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Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

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Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

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The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

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Monday, September 18, 2006

A night at the opera; or, the trouble with narrative

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 09/18/06 at 09:59 PM

I’m pleased to be writing my first post for the Valve. My humble thanks to John Holbo, for bringing me aboard, and to Scott Kaufman for introducing me to the community of academic blogs.

Thanks also to Adam Roberts, for his kind recommendation of a post I wrote under the pseudonym “forgottenboy.” My own blog, The Kugelmass Episodes, will be additional to these posts, as a place where I can write unrestrainedly about the Heideggerian interpretation of Johnny Cash.

I’ve been reading Adam’s excellent January post on Proust, and respond to it in a comment there. I want to use one of Adam’s ideas to consider a problematic mode of textual analysis, one based on the hypothesis of enjoyment.

Adam wrote: The danger lies in falling in love with Proust’s novel because one considers the high-society prancings and preenings in themselves somehow wonderful, marvellous, a fantasy of genteel living into which you yourself, as reader, would love to be projected.

I wholeheartedly agree, and am led by his remarks to consider another danger – that of projecting onto the narrative and the author a similar surreptitious enjoyment. I say “surreptitious” because there is a kind of reading that scoffs at the progress of a narrative, in favor of an interpretive reversal in which the essential in the text becomes the author’s supposed moment of enjoyment, a moment then “repressed” by the dutiful machinations of the story.

This sort of interpretation hit the cultural mainstream thanks to Quentin Tarantino, who loves the opening scenes of violence in A Clockwork Orange, and who called Stanley Kubrick a “hypocrite” in the New Yorker (Oct. 20, 2003) because Kubrick claimed to be making a film critical of violence. Tarantino’s language isn’t quite worth reprinting; he claims that Kubrick took a masturbatory pleasure in the opening scenes, and that the whole point of making the film was that initial pleasure.

Charles Dickens is a frequent target for the same sort of reading “against the grain.” At Irvine, I’ve heard Oliver Twist described as a novel in love with crime, and indeed Alexander Nehamas, in Nietzsche: Life as Literature, praises Dickens for creating a character as splendid as Fagin. Another colleague announced that she wanted to read Little Dorrit as a novel about pleasure in punishment: the only good father is a father in prison.

Such critics often borrow from Freud, and are partly inspired by Freud’s theses on the preservation of mental states. In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud wrote: “We have been inclined to take the [...] view, that in mental life nothing which has once been formed can perish—that everything is somehow preserved and that in suitable circumstances (when, for instance, regression goes back far enough) it can once more be brought to light.” Freud then attempts a description of a city like Rome, except with all its historical phases still intact and visible, so that by circling around it a visitor could see each different epoch projected in turn.

Freud writes “there is no point in spinning our phantasy any further, for it leads to things that are unimaginable and even absurd [...] the same space cannot have two different contents.” He is, as it happens, wrong. His perspectivist city is basically a hologram. That is very much in keeping with Karl Pribram and David Bohm’s neurological theory that memories are stored holographically, which enables them to withstand damage to the brain, and also enables them to be composites of data from different senses and parts of the brain.

This is where Proust comes back into the picture. There is no novel better than In Search of Lost Time at describing the gradual, holographic accumulation of perceptions. Marcel, in his evolving relationship with Albertine, takes a series of “snapshots” of her – as girl, woman, dilettante, sleeper, cheat, captive, fugitive – all of which are simultaneously, irreconcilably present to him.

Herein lies the difference between Marcel, the character, and In Search of Lost Time, the novel. Marcel refuses to essentialize any particular impression of Albertine, or to connect his impressions with one another. He refuses because some of the impressions give pleasure, and others do not. This affronts him. He would rather allow Albertine to remain an enigma, and thus to cherish certain visions of her, then to see her for the naïve, unhappy, and ambitious girl she is. Marcel is a bad reader: he is miserable when Saint-Loup is revealed to be homosexual, even though the reader notices plenty of clues beforehand, and nothing about Saint-Loup’s sexuality is reprehensible or incompatible with the rest of his character.

So, over the course of the novel, Marcel reflects in what appears to be an analytical mode, but what is really the interminable inner debate of jealousy; meanwhile, the novel gives us a very recognizable Albertine whose misdeeds are hardly surprising at all. (Adam credits Proust’s humorlessness to this continual lack of surprise.)

Marcel thus tries to do to his own novel what most operas do to their narratives: the opera exalts the moment of passion, codified in the aria, over the often tragic denouement. In Carmen, Carmen’s flirtatious song about love the “rebellious bird” is at least as present in the memory of the audience as the concluding lament. This is also what happens in Don Giovanni: the Don is punished, but that is only a single blast of percussion, a startling return of the opening chord, after hours of sinuous, delightful music. The feeling of disjunction between one part of the story and the next, so that the whole is belied by its parts, is heightened by opera’s lapses into expository, “recitative” sections.

For this reason Kierkegaard calls Mozart’s opera both the greatest expression of the erotic in art, and fundamentally static, destined to exist only through the moment. This identification of the erotic with the immediacy of the moment, and the opposition between the moment and the narrative arc, is there when Tarantino mocks Kubrick: “You couldn’t keep it in your pants the entire time you were editing and scoring [the first twenty minutes]” of A Clockwork Orange. The tyranny of the moment is there in psychoanalysis, where it evolved into the Lacanian jouissance, and is present also in Georges Bataille. Now that it has permeated criticism, the moment of enjoyment has cut apart narratives in the name of bliss: hence Barthes in The Pleasure of the Text.

Sometimes this duplicity is essential to a narrative; the ending pleads to be disregarded. In my comment on Adam’s post, I mention Moll Flanders and Brideshead Revisited as two examples of this genre. In fact, I strongly dislike Wagner for making the tragedy in opera less duplicitous – he appears to take it at face value.

Still, I appreciate what Proust saw in Wagner – the resurrection of narrative, which is precisely why Marcel feels himself “separated from Wagner by the wall of sound.” I don’t know how, exactly, the brain makes sense of a holographic multiplicity. Pribram himself eventually wandered into strange invocations of the “spiritual” and began recommending The Dancing Wu-Li Masters to people. But I think one place to look might be other musical forms, where a theme is reiterated first in one key, then another. Thus the Artful Dodger appears to us first as utterly charming, then as devious, but only because of a tonal change produced by a narrative development. We see more of him, and our first impressions are incorporated into a different harmony. Proust spent the last years of his life puzzling out the implications of Schopenhauer’s writing on music, and undoubtedly tried to write In Search of Lost Time in sonata form. He says the following about art, after playing a portion of the imaginary sonata by Vinteuil:

As the spectrum makes visible to us the composition of light, so the harmony of a Wagner, the colour of an Elstir, enable us to know that essential quality of another person’s sensations into which love for another person does not allow us to penetrate.

By his definition of love, Proust sets it against knowledge. A better definition of love might be the apprehension of that essential quality in another person, or in a work of art, that is only discernible through the diverse spectrum of experience, instead of the merely iterative moment. So that it is not the moment of enjoyment one seeks in Kubrick, or Dickens, or Proust, as if to catch them in a revealing hypocrisy, but rather fulfillment in knowing the essential quality of their sensations. When Alex in Clockwork crows that “What we were after now was the old surprise visit,” one can hardly feign surprise when he is visited in turn. 


The Troll of Sorrow wuz here.

By on 09/19/06 at 09:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Congrats, Joe!  First Valve-post, first comment, and it’s the Troll.  Bravo.  Baptism of fire and so on.  (Of course, when he describes you as “a well-read schizophrenic” he may not mean the word in its medical-clinical sense).

There is no novel better than In Search of Lost Time at describing the gradual, holographic accumulation of perceptions ...

Yes, although I wonder if Ford’s The Good Soldier isn’t a clearer, if (inevitably) less nuanced example of the sort of ‘holographic’ novel you’re talking about.

By Adam Roberts on 09/19/06 at 10:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

“Tarantino’s language isn’t quite worth reprinting; [. . .] You couldn’t keep it in your pants the entire time you were editing and scoring [the first twenty minutes]"

Re holography, there’s an interesting moment early in Infinite Jest where Dennis Gabor is mentioned as a possible anti-Christ.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 09/19/06 at 10:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think both The Good Soldier and Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet offer versions of the “holographic” Other. You make a good point.

I’m more drawn to Proust than to Ford, because I think Proust gives us chances at a reconciliation between the different faces his acquaintances present. For Ford, the lugubrious emphasis on the wife’s betrayal serves as an overly easy ground for truth. Proust, on the other hand, is quite aware that classifying Albertine by her betrayals would be reductive. Marcel’s aestheticism and commitment to knowledge makes him interested in other people as ends, not means; John Dowell thinks mainly of the wreck of his own happiness, and that simplifies matters.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 09/19/06 at 02:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Proust, on the other hand, is quite aware that classifying Albertine by her betrayals would be reductive...”

But Albertine clearly was up to various lesbian frolics ... no?

By Adam Roberts on 09/19/06 at 02:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

But Albertine clearly was up to various lesbian frolics ... no?

Absolutely, yes. Still, there is also the Albertine who, incredibly, sits through a impromptu lecture (eight pages long as written in the novel) by Marcel on Thomas Hardy, Dostoevsky, and the music of Vinteuil—and she maintains her awe of him despite his arrogant dismissals of her questions. So that we must take this scene of a patient, bewildered, and admiring Albertine into account when we judge her.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 09/19/06 at 03:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This may seem like an absurdly general statement, but when I encounter local readings “against the grain,” I consider it clever; when I read a global reading of the text against the grain, it strikes me as forced, a relic of the ‘70s desire to establish the Critic-as-Artist. 

This may be my own response to critical arrogance; but even so, I think it’s one thing for a critic to note that “an author didn’t realize what he was up to here,” another to declaim “this author didn’t know what he was doing period.”

(First person to say this accords perfectly with my conflicted feelings about deconstructions wins a penny: when you read Derrida, his brilliant, incisive readings feel like an organic interaction with the text; when you read about him, they seem like grand gestures intended to dismiss whole swaths of philosophical history.)

A tangent, I know, but let me loop it back: I think Tarantino’s remarks the result of a failure of imagination, in that he can’t believe others can hurdle what so clearly trips him up.  When I was a Joycean, I’d read The James Joyce Quarterly and fully 75% of the articles seemed similarly deficient.  (As if in lionizing the critic, we’d authorized mediocrity.) I wonder, then, if this whole knee-jerking-against-the-grain phenomenon is less intellectual than it is professional, since BIG IDEAS sell.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 09/19/06 at 03:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scot: “When I was a Joycean...”

Ah, happy days. For some reason this makes me think of that scene in Holy Grail where they’re trying to arraign Connie Booth as a witch, and John Cleese shouts ‘she turned me into a newt!‘ And then, when everybody turns to him amazed, adds, ‘uh, I got better ...’ I used to be a Joycean! But it’s alright ... I got better.

There is, of course, a very real material difference between admiring, even loving, Portrait, Ulysses and F.W. (as I daresay Scott still does) on the one hand, and ‘being a Joycean’ on the other.  And this has something to do with the magic holographic vision joe is talking about here.  Doesn’t it?

I’ll tell what leapt into my mind when I read that wonderful Freud passage quotated above about his imaginary perspectivist Rome, all the different elements on view at once.  It made me think of that rock-solid standby of university-level Victorianist teaching, Bentham’s Panopticon (Foucault’s Bentham’s Panopticon.  D A Miller’s Foucault’s Bentham’s Panopticon).  Freud’s Rome is a sort of inside-out panopticon, isn’t it.  And the dangerous glamour of the the Victorianist’s panopticon is that, however much you use it to critique Victorian discourses of power, confinement and control (etc etc) there’s a buried excitement in the thought that you, the critic, are the real Number One at the heart of the panopticon.  You get to see the century entire where poor foolish Dickens or Eliot was stuck in their partial blinkered midst of it.

What I’m saying, I think, is that this is the difference between, say, loving Joyce and being ‘a Joycean’—that latter an idiom which uses the rhetoric of subordination (’I’m a disciple of Joyce!’) to mask a secret glee in ownership (Joyce is mine! Or, a reluctant concession, ...ours.  But certainly not Professor X’s ... why, she has the temerity to opine on Ulysses and she’s not even a Joycean! Her views are beneath contempt ...’

What Joe, quite rightly, valorises as ‘the gradual, holographic accumulation of perceptions’ requires us to accept, or even to try and recreate, a partial perspective on the texts we read.

Apologies; I’ve rambled on some.

By Adam Roberts on 09/19/06 at 04:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Speaking of lionizing the critic . . .

Through a series of detailed and intimate intellectual portraits of leading critics--Elaine Scarry, Martha Nussbaum, Slavoj Zizek, and Edward Said--Harpham unfolds the complex and indirect ways in which human character is expressed in criticism.

By Bill Benzon on 09/19/06 at 05:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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