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Genealogy - De File
Does Collecting Make You Feel Dirty?
cbertsch
cbertsch
Genealogy
When I was taking Judith Butler's course back in 1993, I had the daunting task of giving the first in-class presentation. I went to see her in office hours -- a rarity in my scholarly existence -- and followed the instructions she gave me to the letter. In the hours before class I went to the reading room in Doe Library and inhaled line after line of Foucault until I'd achieved one of the best intellectual highs of my life. I was sure I was on to something. By the time I got to the presentation itself, however, I was coming down fast and far less certain of my ideas' brilliance. The fact that the course included a number of graduate students whose nose was perpetually in the air didn't help.

Still, I soldiered on. And Butler seemed pleased. But she also said something that has haunted me ever since. "You completely ignored the concept of genealogy." True, I had. Even though my topic was Foucault's approach to modern history, I had skirted the whole issue of the relationship between genealogy and historiography. I had a reason, too. Although I had been reading Foucault for several years and had a pretty good handle on the distinction between his early, middle, and late work, I had always thought that his favored terms "genealogy" and "archaeology" were too nebulous to be much help.

Butler's comment changed all that, at least where genealogy was concerned. From that point on, I embarked on a quest to figure out why someone as smart as her would see the idea of genealogy as the key to unlocking Foucault's work. I read his references to the term over and over. I read the Nietzsche texts that inspired him. I even spent time researching the sort of genealogy that results in family trees in the hope that it would provide me clues to the significance of the theoretical definition. At the end of all that labor, however, I was only half-pleased with my understanding of the term.

And that remained the case until today, when I revisited the introduction to Butler's landmark 1990 book Gender Trouble. There it was, like a lightning bolt from a bright blue sky: the most compelling description of genealogy that I'd ever encountered:
A genealogical critique refuses to search for the origins of gender, the inner truth of female desire, a genuine or authentic sexual identity that repression has kept from view; rather, genealogy investigates the political stakes in designating as an origin and cause those identity categories that are in fact the effects of institutions, practices, discourses with multiple and diffuse points of origin.(viii-ix)
All of a sudden, my favorite passage from Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals about the doer and the deed was revealed to be the foundation for genealogical critique as Butler understands it. What is more, the bit about "multiple and diffuse points of origin" puts into prose as clear as a mountain stream the diagram I taught myself to draw for students when they asked me about genealogy, in which each step back leads to a greater number of sources. For the past decade, I have explained that genealogy seeks to show how the positing of any one origin, in the face of so many possibilities, is an arbitrary act of will. That's not exactly what Butler is arguing, but her account dovetails beautifully with the one I've invested so much energy in constructing. Best of all, I read this passage in Kim's copy of Gender Trouble, where it was duly underlined -- I don't underline my books anymore -- and the recipient of a "This is particularly important" checkmark as well. There's nothing better than discovering that the rose-petal strewn path to illumination has been trod already by one's partner for life.

Tags: ,
Mode: bearish
Muse: Walls Of Grain - Preston School Of Industry - Idea Of Fires

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Comments
From: wondrousbeauty Date: January 7th, 2005 04:31 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
The first presentation in Judith Butler's course--now that's got to be daunting!
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: January 7th, 2005 12:00 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Yes! I realize how it sounds from afar. At the time it felt less crazy. Still, I was trembling.

Nice hearing from you. My daughter likes your LJ icon.
elizabeg From: elizabeg Date: January 7th, 2005 04:42 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

what this made me think of

First day of class today for the seminar on time and narration and tried however badly to talk about critical investment in understanding how or why talking about modernity came to involve (or expose itself as or something) recognizing modernity as a narrative construction presupposing and imposing telos.

I fumbled rather more than I'd have liked (and I'm still fumbling now, can't recall the names of things I've read, etc) but hell--to fumble publicly is to try to speak in class in a way that works through toward something and knows it can't name things themselves (bombs they are, the name as dropping of). And that towardness has always been and seems as if it shall remain my classroom m.o. Oh my poor classmates who must bear witness to my wanderings...

But then the prof distills my blather into a beautifully Heideggerian line about becoming. So I'm happy.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: January 7th, 2005 11:58 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: what this made me think of

Oooh, "towardness" -- I like that. And the syntax of "bombs they are, the name as dropping of." Are you sure you aren't Irish? Wait, you are Irish, aren't you?
elizabeg From: elizabeg Date: January 7th, 2005 01:52 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: what this made me think of

Ay, lad--grandma's relatives came straight from the Emerald Isle. I went toward (and then around) it once and it was absolutely divine, even when I got stranded on the lakes of Killarney and had to get saved by a boatload of German biker tourists.

What this post made me think of now is possible relations between "genealogy" and "genealogical critique." Perhaps the difference has to do with syntax, the investment in...
slanderous From: slanderous Date: January 7th, 2005 12:28 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I heart genealogy, but I have a hard time explaining it. That, however, is the perfect cite for it.

Also, Wendy Brown writes about genealogy in Politics Out of History, which you might also enjoy. I freaking loved it. It's really quite hopeful in its total "whatever" and "no way" to master narratives as a prerequisite for politics.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: January 7th, 2005 01:10 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I love that book. I love Wendy Brown (she was on my committee). And the ideas in Politics Out of History, which she was working on when I had her seminar, have been a bigger influence on my work than just about anything. But I'd never run across such a compact definition of genealogy that covered all the bases. Of course, both Nietzsche and Foucault are terribly vague when they talk about it. Foucault leads you on to think that he's going to explain, but doesn't.

slanderous From: slanderous Date: January 7th, 2005 05:35 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
That's awesome that Wendy was on your committee! Do you know Anna Kirkland or Robyn Marasco? Wendy was/is on their committees as well. Robyn is also a hardcore kid.

Foucault is a theory tease. Thank god for the reams of commentators whose entire life force is dedicated to fleshing out Foucault for me!

You know, I know you do music, but I don't know your other work.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: January 7th, 2005 06:06 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
No, I don't know them. Or at least I don't think I do. When I was in Brown's course, I wa already long since done with my required coursework. But I figured, since I was paying all that money, I might as well keep a hand in the game. Being the sole English person in her course, though, and about to enter the insanity of parenthood, I didn't get to know my classmates very well, though I was pleased to find that there was a wide range of students enrolled, from a UCSC undergrad to hard-edged poli-sci types. Wendy is incredibly nice!

I love the idea of the "theory tease." Is he ever! Even though I never fit the mold, I benefited enormously from the courses I had with Kaja Silverman, as well as the ones with Brown and Butler, because none of them were theory teases. Silverman, in particular, was all about full exposure.

As for my work, I'm not sure that I know it. I'm frantically finishing a book about punk that's not really about punk so much as the idea of punk and its impact on culture, with chapters on 1) punk's relationship to theory; 2) the concepts of nature and second nature in cyberpunk; 3) Dennis Cooper's attempt to translate punk aesthetics into prose that aspires to be at once literary and transgressive; 4) the relationship between DIY publishing and the McSweeney's phenomenon; and, coming full circle, 5) the legacy of punk in leftist politics after the Battle of Seattle. One of those chapters may have to be cut and spun off for publication elsewhere, but that's the outline.

Aside from that I work "officially" on postwar American fiction, with a special interest in the afterlife of the political novel. I also teach film, sometimes. And, assuming I don't go insane or become a clerk at Wal-Mart, I plan to one day write a book on a topic I'm calling the "documentary impulse," in which I will consider everything from Soviet avant-garde film to the rise of blog culture.

Really, though, I'm just trying to make the book as good as it needs to be before it's too late.
slanderous From: slanderous Date: January 7th, 2005 09:30 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Good lord! I want to read your book! I've been thinking about punk rock and how I'm not the biggest fan of a lot of the academic scholarship about it. (I'm still cringing at that ethnography of gutter punk girls. One of these days I've also got to finish all the work I started on riot grrrl.) Can I ask how long you've been working on it, and who's your publisher?
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: January 8th, 2005 01:44 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I've been working on it without realizing it for about thirteen years, but only 18 months with a specific aim, which is not long enough. I'm overly self-conscious about the fact that what I'm doing may please neither the academic nor punk camp, though I think it will please some of those who straddle the two a good deal. Still, I worry.

Publisher is not set yet, though I'm hoping to have that cleared up soon. I have to have that cleared up very soon!
slanderous From: slanderous Date: January 8th, 2005 03:14 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on this self-consciousness. I always feel very weird about doing scholarly work on punk rock and riot grrrl.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: January 8th, 2005 05:28 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Part of it has to do with my sense of never quite belonging in either the music world or the scholarly world, of being caught in between. Part of it has to do with the fact that I know, from doing interviews, from talking to fans, from being a fan myself, that the spirit/"spirit" of punk in inimical to the sort of hairsplitting that academics, no matter what their preferences, can't help but indulge in. I'd love for my book to be like a song on Team Dresch's _Captain, My Captain_. But in order for it to be that, it would have to stop being what it most needs to be. I guess what I'm saying is that I feel the need to serve as a mediator, getting the better sort in the punk community to recognize that there is value to thinking long and hard about minutiae the way scholars do while also getting the better sort in the academic world to recognize that there is value in not becoming an academic but a punk instead. On bad days, though, it feels like I'm trying to get parents to communicate civilly when they would be happier getting divorced.
slanderous From: slanderous Date: January 11th, 2005 12:57 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Oh, I don't know, I think there are a good number of punks who hairsplit with glee -- record nerds examining seven-inch sleeves for tears, vegans scrutinizing ingredient lists, et cetera! All kidding aside, however, I know what you mean about being a mediator, since it's what I'm trying to do in my PP columns. But don't you find the seemingly increasing numbers of punk rockers in academia an interesting turn of events? I remember getting shit for being an undergraduate at Berkeley from friends at Epicenter; now it doesn't seem all that unusual to me to discover ex-punks or punks in graduate school.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: January 11th, 2005 03:45 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Yes, it is an interesting turn of events. One of the points I'm trying to make along the way, implicitly rather than overtly, is that are structural similarities to punk and academia in general and even more structural similarities between punk and the terrain of theory-media studies-contemporary literature than folks are inclined to believe. What excites me is that we're seeing fewer conversion narratives -- "I'm done with that. Now I'm going to do this instead." -- and more attempts to stand two or more places at once. You're doing it. Stephen Duncombe has been doing it. Joel is doing it.

BTW, just to reiterate, I think your PP columns have done a tremendous job of bridging the gap.
nos4a2no9 From: nos4a2no9 Date: January 7th, 2005 04:01 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I'd actually never heard of the concept of geneology being applied as a theoretical construct in literature - I'm in my fourth year of an English undergrad and I'm just now taking my first theory course. (My University should be ashamed of itself).
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: January 7th, 2005 04:44 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Oh, that's not such a big deal. It still hasn't been used that much in literary studies. It's ideall suited to rethinking literary history, I think, but that tends to be a conservative arena of study.

For what it's worth, I didn't read much theory until my junior year, spring semester.
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