January 30, 2011

dwelling, relating

In his study of the cultural history of forests, the well-known Dante scholar (and radio host) Robert Pogue Harrison traces the Greek origins of the word "ecology":
The Greek word logos is usually translated as "language," but more originally it means "relation." It binds humans to nature in the mode of openness and difference. It is that wherein we dwell and by which we relate ourselves to this or that place. Without logos there is no place, only habitat; no domus, only niche; no finitude, only the endless reproductive cycle of species-being; no dwelling, only subsisting. In short, logos is that which opens the human abode on the earth.
The word "eco-logy" names this abode. In Greek, oikos means "house" or "abode"--the Latin domus. In this sense oikos and logos belong together inseparably, for logos is the oikos of humanity. Thus the word "ecology" names far more than the science that studies ecosystems; it names the universal human manner of being in the world. As a cause that takes us beyond the end of history, ecology cannot remain naive about the deeper meaning of the word that summarizes its vocation. We dwell not in nature but in relation to nature. We do not inhabit the earth but inhabit our excess of the earth. We dwell not in the forest but in an exteriority with regard to its closure. We do not subsist as much as transcend. To be human means to be always and already outside of the forest's inclusion, so to speak, insofar as the forest remains an index of our exclusion. . . . We will find that the relation is the abode, and that this relation remains one of estrangement from, as well as domestic familiarity with, the earth. 

January 20, 2011

Stuart Hall on socialism and "popular" culture

[. . .] The people versus the power-bloc: this, rather than "class-against-class", is the central line of contradiction around which the terrain of culture is polarized. Popular culture, especially, is organized around the contradiction: the popular forces versus the power-bloc. This gives to the terrain of cultural struggle its own kind of specificity. But the term "popular", and even more, the collective subject to which it must refer -- "the people" -- is highly problematic. It is made problematic by, say, the ability of Mrs Thatcher to pronounce a sentence like, "We have to limit the power of the trade unions because this is what the people want." That suggests to me that just as there is no fixed content in the category of "popular culture", so there is no fixed subject to attach to it -- "the people". "The people are not always back there, where they have always been, their culture untouched, their liberties and their instincts intact, still struggling on against the Norman yoke or whatever: as if we can "discover" them and bring them back on stage, they will always stand up in the right appointed place and be counted. The capacity to constitute classes and individuals as a popular force -- that is the nature of political and cultural struggle: to make the divided classes and the separate peoples -- divided and separated by culture as much as by other factors -- into a popular-democratic cultural force.

[. . .] Popular culture is one of the sites where this struggle for and against a culture of the powerful is engaged: it is the stake to be one or lost in that struggle. It is the arena of consent and resistance. It is partly where hegemony arises, and where it is secured. It is not a sphere where socialism, a socialist culture -- already fully formed -- might be simply "expressed". But it is one of the places where socialism might be constituted. That is why "popular culture" matters. Otherwise, to tell you the truth, I don't give a damn about it.

Stuart Hall, "Notes on Deconstructing 'the Popular,'" pp. 227-39 from People's History and Socialist Theory, ed. R. Samuel. London: Routledge, 1981.

January 16, 2011

common value

Although Plato’s dialogues were written in the form of conversations, they have founded the philosophical tradition as an introspective, monological pursuit. At least, this is the line of reasoning put forth by Cesar Casarino in the preface to In Praise of the Common (University of Minnesota Press), an effort of collaboration with the Italian Marxist critic Antonio Negri. Not suprisingly, when the other (Socrates' dialogue partner) speaks in a Platonic dialogue, he does so by the rules of dialectical progress, based on fixed (that is, assimilated) identities that tend toward sublation. The history of the Platonic dialogue, writes Cesar Casarino,
has culminated in the now hegemonic liberal-democratic discourse of identity and in its suffering invocations of “dialogue” as a means of negotiating and reconciling differences among various and sundry identities (as if there was actually any real difference rather than sheer equivalence among identities, even despite the incommensurable inequities that they always index and that they are meant to redress in the realm of representation alone, and as if, hence, anything like a real dialogic relation—that is, anything like dialogue at the level of the real—could even begin to take place among them). 
It is for this reason that the “dialogic” nature of Platonic discourse must be distinguished from Mikhail Bakhtin’s conception of the dialogic relation. For Bakhtin, the “entire dialogue-monologue binary opposition” is constituted by this relation: the dialogue materializes this relation by affirming it, while the monologue materializes it by foreclosing it. In both cases, language invites (or desires) some form of response, which in turn requires its own response and so on ad infinitum. If the dialogic relation unfolds in this way then the conversation is dialogical, “for it involves response to and from—rather than sublation of—the other.” But to avoid the Platonic connotations (which are due both to the currency and the history of a loaded term like “dialogue”) Casarino wisely opts to speak of such intellectual negotiation as “conversation” (deriving from the Latin conversari: to keep company with) in his discussion of the common.

Conversation is the language of the common because it brings us together as different rather than identical to one another. Casarino points to an early text by Dante, a treatise on the vernacular (De vulgari eloquentia), in which language is described as common to the human collective. Dante argues for the superiority of the vernacular over locutio secundaria (scholarly language) because it is employed by the whole world and because it is more “natural.” The vernacular is, in Casarino’s words, a “linguistic potential (that is, the capacity to learn language) and a linguistic practice (that is, the process by which such a capacity comes to its fruition through acquisition and usage) common to all human beings.” Here, we do not have two different types of language, but instead two different ways of learning, using, and conceptualizing language.

For Dante, the linguistic sign is a translating apparatus that is at once both sensory and rational. It must be comprised of both, for pure sensory knowledge is only possible for beasts and purely rational knowledge is only possible for angels. Human beings are unique because communication occurs across a subjective gap (beasts and angels do not have this problem): language must be sensed in order to be rationalized. Casarino highlights four points regarding Dante’s linguistic configuration: first, in Dante’s schema, the vernacular and the sign are equivalent to one another; second, the sign is able to translate and transcend the individual differences of every human being; third, the sign is described as a medium of exchange which move back and forth between producer and consumer; fourth, the sign is, as we have seen, both sensory and rational, bodily and spiritual. In sum, writes Casarino, “for Dante the linguistic sign functions already like the modern sign of value par excellence, namely, money.” The primary opposition between matter and spirit, which characterizes the majority of Hellenistic and medieval theocracy, is eventually displaced by a new fundamental opposition: matter vs. value. As Kiarina Kordela writes,
While spirit could manifest itself only in the Word, value has two manifestations: a semantic one, as the word or the signifier representing the concept that refers to a thing; and an economic one, as the equivalent exchange-value representing the relevant value of a thing (commodity). The advent of secular capitalism amounts to the transformation of the economy into a representational system.
In Dante’s sign, therefore, we see the beginning of value as a mediating third term: the sign partakes of both matter and spirit and enables their exchanges, and consequently their differential semantic value.

January 10, 2011

starting off on the wrong foot

Today marks the beginning of my second term in Edmonton. It's been snowing nonstop for the past three days and it's hard to say when I'll begin biking again (residential streets are not a priority for snow plows). It looks like I'll be doing plenty of walking, so it's a good thing I found my old winter boots. Here's how my upcoming semester looks:

Shakespeare and the Commons
This graduate seminar in the Shakespearean drama takes up the challenge of much contemporary legal theorizing of the common, which urges a turning-back to the early modern period for reclamation of ideas and practices displaced by the rise of capitalism. Its principal premise is that one way to understand what early modernity might offer to a contemporary politics of the common is to turn back to one of the most important writers of the early modern period and investigate the various constructions of the common and the commons in his work. To study the various expressions of the common in Shakespeare is herefore to ask (with a specific writer as test-case) how literature contributes to the common, and thus to contribute to a theory of literature (if only by theorizing one of the things that it does). The course’s second premise is that we can only achieve this, in Shakespeare’s case, by bringing historical conceptions of the common and the commons to bear, and so the enterprise demands historical enquiry. We will therefore read, in addition to select plays by Shakespeare including Henry VI Part II, Timon of Athens, and King Lear, some early modern case material, the text of key early modern laws, and excerpts from debates in the Elizabethan and Jacobean House of Commons. Some of our readings will be philosophical, some legal, but the emphasis will fall on our inquiry into the Shakespearean theatre as a forum for a practice of communing, for it is only by understanding the Shakespearean theatre as a historical practice of the ‘common’ that we help the early modern irrupt into and shape what Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri call ‘altermodernity.’ Depending on student interest, we could build towards a study of contemporary constructions of the ‘creative commons’ in order to consider how we might, with our investigation of Shakespeare’s engagements with the ‘common,’ revise standard constructions of Shakespearean authorship (which continue to be bourgeois, Romantic, and Lockean).

Introduction to Cultural Theory
The primary aim of this course is to give graduate students in English an opportunity to focus on the complex relationships that exist between forms of power, the constitution of knowledge, and the activity of contemporary criticism. By working through the ideas and concepts deployed in a number of influential essays in cultural theory, the goal is to enhance students' critical vocabularies and to challenge the 'commonsense' of contemporary theory in an effort to help students develop new insights into their own projects and fields of interests. With respect to the study of culture, what can we do with the theoretical concepts and approaches we have inherited? What relevance do these have to contemporary circumstances and situations? What are the connections that we have identified between knowledge and power? And how do we imagine that criticism intervenes in this relationship to interrupt regimes of knowledge/power in order to create new ways of thinking, knowing, acting, and feeling? These are the kinds of macro-questions that will guide us as we work through key concepts in cultural theory across seven areas: culture, power, ideology, scale and space, time and history, subjectivity and collectivity.
 Aesthetics and Politics of Literary Reading
What it means to read a literary text has become a highly contested question. Are our readings determined by our cultural position, or are they an outcome of the power of literary language and our experience as readers? Stanley Fish argues that understanding is constrained by the institution we fi nd ourselves in. Interpreters “are situated in that institution, their interpretive activities are not free, but what constrains them are the understood practices and assumptions of the institution and not the rules and fixed meanings of a language system” (Is There a Text 306). Fish goes on to argue that, for this reason, an interpretation is always to hand. Reading literature does not involve puzzling out its meaning: “sentences emerge only in situations, and within those situations, the normative meaning of an utterance will always be obvious or at least accessible” (307). This representive view is open to challenge: according to Martha Nussbaum “good literature is disturbing in a way that history and social science writing frequently are not. Because it summons powerful emotions, it disconcerts and puzzles” (Poetic Justice 5). The reader who “is not at risk,” says Howard Brodkey, “is not reading.”
While these contrasting approaches also have much to say about the role of criticism and theory, and the institutional practices of English as a discipline over the last 150 years, in this course we will primarily be concerned with their implications for reading. We will interrogate historical and current practices of reading in their light. We will also compare them with a third possibility, that of investigating actual readers, a focus that has so far received little attention and has been actively discouraged by some authorities. Jonathan Culler, for example warned of “the dangers of an experimental or socio-psychological approach which would take too seriously the actual and doubtless idiosyncratic performance of individual readers” (Structuralist Poetics 258). But are readers really idiosyncratic? What do empirical studies show occurring during literary reading? First we will review the history of formalist accounts of reading, from Kant and Coleridge, through the Russian Formalists, to the Lancaster school of stylistics (Geoffrey Leech, Mike Short, Willie Van Peer) and the cognitive poetics of Reuven Tsur. Second we will look at some of the standard theoretical accounts of the reading process, contrasting the aesthetic approaches of Roman Ingarden and Wolfgang Iser with the constructivist views of Stanley Fish, Barbara Herrnstein Smith, and Siegfried Schmidt. We will go on to look at empirical studies of literary reading, beginning with studies of historical readers by Richard Altick and Jonathan Rose, then examine several typical modern studies of readers, including a critical review of the methods used to study actual readers and the different levels at which response to literary features has been studied, from phonetic to narrative.