Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Dead Babies

At the edge of my undergraduate alma mater lies a cemetery for those who died in a nearby, long-since-vanished house for unwed mothers. I wonder who these poor mothers were. I wonder about these poor, unnamed babies tucked away underground minutes after being born into a very cruel world. Unacknowledged but, no doubt, no less remembered. Denied but no less mourned.

As a student I would walk by this graveyard almost daily. It was not too far off the beaten path between classes and my first apartment on my own. These children kept me company as I thought about their all-too-brief lives and dreamed about one day writing their story. These dead babies haunted my dreams as I identified with them, lost and almost as forgotten then in the late 1980s as they were almost a century before. Lost and almost as forgotten as I myself felt on my commute by foot more than two decades ago.

When I moved, I stopped visiting them. Eventually I stopped thinking about them. Recently, while conducting genealogical research on my family, my great-great grandparents in the Texas of the mid-eighteenth century, I began to think, to dream, about dead babies again. This time, the babies were a part of me, dead-ends of my genealogical lines. Dead branches of the family tree. Or perhaps some dark secret one of my great grandmothers or aunts went to the grave with. The shame of an unwed pregnancy and the all-too-certain punishment from an angry god.

Last week when I trekked through the woods at dusk to find them once again after so long, I worried about stumbling upon a snake in the overgrown grass. At first I didn't notice all the graves. I thought their numbers had been mis-multiplied in my memory of this small fenced-in plot. But after scanning more carefully, the graves reappeared. The ones I counted now seemed much more than what I even remembered. Most do not have names. Most were simply numbered on the day of their birth/death. Evens and odds. Twins. And lovely names from the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. Most likely named for a lover, a parent, a relative or neighbor perhaps who had shown the poor girl some care. Only one Frank. Well, one underground and one above. Each tiny headstone encircled with a halo of clover, grass, and dead leaves. Mossy concrete and a tiny plaque of marble.

Rest in peace, little babies. Weep no more.

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

Thursday, March 5, 2015


Recently I read Michael Marder's Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life. I liked it well enough. It offers an erudite reading and counter-reading to "the plant" within the metaphysical tradition (Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, etc.) as well as within the post-metaphysical, phenomenological tradition (Heidegger, Levinas, Derrida, etc.) of Western philosophy. In some ways, Marder is doing for plants what Judith Butler did for gender: problematizing, vexing, troubling the category in an attempt to unmoor our own thinking so as to be better able to think otherwise than our inherited, heretofore thought has allowed.

Marder traces the deconstruction of plant-thinking across five metrics, which serve as the focus of each of the five chapters: plant-soul, plant-body, plant-time, plant-freedom, and plant-wisdom. He shows how philosophy's understanding of plants is ambivalent at best, at once both praising plant-being while denigrating it and relegating it to the background of thought. The plant, however, can be rethought in light of phenomenological research: as an identity ("the plant," for example) unconcerned with identity as such (essence), plants shows themselves as nonselves, nonidentities. In other words, the identity of a plant is predicated upon its difference from itself, so much so that "self" necessarily unravels as thought by (and by way of) plant-thinking. The plant is always other than mere or pure plant. The plant always already manifest as multiple dispersions across the matrix of plantness.

One way to think through this: How are we to number the plant? By counting its leaves? Its blooms? Its seeds? The tendrils of its roots? Its offshoots? Is this "plant" singular; that is, do all these parts comprise one single plant? Or is its root or root system "the same as" its many leaves? Here we see how plant ontology (the being of a plant, the fact that a plant is) disrupts our basic counting system, one of the simplest scientific impositions of the human mind on the natural world. If we can't even count plants, then what does that say about the limits of our own thinking when facing nature?

My critique of Marder's work is not wholeheartedly positive, however. While the content and structure are superb, I find his methodology a bit wonky. For example, he lists three methodological routes for his research: hermeneutical phenomenology, deconstruction, and weak thought. He relies much more on the first two methods; weak thought registers more as an afterthought. Also, Marder seems to be unnecessarily critical of phenomenology as a methodology at the beginning, offering deconstruction as some sort of corrective. Deconstruction, though, is phenomenological, albeit it in a different register. Nevertheless, deconstruction is not altogether separable from phenomenology. I simply do not understand the division Marder suggests.

I also do not understand the already-mentioned scornful or skeptical view of phenomenology, which to me seems to precisely be the most operative methodology for such a project, even more so than the hermeneutics of the history of philosophy that takes up much of the book. I wonder what a phenomenological account of plant-thinking would be had he not relied so heavily on textual analysis. I wonder what plant-thinking would look like if it weren't so mediated by philosophical texts, which seem to serve as examples of "what philosophers get wrong," and instead focused much more on the plants themselves.

Finally, I find it reckless, careless, and plain brutish to refer to Friedrich Nietzsche as a nihilist. Anyone who has read Nietzsche carefully knows that Nietzsche does not advocate nihilism. Indeed, he spent most of his career railing against the various forms of nihilism he saw throughout European, as well as global, society: religion, slave morality, scientism, academia, abstract thought, idealism, etc. Everyone's assignment: read Nietzsche. And then read Nietzsche again. Also, read Marder's book, because it is a remarkable advance toward plant-thinking and plant-being, restoring the very ground beneath our feet.

Marder also has a recent post entitled "In (Philosophical) Defense of Trees" on The Philosopher's Plant at the Los Angeles Review of Books that you might find interesting. It is much more of a general interest text than his book, which is written more for the professional academic philosopher and for those of us philosophers outside of academia.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Elegy for José Gaos

Philosophy in Mexico, philosophy in Latin America has suffered the loss of its most distinguished cultivators. Faced with so painful a fact, these words, devoid of serenity and written with a still heavy heart, want to express the confidence that his memory remains among us as a source of strength and instruction.

Dr. Gaos came from Spain with a vast treasury of philosophical ideas and books that he generously made available to Mexican students by way of his extraordinary work as a translator and, above all, through personal commentary while lecturing, in the exemplary role of master that he maintained without interruption, even in the last moments of his life. But the books that Gaos brought with him were not, in any way, the fashionable books of the times but precisely the great enduring classics of philosophy. And it is difficult to find a point of comparison in our scholarly history for the seriousness and splendor with which he explained and discussed these books. Without taking into account the master’s labor that benefitted so many generations and that he pursued without hurry and without pause, it is impossible to comprehend recent developments in Mexico’s intellectual history.

Coupled with this work, in part a consequence of it, Dr. Gaos knew how to create around him a large group of students who over time have come to play a role in Mexico’s philosophical and cultural life. This creation was not in any way a closed circle but rather an open relation in which no one was obliged to share particular philosophical opinions, doctrines or political beliefs. On the contrary: it was more a demand on the standards of intellectual work and for graceful comportment. Within these broad circles there was always room for the most diverse beliefs and attitudes, and they always enjoyed a respect maintained with the utmost sensitivity.

As Dr. Gaos’s students we were able to live this dual experience—of the discipline of work and of the respect for moral attitudes—one of the most salient and inextricable traits of the master’s disposition. We hope that younger students who did not have the chance for direct contact, members of the generations to come, will be able to discover these same teachings in the works that he wrote. We think that in his books Dr. Gaos very clearly distinguished what he called the two parts of philosophy. One, the rigorous methodical task employed on the phenomena of experience, which has as its stated objective universal validity; the other, the decidedly failed part of the traditional metaphysical system that philosophical criticism exposes; philosophy as personal confession that does not properly specify objectives but rather modestly discloses human experience by way of exchanging ideas for the enrichment of their own and others’ moral wisdom.

This view that accepts the limitations of man to scientifically know the ultimate metaphysical questions is also the recognition of the mystery, to borrow Gaos’s own words, of the “reasons of the heart,” to which they have to answer. A wise skeptical attitude toward the claims of pseudoscience, along with the most liberal and generous understanding for the reasons of the heart that ought to operate in those places where the rigidity of science and philosophy are ineffective. Here, perhaps, is his greatest teaching.

He has already become this exceptional spirit’s definitively steadfast figure—one worth remembering—and an ideal to both those who knew him as well as to those who thoughtfully approach his published work. And his legacy becomes even greater when considering how few men—in our time as in other times—have been able to assemble in his person the mastery of the most rigorous instruments of philosophical activity with the exemplary virtues of the man of wisdom.

–Written by Fernando Salmerón, El Universal, Sunday, June 22, 1969: Review of the Week, p. 10. Translated by Frank Garrett. I thank Hernando A. Estévez and Luz Hernandez for their amiable feedback and suggestions. The Spanish text can be found online at the José Gaos Archive.