03 February 2010

face to face

"She had a sad, soft, pale face, which (and it was the effect of her whole head) looked as if it had been soaked, blurred, and made vague by exposure to some slow dissolvent. The long practice of philanthropy had not given accent to her features; it had rubbed out their transitions, their meanings. The waves of sympathy, of enthusiasm, had wrought upon them in the same way in which the waves of time finally modify the surface of old marble busts, gradually washing away their sharpness, their details." Henry James, The Bostonians (1886)

I've been writing about ecstasy and de-composition in James's prefaces, with an effort to lead up to this moment in The Bostonians, where the dis-figuring force of enthusiasm is on display in the exposed face of Miss Birdseye. After multiple efforts, I'm still trying to say something about the pathos of this moment (it strikes me as particularly a "moment," engaged as it is with questions of historicity, monuments, with the analogy of time). It is parodic, no doubt, but from within the parody it registers a double loss: if Miss Birdseye is a monument to mid-century reform fervor gone defunct or dysfunctional in the post-Reconstruction era, the monument itself is compromised, de-composed, eroded. The body that stands in for history is fragile, worn, disfigured, at risk--a move that could signal the conservatism of the novel, its alignment with defunct or dysfunctional ideas of privacy. But that the realist narrative cleaves in such detail to the lack of detail--that it offers a portrait that so strikingingly undoes itself as portrait--makes me think otherwise. Miss Birdseye's exposure (like the various exposures and confessions at work in the prefaces) signals a certain tendency towards dissolution (c.f. James's professed fondness for Miss Birdseye, "the best figure in the book" despite her "essential formlessness"). Another thread here--a thread I need to pick up (this is also a piece about ficelles, thread, fringe, boundaries, textiles)--has to do with the stillness of statuary and the wave-like work of enthusiasm. As Barbara Johnson notes, a monument "is supposed to confer on a memory the immortality that only inanimate things can possess." Miss Birdseye's enthusiasm introduces corruption, but it also undoes the stillness of statuary, of type-casting or molding--character becomes possible via a certain corruptibility (c.f. Pygmalion; Frankenstein; James's tenderness towards his "monstrous" little texts).

I wonder, too, about the loss of detail here; Miss Birdseye remains a detail in the text, notable for her very formlessness but also highly accessory in the novel (and highly accessorized: the glasses that keep sliding down her nose, the hat that keeps falling off--as if the body itself ceased to be a fixture). I wonder about the gendering of the detail, whether gender and form come together in the analogy between the body and the text that James is quite fond of...

and this brings me to skin. The skin that melts, that fails to hang together, the skin that stays a skin in the discourse of the realist novel (and not, for example, a mask or an index--c.f. Anne Cheng's recent work on modernist skin). Realism's investment in the legibility of character (c.f. Leo Bersani's The Freudian Body) demands a move beneath or beyond the surface. Ecstasy manifested at the level of skin does something different, puncturing the surface (as a boundary or a threshold) but refusing to open onto some more instructive interiority (ex-stasis, beside the self, an ethics of tangentiality or facing, of the face to face). Exposing the face in its constant erosion, James makes a very anti-phrenological, anti-symptomatic move; he insists on the wearing away of the surface itself, on the process that marks the "public"-ness of interaction and relation. If James worked to parody "the obliteration of any idea of privacy" in this novel of the feminist movement, he also more radically aligned realism not with a hermetic, gender-specific domesticity but with its exposure and erosion (is it that?), with the threshold or the skin, the compromised and corrupted body.

28 January 2010


"These Parerga are not integral parts of the book; they 'do not belong within' 'religion in the limits of pure reason,' they 'border upon' it. I stress this for reasons which are in part theo-topological, even theo-architectonic: these Parerga situate perhaps the fringe where we might be able, today, to inscribe our reflections."

Derrida, "Faith and Knowledge" (1996)

14 January 2010

critical gestures

To Be Liked By You Would Be A Calamity

"Attack is more piquant than concord," but when
You tell me frankly you would like to feel
My flesh beneath your feet,
I'm all abroad; I can put my weapon up, and
Bow you out.

Gesticulation--it is half the language,
Let unsheathed gesticulation be the steel
Your courtesy must meet,
Since in your hearing words are mute, which
To my senses
Are a shout.

Marianne Moore

07 December 2009

queer ecstasy

José Esteban Muñoz on the ecstasy of James Schuyler, via Heidegger, in
Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (NYU Press, 2009):

"In Being and Time Heidegger reflects on the activity of timeliness and its relation to ekstatisch (ecstasy), signaling for Heidegger the ecstatic unity of temporality--Past, Present, and Future. The ecstasy the speaker feels and remembers in [Schuyler's] "A photograph" is not consigned to one moment. It steps out from the past and remarks on the unity of an expansive version of temporality; hence, future generations are invoked. To know ecstasy in the way in which the poem's speaker does is to have a sense of timeliness's motion, to understand a temporal unity that is important to what I attempt to describe as the time of queerness. Queerness's time is a stepping out of the linearity of straight time." (25)

In his conclusion, Munoz brilliantly brings together this Heideggerian version of ecstasy with the queer affectivity of the Magnetic Fields's "Take Ecstasy With Me":

"Take ecstasy with me thus becomes a request to stand out of time together, to resist the stultifying temporality and time that is not ours, that is saturated with violence both visceral and emotional, a time that is not queerness. Queerness's time is the time of ecstasy. Ecstasy is queerness's way. We know time through the field of the affective, and affect is tightly bound to temporality. But let us take ecstasy together, as the Magnetic Fields request. That means going beyond the singular shattering that a version of jouissance suggests or the transport of Christian rapture." (187)

Evoking Bernini's The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, read by Lacan, Kristeva, and others as the shattering of the self (and particularly, of the female self) through jouissance, Muñoz demands an ecstasy beyond individual self-shattering, a collective ecstasy or ecstatic collectivity that might name a queer futurity. C.f. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick on being beside, Judith Halberstam on queer time & queer place, Shoshana Felman on madness and the speaking body.

12 November 2009


Giorgio Agamben in The Gospel According to St. Matthew, dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini (1964)

"The face is at once the irreparable being-exposed of humans and the very opening in which they hide and stay hidden. The face is the only location of community, the only possible city."
Giorgio Agamben, Means Without Ends: Notes on Politics (2000)

I've been thinking of James's (pre)faces, what they do and do not expose, the ways in which they save face even as they face what cannot be saved: the work as inviolable, sacred, austere. To preface is to not merely to supplement--to move towards an illusory whole, a flawless artifact--but also to expose the logic (or illogic) of the supplement, and James's prefaces in particular seem to theatricalize this double movement. He gives himself away, exposes himself in order to save face... concedes the ecstasy of method but promises not to lose his head in the process...

I blush when I write, now, alone in my library carrel (which doubles, all cold metal, as a citadel). If I didn't know it before, I am reminded that writing is a circular--a circulatory--system. And not without shame: to write, too, is to be exposed. "Be only your face," Agamben exhorts: "Go to the threshold. Do not remain the subjects of your properties or faculties, do not stay beneath them: rather, go with them, in them, beyond them."

See also Brian Dillon's piece on Agamben circa 1964 at Frieze.

11 November 2009

negative space

Kara Walker, "Cut"

"So our writing, as much as our living, becomes extensive, opening out pursuant to filmy trails of the unsayable, not closing down on the secret quivering in fear of imminent exposure. So our writing becomes an exercise in life itself, at one with life and within life as lived in social affairs, not transcendent or even a means to such, but contiguous with action and reaction in the great chain of storytelling telling the one always before the last. Yet how can you be contiguous with the not merely empty, but negative, space?"

Michael Taussig, Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labor of the Negative

The need here to think about the negative space of form, what cuts off and cuts into form as an idea of wholeness (of 'holiness'); defacement and decay and exposure. Taussig's distinction between "empty" and "negative" space, recognition that the negative space is never itself empty but contiguous, formative and trans-formative and pointing always to the de-formed nature of form itself. Here is a theory of writing and living, he says: open secrets, exposed borders, extensions, piece-meal, contiguity.

10 November 2009

on the madness of the real

Excising the Stone of Folly, Pieter Huys, c. 1530-1581

"This, then, is Derrida’s fundamental interpretive gesture: the one of 'separating, within the
Cogito, on the one hand, hyperbole (which I maintain cannot be enclosed in a factual and determined historical structure, for it is the project of exceeding every finite and determined totality), and, on the other hand, that in Descartes’s philosophy (or in the philosophy supporting the Augustinian Cogito or the HusserlianCogito as well) which belongs to a factual historical structure' (60).

"Here, when Derrida asserts that '/t/he historicity proper to philosophy is located and constituted in the transition, the dialogue between hyperbole and the finite structure, /…/ in the difference between history and historicity' (60), he is perhaps too short. This tension may appear very 'Lacanian': is it not a version of the tension between the Real – the hyperbolic excess – and its (ultimately always failed) symbolization? The matrix we thus arrive at is the one of the eternal oscillation between the two extremes, the radical expenditure, hyperbole, excess, and its later domestification (like Kristeva, between Semiotic and Symbolic...). Illusionary are both extremes: pure excess as well as pure finite order would disintegrate, cancel themselves... This misses the true point of 'madness,' which is not the pure excess of the Night of the World, but the madness of the passage to the Symbolic itself, of imposing a symbolic order onto the chaos of the Real. (Like Freud, who, in his Schreber analysis, points out how the paranoiac 'system' is not madness, but a desperate attempt to ESCAPE madness – the disintegration of the symbolic universe - through an ersatz, as if, universe of meaning.) If madness is constitutive, then EVERY system of meaning is minimally paranoiac, 'mad.'"