Saturday, December 29, 2007

Movies: Ruining the Book since 1920

For Christmas this year I got a t-shirt that reads: “Movies: Ruining the Book Since 1920.” I am not sure if always agree with the sentiment, especially since Hollywood has long since moved on from books to video games, toys, and tv shows. Can anyone really shed a tear for the Transformers, which went from a half hour toy commercial to a two hour one? However, today I saw I am Legend, and I most agree with what the shirt says wholeheartedly.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

First Impressions: Reflections on Japan

Roland Barthes supposedly wrote “Those who do not reread are doomed to read the same thing over and over again.” I have always liked this quote, even if I never took the trouble to verify that he ever wrote it, or what its exact wording is, for that matter. What I like about this sentence, which was relayed to me at some point, is that it says something about the fundamental inaccuracy of first reads, first impressions, which are nothing more than our initial prejudices and preconceptions. I think that this is true of reading, especially students who excel at finding themselves in everything they read no matter how hostile it is to their neoliberal ideology, but I also think it is true or experience, or at least travel.

I recently returned from Japan, which I visited for the first time. During my trip, which was part academic conference and part tourist excursion, I tried to see Japan, to understand something about the culture and people; you know all of the reasons that we are supposed to travel and see the world. The search took a myriad of random forms: everything from just walking around, to conversations with locals and academics who study Japan, to explorations assisted by those hallowed tomes of brief excursions, Rough Guide and Time Out. However, I felt that my search for some kind of knowledge was thwarted at every turn. Of course I picked up some trivia and bits of knowledge: I now have a working knowledge of the basic geography of Tokyo; some understanding of its subway system; and have some awareness of such cultural peculiarities as the cold mask, love hotel, Shinto, host/hostess club, toilet slippers, Christmas cakes, and the fashions of Tokyo. Most of the impressions that I came with, however, are nothing but confirmations of all of the things that one expects to find in Japan: the people were polite but reserved, the city was crowded and efficient, and so on. Whatever I was looking for, whatever exceeds the pages of a tourist guide, eluded me.

I did learn a few things about myself, however. First of all I should say that with the exception of a few hours listening to language tapes and a few years studying aikido, I know absolutely no Japanese; so I am only able to say things like “please,” “do you speak English?” and “two handed wrist grab.” I have never been more lost, linguistically speaking, than in Japan. In Tokyo this does not matter much; most signs are in English and Japanese, and even the subway announces stops in a polite English accent (like the computer in a sci-fi movie). Outside the city, however, one can get lost real quick, and I found myself playing "memorize the kanji" desperately trying to learn the characters for things like men's bathroom and the town I was trying to find. This language difficulty hit me the hardest when it comes to finding out about the world. Without a laptop, a paper, or a radio station to listen to, I went into serious news withdrawal. Lesson one: I am more of a news junky than I would like to admit. As much as I criticize and even despise "The New York Times" and NPR, I need them like an addict needs whatever substance he or she is addicted to. Second, despite everything I heard about distrust of foreigners, especially in more rural areas, I wanted to believe that the polite and enthusiastic way that I asked "Excuse me do you speak English?" (in Japanese) made me some kind an exception. I truly believed that I was not the obnoxious and ignorant foreigner. So in many ways I am such a fucking American, desperately believing that I am an exception to the rule, and ever so likeable.

It is pretty depressing, but on the plus side: monkeys!

I made it Jigokudani YaenKoen (otherwise known as "Monkey Park") to see the famous Snow Monkeys (Japanese Macaques), which, embarrassingly enough, has been something of a lifelong dream. Monkeys running in snow and bathing in hot springs: great fun. My picture is crap, I know, so if you need more monkey action you can check out their very own webcam. Clever monkeys.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Lost, Found, Recycled

This evening, while in the midst of trying to do some actual work, my mind wandered to a presentation I gave years ago; so naturally I stopped working and looked for it on my computer and in my files. For a brief moment, panic sank in, I could only find partial and incomplete drafts. However, I did eventually find it, and after a brief reread decided to post it here. Why? Because it is one of those punchy little roundtable things that never make it into a publication, or see the light of day after being presented, and secondly, it is content, it will fill a blog entry, and I am desperate for content now. It is not that I do not have thoughts, just no time.

As you can see it is very much in keeping with some of the obsessions that fuel this blog. In fact it is depressing to see how little my thought has progressed in the few years since I presented it. So here it is, pretty much found as is, a conference presentation from years ago.

In attempting to speak as a former student of this institution, I wanted to begin from a quote, a little bit of wisdom passed on, some little statement that made up part of my education. However, the particular statement in question could not be found in any of the folders and binders of notes I have kept from my classes; kept, yes, but have not consulted since I left defended my thesis in 2001. Not only could I not find it, but in my searches it became harder and harder to remember who exactly said it and in what context. (Perhaps, it was never said, at least not in so many words) Anyway, what I remember to have been said was something to the effect of “research requires infinite patience and demands infinite impatience.” (Not exactly elegant, I know, thus you can see why I was compelled to look through those yellowing sheets of paper, with the hope that somewhere what I remembered was said better in some sort of pithy formulation.) Infinite patience, because, as you all know, to work on any specific area of thought, within any discipline, on one of the specific figures that constitute respectable areas of specialization and competence requires a great deal of time, more time than one would like to admit. In the six or seven years it takes to complete a doctorate there is perhaps only enough time to read, to really read, a dozen or so works, or understand a half dozen or so authors. Of course, in the same time it is possible to pick up those basic thumbnail sketches of other authors, and other works, to be able to say a few intelligent things about most of the proper names, and schools of thought. These tidbits and snapshots are in many ways the “coin of the realm,” they will perhaps get you through your “comps” and some of the more awkward conversations at any job interview. However, to coin a phrase, such tidbits “are not yet thinking.”

From this, from one half of those lost words of wisdom, it is possible to sketch a caricature of most academic work, at least in philosophy and other humanities. Tidbits, and thumbnail sketches, are the very matter and material of most the academic community, they define competence—the “academic common sense” of the various disciplines. At the same time, however, one’s research is supposed to be, nay must be, a deviation, from these sketches and thumbnail pictures. It is the unwritten rule of every dissertation, whether it be on Spinoza, Marx, Heidegger, or Irigaray, that it begin with the following implied proposition, “forget everything you know about Spinoza, Marx, or whomever,” and from this some new idea, a new reading, is advanced, and with it the discipline supposedly advances. Yet despite the fact that this happens, that novelty is the condition for worthwhile research, the thumbnail sketches, those snapshots and reductions, persevere; survive long after they have been definitively criticized in multiple dissertations, articles, and books. Research, the production of new readings, with its use-values for this and that political and ethical project, a “new Nietzsche,” a feminist Heidegger, a Marx for our time, exists alongside the exchange value of what everyone knows. They form the two sides of the commodification of academic labor.

The coexistence of these different versions, one pertaining to general competence and the other to specific knowledge, introduces an odd sort of noise or dissonance at the heart of most academic communication. This in part due to the affective economy underlying the more overt economy of professionalism. The various specializations of research that are, in my field at least, often identified by the proper name of various philosophers, must simultaneously struggle for their legitimacy and their uniqueness; that is, one must argue for the usefulness of reconsidering, or rereading, Sartre, Althusser, or Montesquieu, while simultaneously producing a new perspective on the philosopher in question. The struggle for legitimacy accounts for the various contests over intellectual hegemony; the battles that pit Marxists against post-structuralists, Heideggerians against Deleuzians, and Socialist Feminists against Queer theorists. The claim of uniqueness, means that the more one succeeds in this struggle the more one loses; if one actually ever convinces the enemy on the other side to switch camps, as it were (has this ever happened?) then one produces only other professionals, other publications that one will have to differentiate oneself from. The situation is similar to what Spinoza described with respect to the affective economy of ambition. One struggles to have one’s object of love recognized, and thus have one’s love free from the ambivalence of the affects, but success in this only produces jealousy (EIIIP31Schol). The more one succeeds the more one loses: the battle for intellectual hegemony is re-staged. Only now the battle lines are drawn “within one’s own camp,” against the incorrect readings of whatever philosopher, or theorist, one has convinced others to reread or reconsider. There is now not just one book, one panel, on that author, but a series of books, and a whole conference, and the arguments only become more intense, more focused. To take one particular glaring example, first one argues for the relevance of Deleuze in a field dominated by Heidegger, then, once one succeeds, one argues for the relevance of this particular Deleuze, the Spinozist Deleuze, the Bergsonian Deleuze, the scientific Deleuze, etc.

At this point my caricature has collapsed into out an out satire, and perhaps even cynicism and bitterness. I think, or at least I would hope, that some in the audience are thinking to themselves, but wait…there is more to research, to the world of academia, than the drives of professionalism, intellectual hegemony, and ambition. This is precisely my point, or rather my question, what is that something more, that which is irreducible to these drives for power and prestige, what is it that calls for thinking? By way of an answer, I would at least like to consider the final half of my initial misquote “research requires infinite patience and demands infinite impatience.” I have discussed, infinite patience, and how this patience to really work through ideas, can itself be warped by the existing structures and economies of research. Research also requires infinite impatience, a connection with the immediate exigency and demand of some practical question. At first glance this does not sound too different from the caricature above, I already mentioned that the drive to produce a new and different understanding of this or that philosopher is usually placed in the service of some political or ethical project. “Infinite impatience,” or what I am gesturing at with the phrase infinite impatience does make a difference, or at least strives to, perhaps not at the superficial level, we are still talking about research, about a politics of thinking, but at the level of the affective economy underlying research. It is a matter of replacing “ambition” with its various struggles over hegemony, with interest, and its struggle for something to communicate.

I am borrowing the word “interest” from Isabelle Stengers, who uses it to describe the pragmatics of scientific practice. Scientific statements she argues struggle to interest other scientists; interest here is derivative of interesting, and is thus relatively distant from the individualistic and economic connotations of the term. At first glance this may not seem to be that different from the struggles for hegemony indicated above, and I must admit that I am not doing justice to her theory here, but I only intend to borrow the word for what it connotes. What strikes me about the term interest is that it suggests something that rarely happens in the humanities, a communication of the “what” which someone discusses against the “how.” There are moments of this, in fact I would go so far as to argue that Bill Readings book The University in Ruins is a book that provokes interest, when I have read it and heard it discussed, I do not hear a focus on its particular theoretical orientation, if I remember a combination of Althusser, Lyotard, and Bourdieu, but on that word “excellence,” empty yet ubiquitous, which does not so much define as the contemporary university as point to a problem at once institutional and existential. In general interest would mean that it would be possible to speak to each other across the difference of specific projects, specific researches, and the singularity of a question posed without recourse to the banalities of “intellectual common sense.”

What would this look like you ask? I think that this is the task and the question. If we are going to make the work carried out in the university matter before it is too late, before it is gone, we are going to have to learn how to surrender not only the struggles over intellectual hegemony (almost everyone at least claims to do that) but also the fundamental comportments and affective investments, which continue the struggle long after we have given it up. We need to cease to write, talk, and think as if we a proposing a new common language, and find the common in the interstices of our singular researches. It is a matter of a community founded not on ambition, which can never have what it wants, but on what Spinoza called “reason.”