|. . . 2009-01-16|
The Social Misconstruction of Reality by Richard F. Hamilton, 1996
Hamilton gives us a polemic and a series of debunkings which ascend from trivial observation to war-cry:
Debunkings are always fun, don't you think? And since sociologists, like economists, advertise empirically-derived generalizations while under unrelenting pressure to justify policies which benefit specific parties, I'm sure the debunkers among them will continue to feel both vitally necessary and desperately beleaguered.
The polemic's more problematic. Hamilton wants to fix the social sciences and humanities. His diagnosis is gullibility; his posited causes are group-think and authority worship; his posited cure is individual contrariness.
Hamilton nets most of his gulls from journalism (particularly book reviews), introductory textbooks (particularly sociology), and interdisciplinary citations. Within the errors' overlapping discipline of history, only once did Hamilton himself blow the first whistle, and that was a case of simultaneous discovery. As corrective scholarship goes, the record compares well to "harder" sciences: physics theories can be elaborated for decades before finding confirmatory evidence, and the social impact of slanted pharmaceutical papers dwarfs any of Hamilton's examples.
Regarding journalism, anyone appalled by reviews lauding Weber's or Foucault's "meticulous" research must not have opened many "poetic," "masterful," or "shattering" novels or examined the similarly meticulous research of popular science writers. And I don't know from introductory textbooks. So let's move on to the interdisciplinary mash-ups of philosophy and literary studies and so forth.
Now, I grant that an abstract argument founded on a false premise, although possibly charming in other ways, won't advance the great Sherman's March of scientific knowledge. But the equivalence of citations with logical premises is itself an assumption in need of examination.
As empirical ice-breaker, I took the top hundred returns from a Project MUSE search for "Foucault" and "Discipline and Punish," along with a dozen or so Google Book results and a few examples from my general reading over the past few months. In that sample I noticed only one argument which would have been invalidated by refuting Foucault. The vast majority of citations either occurred in studies of Foucault himself (a filter which would catch Hamilton as well) or were... well, here are some examples:
For actor-network theory is all about power — power as a (concealed or misrepresented) effect, rather than power as a set of causes. Here it is close to Foucault, but it is not simply Foucauldian for, eschewing the synchronic, it tells empirical stories about processes of translation.
Discipline and Punish thus suggests a principle that can be seen to underlie many recent studies of early modern disciplinary power: "bad" discipline drives out "good." I want to ask whether it should or must, whether a more positive view of discipline can be successfully defended. My test-case is a lyric poem, George Herbert's "Discipline."
In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of The Prison, Foucault describes four basic techniques of discipline, all of which are exemplified in Lowry's novel and, to varying degrees, in the other dystopian novels as well.
The institutional, patriarchal discipline that serves as the dominant force in Auster's fiction is largely identical to that described by Michel Foucault.
This makes Foucault's view of the professions — as groups of pious experts devoted subconsciously to the establishment of narratives of knowledge, or "regimes of truth," for the propagation of their own power — an intriguing line of investigation for those who are fascinated by the historic controlling and detached image of the librarian and by the discursive knowledge base of librarianship.
What we see here is a shift from the spectacular to the scopic, and the scopic gaze of surveillance is that of an anonymous "white stenographer," a gaze that is stamped by the phallic authority of whiteness as it arrests the black body in its divestiture. The scene suggests the emergence of a regime of discipline with a far more generalized and anonymous system of surveillance that does not draw attention to itself as spectacular.
What the reformers likely called the Fear of God may have seemed more like the Fear of the State to Foucault. Hawthorne, too, was wary of the state's power and skeptical about relying on its judgments for enforcing morality.
In understanding the power relations manifested in the parades of revolutionary Zanzibar, Foucault offers valuable insights.
Huckleberry Finn even more radically views subjectivity as enthrallment to convention and habit.
Jane [Eyre]'s first description of John Reed's abusive behaviour and of her reaction to his tyranny sets a pattern that continues throughout the novel and that exemplifies the responses to tyranny outlined by Foucault.
An intriguing subcategory argues against Foucault-citers in ways that parallel arguments against Foucault's own work:
A thorough empirical critique of this simplistic and mistaken application of the Panopticon metaphor to the call centre labour process will form the latter part of this article....
... even if one grants that panopticism may apply to the power relations represented within fictional worlds no less than to those enacted in the real world, serious problems are raised by its application to the formal relations that pertain between novelistic narrators and fictional characters.
And a few citers rival Foucault himself in the audacity of their applications:
Thus, Foucault shows us (1) that an emphasis on self-discipline and ritual conduct does not imply a lack of freedom in and of itself and (2) that self-discipline and ritual conduct can actually be used as the basis for practicing freedom deliberately, as was the case among the ancient Greeks and Romans. Similarly, Confucian codes of self-discipline and ritual behavior can become the basis for the active, participatory practices of the citizens of a modern society.
While reading Djuna Barnes' Consuming Fictions by Diane Warren, I encounter the sentence:
In effect, the rather random operation of censorship in the twenties effectively endowed critics with a kind of panoptic power, which could at any time lead to the invocation of the law.
And I look down to find an indisputable footnote:
The ever-present possibility of being watched, and the consequences that this has in terms of self-censorship have been theorised by Foucault (see Discipline and Punish).
Warren pretends no interest in the history of penology, and she introduces no "kind of" logical dependency between claims about censorship and claims about prison reform. What work's being performed here?
Nothing equivalent to technical vocabularies, which condense clearly agreed upon definitions. In the humanities, popular brands become stretched and baggy from overuse, and restoring them to bear a full load of meaning requires redefinition within the essay or book itself — in which case no labor's been saved by their deployment. For instance, Michael Wheeler's Reconstructing the Cognitive World headlines a battle between Descartes and Heidegger, but then needs to explicate both philosophers in such elaborate detail that their names obscure the cognitive science he means to illuminate.
However, not all disciplines trade in generalizations about common nouns. Disciplines of particulars and proper names boast, if anything, a longer and more continuous history, reaching from Alexandria to the establishment and expansion of vernacular canons. What determines "scholarly value" within such disciplines isn't a correlative graph carefully sculpted from a half-hour test taken by twenty undergraduates for ten bucks each, but the prominent deployment of citations. The marking patterns of scholarship emerge from the talk of scholars, and this particular habit has nothing to do with detached analysis and everything to do with conversation: we begin each interjection with "Speaking of which..." or risk rudeness.
(Of course, political institutions which stabilize power imbalances may quickly make "politeness" indistinguishable from "coercion" and "obedience". See Bourdieu, Homo Academicus; Foucault, Discipline and Punish.)
In these examples, the citation is analogical and the cited author or text serves as a totum pro parte for some generality, or even some mood. Rather than a logical premise, it's an association, a hook, an inspiration, or an excuse. At its best, the arbitrary authority primes the essayist to genuinely novel insights. The middling browbeaten formula goes "I found this and was able to come up with something vaguely reminiscent in X." At its worst, "I went looking for something that would remind me of X and I found it," justifying pages of fond X reminiscence by one utterly unrewarding sentence's worth of application.
The pattern holds in primary sources as in secondary scholarship — or, to put it another way, primary sources in one context (Foucault studies, say) began as secondary sources in another context. Freud's blunder about Leonardo's bird was a bit embarrassing, but a mistake holds only a little less truth value than references to fictions like "Hamlet" and "Oedipus Rex." And in fact, the original whistle-blower, back in the January 1923 issue of The Burlington Magazine, also complained about Freud using Dmitri Merejkowski's Romance of Leonardo Da Vinci. To which the editor responded:
[Freud] says: "This deduction of the psychological writer of romances is not capable of proof, but it can lay claim to so many inner probabilities, it agrees so well with everything we know besides about Leonardo's emotional activity that I cannot refrain from accepting it as correct." He gives his reasons for doing so very clearly. Mr. Maclagan plainly states that Freud did not even pretend to have any data beyond "the unsupported guess of a popular novelist." Freud refers to Merijkowski on other occasions as an example of how an imaginative writer may sometimes illuminate matters that remain obscure to the merely exact investigator. We have all experienced the truth of that.
Seventy-seven years later, references to Freud himself would be defended on similar grounds:
... his work loses little if some of his sources are doubtful, and if not every single hypothesis proves to be fertile. It is self evident that, after almost ninety years, most of Freud's answers should have been refuted. But the potential of his questions is not exhausted. He himself predicted that his essay would primarily be understood as "merely... a psychoanalytic novel," but he also guessed that it "was especially pleasing to a few knowledgeable people". Perhaps they understood that it was these poetic overtones that were able to direct art analysis away from dull scholarliness and away from emotionalist reveries.
In other words, Freud could have justified his ideas with any made-up shit and have achieved the same results. However, it's particularly helpful to invoke someone else's made-up shit — to find a third party to interrupt, to incite, to provide some friction and spark in what might otherwise become a rather dull cocooning of the author-and-topic couple. The historical fiction of Leonardo worked as a hooky and ambiguously encouraging pretense for fantasy (which, appropriately enough, stabilized narcissism's role in Freudianism). And once Freud himself becomes primary cultural material, his historical errors matter almost as little as Shakespeare's.
(Although again ethics turn foggier and darker as we move outside a text-delimited community of equals to, say, the business of health care. See Foucault, Madness and Civilization. But let's leave that for another day; here I strive to understand the text-delimited community of equals.)
Since the history of referential scholarship is necessarily one of accumulation and fashion, reductionist threats of a firm theoretical foundation will always fall flat. For a long while after Discipline and Punish, most academics who wanted to talk about internally imposed constraints felt compelled to mention Foucault, if only so reviewers wouldn't criticize them for not knowing Foucault. At other times, the super-ego or false consciousness or the Harper Valley PTA might special-guest-star with very little modification to the central plot line. Some citations take the low common ground of a Nike T-shirt, while others are worn with the fervor of a team jersey during the World Cup. In the first edition of Factual Fictions, Lennard J. Davis namedropped Foucault as enthusiastically as a cafeteria chef shaking canned parmesan over a dish to make it "Italian."
There's a bit more to academic truth-value than just lack of rigor, though. The "scientific" heroism of Freud (and Foucault, and Nietzsche, and so on) didn't include careful transcription of sources, painstaking replication of results, or double-checked blind studies, but it did require expressing engaging and potentially unpleasant thoughts applicable across a range of enduringly interesting problems. Which is to say such humanities scholarship can be "true" or "false" somewhat as a novel or poem is true or false, with a truth-value that's utilitarian and context-dependent. The utilitarian side shows naked when defenders mock the barrenness of debunkers' "ideas": a flourishing brood of citations in itself proves the scholastic validity of the cited source.
Returning to the out-and-out errors reported by Hamilton, their longevity may spring from a few enduring mysteries:
The simplest explanations will probably remain the most stable in the face of argument. To take the three cases which exercise Hamilton most:
Unshakable though they might be, none of these snappy answers satisfy our perplexity. There must be more to it than that. A residue of an urge to explain will remain, and will be met by one plausible story or/and another.
But if I don't quite share Hamilton's high-colonic ideals, neither would I welcome the erasure of all distinctions between "Hamlet" as produced on Gilligan's Island and "Hamlet" as described by Stephen Greenblatt. The pretenses of a genre don't have to be air-tight (or thoroughly sincere) to be productive; the inevitable constructions of sociability and the "social misconstruction of reality" overlap but aren't identical. And there are other measures of scholarly worth besides citation volume — Michael Baxandall, for example, seems worth emulating despite his low production of forever footnotable trademarks.
Moreover, quasi-refutations of quasi-premises hold their own context-sensitive utilitarian value. For example, as satisfying and useful as attacks on the fascistic aspects of your parents' milieu were if your middle-class youth occurred in 1950s or 1960s Western Europe, in the post-Vietnam United States it might have been wiser to recall that most of Hitler's support came from the wealthy and from rural Protestants, and that religion determined votes more reliably than economic class.
To my non-academic eye, any harm done by Discipline and Punish hasn't been to historiography but to the ability of non-historians to keep track of the world surrounding them, a bit closer every day. For the sheer directness of its display, I'll perhaps unfairly single out Janet Holtman's "Documentary Prison Films and the Production of Disciplinary Institutional 'Truth'," published in 2002 in Virginia, which pits Foucault, Deleuze, Jameson, and Bourdieu against all of two actual films: The Farm: Angola USA, which "merely acts as another social scientific node by which the disciplinary power of the prison functions," and Titicut Follies, which "may number among the many 'odd term[s] in relations of power... inscribed in the latter as an irreducible opposite.'"
As mentioned above, and for perhaps obvious reasons, the documentary prison film is a type of discourse that seems to offer particularly interesting possibilities for analysis in terms of Foucault's theories. It is perhaps here that one might look to find a discursive formation whose effects are clearly recognizable on Foucauldian terms; an analysis of this particular cultural production as a type of truth-production may evidence the ways in which filmic discourses perpetuate humanist values such as the movement toward prison reform, the continuation of the social construction of subjectivities such as "the delinquent," and the normalization and implementation of some of the social scientific technologies of discipline that Foucault describes, such as the examination and the case study. A key question here, in other words, is "what do documentary prison films do?"
A more pressing question here and now, I would think, is "what are prisons doing?" In this regard, recent anti-humanist academics fought an enemy that in most parts of the world (notably the USA) had already been thoroughly defeated by a common foe. It's wonderful that Foucault gave us a new way to talk about repression in a relatively comfortable material position which permits extraordinarily free movement and speech, but not insofar as that's distracted us from H. Bruce Franklin.
H. Bruce Franklin has had extraordinarily free movement and speech, just not simultaneously. Back when he became the first tenured professor to be fired from Stanford for reasons other than moral turpitude, he lacked free speech; now that he's more safely tenured, he lacks free movement on accounta he's ol' (Possibly on a no-fly list too, with a history like his).
As for academic style, I think being an academic is a lot like being in a band that's trying to make commercially viable music (pardon if I drop the obligatory 'only not cool' etc.).
Oh, and -- I've this months for the first time really read Foucault more than in passing, and man, he can fake sources all he wants for all I care, the man is an analytic dynamo.
And Josh adds for very good measure:
Most of the first dozen uses of Foucault you quote are refreshing in their clarity and restraint: "Here's a nifty correspondence" generally beats Jamesonian or Bloomish grandiosity in my book. But you've persuaded me by the end that U.S. academics, with a few exceptions, are doing something, mutatis mutandis, like what James Holstun calls the fate of European philosophers whose "work has had a more productive history in Europe and Britain, where it actively engaged a lively humanist marxist tradition, than in the United States, where it rather quickly assimilated itself to regnant anticommunist ideologies." In the case of Foucault, himself an anticommunist, I guess you'd substitute something like "gay activist circles" for Europe and Britain and "the broader intellectual public sphere" for the United States. See, notwithstanding Halperin's fine demolition of it, Protocols of the Learned Elders of Sodom casts a shadow over every public discussion of Foucault, from the Right and the Left (Rée's "defense" of Foucault is about as helpful as Shaw's of Wilde or Struwwelpeter's of racial equality). Studying Seventies Foucault is fine, and a heartening number of cultural historians and literary scholars have made good use of his ideas without turning his highly experimental propositions into dogmas; but a look at, say, Chapter 16 of the Eribon biography shows Foucault spending two or three years doing work not only worthy of H. Bruce Franklin but being a kind of amalgam of Franklin, Bruce Jackson, and Clifford Levy: why doesn't "Foucauldian" connote work like what MF did in the Groupe d'Information sur les Prisons? Part of the answer, I fear, has to do with the replacement of the activist philosopher with the bogeyman Foucault Jim Miller's book gave us.
Juliet Clark noted that Holtman sets Titicut Follies inside a "Correctional Institution" without mentioning that it was a state hospital for the criminally insane, which lent at least a bit of surface plausibility to the censors' concerns about inmate privacy. (See Robson & Lewton, Bedlam,RKO, 1946.) The omission seems strange in an article so avowedly Foucauldian.
That voice on the phone
|. . . 2009-01-18|
CONSTABULARY NOTES FROM ALL OVERFrom The New Yorker, July 28, 2008, "Fantasy Suite" by Hilton Als:
It's a note that Durang himself struck in a recent Times interview, in which he referred to "The Marriage of Bette and Boo" as his "one unabashedly autobiographical play." "My relationship with my partner has lasted twenty-three years and my parents' bumpy marriage lasted fifteen years," Durang said. "So I win." The only thing a playwright should be concerned with winning is a greater command over the truth and his art.
|. . . 2009-01-21|
The earliest English source I've found associating the now-commonplace but non-OED-attested sense of "ekphrasis" with a non-classical text ("Ode on a Grecian Urn," naturally) was an attack piece which in passing insulted its victim (Professor Earl R. Wasserman) for coining the "barbarous formation" oxymoronic in a book which does in fact predate the OED's first citation by two years.
|. . . 2009-01-25|
If the timbre is sound the house will stand.
It may tumble into the cornfield or the sea, but it will stand tumbling.
|. . . 2009-02-07|
Reading Robert Musil elates me; reading A Companion to the Works of Robert Musil depressed me. Musil's work embodies (engenders, swaddles) "the other condition" in temporal and social limits. His characters' disillusionments don't disprove or deny their intuition: it's left its ambiguously eternal spot of space-time. Musil's summarizers live once too far removed from Musil's unions. You either walk with the point or beside it.
Run don't walk: There's a metaMusil joke in there somewhere.
|. . . 2009-02-28|
The Death Wish in American Publicity Material : Part 6 in an Occasional Series
|. . . 2009-03-04|
And now that I'm fifty, I can even sometimes enjoy the journey from Too-Good-to-Be-True to Not-True. It's like watching an old bartender mix a new drink.
happy semicentennial! but please no historical re-enactments
|. . . 2009-04-14|
I learn from Chris Ackerley ("Obscure Locks, Simple Keys: The Annotated Watt," Journal of Beckett Studies, Vol. 14, Nos. 1 & 2) of herniation in the short statement made by the reappearance of Arsene (known at that time as the gentleman with the fine full apron), extruded between "For in truth the same things happen to us all, especially in our situation, whatever that is, if only we chose to know it" and "But I am worse than Mr. Ash, a man I once knew to nod to" in the first edition and excised (leaving scar) from the next. Watt's narrative flow brooked no digression.
Being neither precious nor illuminating, the material should strike a (two-note) chord with our longest-suffering readers.
But what is this, so high, so white,
And what is this, so black, so low,
Burning burning burning bright,
Quenched long ago, cold long ago?
It is a duck, a duck, a duck,
An old East India Runner Duck,
On a mat, a mat, a mat,
A hairy mat, a hairy mat.
Oh ancient mat, oh hairy mat,
Oh high white brightly burning duck,
Cush's stones are crying yet,
Forth from the wall to Habbakuk,
And from the wood the answering beam
Cries yet of the appointed time
Still tarrying, and of old resolves,
Of wind, and sand, and evening wolves.
Impatient to be off, the little rascal, she has crept in and sat down on the mat. See how she opens and shuts, in imitation of her master, her orange bill. How against the fawn the dark eyes flash. But Not Heard, she is saying, in her duck language, it is time we were gone. Like the Jerusalem Artichoke, she was born in Newtown-Mount-Kennedy, and can hardly walk, but she is a true Indian Runner for all that. Her breeding is so high that she can eat nothing but pork scrap, pea meal, boiled bullock's lights, boiled sheep's paunches, and a little grit and gravel well scalded together with thirds and middlings. The lines were to her grandmother, I think. I was living in World's End then, I believe. For I have never been without my India Runner. Where I go, she goes too, and every time I leave she leaves with me. So we all bring something with us. You bring your bags, and I bring my duck. In this way we are sure not to go emptyhanded away. Pretty Nuala! They are the best wives a man ever had. And every Sunday she lays an egg for my breakfast. I wake up in the morning and find it in my bed. A long green egg. Which I gob.
"And said in goose, Alas"
|. . . 2009-05-05|
May 8th - June 5th, 2009
ampersand international arts
1001 Tennessee Street (at 20th. St.)
San Francisco, California 94107
In writing, it's called "a strong voice." Across materials, across moods, a sense of continuous engagement with another. Maybe not quite the human being you meet at the reception, the reading, or the party, but not a pose or a persona, no formula. Something wholer than that, someone you recognize when you enter the room.
In the voice of Christina La Sala, there's wit and inwit, with no hint of smirk. There's painstaking elegance, insisting on beauty even in shabbiness and loss. Art is what this voice does, and making art is necessarily making do.
There's a sort of dyslexic synesthesia, modal wires crossing at a dreamlike concept both reasonable and uncanny: Braille chewing gum, for example. ("'Well, I've tried to say How doth the little busy bee, but it all came different!' Alice replied in a very melancholy voice.")
There's a poised sense of confrontation: a dare to make the first move, to cross this line, tip this balance, pop the bubble, eat me, shatter me.... We're being asked, I think, to make a decision: to consume and have done, or to live with the experience. To live at all is to live with one's decisions and actions and circumstances.
Which is to live with one's art. The least escapist of artists, La Sala affirms without flurry or bluster, but hour by hour, week by week, over what Louis Zukofsky called "a poem of a life": the work of a life in work. Duration itself becomes preoccupation: the times that bind, as in the obsessive stitching of La Sala's "Stay Awake" bedsheet, with its dare to fall asleep.
When these characteristics coincide, there's nothing anecdotal about the result, but we're tempted to narrate, to put this perplexing artifact in its place in some known story. The voice resists us. The Rapunzel-length hair-and-steel-wool braid of La Sala's "Straw into Gold," for example, intertwines aging's fairy-tale transmutation of brown-to-gray with our age's science-fiction transmutation of organism-to-machine. Its weave is clean; the tangle is in the yarns we spin.
A return to glasswork after many years, "Petrified Forest" carries La Sala's voice at its strongest. In writing, it would be called a serial poem, a unified work made up of sets of paired individual works:
There's a row of large glass panels etched with various patterns — floral garlands, diamonds diamonded, curved boxes, pinstripes — made more elaborately decorative by shadow-play as each leans against the wall from a painted wooden platform — which, in turn, has been marred by carved tally marks.
There's a column of squat glass strips, smeared by tally marks, as if by a fingertip dipped in acid. Each bar is held flush close against the wall; the shadows turn them into a trompe l'oeil of greasy icicles or streaked unguents.
Naturally, I'm tempted into narrative. I recognized one pattern from gift wrap or wallpaper of my childhood, and then I thought of cargo cults and Renaissance reliquaries: how the fragmented kitsch of one culture, after everything falls apart, inspires the high craft of another culture. And a prisoner in the ivory tower leaves marks which, preserved and honored after everything falls apart again, become reproduced in their turn. As Alan Squire said in The Petrified Forest, "I've formed a theory about that that would interest you. It's the graveyard of the civilization that's shot from under us."
But my ramshackle construction, full of plot-holes, hardly matches the piece's confident coherence. Perhaps I should be thinking instead of natural history and microbiological cultures: a science museum with brittle slabs impressed by ancient ferns, flowers, floods, and crystals, and with slide mounts demonstrating, oh, the effects of antibiotics?
But that hardly conveys the piece's aggression, humor, and endurance. I might as well take the etymological approach: Arizona's fossilized trees are extinct members of a botanical family that includes the Chilean monkey-puzzle tree, named Araucariaceae for the Arauco people who live in the region. "Contrary to popular belief, the Quechua word awqa 'rebel, enemy', is probably not the root of araucano: the latter is more likely derived from the placename rag ko 'clayey water'." Yes, clear as mud.
Or maybe it's best if I pass this to the strong voice of Alice Notley, a poet born in Bisbee, Arizona, about 300 miles south of Petrified Forest National Park:
This is distinction, says a voice,|
Your features are etched in
ice so everyone can see them"
Poverty much maligned but beautiful|
has resulted in smaller houses replete with mysteries"
there's the desert beyond them that I try to keep housed from|
no thin flesh there no coursing fluid no thought"
I am eagerly awaiting the future retrospective or permanent wing to be entitled The La Sala Room. Not that it's any of my beeswax, as it were.
|. . . 2009-06-02|
I'd hoped to write at the The Auteurs about the Pacific Film Archive series "Phil Karlson in the Fifties" (opening with two bangs and several beatings on June 5) but, well, you see how it's been around here.
Still, I should at least try to influence the one or two readers who might accidentally pass through this particular deserted funhouse: The close collaboration between Karlson and otherwise washed-up star John Payne compares to Sternberg's with Dietrich or Nicholas Ray's with James Dean. You'll never again hear the phrase "Thanks for nothing" except in Payne's voice. The non-Payne selections I've seen were inventive and fast-paced, and I still haven't seen what's supposed to be one of the best, The Brothers Rico.
Go. Watch. "Unvailable on DVD"!
|. . . before . . .||. . . after . . .|
Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2009 Ray Davis.