Archive for July, 2013

Heart of Darkness and Power

July 26, 2013

I’m finding the comparative method very rewarding these days… not to say that I’ve found a method that works, but rather, that literature does, indeed, tend to address the same problems, ie, that comparison still requires one to be on the right track. But I’ve been thinking comparatively for the last few sessions about Bartleby and Heart of Darkness and I do feel that the former is a great way to bring out what the latter is dealing with.

The task however isn’t all that straightfoward, since we aren’t really sure who to side with. No one is really in charge there. Or, if we chose to believe that colonists are undermined by the jungle or by the blacks, then there is the issue of Kurtz, who is able to come to power even as he is ‘nothing more than a ghost’. Basically Heart of Darkness is troubling because, first, it is historical, and second, it seems to be about the victory, the historical victory, of what we’ve been calling ‘the psychotic’.

In both Bartleby and The Black Cat, there is the issue of negation, which is important because the stories are not about demystifcation or exotic otherness but about some endemic  “psychotic” element. However, already, as we move from The Black Cat to Bartleby, we find that Bartleby to be far more human, so that Bartleby isn’t, precisely, the black cat, but rather someone who is able to see the black cat, and who works, it seems, for the black cat. Bartleby is forlorn, pensive — his “occupation” of staring at walls, blank but not quite, reflect, simultaneously, the attempt to see and the attempt to conceive of that momentary, “external” relationship to the sign. That is, the letters he received in the dead letters office — well, I imagine letters as offering “another way out” — I think that Melville specifically makes mention of a (hypothetical) wedding ring, pardon, and check, all headed for the deceased. Letters offer some way to bypass the system which has doomed someone, some new take on a situation, a new relationship. The letter is a fresh “momentary” relationship that, in the office, is extinguished — and maybe that is a good thing in this case, as it preserves that “psychotic” or subversive element we’re been talking about without having it being holisticized into some continuous experience. A singular moment or insight that seems to reorient one with respect to one’s situation — so that Bartleby’s staring at walls is at once a speculative attempt to understand this moment and an attempt to perform or act out this moment. Ie, simultaneously self-aware, performative, and visual.

When we get to Heart of Darkness, the entire world seems to be in ruins, there seems to be no clear organization there. The closest thing resembling a psychotic criminality actually occurs only in the last scene with the Intended, who is probably the closest direct link to Bartleby. But for the jungle, I think, we are basically dealing with the question of what can come to power, which is something that we didn’t deal with in Bartleby. The question is how we can move away from “negation” (as Bartleby had himself moved away from the “psychotic”) above towards the question of the seed of power. How can the negational exist without anything to negate?

It’s an exciting question which I don’t have an elegant answer to, so let me just offer a few provocations.

Univerals Nihilism — We are certainly trying to establish some continuity between African and Europe, animals and man, pre-linguistic and linguistic, and so on. The manager is one instance of this continuity, for Conrad nihilism is universal, it is associated with a kind of “weak flabby devil” — “one gets the suspicion that there is nothing there”. Nihilism in this sense is a kind of universal adaptability, and simultaneously, a resistance to change, basically via, and I’m not sure how much this makes sense, a kind of absolute self-regard.

The origins of langauge — When we spoke about accepted criminallity and the psychotic , we should make mention of a relationship to signs. Bartelby defines a new relationship to the sign — well, to the wall, whose nature is uncertain — he is fascinated with walls, but what did he see in them, does the material matter, or only the marks on the surface, etc.? For the black cat, there is the sense that, perhaps, nothing supernatural was required, but there is the implication that the cat understood gestures from an external perspective, for example, knew that the man could lie, and knew that he could lie in turn.

But there is no difference between truth and lie — I think Nietzsche, in that famous essay On Truth and Lie in an Extramoral Sense, said that truth was a coin whose face had been rubbed out from overuse so that it resembled metal. There is no difference between an external and in internal understanding of the sign, and indeed, Bartleby plants himself precisely at this edge. My point is that more important than the difference between truth and lie is the recognition of the symbol as such, which is perhaps what characterizes the black cat’s supernatural intelligence.

For Heart of Darkness, Kurtz’s power comes despite him, presumably, not knowing a word of their native tongue. I don’t think he brought something new to Africa (the implication is actually precisely the opposite) but what is interstinge is that Kurtz the musician, the universal genius, is able to incorporate himself into that tribe precisely via these momentary, Bartlebyesque, discontinuous performances with the mark. I mena, it might not really matter what he said — presumably he mostly English — but that does not mean he didn’t communicate. This momentary, “burst-like” relationship to the mark does not predate the sign… TBC


Bartleby and The Black Cat

July 25, 2013

I had a conversation a few days ago with somebody who was reading a Melville book at a coffee shop, it suffice to say that it did not end well. Bartleby is a big deal to me, as I don’t want every book out there to be tainted by liberalism: Bartleby is a victim, he was ‘oppressed’, Melville was prophetic — being smart enough, in those dark times apparently, to anticipate modern, more tolerant attitudes, Bartleby was weak and needed to be take care of, that the lawyer was too ‘judgmental’, that he categorized people, that he was prejudiced.

The most banal bullshit in the world, and of course completely wrong, but in calmer moments, I can admit that it’s not altogether easy avoiding such an understanding if one isn’t used to paying attention to the story. It basically skips over reading the text entirely in order to reflect vaguely on the ending — ‘But somebody died! They must have been a victim of oppression. All he wanted to do was be left alone with his skittles — er, cakes, what have you.’ But I do admit, in calmer times, that reading isn’t altogether trivial — it takes some practice to read dialectically, to cease reading on assumptions on what the text *must have* wanted to do.

If we were to return to the text, however, we would remember that the lawyer was *overwhelmingly* generous with Bartleby — to the point that the lawyer himself seems to be insane one. And he was — he was haunted, something about Bartleby appealed to him in a highly personal, inexplicable way. The story was not about a violation of basic human rights but rather about why the lawyer *didn’t* get rid of him on the first day, why the lawyer kept him around for as long as he did — parting with him only when it began to negatively affect his business, and even then, dragging up his entire office rather than forcibly ejecting him. And Bartleby was not at all a victim, innocent, stupid, and passive, a far cry from being a buddhist — this is a good thing — his last words were, ‘I know where I am’, and ‘I know you, and I want nothing to say to you’.

Bartleby can be linked to the long chain of what we’ve been concerned with, maybe we can call it ‘psychotic literature’: Sleepaway Camp, Psycho, The Black Cat, and others. The story is in some sense very similar to The Black Cat, it speaks, in the first person, of the defeat of my best laid out plans by methods which are entirely too simple. It might actually be an interesting and useful exercise to simply draw one-to-one mappings between the two stories, and if we were to do so, we would certainly come across some very interesting incongruences that are not at all accidental but seem to reflect a further thinking about the same problem. Bartleby is the cat. The lawyer is the murderer, or the psycho killer. Except, of course, he isn’t — be he does run a law firm, the practice of which can be considered criminal — not in the sense that lawyers are evil but in the sense that all forms of holism should be considered criminal, to be human is to be criminal, it is, on some level, seeing what we can get away with, seeing what we can pass ourselves off as.

Bartleby, likewise, is a deeper sort of psychopath. His intelligence and *aggression* shoudn’t be overlooked — albeit, this aggression is towards the human criminal rather than towards any particular human being. And his own stance is undoubtedly criminal, in the sense I use it here, of making something out of nothing, or rather, of giving a holism or unity to mere negative possibilities. That is, he doesn’t offer a better way to live.

What Bartleby is establish another way of living that is really merely a possibility — it is entirely negative, but that’s not saying much, since everything is negative. But this text is about him living this out and in some way, trying to *bring together*, to unify within himself all this negativity.

I mean, by negativity, the idea of the psychotic undermining — cheating the welfare system, you can think. But the welfare system is already cheating in that it was designed to give us some noble effort to work towards and be done with — and perhaps avoid facing any real troubles. We can think of it as the lawyer who thinks to himself (something to the effect of) ‘I have done all that I can, I have spared no kindness, withheld no oppurtunity, etc., in treating this Bartleby affair, and now I can part ways with this ghost, guilt free, at least by social standards’. The point, of course, is not that he should have been even more kind than he was, but rather that he had misunderstood — or rather, had misstated — the intention of Bartelby, which was aggressive and accusatory, political rather than passive.

But yes, as we were saying, cheating the system. The system was designed — and this is why I call it ‘criminal’ — not with some central project or purpose but to reject cheating, or more obvious forms of cheating, to allow certain forms of cheating and not others. The issue in Bartleby, as we had pointed out, is not so much the success at cheating; rather, Bartleby requires some help from us in order to understand him.

The dead letters office is interesting. Letters are a way of reaching someone directly, of bypassing the system, since a letter is heart to heart. A dead letter is one that never reaches its destination, they are sort of like failed crimes designed to overcome other, more successful crimes. And so Bartleby, as the nexus of these letters, seemed to have taken it upon himself to *be* the success that all those letters sought, I mean, his very existence is an undeniable success. He is ‘not particular’, which means that he is not really, you know, tailoring his behavior towards evoking the emotions of a particular human. But nonetheless, he *is* negational, but in a much more general sense, towards all humanity in some sense.

Now, that which is excluded by the system is precisely that which lacks the *spirit* of the system. The system is like a mafia. There is a line in Heart of Darkness that goes, ‘there is something after all in the world allowing one man to steal a horse while another must not look at a halter.’ This spirit is based on the ‘serious’ understanding of words, on the humanism of words. What Bartleby does is base his life on the *holism* of psychotic intention *underneath* the level of the word.


The Black Cat

July 18, 2013

I read Poe’s The Black Cat a few days ago and, while it didn’t really stick with me at the time, on longer reflection it has become more and more interesting.

The main question is how the black cat wins. Concepts of shock, revelation, awareness, reversal, tie this with other works that I’ve recently been intersted in, Sleepaway Camp, Zimmerman trials, A Rose for EmilyPsycho. I don’t want to go into great detail here with the links beetween these works… well, it’s probably fairly obvious.

Now, we are basically the killer in this work, or rather, the killer is the human, the normal human being. We are all psychotic, let’s not kid ourselves — we all wish to see and not be seen. We all have our crimes, are defined more or less by our crimes, and by our lies, white or otherwise, conscious or unconscious. Genuine honesty is not so much impossible as moot. I think, umm, the infamous quote from Castlevania, for Nintendo, is “What is man? A miserable pile of secrets.”

The idea of the cat there is the possibility of a further emptying out, as I conceive of it, a kind of “flat” visibility, a kind of omniscience, but not of our deepest intentions, but rather, of the way in which we manipulate the world. I suppose that we can start with some notion of denotation and connotation, traditional terms in referring to the primary and secondary meaning of a work. But these terms are all but useless when we consider that one reads, really, with a kind of expectation of what is to happen. Maybe there is a twist ending but we expected that twist ending, maybe our minds are changed but we had indeed expected this — so much so that the real shock is all but forgotten. Connotation and denotation really just refer to what we can get away with, in a sense.

Our fear isn’t so much, then, of being known, or being understood, but rather of being caught. Having fooled the police, and indeed, of all of society (but this raises the question, of what really it means to fool society, if society really expects this fooling?), the psycho killer raps on the wall within which the body is hidden — not expecting a response, but also, indeed, expecting one, so that the whole point of him rapping was to prove to himself of his absolute safety. And so there emerges from within the wall, a horrifying scream as from the pits of hell, so that what makes the killer all but faint from shock is, oddly enough, precisely what he had feared or expected all along. The police then tear down the wall to see the body of the victim with the black cat perched atop her head, who the murderer had accidentally walled up.

It’s odd that there are two supernatural elements at the end — the voice of his dead wife and the voice of the cat, I mean, simultaneous with. The former is a ghoul who has come back to take revenge, the latter is an animal that manages to outwit the killer. The animal is characterized, perhaps, by this “flat visibility”, in the sense that it is all but impossible, really, to deceive an animal — isn’t it? I mean — I get the feeling that animals, in this context at least, understand humans commnicate to one another and lie to one another but without an intimate understanding of the details. The cat, as an onlooker, sees us hiding and sees us manipulating ourselves or manipulating the clues so that we can hide ourselves. I mean, we are able to deceive and lie mostly by taking advantage of genre awareness. Let’s just get out of the way the fact that perception is not immediate, that the term perception might be deceptive, that perception is really hinged on expectation, anticipation, context, and so on.

As a criminal, we are required to manipulate our appearances to the police, or to others. Maybe there is a touch of nihilism here. The ordinary human being, the normal person, is something that none of us lives up to but which we all hide behind. This is how, for example, you get away with a crime or not get fired from a job. The whole thing with Zimmerman and Martin — let me just get the out of the way the fact that I believe the court decision is 100% correct, and even more, that Zimmerman is 100% … well, 99% … innocent — well, one of the ideas there is that Zimmerman could manipulate the situation into looking like a “normal person”. Any normal person would shoot when assaulted by an aggressor in the dark, if armed — but none of us are normal people. Any normal person would have those motives. This normal person isn’t even one that is politically correct. Any normal person is “racist” and would certainly judge a black person differently than a white person, especially when it comes to threat level, and they would be correct in doing so. But the fact is that none of us are normal, all of us are psychotic — and I am far from saying that Zimmerman manipulated the situation so that he could shoot. But it does reveal that law is based on some narrative that absolutely depends on a normalcy that tries to, but can never, fully incorporate the irrational and the illogical (but still normal). It is normal to be insane, to be frightened, to act before judgment, etc. — and this is what self-defense laws are based on. And — as a last word, this is fine, and unavoidable, and not a bad thing — it encourages us to be “professional” in our daily lives, especially in public, and especially around strangers.

Here is what I want to say: that the flat understanding of the black cat allows for a new form of vulnerability that differs from mere “genre-awareness” of normalcy, above.


Posthuman (Madame Bovary)

July 5, 2013

Posthuman, ubermensch … I’ve been thinking a lot of these terms — they are quite useful. It allows criticism to forge ahead, to think about possible existences without concerning itself, descriptively, with the human today. The posthuman isn’t transcendental — I’m not thinking about Star Trek of course — but it is a human that is able to feed off of nothing. So we’re not thinking about superintelligent jocks or anything either. And this nothing is not merely “hope” … but in any case, the problem with all these formulations is, well, we shouldn’t assume that there is some positive content to the human to begin with. The human is holistic, it is connected to the image, I mean, to the visualizable. The post-human is then linked up with other processes, other cycles.

… I actually insist on the term, post-human, simply because we must be thinking about a new way of life, and the holism of a new way of life, and not merely some moment or some process. For example, if we consider, say, Faulkner’s blacks, then there are a few things that are very interesting about them. They are not transcendant, they pretty much waste their lives just like the rest of us. But they seem to know all about the human, without really being interested in the details — they know about the hypocrisy, the nihilism, the obsession with images, with light and understanding, and so on — and this establishes them as “post-” and not “pre-“. Yet on the other hand they are not entirely divorced from the image themselves, it is not simply a matter of saying that “life is absurd” or something, but rather, they too are stuck at an impasse, ie, what I call “wasting our lives”. And maybe in this sense we are not that different. What is different is the way in which their life, though also lived unto death, if you will, seems to suggest new historiographical possibilities.

Regarding the term, “noble” — should this be applied? I think so, to some extent. I used to say that Hollywood has a horrible time dealing with goodness, in the sense that they always make it out to be something irrational and altruistic — ie, it cannot understand goodness as something natural or even attainable, and thus pushes nobility outside of the scope of everyday consideration. In this sense it is “evil” in the strict sense, which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t serve a useful function. I don’t really oppose harm coming to those that aren’t of my kind, whatever that means. Yet, not noble in the sense of “disinterested”, only, as Nietzsche pointed out, differently intersted, and probably just as hopeless.

Let’s consider Madame Bovary as an example. There is a strange cycle here that ends, I believe, with the book becoming a kind of … central player. The premise of the book seems to be that the vivid youthful or feminine imagination of Emma Bovary becomes something that Flaubert feeds off of and gives voice to. The book is ‘non-representational’ in this sense, in the sense that everything seems fragmented, and charged with some new direction, through her eyes. So she is a woman of spirit — but we must ask, where does this spirit or explosive energy come from? Emma can be characterized neither as a psychopath nor as a kind of buddhist saint, ie, her view of the world is neither wholely distorted by her ambitions nor supernaturally aware of the present. So that, in another view, there is a kind of helplessness to her visions that, interestingly enough, the voice of Flaubert does not mold into holistic, understandable, “human” needs. Perhaps they are negative in the sense that true negativity may actually mean the “suggestive”, ie, something that hovers on the edge of comprehensibility. And though nothing is acheived, there is a holism here on the verge arriving, not only because she dies, but because this sort of experience is already powerful enough to project itself onto the world, as in an engine that reforms reality. The book, then, becomes no longer merely a description of reality wherein posthumanism is possible but the very experience of reality of the posthuman, I mean, the very reality that is yet to come, and yet present, in the sense of, pushing our hand.