English 201D: On Bliss
Contemporary Literary Theory
Instructor: Professor Doug Rice
- Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text Trans. Richard Miller
- Jacques Derrida, Right of Inspection Trans. David Wills, Photographs by Marie-Francoise Plissart
- Jean Baudrillard, Seduction Trans. Brian Singer
- Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of Disaster Trans. Ann Smock
- Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet, Dialogues Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam
- Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horrors: An Essay on Abjection Trans. Leon S. Roudiez
- Helene Cixous and Mireille Calle-Gruber, rootprints: Memory and Life Writing Trans. Eric Prenowitz
- Luce Irigaray, Elemental Passions Trans Joanne Collie and Judith Still
- Clarice Lispecter, The Stream of Life Trans. Elizabeth Lowe and Earl Fitz. Foreword by Helene Cixous
- The Secret Books: Writings by Jorge Luis Borges Photographs by Sean Kernan Trans. Maria Kodama, Alastair Reed, et al
the never of always.
Or as Heidegger and Derrida propose, as a presence that exists in abeyance, under erasure: cultural studies. Perhaps “abeyance” is ultimately the more fitting term. For it draws our (?) attention to a sense of critical interruption that suggests an addition, an excess, rather than a
“And I have admitted that the foreigner will probably pronounce a sentence differently if he conceives it differently; but what we call his wrong conceptions need not lie in anything that accompanies the utterance …” (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations)
Will storytelling always feel like Isis gathering remnants of her missing son/brother/father/husband Osiris, each recovered fragment a cause for celebration, for hope that someday the broken body will be restored, renewed, lovers united, but also each fragment bearing memories of ancient crimes, ancient pain and loss.
Certain words seduce us, become breathing, their sound, their weight in our mouths. It’s easy to stray. Say the words as if you believe them. Lost again. Once you learn to speak a language, does it speak for you. Who comes out of your mouth. The mystery, the temptation of being other than I am disciplines me. If you believe nothing else, believe I am always struggling for other words, my own words even if they seem to spiral out of a mind, a mouth like Cassandra’s, my words are words I’ve discovered, words if they fail me, I’m bound to fall on like Quentin’s knife in the gutter–in other words, I already understand what it’s like to be one of Dante’s dark passengers.
“The bead artist continually changes perspectives while working on the design. The direction of strands shifts throughout the work, breaking up the surface to create the impression of segmentation, division, and separation that are so characteristic of composition in much Yoruba art.”
–Rowland Abiodun, “Beads”
“I came to theory because I was hurting–the pain within me was so intense that I could not go on living. I came to theory desperate, wanting to comprehend–to grasp what was happening around and within me. Most importantly, I wanted to make the hurt go away. I saw in theory then a location for healing.”
Can there be a self-sufficient language of bliss? Perhaps one like Creole of Martinique. Creole isn’t a stopgap variety of language on its way to being some other language. Everyday speakers of Creole keep vital a language aspiring toward goals all languages seek–expressiveness, communication, full-service functionality to name the mysteries inside and outside of us. Isolation and rejection of the mainstream may be necessary conditions for Creolized cultural production, but isolation and rejection are not sufficient to explain Creole’s survival. Like playground hoops, Creole is subversive because it crosses borders between margin and mainstream, and these crossings can destabilize, erode borders, eventually even abolish the distinction between mainstream and margin.
She would become like the woman in brown and red who sat on the bank of sharp white stones looking at the river that was the color of her clothes, and her family’s clothes, the ones that she had just washed, lay wrung out beside her as she sat rocking herself and rubbing the back of her neck.
“Children make the best theorists, since they have not yet been educated into accepting our routine social practices as “natural,” and so insist on posing to those practices the most embarrassingly general and fundamental questions, regarding them with a wondering estrangement which we adults have long forgotten. Since they do not yet grasp our social practices as inevitable, they do not see why we might not do things differently.”
Let us begin by doodling uselessly in the margins of reality.
My tongue was in my friend’s mouth. Stuck. I like to live. Now is not the time for hesitation. To settle. To be settled. To compromise tongue for the sake of desire. Wounds that are seamless, that are incessant. That refuse to heal. That refuse to write body. When no language is home. The wound is not a tattoo. The wounding is not a cutting. In this place the body is unwritten. This is not silence in the Bataillean universe of discursive language games. Fuck Wittgenstein. unheimlich. The struggle Bataille traveled through to arrive near silence. Rauschenberg nearly painted up until the moment he abruptly turned away from the canvas and left behind the white of his refusal. Without borders but still framed, nonetheless, nothing goes without saying. So close. But now is not the time, the place, this history for silence. For hesitation.
Shadow doesn’t leave a spot.
When a Cuna Indian is very sick, the healer takes illustrated magazines, fashion catalogues, and newspapers, and places them around the sick person’s hut. Then they burn the images, releasing their souls. The souls of the burnt images then go about setting up a store or emporium full of fascinating images. (Much like the mead-hall-malls built over Grendel’s lair.) When the evil spirits come to invade the sick person, they are so taken by the show of wares that they do not enter the sick person’s body. Instead of killing the sick person, the evil spirits, in effect, go shopping.
“… fascinate and afraid, utterly seduced …” but the answering machine is interrupted here.
“A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” (Walter Benjamin)
My interest here is not so much in the carbon that sits silently in front of your eyes–the “wreckage” that piles up beneath the feet of the angel of history–but in temporality. Temporality is the smoke, the text, the torsion of the burning, which, though often destructive, is also, after all, the release of energy. Release and destruction combine as the excess of ritual sacrifice as the flames and smoke twist and turn over the distorted photograph. “Burning a photograph,” Philippe Dubois suggests, “is only an extension of the photographic process: the photograph is a sensitive surface (like the soul) burned by the light that strikes it, and gnawed from within by the very things that allow it to exist: light and time.” Both a compelling object of contemplation and an elemental subject that can change and destroy, the significance of fire is limitless.
1. Weekly Explorations. The ruses of reading, not what the signs say. These writings will be in the spirit of Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. Think of Gramsci’s need to write the matter of his writing. The political struggle to keep a voice during his stay in prison. To continue speaking of the politics of culture and writing for/within the popular medium of a daily newspaper. Gramsci was only given a small index card each day that he was permitted to fill with writing. He was only given one tiny pencil each week. Writing had to matter. He had to fit everything onto this one small piece of paper. He had limits. He had boundaries. He had to pass his writing past prison censors. Mussolini. Passing. He had to cramp his writing. He had to use his body to write. For writing. To make rites. But he also had to pass. His “passing” was different from what you imagine your passing to be. My grandmother once told me to be careful with speaking. God counted the words and then you died. Charles Johnson, the novelist, once told me in Binghamton that his grandmother always warned him to be careful of breathing. That each breath carried you closer to death. “God only gave you so much breathing, Charles.” He held his breath, still does, still catches himself holding his breath. One more day. Each breath a prayer.
Gramsci needed to write. What might it mean to need to write? How might it be to need to write? To want to write? How is it to come to be authorized to write instead of to come to be punished for writing? (Or, perhaps worse yet, to be rewarded for writing?) What does it mean to avoid turning the politics of writing into the metaphors of interpretation? Why is it that English majors are so desperate to discuss the Oedipal Complex in order to void politics? What happens when the liminal is a social space of movement in moments instead of the sanitary placement of a discussion in a tiny room with four walls and a degree of separation?
Each week you will submit one-page of writing that explores the reading for the week. This is an opportunity for you to work with or against the grains of the readings, to experiment with your own act of reading (in fact, to experiment with the very thought of “owning“ a reading), to take reading beyond the simple Aristotlean notion of clarity and move outside the lines that demarcate and privilege specific modes of being as a reader. To call institutional practice into question through a movement toward praxis. Perhaps to practice detournement–to write new speech balloons for newspaper comic strips, or for that matter old masters, to insist simultaneously on a devaluation of thinking (theory) and its reinvestment in a new kind of social speech, a communication containing (carrying) its own criticism, a technique willing to risk mystification because its very form is a demystification–and to pursue the derive–to give yourself up to the promises of the city, and then to find them (the promises) wanting–to drift through the city, allowing its signs to divert, to detourn your steps, and then to divert those signs yourself, forcing them to give up routes (roots) that never existed before. Such detournement is a politics of subversive quotation, of cutting the vocal cords of every empowered speaker, social symbols yanked through the looking-glass, misappropriated words and pictures diverted into familiar scripts and blowing them up. Or perhaps not. Perhaps this is what was.
These explorations will not be graded in the traditional sense of letters and numbers. By removing this traditional notion of punishment and more terrifying: reward!, I am hoping to allow for you to engage more deeply and carefully with the inside workings and failures of language and desire. To risk your own sense of identity (culturally and institutionally formed) through writing reading. These texts are difficult and demanding texts that will, if you read and re-read with care, disorient you, thus to situate your (w)riting inside some sort of a priori grading system seems unfair and distracting.
Each week, then, you will have one page to work with. One 8 ½ x 11 inch sheet of paper. Unlined. On this page you will in some way explore the readings for the week. You should write these on a different day each week and you should write these at different times of the day. (That is, one week you may write on a Monday from 5 pm until 6:41 pm, another week you may find yourself writing on a Saturday from 11:03 pm until 12:32 am.) On the back of this 8 ½ x 11 inch paper, you must mark each page with date and time and place and light. When you express yourself, always try it at different times of the day, in different lights, and, if possible, in different places. Even, if possible, among different people. Forget the high, fixed northern light that so many Modernists longed for. You should wander about this. (And so many people from so many miles away thought that was a typo. The wanders of the word.) Around this. You may fill this page in any way that you want that reveals that you have seriously and rigorously worked through these readings. You may NOT use a computer. You may inscribe this page in pen, pencil, crayon, marker, etc., but no typed work will be accepted. I am looking for you to risk an engaged act of reading and re-reading these texts.
Students who fail to submit one of these explorations for any given week will receive an “F” grade for the entire semester. If you need to miss one class, you must submit your work before missing the class. That is, if you know you are going to miss a class, you should take on the responsibility to get this one page exploration to me prior to the day that you will miss. If you miss because of illness, then you must submit your one page exploration the following class. Ideally this exploration paper should be submitted to my mailbox as soon as possible after you have missed a class. If you do not do so, you will receive an “F” for the semester.
2. Weekly presentations. Each week three students will give brief ten minute presentations meant to respond to the readings. Students will be expected to speak between eight and ten minutes. I will stop you at ten minutes, so take time to think through the timing of your presentation. If your report is under eight minutes we will sit and mourn in silence until eight minutes have elapsed. Missing the evening when you are scheduled to give your presentation is a very bad thing. Dante has a special place for such people. These presentations may, and inevitably will, overlap somewhat with your weekly exploration work. That is, you are permitted to use your exploration as your presentation. Presenters should come prepared to answer questions as well as pose questions for class debate. The number of presentations each student will be responsible for will depend on the number of students who end up in the class. If our class is at the 15 student limit, then each student will give 5 of these presentations. Remember you are writing weekly explorations, so this work overlaps.
3. Seminar Paper. This paper will be an intensive study of the primary issue that we are exploring: the theoretical and philosophical idea of bliss. Students must think through at least two of the theorists that we study this semester. I urge you to begin this paper as soon as possible and to discuss possible approaches with me during conferences. This is not a simple paper of explication or some strange biographical study. Nor is this paper an invitation to become banal or fatalistic in either essentialist or relativist ways. You must follow MLA style for citation and bibliography. Students will lose points for format and style errors. This paper must be at least 20 pages. Students who intend on going forward to a Ph.D. program (especially those who plan on taking the comprehensive MA exam) should consider using this as an opportunity to experience writing a longer paper (up to 40 pages), but this is not required.
nuts and bolts, discipline and punish. Foucault. The theory of questioning, the quest of interpretation. How to say “I” without becoming Essentialist.
How to escape being Tarzan without being Tarzan. The place of the subject in ontological a priori space limitations.
Selections from Karl Marx, Antonio Gramsci, Paul Bove, Colin MacCabe
Screening of Larua Kipnis’ short film, Marx’s Bodies
Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text Trans. Richard Miller
Excerpts from Patti Smith’s Complete Works
Pierre Guyotat, Prostitute
Moniq Wittig, The Lesbian Dictionary
Video: Patti Smith, “When Doves Cry”
Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of Disaster Trans. Ann Smock
Video: Hiroshima, Mon Amour
Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horrors: An Essay on Abjection Trans. Leon S. Roudiez
Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet, Dialogues Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam
Video: I, you, he, she
Luce Irigaray, Elemental Passions Trans Joanne Collie and Judith Still
Video: Joyce’s Women
Revising Old Readings
Helene Cixous and Mireille Calle-Gruber, rootprints: Memory and Life Writing Trans. Eric Prenowitz
James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (excerpts)
Clarice Lispecter, The Stream of Life Trans. Elizabeth Lowe and Earl Fitz. Foreword by Helene Cixous
Virginia Woolf, excerpts, The Waves
Video: Bill Viola, Water
Jacques Derrida, Right of Inspection Trans. David Wills,
Photographs by Marie-Francoise Plissart
Cindy Sherman’s photographs (slides)
Robert Mapplethorpe, photographs (slides)
The Secret Books: Writings by Jorge Luis Borges Photographs by Sean Kernan Trans. Maria Kodama, Alastair Reed, et al
Excerpts from Samuel Delaney Queer Thoughts and The Politics of the Paraliterary
Video: The Year Punk Broke Kenneth Anger’s work
Juan Goytisolo, Count Julian
Little Red Riding Hood
Jean Baudrillard, Seduction
See the rest of our back-to-school feature Syllabus-ness here.