Theory Teacher's Blog

Language, Babies, and the Face of the Signifier

If you want to begin to understand post-structuralist theory about language, spend some time with children. And better yet, spend time with children while you are so stuffed with turkey, cranberry sauce, rice stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, candied yams, baked ham, green peas and pearl onions, brussel sprouts, pumpkin pie, pecan pie, and several glasses of pinot noir that you can’t do anything but sit, hold your aching, distended belly, and watch them play with their Christmas presents. Not having any children of my own, I don’t get to observe children often or for extended periods of time (and usually I find them to be very confusing little creations anyway), but this Christmas I got to watch my sister’s sixteen-month-year-old twins. This is the age when babies are just beginning to enter language but aren’t quite there yet, and Christmas is a holiday excessively loaded with symbols and meaning.

So, let me start by describing a little moment that might sound pretty familiar to many parents. It’s time for the baby’s after-dinner snack; the mother has a roll and breaks off a piece of it for the baby. The baby brushes it away, knocking it to the floor. He reaches for the roll in the mother’s hand, so she breaks off another piece, but again the baby brushes it aside and reaches for the roll in the mother’s hand. The mother says, “it’s the same roll, sweetheart.” But of course the baby knows that it’s not the same roll. The “real” roll is the roll that mom is withholding, not the piece of it she’s giving. What does the baby really want? Perhaps it’s not a piece of bread the baby wants but control of the roll. And what is the roll here? If we want to be precise, we recognize that it’s not simply what the child desires, because what does the child desire? Another roll, some other food, or anything else potentially interesting might easily be substituted. And therefore, likewise, what the roll means in this situation is not simply mom or dad’s power to withhold what’s desired, because we don’t really know what’s desired. Rather, what the roll indicates is mom and dad’s power to codify desire itself — to organize (or territorialize) desire into the content and schedule of eating time, sleeping time, playing time, etc. 

So, what has this to do with theorists such as Jacques Lacan and Gilles Deleuze? In his lecture, “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious,” (or “Agency of the Letter” in the old translation), Lacan observes a sliding between the signifier and the signified; the word and the thing the word is supposed to mean don’t quite line up the way we assume they are supposed to. Syntax and grammar are not neatly logical. From that fact, Lacan and Deleuze are critical of the kind of linguistics that assumes a natural correspondence between words and things (i.e., the notion that the word “roll” represents a determinate object.) To illustrate his claim, Lacan briefly mentions the example of how babies learn language. If you hold up a roll or a pen or whatever and teach the child the word “roll” or “pen,” how is the child to know that the second and third objects you hold up are also rolls or pens (especially if they are different colors and shapes)? How is the child to know that the word you are saying is a common noun and not a proper noun “Pen” with a capital, proprietary “P”? Hence, words have meaning because they are part of a web of meaning that must be repeated and doubled. The word “pen” acquires its meaning only after it’s repeated enough times across a range of different pens and a range of different contexts, but it’s not just a matter of repetition. There is also a doubling because it is not just one signifier for each signified, but at least two signifiers when we are learning language — not just the word “pen” but also the finger pointing to the object. And not just those two, but also the word’s relationship to other words (doubled a second and third and fourth… time. And of course this is the genius of Dr. Seuss’s books, in which language doubles over, laughing hysterically, with every rhyming couplet.) In sum, meaning is social.

But it is not only “social” in a neutral, bland sense of the word social. Deleuze and Guattari take it further in the chapter “On Several Regimes of Signs” in their book Thousand Plateaus. It’s also a matter of power and the multiplicity of very physical relations (i.e., bodies and spaces, not just linguistic or formal significances.) After all, whose finger is doing all the pointing?… Whose finger indeed? Does the finger not belong to a body, and does that body not have a face?… Of course it does!

Let’s take another example. Earlier the day began with the opening of Christmas presents. The meaning of Christmas presents is full of ritualized expectations about the value of the gift, the relationship between giver and receiver, etc. Everyone knows this; it’s intuitively obvious. But what’s less intuitively obvious is the power behind the giving-and-withholding that the ritual of receiving conceals and mystifies. And our own adult refusal to acknowledge the mystification (even though we all know it) is what makes Christmas with babies so amusing. The family insists on the ritual of giving and receiving because of the significance it has for the very meaning of the word “family” and the unity and coherence of the family line. Especially in the case where grandparents and a newborn are both present, it signifies the transfer of the words “mom and dad” from one generation to the next, a transfer signified by the cards on the baby’s presents which say “from mom and dad” even though the baby can’t read.

The baby, however, is more interested in the cameras taking pictures of the event than the event itself. Just as we ourselves are, they are more interested in the doubling of the event than the simple exchange of gifts. And this is the joke that we all share over wine later while we are eating: a couple hundred dollars have been spent on presents for the baby, but the baby wants to play with the cameras, with the cell phones, with the light switches, with the door handles, and even with the dishwasher — all the things he’s not supposed to touch. And what all these objects have in common is that they are all tools that mom and dad use to organize space and time and social relationships. They are expressions of the social body (i.e., and for the baby, they are expressions of mom and dad’s face.)

And so, by observing a baby, we get a wee little inkling of the complicated social nature of language and how meanings are made. But this is just a beginning….


December 26, 2010 Posted by | language | Leave a comment

Economist Plunders Caribbean of Its Existence

Occasionally, I bring my Pocket World In Figures to my classes to begin the hour with a few “fun facts.” I get this nifty little book every year through my subscription to The Economist magazine, and on those rare days when I remember to bring it to class, the students and I enjoy playing a guessing game for a few minutes before the real lesson. The first half of the book is rankings of various sorts, such as biggest producer of copper (Chile), highest education spending per person (Cuba), most consumption of beer per person (Czech Republic), and most people in jail (United States). The answers are sometimes surprising, and offer what we college professors like to call “teachable moments” because students will usually guess according to their stereotypes, and often the real data will contradict those stereotypes. For instance, they always guess Ireland to have the most beer consumption per capita, but it’s not even in the top 25. (The United States is 7th, and Ireland is actually 16th for wine consumption.) Also, the data will reveal very interesting things about current events, such as the top ten largest companies in the world being all oil and automobile companies with the exception at the number two spot being Wal-Mart. And the two countries in 2008 taking care of the largest refugee populations from other countries are not the United States and Canada, as my students always guess, but Iran and Pakistan (i.e., the two countries that border Iraq and Afghanistan.) Like I said, teachable moments. Sometimes the answers are somewhat obvious, but sometimes I’m just as surprised by the data as my students are.

The second half of the Pocket World In Figures — and the reason for this blog post today — are country-by-country profiles. So, if you want to quickly find out Germany’s population, biggest exports, unemployment rate, health-care spending, etc., this is where to go. Now, here is where my story really begins and why I’m writing this blog post. Right as I was leaving my office to head over to the very last day of my class on Caribbean literature and theory, it occurred to me to bring this book and have a little fun. I hadn’t brought the book to this particular class all semester because it didn’t seem relevant, but on this last day doing a few “fun facts” about some Caribbean countries seemed like a good idea. Anyway, I headed to class curious about what we would discover, but I was very unpleasantly surprised when I discovered that not one single Caribbean country is included in the “Country Profiles” section. Not one!

And that’s the reason for my rather absurdly provocative newspaper-style headline for the title of this blog post.

So much for the fun facts game in class that day, but nevertheless, it was still a teachable moment. After all, the students themselves had already experienced this blind spot when their parents said to them, “Um… you’re taking a class on… what?!?!… I didn’t know there was such a thing as Caribbean literature and theory.” My students and I heard this kind of thing a lot over the course of the semester, despite the fact that the Caribbean can boast two Nobel prize winners (V. S. Naipaul and Derek Wolcott), a few people who probably ought to win the Nobel prize (e.g., Edward Kamau Brathwaite and Maryse Condé), one of the hottest young authors in the world writing today (Edwidge Danticat), the most important pop musician of the twentieth century (Bob Marley), and some of the most influential and world-renowned anti-colonial political theorists of all time (e.g., Aime Césaire, Frantz Fanon, C.L.R. James, etc.) Moreover, looking back in history, from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, the Caribbean islands were by far the most economically profitable and productive colonies the European empires had. So, why are people so surprised that my course exists? And for sure this cultural blindness to the Caribbean is exactly one of the reasons I taught the course…. But it still begs the question, why this blind spot?

Now, to be fair to The Economist, clearly they can’t include all 192 countries, because the book would be too big. It is a “Pocket World” after all, not the whole world. But in this case, the book strangely excludes an entire geographic region from its world — no Jamaica, no Haiti, no Trinidad and Tobago… not even Cuba. Now, we also know that The Economist tends to be somewhat neocolonialist in its attitude towards the world, a bit racist at times, and almost always smugly chauvinistic in its tone when describing any culture not Anglo-Saxon. Perhaps, so far as The Economist is concerned, the islands in the Caribbean are not really separate countries at all, but just extensions of the United States, Britain, France, and the Netherlands. And technically, many of the islands really are under the formal dominion of the United States (e.g., Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands), Britain (e.g.,  Montserrat, Cayman Islands), France (e.g., Martinique, Guadaloupe), and the Netherlands (e.g., Aruba, Curacao), but most of it is politically independent. However, as Éduoard Glissant observes in his Poetics of Relation (an observation also made by Jamaica Kincaid in A Small Place and by the movie Life and Debt),  nominally independent is not the same thing as really independent. Economically, they are still in many ways controlled primarily by the United States (who has tended to invade countries that didn’t obediently fall in line with its political and economic interests, e.g., multiple invasions of Haiti, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic over the course of the twentieth century as well as the invasion of Grenada.)

Culturally, this neocolonialist relationship that much of the Caribbean has with the United States and Europe can be seen in the images Americans tend to associate with the Caribbean. Typically, if you ask someone what images come to mind when you say the word “Caribbean,” they think of beautiful beaches, spiced rum, and Captain Jack Sparrow from Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean movies (the most financially successful film series of the past decade.) In other words, in this cultural imagination, the Caribbean isn’t a real place; it’s just entertainment.

What I think my American students most enjoyed about our class is that the Caribbean gradually became a very real place to them, a place where ordinary people are born, grow, learn, and express themselves. The politics are complicated, the economics even more complicated, and if any one culture could be truly called a “world culture” it is the diverse and varied cultures of the Caribbean (as theorist Glissant implies in his complicated explication of the word “Creole” and as Tiphanie Yanique illustrates in her recently published book of wonderful short stories.) Perhaps The Economist magazine’s Pocket World in Figures doesn’t include profiles of Caribbean countries because the Caribbean is itself the whole world in microcosm. Or perhaps the editors of The Economist just need a spanking.

December 18, 2010 Posted by | finance, global, race, teaching | 1 Comment

The Economy of Wikipedia — Prosumer, Contripreneur, or Amateur

A coincidence of two events is inspiring this blog post today. One of the events is a recent discussion I had with several of my colleagues about the value of Wikipedia. Every year, Wikipedia has a fundraising drive so that it can continue to exist on the internet. Their goal this year is $16 million, and as I am writing this blog, Wikipedia claims [here] to have raised $8.5 million so far. (It is almost like the fund drive for National Public Radio.) I casually suggested to my colleagues that perhaps our university’s library ought to financially support Wikipedia just as it supports so many other useful internet programs such as the Oxford English Dictionary and Early English Books Online. However, my colleagues pointed out to me that these other internet tools are produced by professionals, not by amateurs as Wikipedia articles seem to them to be. I have a different understanding of Wikipedia that I will explain shortly.

The other event is my fellow blogger Topspun’s wonderfully audacious creation [here] of a new concept — contripreneur — over at the Seven Red blog earlier this month, and indeed when I googled this word, the only search result that came up was his blog. (And after I finish writing this post, of course, then my blog will also come up, heh, heh, heh. I’m getting in on this venture early.) Topspun’s argument stems from a dissatisfaction with an older neologism coined in 1980 by Alvin Toffler — prosumer — a dissatisfaction that I share. Topspun and I both blogged extensively about our dissatisfaction way back in April 2009, [here] and [here] from Topspun and [here] from myself. Basically, the word prosumer (which you can read all about in Wikipedia [here], but not, significantly, in the Encyclopedia is a combination of the words producer/professional and consumer, and it is meant to suggest a new economic relationship in which consumers don’t just consume value but actually produce it. The most obvious examples of the prosumer relationship would be open-source software, blogs, YouTube, the recent and highly controversial WikiLeaks, and of course Wikipedia. On these websites, valuable information and entertainment are produced and distributed not by salaried professionals but by consumers/users.  These consumers/users are not paid for their labor, but presumably get satisfaction from the enjoyment or from the social connection or from the usefulness for the common good of society that it possibly facilitates. Consequently, one might call them “amateurs” in contrast to “professional” except that many of them will have expert knowledge and skills (e.g., the specialized information that appeared on Wikileaks.) A less obvious example of a prosumer would be, which makes use of consumption patterns and input from consumers to help other consumers find the books they want. As many of my colleagues have noticed, sometimes (though certainly not always) is a better tool for finding books than the library databases.

But the concept of the prosumer is a problematic concept. If I can boil down Topspun’s highly sophisticated argument down to one sentence, I’d boil it down this way — all the punditry and hype about the prosumer concept usually fails to take into account the financial relationship. And of course, in my view, the ambiguity of the financial relationship implies a political situation that the word prosumer conceals and mystifies. Therefore, Topspun suggests the word contripreneur, which combines the words contributor and entrepreneur, is both more precise and broader in its application. I’m looking forward to Topspun’s future blog posts in which he promised to explain his concept further.

So, the task for my blog today is to assess the value of Wikipedia by thinking about it in terms of the concepts prosumer and contripreneur and to assess the value of those concepts by thinking about them in terms of the exemplary example Wikipedia. Do you catch the double movement of that sentence? And of course, as you can tell from my blog post’s title, I’m also wondering whether the neologisms “prosumer” and “contripreneur” are really any different from a rather ordinary old word, amateur.

My starting point for this inquiry will be a very simple question, the sort of simple question with which Adam Smith began his famous Wealth of Nationswhat is the value of Wikipedia really? Apparently, its directors need $16 million, but that figure is not a measure of exchange value on the open market. It is a measure primarily of cost (i.e., capitalization, energy, time, labor, machinery, land, etc.). What if we turn to one of John Locke’s concepts from his Second Treatise of Civil Government, use value? It is widely recognized that Wikipedia is something that both faculty and students use a lot. Therefore, it is useful, and in fact, in this case, the more it gets used, the more it grows, and consequently the more it grows, the more it costs to maintain. Such is the nature of the internet. So, is the $16 million an accurate and pure reflection of its use value? I don’t know. What I do know is that faculty use it when they need quick information, and students use it when they are beginning a research project. In some ways, it is superior to the older kind of encyclopedia or technical glossary because it requires its writers to cite their sources and it covers a far wider range of topics. (The older encyclopedias and glossaries usually don’t have citations because they bank on their reputation, and we’re supposed to trust their editors.) Most of my colleagues seem to allow that Wikipedia might be an acceptable starting point for their students’ research papers so long as the students focus on the works cited at the end of the Wikipedia article and don’t cite Wikipedia itself. In other words, so far as this reasoning goes, Wikipedia only has use value insofar as it leads one to “real” sources.

This reasoning is misguided, in my view. It misunderstands that the “real” sources (e.g., newspapers, press releases by politicians, websites, etc.) might be more likely to contain factual errors and biases than the Wikipedia article. It also fails to recognize the real intellectual labor in which Wikipedia articles often do a better job than newspaper and television journalists at checking for bias and factual accuracy. (If only Americans had looked up “Iraq” on Wikipedia — or any encyclopedia really — instead of trusting CNN and the NY Times, for instance, perhaps we wouldn’t have started that war. See, for instance, this article in which the NY Times recognizes its own failure.) My speculation is that few teachers trust Wikipedia as a source because they don’t fully understand how Wikipedia works. The “wiki” is a very specific kind of computer technology designed to maximise the efficiency of collaborative work. It was originally invented for large businesses, but was quickly picked up by some educators as a teaching tool. In any wiki, the entire history of each draft is accessible, so anyone who wants to add content or revise content can see the myriad of drafts written before. There is also often a discussion board so all the people contributing to the writing of an article can debate content. Therefore, it is wrong to think of Wikipedia as just another website. In a sense, Wikipedia is truly an open and accessible “public sphere” — almost in the idealistic Habermasian sense of the public sphere — where reasoned debate can take place. In this way, Wikipedia can be thought of in contrast to newspapers, magazines, television, and the internet in general which are supposed to be public spheres but are so often beholden to the profit motive of their stockholders (i.e., hype and entertainment) and the political biases of their owners (as Habermas himself complained, though not as bitterly as did the philosophers Adorno and Horkheimer). Hence, many young people today rightly recognize Wikipedia to have a real social value, and not just a quick and easy source of information. In addition, the prejudicial notion that Wikipedia’s contributors might be mere amateurs (and not professionals) is clearly false, since even a cursory glance at most Wikipedia articles will reveal that the writers have considerable expertise. In other words, one might call these writers prosumers because they are both users and producers, or one might more accurately call them contributors… or one might even call them concerned citizens, some of whom are amateurs and some of whom are experts. However, in response to Topspun, I’m not sure how “entrepreneurial” any of the activity on Wikipedia is. It might depend on how we are understanding the word entrepreneur — beyond a simple business sense of the word, and towards a more socially contextualized sense of it as an agent of meaningful innovation.

Significantly different from what I see as the incorrect understanding of Wikipedia apparently held by most teachers is the perspective of libraries (or “information commons” as so many college libraries are being re-branded nowadays.) Many librarians now recognize the democratic potential of Wikipedia as an encyclopedia of the people, by the people, and for the people (a truly common “information commons”), but Wikipedia is not a priority for library budgets. Instead, since the university is itself an academic institution (often publicly owned), libraries prefer to support the more institutionalized academic and public projects. This affiliation seems very natural and sensible to me, and I think the library’s position is both wise and on target. Clearly, however, this is a political affiliation, not an affiliation based in the quality or value of the product. In other words, academics know how their bread gets buttered, and the public recognizes that there is more to knowledge and teaching than mere “information”, so we make the obviously intelligent political decision to devote our somewhat meager educational budgets to the support of the various professional institutions and associations we are members of.

In conclusion…. I don’t know if I have a conclusion. I’m tired of writing this blog today, and I have other work I need to do (i.e., the professional work I get paid for, get it? Not my contripreneurial work for which I get nothing.) And also, I’m not entirely sure yet where Topspun is going to take his contripreneur concept…. Stay tuned!

December 12, 2010 Posted by | finance, media, Theory--capital T | 2 Comments

Reading Apocalypto

Last night I forced myself to see Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto. As a specialist in the colonial period of American literature, I feel obligated to pay attention to Hollywood’s many renditions of that time period — from Pocahontas and The New World to The Crucible, The Patriot, and even National Treasure. Sometimes they are better than I expect them to be (as in the case of New World) and sometimes they are worse (as in 1996 version of The Crucible.) Of course, they always get their history wrong, but as a teacher, my hope is that Hollywood’s misrepresentations of history might at the very least be useful by giving me something to talk about in class. Interestingly, like me, Mel Gibson also seems also to have a special interest in the colonial period, since he was the voice of John Smith in the Disney version of Pocahontas, the patriot in The Patriot, and the producer of Apocalypto. I avoided Apocalypto after it came out in 2005 because I had heard terrible things about it, but I was finally compelled to see for myself. This is a hard movie for me to talk about, in part because the film reviews I’ve read seem to have covered almost everything I might say. So, what I’d like to do in this blog is move through a series of questions in order to consider several different ways of reading the movie.

First, one simple and obvious question is how historically accurate is the movie? As many scholars immediately pointed out, Apocalypto gets its history very, very wrong. The list of errors is far too long for me to recount in my little blog, and a few film critics [here] and [here] and a few anthropologists [here] and [here] have already thoroughly done so at length anyway. The most bizarre error is that actually the Mayan Empire began to shrink in the 9th century, but Gibson has them collapsing five hundred years later, at the moment Columbus discovers America. Also, the Maya were known for their extensive agriculture and complex social organization, but the film only shows us hunters in a jungle. The Mayan Empire is also well-known to have been one of the most culturally, technologically, and economically advanced civilizations in the world at that time, but Gibson’s movie presents them as sadistic, superstitious, and insane. One could excuse Gibson by saying this was just a movie, but in the special features of the DVD he claims he tried to make his movie as “real” and “true” as possible, and he even hired specialists and experts in Mayan history to help him with the many various details. Gibson’s attention to historical accuracy make all the glaring inaccuracies stand out. It is not enough for us to simply dismiss these errors as simple mistakes or as necessary for an exciting plot. If he misrepresented history, he did it deliberately. But why would he do that?

So, a more interesting question than the film’s accuracy is another question: was Gibson ideologically motivated, and what might his motivation be?

Many Native Americans were very angry at the film and accused Gibson of racism and of deliberately misrepresenting their culture. See, for instance, [here] and [here]. Beyond simple racism, others have argued that the movie seems to excuse European colonization. This criticism of the movie is based on its beginning and ending. The movie opens with the quote “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself within,” and it ends with the arrival of Columbus, whose arrival the hero of the movie heralds as a “new beginning.” (In fact, the word apocalypto means “new beginning” in Greek, and this new beginning is symbolized in the movie by the birth of his son and baptismal water.) In other words, the movie seems to suggest that the arrival of the Spanish would be good for the Native Americans who suffered under a brutal and corrupt Mayan Empire. Of course, anyone who’s ever read a history book knows that the opposite was true and that the Spanish committed acts of genocide, slavery, murder, rape, and torture (often in the name of Jesus Christ) on a scale far, far worse.

In addition, one can make allegorical comparisons between the movie and the present moment. In 2005 when the movie came out, the United States was in the middle of conquering Iraq (also an ancient civilization like the Maya), and by analogy, one might compare the way Iraq was being represented in the mainstream media to the way the Mayan culture was being represented in Gibson’s movie. President George Bush II’s argument for going to war, after all, was precisely that the United States was liberating the Iraqis from a brutal, sadistic regime.

Of course, one of the interesting things about movies is that their ideological meaning is never fixed or determinate, since one could just as easily decide instead to compare the United States to the corrupt Mayan empire that constantly attacked and brutalized its smaller neighbors. If read this way, the message of the movie might seem to be that the United States ought not go the way of the Mayan empire. And in fact, Gibson did publicly state his opposition to Bush’s war in Iraq by explicitly comparing Bush’s behavior to the brutal Mayan regime in his movie. (See [here].)

So, if the movie can be read in opposite directions in relation to the Iraq War, it would appear that ideology is less clear than we may have initially thought. Stories and films can move audiences in different ways depending on the audience’s expectations and the stylistic elements of the film. And this leads me to a third question.

My third question is whether form and style have any relationship to ideology. Defenders of the movie (including Quentin Tarantino) — see [here] and [here] —  argue that the ideological content of the movie is less important than its cinematic style and technical innovation. But it seems to me that the artistic form is all too simple. The form is basically bad guys against good guys: act one being the attack, act two being the sacrifice, and act three being the escape and chase. To make this plot work, the Maya are characterized as irrationally and insanely brutal, and many of their actions are so disgusting and excessive that they don’t even make any sense as an expression or strategy of imperial domination. In contrast, the good guys are represented as relatively innocent and childlike. The bad guys are all bad, the good guys all good, and never do they ever have a conversation. Moreover, apparently, they had never had any cultural or commercial interaction before the attack — an aspect of the plot that makes no sense considering the size and proximity of the Mayan empire to this small tribe. How could the small tribe not be aware of the empire just up the river? The style follows from the form. This is quite possibly one of the most brutal and sadistic movies I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen a lot), with almost two solid hours straight of graphic, pointless, and stomach-churning violence. I was barely able to sit through it, I found it so disgusting and offensive.

It is important to think about this non-stop violence as an essential characteristic of the movie, because it is possible to imagine a different kind of story. Consider how American and European cinema tends to represent its own empires. For instance, the drama Rome that showed on BBC and on HBO from 2005 to 2007 (about the same time as Apocalypto) and is also about the corruption of an empire. But in this show, we see a very elaborate and complex political organization with a variety of characters who may do bad things but are all understandable as human characters. In contrast to the characters in Rome, the Maya in Apocalypto are totally inhuman and have no personality other than pure cruelty. Thus, the form and style of the movie Apocalypto contribute to the racist ideology of the content. Point being that we can imagine revising the form and style of the movie to be more realistic and human, and in so doing the ideology would in effect also change. Form and style matter just as much as content.

OK, so far, I’ve criticized the movie pretty harshly. To be honest, it’s hard for me to find anything redeeming about it, but I’m going to try. What if we read the movie a different way? There are other ways this movie connects with its audience. For example, this is probably the first movie ever made entirely in the Mayan language, which is really cool and which is why some were excited about its production (see [here]). And gradually, the movie encourages the audience to identify with the Indian Jaguar Paw. And indeed, over the course of the movie, he becomes more and more likeable and cool. This is an interesting aspect, especially if we compare Apocalypto to the movie Avatar. Both movies are about empires destroying innocent nature people (and in both movies, the innocent victims are painted blue, LOL), but in Avatar the main character whom we identify with is an Anglo-Saxon American. (And you can read my analysis of Avatar [here].)

Along these lines, even though Apocalypto seems to its critics to ideologically present a justification for Spanish colonization, it also does something else — we in the audience feel some nostalgia and longing for the Native American way of life before they were attacked by the Mayan Empire. We have no emotional attachment to the ships of Columbus that we see at the end, and neither does Jaguar Paw, who turns away from them. (This concluding moment has actually confused some critics who assumed Gibson was making a pro-Catholic propaganda film and wonder why Jaguar Paw doesn’t embrace European Christianity at the end. See this rather strange Time Magazine article, “What Has Mel Gibson Got Against the Church?“) Jaguar Paw’s turning away from Columbus at the end suggests that Gibson’s real desire is something of a fantasy — a desire for innocence and purity in the context of a brutal and complicated world.

And so, in conclusion… I don’t know….

December 9, 2010 Posted by | movies | Leave a comment

Why There’s No Such Thing as New Historicism

It’s a provocative title, I know. So, let’s cut to the chase.

According to the rather simplistic Cliffs Notes book on New Historicism (an approach to literary study started in the 1980s), its basic argument is that “literary theory should be studied within the context of both the history of the author and the history of the critic.” Now, most readers of this blog know full well that New Historicism is a much more complicated thing than that, but it’s a good starting point if only because that’s the starting point for most students who encounter it for the first time in introductory textbooks. But it begs four questions. What do practitioners of New Historicism really think they are doing? Is it any different from old historicisms? What criticisms have been made against New Historicism? And finally, how is it similar to or different from something called “Cultural Studies”?

So, first, what does it purport to be? And herein lies the problem. Two of the most celebrated founders of the “New Historicist” approach are Stephen Greenblatt and Catherine Gallagher, so let’s turn to their own introductory book, Practicing New Historicism (published in 2000). On the first page they assert that “above all… it resist[s] systematization.” In other words, they can’t say exactly what New Historicism is, because they define it in terms of its resistance to being defined.

This is a curious beginning. But nevertheless, we can return to the two principles (à la Cliffs Notes) with which we began. Not only does New Historicism unequivocally assert the principle that an artistic work must be read in its historical context; it also says we must reflect on the interpretive lens of the critic-scholar as well. That’s two entirely different sets of historical contexts to be thinking about, and the relationship between the two is certainly not obvious. So, the reason why New Historicism resists its own definition is because of this doubling of its object of critical study…. Hmmm…. Perhaps looking at the old historicism might help us sort this out.

Although New Historicists sometimes take credit for rescuing literary study from the naïve appreciation of authorial genius (a genius that is believed to be universal and therefore to transcend history) and an irrational valuation of literary form over content, in fact historical criticism has been for more than a century the primary activity of literary research as it has been practiced inside the halls of academia. Examples include a few classic works of literary criticism: Perry Miller’s New England Mind (published 1939), F.O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance (1941), Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World (1941), and E. M. W. Tillyard’s The Elizabethan World Picture (1949). But what does “historical context” mean for the old historicism? It could mean a number of things because there are actually a variety of old historicisms. It could mean biography to figure out an author’s intention and circumstances. Titles of such books are often “Life and Times of… [insert famous author’s name here].” It could mean intertextuality (how a literary text alludes to other literary texts or repeats specific narrative structures), and often the academic discipline of literary history as it is traditionally defined is basically a study of intertextuality. But the more famous examples mentioned above attempt to figure out the entire culture for which classic literary texts are simply the best and most interesting cultural artifacts. And a lot of old historicism from the 1930s was unabashedly Marxist in its attention to the material conditions of production and the ideological biases of texts.

The old historicism has not gone away, and in fact, many of the top scholars today are actually old-school historicists — for instance, David Norbrook, probably the most respected Renaissance scholar alive today, would never call himself a New Historicist. Likewise, for colonial American literature, the much respected and recently deceased Leo Lemay was in many ways a biographer of colonial American writers. Theirs has always been straight historical work — their primary question being what happened.

So, what is “new” about the New Historicism? What a mediocre textbook might tell you is that New Historicism doesn’t believe that “what happened” can be so easily understood because (1) historians are subjectively selective about the facts they consider, and (2) the archive of information itself is limited by all sorts of factors.  But this actually begs the question of why anyone would engage in historical research at all if you know before you begin that your work is inconclusive and pointless. But like I said, this textbook simplification does not describe what happens in actual practice, since few New Historicists subscribe to such simplistic relativism. In other words, the point here is not that New Historicists doubt their own objectivity. Rather, the point is precisely that New Historicism is not a single method. It includes a range of approaches, borrowing from Marxism, psychoanalysis, poststructuralism and deconstruction, feminism, queer theory, ethnic studies, critical race theory, postcolonial theory, trans-Atlantic and transnational theory, etc., etc., etc.  Depending on which theoretical problem one addresses, the research will be different — different questions raised, different archival data selected, and different conclusions drawn. At its best (as almost any theory textbook will tell you), New Historicism’s most valuable contribution to the field of literary study has been to put previously marginalized and suppressed cultural perspectives in dialogue with the traditionally canonized literary texts. And surprisingly, rather than undermining the traditional canon, canonized texts often appear in New Historicist work all the richer and more complex when analyzed in terms of the historically contingent power disparities of class, race, gender, sexuality, colonialism, globalization, etc. In doing so, New Historicists are borrowing from Marxist analysis of power relations as well as from the methods of deconstructon, feminism, critical race theory, ethnic studies, and transnational critique to “decenter” dominant historical narratives.

In other words, the formula for New Historicism might be “historicism plus theory.”

There are a number of ironies here. First, if New Historicism is basically old historicism plus theory, then it’s really not a theoretical approach at all. This is why it cannot define itself and seems so methodologically impoverished, as I will get to in a minute. This is also the reason why a textbook might question New Historicism’s objectivity, since it seems to have no definite approach or ethical point to it. Second, although one of the distinctive principles of New Historicism is that it doubles its object of study — attending both to the historical context of the work and the historical context of the critic — this is rarely what happens in practice. In practice, most scholars simply skip the hand-wringing self-reflection and go straight for the textual analysis. Third, because New Historicism is basically a method-less method, there is a somewhat insidious and dishonest repression of theory, politics, and ethics by many practitioners of New Historicism. In other words, although New Historicists such as Greenblatt readily admit that it was the above-mentioned theoretical innovations that enabled New Historicism to come into being in the first place, they would rather take as their starting point the historical moment or even the canonical text itself instead of the theoretical issue.

In fact, when New Historicism seemed for a brief moment to dominate literary study in the late 1990s, a few articles and books were published complaining about it — their complaint being that essentially what scholarship in English departments was becoming was a “depoliticized” and “undertheorized” version of Michel Foucault that was both unethical and lazy. (See, for example, [here].) In their book Practicing New Historicism, Greenblatt and Gallagher even admit that this is true. Foucault was rolling over in his grave.

But there are other criticisms as well. One criticism comes from the stodgy old historicists who claim that New Historicism is not rigorous enough — not enough archival data. Historians work hard to amass enough archival data to convincingly argue what actually happened and why. The worst case scenario for New Historicism is a sloppy juxtaposition of just two texts (one famous and one not), and an assertion of either sameness or difference between the two. (Most New Historicism is, of course, much smarter than this. I’m just presenting the rather cartoonish version of New Historicism as it is parodied by old-school historicists.) And New Historicism gets criticized from both sides of the academic aisle (or hall, rather), since from the opposite point of view, the hipster postmodern formalists, poststructuralists, and psychoanalysts all criticize New Historicism for not having a rigorous understanding of poetic form, language, and meaning. So, in other words, continuing the parody, the worst-case New-Historicist scenario is the juxtaposition of two texts (one famous, one not), an assertion of sameness or difference, and a rather literal understanding of both texts that doesn’t recognize either semantic indeterminacy or playful ironies.

So, in conclusion, New Historicism is basically nothing… unless it is supplemented by something else.

How does this compare with another disciplinary approach, Cultural Studies. Many introduction-to-theory textbooks (such as Theory into Practice by Ann B. Dobie) suggest that New Historicism and Cultural Studies are essentially the same — one is the American name for the study of old stuff, the other the British name for the study of new stuff. Indeed, just like New Historicism, Cultural Studies would seem to be a method-less method. As the editors of the groundbreaking collection of essays entitled Cultural Studies argue in their introduction, the field of Cultural Studies seems to be a mish-mash of a variety of theoretical perspectives and interdisciplinary approaches. They even go so far as to argue that Cultural Studies is not even really interdisciplinary (i.e., bringing fields together such as psychology and literature or economics and textual criticism), because it is in fact “anti-disciplinary.” What they mean by this provocative assertion of anti-disciplinarity is that Cultural Studies is in the paradoxical position of critiquing the injustice of power disparities and various forms of oppression from within the very cultural institution that serves the powerful — the so-called ivory tower of academia.

However, although Cultural Studies would appear to be a method-less method just like New Historicism, there is a significant difference. While New Historicists are often embarrassed by the possibility that they might have something political, ethical, or even interesting to say, and while New Historicism as it is practiced today often suppresses the very theoretical innovations upon which it is based, Cultural Studies in contrast usually foregrounds both the conceptual theoretical problems and the political-ethical stakes of its scholarly work.

In conclusion, my opinion and biases are perhaps all to obvious and bluntly stated. I now await the tomatoes that I fear will be thrown at my head.

December 6, 2010 Posted by | Theory--capital T | 1 Comment