Thursday, August 11, 2005
Nussbaum v. Butler, Round One
Guest post by John McGowan
“The Professor of Parody,” Martha Nussbaum’s essay on Judith Butler, captures rather perfectly why my usual response to assertions and counter-assertions in the theory wars is “a plague on both your houses.” I’m mostly on Nussbaum’s side substantively, but think she makes her argument in an incredibly unhelpful way. (Most important, I think, is Nussbaum’s complaint that Butler avoids articulating the norms that underwrite her use of charged terms like “oppressive” and “injurious,” and thus also avoids being specific about what political action should or might be aiming for. Vague, ad hoc, individualistic, and improvised resistance is Butler’s substitute for any concerted or collective action that tries to change laws, institutions, practices, received beliefs, social hierarchies, or the distribution of material resources.)
In what, after all, is an intramural debate among writers and readers who are all sympathetic to feminist aims and who, more generally, are all left of center, Nussbaum cannot find it in herself to search for plausible reasons Butler takes the positions she does or for why so many readers have found them convincing and attractive. Butler’s followers just want a feminism that “is in many ways easier than the old feminism”(Nussbaum, Section VI) and choose to follow the “adversarial traditions of sophistry and rhetoric,” spurning philosophy’s commitment to “a discourse of equals who trade arguments and counter-arguments without any obscurantist sleight-of-hand” (Nussbaum, Section II). That’s the best Nussbaum can do: laziness and intellectual dishonesty are the motives driving Butler and those who admire her work.
Barbara Herrnstein Smith, in her book Belief and Resistance (1997), offers something she calls the principle of symmetry. (She has derived this notion from the Edinburgh sociologists of knowledge, notably David Bloor and Barry Barnes.) The basic idea is very simple: when interpreting or evaluating any statement or any set of beliefs, I should begin from the premise that those who make that statement or hold that belief aim to be—and believe themselves to be—as committed to saying and believing what is reasonable and true as I am. The default position should not be that they are insincere, or that they have chosen to be sophists not philosophers, or that they don’t want to believe what is true. I should instead assume their symmetry with me. If I am to question their sincerity or their intellectual honesty, I need to offer a plausible account of how they went wrong or why (what reasons they have) for being deceitful. We might also call this a principle of charity—and connect it to Donald Davidson’s speculations about how we ever manage to make any sense of beliefs that are foreign, baffling, and even repugnant to ourselves.
Nussbaum’s lack of charity means that she can only impute the worst motives to Butler—and to anyone inclined to view Butler’s work positively. Butler wants the kind of fame and authority that comes from oracular charisma and obscurantist prose. Butler’s readers want to indulge their American narcissism, “cultivating the self rather than thinking in a way that helps the material condition of others”(remember this line from Section VI because I want to come back to it in Part 2 on Sunday). And both Butler and her admiring readers are borderline (at least) sexual perverts who sado-masochistically eroticize their relation to the powers that oppress them. Narcissistic sado-masochistic rhetoricians who can’t write their way out of a paper bag. Ouch.
What would a more charitable reading of Butler offer in place of these nefarious motives? I think Nussbaum fails to recognize the power and appeal of psychoanalysis—and the fact that the Freudian perspective (filtered through Lacan) underlies Butler’s whole approach to questions of sexual being and of the scene of socio-political action. (For the old-timers among you, think of Nussbaum versus Butler as a reprise of Herbert Marcuse versus Norman O. Brown.) I will admit at the outset to being as temperamentally hostile to psychoanalysis as Nussbaum—and I find it one of the great mysteries of our day why so many feminists are psychoanalytically inclined. But, probably because I come from literary studies and not from philosophy, I don’t find Freudian thought just incomprehensible nonsense that only the willfully perverse could ever take seriously.
What Nussbaum misses in Butler is her Freudian mysticism. Butler takes from Foucault the notion that “identity” is as much a trap and burden as a source for the autonomous freedom with which liberalism seeks to invest each individual. And what Butler takes from Freud is the notion that prior to the formation of one’s identity there is an amorphous, heterogeneous, primal chaos of unorganized feelings, impulses, and potentialities that are almost (but not quite) completely lost once “genital organization” and the “ego ideal” and “identification” with the parent of the same sex and “compulsory heterosexuality” do their work. Avoiding all the details of the Freudian narrative that describes the movement from polymorphous perversity and the undifferentiated “oceanic feeling” to an achieved identity, I suggest that Butler partakes of the romantic urge to resist the tendency of “identity” to cut off all contact with the varied contents of the unconscious. The convenient romantic name for everything that would swamp the categories and names within which the merely rational tries to confine the contents of the universe is “the sublime.”
Butler’s work, then, is trying to indicate how “the sublime” (lodged, for her, primarily in the Freudian unconscious) exceeds our given categories—categories like “male” and “female,” or “heterosexual” and “homosexual.” Identities, she insists, always impose a false coherence on a bodily and emotional reality that is heterogeneous. And her focus on parody reflects her attempt to think about techniques by which we can gain access to or provide expression for the repressed sublime, for exactly the stuff that reason, non-contradiction, and the clear use of standard vocabularies renders inexpressible. (Think of Freud on jokes.)
She also takes from Freudian thought a deep ambivalence toward the unconscious. Powerful forces of repression create the unconscious and keep its contents hidden; yet complete and utter repression is as impossible as no repression at all. Some return of the repressed will always happen, but Butler accepts Freud’s conviction that a complete end to repression is neither desirable nor possible. Hence the tragic (or fatalistic) outlook that upsets Nussbaum so. In Butler’s universe, we deeply desire the unconscious; we have intimations that the organized world and identities that repression builds for us are missing something vital; but we cannot simply embrace the unconscious. That way, quite literally, lies madness. We are caught between the rock of identity and the hard place of psychosis.
Given such a tragic view, it is hard to see how Butler could develop a hopeful politics. But she is in a position to rail against the rigid strictures of a repressive society. (Again, the parallel with Freud is exact.) No good can come, both she and Freud would argue, from trying to push all sexual desire into overly narrow channels. The chances for success are slim, and the costs of that forcing on psychic health are very high. Butler’s politics, like Freud’s are necessarily therapeutic. The focus is on making individual lives easier to live and bear (which, I take it, accurately characterizes Nussbaum’s aims as well. The difference comes in the means chosen—and in the diagnosis of what is causing the patient pain.) Social transformation in Butler as in Freud would be aimed at relaxing the rigidity of approved identity categories, in reducing guilt and anxiety.
As I have said, I’m with Nussbaum in finding the psychoanalytic focus both too individualistic and too fatalistic. But I think Nussbaum misses the fact that individuality has its strong discontents and the fact that some people have strong intimations of a trans-individual sublime to which they are attracted and into which they would like to submerge that burdensome self. Not just religion, but also much of the literature of the past two hundred years, witnesses to this recurrent longing. To rule such longings out of court as so much romantic, irrational nonsense is neither going to banish them from the earth or advance our ability to produce a better society. It is not even obviously true that a concern with adjusting one’s individual relations with what one takes to be the wider forces at play in the universe is a luxury only the relatively well-off can afford. Plenty of extremely poor people put a lot of energy into and place a very high priority on their religious practices and beliefs. Nussbaum’s self-congratulatory insistence that her brand of feminism deals with “material” necessities and “real” problems (as contrasted to the way Butler’s feminism “complete[ly] turn[s] from the material side of life,” providing “only the flimsiest of connections with the real situation of real women” [Section I]) is unrealistic in its narrowing of human concerns and commitments. If there is any empirical claim we can safely make about humans, it is that material concerns are not the only things that seem “real” to them. In fact, much of the philosophical tradition that Nussbaum claims to honor is devoted to explaining why material things are less real than other components of the universe.
Derrida seemed to acknowledge, in his later years, that he was a religious thinker. Freud, of course, went to his grave thinking of himself as a sworn enemy of religion even though early in his career he insisted that every dream contains a knot that resists all interpretation and late in his career he adopted the “mythology” (his term) of the two instincts, Eros and Thanatos, both of which lure the self to merger with forces beyond it. I suspect that Butler would understand the adjectives “religious” and “mystic” when applied to her thought as insults. Yet, for me, her monotheistic focus on the subject’s relation “the Law” (a term and concept she takes uncritically from Lacan) as all-consuming and her corollary neglect of all inter-subjective relations in a mundane social field indicate how other-worldly her take on human existence is.
But the longing for contact with an ineffable that lies beyond the self need not take a very religious form. From Blake to the “language poets,” the avant-garde has been interested in changing the terms of perception. Nussbaum simply fails to register Butler’s argument about language. Butler points toward an experienced gap between the categories supplied by language and felt reality. Her work, quite simply, is for misfits, for people who have felt themselves to be square pegs that are constantly being pushed and prodded into round holes. The available categories are simply inadequate. They also carry normative force; they lay out everything that is deemed “normal.” Misfits are abnormal—and subjected to a variety of practices aimed at changing them, quarantining them, or rendering them invisible. Butler’s work—like “queer theory,” generally—questions the legitimacy and inevitability of prevailing definitions of the normal. As such, it has proved enormously enlightening and liberating to those who suffer most from the stigma of abnormality.
Nussbaum’s most egregious failure is her inability to recognize that Butler addresses a “real” source of pain felt by “real” people—and that Butler’s work empowers such people by providing intellectual resources with which to cope with and respond to ungenerous norms. That failure undermines Nussbaum’s taking the high ground as the one who is really attending to the needs of the oppressed. To ignore the suffering to which Butler’s work is so clearly addressed, and thus to avoid considering if that work succeeds in any way to alleviate that suffering (as it clearly aims to do), is to refuse to assess the work fairly. No work—intellectual or otherwise—can set out to do everything. And we can even fault someone for taking up the wrong task, for fiddling while Rome burns. But, at least, we should correctly identify what that work sets out to do—and then explain why the worker should be doing something else or why the worker has failed at the task she has undertaken. Nussbaum misses the avant-garde aim of transforming the terms of thought and the forms of perception, and she misses the on-the-ground consequences of social categories that stigmatize.
Nussbaum clearly has no avant-garde intimations or yearnings toward the ineffable, so she cannot have any sympathy for a writing style that is trying to reach toward the “unthought,” or the “inexpressible.” Such styles are everywhere in romantic and modernist art—and they are built precisely on the premise that language is an imperfect tool, that our received vocabularies and categories are inadequate, and their inadequacy must be signaled even as we use the words we have inherited. Butler’s work is perhaps best compared to Benjamin’s. They are both figures who exist in some ill-defined space between avant-garde art and discursive, argumentative thought. (So here’s another practice that defies easy categorization or location within neat disciplinary markers. To call Benjamin and Butler literary critics seems pretty lame, but they aren’t quite philosophers or political theorists either. We end up with catch-all terms like “intellectual” or “man [sic] of letters” or “social critic.” And I suggest that we see their obscurities as less a product of being “over-academic” and more akin to the obscurities of Mallarmé, Joyce, and Pound.)
Trying to push thought beyond received categories is frustrating—and certainly courts failure and incomprehension. But that doesn’t justify rapid recuperation of avant-garde work back into received notions and terms. Nussbaum keeps assuring us that various things Butler has to say aren’t at all new. Apparently, Nussbaum smugly assumes that the problems feminists are addressing are obvious: some individuals are not treated equally. We’re past defining the problem; we just need to focus on solutions now. So she is deeply impatient with anyone who says, “Wait a minute; I’m not sure that’s really what the problem is. I’d like to consider the nature of individuality and our investments in it, because I feel a deep urge to slough off my individuality, plus I also find the range of available individual identities oppressive.” For Nussbaum, that’s intellectual fiddling while Rome burns.
Nussbaum’s lack of an avant-garde sensibility is not a major failing in my opinion, although it is a symptomatic one. But her blindness to the pain caused by received categories is more troubling. Avant-garde experimentation is not just a luxury for the comfortable sons and daughters of the professional classes. Even if it is play-acting in some cases, it is liberating and ennobling work in others. Nussbaum could only be so contemptuous of Butler’s work if she “didn’t get” the “gender trouble” felt by those who find it very difficult to be the “girl” or the “boy” that others expect them to be. And Nussbaum’s very failure to “get it” reinforces Butler’s argument that the categories of thought guide perception. Nussbaum’s mind-set leads her to miss something. She assumes, way too confidently, that her vision of feminism is all-encompassing, that it has listed already all the harms done to women, and now just has to attend to alleviating them. Such close-mindedness in a thinker whose work I admire suggests the better course is to try to write as if DeMan was on to something when he insisted that every insight is accompanied by a corresponding blindness. We would do well to suspect that the writers who most irritate us are the ones who have the most to tell us, are the ones most likely to lead us to see our own blind spots. If that thought is too close to Freudian ways of thinking about “resistance,” I do recommend Herrnstein Smith’s book to your attention because it considers the dynamic interplay between our “beliefs” and how we “resist” evidence and ideas that would threaten those beliefs in an entirely non-Freudian (and hence, for me at least, more plausible) register.
On Sunday, I am going to post again on this non-meeting of minds. In particular, I want to take up the vexed question of the relation of academic work to politics.
Wednesday, August 10, 2005
The sense of an ending
OK, so this is the fourth post I’ve put up today (and I’ve updated and revised it a few times, too). A new record for this blog—an unprecedented flurry of things in the past thirty hours, and not one of them—not Theory Tuesday IV on Althusser, not the Invasion of the Marriage Disaster Flicks, not my visit to the dentist, and not my tribute to the English department’s softball team—has a damn thing to do with the state of the nation. Once upon a time, this was a mostly political blog, specializing in bitterness, incredulity, and over-the-top satire. Now you can hardly find a passing mention of Karl Rove, Judy Miller, or Robert Novak around here.
But over the past few months I’ve been seriously rethinking the parameters of what this blog can and cannot say. It has not escaped my notice that there’s a fairly clear distinction between “raw” blogs and “cooked” blogs: the former offer to-the-moment musings on the lives and times of their authors (The Chronicles of Dr. Crazy, for example), and the latter present a clear surface, a finished product that betrays nothing about their authors’ lives or its vicissitudes (Tom Burka’s brilliant and brilliantly-named Opinions You Should Have, for example). Most blogs fall in between, and blogs like these seem to me to have negotiated the demands of the raw and the cooked most appealingly and impressively over the past year.
I’m well aware that I’ve leavened this blog now and then with a few immediate-family stories, most of which have to do with Jamie—partly because people keep asking about him, for good reason, and partly because he loves to see himself up on the Internets, also for good reason. But I’ve tried to keep most of my personal life out of this. I’ve even tried to keep most of my professional life out of this: while I’ll comment on Horowitzian initiatives in state legislatures and MLA resolutions, I won’t talk about most of my daily professorial routine here. In fact, for a long time last year I was reluctant to deal with anything relating to my day job—so much so that it simply never occurred to me that I could use the blog for things like Theory Tuesdays and extended responses to Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?
And until recently, I would never have thought of writing anything about the EFF (extended family and friends) in this space—at least not in a serious way. Two weeks ago, however, a dear friend of ours, Jimmy Crofts, died at the age of 48 after a long and utterly inexplicable illness. He was married to Gail Corbin, who’s been Janet’s best friend since toddlerhood. Gail and Jimmy’s marriage was complexly intertwined with ours, even during the twelve years Janet and I lived in Illinois and saw the Connecticut crew only once or twice a year, and even though most of Jimmy’s family still lives in Ireland. Janet traveled to Dublin to attend Jimmy and Gail’s wedding on New Year’s Eve 1983; she and I had met but three months before. Jimmy and Gail moved to New Haven shortly thereafter. Gail is basically the fifth Lyon Sister (after Cynthia, Barbara, Janet and Todd), just as Mal Evans was the fifth Beatle, and Jimmy’s large family is almost the mirror image of Janet’s: the Lyon brood consists of four charismatic daughters and one charming son, and the Crofts clan consists of four charismatic sons and one charming daughter. Not that Jimmy lacked for charm; quite the contrary. He was stunningly handsome (Aidan Quinn, twenty years ago, was a pale approximation), multiply talented, impossibly witty, and unfailingly kind. And Gail: Gail is just incandescent—a passionate dancer (in the Doris Humphreys mode), a keen and wry wit, an exhilarating interlocutor. The two of them seemed perfectly matched.
Jimmy and Gail had two children, right around the time that Janet and I had two children: their Brendan is 17, our Nick is 19; their Anna turns 14 in November, our Jamie turns 14 in September. We all went through the stages of postmodern childrearing in the industrialized West at the same time, marking our offspring’s baffling attachments to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, pogs, Nintendo 64, taekwondo, baseball, and stuffed animals. We debated Barney the Dinosaur: unmitigated evil, or post-post-parodic scourge? We felt very strongly both ways.
Then late last summer, we heard that Jimmy had fallen ill: his white blood count had plunged precipitously, and no one knew why. He was hospitalized late last fall. And ten months after the initial onset of this mysterious disease, no one knows what it is or where it came from. Not Gail, not us, not the head of oncology at Yale-New Haven. No one.
The last time I saw Jimmy, Janet and I were visiting him in Yale-New Haven hospital just before Christmas. Though Jimmy was barely able to walk, he and his brother Martin were bantering hilariously about the novels he’d been sent to keep him “occupied” during his hospitalization: someone had given him Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code, apparently unaware that the Crofts family is ridiculously well-read, having memorized most of everything from Spenser to Flann O’Brien, and Jimmy and Martin had us howling about the Dan Brown Howlers. At one point the two brothers decided that the books were so bad that, on some level, they were aware of how bad they were, and had to be watched lest they slip off the shelf, wander into the back yard, and shoot themselves.
But the last time I saw Jimmy outside a hospital was at the funeral for Janet’s father on November 6 of last year. Janet’s father, Bradford B. Lyon, died on October 14 at the age of 83. He had been very ill for two or three years: there was lung cancer, and lupus, and his incomplete recovery from knee-replacement surgery. He was doing his best to manage his pacemaker/defibrillator. His hands, his legs, all his joints were out of joint—and this in a man who swam daily, skiied capably, and rode his bicycle well into his late 70s.
Brad was very much like Jimmy: not quite so quick a wit, mind you (for who could be so quick as Jimmy Crofts?), but every bit as charming and industrious and gracious. He flirted with death for most of last summer; though I had the good fortune to walk and talk with him alone for an hour along the southern Connecticut shoreline in May, I saw him only twice more before he died, and on neither occasion was he able to communicate verbally (though he did laugh noiselessly in his hospital bed when I told him I would not jump on his daughter Cynthia’s trampoline because you can’t get me into one of those chicken outfits). Janet left for New Haven four times last summer, each time for a week, each time thinking that it would be her last chance to see her father; and yet each time he rallied. Finally, in mid-semester last fall, Janet and I decided that it would be a good idea for her to drive to her parents’ house to see her father midweek. Against all odds, he had rallied from his summer’s many trials, to the point at which he was able to live at home (with ramps, and with much assistance from remarkable caregivers): to this day the family refers to this as his victory lap.
Bradford Lyon died while Janet was visiting him, on that early Thursday morning in mid-October. He died quietly while Janet was attending to him, ushering him into whatever awaits us when we pass.
Yet I did not grieve about Brad, even as his family walked with him through the valley of incipient death, back and forth, all summer long in the long summer of 2004. I was the Voice of Cold, Clear Reason. I pointed out that he had led a full and satisfying life: he had watched his children grow up, he had met his grandchildren, and he had fought off a series of very grievous illnesses before going gently into that good night, overseen by his devoted daughter.
His funeral was attended by about 150 people who loved him, all of whom testified to his exuberance and his generosity and his truly indiscriminate (and therefore often regrettable) sense of humor. I missed his presence at that funeral—he would have enlivened the proceedings immeasurably, so to speak—and I miss him today. But as I mourn his death, I do not mourn the mode of his passing. Instead, I ask this: let all of us die as peaceably and as gracefully as Bradford Lyon did in the early hours of October 14, 2004.
Jimmy Crofts’ death was, and is, quite another thing. And his funeral, this past Friday, August 5, was almost an affair of state: held at St. Mary’s Church in downtown New Haven, it drew about 400 people—all the people Jimmy’s life had touched, all the Lyon and Crofts families, dozens of people from the Wilton, Connecticut school district in which Jimmy had worked since 1994, and a number of Wilton policemen and firefighters in their ceremonial dress blues on a 95-degree day. At Gail’s request, Janet delivered the eulogy, and I don’t believe I have witnessed a more moving or brilliant five-minute address in my life. The eulogy spoke to Jimmy’s mother and siblings; it spoke to his children; it spoke to people who’d worked beside him for years, and it spoke to people who’d known him for an all-too-short lifetime. It seemed that almost all of those people came up to thank Janet, one by one, as the mass ended and we filed out of the church. The sound of the piper, as the pallbearers loaded the casket into the hearse, shredded everyone within listening range. And I thought to myself: it is for such occasions as this that this instrument was invented. I cannot imagine anything more plaintive or evocative. And then I stopped thinking, and silently watched the hearse drive away.
We all made our way to the Playwright, an Irish pub that Jimmy and Gail had regarded as their local for lo these many years. The air was an extraordinary mix of gravitas and levity and then more gravitas. But underlying the myriad busy-nesses of the day was the insistent reminder: this doesn’t make any goddamn sense, not a bit of sense at all.
I do not know how to represent such a thing on a blog. If you go back and look at my archives from May to October 2004 (no, don’t bother—just take my word for it), you won’t find a single mention of Janet’s father or her summer-long waves of grief and anxiety: back then, I thought that blogs—or, at least, blogs like mine—were not capable of dealing with such things. Better that they serve as vehicles for snarky political commentary and bitter satire, I thought. But over these past two weeks, as Janet and I talked about Jimmy’s death and Jimmy’s wife and children, she told me that it was jarring, ten or twelve months ago, to come upon my blog and find here no acknowledgment whatsoever of what we were all experiencing about her father. “Well,” I replied, “I guess I thought of the blog as a world apart from that kind of life, and that kind of emotional complexity.” Janet understood. But still, she said, it was weird to see that severe a disparity between the Erving Goffman front stage and the Erving Goffman back stage. That’s what blogs try to calibrate, in their bloggy way: some are mostly front stage, some are mostly back stage. Most of us try to strike some balance between the two. And until two weeks ago, I would never have dreamed of putting up this post. But the untimely and unfathomable death of a friend, in its brutal finality, provokes every kind of introspection and retrospection, about his life and about ours, especially since his has been so intertwined with ours. My apologies, then, to those of you whose expectations I have traduced in this post, and also to those of you who might have wondered why I’ve never posted anything quite like this until now.
I’ll leave you with the words of Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending, because I cannot improve on them:
Men, like poets, rush “into the middest,” in medias res, when they are born; they also die in mediis rebus, and to make sense of their span they need fictive concords with origins and ends, such as give meaning to lives and to poems. The End they imagine will reflect their irreducibly intermediary preoccupations. They fear it, and as far as we can see have always done so; the End is a figure for their own deaths.
The ends of our lives will recast everything that has gone before; we will never discover how it all turns out until it all turns out, which, as Kermode says, is one reason we tell ourselves stories that begin in genesis and end in revelation. But in the meantime between now and the End we imagine, I offer this post in memory of Jimmy Crofts and Brad Lyon.
I’ll be back on August 22 or 23.
A belated shout out to the best English-department softball team I’ve ever had the privilege to play on—the 2005 English Graduate Organization Maniax, or EGOManiax. Intramural runners-up, the Maniax opened the three-game season with a stunning two-hit, 9-0 shutout of Another Team; pitcher Dustin Stegner actually struck out the side in the first inning. After losing a heartbreaking 4-3 decision to the Bad Guys thanks to two utterly bizarre calls at second, the Maniax rebounded by beating traditional rival Shaver’s Creek 3-1 in a game highlighted by captain and shortstop Tim Arner throwing out a Shaver at home plate from 120 feet away in right center field (!), in the bottom of the fifth and final inning. I was the team’s backup pitcher and took the mound after Stegner was sidelined with a foot injury, and managed to make up for walking in the winning run in game two by picking up 2 RBI in game three.
In the playoffs, we took the opener 5-2 before moving on to trounce Intelligent Decline (that one was for you, P.Z.) 12-3. But in the championship game, Shaver’s Creek took its revenge, beating us 5-2 despite a heroic, Schillingesque effort by Stegner, who came back off the DL to pitch when I had to leave town.
But congratulations to all the Maniax for a fine season, and thanks for letting me play and drive up the average team age by ten years or so. Back row: Cindy Clem, Lindsey Jones, Scott Pezanowski, Jim Ausherman, Adam Lupo, Tim Arner, Dustin Stegner. Front row: Shannon Walters, Kate Pezanowski, Rochelle Zuck, Doc Rissel, Kerry Newman. Not pictured: me and Kolson Schlosser.
New miserable experience
This morning I found myself supine in a dentist’s chair, having the backs of my lower front teeth scraped by that long pointy tartar-scraping thing while Fox News blared on a flatscreen TV by my side and Styx’s song “Babe” was being piped through the office sound system. It was so profoundly and deeply unpleasant in so many ways as to be almost sublime.
I can’t wait to go back again for my next semiannual checkup. I hope that they’ll have Styx’s “Come Sail Away” in the speakers next time, which, like so much of Styx’s work, goes really well with teeth-scraping devices and oral-maxillofacial pain.
Invasion of the Marriage Disaster Flicks
So Janet and I saw War of the Worlds last night, a movie we wanted to see precisely because it has no emotional content whatsoever. We were pleased, however, to find out that (and I think I’m paraphrasing a reviewer here, but I can’t remember which one) a brutal alien invasion will get Tom Cruise back in touch with his children (Dakota Fanning and Justin Chatwin). I suppose there’s more to say about the film, particularly about Tim Robbins’s bizarre appearance as himself in Mystic River (apparently he’s now ready to re-enact the child molestation in the basement bit, this time with himself as the molester). But what Janet and I wanted to know, as we left the theater, was how the hell the marriage between Mary Ann (Miranda Otto) and Ray Ferrier (Cruise) could ever have happened in the first place. That’s far less plausible than a mass invasion of insect-lizard aliens driving huge tripods around the globe.
As for the closing scene, in which Cruise delivers the kids to Otto (who’s in Boston with her second husband) and Chatwin finally calls him “dad”: what is it with this narrative trope, anyway? There’s a disaster or an invasion or a lethal virus or a mysterious bunch of aliens living in our oceans, and the story ends when the family romance is completed in some way? Quoi? And pourquoi?
I’ve been wondering about this for some time, and even tried to write about it a few years ago, but I don’t really know what to do with it aside from pointing it out. So, dear readers, I cheerily invite you to give it a go. Here are your Texts for Analysis. Please remember to write legibly!
The first example I can think of is The Abyss (1989), in which Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio are an estranged couple who become less estranged in the course of leading an expedition to unearth a sunken nuclear sub—and discovering the presence of a city full of ethereal beings on the ocean floor. Never mind those beings, though—the film is over when Harris and Mastrantonio kiss and make up.
But this family-SF-disaster motif didn’t really pick up steam until the mid-1990s. Early on in Outbreak (1995), there’s a curious exchange between Kevin Spacey and Dustin Hoffman, who play high-tech epidemiologists working for the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. They’re examining the highly lethal “Motaba” virus, but they’re talking about the broken marriage of Hoffman’s character and that of costar Rene Russo, who’s also a high-tech epidemiologist—which finally prompts Spacey to say, “I can’t believe you’re taking a deadly virus and turning it into a family matter.”
Basically, that’s what the movie does (and that’s what these movies do): no sooner does the film establish the presence of a virus in the Motaba valley than it introduces us to Hoffman’s and Russo’s divorce as they divvy up belongings and hash out competing professional obligations. Russo is moving to the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, where she will be working in the Biohazard Level 4 lab. But because the Motaba virus breaks out almost as soon as she arrives at her new job with the CDC, she stays in close touch with Hoffman throughout the film. And when Hoffman eventually obtains the crucial antibodies from the host animal (a small African monkey brought overseas by smugglers), he does so just in time to save Russo’s life—and, in saving her life, he also saves his marriage.
Twister (1996) offers more of the same, only with tornadoes instead of viruses. Bill Paxton is a former tornado-hunter and high-tech meterologist who’s sold out and taken a cushy job as a TV weatherman, for which he is ridiculed by his former crew; Helen Hunt is his ex-wife, and the subplot turns on the question of whether she’ll sign the divorce papers with which he’s presented her. But the attempt to finalize the divorce paradoxically renews the romance (and professional partnership) between Paxton and Hunt. As he’s delivering the divorce decree and heading off to his new life with his fiancée (Jami Gertz, who plays a psychiatrist), he gets caught up in a headlong tornado hunt that eventually leaves him and his ex (rather improbably) clinging for life amidst a ferocious F5 tornado. Along the way, Gertz, disturbed both by the tornadoes and by Paxton’s “wild side,” decides to call off the marriage, declaring that it’s obvious that he belongs with Hunt, chasing tornadoes and living on the edge (with the wonderful Philip Seymour Hoffman as the very embodiment of that edge!).
Then there’s Independence Day (also 1996), in which Jeff Goldblum is still wearing his wedding ring after years of separation from his wife (Margaret Colin). He’s a quirky computer jock; she’s the White House Director of Communications. She left him because his ambition didn’t keep up with hers. But when Earth is invaded by hostile aliens, Goldblum and Colin are thrown together once again. He helps to save the planet, and as he does, the script saves his marriage, too. Finally, Goldblum’s character does something to merit his wife’s affection! If only the aliens had invaded a few years earlier!
One exception proves the rule: In Volcano (1997), Tommy Lee Jones is already divorced, and his human drama consists of shepherding his daughter through a volcano and a custody dispute (that is, if you still observe the distinction between natural and cultural disasters). The movie is less concerned with the state of marriage than with race relations in Los Angeles, ending with the profound observation that if we were all covered with ashes we’d all look the same. But let’s not forget that Tommy Lee Jones finds a love interest among the ruins (Anne Hecht), a woman and geologist who’s as skilled at disaster management as he. Volcanos can bring people together, too.
Even Mars Attacks (1996) got into the act in its farcical way, with its Jim Brown -
Rosie Pam Grier subplot. And I didn’t bother to see 1998’s pair of would-be blockbusters, Deep Impact and Armageddon. Did any estranged couples reunite in these? Were any new marriages forged as comets and asteroids plunged Earthward?
By contrast, in The Day After Tomorrow (2004), Dennis Quaid has to reconcile with his son, Jake Gyllenhaal, whom he’s apparently neglected in the course of becoming a climatologist with a doctorate and all. Bad dad! Bad! The cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon, Little Boy Blue and the man in the moon! Janet insists that Sela Ward and Dennis Quaid are divorced, too, but I don’t think so.
If anyone can think of more examples, send ‘em in. But what we really need now are explanations. I can’t manage this one myself—I mean, it’s not like I do cultural criticism for a living or anything.
Tuesday, August 09, 2005
Theory Tuesday IV
Welcome to the fourth installment of Theory Tuesday. Today’s installment opens with an apology for some of the things I left unmentioned in my last Theory Tuesday, the one on structuralism. I know it sounds strange that I should apologize for not making that 3500-word post even longer, but, well, I realized at some point this week that I’d discussed structuralism without saying anything about Ferdinand de Saussure’s distinction between langue and parole (here’s a handy intro to such matters). You kind of need to have that distinction on board in order to make sense of a good deal of Roman Jakobson’s work, including his otherwise nearly-opaque claim that “the poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination”; more important for today’s purposes, you need that distinction in order to make sense of a couple of other crucial things: one, structuralism’s disdain for history (for which Ricoeur, among others, faulted it), and two, the very broad claim that language speaks us (a claim often conflated or confused with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that thought is coextensive with language—a hypothesis that drives cognitive neuroscientists up the wall. Or so I am told). Anyway, folks, langue refers to the entire operating system of a language; parole refers to a single person’s speech, an instance of the operating system in use. Saussure and Saussureans are not interested in how lingustic operating systems change over time; for them, it’s all about the synchrony (the structure at a moment in time), not about the diachrony (which has to do with historical development and change). It has not escaped anyone’s notice that the langue/parole distinction maps pretty neatly onto Chomsky’s distinction between linguistic competence and linguistic performance; that neat confluence, combined with the sudden availability of Saussurean/ structuralist theory in the 1960s (thanks to the vagaries of translation), accounts for some of the Theory Boom of the early days.
I offer this preface as a way of broaching the otherwise incomprehensible question of why anyone would think it necessary to devise a “structuralist Marxism.” Structuralism is so antipathetic to all questions of hermeneutics and historicity that one might imagine the desire for a structuralist Marxism to be something like a hankering for really spicy ice cream. And yet, in the work of Louis Althusser, spicy ice cream is exactly what we have. I don’t like it myself. But because it’s an important byway in the history of ice cream—er, I mean the history of Marxist theory—I still find it necessary to tell students about it, partly in order to warn them that it will very likely leave a bad taste in their mouths. In the meantime, a promissory note for a future Theory Tuesday: Mikhail Bakhtin’s account of “sociolects” and “heteroglossia” in “Discourse in the Novel” offers what I consider to be a much more satisfying way to think about the relation between langue and parole, in which the latter sometimes influences the development of the former. In the structuralist world, that never happens. But in a more complex Marxist/formalist world where people rigorously calibrate the relation between diachrony and synchrony and the relation between structural constraints and individual idiosyncrasies, “signs” are understood as a site of social struggle (though not the only site of struggle, by any means), and theorists are called to account for what Bakhtin calls the “internal stratification present in every language at any given moment of its historical existence.”
But let’s not jump ahead just yet; let’s work to get that bad taste in our mouths first.
In Althusser, the marriage of structuralism and Marxism gives us a reinterpretation of ideology as langue. In “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” he writes,
I say: the category of the subject is constitutive of all ideology, but at the same time and immediately I add that the category of the subject is only constitutive of all ideology insofar as all ideology has the function (which defines it) of ‘constituting’ concrete individuals as subjects.
This is basically a Marxist version of the structuralist dictum that the code speaks us; in other words, it’s an antihumanist Marxism that displaces individuals from the main stage of the historical action and installs ideology at the center of critical analysis. Most Marxisms do likewise, following Marx’s claim (in the Eighteenth Brumaire) that men make history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing; but Althusser goes a good deal further, arguing that ideology “interpellates” or “hails” individuals as subjects from the get-go.
I shall then suggest that ideology ‘acts’ or ‘functions’ in such a way that it ‘recruits’ subjects among the individuals (it recruits them all), or ‘transforms’ the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very precise operation which I have called interpellation or hailing, and which can be imagined along the lines of the most commonplace everyday police (or other) hailing: ‘Hey, you there!’
Assuming that the theoretical scene I have imagined takes place in the street, the hailed individual will turn round. By this mere one-hundred-and-eighty-degree physical conversion, he becomes a subject. Why? Because he has recognized that the hail was ‘really’ addressed to him, and that ‘it was really him who was hailed’ (and not someone else). Experience shows that the practical telecommunication of hailings is such that they hardly ever miss their man: verbal call or whistle, the one hailed always recognizes that it is really him who is being hailed. . . .
Thus ideology hails or interpellates individuals as subjects. As ideology is eternal, I must now suppress the temporal form in which I have presented the functioning of ideology, and say: ideology has always-already interpellated individuals as subjects, which amounts to making it clear that individuals are always-already interpellated by ideology as subjects, which necessarily leads us to one last proposition: individuals are always-already subjects. . . . That an individual is always-already a subject, even before he is born, is nevertheless the plain reality, accessible to everyone and not a paradox at all.
Althusser then goes to on write that “Freud shows that individuals are always ‘abstract’ with respect to the subjects they always-already are,” and that if we look at childbirth without illusions, we will see this always-already in operation: “If we agree to drop the ‘sentiments,’ i.e., the forms of family ideology (paternal/ maternal/ conjugal/ fraternal) in which the unborn child is expected: it is certain in advance that it will bear its Father’s Name, and will therefore have an identity and be irreplaceable. Before its birth, the child is therefore always-already a subject, appointed as a subject in and by the specific ideological configuration in which it is ‘expected’ once it has been conceived.”
Whew! What a bunch of arrant nonsense Althusser sneaks in there at the end. But let’s back up a bit, before Althusser goes off the rails so thoroughly as to argue that individuals are always-already interpellated by ideology insofar children are “expected” and will bear their father’s name.
First, there’s the tension between “always” and “hardly ever.” Experience, Althusser says, shows us that hailings hardly ever miss their man, and that the one hailed always recognizes that it is really him who is being hailed. (This is a very strange claim in itself, not only because experience shows us no such thing but also because a structuralist Marxist ordinarily does not make empiricist claims at all, as Stuart Hall will point out in “Cultural Studies: Two Paradigms.”) A bit further on, Althusser reprises the scene: “There are individuals walking along. Somewhere (usually behind them) the hail rings out: ‘Hey, you there!’ One individual (nine times out of ten it is the right one) turns round, believing/ suspecting/ knowing that it is for him, i.e. recognizing that ‘it really is he’ who is meant by the hailing.”
All right, so now we have three hailing frequencies to consider:
1. The hailing hardly ever misses.
2. The hailing is successful ninety percent of the time.
3. The individual is always hailed—indeed, always-already hailed. Ideology recruits us all.
We’re still in the initial scene of interpellation here, being yelled at by a cop on the street, and already you should be asking yourselves, uh, how exactly does this thing work? Folks, you don’t have to wait for a card-carrying deconstructionist to come along and point out that the successful transmission of a message is a subset of all the message’s possible mistransmissions. You can ask a more immediate question: what happens to that tenth person? Can ideology fail to interpellate a subject, and if so, what happens then? Is the subject cast into the outer darkness where there is no language, and no language police hailing people?
Well, now. This, I tell my students, is an influential but deeply problematic, and deeply flawed, account of ideology. It is compounded, not clarified, by Althusser’s famous formula, “Ideology is a representation of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.” And just in case I haven’t already pissed off the last few remaining Althusserians in the English-speaking world in the course of this post, let me suggest that both these conceptions of ideology—as interpellation, as imaginary relations to real conditions—are little more than dressed-up versions of “false consciousness.” To be more specific: their dress is Lacanian formal dress, in which the “imaginary” is coextensive with the linguistic unconscious (remember, for Lacanians, the unconscious is structured like a language); “imaginary” in this formula does not simply mean “unreal” or “made up,” so it’s not as if Althusser is saying that people are just delusional dupes or something (undoubtedly some are, but this is hardly a firm basis for a full-blown theory of human subjectivity). He’s saying that we all live in the Imaginary, and that’s why we heard that “hey, you!” in the first place. So think of it this way: people misrecognize their relationship to their real conditions of existence, just as they misrecognize their relation to ideology itself (which is the source of that misrecognition), but then, what would you expect, since misrecognition is the order of the day: “Hey, you!” the officer yells, and when we turn around, he says, “misrecognize your relation to the structures that interpellate you, including this one,” and we say, “okey-doke,” and proceed on our Mister Magooian misrecognizing way.
One wonders just how an ideological interpellation-scheme so rigid and reliable as this ever allowed anyone, let alone Louis Althusser, to grasp its workings.
Nevertheless, as Tony Judt pointed out in a devastating review of Althusser’s career (in the March 7, 1994 issue of The New Republic), Althusserian Marxism was, for a brief period, a lingua franca spoken widely on the Continent:
When I arrived in Paris as a graduate student in the late ‘60s, I was skeptically curious to see and to hear Louis Althusser. In charge of the teaching of philosophy at the Ecole Normale Superieure, the French elite academy for future teachers and leaders, Althusser was touted by everyone I met as a man of extraordinary gifts, who was transforming our understanding of Marx and reshaping revolutionary theory. His name, his ideas, his books were everywhere.
But Judt was not impressed with what he found.
Sitting in on his crowded and sycophantic seminar, I was utterly bemused. For Althusser’s account of Marxism, to the extent that I could make any sense of it, bore no relation to anything I had ever heard. It chopped Marx into little bits, selected those texts or parts of texts that suited the master’ s interpretation and then proceeded to construct the most astonishingly abstruse, self-regarding and ahistorical version of Marxist philosophy imaginable. The exercise bore no discernible relationship to Marxism, to philosophy or to pedagogy. After a couple of painful attempts to adapt myself to the experience and to derive some benefit from it, I abandoned the seminar and never went back.
In the past, I’ve directed my students to Judt’s review as well as to various accounts (including Althusser’s) of Althusser’s late “confessions”—that he was poorly read in Marx, that he suffered from lifelong mental illness, that his so-called “symptomatic” readings in Marxism were little more than an elaborate way of making shit up. I’ve done this not merely to complicate the view of Althusser one gets in the Norton, where the headnote tells us that “Althusser’s major concepts—‘ideological state apparatuses,’ ‘interpellation,’ ‘imaginary relations,’ and ‘overdetermination’—permeate the discourse of contemporary literary and cultural theory, and his theory of ideology has influenced virtually all subsequent serious work on the topic”—but to pose a pedagogical conundrum for students. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that Althusser was speaking the truth about his lack of familiarity with the Marxist canon, and that his mental illness played a large role in his life and work. (Hardcore Althusserians have tried to set aside his “confessions” precisely by appealing to his history of mental illness, but this merely produces a Marxist-theory version of the Cretan liar’s paradox: of course you can’t believe a madman who tells you he’s mad.) Now, having assumed all this, is it possible nonetheless that Althusser might have left us with Marxist concepts worth using, regardless of whether they are well-grounded in actually existing Marxist theory, or should we (as Judt does) just jettison the whole Ideological Althusserian Apparatus, and shake our heads at the fact that such a theory could ever have appealed to so many intelligent people?
I hope my own reply is already implicit in this post: I think it’s vitally important for students to know where the Althusser phenomenon came from, and why anyone would attempt to craft a fully structuralist, antihumanist Marxism in the first place. There is no doubt that Althusser’s work on ideology permeates the discourse of contemporary literary and cultural theory, and in order to figure out whether or not that may be a Good Thing, I believe we have to go to the root, like good radicals. (I would say the same thing about the decade between 1975 and 1985 when feminist film theory became a wholly-owned subsidiary of Lacan Enterprises Worldwide, and every film journal devoted itself to the subject, “Is the Gaze Male? Find Out the Thrilling Answer in Our Special Issue on the Male Gaze.” It wasn’t just one essay by Laura Mulvey or one issue of m/f or Screen that did it; it was a whole congeries of enabling conditions and fateful decisions, and it’s important to sift through the wreckage if you want to try to determine what’s salvageable and what’s not.) As for whether his concepts are worth retaining, I say, eh. I think we have better versions of them readily available to us. I think the notion of Ideological State Apparatuses is actually far less subtle and useful than the Gramscian corpus from which Althusser derived it: in a curious footnote to “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” Althusser writes, “To my knowledge, Gramsci is the only one who went any distance in the road I am taking. He had the ‘remarkable’ idea that the State could not be reduced to the (Repressive) State Apparatus, but included, as he put it, a certain number of institutions from ‘civil society’: the Church, the Schools, the trade unions, etc. Unfortunately, Gramsci did not systematize his institutions, which remained in the state of acute but fragmentary notes.” I would agree with all of this except the “unfortunately,” which I would change to “thankfully.” Althusser’s ISAs are huge, monolithic things: Church and School. They operate to reproduce relations of production, and of course they churn out ideology (and therefore subjects) at an amazing clip. They seem to do nothing else, in fact, and
never very rarely only once in every ten tries do they fail in this enterprise. But Gramsci’s looser and more supple conception of “civil society” (to which Stuart Hall turned in the 1970s and 1980s) is valuable precisely because it is not systematized: it recognizes that the institutions of civil society are many and various, and often work at cross purposes. Compared to Gramsci’s account of political actors exclusive of the State, Althusser’s looks impoverished and reductive.
As for Althusser’s concept of ideology: as I remarked above, it seems to me a complex way of suggesting that people simply don’t know what the hell they’re about—and that they don’t know what they’re about for sound, scientific, structuralist/psychoanalytic reasons. Moreover, such a theory of ideology and interpellation seems to leave no way of accounting for people who might come up with such a theory. In the most general sense, this seems to me to be a subset of a more general recursivity problem with doctrinaire antihumanism—or, to put this in simpler terms, how is it that the code that allegedly speaks us includes the sentence “the code speaks us” and all the sentences with which to contest that one? But its consequences for Marxism—or for any theory of social agency and historical change—seem to me to be quite awful. By rejecting Marxism’s humanist legacy so completely, Althusser not only gives us a vastly simplified account of “structural causality”; he evacuates individuals and social movements from the scene of historical action altogether. To say this is not to call for a return to the Great Man theory of history. It is merely to ask for a more complex vision of social and historical conflict, one in which individuals are never fully interpellated, and perhaps may be hailed by competing, intersecting, and contradictory discourses; in which, furthermore, individuals are more or less conscious of the degree to which they participate in those discourses; and in which, finally, ideological formations, or hegemonies, are striated and cross-cut, fissured and unstable. It is to ask for a somewhat humanist Marxism capable of accounting for uneven social developments and differing rates of social change, in which we can recognize that “no mode of production, and therefore no dominant society or order of society, and therefore no dominant culture, in reality exhausts the full range of human practice, human energy, human intention (this range is not the inventory of some original ‘human nature’ but, on the contrary, is that extraordinary range of variations, both practised and imagined, of which human beings are and have shown themselves to be capable).” That sentence comes from Raymond Williams’s 1973 essay “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory,” and that’s where I’ll begin two weeks from now, August 23, when Theory Tuesday V kicks off with a discussion of hegemony and incorporation; the residual, the dominant, and the emergent; and the opposition between the view of the work of art as object and the view of the work of art as practice.
I’ll be back tomorrow with a couple of more personal updates and a pre-vacation signoff. Many thanks to John McGowan for assigning himself the formidable task of parsing the Butler-Nussbaum Impasse. I can’t wait for Thursday!