Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Autumn 1994

Volume 21 Issue 1
    • 1Michael Fried
    • Halfway through Memoirs of the Blind: The Self-Portrait and Other Ruins, Jacques Derrida briefly considers several remarkable self-portrait drawings by the nineteenth-century French painter Henri Fantin-Latour (figs. 3, 4, 8). He does this in the context of a discussion of what he calls the “retrait transcendantal du trait”—the “transcendental retrait or withdrawal” of the trait (a basic term in Derrida's lexicon that carries a range of meanings, from a trait or feature to a line, stroke, or mark).1 Roughly, the necessity of such a retrait follows from the inherently differential structure of the trait in Derrida's account. Because the trait, once drawn, ideally has no thickness but instead only marks the separation between the inside and outside of a figure (“the single edge of a contour”), it cannot strictly speaking manifest itself (MB, p. 53). In Derrida's words: “Nothing belongs to the trait, and thus, to drawing and to the thought of drawing, not even its own 'trace'” (MB, p. 54). And: “The outline or tracing separates and separates itself; it retraces only borderlines, intervals, a spacing grid with no possible appropriation.

      · 1. See Jacques Derrida, Mémoires d'aveugle: L'Autoportrait et autres ruines (Paris, 1990); trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas, under the title Memoirs of the Blind: The Self-Portrait and Other Ruins (Chicago, 1993), p. 57; hereafter abbreviated MB. The present essay (minus some of the material in the second half) was originally written as a lecture to be delivered in a French translation at a conference on Derrida's work since 1980 held at the Centre Culturel International de Cerisy-la-Salle, 11-21 July 1992. The general theme of that conference was a notion taken from Derrida's writings, “the crossing of borders,” “le passage des frontières”—hence its recurrence as a motif in these pages. My thanks to Marie-Louise Mallet, principal organizer of the colloquium, and to Jacques Derrida for permission to publish this essay in Critical Inquiry. The French version appears in the collective volume Le Passage des frontières, ed. Marie-Louise Mallet (Paris, 1994).

      See also: Michael Fried, Manet in His Generation: The Face of Painting in the 1860s  ·  Michael Fried, Painting Memories: On the Containment of the past in Baudelaire and Manet

      Michael Fried, Herbert Boone Professor of the Humanities at The Johns Hopkins University, is the author of several books, the most recent of which is Courbet's Realism (1990). His next works to appear will be To the Center of the Earth (a book of poems) and Manet's Modernism or the Face of Painting in the 1860s.

    • 37Angela Y. Davis
    • Not long ago, I attended a performance in San Francisco by women presently or formerly incarcerated in the county jail in collaboration with Bay Area women performance artists. After the show, I went backstage to the “green room,” where the women inmates, guarded by deputy sheriffs stationed outside the door, were celebrating with their families and friends. Having worked with some of the women at the jail, I wanted to congratulate them on the show. One woman introduced me to her brother who at first responded to my name with a blank stare. The woman admonished him: “You don't know who Angela Davis is?! You should be ashamed.” Suddenly a flicker of recognition flashed across his face. “Oh,” he said, “Angela Davis—the Afro.”

      Such responses I find are hardly exceptional, and it is both humiliating and humbling to discover that a single generation after the events that constructed me as a public personality, I am remembered as a hairdo. It is humiliating because it reduces a politics of liberation to a politics of fashion; it is humbling because such encounters with the younger generation demonstrate the fragility and mutability of historical images, particularly those associated with African American history. This encounter with the young man who identified me as “the Afro” reminded me of a recent article in the New York Times Magazine that listed me as one of the fifty most influential fashion (read: hairstyle) trendsetters over the last century.1 I continue to find it ironic that the popularity of the Afro is attributed to me because, in actuality, I was emulating a whole host of women—both public figures and women I encountered in my daily life—when I began to wear my hair natural in the late sixties.

      · 1. See Carrie Donovan, “Fifty Who Mattered Most,” New York Times Magazine, 34 Oct. 1993, pp. 122-23. The caption for the photograph reads: “Angela Davis (b. 1944): photographs of her in the 60's with her untamed Afro stirred black pride. Politics became fashion” (p. 123).

      See also: Henry Louis Gates, Jr, The "Blackness of Blackness": A Critique of the Sign and the Signifying Monkey

      Angela Y. Davis is a professor in the History of Consciousness program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is the author of Angela Davis: An Autobiography (1974), Women, Race, and Class (1981), and Women, Culture, and Politics (1989).

    • 46Carlo Ginzburg
    • The tension between natural law and history has come down to us, as so many other ideas, from the ancient Greeks. In a famous passage of his Rhetoric Aristotle put it in this way:

      Justice and injustice have been defined in reference to laws and persons in two ways. Now there are two kinds of laws, particular and general. By particular laws I mean those established by each people in reference to themselves, which again are divided into written and unwritten; by general laws I mean those based upon nature [κατα φύςσιν]. In fact, there is a general idea of just and unjust in accordance with nature, as all men in a manner divine, even if there is neither communication nor agreement between them. This is what Antigone in Sophocles evidently means, when she declares that it is just, though forbidden, to bury Polynices, as being naturally just:

      “For neither to-day nor yesterday, but from all eternity, these statutes live and no man knoweth whence they came.”1

      Let us briefly recall the context of these words. Aristotle is analyzing the different parts of rhetoric: deliberative, forensic, epideictic (that is, oratory which deals with praise or blame). The opposition between written particular law, on the one hand, and unwritten general law, on the other, takes place within the section on forensic rhetoric. Aristotle does not bother to demonstrate the existence of unwritten general law; he takes it as natural and therefore self-evident. As a footnote I would like to point out that the passage I just quoted from the Loeb Classical Library's 1926 translation—“As all men in a manner divine . . . no man knoweth”—has today a sexist nuance that is absent in the Greek original texts. This is not a minor detail insofar as both Sophocles and Aristotle use neuter terms (ουδείς, nobody; πάντες, all) in passages, respectively, ascribed to a feminine character, Antigone, or meant to introduce the same feminine character as a prominent example. Natural law, as those neuter terms emphasize, embraces both men and women. Antigone, therefore, speaks the voice of generality; on the contrary, the written (and, we may add, masculine) law in the name of which Creontes forbids the burial of Polynices, is, in Aristotle's words, a “particular law” (νόμον τον μεν ιδιον).

      · 1. Aristotle, The “Art” of Rhetoric, trans. John Henry Freese (Cambridge, Mass., 1967), pp.139-40 (1.12.1373b13); hereafter abbreviated R. The various perceptions of Antigone, from Aristotle to our contemporaries, have been analyzed by George Steiner, Antigones (New York, 1984).

      See also: Carlo Ginzburg, Minutiae, Close‐up, Microanalysis  ·  Carlo Ginzburg, Killing a Chinese Mandarin: The Moral Implications of Distance

      Carlo Ginzburg is Franklin D. Murphy Professor of Italian Renaissance Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. His two most recent books are Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath (1991) and Il giudice e lo storico (1991). His most recent contribution to Critical Inquiry was “Microhistory: Two or Three Things That I Know about It” (Autumn 1993).

    • 61Susan Rubin Suleiman
    • “Streets are the dwelling place of the collective,” wrote Benjamin in the late 1920s. In this early note for his Passagen-Werk, Benjamin celebrated the street as the home of the crowd, “eternally restless, eternally moving.”1 where the proletariat might awake to itself as a revolutionary subject. By the late 1920s, the street could claim a glorious history as the site of revolutionary uprisings all over Europe, even if, like the Paris Commune, many of those revolutions failed. Buck-Morss notes, however, that Benjamin was aware of another side to the “restless” collective: what she calls its “unconscious, dreaming state” (“FSW,” p. 116), the state—as became all too clear after 1933—that was most receptive to the “political phantasmagoria” of Fascism (“FSW,” p. 117). After 1933, any attempt to think politically about the street had to grapple with its profound ambiguity. To its long-accrued connotations of “progressive” revolutionary action, there now had to be added the disturbingly regressive connotations of of mass psychology. Marxists had to recognize that the street was not only the place of socialist revolution leading toward a new dawn but also the place of Nazi marches and torchlight parades exploiting the darkest human longings for violence, war, and death.

      · 1. Walter Benjamin, Das Passagen-Werk, in Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Rolf Tiedemann and Herman Schweppenhäuser, 7 vols. In 14 (Frankfurt am Main, 1972-89), 5:2:994; quoted in “FSW,” p. 114.

      See also: Susan Rubin Suleiman, History, Memory, and Moral Judgment in Documentary Film: On Marcel Ophuls's "Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie"

      Susan Rubin Suleiman is professor of romance and comparative literatures at Harvard University. Her latest book is Risking Who One Is: Encounters with Contemporary Art and Literature (1994). She is currently working on a diary and memoir about Budapest. The present essay will appear shortly in Georges Bataille: Writing the Sacred, edited by Carolyn Gil.

    • 80Jeffrey T. Schnapp
    • My topic, therefore, is the ideological drift and blurring that facilitated cultural convergences between the Germany of Gropius's Bauhaus and the Italy of Giuseppe Terragni's Casa del Fascio. If such border crossings can sometimes seem hard to explain from a post-World War II perspective, they were viewed as unsurprising within the period itself. My ultimate emphasis here will fall upon a case of “drift” from the left to right and north to south, but the movements in question were bidirectional, not to say multidirectional, often involving not just Germany and Italy but also France, Soviet Russia, and the United States. To my mind, this suggests the need for a more complex account of the interwar period that should fulfill three principal criteria: (a) to pressure the tidy cultural-historical taxonomies that tend either to disengage cultural modernism from any nonincidental links to right revolutionary culture or to dismiss it simply by invoking such links; (b) to provide a differentiated account of how cultural forms were able to flourish while moving back and forth across ideological borders; and (c) to explain how and why many members of the wartime/postwar generation came to link their own radical aesthetic or architectural endeavors with radical political solutions, including totalitarian ones, whether accidentally or deliberately, momentarily or permanently. This is an order of business that intersects with recent works like Boris Groys's The Art of Stalinism.1 But it also extends well beyond the ambitions or possibilities of the present narrative. What I offer instead is a case study: that of the simultaneous (and sometimes interconnected) efforts within Weimar Germany and Fascist Italy to overcome the crisis of the bourgeois theater through the development of new forms of mass spectacle suited to the demands of “the technical civilization of the age we live in.” Whether north or south of the Alps, the traditional theater was thought to be in decline due to an outdated repertory, to inadequate facilities, to disjointed production practices, to inefficient methods of organization, and, last but not least, to a diminishing audience thanks to the competition provided by movies and mass sports events. The solution lay in “total”—which is to say, fully unified and integrated—modes of design, organization, coordination, and directorship: modes that would bring together modern construction materials and techniques with new voice and image technologies in the pursuit of a total instrument for reengineering society and the real.

      · 1. See Boris Groys, Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin (Vienna, 1988); trans. Charles Rougle, under the title The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and Beyond (Princeton, N.J., 1992).

      See also: Jeffrey T. Schnapp, The Fabric of Modern Times  ·  Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Envisioning Modernity: Desire and Discipline in the Italian Fascist Film

      Jeffrey T. Schnapp is professor of Italian and comparative literature and chair of the Department of Comparative Literature at Stanford University. He is the author of The Transfiguration of History at the Center of Dante's Paradise (1986) and Staging Fascism (forthcoming) and coeditor (with Robert Hollander) of L'Espositione de Bernardino Daniello da Lucca sopra la “Commedia” di Dante (1989) and (with Rachel Jacoff) of The Poetry of Allusion: Virgil and Ovid in Dante's “Commedia” (1991).

    • 124Lauren Berlant
    • In 1992 a few women colleagues and I separated from a progressive faculty group we had been in for a number of years in order to write a memo to the group. Our fantasy had been that this committee, the Committee on Critical Practice (at the University of Chicago), might become our home away from home, departmentally and disciplinarily speaking. Our memo expressed frustration that the group had not seen fit to engage seriously the different meanings of progressiveness that operate in the different domains in which we practice as intellectuals, political agents, teachers, and ordinary actors in the world. The committee had been founded on the wish such an analogy expresses: that to be politically on the left means that disciplinarily, pedagogically, and institutionally radical aspirations drive us as well. (I refuse to put the words radical, progressive, and left in quotes; I think you know what I mean by that refusal.) What bonded the women who wrote together was that the latter two categories—teaching and professional/institutional relations of power, knowledge, and expertise—were underwhelming concerns for our colleagues, for the most part. We began our memo: “For us the main disappointment of CCP has come in its failure to inhabit a space of concrete utopian imagining.”1

      · 1. I thank my colleagues Leora Auslander, Norma Field, Elizabeth Helsinger, and Martha Ward for permission to quote our work.

      See also: Lauren Berlant, Slow Death (Sovereignty, Obesity, Lateral Agency)  ·  Lauren Berlant, Race, Gender, and Nation in "The Color Purple"

      Lauren Berlant, a coeditor of Critical Inquiry, teaches English at the University of Chicago. She writes on the cultural/sexual politics of national identity and on the relations between mass nationality, mass culture, modernity, and postmodernity. She is the author of The Anatomy of National Fantasy: Hawthorne, Utopia, and Everyday Life (1991).

    • 156Joseph Bristow
    • In this essay, I intend to explore exactly what it is about Larkin's obscenity that has become posthumously so anachronistic in its “chummy democratic” appeal. Needless to say, it is hardly the case that “fuck,” “crap,” and “piss” have suddenly turned into outmoded words in English poetry. It is rather that the letters went on sale at a time of immense political turmoil that enabled us to understand, much to our frustration, how Larkin's four-letter words issued from a conservatism that the nation had increasingly come to despise. Only in the light of the economic and social damage done by Thatcherism have English intellectuals been able to see more clearly than before where Larkin stood in relation to those at whom he angled his “wonderful line in obscenity.”1

      · 1. Jean Hartley, “The Bicycle-Clipped Misanthropist,” BBC Radio program, 1986; quoted in Janice Rossen, Philip Larkin: His Life's Work (Hemel Hempstead, 1989), p. 95; hereafter abbreviated HLW. Rossen's study includes a substantial chapter on Larkin's “strong language,” pp. 94-130.

      See also: Loren Glass, Redeeming Value: Obscenity and Anglo‐American Modernism

      Joseph Bristow is Senior Lecturer in English at the University of York, England, where he is also affiliated with the Centre for Women's Studies. He is the editor of Sexual Sameness: Textual Differences in Lesbian and Gay Writing (1992). His most recent full-length study, Effeminate England: Homoerotic Writing after 1885, will be published in 1995.

    • 182Lorraine Daston
    • On 20 Brumaire, Year II (10 November 1793) of the first French republic, at approximately ten o'clock in the morning, a crowd of Parisians assembled at Notre-Dame to take part in the Festival of Reason. A procession of young women dressed in white and tricouleur, crowned with flowers, and bearing torches solemnly approached an artificial mountain covering the entire choir of the church and topped with a small, round Grecian temple inscribed “To Philosophy.” The entrance of the temple was flanked with four busts, probably of Voltaire, Rousseau, Franklin, and Montesquieu, and midway up the mountain burned the Torch of Liberty on a small Greek altar (see fig. 1).1 No Revolutionary festival was complete without such monuments—towering columns, gigantic altars, statues, obelisks, pyramids, temples—“all so many allegories of stability” frantically erected by the notoriously unstable succession of Revolutionary governments.2

      · 1. See A. Aulard, Le Culte de la raison et le culte de l'être suprême (1793-1794) (Paris, 1909), pp. 52-55.

      · 2. Mona Ozouf, Festivals and the French Revolution, trans. Alan Sheridan (Cambridge, Mass., 1988), p. 133.

      See also: Lorraine Daston, Marvelous Facts and Miraculous Evidence in Early Modern Europe  ·  Lorraine Daston, Type Specimens and Scientific Memory

      Lorraine Daston is professor of history and history of science at the University of Chicago. She is author of Classical Probability in the Enlightenment (1988) and is currently at work on a history of scientific objectivity.

    • 203Simon Schaffer
    • In summer 1823 the new and controversial Astronomical Society of London decided to award its gold medal to one of its own founder members, the equally controversial Cambridge-trained mathematician Charles Babbage. The award formed part of an energetic campaign to launch the construction of a Difference Engine, a machine to calculate navigational and astronomical tables. In his address to the society in early 1824, its president, the financier, mathematician, and orientalist Henry Colebrooke, summed up the significance of Babbage's planned device: 'In other cases, mechanical devices have substituted machines for simpler tools or for bodily labour. . . . But the invention to which I am adverting . . . substitutes mechanical performance for an intellectual process'. In other words, 'Mr Babbage's invention puts an engine in place of the computer'.1 This may seem a paradoxical comment on the man who is now lauded as the computer's inventor. But as with terms such as typewriter, the word computer referred here to a human being, in this case the hireling employed to perform the exhausting reckoning which every astronomical operation required. Babbage himself applied for the post of computer at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, in summer 1814, until dissuaded from the thankless task. The labour of verifying 'the calculations of the computers' required in compiling astronomical tables soon prompted a characteristic expostulation: 'I wish to God these calculations had been executed by steam!' Hence developed the plans for the Difference Engine.2

      · 1. Henry Thomas Colebrooke, 'On Presenting the Gold Medal of the Astronomical Society to Charles Babbage', Memoirs of the Astronomical Society 1 (1825): 509-10; Charles Babbage, letter to John Herschel, 27 June 1823, Royal Society Herschel Papers, HS 2:184.

      · 2. Herschel, letter to Babbage, 25 Oct. 1814, Royal Society, HS 2:31, and H. W. Buxton, Memoir of the Life and Labours of the Late Charles Babbage, ed. Anthony Hyman (1880; Cambridge, Mass., 1988), p. 46; hereafter abbreviated M.

      See also: Simon Schaffer, Self Evidence

      Simon Schaffer is Reader in History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. He has coedited books on the history and sociology of experiment and on the work of William Whewell.

    • 228Peter Galison
    • “I . . . hope you can find some corner of activity in which I may be of use during the emergency,” the mathematician and physicist Norbert Wiener wrote the czar of American war research, Vannevar Bush, on 20 September 1940. Britain was under unrelenting aerial attack, and a Nazi invasion seemed imminent. Wiener scrambled across the disciplinary map to throw his weight behind a technological defense. He suggested procedures to improved Bush's computational device, the so-called differential analyzer, in ways that would facilitate faster design of war materiel from airplane wings to ballistic shells. More concretely, he reiterated a previous proposal that the Allies loft air-bursting containers of liquified ethylene, propane, or acetylene gases to engulf a wide volume of the sky in a prolonged detonation.1 That repelling the onslaught of bombers had pushed all scientific questions aside is hardly surprising. For the German Air Force had dubbed 13 August 1940 “The Day of the Eagle,” and with it the Battle of Britain had begun with an assault of almost 1500 aircraft flown against British air stations and aircraft factories. During the following two weeks over a thousand Londoners had died under the rain of bombs, and September was worse. On 7 September alone, 448 civilians perished; on 15 September the Germans pitched 230 bombers and 700 fighters against London, Southampton, Bristol, Cardiff, Liverpool and Manchester.2

      · 1. Norbert Wiener, letter to Vannevar Bush, 20 Sep. 1940, box 2, folder 58, Norbert Wiener Papers, collection MC-22, Institute Archives and Special Collections, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Archives, Cambridge, Mass. (hereafter abbreviated NWP).

      2. Martin Gilbert, The Second World War: A Complete History (New York, 1989), pp. 117-25.

      See also: Peter Galison, Einstein's Clocks: The Place of Time  ·  Mark Seltzer, Parlor Games: The Apriorization of the Media

      Peter Galison is the Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics and History of Science at Harvard University. His work focuses on the history, philosophy, and cultural location of twentieth-century physics. His books include How Experiments End (1987), Image and Logic: The Material Culture of Modern Physics (forthcoming), Big Science: The Growth of Large-Scale Research, edited with Bruce Hevly (1992), and The Disunity of Science: Boundaries, Contexts, and Power, edited with David Stump (forthcoming).