Freud and Monotheism

New from Berkeley Forum in the Humanities

Freud and Monotheism: Moses and the Violent Origins of Religion

March 2018

Freud and Monotheism: Moses and the Violent Origins of Religion critically examines a range of discourses surrounding Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, taking as its entry point Freud’s relations to Judaism, his conception of tradition and history, his theory of the mind, and his model of transgenerational inheritance.

Gilad Sharvit and Karen S. Feldman, editors

Authors include: Jan Assmann (Egyptology, University of Heidelberg), Richard Bernstein (Philosophy, New School for Social Research), Karen Feldman (German, UC Berkeley), Willi Goetschel (German and Philosophy, University of Toronto), Ronald Hendel (Near Eastern Studies, UC Berkeley), Catherine Malabou (Philosophy, Kingston University; Comparative Literature, UC Irvine), Gabriele Schwab (Comparative Literature, UC Irvine), Yael Segalovitz (Townsend Fellow, Comparative Literature, UC Berkeley), Gilad Sharvit (Townsend Fellow, Jewish Studies, UC Berkeley), Joel Whitebook (Psychoanalytic Studies, Columbia University).

Berkeley Forum in the Humanities

ISBN-13: 9780823280032
Publisher: Fordham University Press
Publication date: 06/05/2018
Series: Berkeley Forum in the Humanities Series
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)
Paperback 28.00
Hardback 95.00

In Memoriam: Saba Mahmood

On Saturday, March 10th, we lost a valued member of the Representations editorial board, Professor Saba Mahmood. Our thoughts go to her family and friends. She will be sorely missed.

Saba Mahmood, Professor of Anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley, passed away on March 10th, 2018.  The cause was pancreatic cancer.  Professor Mahmood specialized in Sociocultural Anthropology and was a scholar of modern Egypt.   Born in Quetta, Pakistan, in 1962, she came to the United States in 1981 to study architecture and urban planning at the University of Washington in Seattle.   She received her PhD in Anthropology from Stanford University in 1998 and taught at the University of Chicago before coming to the University of California at Berkeley in 2004, where she offered her last seminar in fall 2017.   At Berkeley, in addition to the Anthropology Department, Professor Mahmood was affiliated with the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, the Program in Critical Theory and the Institute for South Asia Studies (where she was instrumental in creating the Berkeley Pakistan Studies Initiative, the first of its kind in the United States).

Mahmood made path-breaking contributions to contemporary debates on secularism, opening up new ways of understanding religion in public life and contesting received assumptions about both religion and the secular.  Against an increasingly shrill scholarship denouncing Muslim societies, she brought a nuanced and educated understanding of Islam into discussions of feminist theory, ethics and politics. Her publications and presentations have reverberated throughout the humanities and social sciences, profoundly shaping the scholarship of a new generation of scholars as they develop a thoughtful, knowledgeable, and critical approach to religion in modernity.  As a scholar and teacher, she embodied and followed strong moral and political principles, offered keen analyses of colonial and capitalist power in her account of secularism’s modernity, and formulated new ways of understanding the subject of feminism, relational subjectivity, religious freedom, religious injury, the rights of religious minorities, and comparative legal analysis of religious and secular family law and sexual regulations.

Together with anthropologists Talal Asad and Charles Hirschkind, Mahmood showed secularism to be a complex political formation that produces differences among the religious traditions it seeks to regulate. In her words, “political secularism is the modern state’s sovereign power to reorganize substantive features of religious life, stipulating what religion is or ought to be, assigning its proper content, and disseminating concomitant subjectivities, ethical frameworks, and quotidian practices.” Secularism never escapes its own religious histories, nor does it ever achieve autonomy from the religious formations it aims to regulate.  In fact, the distinction between public and private life central to secular reason draws its bearings from a modern Christian emphasis on private worship. This Christian religious framework, focused on belief, contrasts sharply with religions such as Islam which foreground strongly the role on embodied practices within religious life.  As a result, she argued, secular epistemologies cannot grasp the way that Islam articulates religious values, misconstruing both the Islamic subject and the public meanings of its religious practices.

Within feminist theory, Mahmood challenged readers to understand that the pious Muslim women she studied in Cairo were not mindlessly obedient subjects, but engaged in distinct hermeneutical approaches to reading the Qur’an in schools of their own, cultivating religious practice as a form of ethical conduct.  Challenging views of subjective freedom bequeathed by Western moral philosophy, she made a bold and challenging argument: to understand pious women within Islam one had to conceive of a subject defined in its relation to the textual and imagistic representations of the divine.  Women who engaged in a religious practice of this sort, she argued, ought to be understood as engaging in ethical practices of self-cultivation. And yet, in these cases, the subject of ethics is not voluntaristic, a notion that would separate ‘free will’ from formative social and religious norms; rather, in Islam, the subject of ethics embodies a living and practiced relation to the divine, and requires a different notion of subject-formation.   One consequence of this view was made clear in her intervention in the 2006 debates on the Danish cartoons caricaturing Mohammed. Those who claimed that such images were merely offensive missed the nature of the injury itself.  Within Islam, she argued, the attack on the divine image is the same as the attack on the living and embodied self, since that self resides in that very relation.

In her last work, she studied the discrimination against Coptic Orthodox Christians in contemporary Egypt’s secular regime. Against the view that tribal and religious differences are evidence of the incomplete process of secularization, she showed how religious differences, and conflict, have been exacerbated under secular regimes of power.   She argued that the discrimination and violence suffered by Coptic Christians have increased as the modern state more fully regulated and managed religious life, imposing its own rationales onto debates about religious doctrine and practice.  Far from realizing ideals of civic and political equality, the secular state facilitated religious inequalities and inter-faith violence. Mahmood considered the norms and practices developed within Islam for negotiating religious difference, showing how such religiously informed techniques of civic governance are overridden by secular regimes of power.

Mahmood was the single author of Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report (Princeton University Press, 2015) and Politics of Piety: the Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton University Press, 2005) which won the Victoria Schuck Award from the American Political Science Association.  She co-authored a Is Critique Secular? (Fordham University Press, 2011) and co-edited Politics of Religious Freedom (University of Chicago, 2015).  Her work has been translated into Arabic, French, Persian, Portuguese, Spanish, Turkish, and Polish.  She published numerous articles in the fields of anthropology, history, religious studies, political science, critical theory, feminist theory, and art criticism and served on several journal boards and read for many presses.  Professor Mahmood was the recipient of several honors and awards, including the Axel Springer Fellowship at the American Academy in Berlin, and fellowships at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University and the University of California Humanities Research Institute. She was the recipient of a major grant from the Henry Luce Foundation’s Initiative on Religion and International Affairs as well as the Harvard Academy of International and Area Studies. She also received the Frederick Burkhardt Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies, as well as the Andrew Carnegie Scholars’ program as a young scholar. She was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Uppsala in Sweden in 2013.

Saba Mahmood was a brilliant scholar, cherished colleague, and dedicated teacher and graduate mentor.   Along with her ceaseless political passions and trenchant analyses, she keened to the beauty of the wilderness, the poetry of Ghalib, the delights of cooking and sharing excellent food. She cultivated with joyous attention her relationships with family and friends. She mentored her students with remarkable care and intensity, demanding their best work, listening, responding with a sharp generosity, coming alive in thought, and soliciting others to do the same. In her final months, she affirmed the values of thought and love, leaving now a vibrant legacy that will persist and flourish among all whose lives were touched by her life and work. She is survived by her husband, Charles Hirschkind, her son, Nameer Hirschkind, and her brothers Khalid Mahmood and Tariq Mahmood.




Art in a State of Siege

A series of events with Joseph Leo Koerner
March 15, 16, & 17
sponsored by the Townsend Center for the Humanities
at UC Berkeley


Lecture: Art in a State of Siege: Bosch in Retrospect

Thursday, Mar 15, 2018 | 5:00 pm
Morrison Reading Room, 101 Doe Library, UC Berkeley

In this lecture, Koerner examines Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Delights — a work notorious for its portrayal of nude men and women cavorting with beasts in a verdant landscape. He approaches the painting as a representation of a world without history and without law, whose imagery attracted significant attention during similarly lawless historical periods. The discussion emerges from a larger project in which Koerner explores the relationship between art and freedom under a range of emergency “states of siege,” including apartheid South Africa and Nazi Germany.

Joseph Leo Koerner, Thomas Professor of History of Art and Architecture and Senior Fellow, Society of Fellows at Harvard University, is the author of Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape and Dürer’s Hands. He wrote and presented the three-part television series Northern Renaissance and the documentary Vienna: City of Dreams, both produced by the BBC. Koerner’s work has been influential for decades; his essay “The Mortification of the Image: Death as a Hermenuetic in Hans Baldung Grien” appeared in Representations 10 (1985).

Symposium on Art in a State of Siege

Friday, Mar 16, 2018 | 1:00 pm to 3:30 pm
Geballe Room, 220 Stephens Hall, UC Berkeley

Joseph Leo Koerner, joins a panel of scholars to discuss the role of art in a society in which freedom is radically curtailed, such as Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa. Panelists engage with audience members in lively discussion about creative expression under an emergency “state of siege.”

[image credit]

Participants: Whitney Davis, History of Art, UC Berkeley; Joseph Leo Koerner, History of Art and Architecture, Harvard University; James Porter, Classics and Rhetoric, UC Berkeley; and Jane Taylor, Centre for Humanities Research, University of the Western Cape

Film Screening: The Burning Child

Saturday, Mar 17, 2018 | 4:00 pm
Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA)
2155 Center Street, Berkeley

Joseph Leo Koerner screens a preview of his documentary film The Burning Child (2017, 120 mins). Through interviews, testimony, and archival footage, the film explores Koerner’s return to Vienna, the birthplace of his father, painter Henry Koerner, and is a meditation on the concepts of home and homemaking that emerged amidst the turbulence of 20th-century Vienna. With Q+A to follow moderated by Winnie Wong.

Tickets available at the BAMPFA boxoffice or at

Translation as Citation

New from Haun Saussy:

Translation as Citation: Zhuangzi Inside Out

(Including the essay “Death and Translation,” first published in Representations 94.

This volume examines translation from many different angles: it explores how translations change the languages in which they occur, how works introduced from other languages become part of the consciousness of native speakers, and what strategies translators must use to secure acceptance for foreign works.

Haun Saussy argues that translation doesn’t amount to the composition, in one language, of statements equivalent to statements previously made in another language. Rather, translation works with elements of the language and culture in which it arrives, often reconfiguring them irreversibly: it creates, with a fine disregard for precedent, loan-words, calques, forced metaphors, forged pasts, imaginary relationships, and dialogues of the dead. Creativity, in this form of writing, usually considered merely reproductive, is the subject of this book.

The volume takes the history of translation in China, from around 150 CE to the modern period, as its source of case studies. When the first proponents of Buddhism arrived in China, creativity was forced upon them: a vocabulary adequate to their purpose had yet to be invented. A Chinese Buddhist textual corpus took shape over centuries despite the near-absence of bilingual speakers. One basis of this translating activity was the rewriting of existing Chinese philosophical texts, and especially the most exorbitant of all these, the collection of dialogues, fables, and paradoxes known as the Zhuangzi. The Zhuangzi also furnished a linguistic basis for Chinese Christianity when the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci arrived in the later part of the Ming dynasty and allowed his friends and associates to frame his teachings in the language of early Daoism. It would function as well when Xu Zhimo translated from The Flowers of Evil in the 1920s. The chance but overdetermined encounter of Zhuangzi and Baudelaire yielded a ‘strange music’ that retroactively echoes through two millennia of Chinese translation, outlining a new understanding of the translator’s craft that cuts across the dividing lines of current theories and critiques of translation.

New Issue, Representations 141


Number 141, Winter 2018

Featuring the special forum: The Object as Ambassador: Exhibitions in Contemporary History

Introduction: The Object as Ambassador

Cuban Corals in East Berlin’s Natural History Museum, 1967–74: A History of Nondiplomacy

The Splendor of Dresden in the United States, 1978–79

Tutankhamun in West Germany, 1980–81

On the History of the Exhibition


In Search of Madame Blavatsky: Reading the Exoteric, Retrieving the Esoteric

A Short History of the Picture as Box

Upcoming in Representations 142: Aglaya Glebova on Rodchenko’s photographs from the White-Sea Baltic Canal; Esther Yu on the “tender conscience” in Milton; Theodore Martin on anxieties of contemporaneity in recent novels; Jeffrey Knapp on Selma and historical films; and Sebastian Lecourt on the Victorian Jesus novel. (Coming in May.)

The Fallacy of “Fallacy”

The Fallacy of “Fallacy” and Its Implications for Contemporary Literary Theory

by Charles Altieri

The essay begins:

Despite my initial bewilderment, I have come to love the timeliness of devoting an issue of Representations to the issue of how thinking about fallacies might be apt and even necessary, given the recent US presidential election. What can be the role of logic in public life when the president cannot even pay sufficient attention to produce narrative consistency? Alas, I have no coherent response to this question. But I am reminded of other challenges to rationality closer to my professional life for which similar (although far less pressing) questions prevail. What can be the role of logical analysis in relation to imaginative texts that flaunt their quite different modes of pursuing relational structures?

Clearly, no discursive practice can dispense with logic. But perhaps most discursive practices, including philosophy, can cease fetishizing the language of logic so they can explore complexities in issues where it is difficult to establish just what logic or what kind of logic can apply. For example, the idea of an intentional fallacy requires sharp and clear oppositions between kinds of meaning if we are to bring logical distinctions to bear. Similarly, claims about a pathetic fallacy require judgments that feelings are either subjective or objective, just as intentions have to be either manifestly present or not present forces that determine how we are to read discrete sentences and expressions. But a strong case can be made that feelings involve complex interactions between subjects and objects. And an even stronger case can be made that discourse about intention has to cover a complex variety of cases ranging from the kind of action intending is to the kinds of meaningfulness that intentions can establish. The demand for clarity might be dangerous because it leads to focusing on establishing the meaning of particular discrete sentences rather than the muddy domain of complex relational structures that may be more interested in displaying possible meanings (or meaningfulness) than in securing what is being unequivocally asserted.

So while claims specifically about fallacy rarely occur now in the humanities, the desire to wield the claims to lucidity asserted by the sciences still shapes significant arguments about the status of literary theory tout court. For those scholars seeking clear oppositional conceptual structures, literary theory becomes a bastard usurper always in danger of having to yield authority to the heir designated by Enlightenment progenitors. But if all serious questions concerning meaning cannot be resolved by models based on how sentences structure communication, then there are substantial roles to be played by a distinctive discipline of literary theory. Minimally, theory becomes a domain where we work out how texts can claim meaningfulness even as they resist models of meaning based on or limited to communication and suspicion about communication. More ambitiously, theory can also become the domain where philosophical and historical reflection comes to bear in clarifying how aesthetic objects take on meaningfulness and in establishing why that meaningfulness might matter for social life. Theory becomes not a matter of proving anything, but rather of displaying a range of analytic and historical concerns as general backdrops for the specific kinds of labor literary works can perform.

My ultimate test here will be briefly exploring how Walter Benn Michaels’s arguments about intention in 1982 reveal a penchant for clear oppositions that in his most recent work sustains an elaborate, almost mythical structure of contrasts explicating relations between contemporary art and contemporary politics. I suspect that Michaels is so subtle and lucid a writer that the only way to escape his mode of thinking is to locate it historically in a culture that demands a clarity willing to risk reductionist moves in order to secure first principles. Then I will close by examining how those first principles tend to oversimplify the issues he manipulates so brilliantly. Continue reading …

This essay concentrates on the limitations of logical binaries in constructing arguments for literary theory. My test case is claims about intention. Theorists argue either that intentions can and must be determined or that intention is a psychological entity that cannot be determined simply from textual evidence, even when buttressed by biographical contexts. But such debates center on intentions to mean. The essay argues that literary texts are makings and not statements, so they display a relation to the world rather than assert it. It follows that when dealing with makings we usually have to look not for a specific psychological intention to mean but a way of clarifying how the display works. Therefore it may be best to equate intention with the taking of responsibility that the author assumes when deciding to publish or present materials. What is a plausible account of a series of decisions that led the author to want to make something public?

CHARLES ALTIERI teaches in the English department at the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent books are Wallace Stevens and the Demands of Modernity (Cornell, 2013) and Reckoning with Imagination: Wittgenstein and the Aesthetics of Literary Experience (Cornell, 2015)He is now working a book on interpreting constructivist features of modernist poetry in conjunction with Hegel’s concept of inner sensuousness.

Book Chat with Peter Sahlins

Join Peter Sahlins for a discussion of his recent book

1668: The Year of the Animal in France

In the Berkeley Book Chat Series sponsored by the Townsend Center for the Humanities
Wednesday, Feb 21, 2018 | 12:00 pm to 1:00 pm
Geballe Room, 220 Stephens Hall, UC Berkeley

In his new book, Sahlins explores the “animal moment” in and around 1668, in which authors, anatomists, painters, sculptors, and especially the young Louis XIV — with his Royal Menagerie in the gardens of Versailles — turned their attention to nonhuman beings. 1668: The Year of the Animal in France (MIT, 2017) shows the importance of animals to the dramatic rethinking of governance, nature, and the human that took place in the late 17th century, and which had a profound effect on the formation of French cultural identity.
After a brief introduction, Sahlins will speak about his work and open the floor for discussion.
Peter Sahlins is Professor of History at UC Berkeley. His work has spanned France and Spain from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, focusing on questions of boundaries and identities; immigration, naturalization, and citizenship; the history of forests and forestry in France; and most recently, human-animal relations. His essay “The Beast Within: Animals in the First Xenotransfusion Experiments in France, ca. 1667-68” appeared in Representations 129 (Winter 2015)

Tangled Up in Hitchcock

The Hitchcockian Nudge; or, An Aesthetics of Deception

by Rey Chow and Markos Hadjioannou

The essay begins:

Alfred Hitchcock’s work is, in our view, antithetical to the idea of fallacy, if we understand by fallacy an error committed against a logical mode of validity, an error that needs to be corrected. How this antithesis plays itself out is consistently fascinating. Indeed, it is deception, the state of mind most readily associated with fallacy, that Hitchcock’s cinema loves to portray. In film after film, the condition of being taken in, of mis-taking a situation for what it actually is, constitutes the mise-en-scène not only in the classical, theatrical sense of a setting for the story but also, more critically, in the metaphysical sense of a dynamic play of terrifying forces, the resolution of which (if there is one) often strikes us as conventional, perfunctory, and inadequate. How Hitchcock constructs and furbishes such mise-en-scènes is the focus of the present essay. Specifically, we will examine how he dramatizes deception as a trajectory of the fallacious—that is, as a scenario with its own logics that are played out within the setting of modern Western society.

To begin with, Hitchcock’s films are full of references to institutions that specialize in the verification of evidence. Populated by police officers, private detectives, lawyers, judges, and medical doctors (in particular psychiatrists), his work demonstrates time and again the investments in law and order as imposed by what Michel Foucault calls disciplinary society, in which private citizens’ behavior—mental and psychological as well as physical—is regulated by an enforcement machinery dedicated to finding them guilty. If law and order rely for their functioning on an implicit notion of human error, so to speak, with crime being the most typical manifestation of such error in a secularized context, it could be argued that fallacy does, in a cynical way, play a big role in Hitchcock. In so far as the professionals specializing in rectifying such error are constantly made fun of, their incompetence a woeful match for the intricate ramifications of the error involved, an institutional attempt to handle fallacy (by way of law, policing, or medicine), Hitchcock suggests, can only lead to the perpetuation of the status quo—what we now call normativization—rather than to the truth. Think of the psychiatrist who proudly offers a scientific explanation for Norman Bates’s personality at the end of Psycho (1960); the judges who absolve Gavin Elster, the mastermind of the crime of his wife’s murder, and the doctor who prescribes Mozart for Scottie in his traumatized state in Vertigo (1958); the police, legal officers, and gynecologist whose findings collectively block the truth of Rebecca’s death from surfacing in Rebecca (1940); or the capitalist Mark Rutland’s self-righteous, pop-psych analysis of his wife Marnie’s kleptomania, frigidity, and strained relationship with her mother in Marnie (1964). Such systemic misses, or disjunctures, abound in Hitchcock’s stories, as if to call attention to the consistent failure of precisely those functionaries who serve as the guardians of modern Western society’s self-validating logic, who stand in, as it were, for its punitive superego.

The heart of Hitchcock’s work, then, lies rather in the gap between modern Western society’s ordinary actors—their habits, desires, beliefs, secrets, and fantasies—on the one hand, and the collective procedures, in various forms of the superego, that are devised to catch and trap them, on the other. That human behavior, especially its errors, is always in excess of these procedures of capture, that there is always a slippage between their actions as such and the so-called objective (or superegoistic) rendering of such actions: this shadowy, messy core of Hitchcock’s cinema is what Pascal Bonitzer means by “Hitchcockian suspense,” which, according to Bonitzer, differs from the more mechanical varieties of suspense commonly found in thrillers. “Hitchcock would appear to have ‘hollowed out’ [the classic thrill of] the cinematic chase that he had inherited from Griffith, much as Mallarmé claimed to have ‘hollowed out’ Baudelaire’s verse,” writes Bonitzer. Instead, the classic “chase” is now staged in the form of a steadily expanding contamination or stain:

Hitchcockian narrative obeys the law that the more a situation is somewhat a priori, familiar or conventional, the more it is liable to become disturbing or uncanny, once one of its constituent elements begins to “turn against the wind.” Scenario and staging consist merely in constructing a natural landscape with its perverse element, and in then charting the outcome. Suspense, by contrast with the accelerated editing of races and chases, depends upon the emphasis which the staging places upon the progressive contamination, the progressive or sudden perversion of the original landscape. . . . The film’s movement invariably proceeds from landscape to stain.

Importantly, Bonitzer points to the distinctive nature of Hitchcock’s configuration of suspense. Suspense in Hitchcock’s universe, that is, does not follow from a narrative of linear acceleration that moves rapidly toward an end to the drama. Instead, Hitchcockian suspense arises from a contamination that progresses steadily in its perverse relationship to the world from within which it grows and to which it belongs. Hitchcock’s films do not so much raise the formulaic question of “whodunit” as confront us with large philosophical questions—of why one commits crimes, of the actual motive and purpose behind a particular crime, and, in particular, of the paradoxical forces of binding that bring into focus unexpected or inexplicable alliances, partnerships, love affairs, symmetries, and couplings (for instance, Uncle Charlie and little Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt [1943], Brandon and Philip in Rope [1948], and Melanie Daniels and the various birds in The Birds [1964]). This is a suspense that suspends normality by letting the latter’s perverse underpinnings unravel alongside it, the way a stain seeps through its surrounding material. As it spreads out, the stain brings to the fore erroneous elements that cannot be simply corrected and irrational elements that cannot be easily explained—in short, fallacies that contaminate concurrently with the very act of logical deduction or construction. Continue reading …

This article considers Alfred Hitchcock’s work in relation to the connotations of “fallacy” within conventional settings of modern Western society. Focusing on two films, Strangers on a Train (1951) and Rear Window (1954), we point to the phenomenon of the incidental push that leads toward an inextricable entanglement of characters, events, and psychic forces in what appear to be logical courses of action. We name this push “the Hitchcockian nudge.”

REY CHOW is Anne Firor Scott Professor of Literature at Duke University. The author of numerous influential monographs, she is also the coeditor, with James A. Steintrager, of the anthology Sound Objects, forthcoming from Duke University Press.

MARKOS HADJIOANNOU is Assistant Professor of Literature and of the Arts of the Moving Image at Duke University. He is the author of From Light to Byte: Toward an Ethics of Digital Cinema (2012) and of a number of essays on cinema technologies and aesthetics.

The Case of the House of Usher

Materialist Vitalism or Pathetic Fallacy: The Case of the House of Usher

by Branka Arsić

The essay begins:

Notoriously weird things occur in Edgar Allan Poe’s world, things in fact so bizarre that some readers dismiss them as mere exaggerations, whereas for others they amount to philosophical dilettantism. The list of the weird occurrences in Poe is long, but perhaps most famously: human wills are rendered so powerful that they transport the dead back to life; matter is able to transcend decay, whereas dead bodies, even when dismembered, pulsate with vitality; spirited forces—from minds to presumed supernatural agencies—are endowed with power to generate physical phenomena, such as inarticulate sounds and styled whispers, or to affect the physical by animating or stalling its motion, altering its figuration through various mergings and disseminations of particles of matter. Additionally, the natural and material is afforded immanent life, enabling it to become otherwise without any intervention by divine powers or by anything immaterial at all. Thus, stones and rocks sometimes feel and experience, plants are said to enjoy or suffer, and even planets and elements, as the end of Poe’s prose poem Eureka postulates, are found to be happy and joyous.

How, then, are we to understand such instances? A long tradition of critical reading has explained away Poe’s allegedly weird preoccupations by classifying them as gothic devices mobilized to fuse the strange with the pleasing and to appease the morbid by styling it into the fantastic, while simultaneously spellbinding the reader by means of the cultivated terror Poe depicts. But as I will be arguing, that approach—which reads Poe as a romance-goth—is weak, because it reduces to the aesthetic phenomena that are in fact often scientific, summoned by Poe from domains as different as biology, geology, astronomy, or medicine. For instance, when the claim that death is a radically slowed-down life is taken not as scientific but as a narratological device allowing the dead to revisit the living, and thus generate horror, the aesthetic is made to function as a normalizing shield protecting a dualistic ontology (which posits the divide between spiritual and material, takes matter to be inert, and establishes clear taxonomical topographies that separate beings into their proper existential niches). In that way we are assured that Poe’s anomalous worlds are not really anomalous but merely abstractly or aesthetically so. By ideating and thus anesthetizing Poe’s propositions, the “aesthetic” approach—where aestheticization refers to the content of his narratives, not to their form—weakens the challenge those propositions pose to Western ontology, making us overlook just how seriously Poe was invested in critiquing it, dedicated, as Joan Dayan has argued, to “debunk[ing] the cant of idealism.” That tradition of criticism turns into “romance” his deadly serious ontology, which, Dayan claims, is monistic (enabling the “convertibility” of spiritual into material), committed to “a radically physical world,” and so “attach[ed] to materiality” that even if there are “phantoms and rarified presences” in his stories “they are always seen through or next to the collateral flesh and blood remnants.” As I will argue here, this commitment to the physical, which Poe’s ontology understands as inherently vital, manifests as a ceaseless experiment with processes of becoming and transformation, which undoes the existential status quo of beings and persons. His propositions thus resist being aestheticized as romance, for as Dayan also argued, “‘romance’ . . . always serves the status quo” by “mythologiz[ing] an inwardness,” whereas Poe shatters the coherence of any inwardness, reducing it to the material supposedly external to it. Finally, and most straightforwardly, the anesthetization of Poe’s narratives, their domestication as aestheticized gothic allegories, must be resisted also because a lot of what he wrote enacts strange ontologies without ever rendering them gothic. (What, for instance, is specifically gothic about paranoid obsessions, perverse desires, or even feeling plants?) Continue reading …

This essay revises the inherited understanding of Ruskin’s theory of pathetic fallacy by positing that his ideas are close to theories that oppose any strict division of phenomena into persons and things. To elaborate this point, the essay investigates Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” where inanimate things are rendered animate, claiming that such instances are far from being pathetically fallacious and, also, that Poe’s ontology is in accord with that formulated by Ruskin.

Branka Arsić is Charles and Lynn Zhang Professor of American Literature at Columbia University. She is the author of Bird Relics, Grief and Vitalism in Thoreau (Harvard University Press, 2016), On Leaving: A Reading in Emerson (Harvard University Press, 2010), and a book on Melville entitled Passive Constitutions or 7½ Times Bartleby (Stanford University Press, 2007), as well as coeditor (with Kim Evans) of a collection of essays on Melville entitled Melville’s Philosophies (Bloomsbury, 2017).

Hilton Als in Conversation with Stephen Best

Hear Pulitzer Prize-Winning Writer HILTON ALS

Thursday, February 8, 2018, 7:30 pm
Nourse Theater, 275 Hayes St., San Francisco
(Rebroadcast on KQED fm, March 18, 2018)

Hilton Als began contributing to The New Yorker in 1989, writing pieces for “The Talk of the Town.” He became a staff writer in 1994, theater critic in 2002, and lead theater critic in 2012. Week after week, he brings to the magazine a rigorous, sharp, and lyrical perspective on acting, playwriting, and directing. With his deep knowledge of the history of performance—not only in theater but also in dance, music, and visual art—he shows us how to view a production and how to place its director, its author, and its performers in the ongoing continuum of dramatic art. His reviews are not simply reviews; they are provocative contributions to the discourse on theater, race, class, sexuality, and identity in America.

Before coming to The New Yorker, Als was a staff writer for the Village Voice and an editor-at-large at Vibe. Als edited the catalog for the 1994-95 Whitney Museum of American Art exhibition “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art.” His first book, The Women, was published in 1996. His most recent book, White Girls, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2014 and winner of the 2014 Lambda Literary Award for Non-fiction, discusses various narratives of race and gender. He also wrote the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of The Early Stories of Truman Capote.  Als is currently working on an exploration of the literary luminary that is James Baldwin–his influences, his aspirations, and his relationships to the literary world and to himself.

Stephen Michael Best is an associate professor of English at University of California, Berkeley, and a member of the Representations editorial board. He is the author of The Fugitive’s Properties: Law and the Poetics of Possession, and is currently at work on a book about rumor, promiscuous speech, and slavery’s archive.

Sponsored by San Francisco’s City Arts & Lectures Series