Charles River

Charles River
Upper Limit Cloud/Lower Limit Sail


"Messianicity is not messianism ... even though this distinction remains fragile and enigmatic." (Jacques Derrida)

Friday, April 29, 2011

Between The Surreal and The Medieval or, The Shock of the Now

File this under: rumors of demise. No sooner did I announce that I was retiring this blog, then I decided to write a new post. Maybe I just needed to close out one chapter before starting another. No idea how frequently I will post, but apparently things ain't over yet!


Because the present is never just “the present” but rendered unstable by the flux and turbulence of its coming-into-being it continually compels us to find referents for it that either mark it as arriving from the future or the past. Journalists and commentators succumb to a kind of shorthand as a result when reporting on disasters, in particular, relying on the same set of terms to mitigate this temporal anxiety. Two examples of the moment: the word “surreal” used to describe the devastation of the Southeast tornados, or “medieval” as it’s applied to the siege of Misurata in Libya. Yet tornadoes have been a fact of life for recorded history, and sieges are hardly events safely relegated to and contained by the Middle Ages.

In the former case, the shock of the real can only be described in terms of dream logic. The sublime appears as a force unleashed from the unconscious, or visited upon us as a kind of perverse special effect, an overpowering trauma that reduces language to a gestural scrawl taken from disaster movies. In the latter case, the medieval functions as modernity’s Other.* When invoked, it acts to preserve our sense of ourselves as civilized, as having got past our barbaric origins. The medieval in this context signifies an aberration, an eruption of primitive energies which culture has successfully transcended or repressed. There is often an element of coded racism at work in the terms’ use. Thus, attacks by Libyan loyalists are medieval, unlike, say, the use of depleted uranium shells or Predator drone strikes by US forces in the Middle East.

The shock of events is often so severe that the response to them seeks refuge in the bunker of clich├ęs. The sense of massive displacement is so overwhelming that the present can only be described as something else. In this way its fragile claim to continuity is preserved. It either belongs to the barbaric past or to the distortions of the unconscious and the stock of figures populating the cinematic imaginary. The tropes of the surreal and the medieval safeguard it, immunizing it from its own messiness and the fear that it might collapse.

* Carolyn Dinshaw is maybe the first to note the slipperiness of this well-traveled term in her 1999 “Getting Medieval,” while Bruce Holsinger, in his brilliant examination of the perverse legal tactics used by the US after 9/11, aligns the emergence of “Neo-Medievalism” as a powerful ideological structure with the rhetoric and policies of the neocons and their assault on non-state actors.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Schwanengesang or, What I Should Have Said All Along

So, the messianic has been written.

This will be one of those retrospective blog posts that bids farewell to the idea that started it while offering shy suggestions as to the medium’s now outmoded use. It’s a classic blog trope, readers!

Not that anyone cares, really. But due diligence is required and the rites must be observed.

When I began this blog, in January 2010, I was entering the final throes of wrestling my dissertation to the ground. It functioned as a psychic ink blotter, in the cherished phrase of an old friend (who was speaking long before there was ever an internet). A safety valve, a way of blowing off steam: random ideas that fluttered and accrued in the process of writing and that somehow seemed worth disseminating. The struggle of that writing, I’m happy to say, is now ended. If it has done so less on a note of triumph, than of entropy, the euphoria feels very real all the same and that’s good enough for me.

Simply put, with the dissertation finished, I feel no need to continue this blog. New projects beckon that will demand my focus and energy. Much of this will take place within the confines of academic professionalization, as it ought to. I have a career to build, or rather, the hope of one.

But the value of this blog to me must be acknowledged. It’s forced me to think through some issues that are close to me. My posts on “The Hurt Locker” and “Avatar,” and on SF as secular theology, for instance, have provided a raw nucleus around which I'm building my course on Posthumanism that I’ll teach at Harvard this fall.

And I'll always be keen on the odd juxtaposition of Oppen and Randolph Scott's late Westerns: two exilic figures trying to write a wrong. This is the essence of the messianic. Ethics, not six-shooters. I may be meeting Linda Oppen this fall and will ask her about her father's movie-viewing habits.

There are many things I'd like to blog on, but have refrained from out of a sense of self-preservation. Chief among these is the retreat of poetry into a late-late capitalist schtick: a quirky idiom of slacker-emo whimsy, derived from Ashbery, that lacks, as Yeats put it, "all conviction." As Marjorie Welish once remarked to me of a certain "major poet" -- "the ludic is his final court of appeal." This kind of supercilious court-jester antics seems destined to die on the vine. But for now, at least in the Northeast, it riots everywhere. I find it very dispirting.

All that aside, what a blog does best, I guess, is provide a means to respond to the moment – a way to address the contingent. In that vein, I feel, I was able to grapple, however awkwardly, with Luke Menand’s pronouncements about literature and experience; or Nicholson Baker’s very sweet and very wrong book, “The Anthologist;” or, much closer to me, the poetry of Rosmarie Waldrop, Andrew Joron, and Andrew Zawacki. A blog is an argument about the legacy of the ephemeral. But some of these things are not ephemeral. Not at all.

I may return to blogging down the road. But for now it feels finished. The blogs I follow the closest and most admire – Mark Scroggins’ “Culture Industry” and Bob Archembeau’s “Samizdat” – are consistently witty and learned. I’m grateful to them for their passion, their erudition, and their savvyness. And even the Dean of Poetry Bloggers, Ron Silliman, who invented the form and carried it forward into so much of its possibility, has acknowledged that maybe it’s time to pack it in and turn to – what? Twitter? God help us all.

I close on a note of unwarranted utopian exuberance: the final paragraph from my dissertation, “Writing the Disasters: The Messianic Turn in Postwar American Poetry”:

Though frequently unacknowledged, particularly by poets themselves, form is always an argument about history; a struggle to achieve a moment of resolution from out of the cross-welter of cultural turmoil and inner conflict. To deny this is to misconstrue the very basis of language as a social force. Though theology is no longer available for rescuing history from trauma, it cannot be abandoned completely since only through its language, its tropological resourcefulness, can poets after Auschwitz effectively write the incompleteness that is both the problem of our past and the question of our happiness. In Fragments of Redemption, Susan Handelman suggests that what links Rosenzweig, Scholem, Benjamin, and Levinas is “a kind of ‘messianism’ [that] exists as the pulling of thought toward its other, toward some interruptive force that can break through the violence and cruelty of immanent political history” (FR 338). This is manifestly the work of messianic interruption undertaken by each of the poets here [Oppen, Palmer and Duplessis]. “Only a god can save us now,” Heidegger, late in life, wistfully opined. Poetry is not that god. It cannot save the world. But, pace Auden, who nevertheless insisted on the power of praise, that does not mean that it makes nothing happen. Poetry saves language from becoming enslaved to abstraction, from its dehumanizing proclivity for a positivist rhetoric that elides difference, and above all, from its politically and socially coerced erasures of historical memory. Poetry saves language so that it might keep alive the promise of the world’s potential.