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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

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

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Monday, October 02, 2006

The Trouble With Diversity: Becoming Armenian, or, Egoyan’s Crowbar

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/02/06 at 08:13 PM

For Walter Benn Michaels, “culture” is a comforting fiction based on an unscientific racial logic, an incoherent theory of historical transmission, and a discredited linguistic essentialism.  I’ll leave the last of those arguments to the experts who will show up later this week; I’ll address the first two today—albeit obliquely, through a reading of the Atom Egoyan film Next of Kin (1984).  Egoyan seems the perfect foil for Michaels’ account of identity—born in Egypt, raised in Canada, proudly Armenian—and yet, with the notable exception of Ararat (2002), his identitarian commitments never drift into uncritical sentimentality.  His obsession with cultural transmission, in particular, his probing of the means by which memories intrude into the present moment, prevents such drift. 

No critic of Egoyan, academic or otherwise, has failed to notice how “films-within-films populate [his] works, glimpses of guilt or pleasure captured on tape and then twisted out of shape by a subsequent perspective."[1] Nor should they.  Egoyan directed the only watchable short in the Beckett on Film (2003) collection; his unostentatious Krapp’s Last Tape showcases his preoccupation with inaccurate, illegitimate transmission of racial/cultural/historical memories.  Like Beckett in Krapp’s Last Tape, Egoyan typically stages the interaction of individual and mechanical memory as a conflict between an event, the cherished memory of it, an initial reencounter with that memory, then all the subsequent ones.  All these “reencounters” are mediated—Krapp’s by his tape-recorder, Egoyan’s characters’ through home-movies (their own and others)—by contraptions far less abstract and direct than the “ghosts of historicism” Michaels discusses in The Shape of Signifier:

From Sethe’s standpoint, [Denver’s claim that “nothing ever dies"] is, of course, a kind of threat; she and her contemporaries are, as one critic has put it, “haunted by memories they seek to avoid.” But if Beloved‘s characters want to forget something that happened to them, its readers—"black people,” “white people,” Morrison herself—are to supposed to remember something that didn’t happen to them ... For Morrison’s race ... provides the mechanism as well as the meaning of the conversion of history into memory.  [Greg Bear’s] Blood Music requires weird science to explain how people can “remember stuff” they haven’t “even lived through” (197) ... Beloved needs only race.[2]

I quote from the “Historicism” chapter of The Shape of the Signifier not only because redacted chunks of it appear in The Trouble With Diversity, but because I think his argument against the possibility of cultural/racial/historical transmission far more forceful in the original.  This detour allows me to establish a memorial hierarchy, from the fantastic-technological (Blood Music) to the just plain technological (Krapp’s Last Tape) to the just plain fantastic (Beloved).  A self-aware lymphatic system capable of cloning consciousness would be the perfect vehicle for transmitting historical knowledge; modern day recording equipment would be orders of magnitude worse; and while powerful, the supernatural reappearance of dead children would be is impossible.  Yet, as Michaels argues, because of its emotional resonance, most Americans employ this impossibility whenever they think about culture, which “is now being used as a virtual synonym for racial identity."[3]

To return to Egoyan: in Next of Kin, the bored, affectless Peter escapes the Canadian suburbs by posing as the long-lost son of a Toronto-area Armenian family, the Deryans, who had been put up for adoption twenty years earlier.  He learns of their situation by impersonating his therapist and charming his way past a temp into the room where the videotaped sessions are stored.  Watching the Deryan family—father George, mother Sonya and daughter Azah—arguing, he thinks about his own family life, his parents’ constant quarreling over his future, and decides to transform himself into Bedros, the child whose absence threatens to tear the Deryan family apart.  He’ll become both Armenian and a member of the middle-class.  Becoming the latter is easy enough: he breaks from his family and joins the Deryan’s. 

Becoming Armenian, however, offers a greater challenge for the waspy Peter.  (I mean, just look at him!) And yet, his desire to belong and the Deryan’s desire to accept him are so great that he does, in some slippery sense, become Armenian by film’s end.  Shortly after arriving in his new “home,” he picks up his sister’s Spanish guitar and amateurishly plucks at its strings; but as the end credits roll, the camera pans around her bedroom to beautiful stylings on a Spanish guitar being played, as we see the second before the screen turns black, by Peter/Bedros.  The impostor acquires what he should have only been able to inherit: that Armenian soul, that supernatural connection to his community figured powerfully in Beloved.  ("Just look at him!  So Armenian, now!“) Now that it happened to “his” people, for example, he’ll also be haunted by the legacy of the Armenian genocide, &c.  It is as if, to paraphrase Michaels, learning how to rap didn’t make Peter a rapper, but black.

Egoyan can create this ambiguity because his attention to the faulty mechanisms of transmission parries the notion of inviolable identity.  (Not that that makes Peter’s transformation into Bedros any less unsettling.) His film captures the very identitarian appeal Michaels’ addresses: the creation, legitimate or no, of a common culture brings order to the mental lives of its members.  However, it also highlights the sorts of sacrifices such order entails: the acceptance of a lonely suburban exile into the family and the end to the search for the actual Bedros.  How you feel about this ending—whether you believe it the celebration of a talented fraud or a statement of intense desire for communities organized around a racialized culture—bears on how you’ll feel about Michaels’ argument.  What is the ideal outcome here?  Is it better for a community to remain blind to its constituitive incoherence so long as no one gets hurt?  What about if someone did get hurt?  What if the community, by virtue of being a community, suffered? 

I want to end by veering away from the questions of authenticity Egoyan’s dark film manages to ask playfully; instead, I’ll focus on what I called, in the title to this post, “Egoyan’s crowbar.” As I argued above, Egoyan’s obsession with the technologies of cultural/racial/historical transmission alerts him to the inconsistencies Michaels lays bear in The Trouble With Diversity.  So do you think, maybe, that this is a question of genre?  Does Egoyan’s realist obsession with verisimilitude—the means of its creation and reproduction, as well as its limitations—immunize him against identitarian appeals?  Does magic realism like Morrison’s lend itself to a identitarian notion of community?  Do you believe writers imagine community as such and thus write works of magic realism?  Or do you think they write magic realism and convince themselves that’s how commuity works? 

Yes, I know, incredibly general (and inflammatory) questions; but I want to open the floor for discussion, and know that few amongst us can resist the urge to write sweeping dismissals and/or defenses of entire modes/genres/traditions.



1 Linda Ruth Williams, “Songs for Singing Lovers,” Sight and Sound 15.12 (2005), 32

2 Walter Benn Michaels, The Shape of the Signifier (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 136.

3 Michaels, 40.


Comments

I must admit, Scott, that this contribution baffles me.  I *think* I see what you’ve done here, but I’m not sure why you’ve done it.  Michaels’s argument in this book isn’t literary.  It’s political.  But you seem to want to turn it around and make it literary again.  Why?  And why choose to do it through an obscure foreign film none of your readers have likely seen? 

Because, like I said, I think I know why you returned Michaels’s thought to its discipline of origin, but doesn’t that defeat the purpose of hosting a book event on a worked designed to escape the literary ghetto?

By on 10/02/06 at 09:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Michaels’s argument in this book isn’t literary.  It’s political. 

Well, Michaels does begin with Fitzgerald, and Gatsby.

Scott, how do you define “culture,” however Michaels defines it? What do you mean by “magical realism like Morrison’s”—American, or in terms of genre, because say Gunter Grass’s magical realism really complicates the question of “community”? Have you not heard that the first beginnings of wisdom is to ask questions but never answer any?

By Thers on 10/03/06 at 12:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott, we’ve had this conversation too many times before.  But you should check out Ian Baucom’s *The Spectres of History*, which is essentially a 500 page refutation of Benn Michaels’ philosophy of history. 

Now, Baucom’s work has its problems.  But his basic point is rather simple, and it’s one made by Michel de Certeau years before: the world we’re born into was made by the dead, and we commune with the dead every second of every day.  The rules of your university were designed by dead people.  Your citation method was formulated by dead people.  Your own personality is greatly shaped by the dead people in your family. 

For Baucom, the spectre of history is an image, an analogue, for this feeling of being constantly surrounded by a present-past out of our immediate control.  Thus, we could read *Beloved* along with the Moynihan Report (a reading performed by James Berger in *After the End*, but one previously implied by Hortense Spillers “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe"): you wanna know why there’s a “crisis in the black family”?  It’s in part the zombie-like survival of the racist destruction of black family structures from the 1600s to the present.

*Beloved* is a lot of things, and it’s much more than WBM’s reductive presentation of it.  At its most powerful, it’s an attempt to imagine what it was like suddenly to be free.  It’s an attempt to imagine what it was like suddenly to know freedom as the ability to have a family, to love one’s family, to settle with one’s family, to settle in a community, to hate one’s family, to hate one’s community, to love one’s body, to hate one’s body.  No other novel in world history more powerfully captures—or re-presents—what it must have been like to *take* one’s freedom after it had been “handed” over to you. 

Finally, Morrison’s novel spits venom at “identitarian notion[s] of community.” Sethe and Denver are put in their horrible situation because the community decides they are too uppity to deserve protection.  So when schoolteacher enters the town to recapture the family, the black neighbors don’t warn them. 

*Paradise* continues Morrison’s exploration of community as structured entirely by a system of antagonisms and scapegoating (I can give you my dissertation chapter if you’d like to read it).  And *Love*, while not her strongest novel, is a totally creepy vision of women’s relationships structured around hatred, jealousy, sexual competition, and violence (much like *Jazz* in that respect). 

So I can agree with WBM that the idea of historical transmission of culture is just another way of saying “ideology.” But what he neglects is the way our “present” world is largely the survival of the past, and that we need to confront the historicity of the present in order to change it. 

(I always go back to Stephen Dedalus’s definition of a ghost in his Shakespeare talk: a ghost is a fragment of the past out of context, a man who’s lost his surroundings.)

By on 10/03/06 at 12:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ll answer these backwards:

Yes, Luther, I know we’ve had similar conversations before, which is why I hitched—much to greg’s dismay, it seems—this iteration to a different aesthetic object.  Well, one reason, at least.  While I don’t necessarily find his reading of Beloved compelling, I don’t, as you well know, find yours compelling either.  You see brilliance where I see stumbling-over-convention, as we’ve discussed before.  (And no, Thers, whose post I’ve now read and who, it seems, somehow thinks Michaels “humorless"—I’m not saying I dislike Morrison, only that Beloved is grossly overrated.) That said, given how much I respect you, I should try to re-read Beloved and see whether my reaction was some combination of Faulkner-overdose and a dive into something whose difference I couldn’t see for all the (projected) similarities. 

That said, I think you misread Michaels here:

the world we’re born into was made by the dead, and we commune with the dead every second of every day.

That’s certainly what we think, and Michaels wouldn’t deny it for a second; but, he argues, that’s not actually the case.  The economic inequalities resulting from slavery aren’t cultural but economic; the insistence that reparations be cultural, in fact, is something he explicitly argues against.  If there are to be reparations, he would prefer they be monetary, since “respect” neither puts food on tables nor impacts pocketbooks. 

Thers, what I mean by “culture” in this post is the matter under discussion, no?  If it is, as I have Michaels defining it, “a comforting fiction based on an unscientific racial logic, an incoherent theory of historical transmission, and a discredited linguistic essentialism,” then that’s what it is.  Yes, we’re talking exclusively about American culture here—which, I realize, is odd given that this blog’s run from Singapore and that I’m talking about a Canadian director...but I wanted to emphasize the allegorical consonance of Egoyan’s film, which seems to dramatize the sentimentality of the dilemmas Michaels analyzes in a way which circumnavigates the whole “authenticity” argument.

[Deleted because, well, Scott’s dense sometimes.]

greg, I think rooting Michaels’ thought in the tradition from which it comes is important.  That I decided to do it through an Atom Egoyan film may seem odd, but you underestimate the depth of my insecurity: I assume that if I’m familiar with something, everyone else must have already written reams about it.  (I say that snarkily, but I mean it.  I’m as low-brow as they come, so if I like something, I assume it’s beneath most of my interlocutors.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/03/06 at 03:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther: dumb question ... is Ian Baucom’s *The Spectres of History* Ian Baucom’s The Spectres of the Atlantic?  I ask because it sounds interesting and I can’t find the former title in any .com bookshop.

Scott: an excellent post, I thought, despite the fact that, gosh! you referenced a non-blockbuster film!  I think you’re putting your finger on something crucial by constellating the sf-y technological component of eg ‘memory, self-identification etc’ alongside the magical (or ‘magic realist’) component.  If you can bear to suspend Godwin’s law for a mo, I’ve always thought that ‘magical realism’ is a neat-o two-word definition of Fascism.  What I mean is that it’s an ideological system grounded very specifically in the ‘realities’, material and political, that nevertheless offers its followers a number of transcendent satisfactions that can’t be reduced to merely material elements: vision, Geist, Volk, whatever.  In other words Fascism parses ‘reality’ through a kind of magical volk-ish self-identification via race or nation.  And Michaels is right that this latter—unless I’ve misunderstood him—is a Bad Thing.

But the ‘magical’ part can’t simply be substituted by a merely technological sublime, I think; and greatly though I enjoy reading Michaels (greatly though I agree with him, by and large) it’s often when he uses sf-nal examples that I think ‘hmmm ... or not’.  Not because (obviously!) I think there’s anything wrong with sf; but because when WBM uses them they seem to be reaching for more than they actually grasp.  I’m talking about the places where Michaels says eg ‘suppose you’re walking on Mars and you saw a Wordsworth poem inscribed on the Martian rock’, where he wants us to think ‘aha! then clearly we’d intuit intention behind the marks!’ when in fact we think ‘say what? Walking on where when we what with the what-now?’

Blood Music is a cool book, but it’s a bit disingenuous to suggest, on the subject of trauma-memory, and that whole dead-hand-of-the-past-on-the present thing, that it carries one-hundredth the emotional heft of Beloved.  Or, you know, The Sound and the Fury.

Sorry: I don’t think I’m being very clear.

By Adam Roberts on 10/03/06 at 04:57 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott: Also you’ll go straight to heaven for that two-word phrase ‘redacted chunks’:

("I quote from the “Historicism” chapter of The Shape of the Signifier not only because redacted chunks of it appear in The Trouble With Diversity...“)

‘What’s for supper tonight, Dad?’
‘Tonight, my lovelies, it’s redacted chunks!‘)
‘Hurrah!’

By Adam Roberts on 10/03/06 at 04:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The business of just what concept of culture is in play in Michaels is a curious one. Michaels’ usage is, I believe, a common one in which culture is treated as a more or less homogeneous metaphysical substance that comes in various flavors; it’s like “blood” except that it doesn’t flow through arteries and veins and doesn’t come with a “one drop” rule. This is the usage he finds to be somewhere between troublesome and completely useless.

Now consider this passage from his religion chapter (p. 174):

Like ideological affiliation but more radically, religious identity is very different from racial or cultural identity. [Yes, true enough.] The big selling point of cultural identity (the selling point, really of the very idea of identity) is that cultures are essentially equal. That’s what makes them different from classes, since classes are essentially unequal--they involve more or less money. And it makes them different from religions too, since if Christianity tells the truth, all other religions must be false.

So cultures and religions are different kinds of entities. But, surely religion is itself a cultural phenomenon—at least in large part, for there’s lots of speculation these days about possible biological roots for religion. And don’t anthropologists and professors of comparative religion think of religions as more or less “equal,” though religious practitioners often have a different view of the matter? That is to say, from the point of view of these intellectual specialists, and others, “culture” is a category that subsumes religion and so cannot be in conceptual parallel with it, as it is in Michaels.

The concept of culture that Michaels deploys and destroys is a common sense concept. It is not suitable for use in serious analysis of cultural phenomena and mechanisms. Michaels can get away with this because the more intellectually vigorous notions of culture are not very well articulated and, alas, often collapse back into the common sense notion.* Still, to the extent that Michaels claims to have demolished the concept of culture—does he every claim this? he does at times seem to think he’s done so, but an explicit claim?—it’s a con job. He’s pointed out real limitations in a certain notion of culture, limitations that lead to incoherence in certain uses, but he hasn’t disposed of culture itself by a long shot.

*I’ve taken a run at figuring out what culture might be in Culture as an Evolutionary Arena.

By Bill Benzon on 10/03/06 at 07:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, yes, it’s called *Spectres of the Atlantic*.  “Duh” on my part.

Scott, you write, “The economic inequalities resulting from slavery aren’t cultural but economic; the insistence that reparations be cultural, in fact, is something he explicitly argues against.”

That’s just wrong, and nearly every economist and sociologist would say so.  No amount of wealth redistribution (viewed as health care and union wages, as WBM mainly views it) is going to make a single, 17 year old high-school-drop-out mother of three wealthy enough to counter the effects of the culture (or ideology) she’s bought into. 

There are also *cultural* reasons for why one poor kid succeeds and another doesn’t. 

WBM has a classic rhetorical move which I want to call “the shell game.” He’ll say something like ‘Exploitation is more important than racism,’ and then, a paragraph later, he’ll say that there’s no more racism.  He’ll say there’s less class mobility, and then say there’s no class mobility.  That works fine: if there’s no class mobility, we can only steal from the rich and give to the poor.  But if there is some, we have to explain what cultural factors allow some poor kids to succeed and others to fail.  Which isn’t to say we don’t *also* want to redistribute wealth (unless you buy into WBM’s zero-sum game).  But as any parent knows, if you give extra allowance to the prodigal son, he’s not going to build wealth on it. 

And of course, cultural reparations are stupid.  But there WBM is confusing two senses of culture: the family culture that teaches you that banks are racist institutions that will steal your money is one form of culture; the statue to the victims of racism is another.  You’ve got to defeat the former, but of course you can’t do it with the latter.

By on 10/03/06 at 11:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

WMB is confusing lots of senses of culture.

By Bill Benzon on 10/03/06 at 11:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

An interesting use of _Blood Music_.  I haven’t read it, since I dislike too many different aspects of Greg Bear’s writing, but there might be another example in Kathleen Ann Goonan’s _Queen City Jazz_ series—if you can stand reading far down enough on the SF scale.

The basic premise of this series is that nanotechnology has been set up that infects people and uses them to reenact scenes from American arts.  They wander around a sort of post-holocaust resurrected New Orleans, with little sense of personal identity, literally infected by culture.  For instance, there are reenactments of _Krazy Kat_—on the city streets, two people will meet and one will throw a brick at the other’s head, which of course for real people (unlike comic characters) is often fatal, but it doesn’t matter because nanotechnology brings them back.

I think there’s a lot that could be done with this example, both as a direct WBM-style analogy of the dead hand of belief in culture and a sort of ironic criticism of it, in terms of the focus on literariness that WBM uses and that people earlier commented on—no discussion of class without _The Great Gatsby_.

By on 10/03/06 at 12:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

[Scott’s response to the joke he missed.]

It was not condescension, it was a joke.  [Ed: Yes, it was.  Scott’s dense sometimes.] Sorry if it came across differently.  [No need to apologize.]

By Thers on 10/03/06 at 03:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott, you write, “The economic inequalities resulting from slavery aren’t cultural but economic; the insistence that reparations be cultural, in fact, is something he explicitly argues against.”

I should’ve written “...explicitly argues against because the concept of ‘cultural reparations’ is incoherent.” Only, I think that’s exactly what “respecting difference-qua-difference” amounts to.  I agree with Sean: Michaels wouldn’t argue that that such a gesture necessarily hurts anyone, only that, alone, it’s an inadequate response to the problem of economic inequality.

Diversity, as employed by the left and exploited by the right, is also a shell game, used to convince people that their lives are better when they manifestly aren’t.  His argument about respecting the poor is, I think, where he’s at his strongest, not to mention most classically Marxist.

That said, to respond to you and Bill, I think Michaels works here with other people’s definitions of culture; moreover, I think he does so because he wants to point out—as I did in this post—its fundamental incoherence.  It seems like something solid and analyzable—then again, so does race, which we’re forced to treat as a social fact despite its not being a biological one.  In short, then, I think some of these complaints touch on the core of Michaels’: the painless celebration of an ineffable something takes precedence over the painful process of righting long-standing social injustices.

Blood Music is a cool book, but it’s a bit disingenuous to suggest, on the subject of trauma-memory, and that whole dead-hand-of-the-past-on-the present thing, that it carries one-hundredth the emotional heft of Beloved.

I only read Bear a couple of years ago, i.e. after stumbling across all that singularity talk, so I’ll buy that.  It cuts to the heart of what—given his tête-à-tête with Michaels in a seminar a few years back—I think Joe’s contributions will address: Michaels flattens the literary into a single category, such that one can’t tell the difference between Blood Music and Beloved.  I think that’s a valid point; but it also assumes that because Michaels is currently interested in novels for the ideas they convey, he’s unable to appreciate/differentiate their particularly literary qualities or factor said qualities into his analysis when doing so seems necessary.

But the ‘magical’ part can’t simply be substituted by a merely technological sublime, I think; and greatly though I enjoy reading Michaels (greatly though I agree with him, by and large) it’s often when he uses sf-nal examples that I think ‘hmmm ... or not’.  Not because (obviously!) I think there’s anything wrong with sf; but because when WBM uses them they seem to be reaching for more than they actually grasp.  I’m talking about the places where Michaels says eg ‘suppose you’re walking on Mars and you saw a Wordsworth poem inscribed on the Martian rock’, where he wants us to think ‘aha! then clearly we’d intuit intention behind the marks!’ when in fact we think ‘say what? Walking on where when we what with the what-now?’

Combine this with pdj‘s comment about Michaels’ non-mention of “the deliciously bizarre radical geologists” and I think I spy a contribution in your future.  (wink, wink WHAM WHAM)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/03/06 at 04:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So, Scott, do you think that Michaels has effectively disposed of the idea that there is something we call culture and that, therefore, we need no longer think about culture?

By Bill Benzon on 10/03/06 at 07:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I was going to say “that’s a mighty strong claim there, Bill,” but then I clicked over and saw that “is” in my first sentence up there and thought better of it.  That said, I don’t think Michaels wants to obliterate culture so much as point to its incoherence and question the appeals made on its behalf.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/03/06 at 07:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott, this post was a pleasure to read. A couple of questions. First, what do you make of the absolute coherence of Peter’s reinvention of himself? Certainly, it is artificial, and sad if that is necessary in order to have a family. But if Peter really acquires an Armenian “soul,” and is able to make beautiful music, isn’t that something to celebrate? Wouldn’t it be much worse if he was denied his desire, and we were deprived of his Spanish guitar, by a fundamental incapacity of race? In a way, since Bedros is transmitted to us through Egoyan’s film, Egoyan is making a claim about the conscious adoption of culture, undertaken by the individual, and necessary for artistic creation. To say that a self has certain formal requirements, at least to be perceived in a certain way by others, isn’t to say that a self can’t exist (or is “illegitimate,” despite the excellent pun on “illegitimate child"). By the same token, it wouldn’t make sense to say that a rhyming sonnet is inauthentic just because of its structure, though beginning poets sometimes make that claim.

Your post suggests to me that Michaels has opened up new possibilities for identity by rejecting the notion of authenticity. What do you make of The Sweet Hereafter or Exotica with reference to Michaels?

How do you square the inaccurate nature of cultural transmission, or the transmission of “memory,” with the need for an accurate transmission of historical data and ethical stances? In order for me to read and reflect on Michaels’s book, I need both to comprehend his ethical positions, and to accept his statements about American history. I even need to accept his factual statements about his own family. What kind of difference could exist between this sort of culture (i.e. the actual text of The Trouble with Diversity) and the “heritable” culture of a community? One chooses both, certainly; neither is a calling in the blood. But why wouldn’t the transmissions be equally clear?

I should probably add to my post, in deference to Scott’s anticipatory comments, that my notion of our ethical responsibility to human life is based on the singularity of human life. That means that our commitment to equality is based on the singularity of human life. It is an irony and, politically speaking, a problem that we cease to be singular when we participate in a democracy. The artworks I chose to discuss—particularly The Princess Bride—try, through their treatment of identity, to resolve this contradiction diachronically.

My guess is that Michaels’s commitment to preserving life is purely utilitarian, which is why he tends to present reading as a thing people do, rather than as a specific experience of a particular text. A denial of singularity applies equally to texts and persons, and in my opinion tends to obscure the nature and function of culture. One could call singularity the mark of the aesthetic, rather than the political, but that is only true in a theoretical sense. In the real world, the artist’s audience is the politician’s constituency, and the two spheres influence one another.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/03/06 at 09:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

First, what do you make of the absolute coherence of Peter’s reinvention of himself? Certainly, it is artificial, and sad if that is necessary in order to have a family. But if Peter really acquires an Armenian “soul,” and is able to make beautiful music, isn’t that something to celebrate?

As to his absolute coherence, I’d say that it’s only possible in cases involving mental illness and deliberate fraud, and I don’t think Michaels would disagree.  The identity Peter imagines as “Armenian” lacks the conflicts inherent in any identity: gender, race, class, religion, &c.  Peter can compartmentalize Armenian identity precisely because he reduces it to a guitar-playing, bedroom-eyes-having stereotype.  He’s authentically inauthentic, which—and I think this is Egoyan’s point—is the best one can hope for.  As a basis the foundation for a political ideology, however, I’m not sure that’s where you want to start.  (Largely because in a representative democracy, that’s where you inevitably end up.)

In a way, since Bedros is transmitted to us through Egoyan’s film, Egoyan is making a claim about the conscious adoption of culture, undertaken by the individual, and necessary for artistic creation.

I think Egoyan intends the opposite of what you’ve said, i.e. that Peter, as Bedros, is incapable of artistic creation because he has bound himself to a concretized notion of Armenian identity.  He is, forever, what he initially assumed an “Armenian” was.  He can accept whole-cloth the vestments of another culture, but only if he similarly denies those of his own.  He resembles Rob from Annie Hall, or better yet, post-"Ice Ice Baby” Vanilla Ice: gangsta rapper, metal-head, nü-metal-head, conservative Christian.  He wholly embodies each identity in the moment, but I wouldn’t call him an artist.  ("Artist," however, suits me fine.) I’m not sure I can stomach a Rob Van Winkle model of aesthetic production.

To say that a self has certain formal requirements, at least to be perceived in a certain way by others, isn’t to say that a self can’t exist (or is “illegitimate,” despite the excellent pun on “illegitimate child"). By the same token, it wouldn’t make sense to say that a rhyming sonnet is inauthentic just because of its structure, though beginning poets sometimes make that claim.

I wouldn’t say that a self isn’t constructed within certain parameters, only that those parameters are typically policed by those with an investment in the status quo.  Consider James Baldwin in the ‘60s, denounced for his defense of psychological complexity.  While the vehemence far outstrips the virulence in contemporary identitarian theories, I still see an attempt—at least in mainstream American politics—to circumscribe what counts, for example, as an “authentic” black male.  I’m thinking here of the recent spate of articles on the “down low” culture, starting with Denizett-Lewis’s.  In academia, it’s true that transgression-qua-transgression has come to be valued—a disconnect Michaels does’t, to my mind, account for satisfactorily.

Your post suggests to me that Michaels has opened up new possibilities for identity by rejecting the notion of authenticity. What do you make of The Sweet Hereafter or Exotica with reference to Michaels?

Actually, I don’t want to speak to either yet—five-year rule—but I have them in my Netflix queue.  I want to move through Egoyan’s films chronologically at this point, track the development of his thought sans the constant attention to technological mediation (which is what I did the last time I blitzed through them). 

That said, I’ll wrap this comment up and address the rest of yours in another.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/04/06 at 02:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I understand what you’re saying about Bedros: he is making gestures, rather than becoming something. As a “work of art,” he’s hollow. Furthermore, he turned out this way because of the limitations of the identity he studied to assume.

I also agree that definitions of what qualifies as an authentic “black man,” or an authentic “gay woman,” or etc. are potentially repressive and politically reactionary.

I do have a question about this:

The identity Peter imagines as “Armenian” lacks the conflicts inherent in any identity: gender, race, class, religion, &c.

An identity is founded on a set of beliefs about a set of common things or phenomena. It is an interpretation. That interpretation is up to the individual. The fact that I am, for example, American, is both something that links me historically to other people, and something that happens to me about which I have to make up my own mind. Any insightful historical study of the early 21st century is going to find contradictions in our use of the term “American,” but that does not mean that I have to be in conflict with myself about the Constitution or the after-effects of the Civil War.

In other words, I have no historical obligation to take upon myself the contradictions of the society and act them out in my own identity. If I did, I could never study Modernism, since a new version of what “Modernism” is appears almost daily.

There are many people who tell you, often very readily, that they are full of contradictions. They tend to find this fascinating about themselves. I tend to find it worrisome.

Vanilla Ice appears to have no core to his persona or his art. He, like Bedros, hollowly “re-invents” himself. On the other hand, for all of their intriguing evolutions, the Beatles sounded very much like themselves throughout their recording career.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/04/06 at 03:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

“On the other hand, for all of their intriguing evolutions, the Beatles sounded very much like themselves throughout their recording career"

I wonder how this statement breaks down, given their celebrated musical diversity.  You’re saying more than just that McCartney and (especially) Lennon just have really distinctive voices?

By Adam Roberts on 10/04/06 at 03:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So, one day perhaps 10 or so years ago I was typing away on my computer in my bedroom-office when my ears pricked up and I thought “hey! Where’s the Little Richard coming from?” So I got up and went to the living room, where my stereo was, and checked the CD. Nope, no Little Richard, didn’t think so, ‘cause I don’t own any. It was the Beatles singing “Lucille,” from a BBC broadcast.

Damn! It sounded good.

* * * * * *

Like scads of reasonably skilled (and not so skilled) musicians I’ve played and worked in many different styles. There are deep and fundamental differences in the bodily “set” for “legit” music and jazz. Switching from one to the other is not big deal, but the switch is deep in your being.

It’s one think to critique a certain ideological reduction of an equation between “culture” and “identity.” It’s rather something more to say something serious and interesting about either one of those.

By Bill Benzon on 10/04/06 at 03:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Comment streams hopefully lead somewhere interesting, although at any given point it may not be clear (as with my comment about the Beatles) what the rest of the iceberg might be.

For example, Bill brings up a happy memory of the Beatles doing “Lucille.” That reminds me of a good example: Paul McCartney was hugely influenced by Little Richard, and used to do outstanding versions of his songs. In particular, his vocal on “Long Tall Sally” just about beats the original. That vocal approach gets downplayed for a sweeter style for several years, with John handling the rougher vocals. Then it comes back on “Helter Skelter,” and “Oh! Darling.” “Oh! Darling” is off of Abbey Road, and manages to fit while sounding different (both within the song and in the context of the album) than “Helter Skelter.” Meanwhile, the Little Richard vocal on the song “I’m Down” was tied to a looser, bluesier structure that reached its peak with the live version of “Get Back.”

In other words, what you have with the Beatles is a comprehensible evolution from one style to another, with certain approaches disappearing and then re-appearing where they will be most effective, leading to a body of work that is highly integrated as a whole. They don’t leave behind very much, musically speaking.

A whole different evolution starts with “Til There Was You” and ends with “Golden Slumbers,” and we’re still talking only about Paul. In fact, over the course of the Beatles’s career, you hear them getting more integrated and complexly cross-referential, instead of less—the melodramatic and imitative moments that plague Please Please Me and Beatles for Sale are replaced by innovative syntheses of Dylanesque folk-rock, show tunes, psychedelia, and R&B in which all of these styles are effectively mixed together.

(One could also look at the repetition and re-casting of certain characteristic themes: John’s “There’s A Place,” off their very first album, is a precursor for “Strawberry Fields Forever.")

Sorry to be writing about the Beatles, instead of about Egoyan! But it seemed worth replying.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/04/06 at 04:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And not just the Beatles. If you look at the play lists of ordinary folks—or even Valvologists—I bet you’ll find lots of different music, with many different cultural lineages.

Charlie Keil’s been interviewing old Black jazz drummers, guys with one foot in the grave, but who made names for themselves back in the 30s and 40s. Tells me a lot of them went to hear John Philips Sousa whenever he came to town. Why? Because Sousa’s bass drummer—Gus Helmecke—drove the whole band and had schtick too.

By Bill Benzon on 10/04/06 at 04:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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