Inspired by Matt’s comment on Charles Bourbaki’s “difference without apologies” at Long Sunday…

Social scientists, or at least social scientists of a particular stripe (perhaps it would be better to say political scientists?), are fond of referring to culture as the “symbolic.” Moreover, often if not always this terminology is both containment and diminution. Cultural conflicts and negotiations are “merely” symbolic; it is the matter of policy-making, economic development, the legal code, the use of force (or whatever) that counts. And, we might add, that can be counted. Relegating cultural processes to this other arena of the symbolic, viewing them as ancillary to the main event, is also a methodological presupposition: it clears the terrain of, above all, affect; it substitutes quantitative extension for qualitative intensity.

So, in excluding the symbolic for being a site of repetition, a place where fundamental conflicts are played out but in another register, such an approach discards while also tacitly acknowledging the specificity of the cultural. It brushes under the carpet, as it were, the ways in which even in its reiteration or reflection of positions established elsewhere, culture is non-coincident with (say) political interest. That non-coincidence is at best an aberration, an irrationality. Hence the myth of the “rational actor,” who is of course a deculturated actor, an agent who behaves always and only in line with his or her interest.

albatrossMeanwhile, traditional literary criticism has also understood the symbolic to be a form of repetition or reiteration. A symbol is an instance of double voicing: where a given word or thing signifies on two (or more) registers. Thus to say that, for example, the albatross in Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” functions as a symbol, is to say that the bird is more than it first appears: not only is it an element within the ostensible plot; it also carries with it broader connotations. So when the mariner kills the bird, he kills more than just a feathered beast.

Indeed, this symbolization is thematized within Coleridge’s poem itself, which is in some ways a didactic text concerned precisely with the power of symbols.

And that is where the literary tradition and the social scientific diverge: the former ascribes power to the symbolic, where the latter denies it that power.

For in literature, the symbolic is viewed as the site of a particular intensity and for that reason the object of particular attention and interest. In the symbol’s concentration and condensation of meaning and attention, it is ascribed a privileged mark of the literary itself, and of literature’s capacity to affect and be affected. Whereas for the social scientist, the whiff of intensity provides an excuse for delegitimation.

But an anxiety over the power of the “merely” symbolic haunts social science still. God help us, after all, should people act affectively rather than “rationally.”


“Allegories,” Walter Benjamin famously tells us, “are, in the realm of thoughts, what ruins are in the realm of things” (178). And, to turn the comparison around, it’s no surprise that ruins have long been viewed as allegories: as always pointing beyond themselves, to some absent totality. Moreover that, at another level of abstraction, the gap itself between ruin and totality has itself been insistently conceived as some kind of second-order allegory. Allegory upon allegory, ruin upon ruin.

Benjamin’s interest here is in the Baroque–though, more abstractly still, he is reading modernity through the Baroque, and the Baroque work of art as an allegory for the work of art in general. But it is with Romanticism that the ruin really comes into its own.

Or rather, the point of a ruin is the extent to which it falls short of “its own,” the extent to which it is non-coincident with the structure that it implies. And Romanticism takes particular note of that discrepancy between the absent presence of the material trace and the present absence of the sublime that it invokes in its very default.

OzymandiasIn invoking totality and sublimity, ruins have been read as particularly vivid allegories of power and sovereignty–and their vicissitudes. Take, for instance, Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” Here the poet relates the tale of a traveller coming across a desert ruin, the toppled remains of a vast sculpture of power. On its pedestal

            these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away. (11)

The levels of allegory and irony are complex. The inscription, for instance, with its injunction to despair, was presumably first intended to be interpreted in terms of the king’s transcendent and overarching authority. Yet the mighty could now be tempted to despair for quite another reason: because in the fallen desolation of the broken monument they can perceive the temporary nature of even the most overweening despotism. But, in yet another twist, the fact that this missive, however ruined, endures even as all around the civilization over which Ozymandias presided has faded without trace, could also be seen to bear out the truth of the sentiment: that the signs of transcendence prevail over the most calamitous of social and natural catastrophes.

In other words, long after all memory of his kingdom has disappeared, long after all detail of the social order that he secured has faded into the real of this desert, we still remember the name of Ozymandias. The ruin ensures (to paraphrase Benjamin again) that his legacy has transcended history, by becoming immanent with nature itself. “In the ruin history has physically merged into the setting” (177-178). This is Ozymandias’s final triumph.

And this is thanks to the power of narrative, which again here is multilayered. We have not only the inscription–which itself implies a prior order, the imperative of temporal power. We also have the fact that Shelley’s poem consists almost entirely (all bar the first line) of the reported speech of an un-named “traveller from an antique land.” Whose account is then repeated, recorded and enshrined, in published verse.

So here’s the challenge: is there any way to resist the lure of narrative? To undo the symmetry between ruin and allegory? To see, in short, the ruin in itself, rather than as sign of an uninterrupted idea of sovereignty?


[Customary apologies for meta-blogging…]

This blog has been nominated for an award. Not that it is the only blog to be so nominated: it is among 300 up for a “Koufax Award” in the category “most deserving of wider recognition”.

Which is, itself, a form of recognition. And what’s not to like about that?

Most of the 300 are very much focussed on the US political and foreign policy news agenda. But among other notable blogs on the list for this category are: the excellent 3 Quarks Daily; Jodi Dean’s I cite; the pugnacious Lenin’s Tomb; the “theory” group blog with which I am involved, Long Sunday; one of the better political blogs, Opinions You Should Have; and then how could I not mention We move to Canada?


“The body is never in the present,” Gilles Deleuze notes, “it contains the before and after, tiredness and waiting. Tiredness and waiting, even despair are the attitudes of the body” (Cinema 2 189).

Gabriel Garcia MarquezGabriel García Márquez’s “No One Writes to the Colonel” is concerned above all with tiredness and waiting–and so also the corresponding attitudes of the body. It provides, therefore, a version of what Deleuze terms the “time-image”:

the series of time. The daily attitude is what puts the before and after into the body, the body as the revealer of the deadline. The attitude of the body relates thought to time as to that outside which is infinitely further than the outside world” (189)

The story opens with the colonel of the novella’s title making his wife a cup of that ubiquitous stimulant, coffee, banishing tiredness with caffeine. The process is described in all its material determinants: the ground beans, the boiling fluid, and a series of containers that themselves leech into the resulting mixture as he “scrape[s] the inside of the can with a knife until the last scrapings of the ground coffee, mixed with bits of rust, fell into the pot” (109).

At the same time, we also get an early insight into the physical maladies that ail both the colonel and his wife. He finds his gut and stomach affected: “the colonel experienced the feeling that fungus and poisonous lilies were taking root in his gut” (109). She “had suffered an asthma attack” the previous night and “sip[s] her coffee in the pauses of her gravelly breathing. She was scarcely more than a bit of white on an arched, rigid spine” (109, 110).

The pair’s deteriorating corporeal condition is a direct result of their long wait for the colonel’s overdue pension. “For nearly sixty years–since the end of the last civil war–the colonel had done nothing else but wait” (109). And in the novella’s sixty or so pages that follow, there is not much in the way of action except for the small routines that occupy the couple in their quiet, desperate poverty.

In the first few of these pages, the colonel makes coffee, winds the pendulum clock (one of their few remaining possessions, a constant reminder of time’s passage), sees to the rooster they are keeping for a forthcoming cockfight, seeks out his suit, shaves, dresses… “He did each thing as if it were a transcendent act” (112). But of course these habits are far from transcendent; they are the endlessly iterated reflexes of a life spent waiting for transcendence, for a response from that department of state bureaucracy charged with allocating money to war veterans.

For of all the colonel’s routines, the most symptomatic is his weekly trip down to greet the mail launch, follow the postman to the post office, and watch him sort the mail. “And, as on every Friday, he returned home without the longed-for letter” (127).

Colonel waitingStill from the film El coronel no tiene quien le escriba
These are, then, bodies that have yet to be scripted into the national narrative. The colonel frequently and somewhat obsessively casts his mind back to his role in the revolution–in which ironically he himself was a type of mailman, whose own arduous journey delivering funds for the war is somewhat belated, arriving only “half an hour before the treaty was signed” (131). But he receives a receipt for his delivery, a proof of his service, and can’t believe that it can now have been mislaid in the national archives. “‘No official could fail to notice documents like those,’ the colonel said” (131).

But indeed, despite the myriad documents and missives that circulate through the story–newspapers, pamphlets, an air-mail letter for the local doctor–the story emphasizes the lives and experiences that never achieve representation. All this writing is characterized by its absences, its lacks. The national papers are subject to censorship, demanding but also frustrating suspicious interpretation: “‘What’s in the news?’ the colonel asked. [. . .] ‘No one knows,’ [the doctor] said. ‘It’s hard to read between the lines which the censor lets them print'” (119). While there’s little hope that any outsiders will interest themselves in local happenings: “‘To the Europeans, South America is a man with a mustache, a guitar, and a gun,’ the doctor said, laughing over his newspaper. ‘They don’t understand the problems'” (127).

And though there are also clandestine missives and messages that attempt to make up for this representational lack, these endlessly say “the same as always,” and the colonel doesn’t even bother reading them (137).

Waiting, waiting, the colonel and his wife are subject to a “slow death” (165). But almost to the end, they maintain their patience, however much it is tried in their various squabbles as they figure out strategies to keep their bodies at least semi-nourished. Should they sell or keep the clock, and above all the rooster whose fight might lead to a big pay-out? “But suppose he loses,” objects the wife (165).

In the end, the couple are reduced to something like what Giorgio Agamben terms “bare life”. What are the two then to eat? And yet it is, strangely, this condition, in its loss of hope for transcendence and realization of pure, immanent materiality, that is portrayed as a moment of almost ecstatic ascesis. After all his hesitations, his anxiety, after all the ways in which he is ignored or taken advantage of by the state and local notables alike, somehow the waiting is over:

It had taken the colonel seventy-five years–the seventy-five years of his life, minute by minute–to reach this moment. He felt pure, explicit, invincible at the moment that he replied:

“Shit.” (166)

(In the meantime, it would seem that García Márquez himself is now tired of writing.)


[I’ve temporarily interrupted the hiatus over on Latin America on Screen for an analysis of Kill Bill.]

Kill Bill posterPerhaps surprisingly, at the end of a two-part movie extravaganza that’s so much a homage to pop culture Orientalism, the climactic “final chapter” of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill turns out to be a rather sedate melodrama in Latin American setting.

It’s true that plenty of the preceding action has also taken place on the Southwestern frontier: Texas and Southern California. The shift south of the border is, then, not unlike the move in the Tarantino-penned From Dusk to Dawn from an extended crime sequence in the US desert to the occult sensuality of a Mexican biker bar.

Still, the sudden and (here) almost random displacement is jarring in both films.



Another short post, mainly a placeholder. I very much like the following image, by Russian photographer Alexey Titarenko:

Viewed from the perspective of a slight temporal extension or duration, running together or blurring the precise chronometric moments fixed in ordinary snapshots (not quite sub specie aeternitatis, but getting there), the crowd shows its commonality. Individuality disappears even as elements of singularity (hands, shoes) remain readily discernable.

From lens culture via Space and Culture.


Via 3 Quarks Daily, an MSNBC report of an experiment on brain activity in response to politically oriented stimuli:

“We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning,” said Drew Westen, director of clinical psychology at Emory University. “What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion, and circuits known to be involved in resolving conflicts.” [. . .]

Then, with their minds made up, brain activity ceased in the areas that deal with negative emotions such as disgust. But activity spiked in the circuits involved in reward, a response similar to what addicts experience when they get a fix, Westen explained. [. . .]

“None of the circuits involved in conscious reasoning were particularly engaged,” Westen said. [. . .]

Notably absent were any increases in activation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain most associated with reasoning.

Now, the interpretation put on these results, by MSNBC if not by the Emory team itself, concerns the irrationality of partisan “bias.” “Nonpartisanship” is such a strange fetish in US media and political culture.

But of course political habits are about affective fixes; and political responses are affectively conditioned before they are reasoned–or even ideological–judgements. No great surprise or scandal there.

Update: further discussion at Alas.


Rolf Harris portraitIt’s a serious business painting the sovereign. And it remains so even when, as in the most recent instance with Rolf Harris’s commission, entrusted to a comedian.

Rolf is one of those Australians probably better known in the UK than in his homeland, in that he has taken it upon himself to represent the Antipodes to the (former) motherland. This he has done through a musical oeuvre that began with “The Wild Colonial Boy” (Rolf Harris Thursday Night at the Down Under Club London [1957]) and notably includes “Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport” (Relax with Rolf [1960], but much reprised since).

Rolf crosses genres with gusto: he has inducted the Brits into the sound of the digeridoo, and has also spent much screen time demystifying the world of high art, with his mid-composition catchphrase of “Can you see what it is yet?” (One must imagine Michelangelo shouting down the same question from his scaffold while halfway through the Sistine Chapel ceiling.)

And as Rolf’s trademark goatee has slowly turned white with age, British television viewers have come to see him less as an over-chirpy annoyance and more as the object of some affection. He is, after all, in many ways our creation, a fixture in the media landscape since time immemorial and for reasons long since forgotten.

The same is, mutatis mutandis, true of Queen Elizabeth II, of course. Like Rolf, the queen is a hangover from a previous age: born into Empire, and still intangibly associated with that curious and much misunderstood international organization, the Commonwealth; her contours gradually softening in old age; for most of us, she has simply always been there, consistently if periodically mentioned in the media, with a glitzy special on the telly at Christmas. So it makes a certain sense that Rolf should be her latest portraitist.

(Hitherto, Rolf’s closest brush with the political came with Margaret Thatcher’s unexpected and emotional revelation on Desert Island Discs that his version of “Two Little Boys” was her favourite song of all time.)

The Queen, detailRolf declared that his aim was to represent the queen as “one of us.” To put a smile on her lips, and so also on ours. Queenie would be everybody’s granny: a little rumpled, a little out of it, sitting in the corner, mostly ignored as the conversation goes on around her.

Close up, however, Rolf also manages to give the Queen’s eyes a maniacal glint. Does this pensioner’s harmless façade harbour untold dreams of power?

For Rolf reveals the real predicament of representing royalty: how to give a sense of the monarch’s two bodies, the mortal and the juridical. With Rolf’s portrait, it is in the eyes, but also the rather awkwardly rendered hands, which reveal not only our artist’s struggles with draughtsmanship, but a definite tension, too. The queen is sitting under some kind of duress: she’d rather be with the corgis. But here she is, paraded again for our inspection, the face (and head) of state.


It may have passed the attention of some that Canadians have been voting today. Not all of them, mind you: Craig of theoria and RIPope of Long Sunday have both made clear that they have better things to do. Or rather, that they are holding out for such better things. In RIPope’s words:

it is precisely because I feel so much pathos that I won’t just make myself feel a bit better by voting. I’m willing to suffer this hell for the sake of something Other.

There are, on the other hand, two scare stories circulating to encourage people to the polls.

One, much promulgated by the Liberal party, is that the election of Stephen Harper’s rejuvenated Conservative party would mean the rise of American-style neoconservatism; Harper would be “Bush lite.” This warning worked well enough at the last federal election, in June 2004, when a swing away from the Conservatives in the final few days of the campaign ensured the Liberals would have enough support to form at least a minority government. Subsequent revelations of Liberal corruption, however, mean that fewer are now persuaded that they are a much lesser evil than the Conservatives.

The other scare story, a version of which can be found in Dave Pollard’s “Mulroney’s Revenge”, is that this election could mean the end of Canada. Unable to win a clear majority themselves, the Conservatives will form an unholy alliance with the Bloc Quebecois. The alienated West (the Conservatives’ power base) and the alienated Francophones will together conspire if not to the physical and geographical break-up of the nation, at least to gut the Federation of all power.

But both scare stories are, in essence, one and the same: they prey on the fear of becoming American. In Pollard’s words:

We will then be America Lite — still bristling at the thought that we’re just like Americans, but with our assets even more substantially owned by Americans than they are today, an economic colony with the fading illusion of relevant political independence. Instead of being the potential role model for the 21st century, we will be the country of great promise that was never realized.

This is a theme that obsesses Canadian pundits and commentators. Here, plucked almost at random, is another example, taken from one Rafe Mair and his two-part story, “Why Canada is Unraveling Again” and “How to Deal with our Next Unity Crisis”:

The country teeters on the chasm of national disintegration and the federal government and indeed opposition act as if nothing is happening for fear that simply by admitting that there’s a problem will itself encourage a bad result.

The irony is that to avoid becoming American, the only solution these anxious nationalists can devise is to be a little more American:

I think it useful to look at how the Americans did it in 1787 when, with equal representation from all states, large and small, they came up with what is unquestionably the best constitution ever made.

How to be like the US, without exactly being the US? How to be “America lite” without quite being (perceived as?) America lite? That seems to be the question around which much of contemporary Canadian politics turns.

Which is hardly a question that would get me up and running to a ballot box.

And surely, as Craig notes, the refrain of “Well, at least we aren’t American!”, the more or less smug fetishization of small differences, hinders rather than helps any real political analysis.


Jorge Luis Borges

One of the curiosities of Jorge Luis Borges’s stories is the way in which they combine the most rarified of philosophical abstractions with an almost obsessive focus on violence, death, and the body.

In one of his earliest books, Historia universal de la infamia (A Universal History of Infamy), Borges is interested in how violence is narrativized: in the semi-mythical narratives that accrete around crime and criminality, preserving but also domesticating our fear of those who live on and transgress society’s margins.

“The Widow Ching–Pirate” is particularly concerned with the intersection between storytelling and warfaring. Its plot details the way in which this notorious pirate “queen” is compelled to surrender ultimately not by force, but by her own interpretation of signs both natural and man-made:

The moon grew thin in the sky, and still the figures of rice paper and reed wrote the same story each evening, with almost imperceptible variations. The widow was troubled, and she brooded. (23)

The widow feels that she herself has been emplotted in this narrative that she reads in the skies, a narrative slowly coming to its “inevitable end,” either “infinite pardon or infinite punishment” (23). And in surrendering she both accepts and influences her fate, choosing to seek pardon rather than punishment, or at least to take her chances.

It is then chance–the unpredictable, undecideable, and indeterminate–that also connects violence and narrative. Texts are constantly subject to “almost imperceptible variations,” some of which may have the most dramatic of consequences. “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, though in many ways a playful satire of avant-garde literary pretensions, alerts us to the different interpretations that can be generated by barely (here, absolutely) imperceptible differences between texts:

It is a revelation to compare the Don Quixote of Pierre Menard with that of Miguel de Cervantes. Cervantes, for example, wrote the following (Part I, Chapter IX):

…truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor.

This catalog of attributes, written in the seventeenth century, and written by the “ingenious layman” Miguel de Cervantes, is mere rhetorical praise of history. Menard, on the other hand, writes:

…truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor.

History, the mother of truth!–the idea is staggering. (94)

Again, we shouldn’t forget the comedy here, but Borges returns endlessly to the drastically contrasting outcomes that can be the result of the smallest initial differences: in, for instance, “The Garden of Forking Paths” (and compare the Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle Sliding Doors) or “The South”.

So in “The South,” it is not so much that there is any one pivotal moment: there are many, all of which cumulatively lead the plot to its narrative conclusion, and the story’s protagonist, Juan Dahlmann, to his untimely end. But each of these pivots on which the story and Dahlmann’s fate rests is presented as the lightest of touches: literally so, in the instance of the injury that leads him to septicemia and the sanatorium. “Fate can be merciless with the slightest distractions,” comments the story’s narrator:

That afternoon Dahlmann had come upon a copy (from which some pages were missing) of Weil’s Arabian Nights; eager to examine his find, he did not wait for the elevator–he hurriedly took the stairs. Something in the dimness brushed his forehead–a bat? a bird? On the face of the woman who opened the door to him, he saw an expression of horror, and the hand he passed over his forehead came back red with blood. (174-175)

The choices we make only half-aware (taking the stairs rather than the elevator) combine with half-noticed events (a brush on the forehead) to produce unexpected and sometimes fatal results. This particular event is here later mirrored when, in a store in the south of the story’s title, “Dahlmann suddenly felt something lightly brush his face” (278). But it would be wrong to say that it is his reaction to this encounter–accepting a young thug’s challenge to a fight–that seals his fate. For one thing, what’s required is the intervention of yet another “unforeseeable” intervention, a gaucho throwing Dahlmann a weapon; for another, we might also say that our protagonist’s conclusion has been inscribed in his ancestry, his grandfather’s own death fighting in the south, and the “pull” of that lineage.

Moreover, it’s not even as though the story ends so very determinately: it requires the reader to imagine a perhaps inevitable conclusion: “Dahlmann firmly grips the knife, which he may have no idea how to manage, and steps out into the plains” (179; my emphasis).

Finally, “The Library of Babel” examines narrative, and its infinitude, and also the violent passions that it can provoke, with its image of librarians searching for the elusive (but assuredly existent) volume that would vindicate their lives:

Thousands of greedy individuals abandoned their sweet native hexagons and rushed downstairs, spurred by the vain desire to find their Vindication. These pilgrims squabbled in the narrow corridors, muttered dark imprecations, strangled one another on the divine staircases, threw deceiving volumes down ventilation shafts, were themselves hurled to their deaths by men of distant regions. Others went insane… (115)

The despairing realization here is of the dark nexus between chance, certainty, and totality. For it to be certain that the library contains precisely the volume that the pilgrims seek, then the library has to be infinite, to contain the totality of all possible books. Which means that the chance of finding that particular text “can be calculated to be zero” (115).

As such, even in the perfectly ordered world represented by the all-encompassing universe that is the library, we are left at best to take, but also then to relish, our chances.

Library of Babel