What is crucial is less why someone believes than what that belief allows them to do
Ask a nonbeliever to describe the QAnon conspiracy theory, and they almost immediately reach for metaphors of madness: batshit insane, fucking crazy, bonkers, etc. Bracketing the real question of stigma attached to these metaphors, the point the speakers are making is the great gap in perception between those who believe in the conspiracy and those who don’t. That which is hard to imagine, outside the bounds of normal mental contexts, is insane.
For instance, it makes no sense that this very American conspiracy theory is going global:
The resilience of QAnon narratives after the election shows just how far and deep this made-in-America conspiracy has spread — and hints at its staying power around the globe.
*A virtual lecture for The Human Situation in this time of plague, on Plato’s Symposium from the Introduction through the speech of Pausanias
I’m not coming to you in video this time (next time, I promise!), but I still have video clips of course. Let us begin with one of three songs about love that all good Houstonians and/or Indie Rock fans are bound to love. Please watch Beyonce’s “Drunk in Love.”
Why this song? I will tell you in a second. First things first, I’m going to tell you my goal in this lecture/essay: to complicate your own, personal definition of love. I hope to do this by begging you to pay careful attention to each of the speeches in the text, not just the big showstoppers at the end. There are many definitions of love in this text, and each of them is worthy of deep consideration. This is my argument: you need to take each of these seriously, or you will miss a lot. This argument is, in some respects, a bad model for you, because the counter-argument it refutes is entirely extratextual: you, the Human Situation student, do not in fact take these early speeches seriously. Between all the discussion sections and papers and final oral exams and random conversations, I think a conservative estimate is that 80% of that time has been spent by students talking about Aristophanes and Socrates. And look, this is fine! These are really great speeches, possibly the two most important things ever said about love outside of 1a. Adam & Eve & 1b. Jesus (at least in the Western tradition).
As our plague year lengthens–we are but halfway through and already the toll of American dead is 200,000–it becomes ever clearer that COVID-19 is not just a threat to our lives and health, but to our democratic institutions as well. What these often have in common is the attempt to muzzle the political bedrock of our deliberative democracy: public debate of public policy.
In his essay on art, “What Children Say,” one becomes engrossed by Deleuze’s argument on the nature of art, the manner in which he opens up the concept by comparing it to the mappings of intensive space by children, by his invocations of Little Hans and to Deligny’s autistic children as the paradigmatic cases of artistic creation. It is, as his wont, subversive and brilliant, and this engrossment progresses apace until, right at the moment of giving a definition of art, one runs into a brick wall—or rather, a stone cairn:
Art is defined, then, as an impersonal process in which the work is composed somewhat like a cairn, with stones carried in by different voyagers and beings in becoming (rather than ghosts) [devenants plutôt que revenants] that may or may not depend on a single author. (#)
It is a typical Deleuzian moment, a typical philosophical moment even. Just as one is about to receive a definition, a statement that clarifies and distills the journey through the text, one is held up short, puzzled and perplexed: art is a cairn? Why? How? What is the connection to mappings and intensities, to children and ghosts?
These moments, though frustrating, are productive; they remind us to not have masters, to become beholden to no singular text. Yet, the mystery of the cairn remains, stubborn and opaque and tugging gently at the back of your mind every time you work on the concept of art, of Deleuze. A rather more than cursory round of research yielded nothing; following Deleuze’s footnotes, usually a winner, cross-referencing other works on Deleuze, even google books (at least when I first searched it) yielded nothing. Researching cairns, I puzzled through analogies such as the work of art is like a grave? a memorial? the upturned earth of a battle? They all resonated, but amounted to nothing.
Nothing, that is, until I spoke with a colleague of mine whose family hails from Scotland. And he told me that the custom is, as one walks about the countryside, that you every time you pass a cairn, you pick up a rock and add it to the top of the cairn. This practice, the living, communal practice of the cairn, was the key. The cairn was not just an inert marker of the past, but a living relationship with the present; it was people interacting with their environment, creating their own history through a collective memory encoded not merely in the exchange of words, but the perpetual work of moving stones: the cairn as assemblage.
The work of art is like a cairn because the work of art is not the object molded by the heroic subject of artistic creation, but an expression of the impersonal forces of accretion and collective pressure. The reference to ghosts also begins to make more sense; the work is not haunted per se, but the haecceities of the past interacting with the present; an impersonal, but non-metaphorical, exchange with the dead, indeed the creation of an assemblage that creates that past itself, but is also created by the subtle pressures it left behind, even over the span of hundreds or thousands of years: modern artists leaving their signatures on caves filled with prehistoric paintings. Cairns remain in a perpetual becoming; they may have a single author, but what defines them as works of art—what defines any work of art—is not the subjectivity of its origin, but the becoming which it produces.
*Thanks to Calum Matheson at the University of Pittsburgh. Picture courtesy of Wikimedia contributor Otter (#)
Just got done giving a lecture on Achebe’s “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” I’m not sure if there’s a single more necessary essay than Achebe’s when it comes to reading a work of literature and, in fact, I cannot imagine teaching Conrad without doing it from Achebe’s basic starting point.
Though this semester I taught it in a course with several other professors, I have also taught it in Intro to Lit courses before. It’s always a bit of a struggle, as Achebe’s argument that we should exclude the text from the canon are strong, to say the least.
Yet it is such a powerful pedagogical text, one that seems worth reading if only because it allows one to introduce Achebe’s succinct, powerful critique of representations of Africa. I also feel as if there are few texts that have a similar ability to undermine our assumptions about civilization and subjectivity. In effect, we still live in the world that Conrad’s novel critique; this past is not, in any real sense, past. Apocalypse now.
What I’m left with is this: does continuing to reread Conrad, especially when it trades off with reading a book such as Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, simply replicate Achebe’s diagnosis at one remove?
In other words, we use our noses to smell food after it’s inside us, as well as before. But, in a fascinating snippet of news based on a presentation given yesterday at the American Chemical Society’s annual meeting by German food chemist Dr. Peter Schieberle, it seems that our noses may not be not alone in that ability, and that other cells in our bodies are able to “smell” food too. (##)
Cells themselves will move toward volatile organic compounds that even the nose cannot smell in a process called chemotaxis.
The first part, about smelling through the mouth, is an important part of why you should disregard all those articles, usually about wine, that say “you can only taste five tastes, so any complex favor profiles are mumbo jumbo.” I mean, one should discount those based on experience alone, because, like, well, can you taste the difference between broccoli, cauliflower, kale, romaine lettuce, arugula, and sorrel? Yes. Of course. That’s six.
The second part is even more interesting, as if the body itself, beyond any sensory input, craves certain foods and aromas. Or rather, again, we need to redefine and broaden what we mean by the senses.
“From Sovereignty to Ethopoiesis: Literature, Aesthetics, and New Forms of Life,” The Comparatist 36 (2012): 86-106.
My article in The Comparatistis finally out. It is essentially a distillation of the methodological argument of my dissertation, though stripped of all the particular literary contexts with which it is developed there. It shifts the scene slightly, and focuses on the question of “sovereignty” that appears in Foucault’s early writings on literature, a concept he shares with Derrida, and that both take from Bataille. I highly recommend the rest of the articles in the issue as well.
The essay traces what becomes of this idea as it evolves into “the final Foucault,” where ethics is related to treating being as a work of art. In it, I also try and distinguish the specific discourse of “literature” from an aesthetic function that often, though not always, resides within it. A passage, not random:
Considering the domains of archaeology, genealogy, and ethics, this aesthetics would be defined by the virtual production of new subjects of enunciation in discourse around which practices can be actualized as new forms of life.
Things themselves become so burdened with attributes, signs, illusions that they finally lose their own form.
—Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization
A recent episode of Radiolab on color took up one of my favorite lines of thought on language, by way of color (here’s another version of it in relation to wine). Specifically, it notes that the color “blue” does not exist in the earliest periods of most languages, and that colors are sort of sequentially introduced in the history of language. First, black/white, then red, then other colors, and finally, and almost always last: blue.
Guy Deutscher, one of the guests on the program, has a great quote from nineteenth century German philologist Lazarus Geiger discussing ancient sagas in general:
These hymns, of more than ten thousand lines, are brimming with descriptions of the heavens. Scarcely any subject is evoked more frequently. … But there is only one thing that no one would ever learn from those ancient songs who did not already know it, and that is that the sky is blue. (#)
Deutscher speculates that this pattern in language derives from both the dearth of naturally blue objects in the world—which are extremely rare—and, more interestingly, the lack of a need for a color-word until a culture can reliably make that color. Or, the word for blue is useless unless, well, you can put blue to use.
And for people without the color-word for blue, like the Himba of Namibia, the color blue just doesn’t exist … or rather, it exists, but it just doesn’t signify for them. They sort of just don’t notice the difference between, say, blue and green.
And the sky? The episode speculates that its association with the color blue is more cultural than we might think. And any idea that can make me question whether or not the sky is blue—to make me see the very sky differently—is worth a blog post …
And if you haven’t got honor and pride, then nothing matters. Only there is something in you that doesn’t care about honor and pride yet that lives, that even walks backward for a whole year just to live; that probably even when this is over and there is not even defeat left, will still decline to sit still in the sun and die, but will be back out in the woods, moving and seeking where just will and endurance could not move it, grubbing for roots and such—the old mindless sentient undreaming meat that doesn’t even know any difference between despair and victory, Henry.