Rhetoric at Work

April 6, 2007

In a New York Times article published today, one can immediately see the importance of rhetoric and the power of discourse at work. The maker of Equal is suing the maker of Splenda over a claim in their advertising that Splenda is “made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar.”

Although most people may not be aware of the effects of rhetoric on their daily lives, when it influences the bottom line, companies become acutely aware of its power:

In less than a decade, Splenda has come to dominate the American artificial sweetener market. Last year, it had sales of $212 million, dwarfing Equal’s sales of $49 million. Splenda is now not just in packets and bulk, but in Cocoa Puffs, Diet Coke, Pedialyte, and nearly 4,500 other consumer products.

In its court filings, Merisant cites presentations made by Alchemy, Splenda’s advertising agency, that cited “the decision to position Splenda as not artificial.”In those presentations, the agency says that Splenda should be thought of as “sugar without the calories,” putting “significant distance from “artificial sweeteners.”

For a time in 2002, McNeil added the line “but it’s not sugar.” Sales fizzled.McNeil dropped the line and went back to “made like sugar, tastes like sugar” and “think sugar, say Splenda.” Sales shot back up.One apparent reason was that for consumers polled by McNeil, the tagline “made from sugar” caused some to be unclear as to whether Splenda is truly natural, according to a sealed declaration filed by a lawyer for Merisant who saw the documents. The comments were quoted by the judge in his March opinion.

Professor Keller of Dartmouth said that “it’s all going to come down to consumer perceptions, and how they interpret what these claims are, and are they accurate.”

More on this later, but an interesting story, no?

See You in Court, Sweetie – New York Times

Jacques Derrida – “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”

April 4, 2007

Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”
Alan Bass, tr. Writing and Difference (1966), pp. 278-95

Derrida begins his essay by noting that structures have always informed Western thinking but have not been paid sufficient attention due to the very nature of the structure themselves: because they are essential to the very process of thought, they have been viewed as natural and inevitable and therefore more or less unquestionable. Derrida takes up as his subject matter the largely unexamined structurality of these structures, and he begins by noting that “By orienting and organizing the coherence of the system, the centre of a structure permits the play of its elements inside the total form… Nevertheless, the center also closes off the play which is opens up and makes possible. As center, it is the point at which the substitution of contents, elements, or terms is no longer possible” (196).

This notion of the center is essential for Derrida’s analysis of the structure of language (which Derrida argues is the structure of all existence). However, because “the center, which is by definition unique, constituted the very thing within a structure which while governing the structure, escapes structurality,” Derrida asserts that, within classical thought, “the center is, paradoxically, within the structure and outside it… the totality has its center elsewhere. The center is not the center” (196). Derrida pushes this destabilized notion of the center to the point of a “rupture” in the history of thought on structurality where “it was necessary to begin thinking that there was no center, that the center could not be thought in the form of a present-being, that the center had no natural site, that it was not a fixed locus but a function, a sort of nonlocus in which an infinite number of sign-substitutions came into play” (197). This rupture, this deconstruction of the center thus created a world where “the absence of the transcendental signified extends the domain and the play of signification infinitely” (197). In this move, Derrida has not just taken a new step in a known field but has invented a new way to walk on a piece of land that is both undiscovered and omnipresent.

Therefore, even the most radical thinkers in the past – Derrida cites Nietzsche, Freud, and Heidegger – have offered only limited critiques of operations within the traditionally centered structure. Derrida asserts that “there are two heterogeneous ways of erasing the difference between the signifier and the signified: one, the classic way [of the aforementioned thinkers], consists in reducing or deriving the signifier, that is to say, ultimately in submitting the sign to thought; the other, the one we are using here against the first one, consists in putting into question the system in which the preceding reduction functioned” (198). This second way is ultimately characteristic of all of Derrida’s work in this excerpt: without fail, he seeks to move to a new and entirely different mode of thinking instead of simply moving to new thoughts within the same old system.

Derrida goes on to consider a number of areas in which this destabilization, this internal decentering takes place. He first demonstrates how “the ethnologist accepts into his discourse the premises of ethnocentrism at the very moment when he denounces them” as a general illustration of his principle that the application of his critique to the sciences “is a question of explicitly and systematically posing the problem of the status of a discourse which borrows from a heritage the resources necessary for the deconstruction of that heritage itself” (199). In short, he seeks “to preserve as an instrument something whose truth value he criticizes” (201), which is exactly what Derrida has done with language and discourse (and in so doing has done to every other field, scientific, linguistic, philosophical or otherwise, because, after all, everything is discourse). Or, rather, what Derrida has shown language and discourse to be doing to themselves: “No longer is any truth value attributed to [these old concepts of empirical discovery]; there is a readiness to abandon them, if necessary, should other instruments appear more useful. In the meantime, their relative efficacy is exploited, and they are employed to destroy the old machinery to which they belong and of which they themselves are pieces. This is how the language of the social sciences criticizes itself” (201).

The remainder of the essay consists of Derrida explaining three key terms that flow from his deconstruction of the structure of discourse: bricolage, play, and supplementary.

Bricolage is a technique that “uses ‘the means at hand’, that is, the instruments he finds at his disposition around him, those which are already there, which had not been especially conceived with an eye to the operation for which that are to be used and to which one tries by trial and error to adapt them, not hesitating to change them whenever it appear necessary, or to try several of them at once, even if their form and their origin are heterogeneous – and so forth” (202). That is, because any sort of concrete link between signifier and signified has been shown to be impossible, one is therefore free to use whatever tools in whatever ways and in whatever combination one wishes to discuss the matter at hand.

Bricolage is permitted by that which Derrida terms “play,” and which he explains in the following quote: “If totalization no longer has any meaning, it is not because the infiniteness of a field cannot be covered by a finite glance or a finite discourse, but because the nature of the field – that is, language and a finite language – excludes totalization. The field is in effect that of play, that is to say, a field of infinite substitutions only because it is finite… instead of being too large, there is something missing from it: a center which arrests and grounds the play of substitutions” (206). Play is Derrida’s way of simultaneously recognizing the infinite range of deconstruction is possible not because there is an infinite range of information but because the inherent quality of all information is to be lacking and for there to be no suitable material (information) with which to fill that lack. This leads to the notion of the supplementary: “The overabundance of the signifier, its supplementary character, is thus the result of a finitude, that is to say, the result of a lack which must be supplemented” (207). Because positive, concrete definition is impossible for any term, every term necessarily requires a supplement or supplements, something or some things which help(s) it exist and be understood. Yet, at the same time, the object(s) which the supplement is (are) supplementing is (are) (a) supplements itself. Extend this web in all directions and the relationship between bricolage, play, and the supplementary begins to make sense.

And there you have it: discourse, destabilization, language critiquing itself, bricolage, play, the supplementary. Of course, the discussion here barely begins to scratch the surface of the implications made by Derrida, for within not even a full fourteen pages of text, has established the foundation of one of the most significant revolutions in the history of thought. Of course, saying that Derrida demonstrated how the history of thought contradicted itself and in so doing imploded the foundation of Western philosophy would certainly fit better with a deconstructionist view of the world. Yet, there is scant little chance of denying that Derrida himself holds some special place in this development: if not as its father then at least as its catalyst.

Michel Foucault – from “The Order of Discourse”

April 3, 2007

Michel Foucault, from “The Order of Discourse
R. Young, ed. Untying the Text (1971), pp. 52-64

In a refreshing change in structure from that of many other theorists, Foucault actually begins this excerpt with a thesis that he proceeds to explain and explore in the remainder of the piece: “in every society the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organised and redistributed by a certain number of procedures whose role is to ward off its powers and dangers, to gain mastery over its chance events, to evade its ponderous, formidable materiality” (210).

From there, Foucault goes on to detail what he calls the “procedures of exclusion” (210). He notes that the prohibition of discussing certain topics (namely sexuality and politics) “very soon reveal [discourse’s] link with desire and with power” (211); that is, “discourse is not simply that which translates struggles or systems of domination, but is the thing for which and by which there is struggle, discourse is the power which is to be seized” (211).

Next, Foucault discusses the exclusive procedure inherent in the reason / madness binary, noting that the terms are, to a certain extent, defined (or perhaps delineated) arbitrarily and that how and where that distinction is made determines the manner in which one accepts the discourse coming from either side of the binary. In a bold move, he then asks if one could not, in a similar manner, “consider the opposition between true and false as a third system of exclusion” (212). To make this move, one must not think “on the level of a proposition, on the inside of a discourse” but instead “on a different scale [by asking] what this will to truth has been and constantly is, across our discourses, this will to truth which has crossed so many centuries of our history” (212). Just as standards of reason and madness can vary from one society or era to another, Foucault argues, standards of how truth and falsehood are measured can change. To be more specific, a given society’s value system can directly affect what is and is not considered true; to demonstrate this phenomenon, Foucault notes that “a day came [in the course of Western history] when truth was displaced from the ritualised, efficacious and just act of enunciations, towards the utterance itself, its meaning, its form, its object, its relation to its reference” (212).

The will to truth, which Foucault calls “that prodigious machinery designed to exclude” (214), is institutionally supported and reinforced (by libraries, laboratories, etc.). Furthermore, while the will to truth “exerts a sort of pressure and something like a power of constraint… on other discourses” (213), it is also the procedure least noticed, for “‘true’ discourse, freed from desire and power by the necessity of its form, cannot recognise the will to truth which pervades it” (214).

Having thus discussed “procedures for controlling and delimiting discourse [which] operate in a sense from the exterior,” Foucault moves on to discuss “internal procedures… which function rather as principles of classification, of ordering, of distribution, as if this time another dimension of discourse had to be mastered: that of events and chance” (214). These internal procedures include commentary (“a kind of gradation among discourses” (215)), the author (“a principle of grouping of discourses, conceived as the unity and origin of their meanings, as the focus of their coherence” (216)), and disciplines (a principle of organization “defined by a domain of objects, a set of methods, a corpus of propositions considered to be true, which Foucault asserts “is itself relative and mobile; which permits construction, but within narrow confines” (217)). The most significant of these three is the procedure of disciplines, because it allows Foucault to make the following observation: “Within its own limits, each discipline recognises true and false propositions: but it pushes back a whole teratology of knowledge beyond its margins… In short, a proposition must fulfil complex and heavy requirements to be able to belong to the grouping of a discipline: before it can be called true or false, it must be ‘in the true,’ as Canguilhelm would say” (218). Clearly, this notion of being “within the true” limits truly radical progress within disciplines; if an idea is so strange as to be outside of the true, it, no matter how much validity or usefulness it caries, will nevertheless be viewed as false.

Finally, Foucault discusses “a third group of procedures which permit the control of discourses [which operates by] determining the condition of [discourses’] application, of imposing a certain number of rules on the individuals who hold them, and thus of not permitting everyone to have access to them” (219). These final procedures are rituals, societies of discourse, doctrines, and social appropriation of discourses. “Ritual defines the qualification which must be possessed by individuals who speak” (220). “‘[S]ocieties of discourse’ …. function to preserve or produce discourses, but in order to make them circulate in a closed space [distribute] them only according to strict rules, and without the holders being dispossessed by this distribution” (220). “Doctrine… tends to be diffused, and it is by the holding in common of one and the same discursive ensemble that individuals (as many as one cares to imagine) define their reciprocal allegiance” (221). The social appropriation of discourses refers to the fact that “[a]ny system of education is a political way of maintaining or modifying the appropriation of discourses [that is, the transference of discourse(s) from one person / social group to another], along with knowledges and powers which they carry” (222).

Foucault, then, could possibly be called a superdeconstructionist, that is, one who deconstructs the social superstructures in which language (the structure on which deconstruction focuses and which a pure deconstructionist would see as inclusive of all of reality) operates. Foucault’s work is more (for lack of a better word) practical than the seemingly abstract work of most deconstructionist; rather than a concern for any theoretical underlying linguistic foundation, a careful eye for observable but often unobserved phenomena controls Foucault’s work, and it is through this more material grounding that Foucault may have found friends where Derrida was met with skepticism or frustration.

Julia Kristeva – from “Women’s Time”

March 31, 2007

Julia Kristeva, from “Women’s Time
Revolutions of the Word (1981), pp. 167-70

Kristeva poses a fascinating question as the central issue of this excerpt: if modernity is “the first epoch in human history in which human beings attempt to live without religion, [then, in] its present form, is not feminism in the process of becoming one?” (223). That is, if religion, a term that for Kristeva seems to signify an oppressive, limiting doctrine, is being eliminated in its traditional forms – Christianity, Judaism, secular humanism, even, among others – and something else must come to take its place, how much better and how much different is feminism “in its present form?” Is it not in danger of becoming a codified, restrictive force that imposes its own definition of “Woman, Her Power, [and] Her writing” on individual women instead of serving “to channel this demand for difference into each and every element of the female whole, and finally, to bring out the singularity of each woman, and beyond this, her multiplicities, her plural languages, beyond the horizon, beyond sight, beyond faith itself?” (223). Kristeva concludes her opening remarks thusly: “The question has been posed. Is to pose it already to answer it?” (223).

Well, yes, of course; such a plainly rhetorical question clearly implies its own answer. The rest of this excerpt consists of Kristeva exploring what might rise up to take the place of this ominously religious feminism. To begin, she speaks of a third generation of feminist women rising up in Europe. Significantly, Kristeva does not use generation in its traditional sense but instead to refer to “a signifying space, a both corporeal and desiring mental space” (223). This generation, which Kristeva champions, does not replace or succeed previous generations but exists in parallel to them. This third generation seeks to challenge the long-held understanding of the “dichotomy [binary] man / woman as an opposition between two rival entities” by viewing it “as belonging to metaphysics” (223).

To do so, she (in the kind of language that tends to dispose many readers unfavorably toward theorists) seeks “the demassification of the problematic of difference,” by which she means, in somewhat plainer language, the dissection of the concept of difference so that one may understand it not only as a broad social phenomenon but as an occurrence within every individual person and within each person’s “personal and sexual identity itself” (224). She notes that this has the potential to be largely disruptive both within individuals and in society as a whole but that it must be undertaken because the current “counterbalancing of aggressive and murderous forces massed in social, national, religious, and political groups” is “insupportable” in its “tension and explosive risk” (224).

Kristeva proposes that the process by which this demassification will be carried out is “an interiorization of the founding separation of the sociosymbolic contract” (a phrase that I think I would much more clearly understand after reading more of Kristeva’s work), that is, an internalized, explicit understanding and acknowledgment within every person of the inherent differential binaries by which society implicitly functions. She sees this process as making everyone aware of “the relativity of his/her symbolic as well as biological existence” (225) via the ethics of “aesthetic practices” (more on this term later); furthermore, this process is necessary to “counterbalance the …uniformity of information” that modern technology enables and to make people aware of the communal effects of language “as a universal and unifying tool” (224). Kristeva, then, seeks to protect fiercely the individual human subject in all of its painful and beautiful complexity and conflicted multiplicity.

Finally, Kristeva closes by pondering “feminism as but a moment in the thought of the anthropomorphic identity which currently blocks the horizon of the discursive and scientific adventure of our species” (225); ultimately, Kristeva sees feminism as only the specific initial instance of what she hopes will be a broader trend of moving away from an ethics that opposes conflict, confusion, and unresolved difference to her concept of “aesthetic practices” that simultaneously declares everyone “guilty while immediately affording them to possibility for jouissance, for various productions, for a life made up of both challenges and differences” (225).

Insofar as I accurately understand Kristeva’s argument, it seems to me at once the most logical, radical, and useful trajectory of feminism. By taking feminism’s grounding principles and seeking to develop them beyond the realm of sex and gender (while never leaving it), Kristeva has developed feminism in an engaging, challenging, and beautifully frightening direction.

Roland Barthes – “The Death of the Author”

March 29, 2007

Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author”
S. Heath, tr. and ed. Image, Music, Text (1968), pp. 142-8

Barthes’s essay summarizes itself in its final paragraph: “Thus is revealed the total existence of writing: a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author. The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination” (189).

Not a shocking conclusion for an article entitled “The Death of the Author,” really, but truly radical idea in and of itself: that the Author, long the focus of literary study, is not in fact all that important – it is the reader that matters. To get to this point, Barthes begins with the observation that “The image of literature to be found in ordinary culture is tyrannically centered on the author… [and that the] explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it, as if it were always in the end, through the more or less transparent allegory of the fiction, the voice of a single person, the author ‘confiding’ in us” (186).

Barthes begins to take apart this assumption of authorial importance by noting that “… it is language which speaks, not the author; to write is, through a prerequisite impersonality… to reach that point, where only language acts, ‘performs’ and not ‘me'” (186), a conclusion to which New Critics could at least tentatively assent. However, Barthes’s next move is a bit more radical. He claims that “… writing… designates exactly what linguists, referring to Oxford philosophy, call a performative, a rare verbal form… in which the enunciation has no other content… than the act by which it is uttered – something like the I declare of kings or the I sing of very ancient poets” (187). The Author (who by now should probably simply be referred to as “the writer”) is then merely a conduit for pre-existent language, a person whose “… only power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them” (188).
He is the assembler of already formed writings, many of which are mutually contradictory. Barthes goes on to assert that, “… the book itself is only a tissue of signs, an imitation that is lost, infinitely deferred” (188); to focus on the author is “… to impose a limit on [a] text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing” (188). This is the case because to insist on an authorial presence is to insist on a coherence in the writing that is simply not there. The author is the transcendental signified for the structure of the text, and a post-structuralist understanding cannot tolerate such a figure. To do so would be to deny the slippage that is inevitably at work in the bricolage that is present in any text.

Barthes then concludes that “In precisely this way literature (it would be better from now on to say writing), by refusing to assign a ‘secret’, an ultimate meaning, to the text (and to the world as text), liberates what may be called an anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases – reason, science, law” (188). In short, he proposes an anti-foundational hermeneutic for interpreting both life and literature that values the play of contradictory elements of a text in the mind of the reader, who is the central figure, the final object of the act of writing.

Barthes conceives the author as chef, the text as food, and the reader as ingesting and digesting that which the chef has prepared. In Barthes’s opinion, only in entering the reader’s mouth does the food take on any flavor, and only in his stomach does it release any energy. Moreover, Barthes relentlessly reminds us that the author did not create (in the sense of bringing into existence) any of the ingredients in his dishes, and that the chef would cease to have any real purpose without his patrons, that it wouldn’t really do him much good to prepare meals that would merely sit on a table until they rotted away. Barthes deconstructs the binary of “Author / reader” to show that the reader is the necessary supplement and then privileges the reader: a necessary corrective in the flow of literary interpretation, to be sure.

Yet, I can’t help but feel sorry for the Author as viewed by Barthes: is his skillful selection and combination of ingredients in his text to be completely ignored? And, is not the Author almost undoubtedly also a reader himself? I envision, instead of a mere change of privilege in the Author / reader binary, a deconstruction to the point of implosion: the roles of Author and reader are shared by all in varying proportions at varying times for various people. What exactly that looks like, however, is another thought for another essay.

NB I know that the food metaphor does not necessarily hold up perfectly, but it is, I think, helpful, and, just as importantly, fun. Also, please forgive my default use of the masculine pronoun for unidentified people; old habits die hard, I suppose.

Jacques Lacan – “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience”

March 6, 2007

Jacques Lacan, “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience”
Alan Sheridan, tr. Ecrits, A Selection (1949), pp. 1-7

Before engaging the content of Lacan’s argument, I must engage its form. Although I find some admirable qualities in his writing (for example, his extensive and illustrative use of biological and mathematical vocabulary), I take issue with its general structure. I’ve heard it said that Lacan intentionally made his writing vague and loosely structured so that it would resemble the subject about which he wrote: the human mind. A lovely idea, to be sure, but in execution it becomes at best tedious and at worst outright frustrating for the nonspecialist. The loosely organized structure of the excerpt combined with its highly specialized psychological vocabulary quickly made clear either that Lacan didn’t care about the widespread dissemination of his ideas or that he assumed that others would take care of that. While others, have, in fact, taken up Lacan’s cause and presented his ideas in vastly more comprehensible terms, in my mind, Lacan nevertheless does himself a great disservice in writing for such a narrow audience. As a new reader of his work, I frequently felt lost trying to understand what he was saying; even after reading a quite helpful textbook summary of his ideas and after class lecture and discussion, a rereading of the selection proved only marginally less maddening. To be fair, this may be as much the fault of the editors of the anthology for making a poor selection. But, in any case, I believe that explanatory writing should be at its clearest when discussing complex, unclear thoughts; on this point, Lacan and I may have to respectfully disagree.

As to the content of the excerpt, I see the destabilization of the liberal humanist subject as Lacan’s most valuable contribution, both to general knowledge and to the field of specifically literary theory. In all honesty, I’m not sure that I understand all the finer points of his argument enough to critique them, but what follows is my best attempt.

Lacan begins with a description of the mirror stage, which takes place in infants anywhere between the ages of six and eighteen months. Lacan calls the transformational effects of this stage as “an ontological structure of the human world” (190). This stage, wherein the infant sees his own reflection in the mirror, consists of the transitional stage of the formation of the “I… before it is objectified in the dialectic of identification with the other, and before language restores to it, in the universal, its function as subject” (190). Lacan goes on to note that “this form [the Ideal-I of the mirror stage] situates the agency of the ego… in a fictional direction, which will always remain irreducible for the individual alone.”

N. B. I know that you wanted me to adopt a more formal, “academic critiquing academic” tone in these responses, and I tried to do that as best I could here. However, in all honesty, I still don’t understand Lacan’s writing (I think I understand his general concepts as outlined in Tyson and in class lectures) nearly well enough to feel comfortable really engaging with it. In fact, I would love to sit down and discuss the excerpt with you at some point (or hear your thoughts on it) since, after a great deal of effort, I’m still largely left scratching my head and saying, “I don’t get it.”

Sigmund Freud – from “The Dream Work”

February 27, 2007

Sigmund Freud, from “The Dream Work.”
Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1916), pp. 204-18

I’ve been looking forward to actually reading Freud’s writing; outside of Theoryland, almost no one knows about any of the authors I’ve been assigned to read, except for two: Marx and Freud. Although most people in my generation have some idea of who Marx is and what he taught, almost everybody knows, or at least think they know, about Freud (probably because he talked about sex a fair bit). Hence, I’ve been anticipating the chance to actually hear what the man himself has to say, and thankfully, he did not disappoint my expectations of fascinating, useful, and ultimately questionable writing.

After spending time with Saussure, Marx, and Engels, Freud’s writing was mercifully comprehensible. After some introductory remarks on some of the general concepts of his interpretive praxis for dreams, Freud tells us that we’re going to be chiefly concerned here with “comparing the manifest content of a dream as a whole with the latent dream as it is revealed by interpretation.” To accomplish this, Freud defines two processes: the first, “dream-work,” is “the work [done by the dreamer] which transforms the latent dream into the manifest one,” and the second, the “work of interpretation,” is “the work which proceeds in the contrary direction [and is done by the analyst], which endeavours to arrive at the latent dream from the manifest one.”

[NB I thoroughly enjoyed Freud’s admonition “not to try to understand too much of what I tell you. It will be a piece of description which should be listened to with quiet attention.” Although somewhat condescending, it’s also comfortable, liberating, and perhaps generally good advice for listening to (or reading) any theory.]

Freud then proceeds to talk about three types of work done by the dream-work: condensation, displacement, and the work of “transforming thoughts into visual images.” In reading his description of these three processes, I had two reactions. First, that, while I suppose that the human brain perhaps does carry out this type of operation while dream, I am extremely suspicious of Freud’s claim that one can work backwards from the transformed data of the manifest dream to get to the original latent dream; however, that claim is not necessarily related to literature, and I haven’t studied psychoanalysis or its opponents enough to have a legitimately informed opinion of its (in)validity. Second, and more importantly, each of these processes describes (or, possibly, prescribes, since it predates much of it) literary techniques used by Modern and postmodern authors.

Condensation, which refers to Freud’s belief that “the manifest dream has a smaller content than the latent one, and is thus an abbreviated translation of it,” often by seeking out “an ambiguous word [or image, symbol, etc.]” in which one can “condense two different thoughts,” is a good descriptor of the work of metaphor and figurative language in general, and is specifically descriptive of a good bit of Modernist imagery and symbolism. For example, Freud’s assertion that the condensation done by the dream-work “is not a word-for-word or a sign-for-sign translation… nor… a selection made according to fixed rules” is directly applicable to much of the work of Faulkner, in which characters from one novel may share a name and some apparent similarities with characters from another book, but many in fact exist as two separate people; or, for example in Absalom, Absalom!, wherein Faulkner uses the story from II Samuel of Absalom and David as a source for many of the themes and general plot elements but does not seek to create a simple modern “one-for-one” retelling of the biblical text.

Displacement is either “a latent element replaced not by a component part of itself but by something more remote – that is, by an allusion [or a shifting of] the physical accent… from an important element on to another which is unimportant, so that the dream appears differently centered and strange.” This process can be seen in literature, as Freud himself says, in allusion, but also in non-emblematic symbols, too so prevalent in the work of Modernist authors (T. S. Eliot immediately comes to mind).

The “transforming [of] thoughts into visual images,” which Freud sees as analogous to pictorial (as opposed to alphabetical) writing, is reflected in the use of image clusters as organizational units in Modernist works (Jean Toomer, Hemingway, Faulkner, Eliot, and others) which tend to eschew or neglect more traditional organizational structures (stanzas, rhyme schemes, chapters) for their works. (At this point, I should point out that, of course, Freudian critics not only see these processes as analogous to the techniques authors use but also as explanatory of character’s behaviors within literary works, as well, or even as explanations of an author’s creative forces, i. e. seeing a work as the unconscious projection of parts of the author’s own life).

Before moving on, Freud notes “that nonsense and absurdity in dreams have their meaning [because] dreams become senseless when a piece of criticism included in the dream-thoughts – a judgement that ‘this is absurd’ – has to be represented.” This claim is based his earlier assertion that non-concrete, relational concepts (such as “between,” “against,” etc.) find sometimes odd representation in the creation of visual images from thoughts that the dream-work does.

In the next section of the excerpt, Freud discusses the ways in which processes in the dream-work are similar to (causal of, maybe?) certain operations in linguistics that Freud calls “contraries,” or, as they are more commonly known, binaries. He discusses how binary concepts (high / low, wet / dry, etc.) are often represented by the same or extremely similar words or word roots in languages. He also discusses how words are often syllabically or otherwise inverted between languages and still retain the same meaning. Freud sees these two effects as exemplary of the way that the “topsy-turvy” world of dreams is created, wherein, for example, a dog might be walking a man on a leash.

To conclude, Freud give a smattering of various thoughts about dreams. In his view of dream interpretation as regressively undoing the linguistic act of joining word to thought, Freud presents a view of linguistic development with which Saussure would have had, as one might say, issues. He warns against seeking an inherent logic in the world of the manifest dream itself, for this goes against the intrinsically illogical world created by the revision and even “secondary revision” carried out by the dream work in attempts to censor the latent dream (claims like this are, again, why I’m skeptical of Freud’s interpretive methodology). Freud also asserts that “it is natural that we should lose some of our interest in the manifest dream. It is bound to be a matter of indifference to us whether it is well put together, or is broken up into a series of disconnected separate pictures.” This quote interests me because it in some ways reflects the structuralist idea that the underlying system (latent dream) is more important that any one surface phenomenon (manifest dream).

On the whole, Freud’s writing, while at times questionable in its scientific assertions, reveals a mind that was highly associative, inquisitive, and innovative; these qualities of his thoughts and writings, more than any one particular conclusion (well, except perhaps that of the unconscious mind), are what make him and his relevant today.

Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels – from _The German Ideology_

February 25, 2007

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, from The German Ideology
(1846), pp. 70-8

The writing of Marx and Engels, at least in the translation presented in the anthology, is far from the clearest I’ve read. In fact, I often found myself wondering whether the lack of clarity I found at a given point in the excerpt was due to the imprecision of the translation or the muddiness of thought on part of the authors. In an attempt to be gracious to the creators of one of the most significant ideologies of the past two centuries, I will (perhaps a bit disingenuously) fault the translator and try to “read through” the sheen of his or her translation to comprehend the ideas as I might imagine they were intended by the original authors. In any case, I by no means profess to understand all that was said in the excerpt, but hopefully the following explanations and explorations will demonstrate that I at least possess a sufficient understanding of the general principles it posits.

One of the terms I had the most trouble understanding was “intercourse,” which, as nearly as I can tell, simply means interactions between people. Although I may be a bit off in that understanding, it will have to suffice. This term is crucial in that it appears in the excerpt from its very first sentence, which asserts that communism is different from all previous movements in that it treats current human circumstances not as the natural, inevitable products of the way things are but instead as specific results of human actions up to this point, which, as such, are subject to the scrutiny and reconsideration of the same group that determined them, that is, a collective, united group of individuals. This point, this systematic questioning of inherited systems, thoughts, and social assumptions, is perhaps Marxism’s greatest contribution to all theory and thought.

From this observation, the authors then move on to state that “it [is] impossible that anything should exist independently of individuals,” that is, that there is no outside ultimate authority that has determined the way things must be [NB I can see here a possible proof text for those who see communism as “godless”] .

Next, Marx and Engels discuss the “difference between the individual as a person [the essential qualities of a man?] and what is accidental to him [how the material circumstances and, hence, the sociopolitical forces of the age define him]” as arising from and defined by old ideologies carried over from “the earlier age.” Thus, they see the process of human history as one of an as-yet-unbroken chain of one generation figuring out how to meet its material wants and desires [which the authors see as the guiding force behind human history], defining themselves through the ways and the degree of success with which they have met those needs, and then passing those self-definitions down to the next generation as natural, innate definitions of self. Then, each new generation necessarily modifies that self-definition (“what is accidental to him,” that is, his socioeconomic standing) as they adapt to the economic realities of their own age, and then repeat the process endlessly.

The authors characterize the social change generated by this process as slow, unquestioned, and as generative of “illusory” power systems that are both unfair and unrepresentative of the actual material state of affairs. Because this form of societal progress is viewed as natural, Marx and Engels state, the “illusory communit[ies]” of those in and out of power “in the last resort can only be broken by a revolution,” a logical enough conclusion given the chain of reasoning thus far.

As a negative example of this phenomenon, Marx and Engels cite the nearly uninhibited spread of the ideologies of the founders of America (which the authors oddly refer to as the “country” of North America) in a land not “encumbered with interests and relationships left over from earlier periods.” However, in a knock on the American ideology, and on imperialist ideologies in general, the authors are quick to note that imperialist powers often use this ideological blank slate “only to assure the conquerors’ lasting power” instead of to effect the truly equitable society of communism.

In one of the brief moments of clarity in the excerpt, the authors reveal that they believe that “all collisions in history have their origin… in the contradiction between the productive forces and the form of intercourse,” which, again, as nearly as I can tell, means between the actual material realities and needs of a generation and its inherited socioeconomic power structures. From this point in the essay, matters generally become clearer. The line of reasoning then flows as follows:

– Examples in history show that when this contradiction has grown too great, revolution has occurred; however, previous revolutions have only focused on one of the symptoms of the contradiction rather than the contradiction itself as the source of the revolution.

– Therefore, to resolve the contradiction, individuals must, as a community, rally together to launch a revolution that “subject[s] these material powers to themselves and abolish[es] the [unfair] division of labor.” This revolution will have several benefits, in that it will

a) liberate the masses from false, inherited, ideologies,
b) get rid of the “illusory” community, which, as a “combination of one class over against another” both pits equal individuals against each other in a false class system and dehumanizes all people, regardless of class, as mere members of their class instead of as complete individuals, and in its place
c)establish the legitimate “community with others [within which each individual has] the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions.”

From here, the excerpts concludes by further exploring communism’s proposed liberation of the individual from his supposedly intrinsic definition as a mere member of his class. Marx and Engels believe that the conditions for this to occur are not possible within the existing power structure, i. e. the State, for the current system of power only allows for movement from one class to another through the accumulation or loss of capital through labor. Hence, they believe, “the proletarians, if they are to assert themselves as individuals, will have to abolish the very condition of their existence hitherto… namely labor [which is the power structure of the State]. In order, therefore, to assert themselves as individuals, they must overthrow the State.” And there you have the revolutionary ideology of Marxism.

Although I’m tempted to go into an evaluation of the pros and cons of Marxism as an actual, functional ideology, I’ve already rambled on for far too long, so, for now, I’ll conclude.

Ferdinand de Saussure – from _Course in General Linguistics_

February 22, 2007

Ferdinand de Saussure, from Course in General Linguistics
(1915), pp. 111-19, 120-1

That Ferdinand de Saussure is very intelligent is immediately evident upon reading, or trying to read his writing. While the breadth and depth of knowledge he displays is at times humbling and overwhelming, I do realize that Saussure was writing for a very specific, very informed audience. I also recognize that he was creating an essentially new mode of thought, and that he therefore had the rather unenviable but admirable task of figuring out how to express all these new concepts. And, ultimately, his work is comprehensible and, moreover, valuable. However, even given all this, I wonder if some of the specific audience that he was writing for might not have appreciated or at least at times desired a bit of additional clarity and / or simplicity is his writing.

Saussure, to begin with his conclusions, finally asserts that “in language there are only differences [and that] a difference generally implies positive terms between which the difference is set up; but in language there are only differences without positive terms.”

The preceding portions of the essay are spent in service of providing the information, thoughts, concepts, etc. necessary to understand what is meant by that phrase. (I just now briefly considered trying to write the rest of this piece using the terms that Saussure defines in the excerpt, but then reason kicked in again, and I realized that I have nowhere near a good enough grasp on these concepts to successfully pull of such a task.)

The excerpt begins with Saussure defining “the linguistic fact [what is normally referred to as “language”]… as a series of contiguous subdivisions marked off on both the indefinite plane of jumbled ideas… and the equally vague plane of sounds.” By this, Saussure means several (actually, many) things:

First, that “the linguistic act” (the “complete sign”) is a union between an idea or concept (the “signified”) and a sound (the “signifier”).

Second, that both the signified and the signifier only have meaning as negatively defined as select parts of an “interdependent whole” (in the case of ideas, the nearly unlimited variations and combinations of various thoughts, and in the case of sounds, the more limited palette of phonemes and their almost equally unlimited variety of combinations and distinctions).

To expand, this means that “all words used to express related ideas limit each other reciprocally” so that “the value of just any term is accordingly determined by its environment” so that “… it is understood that the concepts [expressed by words] are purely differential and defined not by their positive content but negatively by their relations with the other terms of the system. Their most precise characteristic is in being what the others are not.” That is, that a given word only has a meaning within a given linguistic system (language) insofar as it is distinct from other similar words. Hence, it is the interdependent system, not the individual words, that allow for meaning. Furthermore (and with the possible exception of onomatopoetic words), the sounds used to signify words are completely arbitrary, that is, without an intrinsic relationship to the ideas they represent.

Third, that the complete sign, the combination of the signified and the signifier, which are “both… purely differential and negative when considered separately,” is “a positive fact.” Saussure attempts two metaphors in search for one that adequately explains the nature of the union of the signified and the signifier: a sheet of paper that has a distinct yet inseparable front and back and the wave in liquid that is undeniably a product of both the water and the air that created the disturbance in the water.

Finally, that the complete sign, the combination of the signified and the signifier, “is even the sole type of facts that language has, for maintaining the parallelism between the two classes of differences is the distinctive function of the linguistic institution.” On the most basic level, this means that language’s unique function is as a collectively agreed-upon method of tying together certain arbitrary speech sounds with certain negatively differentiated ideas so that communication can occur. If this seems like a simple conclusion, that is because it, in a sense, is a simple conclusion; however, it belongs to the class of ideas that can be described as “simple in theory but astoundingly complex in application.”

Simone de Beauvoir – from _The Second Sex_

February 20, 2007

Simone de Beauvoir, from The Second Sex
([1953] 1972), pp. 282-5

Reading the barely one-page excerpt from de Beauvoir in Modern Literary Theory was almost a laughable experience, in that it is so richly and tightly packed with thoughts and phrases that are now foundational to the world of literary criticism that it barely seems plausible. In fact, my marginal notes read like a brief glossary of theoretical terms and thoughts; brief, sparkling expostulations on reification, ideology, essentialism, and binaries are all to be found within four inches of each other on the same page.

de Beauvoir provides an excellent description of how ideologies are reified into “absolute truth” and lead to an essentialist worldview in the sentences from “This one, the myth of woman…” through “…it is endowed with absolute truth.” Specifically, she speaks of the reification of the diverse experiences of real females into the Eternal Feminine and Femininity. As a result of this process, when women deviate from either of these idealizations, it is they, not the ideals, that are wrong.

From there, de Beauvoir begins to riff on binaries (“antonyms in pairs”); because women are defined by the Eternal Feminine, when they fail to live up to its standards, they are then identified as its opposite. Thusly is the madonna / whore binary established. To move from this process to identifying women as essentially ambivalent is a short leap; to move form there to women as identified as “sentiment [unreasonable emotion], inwardness, immanence” is yet another small step. Perhaps the most striking line in this excerpt is the following: “This is the lot assigned to woman in the patriarchate; but it is in no way a vocation, and more than slavery is the vocation of the slave… To identify Woman with Altruism is to guarantee to man absolute rights in her devotion, it is to impose on women a categorical imperative.”

This excerpt from de Beauvoir concludes with her identification of what critical race theory refers to as the “interest convergence” – the usefulness of a myth or racist / sexist belief to the desires or a ruling class / gender – of the myth of the Eternal Feminine to males as exemplified by their refusal “to grant to woman any right to sexual pleasure, by making her work like a beast of burden.”