Reflection – December 13, 2010

This course has been hugely beneficial. One of the reasons I came back to school was that I, as I was teaching Language Arts, found myself increasingly unsure about my own convictions with regards to art in general, including the arts both of teaching and of language. This course has given me a language with which to interrogate my understanding of art, and a language with which to teach it. It has also, along with the other courses I took this semester, effected an expansion of the concept of art beyond the realm of individual objects or production to include a broad complex of both ideas and behaviors.

It is perhaps telling of the influence of this course that those theorists who we studied early form a foundation for my understanding, and those we approached near the end of the course are the ones with which I feel and ongoing engagement. I am ever drawn back to Kant and Hegel for the theoretical underpinnings of modernity. It feels as though Kant offered an ideal rationalization for art, that Hegel grounded it in a method. The importance for both of these is necessarily ongoing, but there is a certain strain of the mythological in later theorists, a certain suggestion that some new turn in human consciousness is upon us, that I just can’t help being attracted by. Ironically, my ongoing interaction with these later theorists, my uncertainty and interrogation of their ideas at a level more immediate to my own interests, has translated into a relative dearth of address in these journals. Whether this is due more to the mounting responsibilities in other classes later in the semester, or to my ongoing uncertainty and curiosity with regards to these theories, I can’t say (though I’d be willing to bet it’s a bit of both). In this final journal entry, therefore, I’ll attempt to address some of these later theories briefly, and with an eye to the ongoing influence they are having on my own theories.

Kristeva looks below language for rhythm, and understands rhythm as a truly organic phenomenon. It is thus through the chora, the “discrete quantities of energy” which move through the pre-oedipal subject who is “always already involved in a semiotic process” that language arises (2071-2). The chora is the “essentially mobile and extremely provisional articulation constituted by movements and their ephemeral states” (2072). Kristeva’s theory effectively does away with the issues of “incitement” that arose in Freud and were preserved in Lacan. Kristeva understands that the subject needs no incitement because it is always already involved in meaning-formation, and that Saussure’s langue, vocal language systems, are just a product of the “various constraints imposed on this body…by family and social structures” (2072). Kristeva seems to suggest a potentially biological underpinning to notions of the self when she traces the development of our perceptive apparatus back to the mother, the biological well-spring of our very material existence. She follows systems of meaning all the way to the genetic level, suggesting that “genetic programmings are necessarily semiotic: they include the primary processes such as displacement and condensation, absorption and repulsion, rejection and stasis” (2076). The place where these deep codes are communicated is “enigmatic and feminine,” “rhythmic, unfettered,…musical, anterior to judgment” (2076). It seems like Kristeva’s description of pre-linguistic meaning could be equally applied to pre-linguistic man. The poet who can channel the chora is one who communicates the depth of being, the mythical source of humanity.

Barthes makes no excuses for his Mythologies, which come to seem like a telling of the story we tell each other when we might not seem to be telling each other anything. In this way he relates to Bourdieu, who wants to demonstrate the power of these untold stories to shape our ideas about the world, and Michel de Certeau also suggests that the smallest actions constitute an entire mythological system which works below reason and intellectual action.

I was convinced, even after the short readings that were assigned in class, that I would find myself inevitably involved in an ongoing relationship with Frederic Jameson and Michel Foucault. I added their books to my Amazon wishlist even before I had decided on my courses for next semester. Jameson’s Marxism seems to offer a wonderful mode of ongoing historical interaction and politically conscious critique. And while Jameson himself criticizes Foucault for the ‘no-way-out’ paradox of his system of knowledge, I can’t help but agree with Jameson also that the post-structuralist project is a product of its own historical moment, and this moment seems crucial in the development of Western thought. If we can understand Kant in relationship to his ‘author-function’, that his philosophy was inevitably a product of his historical moment, little more than a vocalization of things which were, by the time he wrote, on the very tips of everyone’s tongues, We might understand Foucault’s work and that of the late Marxists (I’m thinking also of Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment which, though I have not read it, I understand to be negative in its treatment of Enlightenment philosophy since Kant) to be equally a product of some ‘new era’. The very fact that Foucault can put his theory into words, as Donna Haraway suggested, may signal its own obsolescence. I am inclined to take Jameson at his ‘word’: we are ‘post-modern’ also in the sense that many of the structures of human thought and social interaction, structures which presented themselves in the phantasmagoria of modernity as inevitable and timeless, have fractured under the weight of their own responsibility. This is perhaps the ‘awakening’ that Benjamin seemed so interested in effecting, and that it is an ongoing crisis in contemporary history surely might speak to his resurgence in critical interest. Foucault does seem to lock us into a mode, but he cannot account for the ways that just our knowledge of being locked in might suddenly burst the lock, in a lightning-flash insight. Nor does he seem, at least so far as what I have read, to realize the power-relationships moving in the opposite direction. I have been reading a little Michel de Certeau, who seems to understand that, although we may live within a system of power and discourse which is largely beyond our individual control, we do control it, even if at the most ‘negligible’ scale, with our very habitual existence. The ways in which individuals interact with the Foucault’s web invariably shifts the balances of power, if ever so slightly. In creating an inescapable web, Foucault also offers us the tools which we might use to shape the web more ideally.

Indeed, it seems at times when Foucault uses words like “discourse” and “power,” he is simply substituting more menacing-sounding terms for earlier notions of “language” and “culture”. He is interested in highlighting the ways that our ‘language’ plays into the established power-structures. In this way, his project would seem to accord with that of Jameson and other Marxists, since it demonstrates the ways in which our system is organized in order to perpetuate itself. We might understand language from a Saussurian perspective to be just such a system, and Hayles ideas about information are likewise structured. If we drew a line from N. Katherine Hayles to Julia Kristeva, we could conceive of the ways that, in a very strictly biological sense, communication has always been a matter of information systems. Kristeva’s chora derive from genetic and biological systems, which have the potential of quantification in the same terms of electric impulses that we use to describe computer systems. Of course, this is all beyond current science to demonstrate concretely, but it is within the capacity of the system itself. Perhaps the way out of the system, as Derrida might suggest, is to plumb its depths. Science seems in some ways to epitomize the system of knowledge that Foucault understands as our web of power and discourse.

Indeed, it might be from this perspective that we approach the work of Hayles and Haraway. It is through technology that science vocalizes itself in our everyday existence. Our interactions with technology create what Benjamin casts as our perceptive unconscious, the ever-changing mode of perception through which we evaluate our surroundings. To this end, science fiction contains a mythologizing impulse; it is a mythologizing of the future, but of a future which is also ever present.

I might even be inclined to argue for the presence of a mythology in Jameson’s concept of the ‘postmodern’. Could we conceive of pastiche as a mythology which has been driven by the increased speed of modern change to address ever more contemporary moments in social memory? When our entire mode of perception is being acted upon at an ever-increasing rate, the temporal depth of our relationship with the world around us must decrease, if only because we find ever fewer connections in times which seem increasingly far away. For pre-historic and classical man, lengths of time between significant change were long, and so epic myth attempted to encompass a global depth, explaining in its origin stories the existence of contemporary phenomenon. For post-modern man, our origin seems rooted ever more contemporaneously, and so when we look for our foundations, we can’t help but look not to ancient history but still to the earliest moment which seems to accord with our own. That these images of history don’t necessarily look anything like real historical circumstances speaks to their power as ‘myth’, even as it seems to call for their examination in light of dialectical history or the history of the seats of power.

As I hope is evident in this collection of journals, this course has given me both a theoretical framework in which to work and an (at least initial, if still rather vague) understanding of the ways my own ideas, about art as much as about contemporary existence generally, fit into and grow out of this broader framework. As far as a course with which to begin my graduate study, I can’t imagine one that would have been more helpful.


About Noah Brewer

I am an English teacher and Debate coach living in Carrollton, GA. I like gardening and critical theory. I like teaching and learning. I like language and technology.
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