Friday, May 4, 2007

In which a Hatchet is Buried

The Valve put up a video of Slavoj Žižek that brought me right to the edge--I'm really thinking it's time for the under-35 crowd in academia to start trusting their inner bullsh*t radars. This video reminds me of Christmas in 6th grade where there were still a few kids who believed Santa Claus was(n't) real. You know what I mean.

At the moment that the old literary canon was being dismantled at the hands of well-intentioned reformers in the 1980s (goodbye Philip Freneau and Washington Irving, hello Harriet Jacobs and Elizabeth Stoddard), someone forgot to close the backdoor. In stepped a new bunch of (suprise!) white guys to fill the canon-shaped void. Enter Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, Baudrillard, Jameson, Lacan, Zizek... as soon as new voices like Harriet Jacobs were brought to the forefront, the "Theory" crowd turned their backs, preferring indefensibly-abstruse semi-contemporary French philosophy.

The pecking order was quickly re-established ("What?!?--you haven't read Discipline and Punish?"). The literary canon had not been removed, but had unwittingly suffered a kind of coup d’état... and now, half a generation later, as always happens with revolutionaries, those who seized power have become fat and comfortable. It's the oldest story in the book, but nobody reads stories anymore, so--

It is always easier to worship a man than it is to understand an idea -- these YouTube videos (linked above) demonstrate the cult of personality phenomenon better than I could've imagined. I'll never forget watching Jacques Derrida claim to be completely unfamiliar with Seinfeld in this very serious interview about the postmodern condition... defenders will suggest this was somehow cute or ironic. And here's the thing: it's not that there is something inherent in the language these men use--in their time, and in the right context, I believe these were the prophets. But out with the old already! In 1880 the prophets were Dostoevsky and Henry James and Flaubert, and by 1930 they were James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, and in the 1950s they were Sartre and Beauvoir and Camus -- and I have no problem admitting that the "Theory" crowd (pick three) may forever have the honor of being the sages of the end of the last millenium.

The problem is, successors never seem to come directly from predecessors, however much Foucault might've wanted it to seem that way. Tr0th manifested itself in Egypt 6,000 years ago and then in India 4,000 years ago and in Greece 2,500 years ago and in Jerusalem and then in Constantinople and then in Kyoto and then in Florence and London and then in Dresden and then in Paris. But this is not a bloodline, people. Yet there are those who would write it down: Derrida the son of Levinas, the son of Heidegger, the son of Husserl, the son of Brentano, the son of whoever, the son of G-d.

Intellectual history is never this neat. Let the dead bury their dead. I'm nominating Oprah Winfrey, Victor Pelevin, Helmut Koester, and the screenwriters of LOST as the current torch-carriers. Update: And this guy... seriously.


Insignificant Wrangler said...

Irony withstanding, and I resemble your remarkers, here's an exchange between Lacan and a Marxist radical that, I believe, captures your sentiment (those who want the quick pay off can skip to Lacan's final response)
From Lacan’s Television, “Impromptu at Vicennes”

Intervention: “For the University will not be destroyed by a majority of students working within it, but more likely on the basis of a union that we students should forge, on revolutionary grounds, with the workers and the peasants… if we are to overthrow the University, it will be from the outside, with others who are on the outside…I am inside, comrade, because if I want people to leave, I have to come in and tell them.”

Lacan: “Ah! You see…everything is there, my friend, in order to get them to go out, you come in…

Intervention: “If we think that it’s by listening to the discourse of Lacan, Foucault…or anyone else that we’ll be able to criticize the ideology that they’re making us swallow, we’re looking up our own asses. I say that we have to look outside for the means to overthrow the University.”

Lacan: I didn’t say that knowledge was king. I didn’t say that. No?

Intervention: So?

Lacan: “And so that has certain consequences, that is, my dear follow [sic], you would not be very comfortable there…” “there are limits that shouldn’t be transgressed in a certain logic which I have called feeble, though it’s still strong enough to allow you a bit of incompletion, to which you are arresting quite perfectly.” (126)

Intervention: “As for me, I wonder why this amphitheater is jammed with 800 people. It’s true that you are a fine and famous clown, and that you have come to speak….and everyone recognizing that there is nothing to be said, speaks in order to say nothing. Well, if there is nothing to be said, nothing to understand, nothing to know, nothing to do, why is there this crowd here? And why Lacan, are you staying here?

Intervention: There is talk of a new society. Will psychoanalysis play a role in that society, and what will it be?

Lacan: a society is not something that can be defined just like that. What I am attempting to articulate, because analysis gives me the evidence, is what dominates it—to wit: the practice of language. Aphasia means that there is something that has broken down in that area. Imagine that there are guys to whom stuff happens in their brain and who can no longer in any way manage to make do with language. It leaves them rather infirm…

If you had a little patience, and if you were willing for our impromptus to continue, I would tell you that the aspiration to revolution has but one conceivable issue, always, the discourse of the maste. That is what experience has proved. What you, as revolutionaries, aspire to is a Master. You will have one.

Casey said...