30 March 2007

The Joys of Cruelty

Filed under: Culture, Ktismata — ktismatics @ 10:17 am

Here’s a Nietzschean deconstruction of justice from The Genealogy of Morals (1887). Nietzsche begins with the widespread assumption that legal justice is a way of balancing the scales: the one who breaks the law becomes indebted to society and must make recompense in proportion to the severity of the violation. But when you look at it you have to wonder why, for example, a set duration of jail time should be deemed a just repayment for burglary or fraud. Nietzsche wondered too:

The pat and seemingly natural notion (so natural that it has often been used to account for the notion of justice itself) that the criminal deserves to be punished because he could have acted otherwise, is in fact a very late and refined form of human reasoning; whoever thinks it can be found in archaic law grossly misconstrues the morality of uncivilized man. For an unconscionably long time culprits were not punished because they were felt to be responsible for their actions; not, that is, on the assumption that only the guilty were to be punished; rather, they were punished the way parents still punish their children, out of rage at some damage suffered, which the doer must pay for. Yet this rage was both moderated and modified by the notion that for every damage there could somehow be found an equivalent, by which that damage might be compensated — if necessary in the pain of the doer.

Nietzsche’s book is genealogical: here he attributes the origins of an economic calculus equating violation and pain to the beginnings of contractual relationships between creditor and debtor. In the olden days people hadn’t yet built selves that conformed to the nature of contractual arrangements. Mostly what’s required is memory: the debtor has to remember that he owes, that he has made a promise to repay his debt. To create memory where there previously had been none, severe measures were required. These measures took the form of potential pain.

In order to inspire the creditor with confidence in his ability to repay, to give a guarantee for the stringency of the promise, but also to enjoin on his own conscience the duty of repayment, the debtor pledged by contract that in case of non-payment he would offer another of his possessions, such as his body, or his wife, or his freedom, or even his life (or, in certain theologically oriented cultures, even his salvation or the sanctity of his tomb, as in Egypt, where the debtor’s corpse was not immune from his creditor even in the grave). The creditor, moreover, had the right to inflict all manner of indignity and pain on the body of the debtor. For example, he could cut out an amount of flesh proportionate to the amount of the debt, and we find, very early, quite detailed legal assessments of the value of individual parts of the body…

Let us try to understand the logic of this entire method of compensations; it is strange enough. An equivalence is provided by the creditor’s receiving, in place of material compensation such as money, land, or other possessions, a kind of pleasure. That pleasure is induced by his being able to exercise his power freely upon one who is powerless, by the pleasure of faire le mal pour le plaisir de le faire [inflict pain for the pleasure of doing it], the pleasure of rape. That pleasure will be increased in proportion to the lowliness of the creditor’s own station; it will appear to him as a delicious morsel, a foretaste of a higher rank. In “punishing” the debtor, the creditor shares a seignorial right. For once he is given the chance to bask in the glorious feeling of treating another human being as lower than himself — or, in case the actual punitive power has passed on to a legal “authority,” of seeing him despised or mistreated. Thus compensation consists in a legal warrant entitling one man to exercise his cruelty on another…

It was then that the sinister knitting together of the two ideas guilt and pain first occurred, which by now have become quite inextricable. Let me ask once more: in what sense could pain constitute repayment of a debt? In the sense that to make someone suffer was a supreme pleasure.

Could this be true? Does Nietzsche believe what he’s saying here?

I am merely throwing this out as a suggestion, for it is difficult, and embarrassing as well, to get to the bottom of such underground developments… The delicacy — even more, the tartuferie [hypocrisy] — of domestic animals like ourselves shrinks from imagining clearly to what extent cruelty constituted the collective delight of older mankind, how much it was an ingredient in all their joys, or how naively they manifested their cruelty, how they considered disinterested malevolence a normal trait, something to which one’s conscience could assent heartily… To behold suffering gives pleasure, but to cause another to suffer affords an even greater pleasure. This severe statement expresses an old, powerful, human, all too human sentiment — though the monkeys too might endorse it, for it is reported that they heralded and preluded man in the devising of bizarre cruelties. There is no feast without cruelty, as man’s entire history attests. Punishment, too, has its festive features.

And so on. You can imagine the blasphemies to follow, where gods get to enjoy all the pointless sufferings of the world, invisible beings who could also see in the dark, and who would not readily let pass unseen any interesting spectacle of suffering. Free will guarantees that men will continually and frequently inflict cruelties on one another — an enjoyable enough spectacle to witness in its own right and an opportunity for the gods to double their pleasure by punishing the guilty perpetrators of violence.

All sorts of interesting ideas spin out of this little discourse. Foucault based his Discipline and Punish on Nietzsche’s argument here. And, in light of recent posts and discussions of Deleuze and Guattari, we’re confronted with the possibility of cruelty as a primal desire which, when freely expressed, is an occasion for joy. Maybe deconstruction, systematically inverting the existing logical order of a text or a human institution, is itself an act of subtle cruelty — that’s what makes it so much fun.

28 March 2007


Filed under: Culture, Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 2:36 pm

Raise your ass to your mouth… ah, my ass burns like fire, but what can be the meaning of that? Perhaps a turd will come out… Yes, yes, turd, I know you, I see you, I feel you. What is this — how is such a thing possible?

– From a letter by Mozart, cited by Deleuze and Guattari

In Anti-Oedipus Deleuze and Guattari show the vague outline of what they call “schizoanalysis,” a praxis of purposeful deterritorialization that doesn’t fall into the usual trap of reterritorialization. They say, for example, that Freud deterritorializes the flows of desire but reterritorializes them — channels the flows — in terms of the Oedipus complex and a predefined, structured, unifying relationship between conscious and unconscious. Deleuze and Guattari want to avoid the restructuring of what’s been blown apart in Freudian analysis. Here they invoke as early exemplar the name of Lacan (Guattari was a psychoanalyst trained and analyzed by Lacan), who recognized the essentially unrepresentable, unstructurable nature of desire. For Lacan, the signs of desire, being nonsignifying, become signifying in representation only in terms of a signifier of absence or lack. Even Lacan imposes structure on the psychic chaos he unleashes, trying to interpret symptoms as a nonverbal language of the unrepresentable. Too constraining, too structuralist, too much of an attempt to trap schizoid freedom in the channels of a neuroticism that, D&G contend, are characteristic of capitalism’s rechanneling of desire. Destroy, destroy, is D&G’s presription.

The task of schizoanalysis goes by way of destruction — a whole scouring of the unconscious, a complete curettage. Destroy Oedipus, the illusion of the ego, the puppet of the superego, guilt, the law, castration. It is not a matter of pious destructions, such as those performed by psychoanalysis under the benevolent neutral eye of the analyst. For these are Hegel-style destructions, ways of conserving.

That is why, insist D&G,

inversely, schizoanalysis must devote itself with all its strength to the necessary destructions. Destroying beliefs and representations, theatrical scenes. And when engaged in this task no activity will be too malevolent… Schizoanalysis on the contrary must disengage the deterritorialized flows of desire… In its destructive task, schizoanalysis must proceed as quickly as possible, but it can also proceed only with great patience, great care, by successively undoing the representative territorialities and reterritorializations through which a subject passes in his individual history.

What’s the point of all this destruction and deterritorialization? The creation of a new land, say D&G, which can be arrived at only by traversing the many old lands, studying and understanding them, then passing through and beyond them — an intensive voyage that undoes all the lands for the benefit of the one it is creating.

In sum, D&G outline a negative praxis of schizoanalysis, or “antipsychiatry”:

(1) undoing all the reterritorializations that transform madness into mental illness; (2 ) liberating the schizoid movement of deterritorialization in all the flows... It should therefore be said that one can never go far enough in the direction of deterritorialization: you haven’t seen anything yet — an irreversible process.

The most important positive task of individual schizoanalysis is to identify the client’s desires, stripped of interpretation: the nature and function of the “partial engines” that make up the person’s psyche. The subconscious directs the various flows and breaks of desire emitted by these partial engines, building them into a whole engine that is the self. The schizoanalyst is a mechanic, breaking down the engine to see what makes it tick, why it’s not firing on all cylinders. Eventually it becomes clear that the whole engine built by the subconscious has been reified by the consciousness into an entirely separate and self-contained structure — a self — that operates independently of the desires. The various desires flow not from the integrated self but from some deeper, primal, undifferentiated substance that is the source of creativity. That’s why breaking down the engine doesn’t make everything fall to pieces. Instead it “deterritorializes” the flows of desire, setting them free from the conscious structures that repressed them.

The product of analysis should be a free and joyous person, a carrier of the life flows, capable of carrying them all the way into the desert and decoding them… Shit on your whole mortifying, imaginary, and symbolic theater. What does schizoanalysis ask? Nothing more than a bit of a relation to the outside, a little reality.

Once the desiring flows are set loose, the territorialization — of tradition, of parents, of government, especially these days of money — loses its force. The successful clients — the schizos — don’t just withdraw, living quietly on the fringe in artificial refuges. Instead, the schizos begin burrowing and gnawing, making holes for the desires to flow, undermining the system, doing revolution. They won’t stratify into social classes or merge into a herd, but their outflows of desire will draw them together. Schizos don’t need to devise intentions, interests, or goals to motivate them, because motivation itself flows from desire.

The great individual and collective endeavors of the schizos are art and science. Art, as soon as it attains its own grandeur, its own genius, creates chains of decoding and deterritorialization that serve as the foundation for desiring-machines, making them function. Not schools of art or art as commodity, but the process of art as outflow, as experimentation. Likewise, science not as goal-driven technical innovation but as an experimental process, as potential, as decoded flows of knowledge that lead who-knows-where. The flows of experimental art and science, the revolutionary desires that are always moving toward their fulfillment as potential — they will always overflow the territories assigned to them by capital, discovering and pursuing lines of escape, creating the new earth on which the territories are continually being re-inscribed.

27 March 2007


Filed under: Culture, Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 1:49 pm

[A continuation of yesterday’s discussion of Deleuze & Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, including excerpts of stuff I recently put up in comments at Church and Postmodern Culture.]

Social organizations, artifacts, moralities, selves: all these sorts of structures emerge from the intersections of the various desires that flow from and through the world. Say Deleuze & Guattari: a substance is said to be formed when a flow enters into a relationship with another flow, such that the first defines a content and the second, an expression. They cite McLuhan:

The electric light is pure information. It is a medium without a message, as it were, unless it is used to spell out some verbal ad or name. This fact, characteristic of all media, means that the content of any medium is always another medium. The content of writing is speech, just as the written word is the content of print, and print is the content of the telegraph.

Desires are like light, sound, speech: content without meaning, signs that don’t signify. Every place where one flow interrupts another flow is a place where some sort of meaningful structure emerges. Structure imposes order on desires, “territorializes” them, imposes limits by restricting their promiscuous flow to specific channels. This means that, for Deleuze and Guattari, what stops the flow of desire is order: personal, social, economic, political. Because unchanneled desire is a threat to order, these excess flows are categorized as marginal, transgressive, neurotic. Judeo-Christian morality used to be the most powerful territorializing machine in Western culture. It’s what Lacan, following Freud, called “the Name of the Father” — God laying down the Law and speaking the Word, embedding everyone in a network of cultural signifiers the purpose of which is to restrict the flow of desire. Christianity reterritorializes “good” desire as a lack in the self that can only be fulfilled outside of this world; that is, in God.

Psychotherapy is supposed to help us channel our desires in socially acceptable ways. For D&G this makes therapy part of the problem rather than part of the solution. The therapist is a “priest” (Freud’s term) of the social order, trying to rechannel these transgressive overflows into neurotic but lawful repressions.

If desire is repressed, it is because every position of desire, no matter how small, is capable of calling into question the established order of a society: not that desire is asocial, on the contrary. But it is explosive… desire is revolutionary in its essence — desire, not left-wing holidays! — and no society can tolerate a position of real desire without its structures of exploitation, servitude, and hierarchy being compromised. If a society is identical with its structures — an amusing hypothesis — then yes, desire threatens its very being. It is therefore of vital importance for a society to repress desire, so that repression, hierarchy, exploitation, and servitude are themselves desired. It is quite troublesome to have to say such rudimentary things: desire does not threaten a society because it is a desire to sleep with the mother, but because it is revolutionary… Desire does not “want” revolution, it is revolutionary in its own right, as though involuntarily, by wanting what it wants (p. 116).

D&G heap disdain on the Oedipus myth of the son killing the father in order to possess the mother. Freud puts Oedipus at the foundation of all neurosis; Lacan transforms Freud’s interpretation but preserves the Oedipal interpretation of desire. D&G are anti-Oedipus:

Oedipus as the last word of capitalist consumption — sucking away at mommy/daddy, being blocked and triangulated on the couch… the whole of psychoanalysis is an immense perversion, a drug, a radical break with reality, starting with the reality of desire, it is a narcissism, a monstrous autism: the characteristic autism and the intrinsic perversion of the machine of capital.

Order is a territorializing operation that restricts and channels the flow of desire by imposing limits on their expression and fulfillment. Because unchanneled desire is a threat to order, these excess flows are categorized as marginal, transgressive, neurotic. Transgression, guilt, castration: are these determinations of the unconscious, or is this the way a priest sees things? The Law restricts the flow of desire; the Law tells us what is prohibited; therefore desire concentrates its flows on violation and transgressing the prohibitions. We don’t spontaneously want to kill our fathers and have sex with our mothers: the Law channels all excess flows of desire toward taboos, forcing them to become transgressive.

According to D&G, God has been replaced by Mammon as the main force of late-modern de-/reterritorialization. Capitalism in particular is a machine that transforms desire from creativity into lack, a lack that promises fulfillment not in creation but in consumption. The problem is that the economy never honors its promise, and desire becomes perverted, neurotic, seeking not fulfillment but a continual state of unfulfilled longing for what you don’t have and can never get. Capitalism is the great deterritorializing force: all the structural distinctions between people, places and things get leveled down to an abstract economic exchange value; desire is channeled into production and consumption for their own sakes. Everything, old and new, is reterritorialized into flows of money.

Tomorrow: schizoanalysis.


26 March 2007

Logic of Desire

Filed under: Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 2:21 pm

Lately I’ve been working around the edges of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus. There are a couple of thing in this strange book, first published in 1973, that are related to recent posts. Today the topic is desire.

Hegel proposed that everyone desires the desire of the other. That can mean two things. I desire whatever the other person desires, assuming that that’s what will make me a complete and autonomous self — just like the other. Or, my desire is to be desired by the other, to be whatever it is that makes the other a complete and autonomous self. Either way my desire is based on incompleteness or lack, both in myself and in the other. What I lack is some immaterial thing that turns me into my ideal image of myself as a self-sufficient being.

Deleuze and Guattari critique the Platonic logic of desire implicit in the Hegelian model. The feeling of lack creates its own impossible fulfillment in the object of desire. But there is no object that can make me complete; it does not exist in the real world; it is missing. Desire-as-lack thus produces an imaginary object that provides fulfillment, but because it exists only in an ideal world it can never be attained in this world.

Deleuze and Guattari argue that desire isn’t a lack that can be fulfilled only in an imaginary ideal world, but rather an innate mechanism of creative energy for producing. Desire doesn’t remain unfulfilled in reality; desire generates the reality that fulfills itself. Desire and its object are one and the same thing. Desire isn’t something that always fails to complete the individual self; rather, desire precedes and creates the self. In today’s parlance, and in Marx’s, desire is passion: sensual, spontaneous, natural. The end of desire isn’t lack or indefinite self-perpetuation but fulfillment.

In this post- (or pre-) Hegelian psychology lack is desire gone wrong; it is the loss of desire rather than its defining characteristic. When the flow of desire is shut off, desire then becomes this abject fear of lacking something. What is lacking is the flow of desire itself, not the (imaginary) object it seeks.

What is missing is not things a subject feels the lack of somewhere deep down inside himself, but rather the objectivity of man, the objective being of man, for whom to desire is to produce, to produce within the realm of the real… Revolutionaries, artists, and seers are content to be objective, merely objective; they know that desire clasps life in its powerfully productive embrace, and reproduces it in a way that is all the more intense because it has few needs.

25 March 2007

Around the Cap

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 7:08 pm

I usually run 4 days a week, about 6K each time. Today I took a slower, longer run — about 10K, all the way around the Cap d’Antibes. Every time I take this run I seem to come home and write something about it, but never here I don’t think. Here are today’s observations.

Before getting out on the Cap I pass alongside an inlet lined with two small beaches. At the first beach a little boy was kicking a small ball around with his parents. When I passed them I saw it was a baseball. What was this French family doing with a baseball? Had some American kids left it at the beach by mistake? It’s strange to see a baseball kicked around like a soccer ball: different national instinct for what a ball is for, I guess. At the second beach I found myself running smack into a 10K race. The street was blocked off, with one lane set aside for the incoming runners as they approached the finish line — which meant that I had the other lane all to myself. I clapped for the runners as we passed each other. Most looked fatigued and eager to get it over with; some nodded, smiled, said merci. At the end of the beach the racecourse veered inland, up the hill; I kept going out along the Cap route.

It was a gray cool afternoon, so only a couple of sailboats were out today. My thoughts drifted along as I followed my usual route. By the time I passed my usual turnaround point I barely noticed the change of scenery as the road continued along the coast then jutted slightly inland. I passed the Hotel du Cap and its restaurant, the Eden Roc, both still chained shut. A week from today the season officially opens and the first guests will be checking in. This is the hotel where Scott and Zelda used to hold forth during the season. For two weeks in May the hotel will become an exclusive reserve for the world’s cineastes gathering for the nearby film festival.

The road rejoins the sea on the other side of the Cap, veering down the Golfe into Juan les Pins. Around the curving littoral Cannes stretches itself along the Croisette. Off the coast are the two Iles des Lerins. From here the nearer one, Ste. Marguerite, looks lushly foliated with pine — it’s not until you get there that you experience the devastation the fire left behind three decades ago. It takes a long time for a pine forest to rebuild itself, but Ste. Marguerite is an old place and used to waiting. The Man in the Iron Mask was imprisoned on this island back in the 17th century. I googled on Ste. Marguerite and found a friend’s blog: here’s the link. Behind it, smaller, farther out to sea, St. Honorat hugs the horizon. For fifteen hundred years the Abbeys of St. Honorat have provided a contemplative refuge. Here St. Patrick prepared for his fateful missionary voyage to Ireland. Today 30 Cistercians live there, doing whatever it is that monks do.

That’s enough for today.

23 March 2007

Positional Linguistics

Filed under: Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 6:41 pm

But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun…
She speaks, yet she says nothing. What of that?
Her eye discourses; I will answer it.
I am too bold; ’tis not to me she speaks.

– Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, 1594

My daughter’s English class is reading Romeo and Juliet. Yesterday they acted out the balcony scene, in pairs. To capture the scene the teacher had each Juliet stand on a platform so that she stood higher than her Romeo. The positioning is important, because Romeo likens her to the sun: above, aloof, unapproachable, silent. Parents are taller than children; men, usually taller than women — the height differential corresponds to a power differential. It’s important in Shakespeare’s play that the differential be reversed in Romeo’s first declaration of worshipful love.

The last few days I talked about space; today it’s furniture and the relative position of bodies in psychological space. You’ve seen movies where the analyst sits in a chair behind the patient lying on the couch? This arrangement was a holdover from the days when hypnosis was the main analytic technique. Here’s the rationale for continuing the positional arrangement from The Technique and Practice of Psychoanalysis by Ralph Greenson:

The circumstance that two people meet together repeatedly and alone for a long period of time makes for an intensity of emotional involvement. The fact that one is troubled and relatively helpless and the other expert and offering help, facilitates an uneven, “tilted” relationship, with the troubled one tending to regress to some form of infantile dependency. The routine of having the patient lie on the couch also contributes to the regression in a variety of ways… The patient is lying down and therefore is lower than the analyst sitting upright behind him, that the patient’s locomotion and bodily movements are restricted, and that he speaks but he cannot see to whom… this combination of elements recapitulates the matrix of the mother-child relationship of the first months of life.

In contrast to the disciplined severity of the analytic scene, there’s the more relaxed and interpersonal style of counseling. The main criterion for a good room is that it not be noisy or distracting; the client will adjust to whatever is in the room. The relationship is a professional one, and the therapeutic technique does not rely on the client to establish a child-to-parent transference relationship with the therapist. Consequently, no attempt is made to recapitulate the “tilted” relationship through the positioning of furniture. Here’s Alfred Benjamin from The Helping Interview on arranging chairs:

Some interviewers like to sit behind a desk facing the interviewee… Others feel best when facing the interviewee without a desk between them. Still others prefer two equally comfortable chairs placed close to each other at a ninety-degree angle with a small table nearby. This arrangement works best for me. The interviewee can face me when he wishes to do so and at other times he can look straight ahead without my getting in his way. I am equally unhampered. The table close by fulfills its normal functions and, if not needed, disturbs no one.

I think I’m with Benjamin.

22 March 2007


Filed under: Culture, Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 3:50 pm

I’ve been thinking about heterotopias and atopias in part because I’m trying to figure out the importance of place in a psychological practice. In America counseling usually takes place in a private office, usually in a fairly anonymous office building. There’s a waiting room separated from the place where the counseling is done — like a doctor’s office, or a lawyer’s. This sort of arrangement assures privacy; it also establishes a professional partitioning of physical space. In our culture counseling is “on the grid”: the aim is to restore health or function to the client. As a representative of the mainstream culture, the counselor is able to identify the boundaries between health and illness, reality and delusion, normal and abnormal. The counseling place looks healthy, normal, real — it’s reassuring. Time too is normalized: regularly-scheduled appointments that begin and end at prespecified times.

Suppose instead your psychological model isn’t about healing the sick or restoring function or getting people in touch with reality. What if instead you emphasize difference from the norm as something to be cultivated, if you regard normalcy as largely a social convention, if you propose that multiple realities can coexist in the same space and time? Suppose psychological symptoms point not to individual illness but to gaps and overlaps in alternate realities, and that the counselor’s job isn’t to relieve the symptoms but to serve as a tour guide in exploring these gaps and overlaps. And what if, instead of reinforcing the territorial boundaries of normal reality, the counselor’s job is to encourage the client to loosen up the boundaries, to let the structures breathe a little, to see what other ways are possible?

Now you’re getting ready to set up a practice. Do you rent an office with a waiting room, furnish it tastefully but conservatively, see clients in a professionally normal space? Or do you set up a heterotopia in a warehouse or a barber shop or a theater? Or do you go for atopia: meet tomorrow at some cafe, next time at the train station, or even on the train? And then there’s time: I’ll see you here next week at the regular time, or I’ll meet you in the back pew of the cathedral in two hours?

21 March 2007


Filed under: Culture, Ktismata — ktismatics @ 4:28 pm

Yesterday’s post summarized Foucault’s essay on “heterotopias”: real but marginal places that are only tangentially connected to the sociocultural continuum. But Foucault wrote forty years ago. Today the heterotopia seems like an endangered species. It’s not being crowded out by the multiplication of normal sites; rather, the entire systematic proliferation of interconnected but discrete sites is endangered. In its place we see the extension of the atopia, the no-place.

The marketplace is the paradigmatic exemplar of an atopia: a vast array of nodes for buying and selling through which money and goods are transmitted. No one runs the marketplace. It’s everywhere all the time but nowhere in particular. It’s an orderly system, but the order isn’t imposed on it. Instead order emerges from the interaction as it propagates through the system: the results of human action but not of human design, in the words of economist Friedrich Hayek. Hayek argues that emergent order is superior to planned order because there’s more intelligence available for rational decision-making distributed throughout the system than could ever be made available to any central planning board.

The internet is another atopia: a vast array of nodes and links through which information is transmitted. Consciousness is another: a distributed network of neurons and synapses through which information is transmitted and from which thoughts and decisions emerge. Democracy: an array of voters and issues from which decisions emerge. Science: arrays of scientists who transmit the data and theories from which knowledge emerges. Evolution: arrays of genes and environments from which adaptive organisms emerge. Pop culture: arrays of brains, mouths and ears through which memes like jokes, pop tunes and fashions are transmitted.

ATOPIA is no place. It is literally the non-place which exists only virtually. Just a knot in the net which grants no hold but connects other knots. ATOPIA is nothing more than a weaving loom intertwining heterogeneous strings. There is no preconceived model, the form constantly transforms itself. A polylogue will raise of consonant and dissonant voices amplifying each other. Literature, philosophy, art and politics are meant to infiltrate, inoculate each other and create new constellations. This virtual archipelago is hosted by Tokelau, an independent island group in the Pacific. Like Tokelau, ATOPIA will stand on the edge of two days, of day and night. Between bright and dark the difference begins to oscillate, the unknown appears. ATOPIA is the search for this atopos, this uncontrollable difference. Utopia?

This is the manifesto of ATOPIA, a “polylogic e-zine.” The last question is the poignant one. Are atopias, as Hayek proposes, optimal arrangements for the real world? Or is the atopic optimum an ideal that cannot be achieved, a utopic dream? Or is it a dystopia: Baudrillard’s world of simulacra and empty signifiers and the Matrix? Is atopia the postmodern move beyond interconnected but distinct sites, or is it the logical next step in the long-running modern project of superimposing abstract continua on the universe, a project begun a long time ago by guys like Galileo, Newton, Adam Smith, John Locke?

20 March 2007


Filed under: Culture, First Lines, Ktismata — ktismatics @ 1:06 am

The great obsession of the nineteenth century was, as we know, history: with its themes of development and of suspension, of crisis, and cycle, themes of the ever-accumulating past, with its great preponderance of dead men and the menacing glaciation of the world.

– Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces,” 1967

Foucault speculates that perhaps the current era — which, forty years later, perhaps remains current — concerns itself primarily not with time but with space. In this essay Foucault quickly sketches a history of the present orientation to space, from the medieval hierarchy of places (sacred/profane, protected/open, earthly/heavenly, etc.), to the modern infinite extension of the empty space-time continuum, to the present emphasis on the “site.”

The site is defined by relations in proximity between points or elements; formally, we can describe these relations as series, trees, or grids… Our epoch is one in which space takes for us the form of relations among sites.

Society designates sites for work, for recreation, for rest, for education, for transportation, and so on.What interests Foucault in particular are “counter-sites,” places positioned on the outside of cultural space, irrelevant to the practical functioning of everyday life. These are real places but “absolutely different” from other sites; not utopias but “heterotopias.”

In traditional societies the heterotopias are reserved for people undergoing transitional crises: adolescents, menstruating women, pregnant women, the dying. Remnants of crisis heterotopias persist in boarding schools (perhaps also universities), the military, the honeymoon trip. But, says Foucault, the crisis heterotopia has largely been replaced by heterotopias of deviation: prisons, psychiatric hospitals, nursing homes, brothels.

The relationships between sites and heterotopias can change over time. Cemeteries used to be placed in the center of town, next to the church; now they’re more often marginalized to the outskirts. Foucault says the exile of the cemetery happened in the nineteenth century, when confidence in eternal life began to waver. The cemeteries then came to constitute, no longer the sacred and immortal heart of the city, but the other city, where each family possesses its dark resting place.

Some heterotopias juxtapose many places in a single space. The theater projects onto the rectangle of stage or screen a whole series of places. The traditional garden represents within its rectangle the four parts of the earth, with a fountain or basin in the center as an umbilicus or womb from which the earth flows and in which it is unified.

Heterotopias open onto heterochronies — disjunctures from the evenly spaced and empty continuum of time. Theater time passes differently from the time that surrounds the theater. The cemetery is a juxtaposition of the end of time and eternity. Museums and libraries accumulate past time in a place outside of time. Resort towns exist only at certain times of the year. Entering into a heterotopia often requires a rite of passage: enlistment in the army, arrest and conviction, death, travel. The ship is the heterotopia par excellence. In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and police take the place of pirates.

I am attracted to the heterotopia: the non-site, the place of exile, the rupture in the time-space continuum, the outpost of the preposterous, the portal that punctuates the world like a black hole, the gateway to alternate realities.

18 March 2007

The Ever-Receding Frontiers

Filed under: Culture, Fiction, First Lines — ktismatics @ 9:50 am

Looking at the beginning of A Man Without Qualities yesterday, we saw Musil establish the subjective uniqueness of place. Cities, like people, can be recognized by their walk. In the next paragraph, though, Musil takes away the difference he’s just established. We overestimate the importance of knowing where we are because in nomadic times it was essential to recognize the tribal feeding grounds. He’s embedding the subjective uniqueness of place in a primal genetic commonality — like migrating birds that instinctively and eternally return every year to the place they were born.

So let us not place any particular value on the city’s name. Like all big cities it was made up of irregularity, change, forward spurts, failures to keep step, collisions of objects and interests, punctuated by unfathomable silences; made up of pathways and untrodden ways, of one great rhythmic beat as well as the chronic discord and mutual displacement of all its controlling rhythms. All in all, it was like a boiling bubble inside a pot made of the durable stuff of buildings, laws, regulations, and historical traditions.

The characters who populate Musil’s story — if you can call it a story — act as if Vienna is the center of civilization, with a benevolent and wise Emperor as its god. But right from the beginning Musil distances himself from the place and its people, which are of course also his place, his people. The seemingly monumental concerns that motivate his characters are, Musil tells us, reducible to impersonal force fields bubbling away inside a closed space. But even here, in speaking of the “durable stuff” of a city, he’s being ironic. He’s looking back on a Vienna that is no more, its institutions shattered by a Great War that would begin with the assassination of the Austrian Emperor.

The sense Musil introduces of a multiplicity of impersonal, uncontrollable forces by turns creating stability and destroying it, belying any sense of purpose or progress moving through history — it’s characteristic of late modernism. Old Vienna with its familiar rhythms and its high culture and its distinctiveness — all of it can be swept away in an irresistible surge of mindless violence. Once there was Rome, then there was Vienna, then New York, next maybe Shanghai — every unique time and place rises and falls by the grace of chance and momentum and force fields. Ultimately they reduce to sameness.

We tend to think about modernity in terms of stable structures and scientific progress, of the heroic individual and the high culture. In contrast, postmodernity occupies a world in which structures are unstable,science is alienating, progress is uncertain, individualism is replaced by a herd of narcissists, and culture is co-opted by the marketplace. What you see in a book like The Man Without Qualities is a look back at modernity from the other side of the abyss. Sure he’s nostalgic, but he can also see the preciousness, the insularity, the futility of what has been destroyed. Musil wrote during the time of America’s “Lost Generation” of Hemingway, Eliot, Faulkner and Fitzgerald. The Europeans were Mann, Joyce, Proust, Kafka. They all portray a sense of irretrievable loss, of alienation, of purposelessness. And they’re all modernists.

When you think about this post-WWI set of writers, you wonder whether postmodernism isn’t best seen as a continuation rather than a radical departure. I suppose the main difference might be that the postmoderns have no personal memory of the good old days and no illusions that they’ll ever come back, no regret or nostalgia about a utopia lost on the ever-receding frontiers of the past and the future.

17 March 2007

Riding the Literary Thermals

Filed under: Fiction, First Lines — ktismatics @ 10:58 pm

A barometric low hung over the Atlantic.

– Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities, 1930

I haven’t gotten very far in Pierre Bayard’s book about how to talk about books you haven’t read. I have, however, gotten past the first sentence. Bayard observes the fact that individually none of us has read more than the tiniest fraction of all the books that have been published, such that relative to this hypothetical library of all books each of us is a non-reader. Bayard cites a passage from The Man Without Qualities in which General Stumm is looking for the single greatest idea ever thought in human history. The General went to the Imperial Library in Vienna to look for that greatest-ever idea. As the librarian walked him through aisle after aisle of books the General’s resolve began to falter. He asked the librarian how many books the library contains. Three and a half million. The General performed some mental calculations: if he read a book a day, it would take him a hundred thousand years to read them all. So he asked the librarian to help him find the greatest idea ever. After asking him several questions, the librarian directed the General to a bibliography of bibliographies in a particular area of study. The General was amazed. What is the librarian’s secret? How, out of these millions of books, can he direct a patron to just the right one?

It was almost too much, I tell you! But when he saw how stunned I was, he explained himself. The secret of a good librarian is that he never reads anything more of the literature in his charge than the titles and tables of contents. ‘Anyone who lets himself go and starts reading a book is lost as a librarian,’ he explained. ‘He’s bound to lose perspective.’

You might be wondering how long it took me to translate this piece of text from the French. The answer: no time at all. It turns out I have an English-language copy of The Man Without Qualities. It further turns out that I’ve read it. So on the one hand I feel a certain sense of superiority over most of the people who get five pages into Bayard’s book and are already confronted by an obscure Austrian book they haven’t read. On the other hand, I’ve not yet been comforted by the soothing balm of being told it’s okay not to read everything. So far I’ve read everything Bayard has read.

But now my attention has been diverted to Musil’s book. What if the only book I ever read was The Man Without Qualities? Could I generate a rich life of the mind by thinking about what I read in this single book? I start at the first page, which begins with a barometric reading, localized to a particular place and time. How is this helpful to my inner life? I begin the second paragraph:

Automobiles shot out of deep, narrow streets into the shallows of bright squares. Dark clusters of pedestrians formed cloudlike strings. Where more powerful lines of speed cut across their casual haste they clotted up, then trickled on faster and, after a few oscillations, resumed their hasty rhythm. Hundreds of noises wove themselves into a wiry texture of sound with barbs protruding here and there, smart edges running along it and subsiding again, with clear notes splintering off and dissipating. By this noise alone, whose special quality cannot be captured in words, a man returning after years of absence would have been able to tell with his eyes shut that he was back in the Imperial Capital and Royal City of Vienna. Cities, like people, can be recognized by their walk.

Is it necessary to talk about such a passage of text? Something can be observed about it: that patterns of human activity can be thought of in the impersonal terms of flows and channels, textures and densities — not unlike atmospheric pressures, in fact. But do I believe that last sentence — could I recognize any city by its walk? Does anyone walk in any American city, for example? This is a book not of my place and time. Except I’m an American living in a foreign city that still does have a walk. Still, I feel benumbed by it, almost as if I’d lived here a long time. Maybe if I left and then came back I’d find it comfortingly familiar, like this hypothetical world traveler returning at last to his home town of Vienna. But maybe Antibes isn’t enough like Vienna. Still, I don’t think Vienna is much like Vienna any more either, not after the war. I remember watching The Third Man, set in a blasted postwar Vienna, and wondering how much had been lost that could never be restored. And then I think about the writer of The Third Man, Graham Greene, who used to live not ten minutes’ walk from where I sit, in an apartment near the marina on the way to the train station. Could Graham Greene have recognized Antibes by its walk?

If you spend a long time in a book, set it aside for a decade or so, then come back to it, would you recognize it by its walk — by the narrow dark passages and the bright squares, by the speeds and clots, the oscillations and rhythms, the textures and edges, the barbs and dissipations — by the sheer noise the book makes, a noise that cannot be described in words?

16 March 2007

Imagine You’re a Different Kind of Machine

Filed under: Fiction, First Lines — ktismatics @ 1:59 pm

It didn’t start out here.

– Peter Watts, Blindsight, 2006

You could say that this futuristic interplanetary scifi started back on earth with the origin of our species. Sure we’re smarter than the average bear (does anybody out there remember whose catchphrase this was?), but we also happen to know how smart we are. We’re sentient beings; we’re self-aware; we’re conscious of our own consciousness: it’s what makes us special. Peter Watts explores an alien possibility: what if our specialness is our Achilles’ heel?

Hegel says that his “master-bondsman” discourse isn’t just political or social; it’s also and primarily psychological. Does my conscious self serve my self-conscious self, or is it the other way around? Hegel means partly this: do I use my intelligence to feed my sense of self-worth, or do I use my ego to optimize my dominion over the world? A self undergoing the inner struggle tends to fail in both regards: I am not self-sufficient and I am not master of my world. To reconcile self with self-consciousness is to engage in the cosmic spiritual struggle one self at a time.

But what if I didn’t have to engage in the struggle, not because I had resolved my inner divide between self-as-subject and self-as-object, but because I couldn’t experience the split? I wouldn’t be able to observe myself in the inner mirror because no one’s there to watch. In short, what if I was conscious but not self-conscious? I wouldn’t even be able to imagine the profound soul-searching I’m doing in this post, but I couldn’t care less because I’d be incapable of searching. Would that be such a bad thing? I’d be more single-minded, less ambivalent — a more effective agent thrown into the universe. Perhaps I’d even be more adaptive.

Peter Watts’ spaceship is manned by crewmembers retrofitted with surgical, chemical and genetic modifications designed to overcome the innate limitations of self-awareness. Here,excerpted from an interview, is what Watts had to say about them while he was still writing the book:

One of the characters is a reconstructed vampire, a cannibalistic Human subspecies that died out with the rise of Euclidean architecture. We found enough of their genes in the bloodlines of sociopaths and high-functioning autistics to resurrect them. We brought them back because they’ve got these incredibly cool analytical pattern-matching abilities — but we also have them hooked on anti-Euclidean drugs to avoid spazzing out when they see intersecting right angles. [That’s why showing a vampire a crucifix freaks him out: it’s the right angles.]

Another one of the characters is a linguist whose brain has been surgically partitioned into autonomous chunks — surgically-induced multiple personality syndrome, so that she can have a series of onboard parallel-processing modules. There’s a biologist whose motor strip has been so massively interfaced with teleoperated equipment that much of the coordination of his physical body has been lost (he tremors a lot because there’s just not enough room on the motor strip to handle both his body and his teleoperators).

The protagonist is a character who had half his brain removed when he was a child. He had a particularly devastating form of epilepsy, and a radical hemispherectomy was the only way to keep the seizures from killing him. This form of epilepsy involves an electrical storm bouncing back and forth across the corpus callosum, producing a positive feedback loop in the brain. So they removed half. Such operations actually happen today, by the way. [Hear that, Ivan?] Anyway, our protagonist grows up convinced that he is not what his parents say he is. His parents killed their only child, because they cut out half his brain. There was personality in that half. The other half had to make up the slack, had to totally rewire itself — and what identity could possibly survive that kind of neurological violence? So this character grows up feeling that he is essentially a pod person that has grown up in the body of a dead boy, and he has this enormous survivor guilt syndrome. [As a result of the surgery, this character is physiologically incapable of empathy — perhaps because in a Hegelian sense he can no longer relate to himself. His job is to record exactly and objectively what happens on the voyage without the distractions of personal drama to muddy it up.]

Anyway, these characters go off and meet aliens, and explore the theme of consciousness along the way. And perhaps the most disturbing possibility I explore is that consciousness [or self-consciousness as I, ktismatics, am using the term] — as distinct from intelligence, which is a whole other phenomenon — actually isn’t necessary in an evolutionary sense, and may in fact be a bad thing… We say we’re intelligent, we’re conscious, and that’s why we rule the nest. But those primitive egg-laying mammals in Australia? They ruled the nest too, until the bunny rabbits washed up on shore. They didn’t rule the nest because they were superior; but because they were isolated. They had no real competition. So. We Humans are highly intelligent, and maybe that’s enough to overcome the drawback of being conscious at the same time. But there’s absolutely no reason why you can’t postulate an organism that’s every bit as intelligent as we are, but nonconscious. And when those guys wash up on the Australian shores, we are toast.

This is a “first contact” story, where these variously “optimized” humans go out to meet with an alien species that has just made its presence known in our solar system. It turns out the aliens are intellectually and technologically superior to humans, as might be expected of a species that can manage intergalactic travel, but they seem to have no self-conscious capabilities whatsoever. They’re like organic, self-replicating robots. You can try to understand what they’re thinking, what motivates them, whether their intentions are benign or malign; you can even talk to them about it. But it’s all a simulation, because none of the words about consciousness connects with the aliens on the inside. Self-referentiality means nothing when there is no self to refer to. No megomaniacal urge to conquer or to be first in anything, no fear, no longing to relieve existential loneliness in a seemingly empty cosmos — none of the “self” stuff matters, so it never gets in the way of doing what has to be done. As Watts says, when these guys show up, we are toast.

How different this fictional universe is from It’s a Wonderful Life or The Departed or A Scanner Darkly. Watts shows us a future totally embedded in the scientific hegemony dreaded by postmodernists. Even those sensitive but reduntant souls who opt out do so by shutting their bodies down and plugging themselves into an idyllic virtual reality called “Heaven.” The metaphysical and spiritual bifurcation buried deep in our souls, the generator of personal motivation and dramatic tension, turns out to be an evolutionary byproduct of dubious survival value. Victory goes to the post-humans — even if they are incapable of savoring it. It’s the end of history, but not the way Hegel envisioned it.

[Incredibly, this recently-published book is available in its entirety online, for free. Why? Because the publishers didn’t think it was going to be a big seller so they couldn’t meet the demand. Watts wanted to make sure people who wanted to read his book were able to. Here’s another cool thing from Watts’ website: a pseudo-scientific audio lecture, complete with PowerPoint slideshow, describing the “vampire genome project” — the backstory behind one of Watts’ characters and pretty darned entertaining.]

15 March 2007

Mors Ontologica

Filed under: Fiction, First Lines — ktismatics @ 10:27 am

Once a guy stood all day shaking bugs from his hair.

– Philip Dick, A Scanner Darkly, 1977

My copy of this book has disappeared, but then I found an online version at, oddly, the American Buddha website. Still, it’s been awhile: no telling how much the book has changed since I read it. Recently Jonathan at Theos Project posted about the film adaptation of Dick’s novel. After reading my post yesterday about The Departed, a friend who’s an avid Philip Dick fan sent me an email pointing out that A Scanner Darkly explores similar psychological territory.

A central theme of The Departed is what Freud called “the uncanny”: split identity and mirrored realities, the hollowness at the center of the self, the inevitable victory of Death as the ultimate Master. This is Hegel’s world viewed through a distorted lens ground by Freud and polished by Lacan, a paranoiac world that threatens to devolve into hallucination and madness. That’s precisely where Philip Dick takes you.

Like The Departed, Dick’s story is about an undercover cop. Agent Fred’s job is to infiltrate a drug ring by posing as Bob Arctor, a local dealer and head of a loosely held-together houseful of junkies. Problem is, Fred/Bob is addicted to Substance D, a powerful psychoactive drug that blocks the connections between the brain hemispheres, resulting in double personality. So Agent Fred doesn’t realize that he is also Bob Arctor, and vice versa. Bob is paranoid because he suspects that he’s under surveillance, and he’s right: he’s being spied on by himself. In The Departed, Colin was in the same boat but he was fully aware that there was only himself in that boat; in A Scanner Darkly, Fred/Bob suspects there are two in the boat, but one of them can never be seen by the other.

Substance D: in Dick’s street parlance it’s known as Slow Death, or just Death. Its chemical name is Mors ontologica: ontological death, or death of being. It’s the substance that everyone desires to make them whole, but it’s effect is to split the self wide open, exposing the hollow center. Eventually Fred/Bob goes into rehab, where he’s assigned a new identity: Bruce. Bruce is a burnout, catatonic, noncommunicative, one of the living dead. A flicker of awareness remains, but it will probably never come out again.

Compared to Dick’s world, The Departed feels like a walk in the park. They’re two different manifestations of the postmodern turn on Hegel. The Departed reveals the nearly arbitrary structures of the realities that shape us, that seemingly opposite poles on the same continuum — law and crime, master and servant — might really be two alternate realities that mirror and mutually deconstruct each other: honor among thieves, deception within the law, and so on. This doubling induces a neurotic division of the self that threatens to blow wide open. In A Scanner Darkly the explosion happens; the territories of the mind can no longer be mapped. The destruction isn’t violent or abrupt, but it wreaks a total psychic destruction that’s more alienating, more psychotic, ultimately more frightening than anything in The Departed.

14 March 2007

I Erased You

Filed under: First Lines, Movies — ktismatics @ 3:29 pm

I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product… of me.

– William Monahan, The Departed screenplay, 2006

I’ve been exploring the impact on postmodernism of Hegel’s “master-bondsman” discourse. Hegel talks about the ways in which selves attempt in vain to attain self-sufficiency from others. But Hegel says he’s really talking about an internal division, where the self and the self-conscious compete for dominance, only to come to the realization that what they’re fighting over is an emptiness at the core of the self, an emptiness that serves the ultimate Master, who is death.

The Departed centers around two main characters: Colin is a cop who is really an operative of Costello, an Irish gang boss who speaks the film’s opening line cited at the top of this post; Billy works for the gang boss but is really an undercover cop working for the head of the organized crime division. Colin and Billy are ambivalent bondsmen, seemingly serving one master while really serving the other. Each is a kind of mirror image of the other. But each is also his own double: both cop and criminal, a servant both of the Law and of Transgression. These two worlds aren’t just opposites; they too are mirror images of one another in structure, in language, in internal codes of honor and corruption. And within each of the two characters is a divide. When he tries to discover a united, coherent self he discovers that he is simultaneously a loyal servant and a traitor, a violator of the code and a subject to the code of violation. In serving two masters does he serve no master but himself? But in his self-mastery does he discover that he really is no one, a servant of Death who rules all and who spares no one?

I’m reminded of another, very different movie on which I once posted: It’s a Wonderful Life. George Bailey, at the end of his rope, is ready to kill himself. His guardian angel Clarence tries to talk him out of death by showing him what things would have been like if George had never lived. Clarence reveals an alternate reality, a mirror image that’s different only in that it lacks George. It’s a disorienting experience to visit a world defined by your own nonexistence. It’s uncanny. And it’s an inner split: am I the self who observes the mirror world, or am I the non-self that is the hole in that world?

And now I recall Freud’s essay on “The Uncanny,” in which he recounts one of the Tales of Hoffman, “The Sandman,” about a nighttime visitor who throws sand in children’s eyes until the eyes, bleeding, jump out of the children’s heads. This too is a story of death, of selves who are divided and mirrored, of the uncanny. Freud elaborates:

These themes are all concerned with the phenomenon of “the double,” which appears in every shape and in every degree of development. Thus we have characters who are considered to be identical because they look alike. This relation is accentuated by mental processes leaping from one of these characters to another — by what we should call telepathy –, so that the one possesses knowledge, feelings, and experience in common with the other. Or it is marked by the fact that the subject identifies himself with someone else, so that he is in doubt as to which his self is, or substitutes the extraneous self for his own. In other words, there is a doubling, dividing, and interchanging of the self. And finally there is the constant recurrence of the same thing — the repetition of the same features or character-traits or vicissitudes, of the same crimes, or even the same names through several consecutive generations.

Freud says that in traditional cultures the double — the mirror image, the dream self, the shadow, the guardian spirit, the soul which inhabits the body, the image of the dead person that decorates the Egyptian sarcophagus — serves as a protector of the self against death. Later, with the emergence of self-awareness, the double becomes a harbinger of death: the doppelganger, the voodoo doll, the zombie, the ghost. When the self as subject looks upon self as object, what it sees is a self rendered inanimate, dead, subjected to the ultimate Master.

Think about Hitchcock movies: Vertigo, Strangers on a Train, Psycho — the uncanny double drives the story toward the ultimate Master. The divided selves, and the doubled worlds they inhabit, reunite only in death and madness. In more optimistic movies like It’s A Wonderful Life the doubling reunites around an awareness not of self-as-dead but of self-as-alive. I suspect that for Hegel the tragic and the comic resolutions are equally based on a self-deception that short-circuits a more profound, more spiritual synthesis.

Eventually Colin is assigned to find the rat in the police department who tips Costello off about impending raids. The irony is that Colin himself is the rat. I’m looking for myself, Colin tells Costello. Finally Costello gets killed, ratted out by the rat himself. Billy the undercover cop comes in out of the cold. I want my identity back, he tells Colin. I erased you, Billy tells him. Eventually everyone is erased by the ultimate Master.

13 March 2007

Merde Alors

Filed under: First Lines, Language — ktismatics @ 5:10 pm

Il existe plus d’une manière de ne pas lire, dont la plus radicale est de n’ouvrir aucun livre.

– PIerre Bayard, Comment Parler Des Livres Que L’On N’A Pas Lus? 2007

The book I posted on yesterday? I just bought it.

I grabbed the clipping about it from the International Herald Tribune, looked up the French title on Amazon.fr and wrote it on the clipping, then headed up the street to the bookstore. It’s about a two minute walk from door to door. After a cursory look around I showed my clipping to a young woman who works at the store. Ah — juste la, she said pleasantly, pointing to the display table next to her. Two copies left. It’s a classic French-looking book: paperback, plain type font, no cover art, no endorsements on the back — just a 1-paragraph précis. I head for the checkout line, hand over my debit card, punch in my PIN, get my receipt for 15 euros, and, book in hand, out the door I go.

I take it home and look at it. It’s a short book — only 162 pages. That’s encouraging. The last time a friend lent me a French book it was a meditation on poetry by Dominique de Villepin, the Prime Minister, something like 700 pages long. Imagine Dick Cheney writing a book about poetry. “I only read a hundred pages,” I admitted to Jöel when I returned it to him. “I have not read it,” he shrugged.

I flip to the front looking for the table of contents and it’s not there — that’s because French books put the table of contents at the back of the book. Also, the title and author written down the spine of the book? It’s flipped upside down compared to American books: the writing faces toward the right and reads from bottom to top as you look at it on the shelf. This book is part of the publisher’s Paradoxe series. Several other titles by Beyard are on the list: books about Maupassant, Freud, Proust, Agatha Christie, Shakespeare — psychoanalytic lit crit. Looking at the other authors’ names I recognize Deleuze, who has been the subject of a post at Church and Postmodern Culture where I’ve written a couple comments, including one alluding to the book that’s now in my hand. The other authors I’m pretty sure I don’t know, but I can tell they’d make good reading in pomo circles: The Aesthetics of Suicide; The Demon of Tautology; Listening: The Aesthetics of Espionage; The Dancer of Solitudes. The X of Y seems to be the formula for a good French pomo title. How about The Rigors of Caffeine? The Desolation of Masculinity? I should write those maybe. Then people could study Peyard’s book so they’ll know how not to read my books.

I turn to the beginning. It starts, as many books do, with a quote. This one is by Oscar Wilde: Je ne lis jamais un livre dont je dois écrire la critique; on se laisse tellement influencer. It’s not fair: Wilde wrote in English, but this quote is in French, so now I have to retranslate it back into English. “I never read a book dont I have to write a critique: one…” — what? “… it influences one too much”? Something like that: “I never read a book when I have to write a critique: it influences you too much.” LOL. Jokes aren’t nearly as funny when you have to work so hard to get them.

Next is a “Table of Abbreviations.” I don’t want to think about that right now. Next, the Prologue — skip that too for now. First section: Des Manières de Ne Pas Lire — Ways of Not Reading. First chapter: Les Livres Que L’On Ne Connaît Pas — The Books that One Does Not Know. French is big on the impersonal construction: one reads, one does. In English it sounds stilted. So the English title of the book: How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read — “you haven’t read,” not the direct translation “one hasn’t read.”

Now the first line: Il existe plus d’une manière de ne pas lire, dont la plus radicale est de n’ouvrir aucun livre. What does it mean? “There exists more than one way not to read, dont the most radical is not to open aucun book.” I’ve got the gist, so I don’t really need the two words I’m not sure of. Dont appeared in the Wilde quote: there I decided it meant “when,” but that doesn’t quite work here. How about “of which”? Aucun I think means “any.” “There’s more than one way not to read, of which the most radical is not to open any book.” Pretty good. I’m looking up the two words.

The French-English dictionary doesn’t give a definition for dont; it refers me to paragraph 79. Where’s that? Way in the back, in special topics, just after conjugation of irregular verbs. Dont: of whom, of which, from which, on which, etc. So I’m good — it’s a multipurpose word, the meaning of which depends on context. Now, aucun: “no, none, not any.” So I’m good again, got it right the first try. “There’s more than one way not to read, the most radical of which is not to open any book.” Ha ha ha. This book is going to be a pomo laugh riot. Maybe by tomorrow I’ll be able to tell one about the second sentence.

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