness which is embodied, and which cannot exist apart from my embodied movements in the world. Writing a novel, like plumbing, like carpentry, like writing a legal brief, putting out a fire, petting a dog, being someone's friend, is an action undertaken in the world that seeks to *encounter* and even alter, not the thin air of some kind of abstracted realm of the mind, but other consciousnesses, which are also embodied, and to also re-sculpt, as it were, the prime materiality of the non-human world. It is as much a physical labor as a supposedly non-physical one--it uses up energy, both hoarding and spending that energy to create a wrinkle in time, as it were; it occupies a space on the hard wood of a shelf in a library built with bricks laid by human hands and also occupies, when read, the hands, laps, bedside tables, desks, and neurons of the brains of other persons. A novel, a tree, a cup, a hand placed on someone's shoulder: all attempts to take various types of living and inanimate matter and to create what Levinas called "a stopping of being in the meanwhile"--not really to *stop* [or end] being, but to arrest it, for just a moment, to inhabit that micro-event Anonymous wrote about, not outside of thought, but deep within it, where it feels itself most "at home" in the world, before "reflection," before "philosophy." So, yes, poems can generate emotion because they were also generated by emotion, which is mind, which moves in the world in persons who create things. Why must Dr. Virago's experience with the Rossetti poem be seen as an either/or: either the poem made her cry or her relationship with her mother, made more "present" by the trigger of the poem, made her cry, as if the poem, somehow, were either animate or inert--is it not both?

Second, as to the question regarding my statement about there needing to be more discussion regarding how thought is embodied, that work is already being done by cognitive scientists, psychologists, and biologists, and a good lay-person's text on the subject would be George Lakoff's and Mark Johnson's "Philosophy in the Flesh." If what they argue in there is true, all of the most cherished tenets of Western philosophy [re: abtsract reason, especially] and also of 20th-century analytic philosophy will have to be overturned and re-thought. And of course, for a very long time now, cognitive scientists have been battling against our dualistic [mind & body] way of looking at and analyzing the world, whether in psychological analysis or philosophy [which influences literary study]. Studies that have been done with infants, however, show that dualistic types of thinking start very early on in life, which raises some interesting questions about dualism's power as an explanatory model for experience [regardless of whether or not it is scientifically "valid"]. I guess my main point here regarding Anonymous's question is that rcent developments/discoveries in cognitive science & biology are going to make it increasingly difficult to engage in discussions where we refer to intellectual discourse as somehow "inanimate" [which hinges on the classic idea of reason as abstract, somehow, from body, and as dispassionate] and working in a crisis center as "animate" and more "real." But I think Anonymous's more important point, again, is not that he is devaluing intellectualism, but rather, urgently reminding us that context matters--to what or whom will you direct your intellectual energies, and why [?], for real lives might be at stake. But real lives are at stake everywhere, not just in the crisis center, but also in my classroom, and in my own house, and Anonymous is right that we have to choose and own up to the ethics of what we choose, but I just can't agree that a life spent within a university community, where we can impact upon our colleagues and our students, is somehow "a place apart" from the so-called more "real" world of a crisis center, or a court room, or a VFW lodge, because a university is also a place where one experiences other human bodies and through discourse of various kinds affects those bodies. It just may be that, a university is not also a burning building.

[to be continued]

Anonymous said...


Anonymous argues that scholars who might want to pursue some of the questions I posed in earlier posts would only do so in "partial" [i.e., not fully engaged, i.e. whateverthefuck kind of] ways; for example:

"connected in only the most tenuous ways to the lived experience of those who might being experiencing their bodies in ways that are unrecognizable to a scholar who thinks it is somehow enough to apply Foucault or Agamben or Butler or Blanchot or whoeverthefuck to those bodies and their activities."

As I already indicated in a previous post, my empathy with Anonymous on this point led me to literally throw Judith Butler in a trashcan a few years ago, but isn't it also a matter of *whose*/*what* theories we choose to apply and how, not just, hey, these particular theorists would be incomprehensible to real bodies who are experiencing things for which these particular theorists are of no use [i.e. Foucault, Agamben, or whoeverthefuck--haha]? I'll tell you who these theorists are of use to--they are of use to ME, as I try to navigate myself through the thicket of understanding myself and others, and *I* will decide when and how they apply, and for what reasons, ethical or otherwise. I am a person in the world who is still trying to figure out some provisional answers to the big questions of love, justice, self, violence, alterity, consciousness, etc. and *I* need to read as much as I can get my hands on in order to tackle the questions from as many angles as possible [and no, I don't claim this as "cross-disciplinary" work, I claim it as an omniverous self-education undertaken out of an omniverous selfishness and greed to "eat" and "digest" as many ideas as possible, whether they come to me in the form of Mark Rothko's paintings or Hegel or Sandra Bernhard]. I do not ignore real humans as "beside the point" of my studies, and when I write my so-called "scholarly" essays, I am always thinking about how these ideas can help me really approach/encounter/get closer to these real humans. And of course, if I run across a theorist, or other type of thought-artist, who feels bogus precisely because, when applied to real persons suffering through a certain experience their idea simply don't work or help, I throw them on the rubbish heap and say, well, that was fun, but not useful, per se [personal confession: I think Lacan is some kind of wild joke perpetrated on us, and I don't care how attractive Zizek sometimes makes him out to be; I am, like Anonymous, more interested in Freud or Maslow, whom I think Anonymous is dead-on right in admiring; Maslow is actually long overdue for re-appraisal, but maybe it's best if he remains somewhat obscure and mistakenly thought of as passe, for the best heros are always the under-appreciated ones]. How this all works for me is 1) in my scholarship, I always try to connect writing about texts to writing/thinking about "real" persons and "real" events and I have actually gotten a lot of rejection from publishers as a result; I do "presentist" work and don't tell me it doesn't "matter" because it matters to me--it helps me understand better the world I'm living in, and that's important because, 2) in my real life, in my relationships with intimate and not-as-intimate others [including my students], I am always trying to figure out ways I can better understand, better help, better pursue a life that is affective, emotionally-engaged, ethical, and "good" in the classical sense of "the good life." Of course, my daily, non-literary experiences, teach me things, too, but I think the more richly-lived life is the more richly-imagined one, and for that, you *do* need literature, you do need the arts, you do need theory. You can fuck yourself up through theory, of course, but other people can also fuck you up. Why not let as much as possible *in*, allow youself to get all fucked up by all of it, and then, as much as possible, give as much of it away as you can, in as many forms as possible? Yeah, there are times in life when Shakespeare or Judith Butler or whoeverthefuck just isn't going to help me or anyone else very much; but one time, Shakespeare actually saved my life--by giving me a certain mental construct that could only be conveyed through his particular language at a particular moment: "sweet are the uses of adversity." In the micro-moment of a micro-event, you can keenly sense something true and real and authentic, which we call "an experience" [and which can also be its own kind of knowledge], but this experience, if it is meaningful enough to be remembered and recalled, will have to be re-expressed in language, which arises from thought, which is rooted in our bodies, and was never actually separate from the micro-event itself--it only needed to unfold later from its original, compressed state--as poem, music, visual image, theory, whateverthefuck.

Cheers, Eileen

Anonymous said...

I just realized--and I blame the espresso--that I wrote something in earlier post that was missing a clarification, and could be taken the wrong way. What I *meant* to write/mean is: "Why not let as much as possible *in*, allow youself to get all fucked up by all of it, and then, as much as possible, [make something beautiful out of that fuckedup-ness and] give as much of it away as you can, in as many forms as possible?"

Anonymous said...

If one has time to take it all in, and parse it, then go for it. In a small way I envy such people. I determined that I do not have the time.

If taking it all in is another way of avoiding decisions about what's useful and what's not, what's helpful and what's not, etc., then I do not envy them. I think they are wasting their time. I can tell approximately 5 pages into a critical/theoretical text (and a skim of the index) if it's going to be worth my time. Professor Joy probably can too. My point is that the sheer volume of "theory"--defined in the broadest sense to include the names that are constantly batted around academia and the ones that are not--dictates that I must make choices. Thanks to the immense volume of "theory" out there, I can still call myself omnivorous and discriminating. How's that for escaping a binary?

I am not fully comfortable yet glorifying those routine choices as deeply ethical, but I'll take the plunge and say, yes, they are, deeply so. The academy has become a place where those ethical questions are largely avoided. This has happened for all kinds of reasons: the rise-and-fall of theory, the tenure process, marketing, arrogance, material limitation, and so on.

It occurs to me, in debate with Professor Joy, that she's an exception to my characterization of academia's anemia that also proves a facet of the rule. In her answer to my question about research on embodied consciousness, I am not sure I understand why this should be important, for whom it should be important, and who she wants doing the further thinking. If I were king for a day, I wouldn't let a run of the mill English professor near this issue. But that's me. Professor Joy, I want to say, is not run of the mill, but I would say she sometimes sounds like that if only because, while she cite biologists, cognitive scientists, and psychologists (a group of persons I would, as king, let have at the issue), I don't have any sense that, aside from reading them, what her creative interaction with them is/will be. Will she publish in their journals? Will she co-write with them? Will she go to their conferences? Will she seriously investigate how some of them reach audiences that exponentially dwarf those of her discipline?....

I'm not saying "be interdisciplinary" for the sake of interdisciplinarity so much as saying, well, if this question really matters to you, then get out there and show that it matters to you in ways that might transcend an exercise with a handful of medievalist PhDs who think theory matters. What are you going to do with a question like this one? Seriously.

How, we asked ourselves, might "the turn to corporality" in medieval studies join "the turn to the posthuman" in more modern studies, in order to help modern ideas regarding the human body "turn" once again, toward "history," and by implication, toward a deeper (if irregular) temporality?

What possibilities exist for Babel's announced investigation of "corporality and posthumanity" as a contribution to bettering the lives of anyone outside the group? I can grant that maybe a Babel scholar's life is somehow enriched by reading the theorists who have turned over these issues. Like Professor Joy announced, these issues matter to ME [i.e., EJ]. OK, so what are you going to do with that knowledge gained after having plowed through a bibliography on corporality and posthumanity? For example, will you first acknowledge that virtually no one outside PhDs mainly in English, cultural studies, and women's studies even know what the hell corporality and posthumanity are? As an exercise, take the bibliography over to the sociology department or to the med school or the social work school and see what they make of it...there are PhDs, smart people over there, too...and they work with bodies, and human ones at that.

I could care or less about Babel; what I am suggesting is that Babel's topic of discussion could only have been the product of a certain group of English PhDs with a certain boilerplate agenda. Even if I can say that it's one of its more radical parts, Babel is still a symptom of a larger problem I see in the academy.

It's like when I get flooded every 2 weeks with CFPs from the UPenn listserv. I look at all the utter shit on disability studies that appears from English professors, and am appalled. Disability in African Literature, Disability in Southern women's lit., Disability and Marxism, Disability and Children's lit. of the 20th c. (this CFP actually called for contributors who had disabilities themselves...apparently the editor needed a twist on the well-explored field of disability in 20th c. children's lit. More power to 'em.). My point is that I wonder what these scholars are thinking is the real value of this work. There's that word "real" again, and I'll stand by it. This crap only seems unreal.

Professor Joy has written in her 8:37 post about what she does and doesn't do in her scholarly activities, how, for example, she tries to make connections to the real. I have no reason to doubt that's what she does. I'll say again that I think she's an exception, one of the good guys/gals, but I would say she should step down or back from the "mess" and write that one book that makes a difference in people's lives, or, better, do those things that improve lives. I wouldn't say this to her unless she were exceptional in my judgment.

A word on binaries: they force us to think. I believe you have to pull an issue apart and hold its antagonistic elements in suspended conflict for as long as possible before letting them collapse into messiness. I apparently work in the opposite direction of Professor Joy who prefers messiness before "beautiful" product. I want to understand what's at stake if I hold on to one element and jettison its antagonist, before I can ever decide to let the elements intermingle. Besides not all ideas, thinkers deserve to be thrown into some imaginary mess before they are plucked out. I, for one, could never let Maslow get that dirty...hehehe.

And for the record, since I haven't declared it in no uncertain terms: yes, I think therapeutic work, good therapeutic work, is real in ways and with a frequency that academic work rarely, rarely approaches. What I did at the Vet Med Center when I ran a 12-week group on interpersonal skills for 20 Vietnam vets, in one particular hour, was more real to me, and worth more to some of those vets, than 15 years of teaching university students. And I was pretty damn good teacher.

One of my next publications is a book for Oxford on Nursing Home Care that I am co-writing with a gerontologist. I won't be especially show-casing my cleverness there, or my extensive reading of psychoanalysis, or my current fascination with Rollo May; what I will be doing is writing a book that will help practitioners gain a better understanding of their older clients. I am doing this, and a couple of articles on spirituality and drug recovery, and setting an article on Piers and a really cool piece on Serlo of Wilton on the backburner. Maybe they'll stay there; I don't know.

Anonymous said...

In one of his earliest posts, Anonymous called for some honesty--primarily, about what literary studies really is, or isn't, capable of doing in the world-at-large. I couldn't agree more, and it's one of the reasons I have often felt very, very alone within what might be called certain "theoretical circles," because I've always felt, deep down, that it has never even tried to live up to its grandest "radical claims" while at the same time it has created a kind of fascist state within the academy. But what assholes [of which there have been so many throughout history, and they exist in the crisis center as they do in the university as they do in Congress] *do* with theory as some kind of ideology or "program," and what can be done with it more subversively is contingent upon those of us who are willing to take certain risks, which brings me to how Anonymous is also questioning the "ethics" of what we academics claim to be doing:

"The academy has become a place where those ethical questions are largely avoided. This has happened for all kinds of reasons: the rise-and-fall of theory, the tenure process, marketing, arrogance, material limitation, and so on."

No kidding. Anonymous doesn't know me very well [well, at all, really], but if he did, he would know that several years ago I decided to stake my whole career on the question of the *ethics* of humanities scholarship, and it is the main focus of all of my work. That's why I've done as much reading in historiography as I have because I always want to be mindful, when I'm mucking about with the texts of the medieval and other pasts, that it can't just be an empty, abstract, or even creative-for-the-sake-of-being-creative exercise, because those texts are, as the scholar of religion Edith Wyschogrod would say, "a gift of the past to a present affected with futurity” that is inscribed with “the vouloir dire of a people that has been silenced, of the dead others.” There has to be an ethics of remembering, of claiming a past and using it in the present for some purpose, for some exercise in "thinking otherwise," as Levinas might say. Perhaps where Anonymous and I ultimately part ways is over the question of having to choose the dead over the living, or the living over the dead, although I want to insist on being obligated to both, all the time, in all places. Yes, that's kind of wildly unrealizable I know, but such is the nature of utopic thinking, a subject of which Anonymous could actually be said to be a scholar.

And Anonymous, just for information's sake, yes, I plan to go outside the comfort of my most familiar disciplinary zones [literary studies, historical studies, philosophy, art history, etc.] and I actually have done so already, and *often*. And I was kind of hoping BABEL would be a venue for exactly that, partly modeled after "Edge," where the scientists are both talking with each about things like molecular biology and artificial intelligence, but also about how all of what they think about the material universe might also impact upon notions of free will, identity, creativity, etc. I make a point, often, of going outside my field to see if what I'm thinking about might, or might not, well, "hold water." Last semester, for example, I spent some time with a political scientist who does work in Africa with young women who have been gang-raped and sexually mutliated during certain armed conflicts, because I wanted to talk to someone in that field about some of the stuff I was reading in political and sociological theory about the so-called "modern self," and I have discussions with friends who do malaria and AIDS research in Africa and India, respectively, and yeah, I talk to real psychologists/therapists, chemists, physicists, etc. in a continual attempt to give myself [and my ideas and theories] a "reality check." I would actually like for BABEL to be a kind of "site" of the most radical cross-disciplinary work imaginable, and I'm still trying to figure out what that might be, but I know that one of it most valuable *possible* aspects would be to function as an means for creating *exactly* the kind of ethico-intellectual discomfort I think Anonymous is arguing for, where we would *not* be allowed to foment discourses upon discourses in a vacuum. And yes, one of our aims, actually, *is* to publish in venues where we normally wouldn't be expected to "appear," and to write without jargon for "lay" audiences, and even to create new publishing venues aimed . . . um, I'm still trying to figure that out, but digital video is one avenue we're looking into. And frankly, Anonymous, that discussion they're having in cognitive science, biology, and psychology regarding the embodiment of consciousness is *not* something from which the English professor should be barred: at what point did we decide that disciplines had gated check-points? Literature, as psychology, as cognitive science, as history, as painting, is a type of thinking that can't but help add dimensionality to how we are are able to comprehend the world in which we live. Again, and I know I'm getting repetitive on this point, it's about pluralism. For me, it's always about pluralism, while of course, I recognize, that in certain times and places, particular ethical judgments will have to be made; choices will have to be made. I realize this is partly Anonymous's point, and I admire him for it.

As to "bettering the lives" of "others" through BABEL's claims on its website, I can only say this: for several years now, I have argued over and over to anyone who will listen to me, that anyone who works in the humanities in an American university has an absolute ethical obligation to helping determine whether or not a so-called "humanities education" has any "real" meaning viz. the "real world," and further, that all those humanities scholars who do [let's say, mainly intuitively] believe that, have a further ethical obligation to *making more explicit* what that means and how it might actually work instead of acting like the answer is obvious and damn all the "idiots" who don't get it and never will [and implied in all this, too, for me, is the idea that, actually, the humanities *aren't* really "working" as the politically utopic space they need to be, but that doesn't mean they should be abandoned as useless or "so over they don't even know how over they are"]. I would maintain that humanistic study, at the university but also in the public school system, has a vital role to play in what might be called the cultivation of the imaginative, affective intellect, which intellect can then "get out there in the real world" and do: psychology, biology, chemisty, engineering, whatever. We need humanistic studies, but they are also in need of a serious overhaul, along many of the lines, I would argue, that Anonymous has elegantly sketched out for us. And of course I want to do this beyond the cofines of a certain circle of medieval Ph.Ds, beyond the literature department, beyond the colleges of arts & sciences, beyond the university. In fact, at our last business meeting, BABEL put together a short list of people who have nothing to do with academia at all who we want to "partner" with on various discussions. And I share Anonymous's pain, by the way, about the Penn. conference CFPs--I can't even bear to look at them . . . at ALL. But let's not be too coy either--since I actually have spent a lot of time in other departments, it has to be acknoweldged that, even in social work, in political science, in psychology, hell, even in physics there is also "theory," there are also those often seemingly arcane discussions and debates where thought is kind of spiralling out of control . . . but not for nothing.

Anonymous said...


Last semester, for example, I spent some time with a political scientist who does work in Africa with young women who have been gang-raped and sexually mutliated during certain armed conflicts, because I wanted to talk to someone in that field about some of the stuff I was reading in political and sociological theory about the so-called "modern self"

I want to make sure I follow: you talked to a political scientist about theory, about the "modern self"? This was your reason for seeking that scholar out? If that's the case, it sounds hollow to me, just another intellectual encounter. And...This can't be an example of going outside your comfort zone?

I'm not seeing where the victimized women fit in here, how they mattered.... They got turned into allegories of the "modern self" or some "self" opposed to, or preceding, the "modern"?

We don't really part ways on the question of the living versus the dead. My relationship to the dead in the last 2 years is, again, more "real," and I can safely say more affectively intense, than any relationship a scholar can have to a piece of parchment or a dead author. Much of what I do is out of double fidelity to the living and the dead.

We part ways on the issue of what an authentic relationship to the real looks like, how it is enacted, and what are its real, measurable outcomes. I hear the babbling, I don't see the wisdom that should issue from encounters with the reality outside the walls of academia. You see, if you gave priority to how your definition of "the so-called 'modern self'" might change as a result of your encounter with the poli scientist and his/her work with victims, then, as I see it, you didn't even take a baby-step toward fulfilling the lofty humanistic mission you've set before yourself. But if there was something generated from that discussion of the "the so-called 'modern self'" that was/will be of use to the female victims, then you've advanced light years ahead of the vast, vast majority of your colleagues in the humanities.

If I would ban 99.99% of literature professors from a discussion on embodied consciousness, that's because I already know what that 99.99% is going to say. And there really ought to be a moratorium on literature professors writing about trauma. Their contributions have been utterly sterile. Parasites feeding off the host, and the same hosts. I'll take one essay of Bromberg's against a mountain of writing on trauma by lit. PhDs.

Anonymous said...

It comes down to this in a certain way: if you really want to fulfill the humanistic mission that, as you and I agree, the academy has largely abandoned, then why announce that your topic of interest is "corporality and posthumanity"?

Without recourse to theorists/theory, declaring, e.g., that we live a posthuman age (insert eye rolling gif here), help me understand that.

Anonymous said...

In response to Anonymous: the reason you should work on your piece on Piers, or any other medieval text, rather than on some more 'practical' or instrumental kind of writing, is because *only you* can do what you do with Piers. Anyone can write the other stuff, and there are plenty of people who want to do that. That's not to say I'm telling you what to do--you have to live with yourself. But it is a big, big world and in my opinion, there's a reason for scholarship that doesn't have anything to do with making the world a better place for people in the here and now. Not everything has to have a reason; not everything is part of an elaborate zero-sum game. You are right that academics should give up talking the ethical talk and get out on the streets or into the clinics--but there's nothing wrong with not talking the talk in the first place. And don't take me for some kind of Republican, either; I'm about as far left as you can go. I'm just not convinced that academic scholarship is the place for political praxis. Analysis, yes; work on medieval categories of identity is valuable in and of itself as a contribution to knowledge. (And I'm not even a medievalist!) Nor is teaching the place for 'praxis', if by praxis you mean inculcating an ideology in a group of students. But empowering a group of people by giving them the skills to read, write, and otherwise control and produce and engage with cultural artifacts: that is worth doing.

Anonymous said...

Here's a thought: global warming. What are you doing about it, Anonymous?

Okay, all kidding aside, I'm starting to feel a little uncomfortable, and here is one of the reasons why: whenever I am trying hard to make an argument that I think really matters [or, in which, I think something really is at stake], I try to avoid avoid avoid the personal anecdote, because it almost always backfires and it can be cheesy and I don't want to make myself or my work the "evidence" for my argument, but we're also talking here about issues of professional identity, so it is perhaps unavoidable and Anonymous himself has been providing personal anecdotes to which I almost don't know how to reply. I mean, come on, it's like someone saying to me, "what did you do today?" and I say, "I thought about Dostoyevsky," and they say, because they're a head trauma surgeon [one of my friend's husband, actually, who works at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis], "I saved a man's life," or once, in reality, he said to me, "I lost someone tonight." First, forget about what I said about talking to the poly-sci professor about mutilated women and "modern selves"--I simply didn't provide enough information there to make the point I wanted to, and I don't want to elaborate that now (or, again) because of course it will just sound stupid and "academic," although it wasn't just that--suffice to say, it wasn't an empty exercise and let's leave it at that. When Anonymous talks about working with war veterans or nursing home patients, and claims that that work is somehow more valuable than what happens in a university classroom [and he should know since he's done both], I can't really argue with that, and don't want to. It makes a perfect kind of sense on one level, but teaching, in *whatever* setting is a kind of care-giving, I believe, that can be just as valid as crisis intervention or counseling. Couseling is a type of teaching and teaching is a type of counseling, and there isn't just one way to do either. I would be willing to argue that students at Wellsley [where I've never taught] probably need me less than the male inmates of a medium security prison [where I have actually taught] or the inner city teens with whom I once designed and planted a garden or the adults who were laid off at the Levi-Strauss factory and were given, as part of their severance, two year's tuition at a community college [who I have also taught]. And that's the last time I'm mentioning anything I've actually done, teaching-wise or scholarship-wise, which brings me to:

when Anonymous mentions, over and over again, how the humanities is a kind of separate place from "reality" [it has "walls" separating it from the real world, is filled with intellectual "parasites" mucking about in subjects better left to real "practitioners," and where, apparently, there are precious few encounters with "reality"], he is insisting on a kind of membrane that supposedly demarcates the "sterile" and even amoral [?] "inside" of academia from the supposedly more vibrantly "where everything has to matter more" "outside" of the "real world." Students gathered together in a first-year writing or second-year lit. survey classroom are just as in *need* of a certain affective care and concern and teaching [with teaching here understood as Levinas defined it, as an "enseignment" in which one "receives from the Other beyond the capacity of the I," and I see this as a two-way relationship] as are the war veterans as are those who come in to the crisis center as are the patients in a nursing home--everyone needs different things, different sorts of care, at different stages in their lives, and a group of university students are no different. Because I myself have always taught at regional schools with, frankly, pretty underprivileged and underprepared students, I feel that I am of, let's say, great *use* to my students. I think it's my obligation, too, to be as well-versed as I can be in the intellectual debates of the day [across as many disciplines as possible, not in order to call myself "cross-disciplinary" but in order to *connect* with a mixed gen. ed. audience in a meaningful way] and to also be as current as I can be in my own field. My intellectual endeavors--my research, thinking & writing--are, as I said in a previous post, partly selfishly undertaken for my own pleasure [and I think this is why Anonymous is also a medievalist and has written beautiful articles and even a book in the field, not because it will save anyone's life, but because he has a gift for it and is drawn to it, and can't help himself] but also because I'm interested in conversation with as many people as possible [colleages and students and anyone, really] about as much as possible [and this is because my own personal ethos has a lot to do with Forster's "only connect"]. It's pleasurable, of course, but I like to think that, through my enthusiasm and whatever gifts I might have, that I am also inculcating [hopefully] in those "subjects all around us" a more wakeful attention and openness to the world in general--its literature and other arts, of course, but also everything else implied in, referenced by, pointed to, etc. in those arts which are never really separate from the real world any more than a tree is separate from its roots--as well as an ethical regard for the different, multiple lives already lived and still ongoing, whether in Anglo-Saxon England or Chechnya or St. Louis. I can't disagree with Anonymous in New York wrote,

". . . it is a big, big world and in my opinion, there's a reason for scholarship that doesn't have anything to do with making the world a better place for people in the here and now. Not everything has to have a reason; not everything is part of an elaborate zero-sum game. You are right that academics should give up talking the ethical talk and get out on the streets or into the clinics--but there's nothing wrong with not talking the talk in the first place."

But I think that what we do, in the university, as teachers but also as scholars, *should* have a reason, and we need to spend more time really thinking about and then enacting programs based on what those reasons are, and they better be good ones, and I *do* think the classroom and scholarship can be a space for political praxis, just not in the narrowly-defined way of inculcating a specific "liberal" ideology in either a group of students or a group of academic specialists.

Anonymous in NY mentioned "knowledge" and how scholarship contributes to knowledge--as fucked up as the university may currently be [and yeah, it is], we absolutely have to have a space--an *institutional* space that is public in the most "open" way imaginable--in our culture for knowledge, and I would say the university, as one site among others [note the plural], is critically important to that. I can't keep blathering on here about that, except to say my guidepost to this is Bill Readings' book "The University in Ruins," where he argues that, essentially, the university has lost its raison d'etre [it is no longer the site that authorizes and imparts a "national" culture, nor does it represent a liberally "ideal society" out of which "pure knowledge" is produced]; therefore, the university is a "ruined institution" and exists, in its present state, as a kind of factory producing workers and specializing in "excellence" [with "excellence" actually meaning nothing at all but being invoked by university administrators everywhere]. What to do? I think Anonymous would like Readings book [if he hasn't read it already], partly because Readings shows how cultural studies haven't made good on any of their radical claims and is really just literature studies at a different pahse of its evolution, and since the traditional reasons for literary studies are [in Readings' view] morally and historically bankrupt, then cultural studies are likewise bankrupt before they even begin. According to Readings, this ruined institution called a university is worth saving, however, if we can imagine it as "one site among others where the question of being-together is raised." I think this is the question we have been raising in this discussion, if we not have entirely or even begun to adequately express any provisional answers.

[to be continued]

Anonymous said...


Now, on to what I found to be the more difficult, yet important, points made in Anonymous's last two posts. First:

"If I would ban 99.99% of literature professors from a discussion on embodied consciousness, that's because I already know what that 99.99% is going to say. And there really ought to be a moratorium on literature professors writing about trauma. Their contributions have been utterly sterile. Parasites feeding off the host, and the same hosts. I'll take one essay of Bromberg's against a mountain of writing on trauma by lit. PhDs."

As I said in a previous post, I'm not sure why we have to have gated checkpoints at the borders between disciplines [nor do I see nor believe in the "walls" that separate academia from the real world]; at the same time, let me first CONCUR with Anonymous that an awful lot of the theorizing that has gone on in literary studies over the past 15 or so years has really smacked of the hollow, unethical, and misguided [and has maybe even--gasp--actually harmed people?]. I myself, if I was undergoing a particular trauma or crisis, would not want LaCapra or Shoshana Felman as my counselor, but I might want Jonathan Lear as my counselor, who is a trained [and brilliant] therapist as well as a scholar/philosopher of classical antiquity [and is also on the committee for social thought at the University of Chicago]. I might, likewise, want Peter Kramer as my counselor [author of "Listening to Prozac" and "Against Depression"] who, in addition to being a pscyhiatrist, is also a brilliant observer of the fine arts and also writes about his patients with a deep empathy partly rooted in a very literary sensibility [and also a keen attention to science]. Okay, okay, okay, Eileen says: Anonymous is right!!! While at the same time, what if there were a literature Ph.D. who was also a trained counselor? Oh my god, isn't that . . . Anonymous? I venture to say that Anonymous's *trained* sensitivity to questions of history, literature, and analytic philosophy has contributed to his sensitivity and skill as a counselor, but Anonymous is free to disagree. Perhaps he should disagree, as I am being presumptious, so on to the more important point [for me, anyway]:

I do not want, any more than Anonymous, to have literature Ph.D.s telling me stuff about trauma that I would better learn from a trauma counselor or someone like Robert McNally who conducts scientific studies on trauma at Harvard--okay, I *get* that. But trauma, as a subject for reflection, as well as an actual historical experience, is not limited to only lie within the purview of the so-called trauma specialist, because it is an *event* that is also taken up by the artist--in the form of memoir, painting, film, novel, poem, etc. Art functions as a very important medium, as well as therapy [which, let's face it, often has recourse to art and parable], through which the experience of trauma can be mediated, or "worked through," or broken down, or reimagined, or narrativized, made sense of, laid to rest, etc. What happens after something like the fire-bombing of Dresden when it becomes a political necessity to *not* allow the German populace to properly "work through" this event because, on a certain level, they are felt to have "deserved" to have this happen to them. Time passes and almost no one speak of the event, and even today, it is controversial to publicly "recall" or "memorialize" the event. How are the Germans to properly remember and work through this traumatic event in their history? Can an artists, such as a W.G. Sebald or an Anselm Kiefer or a Jonathan Safran Foer, help them do this? What is the role of the academic historian, the philosopher, the political scientist? I would argue that they all have an important role to play, and the literary scholar has a role to play in judging, let's say, the literary and other narrative-type artifacts of this event--of judging both the ethico-historical as well as the aesthetic value of such artifacts and of helping, therefore, to remember the event itself in the most salutarily ethical way possible. This goes back to Anonymous in NY's point about knowledge--anything that can help us understand this event, remember it most properly, work through it most ethically, and re-present it in a way that best captures what is, ultimately, what Benjamin would have called the "constellated" nature of history, its "shock" in the now where time is not empty and homogeneous but filled with the presence of the now--that is a worthy adventure to which the literary scholar matters, too.

[to be continued]

Anonymous said...

Here's the way I look at it, and then I'm going to STFU. Professor Cohen can have back his blog.

It's OK, like Anon of NY said, not to talk the ethical talk and thus not walk the ethical walk. I know a textual editor in a certain preeminent department of English who absolutely insists that he does is devoid of politics and theory, and that he has devoted his long career to recovering the orginal intentions and words of the writer only out of s devotion to that writer. I've argued with him--that his work necessarily involves ethical, political, and theoretical dimensions--but it went nowhere. It doesn't matter if I'm right and he's wrong, mainly because he never, ever pretended to be other than what he appeared to be to most--colleagues or the public--just a quiet, somewhat reclusive man who crunches numbers figuring out verse structure.

Then there are those who get worked up about doing something that is needed, might make a difference, is radical, is bold, is political, has effects outside the classroom or the department, but they remain mired in a sterile language, a narrow field of scholars whom they read and cite, and an even narrower field of associates with whom they bitch about the academy and dream of doing something real. Those folks carry, as I see it, a bigger burden than my textual editor friend. I will hold them to a higher standard.

But then again, I'm a fraud: if I really cared, I'd cross back to the academy and whip them into shape as best I could. Instead, I have my hands full.


Anonymous said...


And this brings me, too, to what I believe concerning any event in history [past & present]--that that event is not really knowable except with recourse to some kind of narrativizing, some kind of analogizing, some kind of parable-izing, some kind of *construct* which has to be, of necessity, largely imaginative, and this then, also, is why literary studies can matter a great deal. And this is also why I'm very interested in recent developments in cognitive science, because they are showing us that the brain may be, at its most basic level, built on parable-like constructs/circuits, and moreover, the brain produces thought *only* as parable: it is impossible to think *anything* outside of some kind of parable-like structure of thought--this is beautifully explicated in Mark Turner's book "The Literary Mind" but Lakoff and Johnson also explain this in "Philosophy in the Flesh" as does Daniel Dennett in "Consciousness Explained." This is also beautifully illustrated in many science books, such as Richard Dawkins's entire ouevre, or Julian Barbour's "The End of Time" or Brian Greene's "The Elegant Universe" or Heinz Pagel's "The Dreams of Reason" or E.O. Wilson's "The Ants." Etc. etc. And who better than the literary scholar--the expert in narrative, in parable, in elegant analogy, in the "deep structures" of folklore, in metonymy--to investigate the narratives that are, frankly, multiplying and stacking up all around us, every day, everywhere? At the very least, let us grant the literary scholar her expertise in this, and let us also grant that literary narratives--fabulist and otherwise--are not only enclosed within the covers of those things we call novels or manuscripts. In some respects, I actually think literary studies has strayed quite far from its real vocation [the investigation and analysis of the "literariness," not only of texts, but of ourselves and the world], and that many of the currently fasionable -isms [whether feminism, Marxism, Deleuzeanism, whateverthefuckism] are really just attempts to practice forms of critique that are thought to be more "important" than just analyzing literary texts for the sake of analyzing literary texts [which is believed to be a mainly empty and pointless aesthetic exercise].

I think what we need now is a criticism that asks, why does reading [or viewing a play, or watching a film, or looking at paintings, etc.] matter, and how? What is the relation between art and being [?], to steal the question from Levinas. For me, art is simply another branch of philosophy [not opposed to philosophy, as Plato and even Levinas might argue], and should be studied as such, and philosophy is worth studying because it asks important questions about the nature of being and the world, about meaning, about how we should live or lives. Art, including literature, is an attempt to reconceptualize experience and being and thought [which can't anymore be thought of as separate from being] in such a manner as to almost shift the very molecular structure of experience and being--sometimes, admittedly, for ill, sometimes for good, sometimes for no apparent purpose at all [this is where judgment comes in].

Perhaps, on one level, the university really does need to stand as a place "separate" from the crowded bus station, the busy crisis center, the noisy marketplace, the business office, the sickroom, the war trench, if only to allow some people the room to really reflect and think--and yes, upon texts as well as upon lived experience, recorded in texts and otherwise *felt*--to get down deep into the narrative structures of thought, history, literature, and the memory of everything, in order to allow a certain line of questioning, of *asking*, of *encountering* [mind-to-mind] to arrive at something as yet unthought, something that might even be worth sharing, expressing, re-presenting, in a variety of contexts, "real world"-wise and classroom-wise and specialist context-wise and cross-discipline-wise. I think if this kind of knowledge is really worth anything, though, I'm going to cross over to Anonymous's side and say that it really behooves the scholar who is blessed with the time and space and, frankly, luxury to engage in this "thinking apart," to then ask herself *how* she is going to apply this knowledge in a way that might actually be meaningful in the course of someone's [or even an entire culture's] life. The scholars I admire the most are the ones, like Elaine Pagels and Richard Dawkins and E.O. Wilson and Jonathan Lear and Martha Nussbaum, who have made it a point to write books specifically intended for general, non-academic audiences, partly because they think their intellectual [and also their more practical-oriented work--such as Nussbaum's trips to India to work on women's rights or Lear's work with patients] is important enough to have as broad an audience as possible. And I think a lot of Anonymous's beefs with academia have to do with its worst element in literary studies and other humanistic disciplines, where communicating with the general public isn't even thought of, much less practised in any real, meaningful way [while at the same time there are all sorts of loud claims for political import of their work]. But let's not trash the good work a university community can really accomplish because, for a brief period in its history, the university was caught in the throes of a kind of mannerist, Roccocco-like period of intellectual excess. Let's keep in mind, too, that for thought to operate at a certain high elevation, it has need of a specialized jargon--that jargon, or specialist language, let's say, is necessary in *every* discipline--where would chemistry be without its formulas? or physics without mathematics?--but it behooves the specialists to also be able to translate that language into a more general lingua franca, or to at least make planes fly and computers run--so that there can be a social benefit, an improvement to our lives [god knows, these "high" discourses have sometimes harmed us, too, in the form of hydrogen bombs and neo-conservatism, among other things].

We have to be careful, though, and I think this is partly Anonymous's point, of spending so much time in the book or theater or art gallery that we begin to mistake it for real life, or prefer it over real life, and experience all our joys there, expend our erotic energy there, and shed all our tears there--this is when the mainly aesthetic life can get dangerous.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Anonymous that it's time to give Prof. Cohen his blog back, especially as I have to now attend to packing and getting back to the States. But I hope Anonymous will continue to insist on that higher standard for those of us who claim our work is political, and will occasionally cross back over to rankle, cajole, prod, and attack. Peace as well, Eileen [not Prof. Joy, please]

Anonymous said...

To avoid offense:

I think Professor Joy only faintly resembles those hastily described in my second paragraph. Because that's true, I want to see her succeed, and lead these others into the real.

L M said...

As the author of the work quoted, it's exciting to discover where this
conversation has led. I'd like to add a thought.

I'm thrilled to have a work of mine described as "nifty" by
Jeffrey Cohen, but whether or not he identifies as a misanthrope is of no
concern to me, as he is an outstanding teacher. If, after spending an
hour in his office letting a student interview him in the middle of
his sabbatical, he retreats to a cave and writes all about it in his anger journal, so be it.

An out-of-town guest was saying to me the other day that if you fold a
shirt well enough when you travel, you don't have to press it when you
arrive--it looks as fresh and crisp as when you packed it.

I think of language as a way to pack an aspect of humanity--a human's
consciousness at a given moment can be packed so neatly and beautifully that it remains fresh over centuries of travel.

The reason I chose that quote from my interview with Jeffrey Cohen was not to prove his misanthropy; rather, although I did wind up writing a hundred-odd-page paper, his answer is such a crisply and perfectly folded answer to almost all of the questions I was posing about the relationships between readers and authors that I felt,
after interviewing him, that almost anything else I said would be
redundant (that's also why I placed his comment so close to the end of
the work):

AB:Who makes books?

COHEN: People, who get transformed by them and lose themselves in them.

When I read, I connect to what I sense is the life in a text, the quickness: the motion; the moment of growth and change and discovery; the
transformation and loss of self, in order to become an expanded self.

My paper talks about the molting consciousness of an author, the way
the work changes the composing body.
It seems to me that an author is no less a student, in that moment of
composition, than, well, a student. I think that's where the natural
overlap between a study of literature--the works of molting
consciousnesses--and teaching--which, when someone's good at it, actually effects a molting of consciousness--occurs; counseling is another such environment.

Cohen acknowledges here that he is interested in books made by people
who are engaged in an act of self-transformation. Studying and counseling likewise may effect such changes, but if a well-wrought text can seem to offer us an entry point to such a consciousness, long after its owner has left the earth, who cam blame us for finding such a text irresistible?

It is a deeply human curiosity that drives me to literature, and it is only the literature that tells me more about what it means to be human that holds my interest. And a great work of art, an utterly singular realization of an utterly singular consciousness, reminds me most of all that what it means to be human is to be singular; that every consciousness matters; that generalizations, while handy, cannot suffice; that each of us matters; that there is no single monolithic class, subclass, minority, majority, category, race or gender that will ever suffice to describe or account for any one of us: That's why it's so important for everyone to have the chance to tell his or her truth.

The poem--or the handwritten marginalia--can constitute the necessary intervention as much as a textbook on gerontology or disability studies, or an essay on Beowulf, provided only that it is what the reader needs at the time: a crisp clean thought to put on, evidence that another consciousness has traveled the same road, and maybe has some thoughts on what to wear.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks for posting that, Amy. I realize that I should have emailed you before I placed the excerpt from your honors thesis interview on this blog. I'm sorry I didn't. But I'm delighted to have youa dd to the conversation it spurred.

I hope your post-GW life is going well!