November 2009

This, from “Transformations of the Image,” a talk presented in Venezuela in 1995:

[I]n this new stage the very sphere of culture itself has expanded, becoming coterminous with market society in such a way that the cultural is no longer limited to its earlier, traditional or experimental forms, but is consumed throughout daily life itself, in shopping, in professional activities, in the various often televisual forms of leaisure, in production for the market and in the consumption of those market products, indeed in the most secret folds and corners of the quotidian. Social space is now completely saturated with the culture of the image; the utopian space of the Sartrean reversal, the Foucauldian heterotopias of the unclassed and unclassifiable, all have been triumphantly penetrated and colonized, the authentic and the unsaid, in-vu, non-dit, inexpressible, alike, fully translated into the visible and the culturally familiar. (111)

Holy magisterial prose, batman! Making such a claim in our post red-state/blue-state, Anglo-America vs. the rest of the world, Asian tiger world seems far too simplistic, but what’s interesting to me is that “culture,” understood in an aesthetic sense, becomes equated to “culture” in the anthropological sense. And–if it is “the culture of the image” which has colonized “social space” to saturation point, can the theorist’s peeking into “the most secret folds and corners of the quotidian” do anything but replicate that act of colonization? But really, I’ve a lot of sympathy with this quote.


Back in the day at the GC, people had to write rationales for their orals lists, a practice which has since been deprecated. Still, as Taylor recommended, it’s not a bad idea to do one for yourself to guide you through reading and notetaking (notetaking?). So I started doing one, and realized that it could be quite long, so why not brain dump a few thousand words for each list and then condense things later if need be? More bullet points will follow in the coming weeks!

(I’m making these more official orals lists into pages under my project page.)

Temporality and the Victorian Novel

In this list, I aim to explore the complex ways in which Victorians imagined their present moment, on an individual, social, national, imperial, and global scale. I’ll take the pairing of Thomas Carlyle’s Past and Present as a particularly relevant heuristic into Victorian temporality:

  • First, it references the “Condition of England” debates which might be considered as inaugural of the Victorian period. Obviously, these debates are about sweeping socio-economic changes in the present moment, but I’d say that that present moment was more imagined as the result of past social change than ongoing social change (i.e. more like the present perfect tense than the present progressive tense). Industrial novels on my list are often set in the past: Shirley is set in 1812-1815 during the Napoleonic wars; Michael Armstrong is set in the 1820s and 1830s; Mary Barton is set in the 1830s and 1840s;  Hard Times seems to be set in a more recent past, but its full title is Hard Times for These Times, recalling Past and Present (Carlyle is the dedicatee).
  • It’s because of this nearer industrializing past that the more remote past becomes a source of alterity. There’s no shortage of Victorian novels set before the birth of their authors, yet which aren’t considered historical novels : Wuthering Heights, Shirley, Adam Bede (not on list), Vanity Fair (not on list)–Little Dorrit and The Mill on the Floss are also set several decades in the past. This is a past that’s recoverable, which can be rendered in a nostalgic light, which can be posited as an origin, rendered on a continuum with the present. Beyond this is a break. The Young England movement and Victorian medievalism posited the middle ages as completely alien to Victorian modernity, and it was this rupture that provided the force of Carlyle’s critique. On the other hand, the incongruity of this more distant past is exploited for comic purposes in Barchester Towers, with Miss Thorne’s quintains and other exagerrated Toryisms.
  • Perhaps this favoring of past settings is characteristic of Victorian realism. It’s only the recent-ish past that can be posited as fully known, fully knowable, capable of being made the object of an omniscient gaze. Those genres which challenge the norms of realist fiction, Sensation novels and New Woman novels, tend to be set in the present moment, after all.
  • Space plays a big role in conceptualizing the past and the present, of course–the country and the city, predominantly. Raymond Williams’ point, though, is that it’s not so much that the city represents the tumultuous present and the country some untouched idealized past, and that that’s a wishful projection (duh), but that this trope that occurs throughout pretty much the entire history of English literature responds to actual historical changes at the time of writing that critics need to recover. Pastoral scenes figure prominently in industrial novels, most notoriously in the opening to Mary Barton. Michael Armstrong’s formative years after running away from Deep Valley Mill are spent in a literally pastoral environment straight out of Wordsworth. There’s less of a yearning for the country in Hard Times and Shirley–but then, there’s scarcely any “industry” in those novels either. Absent from all of those is any acknowledgment of mass migrations from the country to the city, or to the industrialization of the countryside (well, there’s some in Shirley, but it’s all to make us sympathetic to the provincial capitalist). In Oliver Twist, it’s particularly ironic when Oliver’s recovering in the countryside with the Brownlow–the orphanage was in the countryside, after all.
  • It’s interesting to think about the country/city divide with reference to Fabian’s Time and the Other. On the one hand, there’s a definite sense of allochrony–the time of the city (artificial, quantified) isn’t the time of the country (natural, organic). But could you say that there’s a “denial of coevalness”? Yes, if you’re talking about the rural labourer–and when you get to Hardy, Williams points out, that temporal split is carried within the educated “rustic.” However, does not the dance between country and city make it possible to deny even the denial of coevalness between England and non-Western peoples? (I’d say “non-Western peoples” as opposed to Empire since it’s theimplication that the people from “Borrioboula-Gha” have absolutely no connection to Britain that motivates the Mrs Jellyby caricature.) In industrial novels, a common trope is saying something along the lines of how compassionate the English are for the sufferings of others (especially slaves in America) while white people in their own country are living in even worse conditions. There’s a heterogeneity of time within Britain which produces a homogeneity of time in the rest of the world.

This is in response to Anne’s comment, which is one of the longest comments you’ll ever see on the interwebs. Since this will  be longer, and will involve mathematical symbols, I’ll do it in a post.
I’m not sure about the implications for the dynamical sublime vs. the mathematical sublime, or for narrative theory, but maybe if I explain the math more clearly, you’ll get some ideas, Anne?
About infinity. The infinities involved in this discussions have to with the size of a set (its cardinality, rather than an intuitive idea of infinity as a really big number. Consider the graph of the function f(x)=1/x that’s pictured at the right. Intuitively, we can say that f(x) approaches plus infinity as it approaches 0 from the right, and it approaches negative infinity as it approaches 0 from the left. There’s a way to rigorously define that notion of infinity, but that’s not the kind of infinity we’re talking about. A set is a collection of anything. You could think of the set of natural numbers \mathbb{N}={1,2,3,…}, or some set called V that’s the set of every Victorianist that ever lived, or a set of the seven days of the week. If it’s a finite set, then its cardinality is straightforward. It would be 7 for the set of the seven days. V is a much “larger” set, but it’s still a finite number. You probably wouldn’t be able to give an exact number for its size, but you could put an upper bound on it. (It must be less than a billion, since there haven’t been a billion academic scholars of any particular variety.) You couldn’t put an upper bound on the size of \mathbb{N}, though. (Suppose you could: if somebody tells you the size of \mathbb{N} is n, you could say oh, but what about the set {1,2,3,…,n+1}, the size of that set is bigger than n, and \mathbb{N} is bigger than that.) So what do you do for talking about the size of infinite sets?

This is where Levinson’s discussion of “matching” comes into play. Mathematicians say that two sets have the same cardinality if there exists a bijection between the two sets. Here’s the definition from wiki:

In mathematics, a bijection, or a bijective function is a function f from a set X to a set Y with the property that, for every y in Y, there is exactly one x in X such that f(x) = y and no unmapped element exists in either X or Y.

As an example, say X is the set of natural numbers {1,2,3,…}, and Y is the set of even numbers {2,4,6,…}. If f is a function from X to Y is defined as f(x)=2x, f is a bijection, since for every even number (42, for example), there’s only one natural number such that f(x) is that number (21, and nothing else). In addition, every natural number can be doubled, and every even number can be halved, so there are no unmapped elements in either X or Y. In this sense, the set of natural numbers and the set of even numbers are the same “size” (i.e. cardinality). But what about the set of real numbers \mathbb{R}?

Emily asked me what they are, and they’re incredibly hard to define. They weren’t defined rigorously until our favourite century! (The whole field of calculus wasn’t rigorously defined until C19). Intuitively, you can think of them as the set of rational numbers \mathbb{Q} (any number that can be put into the form p/q, where p and q are integers) , joined up with the set of irrational numbers, which are numbers that, when you put them into decimal form, don’t repeat (the square root of 2, π [the proof that π is irrational incredibly complicated–it took three lectures after a whole year of intense math just to outline the proof]). There doesn’t exist a bijection between \mathbb{N} and \mathbb{R}. There doesn’t exist a bijection between \mathbb{N} and the set of reals between 0 and 1 either. In that sense, the infinity that’s “between 1 and 2” is “bigger” than the set of natural numbers.

However! The set of rational numbers \mathbb{Q} does have the same cardinality as \mathbb{N}. There is a bijection between the two sets. Don’t ask me what that bijection is, but you can imagine a bijection between \mathbb{N} and the rational numbers that are between 0 and 1. For example, define g which is a function that maps \mathbb{N} onto the interval of \mathbb{Q} between 0 and 1 as follows:


Okay, so that’s not a definition of g that would make mathematicians happy, and I’m not going to prove that it’s a bijection, but you get the idea.

This is where the whole “density” thing gets weird, and why I wanted to get some real math into the picture. Because, mathematically speaking, the rational numbers between 0 and 1 (call this set R) are just as “dense” as the irrational numbers between 0 and 1 (call this set S). Both R and S are considered dense sets in X, where X are the real numbers between 0 and 1. Basically that means that, for whatever element of X that you choose, you can get as close as you would ever want to. (For example, take the square root of 1/2. If you picked some number that’s super-tiny, but not 0, no matter what, you could find a rational number [infinitely many!] between the square root of 1/2 and the square root of 1/2 plus that super-tiny number.) So if you think of S as X with infinitely many “holes” in it, that’s still uncountably infinite, so “bigger” than \mathbb{N} (i.e. there is no bijection between S and \mathbb{N}).

Now, I think this is still in the realm of the mathematical sublime, but it’s still cool. For any set, the power set of it is the set that’s made up of all of its subsets. (For example, the power set of the set of Victorianists would include the set of myself, the set of myself plus Anne, the set of all the Victorianists at the Grad Center,the set of all Victorianists whose last name begins with Y, the set of all Victorianists who aren’t white…) If you take the power set of \mathbb{N}, denoted P(\mathbb{N}), (which would include {1,2,3}, {123}, the even numbers, the odd numbers, the prime numbers, the prime numbers which have at least 200 digits, etc.), there’s no bijection between that and \mathbb{N}. I don’t think after all those semesters of math I took I ever got there, but you can prove that P(\mathbb{N}) is the same size as \mathbb{R} (i.e. there exists a bijection connecting the two). But then what about P(\mathbb{R})? That turns out to be “bigger” than \mathbb{R}. And you can take the power set of that again. And again. And again….

Jameson, that is.
This is from “Marxism and Postmodernism,” 3rd essay in The Cultural Turn (1998):

[Mike] Featherstone [in Postmodernism/Jameson/Critique] thinks that ‘postmodernism’ on my use is a specifically cultural category: it is not, and was rather for better and for worse designed to name a ‘mode of production’ in which cultural production finds a specific functional place, and whose symptomatology is in my work mainly drawn from culture (this is no doubt the source of the confusion [!]). (44-45)

Gotcha. Postmodernism isn’t a cultural category, but its symptoms, at least in your work, are found in culture. But where else can symptoms be found?

Something is lost when an emphasis on power and domination tends to obliterate the displacement, which made up the originality of Marxism, towards the economic system, the structure of the mode of production, and exploitation as such. Once again, matters of power and domination are articulated on a different level from those systemic ones, and no advances are gained by staging the complementary analyses as an irreconcilable opposition, unless the motive is to produce a new ideology (in the tradition, it bears the time-honoured name of anarchism), in which case other kinds of lines are drawn and one argues the matter differently.

Yeah. FTW. This is one of the many reasons I’ve become fed up with the field of queer theory this decade (not that I know much about it). Of course, adherents would say that they are producing a new ideology. But can somebody please tell me how “destabilizing the gender binary” or whatever they’re calling it these days can do anything but fit snugly into the cultural logic of late capitalism?

CUNY’s hosting this year’s ICR, and I was lucky enough to catch some great talks, including one by our hopefully-not-erstwhile member Leila Walker on Opium-Eater, bodies, selves, and Kant. This post will be my attempt to jot down some thoughts flowing from Marjorie Levinson’s mindblowing keynote, retitled “On Being Numerous,” from the program’s “Clouds and Crowds, Solitude and Society: Revisiting Romantic Lyric.” (Anne too has been majorly fangirling; hopefully she’ll be able to correct/expand my notes.)
Levinson’s talk was based on a reading of “I wandered as lonely as a cloud” outlining a “rabbit” interpretation against the more standard (and stronger! she admitted during Q&A) “duck” interpretation. The “duck” reading works on the model of the Classical episteme outlined by Foucault in The Order of Things, the “rabbit” reading according to the Renaissance episteme. (Or the other way round–I’m relying on my memory.) Except instead of focusing on epistemology, she focused on ontology. There followed a dizzying sequence of possible hermeneutic approaches which I won’t attempt to reproduce, but all of which work under the rabbit paradigm. Foucault’s Classical episteme operates by means of representation. Cloud, daffodils, stars, the speaker, they’re all representations.
Representation’s most “significant” (haha) function, Levinson pointed out, is not to assign a signifier to some readily cognizable signified, but to have that signifier stand for something which can only be cognized as a representation. Kant’s mathematical sublime served as one illustration, the sublime (or, in mathematics, the infinite) figuring as the representation of a failure in representation. The end-product of this representation, though, is a way of being-singular.
The regime of resemblance, on the other hand, captures an ontics of being-numerous. Nothing exists in itself, but only in resemblance to other things (an arbitrarily large set of other things)–through proximity, emulation, analogy, and something I’m not remembering. Somewhere Spinoza and Deleuze/Guattari make their way in there. Not to mention the granddaddy of modern set theory, Georg Cantor.
For me, I’m thinking about all of this in relation to postcolonialism. Namely, is there a way for postcolonial thought to escape the regime of representations? The “cultural turn” that I’m trying to track, I’ve realized, doesn’t so much take the anthropological notion of “culture” as its basis (culture as single, complex whole; works through symbols; must be analyzed through “thick description”), but emphasizes the importance of representations. Empire, colony, metropole, colonizer, colonized–hegemony, resistance, and hybridity, the mainstays of poco thought, work through representation.
What if, though, instead of thinking of the representations of beings, we thought about resemblances? I don’t, as yet, have any idea what that means or would mean. I just picked up Hardt and Negri’s Empire, looking for a Deleuzian take, and here they are on ontology:

[O]ntology is not an abstract science. It involves the conceptual recognition of the production and reproduction of being and thus the recognition that political reality is constituted by the movement of desire and the practical realization of labour as value. The spatial dimensions of ontology today is demonstrated through the multitude’s concrete processes of the globalization, or really the making common, of desire for human community.

One of my problems with Empire is that the authors’ invocation of the “multitudes” just seems so detached from the material, lived conditions of anybody who’s not a professional theorist, whether they’re subalterns, cubicle critters, adjunct labour, refugees, factory workers, whatever. Perhaps the way for me to engage with their work, is to save the concept of the multitude but to apply it to “individuals.” Thinking in terms of being-multitudinous.