Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Winter 2014

Volume 40 Issue 2
    • 288Michael P. Steinberg
    • The argument I risk here is itself hospitable to and inclusive of mood and loss as attributes of melancholy. But the assertion from which I start is broader and blunter. The hypothesis is that melancholy is the condition of music—all music. The excitement and the danger of the assertion reside in the totalization. Though it might be responsible, though perhaps also banal, to propose that melancholy is the condition of some music, I want to risk the totalization that understands melancholy as the condition of all music. As a heuristic precedent—and also an immanently relevant one—I would invoke Sigmund Freud's foundational assertion that all dreams, and not just some dreams, function as wish fulfillments. As he contentedly states at the outset of The Interpretation of Dreams, it would have been reasonable and safe to suggest that many dreams function as wish fulfillments. Much more incisively, he holds that all dreams do and that dreams that seem to suggest the opposite of wish fulfillments (nightmares, for example) are in fact disguised fulfillments of concealed wishes.

      See also: Paul Allen Anderson, Neo-Muzak and the Business of Mood  ·  Slavoj Žižek, Melancholy and the Act

    • 339James D. Herbert
    • The daubs crowding the canvases of Gustave Courbet, according to critical accounts of the day, gesture in two, potentially antithetical directions. Because they persist as physical traces of his method of painting, these signature patches of paint—thick, loose, larded on by brush or palette knife—bespeak the sensibility, perhaps even the soul, of the energetic artist who laid them on canvas. Simultaneously, owing to their resemblance when clustered together to sitter or landscape (though it is mostly the late landscapes that will concern us here, along with an extended concluding look at the enormous Painter's Studio), they also evoke the slices of reality they depict. This doubled operation of painterly representation activates both an autobiographical cause (in semiotic terms, an index) pointing toward the artist and a realist resemblance (semiotically, an icon) bearing a likeness to the world. The resulting interplay promises a grand synthesis whereby the mind and world can be brought into appropriate correspondence through the medium of art. The potent admixture was hardly attributed to Courbet alone. Indeed, the combination vested the corpulent brushstroke with perhaps the greatest ideological construct of the visual fine arts—by which I mean a dominant yet unexamined and unquestioned axiom underlying a substantial body of cultural thought over an extended period—at a time when Paris stood as the cultural capital of Europe, spanning in application from at least Eugène Delacroix's renditions of the exotic Orient at the beginning of the nineteenth century until Pablo Picasso's fundamental recasting of the meaning of technique at the beginning of the twentieth. That powerful idea maintained that the individual artist, liberated from the thematic expectations and technical protocols of established artistic institutions such as the Académie and the École des Beaux-Arts, could capture a segment of lived experience of the real world and claim it as his own. Art critic and novelist Émile Zola provided the lapidary definition of painting under the aegis of this conceptual regime in his review of the salon of 1866: “A work of art is a corner of creation seen through a temperament.” Courbet, active at a time when the felicitous conjunction of perceiving self and perceived world had already become an established critical convention, worked with a conspicuity of method that made his brushstrokes ideal vehicles for the conceit (Zola, in fact, immediately followed his definition with a discussion of Courbet's contribution to the salon). Consequently, the painter from Ornans stood forth as an early exemplar of the ambitious French painter ascribed with something close to full artistic autonomy in control of his own world—a status underwritten, appropriately, by both biographical difference and geographic distance from Parisian artistic norms.

      See also: James D. Herbert, Bad Faith at Coventry: Spence's Cathedral and Britten's "War Requiem"  ·  James D. Herbert, The Debts of Divine Music in Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen

    • 382Peter Schwenger
    • We will begin with a single remarkable scream or, at any rate, with the literary description of one. This scream is emitted in the second canto of Comte de Lautréamont's Maldoror. The narrator, like a perverse St. John, has a vision of an anthropophagic god, his feet immersed in a “vast pool of boiling blood, to whose surface two or three cautious heads would suddenly rise like tapeworms from a full chamberpot,” in reserve for the god's next course. Maldoror is paralyzed with horror until, “my tight chest unable to exhale the lifegiving air quickly enough, my lips parted and I cried out … a cry so earsplitting … that I heard it!”—a fact remarkable only because the narrator has been deaf from birth. Now this medical miracle is of less interest to me than what is said about this scream, and screams in general, by Douglas Kahn in his history of sound in the arts, Noise, Water, Meat. He writes of Maldoror:

      His scream neither addressed the Creator nor reached the ears of his creations. It merely announced the presence of himself as a subjugated creature. … He was empathetic to his fellow creatures' plight, but most immediately as a means to constituting his own identity. He had become aware of the presence of his voice.

      I am going to resist this analysis, not out of pickiness or crankiness but because it implicitly raises a number of questions that may lead us to answers regarding the nature of the scream. And first I must point out that Kahn seems to resist his own formulations. Having dismissed the notion that Maldoror's scream is meant to communicate with either the Creator or his unhappy victims—obviously unlikely auditors—Kahn later writes this about screams: “That they are resolutely communicative and meant for others is demonstrated by the fact that people who have been in a life-threatening situation often must be told by others that they were screaming.” Of course this factoid demonstrates no such thing; in fact it indicates the exact opposite. That people are unaware of their own screaming means that the scream is not a conscious call for help to another but an unconscious reflex, one that would have taken place whether or not there was anybody there to hear it. It arises, then, from reasons other than communication. In the passage I first quoted, Kahn suggests another reason: self-presence, the constitution of one's own identity. I will be arguing later that what is at stake here is not the constitution of identity but an attempt to escape it.

      See also: Peter Schwenger, Writing Hypnagogia  ·  Peter Schwenger, Corpsing the Image  ·  Peter Schwenger, Words and the Murder of the Thing

    • 396Christian Sorace
    • Duchamp had the bicycle wheel, Warhol had the image of Mao. I have a totalitarian regime. It is my readymade.

      Ai Weiwei's artistic material is the flesh of politics: the decrees of China's Communist Party; shoddily constructed schools that collapsed in earthquakes; midnight raids on dissidents; tea-drinking detentions carried out by the Public Security Bureau; and ideological pedagogies that are inscribed in the practices, habits, and fantasies of ordinary life. His defining artistic practice is to metabolize social contradictions and harsh realities. “‘Taking contradictions and making them public is my best weapon.’” Despite the fanfare and celebrity bestowed on Ai by his reception in Western art circles and human rights communities, little is understood about the political conditions surrounding him, which are the material of his art.

      See also: Zhang Longxi, Western Theory and Chinese Reality  ·  Xiaomei Chen, Occidentalism as Counterdiscourse: "He Shang" in Post-Mao China

    • 420Paul K. Saint-Amour
    • Total war, by the standard definition, is a conflict from which nothing and no one is exempt: “a war to which all resources and the whole population are committed.” In the eyes of the total war economy, everything and everyone appears as a productive factor. And because total war pits the belligerent energies of whole populations against one another, any member of an adversary's population counts as a legitimate target. A discussion of total war that accepted the standard definition would need no other figure than that of the demographic mass committed to an all-out conflict—committed both as a subject embracing a cause and as an object pledged as a resource. This essay, in contrast, disturbs the standard definition by insisting on the spatial, temporal, and ideological partialities of total war as a historically emergent concept. Not, I should emphasize, as a historically emergent phenomenon: war that exempts no one from its domain seems to have been the norm rather than the anomaly in human history. But following the concept of total war back to its elaboration in the early twentieth century prompts a series of more focused questions. In contrast to what—and whose—concept of limited conflict is the new expression total war intelligible in this period as a nonredundancy? What are the local efficacies, and who are the beneficiaries, of total war's totality claims? Finally, what subjects, collectivities, and forms of military violence fall outside the bounds of limited war, total war, and the logic of their opposition? To pursue these questions, I argue, is to learn how the standard definition's aggressive coherentism masks some of total war's other functions as a concept: its occlusions, its refigurings of space and time, its discriminations in apportioning permissible violence.

      See also: Paul Allen Anderson, The World Heard: Casablanca and the Music of War

    • 450Angus Fletcher
    • There are, Jonathan Kramnick has remarked, just two problems with literary Darwinism: it isn't literary and it isn't Darwinism. By allying itself with Evolutionary Psychology, it has not only eliminated most of the nuance from contemporary neo-Darwinism but reduced all literature to stories, taking so little account of literary form that it equates “Pleistocene campfire” tales with Mrs. Dalloway. This, Kramnick notes, is a shame. A sensitive and open conversation between literary critics and modern biologists might, after all, prove fruitful for both disciplines, and, hoping to salvage the prospect, Kramnick turns in his conclusion to the cognitive studies of literature performed by scholars like Lisa Zunshine, David Herman, and Alan Richardson. Such is the force of his earlier critique, however, that these efforts also seem diminished. After all, as Kramnick points out, cognitive psychology has a rather more “modest” reach than literary Darwinism. It offers a useful method for exploring the subjective aspects of human experience but cannot plumb the massive timescales of evolution or navigate the great diversity of nonhuman life. And so far from replacing literary Darwinism, cognitive studies continue to beg the question: can literature have its own distinct purpose in a world of natural selection?

      See also: Jonathan Kramnick, Against Literary Darwinism  ·  Gabrielle Starr, Evolved Reading and the Science(s) of Literary Study: A Response to Jonathan Kramnick 

    • 470Kalpana Seshadri
    • The conversation about Agamben's place in the history of philosophy, merely in terms of his work thus far, cannot begin without considering the directionality he gives to the Aristotelian notion of dunamis. If it is the case, as Heidegger suggested in his course on Friedrich Nietzsche, that “each thinker thinks only one single thought,” then surely Agamben's is that of the sterēsis (or privation) that determines the force or the power that defines living being. Agamben's recovery of this ancient notion was no doubt inspired by his encounter with Heidegger, whose insistence on the salience of the concept of kinēsis (movement) in Aristotle's thought and in his own Agamben references. In a footnote to an essay on Heidegger's notion of facticity, he writes, “if one recalls the fundamental role that kinesis, according to Heidegger, played in Aristotle's thought (in his seminars at Le Thor, Heidegger still spoke of kinesis as the fundamental experience of Aristotle's thought), one can also evaluate the central place of facticity in the thought of the early Heidegger.”

      Thus, it can be argued that the specificity of Agamben's theory of dunamis (or power) cannot be properly discerned without situating it within the horizon of inquiry established by Heidegger in his reading of Aristotle. However, the complexity of this horizon can only be hinted at here insofar as Agamben departs from Heidegger (as well as the philosophical tradition) in the way in which he accesses the medieval sources for Aristotle. For Heidegger, who identifies Aristotle with the genesis of the philosophical tradition, and the one to whom it was necessary to return, Aristotle's inquiry into the nature of being was in terms of phusis as movement. In the Physics, Aristotle defines beings in nature as characterized by their being-in-movement, as what “has in itself a source [origin] of motion and rest, either in place, or by growth and shrinkage, or by alteration.” Heidegger stresses that this fundamental problem of movement constitutes the proper ontological horizon of inquiry into the meaning and truth of being.

      See also: Colin Koopman and Thomas Matza, Putting Foucault to Work: Analytic and Concept in Foucaultian Inquiry

    • 480Giorgio Agamben
    • The concept of power [potenza] has a long history in Western philosophy and, at least since Aristotle, occupies one of its central positions. Aristotle opposes—and binds together—power [dynamis] to the act [energeia], and this opposition, which traverses as much across his metaphysics as his physics, has been transmitted as a legacy first to philosophy and then to science, medieval and modern. If I choose to speak about the concept of power [potenza], it is because my scope is not simply historiographical. For me, it is not about restoring currency to philosophical categories that have fallen from time into oblivion; I am convinced, on the contrary, that this concept has never ceased to operate in the life and in the history, in the thought and in the practice of that part of humanity, that has grown and developed its power [potenza] to a point of imposing its force [potere] over the whole planet. Rather, following Ludwig Wittgenstein's suggestion that philosophical problems become clearer if we reformulate them as questions on the meaning of words, I could enunciate the theme of my research as an attempt to understand the meaning of the syntagm I can. What do we mean when we say “I can, I cannot”?

      See also: Gil Anidjar, The Meaning of Life

    • 492Giorgio Agamben
    • The title of my essay attempts, with its etymological figure, to think in Italian a German term as it is presented at many decisive points in the work of Friedrich Hölderlin and Martin Heidegger. This term is the noun Stimmung. If it is true that to think is something we are capable of only in language; if, as Ludwig Wittgenstein said, every philosophical question can be presented as an interrogation on the meaning of words, then translation is one of the eminent ways in which man thinks his word.

      See also: Brian Britt, The Schmittian Messiah in Agamben's The Time That Remains