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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

2-for-1: Do We Do Theory?, and The Debate Between Balibar And Badiou

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 02/06/07 at 01:55 PM

Of late, there has been a great deal of discussion here and at Long Sunday (Post #1 and Post #2) about whether it is permissible to generalize about “doing theory” in the academy. In this post, I’ll explain why I think the debate has taken its current form, what it means to do theory while fully aware that one is doing so, and how all this relates to blogging and the blogosphere ideal of good faith.

As you might expect, this issue will force me into a consideration of pop musicians Daniel Johnston and Bjork, particularly the question of Johnston’s obsession with Casper The Friendly Ghost. I will end by offering a few observations on the recent dialogue at Irvine between Alain Badiou and Étienne Balibar.

I don’t really know why I’m obsessed with swans but, as I said, everything about my new album is about winter and they’re a white, sort of winter, bird. And obviously very romantic, being monogamous. It’s one of those things that maybe I’m too much in the middle of to describe. When you’re obsessed with something, you can explain it five years later, but in the moment, you don’t know exactly why. Right now, swans seem to sort of stand for a lot of things. I see a picture of a swan now and I go [takes a deep gasping breath], but two years ago it didn’t do that to me.

-from an interview with Bjork by Donna Karan, Interview magazine, Sept. 2001

Bjork contradicts herself remarkably here. She begins by giving a series of revealing, thoughtful interpretations of her own decision to wear an ungainly swan dress to the Oscars, after decorating her album Vespertine with images of swans. She then immediately disowns these interpretations by claiming that she’s “too much in the middle of” the phenomenon to describe it.

In other words, she does what she can to preserve the aura of the symbol of the swan, by protecting it against the corrosive process of becoming conscious of its meanings. However, by doing this, she is actually giving in to us. As everybody knows, the dress Bjork wore to the Oscars was criticized far and wide for being incredibly ugly. It did not look like a dress—it looked like a ridiculous swan costume.

Its ugliness was actually the secret of its greatness, however. It was a gesture of defiance amidst hundreds of safer choices. The fact that it was specifically an image of a swan mattered greatly: by wearing an awkward dress, Bjork was asserting her identity as the “ugly duckling” become swan. The wintry images of sleep and oblivion on Vespertine ("it’s sort of about hibernation and being in a cocoon") are associated in her mind with the bird’s white color, and are part of a death drive reinforced by the inescapable reference to Swan Lake. Just a moment before, Bjork had told Karan, “think there’s definitely an element to me that’s quite self-sacrificial....I would be ready to die for [a] cause.”

So, Bjork’s unwillingness to respond to her critics, which was based in her unwillingness to analyze her own choices, prevented her from laying claim to the drama, heroism, and rebelliousness of her supposed faux pas.


I do theory. I refer to Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Jacques Lacan in my academic work, as well as when I blog. Saying as much is valuable to me because it allows me to indicate that my work tries for political relevance, a high degree of abstraction, a commitment to skeptical analysis, and liberatory ideals. If I were to downplay this element of my writing, I would be missing an opportunity to call attention to its aims.

Of course, it is possible that some interlocutors will have defined themselves as “Against Theory” (to borrow the title of the famous article) to such an extent that they will dismiss me the moment they hear this. That is unfortunate, but it would be more unfortunate still to resort continually to the vocabulary of happenstance: this paper happens to use Being and Time, and the next one happens to cite “Force and Signification.” That would put me in the position of the analysand who insists that every iteration of his symptom is happening for the first time.

There are internal disagreements among like-minded scholars; dissent is a feature of just about every sort of shared project. This does not make the general category illegitimate, any more than debates among Christians or Marxists or Dadaists make those groupings incoherent. The debate Jodi cites, between anti-essentialist feminists and Lacanian feminists, is enabled by the shared assumption that the experience of gender in Western society creates practical and psychological problems for both sexes, but particularly for women. Both schools reject essentializing thinking about—to take just one right-wing example—the “natural roles” men and women should play.

I myself do not know whether linking phenomenology and contemporary theory to German Romanticism will prove valuable, nor can I be certain what it will mean to narrate the history of theory in the 1980s and 1990s. It is easy to become anxious that such historicizing accounts will do two things: first, that they will create a distance between scholars and the subjects of historical consideration; and second, that they will create an unequal hierarchy in which theory is the determined result of an outworn tradition (Romanticism) or banal institutional pressures (funding, the desire for celebrity, etc.), while historicism itself escapes comparable critique.

First of all, there is every reason to embrace conversations that make one’s own practices visible. As Zizek writes in The Ticklish Subject:

There is a desire that remains even after fantasy, and this desire, of course, is the desire of the analyst—not the desire to become an analyst, but the desire....of someone who has undergone ‘subjective destitution’ and accepted the role of the excremental abject, desire delivered of the phantasmic notion that ‘there is something in me more than myself’, a secret treasure that makes me worthy of the Other’s desire. This unique desire....prevents me from immersing myself in the self-enclosure of drive’s circuit and its debilitating satisfaction. (298)

Second, what is lacking here is the triumphant re-statement. If “theory” is connected to the work of Schlegel, Goethe, Schiller, and Coleridge, is there any reason to apologize for unoriginality? Have the meanings and implications of those writers’ works been exhausted in the slightest? Likewise, if it turns out that philosophy has been dangerously corrupted by literature and literature departments—is this not exactly what Friedrich Nietzsche, the ex-philologist, desired when he wrote The Birth of Tragedy, or when he wrote Thus Spake Zarathustra as an epic poem? We ought not to go back on our desire.


There is a wonderful parallel here with the career of Daniel Johnston, a songwriter who suffers from severe manic-depression. Johnston’s songs refer constantly to to Captain America, Frankenstein’s monster, and Casper The Friendly Ghost.

Like Bjork, like many of the surrealists, Johnston does not analyze his own sources of inspiration. But suppose we did—we, who are trapped in any event inside of his world, because of the depth of his art. They are easy to interpret. Casper The Friendly Ghost, for example, combines Johnston’s childishness, feelings of persecution, and bouts of depersonalization, with altruistic impulses that he can only realize while “dead” or “absent”—for example, by making someone a tape they can play while he is not there.

Would this be the end of his art? On the contrary. Johnston is in a perfect position to argue that he is much further along than the rest of society, because he is consciously still a child while rest of us play at a superficial adulthood. In other words, he can re-state the fantasy being traversed, without losing the perspective of the analyst, and without the false wisdom of “realizing his mistake” and adopting an ideal of conformity.

Note that we do not accuse Johnston of borrowing from contradictory worlds. In fact, the world of Captain America does not resemble that of Casper The Friendly Ghost, but we accept that Johnston legitimates the pairing through syntheses of his own, rather than accusing him of careless eclecticism. Johnston holds up his end by allowing us to hope for such syntheses, instead of simply saying “I find Casper quite useful when I’m working on certain songs."(Or rather, Johnston may very well say only that, but our manner of interpreting his art does not fetishize the pre-existent “worlds” or systems from which he takes his tropes.)

The point is always to make the re-statement in the strongest possible terms, making use of the outsider analysis. If the link to German Romanticism is valid, then we are in the interesting position of announcing that Romanticism is the truth of the present moment. If, in fact, an incoherent set of texts have been grouped together under “theory,” then we are in a position to work out those contradictions in writings of our own. Furthermore, we may ask at what price other, less ambitious styles have escaped contradiction.

I’m not assuming that any statement one could make about theory would automatically be right; sometimes a claim will just have to be rejected. But I, for one, would like to see more meta-theory; for example, I would personally like to write an account of pleasure (joyfulness, jouissance, and the rest) in texts by Foucault, Barthes, Nietzsche, Derrida, the Lacanian school, and so on. I think theory could be productively accused of valorizing pleasure, and could use that accusation to make further progress.

There has been a great deal of discussion lately about good faith; Carrie raised the issue in her first post, I was accused of bad faith in a recent comment thread (of making mere “gestures"), and now it has come up again in this debate. As somebody who does theory, I’m obliged to respond that the success of the performance is the truth of the author’s faith. A very sincere person (like one of the neo-nazis who haunted I Cite) making vicious or repetitive arguments will have their comments deleted. A very insincere person who plays “devil’s advocate” may very well be a very useful foil. Naturally, good faith can only refer to the sincerity of the other person’s desire, not to their ability to understand or accept your argument.


When I saw Balibar and Badiou, both started by reading fairly long prepared statements on universalism. This was followed by a rather awkward dialogue between them, and a few questions from the audience to which both responded. I was greatly disappointed in Badiou, who failed to live up in person to the promise of his book on St. Paul. The nature of the debate points to some places where we badly need a critique of standard theoretical “moves.”

Cynicism: Balibar, in response to Badiou’s account of Pauline universalism, asserted that one must follow Marx in proposing that the universality of the market is real. Badiou, in his book, argues that the universalism of the market is false universalism, a “simulacrum” in Balibar’s apt phrase. However, Balibar made no effort to indicate how one might move from the universalism of the market, to any less oppressive kind. As a result, he ended up defending the right of all citizens to purchase Coca-Cola against the right to recognize and embrace a universal Event. Badiou’s language of the Event makes it easy for us to understand the normal cycles of compulsive consumption: every single purchase is an “Event” that will change everything, after which life will truly begin. Incredibly, this phenomenon of advertising is the kind of evental universalism Balibar ended up endorsing.

Balibar made the reasonable claim that there is nothing “outside of ideology.” However, he linked this to the claim that universalism always involves a process of exclusion and repression. The irony of adding this statement to his Marxist hymn to the market was unbearable—we cannot endorse liberatory universalism, and at the same time we are not giving commodities their due.

Balibar attempted to address the political necessity of the state by asserting the necessity of “responsibility.” Here he was working along similar lines as Zizek, who wrote that “a true Leninist is not afraid of passage á l’acte, of accepting all the consequences, unpleasant as they may be, of realizing his political project” (Ticklish Subject 236). In both cases what is being proposed is a false kind of “taking responsibility” in which the project can never be re-evaluated based on its consequences. How are the heads of State going to take actual responsibility for acts of repression, when they have been told that repression is a necessary condition of universalist statehood?

The escape into ontology: The nature of the “ontological,” a category that has been used and abused consistently since Heidegger, arose again here as an obfuscating force. Badiou, thinking in ontological categories, asserted that Balibar’s concept of egaliberte was Balibar’s universal ideal. He is absolutely right, and Balibar refused to acknowledge the similarities between the “absolute break” of Paul’s evangelism, and the radical demands of egaliberte. At the same time, the ontological does not translate directly to the political, which was Balibar’s focus. Balibar is not proposing a State based on egaliberte, and Badiou chose to emphasize a superficial ontological agreement over the more productive disagreement about whether a benign universalism is politically realizable.

Badiou’s “ontological” investigation also enabled him to claim, incredibly, that he was “not a universalist.” This claim, a protective and disastrous escape into ontology, disappoints every hope Badiou raised with his book on Paul. In addition, much of Badiou’s presentation was taken up with a discussion of the “body” of universalism that functions as its necessary complement and remainder. It would have helped for Badiou to have spoken outright about the body of Christ, since that was the obvious reference, but like Heidegger, with his “purely ontological” references to guilt and thrownness, religious terminology was here trapped in the amber of ontology, rather than being put to effective, secular use.

That’s not interesting: In response to one questioner, who asked whether there could be a totally valid and totally unrealizable definition of universalism, Balibar responded “that is not interesting.” This fundamentally aesthetic mode of evaluation misses the point. The problem with the question wasn’t that it wasn’t interesting, but rather that philosophy seeks to be more than verbiage. One of the worst habits of informal conversation in the academy is the sudden shift from a serious discussion of politics, to a subjective aesthetic statement about whether something is interesting. I’m sure that in this case Balibar meant that the question was useless, but that’s not what he said, and his statement echoes all the times a given argument or literary reading is summarily dismissed as “uninteresting.”

The cult of other disciplines: Over the course of the night, Badiou did make a series of excellent observations. In particular, he noted that the work of universalism was always incomplete (recalling Derrida’s claims about the democracy “to come"), which is a strong retort to Balibar’s claim that universalism has arrived many times, always with a hidden interest in oppression. He also claimed that universalism has a stake in the question of translatability, so that a true universalist believes that a great poem can be recognized as such in any language.

However, at a crucial moment, when he was asked by Balibar to give an example of a universal ideal, Badiou responded by citing the mathematical concept of the infinite series. Balibar, thank goodness, rejected this example as having little bearing on the important social and political issues at stake. Badiou has received much too much credit for his training in mathematics in general, and set theory in particular; whatever philosophy can borrow from other disciplines (history is another example) is credited with more solidity than the work of “mere” speculation. Nonetheless, we are long past believing in the mathematical proof of the recollection of virtue, and Badiou’s easily scorned attempt to revive it put him at Balibar’s mercy for the rest of the debate.


Talking of bad faith, I recently heard a pseudo-bebop instrumental cover of Bjork’s “Unison” playing in a restaurant. It took me a couple of minutes to realise what it was.

Fucking horrible, of course.

By The Jaywalker on 02/06/07 at 05:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment


By Joseph Kugelmass on 02/07/07 at 01:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Don’t know if this will be interesting to anyone, but I was just reading a long review essay on New Historicism.  It begins with a brief definition of theory:

“Hillis Miller defines theory as ‘orientation to language as such . . . [,] the displacement in literary studies from a focus on the meaning of texts to a focus on the way meaning is conveyed.’ Theory, Knapp and Michaels write, is ‘a special project in literary criticism: the attempt to govern interpretations of particular texts by appealing to an account of interpretation in general.’ Stephen Bann elaborates: ‘The critical review of a text has come to depend upon a framework of advanced theoretical knowledge which incorporates the Neo-Freudianism of Lacan and the Marxism of Althusser as well as contemporary developments in linguistics.’ To these names must be added Derrida and Foucault, and we have the full poststructuralist pantheon” (784-85).

--from, Zammito, John.  (1993) “Are We Being Theoretical Yet? The New Historicism, the New Philosophy of History, and ‘Practicing Historians’”.  *The Journal of Modern History*, 65(4), 783-814.  (available from JSTOR)

I think we can measure the distance between critical theory (Frankfurt School) and “theory” in terms of the textuality.  What makes “theory” so ecclectic (to use John’s term but without the negative valence) is just this emphasis on the textuality of all practice.  As Jameson writes in the theory chapter of *Postmodernism* (on Benn Michaels and De Man), this reduction to textuality allows for a spatial organization of source texts, whether it’s your array of theoretical references or your array of new historical anecdotes.  That is, theory in all instances in nothing more than reflection on practice.  But “theory,” in its subsumption of the world into the world of discourse, turns theory itself into practice. 

Or not.  I dunno.

By on 02/07/07 at 09:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment


I wholeheartedly agree that the line between the Frankfurt School, and subsequent theorists like Derrida and Foucault, can be drawn in part based on the invention of a textualism capable of subsuming the Real. Many of the exaggerated political hopes for theory lead back to what you call turning “theory itself into practice,” based on the idea of nothing being outside the text.

Bann’s account points back to Marx and Freud; considering the use the Frankfurth thinkers made of Marx and Freud, I think we should include them under the banner of “theory.” There is a disciplinary reason for this—they are widely read among scholars who also work on Derrida, Foucault, etc.—and an inherent one, since they conceived of the political uses and philosophical sources of their work in a manner similar to that of later theorists.

Perhaps you could explain what Jameson means by “spatial organization”?

By Joseph Kugelmass on 02/07/07 at 06:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph, the idea of spatial organization is sort-of metaphorical, but not exactly.  I’ve been struggling with it for years, because my dissertation is about how contemporary historical novels represent space.

Jameson’s argument about postmodernism is that one of its defining aspects is its privileging of spatial categories over temporal categories.  Partly, he would agree with David Harvey’s analysis of space-time compression.  But he extends his analysis beyond the phenomenological experience of a faster, more global, more simultaneous life.  For example, he compares modernist style with postmodernist pastiche.  In pastiche, discourses are juxtaposed spatially, basically like a montage or a collage.  But unlike these modernist forms, postmodern spatial form relies on difference to create form: the connections between juxtaposed atoms are abandoned in the name of immanence and attention to radical difference.  In Jameson’s critique of Benn Michaels, he discussed how the homology makes connections only at a local, immanent level, with no higher order of concept.  History becomes not a process, not the development of modes of production or the working-out of class conflict, but instead history becomes the space of discourse, and discourses can be mapped out on atop another based on synchronic similarities (the idea of “circulation” allows New Historicists to map the body, the market, and, say, periodicals over one another). 

So, long story short, textuality provides a spatial model, rather than a temporal or truly historical, model for understanding culture.

By on 02/07/07 at 10:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment


Thanks! That was a very helpful exposition of something that has been troubling me for awhile now, which is the tendency in some works of theory (particularly Foucault’s writings) to privilege simultaneous events and texts over lineages. Foucault describes phenomena that stretch from Greece to the present day, but he consistently writes about “the episteme” as though there is a transition ex nihilo at given moments in history.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 02/07/07 at 11:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph, a critic like Jameson might see Foucault’s method as similarly bound to immanence, to the meticulously local view of history (the telling detail, the anomaly, the archival revelation).  History without some high order organizing concepts isn’t historicism, for Jameson. 

Lukacs makes similar points back in *The Historical Novel*.  For him, what’s historical about Scott’s or Cooper’s novels is not in its style or its details.  Scott doesn’t try to write *Ivanhoe* in medieval prose (like Pynchon’s mock-18th-c *Mason & Dixon* prose), nor does Scott get bogged down in period detail and costume (like a Merhcant/Ivory production).  For Lukacs, the Scott tradition of historical fiction is historical precisely in its organizing patterns: history is a series of transitions of modes of production and the cultural systems that are erected on top of these modes.  In a novel by Scott or Cooper, every character in some way is participating in this transition, because every way of life is defined by its relation to the mode of production.  (George Dekker would later remove the overt Marxism from this reading and replace it with Scott’s real influence, Scottish stadial historicism: history as the transition from hunter/gatherer to pastoral to agricultural to commercial.)

My own work begins by looking at the spatial implications of all this: how history becomes the story of the displacement of one group by another, how one group or ideology is located both at a distance and in the past in relation to another group or ideology located as near, familiar, and present.  This is what, in anthropological terms, Johannes Fabian calls the denial of coevalness.  My thesis is that, in questioning the “clearance” or “removal” narrative of history, contemporary American historical fiction creates fractured spaces that are basically spaces of cultural pluralism: every group or ideology becomes a discourse, a code, and all are allowed to share the same space and time (which is represented as a anachronistic collage of various spaces and various times).  This has the advantage of questioning the inevitability of “development” and certain ideas of progress, but it has the disadvantage of removing any dialectical contact between groups, ideologies, cultures, or whatever you want to call them.  In creating a coeval space for different groups and their histories, today’s historical fiction fails to grasp or make sense of these histories conceptually.  All is flattened out into the space of the archive, the synchronizing of the past into discourse—which is why the hero of so many of these novels isn’t the historical agent, or even the wavering Scott hero, but rather the investigator, the researcher, the code-breaker, the metaphysical detective, etc. 

(Sorry for all this.  I’m in the process of rewriting the diss intro and getting it together for submission, so I’m sort of using this to think out loud.)

In any case, in light of all this, I still might want to draw some line between Frankfurt School Critical Theory and lit department theory.  While the latter uses, or at least cites, the former, I think Adorno, even Benjamin, would have a tough time with the reduction of theory/praxis into theory.  We’ve all been cautioned against trying to “use theory,” in some simplistic one-to-one mapping (*The Prelude* = logic of the supplement).  But this doesn’t mean that theory stands in some total, incommensurable aloofness with respect to the world (unless you’re into Baudrillard).  As I wrote before, theory is nothing more than reflection on practice.  And when practice becomes nothing more than further theoretical reflection, the line between Critical Theory and theory is marked. 

Or, in less evaluative terms, one might draw on James Moffett’s excellent *Teaching the Universe of Discourse* and suggest that what we call theory is simply one level of abstraction higher than practical criticism, which is itself simply one level of abstraction higher than the primary text.  And we saw with certain deconstructionists the attempt to replace the primary text with the deconstructive abstraction.  The theory/practice dialectic, flattened out into the theory=practice homology.

By on 02/08/07 at 02:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Um, but Luther’s dissertation sounds as though it is both interesting and inextricable from contemporary “theory.” I thought theory was *bad*, like marijuana and Marxism.

By on 02/11/07 at 02:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

So, I had presumed that the coining of theory was probably Althusser’s; in For Marx he gives a very explicit definition of what he thinks Theory is (caps his!) and why that is important. My guess has always been that the use of the term in present humanities is a distorted reflection of the influence Althusser had in French academia, obscured by the peculiarities of his American uptake. Anybody else conjectured likewise?

Then there was the Frankfurt School critical theorists, and of course, for Adorno and Horkheimer, ‘critical theory’ was very directly meant to situate them within the projects of German Idealism. I think it is good to make that clear, so I don’t extend ‘critical’ to anybody who comes along and uses big words.

In my own usage I regiment myself as follows: I try to say ‘critical theory’ when I refer to anyone in the Frankfurt lineage; ‘theory’ I hardly use at all, and pretty much reserve for Althusser and the early work of his students (Balibar, Ranciere, Foucault); and ‘psychoanalytic theory’ for the analysts (as I’m not comfortable lumping them in with Marxist philosophers as everyone else seems to be).

If I need a blanket term, I’ll say ‘20th century continental thought’ or ‘post-60s french thought’, which fit my sense that I am trying to denote a collection without much commonality other than that imposed on it by American disciplinary formation.

By on 02/11/07 at 02:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dear confused,

Thanks for writing to Dear Abby. I tend to agree that Luther’s project is within the purview of theory, insofar as it sounds like a valuable Marxist critique of certain versions of historical temporality. That’s my take, though, not his—Luther, any response?

A quick note: if we don’t know much about you, we can’t unpack certain kinds of ironic or sarcastic writing. I am unsure what you think about theory, Marxism, or marijuana, and would not generalize about a standard “academic” position on any one of those things.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 02/11/07 at 09:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, this was very helpful.

I don’t think 20th Century Continental philosophy, or French philosophy in the last fifty years, is really as diverse as all that. Writers like Jean Baudrillard and Michel Foucault draw continually from Freud, Nietzsche, and Marx, as I suggested in an earlier comment to Holbo’s post.

While some Marxists are made uncomfortable by psychoanalysis, the association between the two is not accidental. Many writers, including the writers in the Frankfurt school, have tried to synthesize the two (e.g. Eros and Civilization, or anything by Zizek). Others were simply influenced by both (e.g. third-wave feminism). Lacan was not necessarily a Marxist, but he did draw frequently on the same dialectical thinkers as Marx, particularly Hegel.

There may be some historical value to asserting the general category in a way different from Althusser. That will be an open question until these histories arrive in their full form. The story of how we may have arrived at our present use of the term “theory” through a misinterpretation of Althusser isn’t something I’ve heard before. It sounds well-founded and original.

I am all in favor of carefully defining our terms in the present, regardless of the vague conventions surrounding the term “theory.” We should use “critical theory” rigorously, to refer to the Frankfurt school, although we don’t. Personally, I use the term “philosophy” for much of what gets labeled as theory. I do this for two reasons. First, I want to sharpen the distinctions between philosophy and literary criticism. Even more important, I want to emphasize the traditional idea of “philosophy” as an art of living.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 02/11/07 at 09:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

For various reasons which might deserve closer inspection and even a bit of therapy, “good faith” has lately been gnawing at my mind like a neurotic cat at an extension cord, and so I took a couple of sentences of your post as an excuse to shoo it away a bit. The results are more boisterous than Valvetastic, but I guess still call for a trackback.

Oddly, as in surlacarte’s recent Kugelmassive response, poker gets mentioned. Something about you must say “Poker.”

By Ray Davis on 02/14/07 at 10:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Oddly, as in surlacarte’s recent Kugelmassive response, poker gets mentioned. Something about you must say “Poker.”

As Morgan Freeman once said: maybe it’s because I’m Irish.


I recommend Ray’s post, ye Valve readers.

Speaking loosely, there is some practical value to making judgements about good faith. Estimating good faith helps you guess whether an opponent will back down after being presented with irrefutable evidence. It’s an important prerequisite for writing without undue constraint.

There isn’t an ethical obligation to respond, though. Every important philosopher and critic I’ve heard speak at Irvine has given the cold shoulder to one or two questions. Plenty of times, at the Valve and elsewhere, a comment—or even a direct question—will fail to inspire an answer, simply because it’s too esoteric or tentative.

In Ray’s post, he writes: “Finally, what do I hear in Daniel Johnston’s best songs? Conviction.”

I agree that Johnston’s got it, and I love finding signs of conviction in other people’s writing, particularly in the blogosphere where the risk is always nothing being at stake.

My problem is with the line separating first-order conviction (for example, the emotion inspiring a love song) from second-order conviction (the desire to write a good love song). Johnston clearly possesses both, which is part of the reason why he could write so many love songs to a woman (the mythical Laurie) with whom he never had any relationship at all.

Pop artists like David Bowie or Bob Dylan appear to enjoy making art as much or more as they enjoy expressing themselves, so the content of their public selves is liable to change. To me, “Five Years” or “Mr. Tambourine Man” are affecting nonetheless.

So perhaps we need a new kind of good faith: faith in content combined with faith in craft. Lacking the first produces “devil’s advocates” and other Aeolian phenomena; lacking the second leads to timesomeness and cliché.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 02/15/07 at 12:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That makes a lot of sense, Joseph. I’m going to shut up and think about it a while.

By Ray Davis on 02/15/07 at 03:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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