What do they study, again?

Here is a partial, but entirely factual, listing of session and/or paper topics at the recent conference of the Modern Language Association (MLA), the major annual meeting for North American literary academics:

Bertolt Brecht
Japanese modernity
The idea of “West Asia”
Old Norse Folklore
The Armenian genocide
TS Eliot
Feminist activism
Israeli-South African relations
Second-language instruction
The Cold War
The First World War
Being black in Germany
Saint Theresa
The English Civil War
Neoliberalism [natch]
Tommaso Campanella
Mental Health
How to get a good government job
The Middle Class
Recent European geopolitics
Data visualization
Life in occupied Palestine
The libidinal economy of data [sic]
Cognitive science, re: memory
Elmore Leonard
Doing business in Italy
Amiri Baraka
Union democracy
Being Jewish
Gay animals
The National Security Education Program (NSEP)
Scientific experiments
Being a Muslim woman
Postwar Japan
1714 in Catalonia
South Asians in Africa
The 1970s
The Sun, the moon, and the stars.

another one

When we see 2 things always together–bread and cheese, Abbot and Costello, writing and language, mind and brain–that is precisely a proof that they are NOT the same. That’s why the old Private Eye joke–“Has anyone seen them together? I think we should be told”–works.

Why nature? Well:

Text draws our attention, wherever it is. It makes local matters more interesting than they otherwise would have been. The banner in the sky; scratchiti on the glass; marks on paper. In the last analysis, this is simply because text (whatever else it is) constitutes a difference within local matters. As an instance of difference, text is more interesting than whatever is not such an instance. The untraversed sky; a random area of clear picture window; the blank page. Indeed, text projects difference as its own necessary condition. A distinction between what is and is not text is requisite, in circular fashion, to the very idea of text.
At the same time, paradoxically, text is joined to the local site of what is not text, which the text itself projects. For something has become a text, if there is a text. That is why, and the only reason why, one is able to point to, read, or circulate the text at all. What has become a text is given, when text is given.
Consider a post-it note, reading “get milk.” This post-it is more interesting, evidently, than the post-it vide. Indeed, the text (“get milk”) leaves the margins of the note. There, evidently, is where less-interesting matters (which may go on for a very long way) begin. Accordingly, the text as such can be identified with the words “get milk.” For the post-it, which is not the words, is precisely what the text differs from.
At the same time, per the paradox we have just described, the text can also be identified with the post-it. For the post-it has become a text (this text); otherwise, this text would not be there. That is why, if somebody asks to be directed to the text in question, it makes sense to indicate or transfer the post-it note. That is what one is holding or working with or staring at, when one is holding (etc.) the text.
Obviously, we are talking here about the relationship between any given text and its substratum. The post-it note, in the current case, is the substratum of the text. This does not mean that the text is not the post-it, but that the post-it is the text only insofar as the text is reducible to the post-it. Which, in a sense, it is; in a sense, not. That is why the reduction, insofar as it can be carried out, generates a paradox.
Substrata invariably generate such paradoxes – and not only insofar as we consider ourselves to be theorizing under the heading of text, but insofar as we consider ourselves to be theorizing under any heading at all. So one can say, for example, that one ate no meal, only food; that the pianist made no music, only sound; that I know (even though I do not) the hooded man (because under the hood, he is my brother), and so on.
Nonetheless, and by that very token: substrata are particular. In other words, a given substratum is not just an example of substratum generally, or in the abstract; but is the particular substratum that grounds a paradoxical unity in a given case. So the meal has food, but not my brother, or substratum generally or in the abstract, as its substratum. And so on.
Identifying the substratum – figuring out what it is – is, presumably, imperative for any given study. For studying the substratum is entailed in studying anything. Anybody who wants to study the meal, for example, has to study food.
Therefore, if we want to study text (as text), we have to study its substratum. Therefore, we have to identify it. And this not just as substratum generally (that is, substratum of whatever) but specifically (substratum of text). And not just in any given case – as “get milk” may have a post-it, or a computer screen, or a pile of leaves as its substratum – but in every case. We need to figure out what substratum is taken by text, in every case, as its own. Or, to put that the other way: we need to figure out what text takes as substratum, in every case; what text, when it takes substratum, takes it as.
(3.1) Perhaps we might say that the substratum of text is always some kind of surface or medium, or range of surfaces and media. True enough: it is always what text is on or in. But text can be on or in more-or-less anything. That is to say, it can take more-or-less anything as an instance of its substratum – whatever substratum that is, whatever text takes its substratum as. This is precisely why it can be valid or informative to note that, in one way or another, everything is text.
Moreover, if we try to explain the very idea of substratum, we can hardly do better than to say: some kind of surface or medium. And this no matter what the substratum, of no matter what. Thus it is correct, but only tautologically, to say that the substratum of text is some kind of range of surfaces and media. Here we gain only terms.
Perhaps we will get more by saying that the substratum of text is the latter’s material element. This will allow us to talk, if we like, about texts’ materiality. (We will gain much the same effect if we talk of their physicality.) Such talk, though popular, is unproductive. For one thing, it is excessively general: a flower (e.g.) reduces to matter as much as a book does. (And this point works precisely if one does not specify the flower as a text.) And so on for whatever. It would appear that “the material” names a substratum only in the abstract or in general. But this is not the particular substratum of text.
Indeed: everything is “material” (in one way or another). That, at least, is the sort of position on behalf of which the notion of “materiality” is, frequently, invoked. For the countervailing notions (the immaterial, the spiritual, the ideal) appear to be vacant or intractable. But if everything is material, in one way or another, then (i) text itself will be material, which eliminates the paradoxical distinction betweeen text and substratum that we are currently trying to understand, and (ii) saying that the substratum of text is the material will be completely uninformative. For that just amounts to saying that the substratum is part of everything.
(3.2) Nonetheless, there is perhaps a valuable insight here. For indeed anything, that is part of everything, can become an instance of the textual substratum. Everything is text, in the sense that anything can become a text. The textual substratum has the characteristic of universal availability.
It would appear to be impossible to imagine a situation in which there is potential for text, but no potential substratum of text. Consider the prisoner writing. He is deprived of paper. He writes on the wall. He is immobilized. He shouts into space. He is rendered mute. He blinks out a pattern. And so on and so forth, until there is no potential for text: that is, no possible instance of aboutness. The first characteristic of the textual substratum is that it always has an instance. This is what it means to say that it is universally available.
It is not necessary to the current point that the textual substratum be the only substratum with this characteristic. But it is necessary that not all substrata have it – that the characteristic of universal availability does not just attach to any substratum as such.
So: compare the hooded man, having my brother as substratum. It is possible to imagine situations in which there is potential for the hooded man – a hood, etc. – but no instance of its substratum. For my brother is not universally available.
Or compare the meal, having food as its substratum. It is possible to imagine situations in which there is potential for a meal – hungry people, tables, plates, etc. – but no instance of its substratum. For food is not universally available.
Finally, compare music, having sound as its substratum. It is possible to imagine situations – for example, the vacuum of space – where there is potential for music – for example, a singer – but no instance of its substratum. For sound is not universally available.
(3.3) Now text, we have said, projects its substratum as different from itself, across an axis of interest. Text is more interesting; substratum, less interesting. On what basis?
In the first place, apparently, just because difference is interesting. The text is different from the substratum: “get milk,” e.g., from the post-it. The substratum is not different from itself – not, at least, to the same degree, or in the same way. One part of the post-it vide is pretty much like every other part of the post-it vide. Etc. So the text is more interesting than the substratum, in the first place, just precisely because the former apparently differs from the latter. The reduction of text and substratum to unity, although (as we have seen) it can be carried out, is a secondary operation that is itself interesting only because text is in the first place marked off from this potential unity.
Similarly: the text is, apparently, not different from itself – not, at least, to the same degree, or in the same way, in which it is different from its substratum. A “get milk” is the same as a “get milk” in some obvious and useful ways. The logic of the copy, as far as it goes, goes. (A point of mimesis.) The very same logic, indeed, underlies the difference between a “get milk” and a “GET MILK” or a “git milk” or a “get milk” or what have you. All instances of palimpsest, error, annotation, and the like. (Thus the logic of the copy, in its quiet normativity, underwrites and enables all dogged and ostensibly subversive enumerations of failed copies.) What truly differentiates copies, to be sure, is substratum. But that is to say, again, that the primary characteristic of the text-substratum relationship, which we are currently trying to isolate, is a striking and manifest difference between the two.
Admittedly, this observation appears both vague and fragile. After all, everything differs from everything else, and that in an infinite number of ways. Nonetheless, the difference of text from substratum is special. This is precisely due to the universal availability that we have already identified as the first characteristic of the textual substratum; which is also the real validity of all claims to the effect that everything, in one way or another, is text.
For anything, we have said, can become an instance of the textual substratum (although what substratum that is remains the question). This does not only mean that everything can be found to bear its text; but that anything can in principle bear a text – even “the same” text. That is, if one accepts the primary distinction between text and substratum, as articulated above, that draws our attention to text in the first place.
So we have imagined “get milk,” e.g., on a post-it note. Let’s say, the center of the note; the rest vide; the note drawing our attention as text on exactly that basis. We can just as easily imagine those words on the lower left-hand corner of the post-it note; the rest vide; the note drawing our attention, etc. Or we can just as easily imagine (etc.) on the wall adjoining (etc). Or on the next wall (etc.). Or in the next room, or on the outside of the house, or on the sidewalk or passersby or in the clouds or on the surface of the moon. And so on and on to the plenitude of the universe.
Toggled to this extensive nightmare is an intensive one. For “get milk” on the note leaves a margin: the note vide. We can just as easily imagine “get milk” on that margin. And that text leaves a margin. We can just as easily imagine “get milk” on that margin. And that text leaves a margin. We can just as easily imagine “get milk” on that margin. And so on and on to the sub-atomic abyss.
Any text has infinite potential instances of its substratum (whatever substratum that is). The text can appear anywhere. Therefore, it need not appear where it, in the event, appears. Its appearance on any given instance of its substratum has nothing to do with that instance. This is the full paradoxicality of the text-substratum unity. Text, in every single case, is alienated from its substratum. And this precisely because the text can always take another instance of its substratum.
Furthermore: however far we go in imagining the text’s extensive and/or intensive iterations, we will find, in every case, this same alienation. It goes all the way up, so to speak; and all the way down. Therefore, we can say that the text’s alienation from its substratum is transcendent. Precisely where the text most belongs – on or in the substratum that, alone, allows it to be there – it doesn’t, and can’t, and needn’t, and never will.
(3.4) It is very remarkable, indeed, that the text manages to be there at all; remarkable, that is, that the substratum manages to allow it to be there. For what is thereby given a ground and a place by the substratum is groundlessness and placelessness. One sees that the text does not belong. Yet this effect, precisely, belongs. The substratum makes the transcendent alienation of text, its ability to appear anywhere, appear just here.
Thus the substratum of text is the latter’s powerfully and appropriately countervailing ground. Substratum is that to which the text fails to belong. That means that the textual substratum is the unattained, yet ineluctably effective, site of belonging. Indeed, if text does not belong, and never can, textual substratum does, and never can’t. The textual substratum, generated as such by the text’s transcendent alienation, cannot not belong. For the textual substratum is always that to which the text fails to belong.
It is always, that is, that same site of belonging. And this site of belonging is so powerful and total that it forces, however transitorily, the text’s transcendent alienation to appear (if not to belong). This feature of the textual substratum, as much as the transcendent alienation of text itself, goes all the way up, and all the way down, wherever text is given. The obverse of the text’s transcendent alienation, in short, is the substratum’s primordial belonging. This is the second characteristic of the textual substratum.
(3.5) Yet if a substratum of text is there, a text is there. Absent text, substratum of text is absent. For there, nothing has yet become a text. At the same time, the substratum of text always indicates, very paradoxically, that it is really, or more properly elsewhere: prior to the imposition of the text’s transcendent alienation. Indeed, it is precisly this imposition of the text that allows, and mandates, this vision of the substratum. Precisely because the textual substratum is what cannot not belong, the imposition upon it of the text’s transcendent alienation always and in every case adumbrates an absent original instance as a yet more primordial belonging.
Consider our post-it: “get milk.” In the margin is the substratum: post-it vide. But of course, this post-it is not vide. It is a text. For vide post-it, we would have to go elsewhere. Perhaps to another post-it. But that is only the substratum of a text if a text is already there. Therefore, for vide post-it, we would have to go elsewhere. But that is only the substratum of a text if a text is already there. Therefore, for vide post-it, etc.
The substratum of text, precisely in its primordial belonging, occurs along a regressive horizon. It always indicates itself to be elsewhere from, and prior to, its own actual instance. This is the third characteristic of the textual substratum.
(3.6) Finally: belonging grounds longing. And this precisely from the side of what does not belong – the side of alienation. Therefore, the textual substratum, in its primordial and regressive belonging, constitutes a site of longing. And this precisely from the side of the text.
Longing is something to be borne. Yet a primordial belonging, which always regresses, glimpsed from the side of a transcendent alienation – this, perhaps, cannot be borne. Admittedly, one has no choice but to bear it. But the way to talk about this is to call it an unbearable longing.
(3.7) We are now in a position to identify the substratum of text. It will be that range of surfaces and media characterized by universal availability; primordial belonging; regressive horizon; and unbearable longing. The textual substratum is just that range of surfaces and media that is universally available, and primordially belongs, along a regressive horizon, occasioning an unbearable longing.
And it seems to me that instances of this range are highly and, as it were, instantly identifiable. They include: mountain meadows; new-fallen snow; pristine woods; sand at the water’s edge. Tawny hide; open ocean; distant valleys; undiscovered islands. To name the range to which all these instances, and all like instances, belong is to name the textual substratum.
Nature is the name for this range. This is what text, in every case, takes as its substratum. This is what text, in every case, takes its substratum as. Nature is the name for what is universally available and primordially belongs, along a regressive horizon, occasioning an unbearable longing.
For there can never not be nature: it is universally available. It is the transcendent obverse of alienation: it is what primordially belongs. If we reach out for it, it is no longer quite there: it occurs along a regressive horizon. From the side of our alienation, in the latter’s inescapable transcendence, nature, therefore, occasions an unbearable longing.
(3.8) Perhaps it seems as though we could advance another term here: the world, perhaps, or the universe. But it does not appear that either of these has the combination of characteristics we have identified for the textual substratum. Whatever does, moreover, would appear to be identical or synonymous with nature.
(3.9) Perhaps it does not seem as though the substratum of text is always drawn from nature. True, in some cases it evidently is: shouting into the woods or writing in the sand or blowing paint onto the cave wall. But in other cases not: running equations on a computer screen or speaking into a recording device or writing on a post-it.
Such instances of the textual substratum are palimpsestic. That is to say, they are always-already text. If one removes the layers of palimpsest, one comes eventually to nature. This is what opposes text as substratum, and what text takes as substratum.
The post-it, for example, is removed from the pack for a purpose. This is always-already text. In the pack it is wrapped and ready. This is always-already text. In the factory it is processed and colored. This is always-already text. In the mill it is cut and pulped. This is always-already text. In the forest it is a growing tree. This is not always-already text.
Thus it is in no gnomic sense that nature is the substratum of text. To mark the blank page, and to cut the virgin bark: these are linked activities, the one devolving on the other. Nature is given, when text is given. Nature is what becomes a text, allowing it, paradoxically, to be there.

Abstract for an unpublishable theory

1. Literary criticism, by definition, is the discipline of texts.

2. But a discipline, by definition, is an inquiry into certain subject-matters.

3. Moreover, subject-matters, by definition, are just what texts yield.

4. And texts, by definition, are just what yield subject-matters.

5. Therefore, a discipline of texts (tout court) becomes a discipline of subject-matters (tout court).

6. This is incoherent.

7. Literary criticism—the discipline of texts—must first of all figure out what its own proper subject-matters are.

8. These must be just those subject-matters that are generated when text itself is treated as a subject-matter.

9. This dialectic cannot be managed a posteriori, on a basis of the work that critics do; but only a priori, on the basis of what it is to inquire into texts.

10. The set of literary subject-matters must be both rich enough, and restricted enough, to support normal disciplinarity.

11. The subject-matters of criticism are all the sub-functions of what makes text text: namely, the property of being-about subject-matters.

12. After analysis, the subject-matters of criticism are revealed to be: mimesis; decorum; nature; understanding; tradition; interpretation; dialogue; and love.

Phenomenological question of the day: Invisible blind spot?

Google Glass, researchers have reported, creates a (physical, optical, literal) blind spot on the right-hand side of a wearer’s peripheral vision. I guess this is where that tiny frame-chunk is situated.

A very nice example, I would say (following Gadamer), of technological Umwelt (surroundings) being substituted for, and denuding, phenomenological Welt (world). Peripheral vision is a pretty neat, liminal, mercurial capacity that we all have and know how to deploy, just by virtue of our being the creatures that we are. We don’t really know how to know how to use our peripheral vision, precisely because it is just at the edge–it defines the edge–of our capacities in this area. And yet, use it, and know how to use it, we do. Glass, willy-nilly, makes all this evident–precisely by monkeywrenching our liminal capacity. Only in having no more peripheral vision do we say damn I’m supposed to have that strange thing, peripheral vision. At the same time, our Glass-mediated vision, sans peripherality, is supposed to be “better” than vision as such. And this because of the wondrous functionalities of Glass.

Anyway, Google will say–as technology ALWAYS says!–we can fix this problem. We can just tweak the camera to capture the right-side peripheral area, streaming those images constantly back to the right-hand periphery of each wearer’s visual field. Trust us. You won’t even notice the difference.

Let’s say they’re right.

Is there still a difference?

It’s the mind and the world, stupid

Just read another bullshit article about how the internet means students don’t have to learn anything anymore. This seems to me the profound pedagogic, cognitive, and even epistemological fallacy of our time: that information access means information process. In other words–as I have been told by our school principal–the more “content” is just “available” (by which one mostly means online) the less one needs to learn. Cause after all, it’s all “right there,” just a click or a touch away, already. Rather, one needs to “learn how to learn,” or “participate in a community of learners,” or “master the right learning style” or whatever BS eduspeak buzz-phrase is in the air that week. A whole set of errors! For learning, knowledge acquisition, is by definition *extended*: that is, about something, directed toward some stuff in the world. This goes for “learning how to learn” too–it’s just that the stuff one gives learners under such a regime is reflexive and anemic, resulting in their predictable boredom and distaste, *especially* (this is almost the worst of it) if they are keen students! What is more: A book, too, makes information (if we are to use that word) available, right there. Ditto an utterance; ditto any data-set whatsoever. But the mere *presence-to-hand* of this potential knowledge does not mean its acquisition as real knowledge! Rather, one has to process it–open the book, read, puzzle, learn! How in the name of Pete does the mere *quantitative expansion of informational sites* magically negate the imperative toward cognitive work? It is as if one said that the British Library presented less of a learning imperative than a single copy of Cole’s Notes! ABSURD!

Reflections on climate change

I’m not a climate-change sceptic. But I am, to some extent, a science-sceptic.
This position, strange though it may be, allows me to ask: What, among all other factors, has persistently weakened the climate change case over the last 20-30 years, giving fuel and comfort to dyed-in-the-wool C-C deniers?
Two things, it seems to me:
(1) The compulsive invocation of scientific authority as a means of epistemic silencing. As in “the science is settled”–a remark that always seems to imply, in Bill Maher fashion, a silently-added “you moron.” The problem is that the climate-change science has been “settled,” over and over again, for decades now, and always with the same public performance of scientific authority within our culture. Doubters, who are supposed to be silenced once-and-for-all by each performance, are precisely empowered when it has to be reiterated. “You shut us up 10/15/20 years ago,” they can, correctly, say; “and in exactly the same terms. If the science wasn’t really settled then, why should we believe it’s settled now?” The epistemological serenity of climate-change science ends up looking like its ideological stupidity.
(2) The rush to apocalypse as an interpretative trope for the data. The story is never just “system x has undergone alteration y.” It is, rather, “system x is heading for an inevitable conclusion of alteration y in total breakdown z.” And when? Always, “soon.” It seems that climate-change scientists cannot resist making predictions of this kind; the internet is littered with mocking lists of the ones that have failed to come true. I suspect that we are dealing here with a hermeneutic tendency of modern natural science that goes very deep–which is why practicing scientists, in their unreflexive innocence, helplessly follow it. When it gets them into trouble, all they can do is repeat the trope once more–and/or, fall back on repeated invocations of their cultural authority (see (1)).
It would be much better for climate-change policy, and thus, for the world, if we could get some clarity on the historical and phenomenogical reasons for both (1) and (2).
A good starting-place might be in early-modern Paracelsianism and Neoplatonism, and in the emergence of modern natural science precisely and explicitly as an end-times knowledge.
Hey, somebody should write a book about that. Might be timely. Helpful, even.
But probably before that can happen all the humanities departments will be writing-centres for climate-change students.

Last intro para. I like it.

It must be admitted that the present book is a hybrid, and perhaps an ungainly one. It is part intellectual history, part phenomenology, part philosophy of information, part (even) literary criticism. It is very likely that the resulting mash-up—as the kids were saying, recently, maybe—will tend to annoy people who are specialists in any of its elements. Even more likely, it will confuse people who are specialists in none of them. From both groups, I must ask forgiveness. Consider that hybridization, after all, has made all the running in the history of information technology. Who would have thought that cattle-ranching would have facilitated telephony, or that artillery fire would have produced IBM, or that your glasses would one day tell you the weather? More to the point, hybridization—synthesis—has at least since Kant made all the running in whatever it is we know about knowledge. In the end, the relationship between knowing and informing is what I want to talk about. I have trouble seeing, from my own confusion, where that talking stops.