Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Summer 2008

Volume 34 Issue 4
    • 633Roberto Esposito
    • A philosophical interpretation of the twentieth century: what does such an expression refer to and what kind of weight do we want to give it? We could of course provide two different and in certain ways even opposing responses. The first is the one offered by the classic philosophical tradition of the twentieth century, which is to say the one supplied by Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and Jean-Paul Sartre (if we limit ourselves to only its most illustrious figures). For them the events of contemporary history are interpreted with a key supplied by philosophy itself, the only one available that might express what is essential for history. Whether the key is found in the crises of European sciences, in the unfolding of nihilism, or in the liberation of oppressed peoples—if we stick to the authors I've cited—in each case the twentieth century is understood according to the demands of a given philosophy whose task it is to make meaningful the events of the last century and to organize historical phenomena so that they move forward in an orderly fashion. A relation, therefore, is established between philosophy and history that is, so to speak, impositive. Only philosophy can impart an overarching sense to a series of facts that would otherwise be meaningless.

      See also: Gil Anidjar, The Meaning of Life  ·  Patricia Ticineto Clough, The Case of Sociology: Governmentality and Methodology

      Roberto Esposito teaches contemporary philosophy at the Italian Institute for the Human Sciences in Naples.

    • 645Alain Badiou
    • Here, again, we touch upon the link between philosophy and politics. I maintain that today it is a question of creating independent spaces in such a way that the question of violence takes a defensive turn. In this sense, all the possible forms and experiences become interesting. The first phase of the Zapatista movement is a concrete example of this defensive dimension of violence. But there are many other examples. Perhaps the first figure of this type is found in the initial sequence of the anti-Soviet movement in Poland, at the beginning of the 1980s. It was a workers' movement, and it was not, in fact, nonviolent; they used the strike, for example, as a weapon to pressure the government in negotiations. This was a situation in which the workers had complete control of the factories. This phase didn't last very long, in part due to external factors, like the influence of the church and Jaruzelski's coup d'état. But this was a moment in which it was possible to glimpse, however briefly, a new dialectic between the means of actions that were classically understood to be negative—the strike, demonstrations, and so on—and something like the creation of a space of autonomy in the factories. The objective was not to take power, to replace an existing power, but to force the state to invent a new relation with the workers. However brief it may have been, this experiment was very interesting. Interesting because it did not follow the classical model of a brutal confrontation between the movement and the state. It was the organization of a differentiated space—immanent, but differentiated—in view of constituting a political site whose collective rule was one of political debate rather than subordination to the questions and agenda of state power.

      See also: Ricardo L. Nirenberg and David Nirenberg, Badiou's Number: A Critique of Mathematics as Ontology

      Alain Badiou teaches philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure and is the author of Being and Event (2005), Ethics(2001), and Infinite Thought (2003).

    • 660Slavoj Žižek
    • Why are so many problems today perceived as problems of intolerance, not as problems of inequality, exploitation, injustice? Why is the proposed remedy tolerance, not emancipation, political struggle, even armed struggle? The immediate answer is the liberal multiculturalist's basic ideological operation: the culturalization of politics. Political differences, differences conditioned by political inequality, economic exploitation, and so on, are naturalized and neutralized into cultural differences, different ways of life, which are something given, something that cannot be overcome, but must be merely tolerated. To this, of course, one should answer in Benjaminian terms: from culturalization of politics to politicization of culture. The cause of this culturalization is the retreat and failure of direct political solutions (the welfare state, socialist projects, and so on). Tolerance is their postpolitical ersatz.

      See also: Slavoj Žižek, A Plea for a Return to Différance (with a Minor Pro Domo Sua)  ·  Slavoj Žižek, Against the Populist Temptation

      Slavoj Žižek, dialectical-materialist philosopher and psychoanalyst, is codirector at the International Center for Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London. His latest publications include The Parallax View (2006) and How to Read Lacan (2007).

    • 683Jody Greene
    • Civilizational discourse is not the only one marshaled to identify the border patrolled by this slippery phrase. Pirates, remember, were considered hostis humani generis in the pre- and early modern world in one specific regard: they interrupted international trade. Not so much enemies to all mankind as enemies to the smooth functioning of international commerce, they infested the “high road” between legitimate trading nations and repeatedly disrupted the otherwise orderly world of reciprocal commercial relations. Kenneth Randall is only the latest in a long line of commentators to point to this piratical threat to international trading relations. The pirate's “lawlessness,” he writes, “was especially harmful to the world at a time when intercourse between states occurred primarily by way of the high seas.” He bases his argument for the extension of universal jurisdiction to offenses such as hijacking, terrorism, torture, apartheid, and genocide on the fact that, like piracy, “those offenses endanger values to which the global community is committed.”

      See also: Russ Castronovo, State Secrets: Ben Franklin and WikiLeaks  ·  Geoffrey Galt Halpharm, Symbolic Terror

      Jody Greene is associate professor of literature and feminist studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz and author of The Trouble with Ownership: Literary Property and Authorial Liability in England, 1660-1730 (2005).

    • 706Reid Miller
    • When meaning is held to be contained within the text, interpretive failure remains plausible as the simple risk of not grasping what the image conveys. Theories of resistant reading, conversely, trade on the claim that the image does not preexist its apprehension by the viewer and thus has no truth prior to that encounter. Meaning, as nothing but the conscious mode in which the text makes its appearance, therefore always happens; all viewers are granted, from the start, the same epistemological capacity. Spectator theory seeks then not to discern comprehending from noncomprehending readings but to explore variations of and contestations between multiple spectatorships that appropriate their own authoritative stance. Yet this authority, curiously, seems restricted to explicit presentations of primary identities said to shape our readings; indeed, studies of racial spectatorship have thought resistance almost exclusively in terms of a refusal or creative resignification of unflattering portraits of raced subjects. This narrow focus, however, can readily imply that in the absence of such problematic images racial spectatorship defaults to a more authentic and unraced human spectatorship.9 The retention of a primary viewing identity thought to obviate, in most instances, the need for racial receptivity keeps in play a threat of interpretive failure by its ability to reposition race as the very thing that forestalls transmission of a text's moral truth.

      · 9. See Mark Reid, Redefining Black Film (Berkeley, 1993), p. 21, where he offers that blacks can derive pleasure from racist representations by switching from a black to a universal spectatorship that locates the “humane” qualities in otherwise offensive characterizations.

      Reid Miller is assistant professor of philosophy at Haverford College. He is working on a book manuscript tentively entitled Serves You Right: Escorts of Justice and Revenge.

    • 729Daniel Hack
    • As I suggested at the outset, the African Americanization of Bleak House is part of a larger pattern of reception and appropriation, albeit a singularly elaborate and complex case. However, in focusing on the uses to which Bleak House was put, I do not want to create the impression that Bleak House itself came out of nowhere. Instead, let me conclude by affirming that Bleak House did not come out of nowhere and, further, that one of the places it came out of was America. It is not exactly a secret that Bleak House is indebted to The House of the Seven Gables and The Scarlet Letter, but this is also not something scholars have thought through in light of recent decades' work on national identity, realism and romance, the gothic, print culture, and the like. More of a secret—that is, a question that has not really been asked—is the extent to which Bleak House may be, if not always already African American, nonetheless indebted to and positioned in the literary field in relation to African American writings (the kind of question we saw McCune Smith already raising about “The Charge of the Light Brigade” in the 1850s). For example, we have seen how Hannah Crafts wrenches Esther's narrative out of context, but perhaps we should also view the very word narrative in the repeated chapter title “Esther's Narrative” in the context of the widespread circulation of slave narratives, including preeminently The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Recall that Esther's most obvious precursor, Jane Eyre, writes an “autobiography,” not a “narrative.” Like Esther's telltale resemblance to her mother, then, the word narrative may suggest a kinship the novel is otherwise eager to disavow.

      See also: Nancy Bentley, The Fourth Dimension: Kinlessness and African American Narrative  ·  Patrick Brantlinger, Victorians and Africans: The Genealogy of the Myth of the Dark Continent

      Daniel Hack is associate professor of English at the University of Michigan and author of The Material Interests of the Victorian Novel (2005). He is currently working on two books: one on the uses of British literature in nineteenth-century African American and antislavery print culture and the other on revenge and modernity in the nineteenth-century novel.

    • 754Yuri Tsivian
    • Cinema changes everything it borrows. If an arithmetic operation existed that could help us get a better sense of the history of film it would be not addition but subtraction. Cinema equals theater minus the techniques and conventions used on the theater stage. Cinema equals literature minus all the talk about meanings and texts. Cinema is photography minus its congenital realism. If more slogans are needed to stage a small-scale cultural revolution in film studies I invite everyone to send in more.

      See also: Yuri Tsivian, Charlie Chaplin and His Shadows: On Laws of Fortuity in Art

      Yuri Tsivian is William Colvin professor of Slavic languages, art history, comparative literature, and cinema and media studies at the University of Chicago. He is the author of, among many works, Early Cinema in Russia and Its Cultural Reception (1994) and editor of Lines of Resistance: Dziga Vertov and the Twenties (2004).

    • 777Sianne Ngai
    • To be sure, the application of interesting to objects is not always aesthetical; cultural interpreters are just as likely to find objects historically interesting, psychologically interesting, and so on. When surreptitiously invoked as a term of aesthetic evaluation, however, what does our reliance on interesting say about the relationship between aesthetics and criticism? Is it just a rhetorical tic left over from a formalism equating criticism with the evaluation of an artwork's “success”? Does its habitual but usually unconscious use call for a rethinking of—or just corroborate—the merely incidental relation of feeling-based judgments to criticism's task of producing knowledge? What aesthetic, much less critical, power could such a nondescript judgment even have?

      See also: Sianne Ngai, The Cuteness of the Avant Garde  ·  Miriam Hansen, Why Media Aesthetics?

      Sianne Ngai is associate professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of Ugly Feelings (2006). She is currently at work on a book on the politics of three modern aesthetic categories: the cute, the zany, and the interesting.

    • 818James A. W. Heffernan
    • In his recent essay on the photography of Jeff Wall (“Jeff Wall, Wittgenstein, and the Everyday,” Critical Inquiry 33 [Spring 2007]: 495–526), Michael Fried suggestively amplifies the account of pictorial absorption that he first gave us almost thirty years ago and that has since become a landmark in art criticism.1 But in showing how Wall—by his own account—meticulously stages his photographs of absorption, Fried prompts us to wonder if Wall thereby deconstructs the wall that Fried himself has erected—on foundations laid by Diderot—between absorption and theatricality. At the very least, Fried's analysis of Wall's work leads me to suspect that, in spite of all he has written about absorption, it remains insufficiently interrogated. And the same, I think, applies to the everyday, the second major term of Fried's new essay. Even when rubbed by the hand of Wittgenstein, not to mention Fried himself, the concept of the everyday as an object of artistic transformation remains—to me at least—insufficiently illuminated. It too needs the spark of further questioning.

      James A. W. Heffernan, Emeritus Professor of English at Dartmouth College, has published widely on the relations between literature and visual art. His books include The Re-Creation of Landscape (1985), Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery(1993), and Cultivating Picturacy: Visual Art and Verbal Interventions(2006). He is presently working on a study of hospitality and treachery in Western literature.