Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Autumn 1999

Volume 26 Issue 1
    • 1N. Katherine Hayles
    • Yearning for the light, the creatures struggle after it. In water they grow tails and learn to undulate like snakes. On land they clump along, relegated by fate and biology to rectangular shapes joined together with moveable hinges. They show extraordinary ingenuity in making the most of these limitations, crawling, hopping, jumping, always toward the light. Then their creator gives them a new goal, a colored cube reminiscent of a squared-off hockey puck. Put into competition with one another, the creatures learn to jostle and shove their opponents, to encircle the cube, to knock it out of the way so their opponents can't reach it. When they meet a new opponent, they develop counterstrategies to meet these challenges. I marvel at their adaptability, cleverness, and determination.

      This passage describes my reactions while watching the videotape of Karl Sims's evolutionary simulation, Evolved Virtual Creatures. Judging from audiences with whom I have seen the tape, my responses are typical. Invariably viewers attribute to these simulated creatures motives, intentions, goals, and strategies. Even people who know perfectly well they are seeing visualizations of computer programs still inscript the creatures into narratives of defeat and victory, cheering the winners, urging on the losers, laughing at the schlemiels. Much more is going on here than simple anthropomorphic projection. Evolved Virtual Creatures is a laboratory not only in evolution (its intended purpose) but also in the impact of distributed cognitive systems on traditional modes of description, analysis, and understanding. Emerging from this laboratory are resources to rethink the divide between scientists and cultural critics, especially the conflict between seeing the body as an externally existing object with a more or less constant physical reality (the view of most biologists) and as a discursive construction produced by historically specific cultural formations. Virtual creatures can teach us that this divide is itself historically contingent, a result of the ongoing transition from the traditional liberal self to the contemporary posthuman subject.1

      · 1. The transition from liberal humanist subject to the contemporary posthuman subject is described in N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago, 1999).

      See also: N. Katherine Hayles, Traumas of Code  ·   N. Katherine Hayles, Patrick Jagoda, Patrick LeMieux, Speculation: Financial Games and Derivative Worlding in a Transmedia Era

      N. Katherine Hayles, professor of English at University of California, Los Angeles, writes and teaches on literature and science of the twentieth century. Her most recent book is How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. She is currently at work on two books about electronic textuality, Linking Bodies: Hypertext Fiction in Print and New Media and Coding the Signifier: Rethinking Semiosis from the Telegraph to the Computer.

    • 27John Johnston
    • Among the inherited oppositions that continue to impose limits on reflection about vision and visual culture today, that which opposes the human to the technical is perhaps the most visibly widespread and invisibly pernicious. Indeed, in the current climate of accelerated technological innovation, “a new consciousness of the sense of technical objects” may be necessary if we are to be fully receptive to and engage critically with the new forms and singularities of contemporary visual experience.1 This new “sense”—which we can postulate as at once already active and necessarily still developing—is perhaps best approached in relation to the kinds of perceptions it makes possible and that I would like to group within the general concept of machinic vision. Machinic vision, as I shall use the term, presupposes not only an environment of interacting machines and human-machine systems but a field of decoded perceptions that, whether or not produced by or issuing from these machines, assume their full intelligibility only in relation to them.

      · 1. To create this sense is the objective of Gilbert Simondon's Du mode d'existence des objets techniques (Paris, 1958), from which this phrase is taken (p. 9). Simondon argues that since the Industrial Revolution “culture has constituted itself as a system of defense against technics; yet, this defense is presented as a defense of humanity, supposing that technical objects do not contain human reality” (p. 9).

      See also: Mark Hansen, The Time of Affect, or Bearing Witness to Life

      John Johnston, professor of English and comparative literature at Emory University, is the author of Carnival of Repetition: Postmodernist Theory in the Fiction of William Gaddis (1990) and Information Multiplicity: American Fiction in the Age of Media Saturation (1998). He has also translated works by numerous authors, including Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Friedrich Kittler, and Jean Baurdrillard.

    • 49Johannes Fabian
    • Memory and identity have been topics of much recent writing and debate.3 In this essay, I shall address what I think is at issue from an angle that may not at first appear to be obvious (except to anthropologists and historians who have worked in societies outside Europe): memory and alterity. It should not take much argument, though, for us to realize that tying memory identity inevitably leads us to think about memory and the experience of alterity. What, I want to ask, is the role of remembrance in the production of knowledge about other cultures and societies? Must we and, if so, how can we “remember” those who are strangers to us?

      · 3. For an encompassing and most informative collection of essays on these subjects, see Aleida Assmann and Heirdrun Friese, Identitäten: Erinnerung, Geschichte, Identität 3 (Frankfurt am Main, 1998).

      See also: Johannes Fabian, Presence and Representation: The Other and Anthropological Writing

      Johannes Fabian is professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Amsterdam. His recent publications include Remembering the Present: Painting and Popular History in Zaire (1996), Moments of Freedom: Anthropology and Popular Culture (1998), and Out of Our Minds: Reason and Madness in the Exploration of Central Africa, a critical study of ethnography in the exploration of central Africa (forthcoming).

    • 70Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe
    • The art world may be said to have adopted some of the ideas suggested by the phrase “French theory,” while leaving alone those elements in it that might interfere with the collective pursuit of business as usual. In a manner perhaps reminiscent of de Certeau's theory that the working class takes only what it can use from high culture and leaves the rest, the ways in which the art world uses French ideas have less to do with not understanding their original meaning and intention than with deciding what's useful (to the pursuit of business of usual) and what's not.

      Of the changes in which French theory has played a part in the past twenty-five or so years, one could point to its role in the shift from an interest in art and art objects specifically to one in visual culture in general—from art to anthropology—that has been such a large part of art history and criticism since the seventies. Or, within art practice conceived as such, one could say that a painting hegemony that by the early seventies had already become a sculptural hegemony—which, founded on a pervasive idea about art not being pictorial, was therefore largely devoted to reinventing the pictorial in other terms—has subsequently transformed itself into a Duchampian hegemony.

      See also: Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Blankness as a Signifier  ·  Ian Hunter, The History of Theory

      Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe teaches at Art Center, Pasadena. His critical works include Immanence and Contradiction: Recent Essays on the Artistic Device (1986), Beyond Piety: Critical Essays on the Visual Arts, 1986-1993 (1995), and two forthcoming works, Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime and (in collaboration with Frank Gehry) Frank Gehry, the City, and Music. He was the 1998 recipient of the College Art Association's Frank Jewett Mather Award for Art or Architectural Criticism, in part for his most recent contribution to Critical Inquiry, “Blankness as a Signifier” (Autumn 1997).

    • 85Rachel Feldhay Brenner
    • In a 1996 interview for an Israeli journal, Mahmud Darwish, a leading Palestinian poet, raised the issue of Palestinian identity. In contrast with Yehoshua, who saw the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a factor preserving Israeli Jewish identity, Darwish claimed that cohabitation and interaction of Israelis and Palestinians affected the identity of both peoples. As Darwish saw it, "the Israelis have changed the Palestinians and vice versa.... Each dwells inside the other.... The other is a responsibility and a test.... Will a third emerge out of the two? This is the test."4

      Historical circumstances create new psychological dynamics and open up new alternatives. Both Darwish and Said maintain that Israeli Arab identity must evolve out of self-redefinition in the context of Isreal. But how, then, to maintain Arab identity within the powerful Israeli culture? And how to form a distinct minority identity that would establish a dialogic interaction with the hegemonic culture?

      · 4. Mahmud Darwish, "Ha-gahut kol-kahk hazakah b'tocki, vlai avi otah arzah" [The diaspora is so strong in me, maybe I''ll bring it home], interview with Hilit Yeshurun, Rabat Amon, 7 Feb. 1996, Hadarim 12 (Spring 1996): 194-95.

      See also: Edward W. Said, An Ideology of Difference

      Rachel Feldhay Brenner is associate professor of Hebrew literature in the department of Hebrew and Semitic studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She is the author of Assimilation and Assertion: The Response to the Holocaust in Mordecai Richler's Writings (1989), A. M. Klein, the Father of Canadian Jewish Literature: Essays in the Poetics of Humanistic Passion (1990), and Writing as Resistance: Four Women Confronting the Holocaust: Edith Stein, Simone Weil, Anne Frank, Etty Hillesum (1997).

    • 109John Brenkman
    • Like many who came of age in the 1960s, I was led to literary studies because of a passion for poetry and politics. In turn, the emerging projects in theory, which in many respects were an attempt to consolidate intellectually what had been learned and hoped for in the political and social movements that had arisen in the 1960s and were then declining, illuminated the possible relationships between literature and politics in startling ways. The turn to looking at the question of culture, as the determining setting of literary practices and forms, then contributed to the origins of cultural studies in the United States.

      The passion of literary intellectuals for politics goes back to the eighteenth century and has manifested itself in everything from the literary-polititical movement all the way to the temptations for writers and critics to become fellow travelers, functionaries, or tourists of the revolution. Today the vitality of the interplay of literature and politics in intellectual life is in trouble.

      See also: John Brenkman, Jules David Law, Resetting the Agenda

      John Brenkman is Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Lterature at the City University of New York Graduate Center and Baruch College. He is the author of Culture and Domination (1987) and Straight Male Modern: A Cultural Critique of Psychoanalysis (1993) and is the editor of the literary magazine Venue.

    • 128Critical Response I: Drucilla Cornell
    • Brenkman begins his argument with a defense of the publicness of aesthetic forms, including conceptions of the beautiful. But there is another step that I would argue he needs to take. That step is the recognition that the ideals he defends and the configurations of them that he advocates are just that—configurations, and more specifically what Kant would call aesthetic ideas. I agree that aesthetic ideas are crucial to the form we give to our legal rights and to our sense of publicness more generally. But aesthetic ideas, since they are configurations, can always be contested and judged again for the moral and political effect they have in the form they give to our public life.

      Drucilla Cornell is professor of law, political science, and women's studies at Rutgers University. She is the author of numerous books, including At the Heart of Freedom and The Imaginary Domain. She has also edited and coedited several books, including Feminism and Pornography (forthcoming) and Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice (with Michel Rosenfeld and David G. Carlson).

    • 140Critical Response II: John Brenkman
    • Cornell questions the skepticism in my claim that cultural and social critics today lack a viable vision of a radically egalitarian society. Rather than looking into a theory of justice to guide commitments to democratic politics and radical social equality, I take a kind of hermeneutic view that the disparate traditions of democratic thought and practice—liberal, civic-humanist (or republican), and social-democratic—provide a fund of norms that have to be continually reinterpreted, often critically, and applied to the changing conditions of modern society.

      John Brenkman is Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Lterature at the City University of New York Graduate Center and Baruch College. He is the author of Culture and Domination (1987) and Straight Male Modern: A Cultural Critique of Psychoanalysis (1993) and is the editor of the literary magazine Venue.

    • 147Critical Response I: Nicholas Royle
    • LaCapra appears to have problems with this performative singularity (what Readings "affirms in his own voice"). It is disconcerting. It does not agree with him. More generally, LaCapra appears to want to practice a writing that maintains a consensual rather than dissensual character, that plays down the importance (or consideration of the importance) of the performative and therefore incalculable effects and texts and thus of a certain "constativity" (to be determined).

      Ironically, however, LaCapra can only play down the question of the performative by playing it up. Thus his basic criticism of Readings's book has to do with its performative, hyperbolic dimensions: "I find Readings's argument hyperbolic, and I think his hyperbole would be more effective if it were explicitly framed as hyperbole" (p. 35).

      Nicholas Royle is professor of English at the University of Sussex. His books include Telepathy and Literature (1991), After Derrida (1995), E. M. Forster (1999), and, with Andrew Bennett, An Introduction to Literature, Criticism, and Theory (1999). He is joint editor of the Oxford Literary Review.

    • 154Critical Response II: Dominick LaCapra
    • I think that the counterpart to the university in ruins—the university of culture—is itself a myth or at best an insufficiently framed critical fiction in Readings's account. To employ the terms I use in a recent article it is better seen as an absence than a loss.1 The notion of a university in ruins that is opposed to a university of culture suffers from a lack of specificity that the opposition facilitates. Note that I think there is indeed strong pressure on the university by capitalistic forces, but those forces, as well as their relations to globalization and to the nation-state, would require the type of elaboration that the slippage between meta-meta-physical and critique and historical (or pseudohistorical) commentary serves to obviate. Perhaps such an elaboration is beneath the purview of Thought, at least as Royle's response seems to construe it.

      Dominick LaCapra is profesor of history, the Bryce and Edith M. Bowmar Professor of Humanistic Studies, and director of the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University, as well as associate director of the School of Criticism and Theory. His forthcoming books are History and Reading: Tocqueville, Foucault, French Studies and Writing History, Writing Trauma.

    • 159William Conger
    • I submit that we cannot overexamine how we respond to [Manet's] work, even as I agree with de Duve that how a work is constucted should not be overinterpreted. In his desire to find an elaborate foil to enhance the elegance of his solution to the puzzle of Manet's painting (see Elkins's response) de Duve seems to have overinterpreted the intent of my modest diagram.

    • 160Thierry de Duve
    • I may indeed have overinterpreted the intent of [Conger's] diagram in my intent to show it as an overinterpretation. Sometimes things backfire.