Thursday, March 26, 2015

Exorbitant Stupidity

If you follow this line long enough, you get to deconstruction where a theorist would be looking for internal contractions or paradoxes that would essentially render the text meaningless. At the end of this line, you’re saying writing can’t mean anything because it’s internally inconsistent. So if you’re a writer going to college and learning these things, it puts a shiver of fear in you because it’s saying your attempt is due to fail.
–Jeffrey Eugenides, A ‘Marriage Plot’ Full Of Intellectual Angst : NPR

When I first heard this uninformed denigration of deconstruction and of Derrida, I didn’t know who Jeffrey Eugenides was. I did know, though, that he knew nothing about deconstruction or about Derrida. These words were barely uttered before I turned the radio dial. What a shame that NPR would broadcast and perpetuate such misinformed and essentially ignorant statements. These are factual errors, defamation.

Fuck stupid people. And yes, I mean stupid. Eugenides went to college, he claims, and yet he spouts such nonsense. Here he is at it again:
When I arrived at Brown, French theory was just washing up on American shores. Many of my English professors were distrustful of it. Another cohort in the English department was so smitten with Derrida and company that they finally decamped and created the Program in Semiotic Studies. To be an English major at the time was like being the child of divorcing parents. You loved both. I was attracted to the rigor of semiotic literary theory, especially in comparison with some of the vague pedagogy that constituted the by-then old New Criticism. I was persuaded that it was possible to examine the underlying structures of literature and, in a sense, anatomize the body of literature. At the same time, I wanted to be a writer. I resisted the idea that the author was dead. And I still believed, as I believe today, that it’s possible for a novel to transmit meaning, something that was being called into question by deconstruction.
–Jeffrey Eugenides, The Art of Fiction No. 215, The Paris Review

Eugenides isn't the only one, though. By far. To people who haven't read or understood Derrida, Derrida serves as the perfect straw man to their flawed comprehension of advanced phenomenological philosophy.

Here are a couple more stellar "insights" from people who claim to be scholars.
Caws may be to some extent informed by Jacques Derrida's deconstructionist notion of the unavoidable and fatal slippage that occurs between the signified and the signifier, resulting in multiple interpretations and the negation of all meaning, as well as the conceptions of Antonin Artaud, a French avant-garde poet, dramatist, essayist, and artist (also one of Derrida's influences) who was preoccupied with the limitations and inadequacy of language and rejected mimesis in theatrical work. Caws' conception and usage of slippage, however, celebrates the phenomenon and rather than conceiving of slippage as a negative event that pronounces the futility and impossibility of translation [Derrida], she embraces the slippage that occurs between the signifier and the signified and between one language and another.
–Shelby Vincent, Book Review of Surprised in Translation by Mary Ann Caws, Style, Vol. 41, No. 4, Winter 2007

Again: factual errors, defamation. And more recently,
Post-structuralism is a system of literary and social analysis that flared up and vanished in France in the 1960s but that became anachronistically entrenched in British and American academe from the 1970s on. Based on the outmoded linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure and promoted by the idolized Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and Michel Foucault, it absurdly asserts that we experience or process reality only through language and that, because language is inherently unstable, nothing can be known. By undermining meaning, history and personal will, post-structuralism has done incalculable damage to education and contemporary thought. It is a laborious, circuitously self-referential gimmick that always ends up with the same monotonous result. I spent six months writing a long attack on academic post-structuralism for the classics journal Arion in 1991, "Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf" (reprinted in my first essay collection, Sex, Art, and American Culture). Post-structuralism has destroyed two generations of graduate students, who were forced to mouth its ugly jargon and empty platitudes for their foolish faculty elders. And the end result is that humanities departments everywhere, having abandoned their proper mission of defending and celebrating art, have become humiliatingly marginalized in both reputation and impact.
"The Catholic Pagan: 10 Questions for Camille Paglia"

The fact that she classifies poststructuralism (which is often just a seriously flawed nickname for phenomenology and deconstruction) as a system of literary and social analysis demonstrates her ignorance of what it actually was/is: a methodology in philosophy that was heavily borrowed from by literary and sociological scholars. And seriously, stop with this bullshit: "it absurdly asserts that we experience or process reality only through language and that, because language is inherently unstable, nothing can be known." Give me one citation. Just one. One. 1. Seriously: I am only asking for one citation in Derrida where he makes such a claim. I guess it also doesn't matter to Paglia that Derrida, Lacan, and Foucault all offer critiques of Saussure, who is considered a structuralist linguist. So much for even understanding the "post" part!

This entry would be far too long if I were to even just list the egregious errors in fact and logic, so I will leave with this offering: please, Jeffrey, Shelby, Camille, and their ilk, at the very least, read the following book. Of course, you may need to read 100 other books before you properly understand this one, but it'll be worth it. Don't give up!


The only other option would be to shut the fuck up. (Said with love.) ((Not really. Because seriously: you're embarrassing yourself.))

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Circumscription of Triangles & Squares

Spirit/soul/life, pneuma/pysché/zoè or bios, spiritus/anima/vita, Geist/Seele/Leben­­­—these are the triangles and squares in which we imprudently pretend to recognize stable semantic determinations, and then to circumscribe or skirt round the abysses of what we ingenuously call translation.
–Jacques Derrida, Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question, trans. G. Bennington and R. Bowlby


I've been working on translating Derrida's insights on translation into a language that someone who hasn't studied the history of philosophy might could understand. I think I still have a ways to go, although I am proud of the 1200-word essay I wrote Sunday on the myth of originality in translation.

In my dissertation, I translated from German, French, Latin, Greek, Polish, and Russian. And I might be forgetting one or two more. You see, I've been thinking a lot about translation for a while now, about all the registers of translation we seem to forget are at issue (across time, space, consciousness, cultural awareness/literacy, etc. as well as across language).

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm much more interested in the philosophical problem of translation than I am of actually translating. But I know enough to know that translation occurs most acutely while in the act of translating.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Dear Senator

I'm currently drafting a letter to my senators regarding the letter they sent to Iran. It's a letter about another letter–a meta-letter, if you will.
Dear Senator:
As a constituent from the great state of Texas I want to commend you on the recent open letter you signed to the Iranian leadership. Thank you for helping to expose one of the great remaining tyrannies of the American constitutional system: the lack of congressional term limits.
As your letter spelled out so clearly, "the president may serve only two 4-year terms, whereas senators may serve an unlimited number of 6-year terms." I think it is absolutely crucial to remind voters as often as possible that because of our current practice most senators "will remain in office well beyond [January 2017]–perhaps decades."
I assume that by bringing such an injustice to light that you are now willing to help remedy this scandalous oversight by our Founders, who simply could not fathom the ways in which a lack of term limits for members of Congress would promote corruption and impede accountability. By correcting our constitutional system with an amendment for congressional term limits, senators and representatives will be answerable to a greater extent to the American voter.
I fully recommend and support congressional term limits to help rid Washington D.C. of career politicians. Thank you for your time.
Feel free to send a similar letter to your members of Congress!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Digging Up the Past

The Polish word gruz can be translated as rubble, ruins, wreckage. There is no doubt, then, that director Paweł Pawlikowski intends something specific by having one of his protagonists bear that name. This is not, however, a statement about authorial intent. Instead, this is about the various registers of the film Ida, written by Pawlikowski and Rebecca Lenkiewicz and winner of the 2015 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.


The film's setting is 1962 Poland in the aftermath of both the Holocaust and Stalinism. It is the story of Anna, a novice who, before taking vows, learns of her Jewish identity, that her name was previously Ida Lebenstein. Having managed to survive the Holocaust as well as the Stalinist purges, her aunt, Wanda Gruz, is a judge, a former state prosecutor who boasts of having sent "enemies of the people" to their deaths during the show trials of the 1950s.


In Ida, in Poland, the landscape is complicit in the tragedy. The almost epic long shot (Photo 2) of humans dwarfed by trees and sky cuts immediately to a medium shot of the woods that collapses the field of vision into a disorienting claustrophobic matrix of limbs and trunks (Photo 3). In Polish, there is the minimal difference between las [forest] and los [fate]. It is in the woods that a secret history was buried. Trees define many of the scenes of the film, much of the landscape Ida and Wanda traverse, as when Wanda meets her own destiny, her open window frames a simple tree in the morning haze (Photo 4).


How does one survive in the ever-shifting climate of ideological extremes, in the liminal space of what Sylvia Plath referred to as "the cicatrix of Poland"? What transformations are necessary to transmute the rubble of life, of politics, of civilization, of identity into the stone of life [Lebenstein], upon which a bride of Christ can build a new life, if it is indeed new or a life? To what extent does choice override cultural, historical, religious, and even genetic destiny?


I had no desire to see this film. Having lived in Poland for two years, having traveled throughout Central Europe conducting research, and having written a thesis on the Holocaust, I felt like I had already done my time. This history weighs too heavily. There comes a point that it's self-abusive, exploitative. Also, I typically do not trust films about such topics, especially after so many–too many–feel-good Holocaust films–those with morals, with life-affirming messages, with optimistic characters. The disaster undoes morality, life affirmations, optimism. The disaster undoes narrative, character, dramatic structure.


Ida is more than a film about this history of trauma, though. In some regards, the film seeks to not only recover the lost history and identity of its main characters but also to recreate the means of that journey. It was shot in black and white in a 4:3 aspect ratio. It stylistically cites and recreates New Wave. It shows itself as cinema itself would have seen it, would have presented itself, in 1962.

The pronounced use of diegetic sound, especially that of Jewish musician and composer Bruno Walter conducting Mozart's Symphony 41, accentuates the reticent and taciturn characters, the silences through which they speak. This symphony is also called the Jupiter Symphony–Jupiter indicating not only the foundations of Western civilization but also the pater of our Father. The use of sound to say so much more than what the characters themselves are willing to say.


Ida is an anti-road movie. Its characters, who already no longer know who they are when the film begins, ultimately are no closer to answers to their questions, to their destination, at the end. The trajectory of the film undoes identity, history. They dig up that history, solving the most damning of mysteries, yet still somehow manage to occlude whatever meaning such acts might come to have. By revealing their particular, singular site of memory, of burial, they no longer fit within the typical parameters of Holocaust narrative, which destroys singularity and incinerates and buries individuality in the anonymous mass grave. History and identity are turned on their heads, no more so than in the scene in the woods as two Jewish women stand above a Polish man in the pit. History and identity–like the earth itself–will swallow you whole.


When the film depicts a scene that could be considered cinematically aesthetic, Pawlikowski cuts sharply to the next scene. For example, despite this film being a road movie on the surface, there is little screen time devoted to the actual journey. One driving scene abruptly switches to Wanda's car being pulled from the ditch. Or in the church, as the other novices are taking their vows, we see the top of Ida's face; her eyes close. But even before the musical phrase ends, we are jarred away from the church and back into Wanda's apartment as she, before facing her own fate, arranges family photographs of those who did not survive.

Such transpositions, such structure and narrative undo narrative as such, disclosing the impossibility of an easy transition between point a and point b, between past and present. This film–here and now–depicting the stylized historical digging up of the past, of what remains of the family's remains, exhumed, transported, re-interred in the overgrown wasteland that the family cemetery near Lublin has become. Remains of that which does not remain. History showing itself as the very disruption of history, as so much rubble, as what Walter Benjamin referred to as "a pile of debris." The narrative structure becomes fragmented, pulverized, revealing the very impossibility of "The usual. Life." that the musician offers Ida after they buy a dog, marry, have children. The only way forward for Ida is to retreat once again to the convent, the only safe haven that can allow for her survival yet again. The present as past, as the history of its own impossibility.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015