April 19th, 2004

More on the EMP

I'm now experiencing the post-conference hangover that plagues me whenever I return from one, but particularly when I go full fore through the event. It's tiring when you have to be "on" for hours on end.

As I try to regroup, though, I thought I'd direct you to this Seattle Weekly feature on the conference, in which Ann Powers and Eric Weisbard are asked to identify music made by conference participants from the last three years. It's funny. They talk about the adoption of their daughter Rebecca. And they have good things to say about the ridiculous behavior of the participants at the musicians' panel two years ago, when peer pressure led Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney to forego reading the paper she'd prepared.

Incidentally, speaking of the ridiculous, there was no sign of Jennifer Maerz, who so rudely slammed that first conference -- before it had even take place! -- in The Stranger as a way of putting her anti-intellectual stamp on her new position. She's very nice in person, but I have a low tolerance for slamming in general and an even lower tolerance for "populist" slams on intellectual approaches to popular culture. The United States already has all the mindless sex and violence it needs. But what do intellectuals do? They engage in that peculiarly American form of self-loathing in which they indict other intellectuals for not keeping it real. I know that there's pleasure in masochism -- as Carlos Gallego might say, "Ask Jesus" -- but the spectacle of writers and scholars pleasuring themselves at the expense of American intellectual life is obscene.

Whoops, got a little hot and bothered there. Where was I? EMP, right.

I wish I could have made it to the conference "after party" Saturday night and said goodbye to Ann and Eric in proper fashion. But when you're staying in Redmond without a car, you have to go with the flow.

I hat lots of fun with Chris and Brian, though. Did I mention how happy I was that Chris made it to my presentation? That was pretty awesome.

And thanks to both he and Dan for giving me a super place to stay, a super internet connection, and super transportation to and from both the airport and the conference.

Enjoy the Raging Sage, guys!
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Conceding to Desire

Going through random papers -- my home office is really out of control right now, what with all the insanity of April -- I came across something I had considered using as an artifact here, but mislaid and then wrote on the back of when I was recording my hotel reservation for the 2003 MLA Convention.

Maybe it's because I'm listening to Laibach and just got done visiting Chris -- or "Christopher," as we called him them -- but I'm feeling temporally unstable today.

What I found was a poem Annalee wrote for Thom Gunn's poetry workshop in the spring of 1988 -- I was a freshperson, though a year older than her -- which I ended up sitting in on.

Most of Annalee's poems for the class were playful, deft of touch, and pretty strenuously anti-realist. Gunn used to praise her technique but lament the fact that she didn't seem to deploy it on topics of substance. This annoyed her greatly. But one day, she wrote something more concrete and overtly "real" and turned it in.

Gunn loved it, as did the rest of the students in the class. I remember Leanne -- whom I barely knew at the time, but hung out with at Cody's café after class -- going on and on about how great the poem was.

Annalee, though, clearly felt conflicted about the response to the poem. She worried that it represented a kind of "selling out" to the prurient realist tastes of the poetic mainstream.

Since I vicariously experienced the same concerns through Kim a few years later, as she dealt with performance poetry audiences' desire for the "dirt" of her personal history, I've recalled Annalee's anxieties about her poem many times.

For me, as you may imagine, the poem inspired mixed feelings. Michele was a threat to my relationship with Annalee. But there was something seductive about the idea of being cheated on with a woman. Or, to be more precise, reading Annalee's poem made me realize that there could be something seductive about being cheated on in that way. I'm not sure the thought had ever crossed my mind before, not having had much concrete experience of relationships.

I also liked the poem on its own terms, even though I felt guilty for liking a poem that Annalee had such powerful mixed feelings about:
Michele Dressing

What could I say
when you turned and asked,
"Which one looks better on me?"
You had two skirts on the bed
I did not realize
that you were undressed
until I looked away from the window.
I was full of the street
and at first your arms were not bare
but slowly my eyes made you
nude
as the sunlight drained out of them.
Turning, you hair turned,
your back shifted and
I stood, suddenly strange
in the darkening room.

I answered you finally with my hands
in my pockets.
You looked perfect in everything:
soft and bruised
like a battered princess.
But still you would not dress.
Seeing you in the sunlight
with your sad curves reminded me
of cheap candies --
how could I have thought it?
"You look as if you would taste like
butterscotch,"
I said
but my voice broke
and I could not smile.

later in the dark
we drank red wine on the balcony
you smoked a cigarette and said
I'd like to be your lover
my hands were cold

you were so soft
I thought you must be rotting
and in the light
you dripped shadows like water

we're psychopathic
you said
tugging at a sleeve

I thought of you dressing
over and over again

always covering yourself with clothes

-- Annalee Newitz, 3/24/88
Given the inconsistency in the punctuation -- one comment in quotes, one not -- this may be a first draft. I don't remember.

Reading it now, I do understand better why Annalee felt she was making troublesome concessions in the poem. The exuberance of her surreal mode suffers a little when it's constrained by a linear narrative. Here, it's the individual images rather than the poem as a whole that impress most.

I have to day, though, that if you ever saw Michele back then, you'd say that Annalee captured her self-presentation perfectly.

We would see her occasionally on BART over the next few years, looking more lost on each successive occasion.
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The Utility of Post-Lacanian Psychoanalytic Concepts

My friend Joe Lockard sent a message to our Bad Subjects editorial list this morning, responding to last week's entry in which I quoted a long passage from Kaja Silverman's World Spectators. He has given me permission to quote it in full here:
Charlie's post reminded me to go check his blog. This is not one of my busy schedule days. I'm sorry we're not going to see each other at the Narrative Conference, Charlie. A music conference in Seattle sounds like much better duty than delivering a paper at 8am in a small Vermont city (and Burlington will always be small, even as a 'city') after having driven up from Boston (another conference) the night before.

But what struck me in your blog, Charlie, was the distance between your engagement with Kaja Silverman and the interpretive possibilities I'm searching for in/with my own work. For concrete example, at the New England Slavery conference in Boston I'm giving a paper on Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story and his putative antislavery conscience, as contradicted by an 1842 decision he wrote to enforce the Fugitive Slave clause of the constitution. I found myself searching through the narratological work of Gerald Prince in order to explain how Story invokes slavery to achieve a (false) moral diegesis. But I'm hard-pressed to think how I would employ that psycho-phenomenology of Lacan and Silverman to elaborate distinctions between 'empty' and 'full' speech in Story's rhetoric. Actually, Jonathan's colleague Marcus Rediker was very helpful when I asked him for direction towards 'piracy theory,' not knowing if that exists (it does). When I think of 'empty' in the context of my current writing I tend to think of the 'empty rhetoric' of conservative antislavery. One of the difficulties, I think, is that the Silverman discussion you cite emerges from and is directed at private speech acts that voice desire, and is rather less useful towards dissecting public rhetoric on race, class, and alignments of social power. Joseph Story's legal texts serve poorly to convert him into an analysand in the grave.

Silverman's rehearsal of 'empty speech' and its conditions sounds closely proximate to the political theory of 'false consciousness.' Since the latter is not a concept that says much and has been used quite oppressively, I'm wondering whether Silverman's definitional distinction can bear good fruit.

A glaring gap between rhetoric and phenomenology seems to be what we're talking about in much of the above.

Joe, who had a great trip up to the Mogollan Rim this past weekend
Not able to address the specific text by Story that Joe refers to here, I drafted a reply drawing on my experience reading slave narratives -- an experience, though not inconsequential, that falls absurdly short of Joe's -- in which I imagine how someone might go about using the concept of empty speech in a nineteenth-century context:
Thanks for the thoughful provocation, Joe. I was going to be at the Narrative Conference, but just can't afford the time or money it would take.

It's interesting that you can't see any point of connection between your work on anti-slavery literature and the sort of post-Lacanian psychoanalysis that informs my own work on the autobiographical mode. I haven't given the matter much thought, but my instincts tell me that I could make the leap.

Silverman is talking ABOUT Lacan talking ABOUT the analytic situation in the long passage I quoted. The context is very important. We aren't, as you point out, discussing public rhetoric here.

The question, then, is whether it might be possible to transpose the notion of "empty speech" to a less private situation with less specific constraints on communication.

From my perspective, the concept of "empty speech" is a promising tool -- and one of many, from a wide variety of discourses -- for coming to terms with the compulsion to believe in a fixed identity that exists outside the stream of time.

Since slave narratives typically focus on the coming-into-subjectivity that accompanies the passage into self-ownership, they highlight precisely the contingent underpinnings of personal identity that Lacan and Silverman wish to emphasize, albeit from a very, very different angle.

To the extent that slave narratives were also, in large measure, the product of a negotiation between the former slave coming into subjectivity and the patrons and audiences interested in making her or his story public, they demonstrate -- in extreme form -- a quality that I would argue is inherent to ALL autobiography, namely the fact that "auto" biography is never as autonomous as it appears.

I make that point polemically and provocatively, knowing that you will surely have a powerful comeback, Joe. But I'm willing to make it because I wish to hold out for an old-school understanding of communication that enables the application of lessons learned in one domain to others that are pretty far afield.

And, yes, I do note that "psycho-phenomenology" is a bit of an insult. . . :-)

Best,

Charlie
It's funny. I never think of myself as a dyed-in-the-wool psychoanalytic critic. But I sometimes appear that way to others. What would Freud say?
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Super Something

Here's what Jim Baker on ESPN's MLB Insider has to say today about Barry Bonds's performance so far this season:
What, exactly, were we expecting from Barry Bonds this spring? Did we think a haunted scarecrow of a man, deprived of the magic elixir that made him whole, would be dragging his bat to the plate for lack of the strength required to carry it there? Did we think that, once in the batter's box, the batboy would help him hoist the lumber up to his shoulder and that there it would stay while he hoped the pitcher would miss the plate four times? Did we think that finally, out of desperation, he would feebly unlimber the bat and make a half-hearted slap at a pitch now and again, perhaps even fouling a few off, or, with some luck, dribbling one back to the pitcher?

Regardless of what folks expected, this much we know: at the advanced age of 39, Bonds is off to the best start of his 19-year career, bar none. He homered twice in yesterday's 7-6 loss to the Dodgers, giving him seven homers and 16 RBI on the young season. Through the first twelve games of the season, he has never quite gotten out of the gate like this, although 2002 comes pretty close.
And he just hit another home run tonight.

If he keeps up this pace -- impossible, obviously -- he projects to end up with 95 home runs and 216 RBIs for the year. Of course, the other major "projected" statistics are the same as what he has done so far: a .500 batting average, .638 on base percentage, and a 1.265 slugging percentage.

I honestly don 't think Barry was ever using steroids -- yes, I believe him, because he has consistently told the truth to his detriment -- but if he is using something, it must be a lot better than what everyone else is using.

Or maybe it's not the medicine but the method.
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