Eve Sedgwick Again

Triple Cross: Binarisms and Binds in Epistemology of the Closet

by Whitney Davis

The first in an occasional series of Untimely Reviews, a format for reengaging with important critical works of the past.


The essay begins:

Published in 1990 (with a portion initially written as early as 1983–84), Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet was written in the mid- and late-1980s context of an “open season on gay men” in public discourse (as she put it)—not to speak of gay bashing and an apocalyptic medical crisis. By now there’s an extensive secondary scholarship on Sedgwick’s literary criticism and queer theory. But to my knowledge none of it pursues the thread I’m going to try to draw out here.

Sedgwick’s book remains as exciting to me now as it was nearly thirty years ago—in some ways more exciting, as I’ll explain. I’d still embrace its central argument, stated on her very first page, that “an understanding of virtually any aspect of Western culture must be, not merely incomplete, but damaged in its central substance to the degree that it does not incorporate a critical analysis of modern homo/heterosexual definition” (1), an operation that “intersects every issue of power and gender” and “transforms the other languages and relations by which we know” (3).

Sedgwick didn’t greatly revise the history of that process of definition from about 1890 to 1990, the period David Halperin has called “one hundred years of homosexuality,” of same-sex sexual attraction conceived, as Michel Foucault had emphasized, as a way of being a person—a species, a human natural kind—in the sociocultural and interpersonal fields of eroticism and sex in which “one particular sexuality was distinctively constituted as secrecy” (73). Sedgwick had some critical remarks to make (see 45–47) about both Halperin’s and Foucault’s framing of this history. Among other things, she wanted to imagine histories of sexuality in the modern Western world yet to be fully “known” historically—notably histories of masturbation and “the masturbator” as a sexuality. Nonetheless, in the end her mapping of the definitional field of (homo)sexuality more or less built in—assumed—the original Foucauldian perspectives. (Shortly after Epistemology of the Closet appeared, Sedgwick published an extended examination of Foucault’s perspectives on the history of sexuality and their influence on post-Foucauldian literary and cultural historians; it is useful to read it alongside the earlier book.) Speaking for myself, since the late 1980s (and especially after reading Epistemology of the Closet) I’ve devoted much of my research and writing as an art historian to consolidating—and in some respects to challenging—Foucauldian cultural histories of same-sex desire, which have often tended to privilege textual sources (as distinct from visual representations), to overemphasize the role (and downplay the variety) of medical-psychiatric discourses, and to neglect some of the rich evidence for same-sex sexual subcultures in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (if not before).

Of course, Sedgwick was not primarily a social or cultural historian. She was a literary scholar—a reader. In virtuoso readings both of public discourse in the 1980s in the United States and of canonical texts in the traditions of the French, British, and American novel, she set out to unravel the “radical and irreducible incoherence” of the historically emergent modern definition of homosexual personhood (85)—its constitutive contradictions about which, she said, there were “no epistemological grounds” for “adjudicating” or “decisively arbitrating as to their truth.” (Associate Justice Byron White had claimed to adjudicate authoritatively, though in fact his majority opinion in Bowers v. Hardwick was only 5–4; in 2003 it was overturned by the Supreme Court itself in Lawrence v. Texas 539 U.S. 558 [2003]).

Above all Sedgwick identified what she called—and as “queer theory” became in her wake— “minoritizing vs. universalizing” models of sexual orientations and “separatist vs. liminal/transitive” understandings of their relations to gender identifications. In this regard, I reproduce her well-known table of models of gay/straight definition. In Tendencies, a collection of her essays more or less contemporary with the writing of her book, Sedgwick noted that Epistemology of the Closet dealt primarily with the first register—“sexual definition”—and the essays dealt primarily with the second register, “gender definition.” The larger point, of course, is to “theorize gender and sexuality as distinct though intimately entangled axes of analysis.” This might seem blindingly obvious now, but Sedgwick insisted, quite properly, that “new psychoanalytic developments” in late-1980s America (despite the supposed depathologizing of “homosexuality” by official American psychiatry) were “based on precisely the theoretical move of distinguishing gender from sexuality.”

Equally or more important, Sedgwick urged that the “versus” implicitly organizing each register of definition is itself misleading. More salient—more real—is a complex cycling of reciprocities and recursions between the ostensible poles of the putative contradictions (gay/straight, male/female, and so on)—a point to which I’ll return. She didn’t bang on, then, about “nature versus nurture” and “essentialism versus constructivism” in approaches to human sexualities—widely bruited polarizations at the time. Instead, and laying the groundwork for a more recent “intersectional” approach to gendered sexuality, she counseled us to explore the overlapping—the blending and binding—of biosocial phylogenies and sociocultural ontogenies of homosexual desire; of the homosexual-as-species and other sexualities not so naturalized, such as the aforementioned “masturbator”; of gay and lesbian “self-descriptions” that should be awarded “propriodescriptive authority” (27); and of fourteen descriptions of erotic preferences and sex/gender positions and relations that supposedly we all intuitively know and accept in practice in ourselves and in other people (25). Perhaps this last list has dated somewhat. But I’ll still bet on its reliability as a real person’s guide to real life. (Her first item of commonsense wisdom: “Even identical genital acts mean very different things to different people.” Her sixth: “Many people have their richest mental/emotional involvement with sexual acts that they don’t do, or even don’t want to do.”) Continue reading …

WHITNEY DAVIS is Pardee Professor of History and Theory of Ancient and Modern Art and Chair of the Department of History of Art at the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent book is Visuality and Virtuality: Images and Pictures from Prehistory to Perspective (Princeton, 2017).

Winning Essay

Trisha Urmi Banerjee wins Richard Stein Prize for “Austen Equilibrium” 

INCS: Interdisciplinary Nineteenth-Century Studies has just announced the winner of its Richard Stein Prize for best article published in 2018, Trisha Urmi Banerjee’s Austen Equilibrium,” published in Representations 143 (Summer 2018).

Reviewers for the prize noted the essay’s “smart, well-structured, interdisciplinary argument and use of game theory” and its engagement with “the under-theorized nature of Austen’s ‘economy of writing.’” One reviewer noted: “I think Banerjee’s reading intervenes in an impressive number of critical conversations (about Austen’s style, narrative time, realism) and cuts across different kinds of methodologies (formal, historical, theoretical), in a clear, compelling, and even exciting way.” Another described how the essay “uses innovative methodologies to take on big ideas and develops them with real clarity and significance.”

Of the essay, Banerjee herself writes: “By proposing a quantitative game-theory model of the marriage plot in Jane Austen’s Emma, the essay demonstrates that free-market moral philosophy underwrites Austen’s representation of matrimony and key formal elements of her writing—particularly, matters of verbal profusion. Her famed stylistic ‘economy’ is revealed to be structured by the emerging capitalist economy that Adam Smith theorized in The Wealth of Nations. Establishing the correspondences among several kinds of economy, the essay unites economic and formal approaches to Austen’s work.”

TRISHA URMI BANERJEE received her PhD in English from Harvard University and is now based in Paris. “Austen’s Equilibrium” derives from her second book project, which uses economic modeling and theory to understand the “economics” of narrative language and structure.

Short and Sweet

Representations‘s Shorter Formats

Representations has long been known for its rigorous and substantial scholarly articles. But flying lower under the radar are our shorter interventions, published occasionally as Field Notes and Untimely Reviews.

Field Notes, brief commentaries on the state of the disciplines, have been appearing in the journal periodically over the last decade. These short essays typically arise in response to specific current issues in the intellectual arena. Recent Field Notes include Bernard Stiegler’s essay “The Digital, Education, and Cosmopolitanism” and Brianne Cohen’s “Slow Protest in the Occupation of Cambodia’s White Building.”

Now, in our most recent issue, we’ve launched our first Untimely Review, a new feature for reengaging with important critical works of the past, with Whitney Davis’s “Triple Cross: Binarisms and Binds in Epistemology of the Closet.” 

We welcome submissions in either of these categories–and, of course, we continue to welcome submissions of full-length articles as well. See our submission guidelines.

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Martyr-ish Discourse

Wilde, Zola, Dreyfus, Christ: Fin de Siècle Passions

by Andrew J. Counter

Oscar Wilde and Émile Zola are conventionally opposed as the figureheads of, respectively, the aestheticist and the naturalist literary trends. Yet they exhibit a number of uncanny similarities—not least the turn both made in their last years toward religious themes and imagery, and especially those of martyrdom and the Passion. In this essay Andrew Counter explores such images in the later life, work, and public persona of each writer and sets them within the context of the dizzying proliferation of references to Christ and martyrdom in fin de siècle culture. He examines the “entailments”—the unexpected consequences, meanings, and echoes—that these overdetermined themes brought in their train from the wider literary field and shows how those entailments were exacerbated by the massive politicization of “martyr” discourse around the time of the Dreyfus affair, when the theme acquired its fullest significance.

Image: Orens Denizard (“Orens”), “Zola accuse le Conseil . . . ,” 1899, collected in postcard series Le Calvaire Dreyfus, 1904. Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris.


The essay begins:

On 5 January 1895, the courtyard of the École Militaire in Paris witnessed a scene of ritualized public humiliation. Captain Alfred Dreyfus, convicted of treason against the French Republic by a military tribunal the previous month, was brought into the courtyard for his ceremonial degradation, in which the epaulettes, insignia, and sleeves were torn from his uniform and his sword broken, all before a crowd of soldiers and, beyond them, a civilian mob shouting insults. A week later, on 13 January, Henri Meyer’s famous drawing of the scene appeared on the cover of Le Petit Journal, expanding that crowd to include the rest of France, and the world. The following month, Dreyfus would begin his journey to Devil’s Island and his sentence of penal servitude for life.

Later that year, on 20 November, in another country, another public humiliation occurred. Oscar Wilde, already serving a sentence of two years’ imprisonment with hard labor for acts of gross indecency, was transferred by train from Pentonville Prison in London to Reading Prison, a journey that necessitated a change at Clapham Junction station. As Wilde would later recall in the prison manuscript subsequently published as De profundis:

On November 13th, 1895, I was brought down here from London. From two o’clock till half-past two on that day I had to stand on the centre platform of Clapham Junction in convict dress, and handcuffed, for the world to look at. . . . Of all possible objects I was the most grotesque. When people saw me they laughed. Each train as it came up swelled the audience. Nothing could exceed their amusement. That was, of course, before they knew who I was. As soon as they had been informed they laughed still more. For half an hour I stood there in the grey November rain surrounded by a jeering mob.

Wilde’s sometime friend Robert Sherard noted in 1916, some years after Wilde’s death, that when Wilde first recounted this “outrage” to him during a visit to Reading Prison, he had suggested that it was “even worse than what Wilde relates” in De profundis: “I was told that the man who first recognized the prisoner shouted: ‘By God, that is Oscar Wilde,’ and spat on him.”

Back to Paris, and forward to early 1898. In what Pierre Birnbaum has dubbed “the anti-Semitic moment,” the city and France at large were in the grip of frenzied anti-Semitic hatred and frequent mob violence. At the beginning of February, not quite a month after the publication of the open letter known as “J’accuse. . . !,” Émile Zola stood trial for libel against the army general staff and a military tribunal held the previous month, whom he had accused of knowingly obstructing justice by exonerating Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy (now widely suspected of being the true traitor) and reaffirming the 1894 conviction of Dreyfus. Leaving the Palais de Justice after the first few days of hearings, Zola was greeted by baying crowds shrieking “Down with Zola! Down with the Jews!” and threatening violence that was narrowly averted by police action. The scene is dramatically immortalized in Henry de Groux’s painting of the same year, Zola aux outrages, in which a multitude of distorted, hate-filled faces surges menacingly toward the lonely novelist, whose frock coat appears symbolically white in the painting’s muddy palette. Zola would subsequently be found guilty and his conviction upheld on appeal, forcing him into miserable exile in England in July 1898.

These episodes have some obvious commonalities. In all three cases, an individual is shamed and abused for a crime of which he is factually or, in Wilde’s case, morally innocent. All three occur at a frightening threshold between the formal yet flawed procedures of state justice, and an undisciplined wellspring of negative communal affect that threatens to explode—one meaning of the “passions” of my title. And all three were spoken of at the time as “martyrdoms,” or discussed through analogies with the Passion of Jesus Christ. As a number of scholars have shown, the Passion was one of the primary metaphorical languages of the discourse of the Dreyfus affair, on both the Dreyfusard and anti-Dreyfusard sides. While Dreyfus’s likening to a martyr or to Christ was among the more problematic instances of this language (though not, as we shall see, the most problematic), that association was certainly made—not least by Zola himself. In an open letter to Mme Dreyfus after Dreyfus’s acceptance of a presidential pardon in September 1899, Zola referred to her husband as “the crucified” and of his plight as a “martyrdom,” and rejoiced that he had now been “brought down from his cross.” Wilde’s susceptibility to the theme, meanwhile, is well known—“Even before the misery of his own trial in 1895 . . . , Wilde’s early writings reveal a preoccupation with martyrdom,” writes Jan-Melissa Schramm—and the passage of De profundis describing the incident at Clapham Junction is explicitly prefaced in this direction: “It is said that all martyrdoms seemed mean to the looker on. The nineteenth century is no exception to the rule” (DP, 187). And if Zola made a rhetorical martyr of Dreyfus, he himself received what Christopher Forth calls “the full Jesus treatment” in the works of others: in its composition and title, for instance, de Groux’s painting of the scenes outside the Palais de Justice deliberately evoked his 1889 work Le Christ aux outrages, which had depicted Jesus taunted by a bloodthirsty crowd.

Despite, moreover, the copious gestures of support and encouragement that Zola received during this period (of which the painting is an example), this sort of rhetoric tended for strategic purposes toward self-erasure, in that it presented its protagonist as the entirely friendless victim of unanimous condemnation and contempt. Indeed, Zola himself could not resist the temptation to reimagine his 1898 experiences in these terms when he drew on them for a scene in his novel Travail (1901), the second in his planned series of Quatre Évangiles—“four gospels.” In book 2, the protagonist, Luc Froment, a visionary socialist industrialist and Zola’s proxy in the novel, having just been exonerated of causing the disappearance of a local stream through the improvement works he has undertaken at his factory for the future benefit of all, is hounded through town by a superstitious mob:

Ah! That climb up the rue de Brias, with the swelling crowd of enemies at his heels, beneath the ignominious stream of outrages and threats! . . . What had he done these last four years, for so much hate to have built up against him, to be hunted down like this by the crowd, howling like a pack of wolves for his death? What gall, what suffering there is in the shared Calvary every righteous man must ascend, as the blows of those he has tried to redeem rain down upon him! . . . Now they were stoning him. He made no gesture, but continued to climb his Calvary. (OC, 19:159–60)

Though Luc, as is required by the titular logic of Zola’s “gospels,” takes his name from the Evangelist, his experience in these pages is obviously modeled on Christ’s own: Luc’s humiliation is a Calvary, and this via dolorosa tacitly endorses representations of Zola’s own experience of public opprobrium as Christlike.

These three episodes are positioned at a fin de siècle confluence in which references to Christ, the Passion, and the figure of the martyr more broadly proliferated. In the 1890s, images drawn from these instantly recognizable narratives were appropriated for aesthetic, political, and personal purposes that might be of the most contradictory sorts. As a favored topos of the Decadent imagination as well as of a nascent homosexual aesthetic sensibility; as an apparently inevitable structuring metaphor for the sectarian confrontations of the Dreyfus affair; and as an inviting rhetoric for the utopian political ideologies of the fin de siècle, Christ and martyr imagery offered at once a seemingly very reliable mode of generating meaning, but also, I shall suggest, an oddly risky one, given the overdetermination of such imagery occasioned by its very promiscuousness in these competing fin de siècle discourses. In this article, I explore such acts of appropriation and their attendant rhetorical risks in the later life, work, and public image of Oscar Wilde and Émile Zola, including as each of these intersected with the Dreyfus affair, with a view to understanding, first, their purpose in adopting Christological or martyrological references and imagery; and second, the consequences—unintended and conceivably unconscious—of their doing so for the tone, style, and coherence of their work. These unintended consequences or risks are what I shall refer to as the “entailments” of the Christ reference.

This essay is thus a contribution to a potentially very revealing literary comparison between Wilde and Zola. I choose these two writers as figures who stood, as Wilde put it of himself, “in symbolic relations to the art and culture of [their] age” (DP, 162), and first and foremost as handy metonymies, then and now, for what a traditional literary history has tended to regard as the two competing literary postulations of the fin de siècle: the Naturalist versus the Decadent, the hypermimetic versus the hyperartificial. Yet both writers are also somehow quintessentially “fin de siècle,” to the extent that Max Nordau in Degeneration (1892) denounces both as equally symptomatic of the social and cultural pathologies he associates with that phrase. In his recollections of Wilde, indeed, Vincent O’Sullivan recalls the playwright noting that “great antipathy shews secret affinity”; when O’Sullivan waggishly inquired whether this meant that Wilde had an affinity to George Moore, the Irish naturalist who was a particular bête noire of Wilde’s, he allegedly replied: “No; but perhaps to Zola. Still, I hope not.” I find this exchange plausible largely because it is so well observed: for all their differences, as I shall show, these are indeed two writers who exhibit some uncanny similarities—not least in the shape of their own internal contradictions, contradictions that emerge most visibly in the “religious,” which is not to say orthodox, turn of their later years.

My hunch is that this “secret affinity” between Wilde and Zola has much to teach us about the fin de siècle literary field in Europe. In this article, however, I limit myself to considering what these two figures and their (self-)positioning vis-à-vis fin de siècle cultural discourses of martyrology and the Passion can reveal about the complex and shifting interactions of a number of phenomena. Wilde’s and Zola’s late religious preoccupations, I shall suggest, afford a privileged glimpse into the entanglements of politics, sexuality, mass culture, and literary form at a moment of particular social crisis in France. I explore these in four discrete but connected sections, each of which addresses a different aspect of the Christ or martyr theme. Continue reading …

ANDREW J. COUNTER is Associate Professor of French at the University of Oxford and the author of Inheritance in Nineteenth-Century French Culture: Wealth, Knowledge and the Family (Legenda, 2010) and The Amorous Restoration: Love, Sex and Politics in Early Nineteenth-Century France (Oxford University Press, 2016). His current book project is provisionally entitled Thinking Sexual Ethics with Modern French Literature.


What’s in a Genre?

The Uses of Genre: Is There an “Adam Smith Question”?

by Ryan Healey, Ewan Jones, Paul Nulty, Gabriel Recchia, John Regan, and Peter de Bolla

The essay begins:

This paper sets out a novel computational method of testing the uses to which generic membership can be put to help us understand large-scale movements in the history of ideas. It does so by taking a well-known test case, the so-called Adam Smith Question, as an easily identifiable (and well-researched) problem in generic consistency. In brief, the problem is this: Smith proposes one version of human nature based on sympathy in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) and another, completely orthogonal to it, based on self-interest in his Wealth of Nations (WN). This incoherence (if one assumes that Smith worked hard at creating a unified theory of human nature, which in itself is contestable) is said to be one of genre, the difference between moral philosophy and political economy.

The wider context of Smith’s intellectual project—let us say the second half of the British eighteenth century—also provides us with a background in which the question of genre is itself problematic or undergoing conceptual construction. It has long been recognized that over the course of the century the contours of emerging genres—for example, prose fiction, political economy, moral philosophy, aesthetics—would ossify around different and sometimes contradictory sets of moral, social, and epistemological premises. Literary critics have largely investigated this generic instability via the conspicuously hybrid genre of the novel, with particular attention to the early novel’s seeming inattention to modern distinctions of “fact” and “fiction,” within what Mary Poovey calls the “fact/fiction continuum.”

A significant fellow traveler in this epistemological crisis can be identified in the uneven and incompatible development of concepts of economic morality across different genres that might be termed the “self-society continuum.” In Commerce, Morality, and the Eighteenth-Century Novel, Liz Bellamy argues that economic texts privileged the second term, “society,” as they compressed individuals and their personal faculties into an indiscriminate mass of homo economicus, while, conversely, contemporaneous texts of moral philosophy addressed a unique individual steeped in elite civic humanist rhetoric that exempted him or her from the rational maximization of money and naked self-interest. The new commercial morality was understood as peculiar, destructive, and “far from being overwhelmingly accepted or embraced” by ruling classes whose traditionalism could not easily comprehend and accommodate the burgeoning intangible property of financial instruments. This unease was then reflected then reflected in a parallel discordance between works of moral philosophy and the fledgling genre of economics. Bellamy explicitly identifies this inconsistency in generically separate works by David Hume and Smith, who seem to void the ethical directives of their moral philosophy with their economic texts and vice versa.

Yet “negates” is perhaps too strong a way of putting things. After thirty years without significantly revising the work, Smith began to alter TMS in the last year of his life, adding a sixth part titled “Of the Character of Virtue” that “appealed to the citizenry to place the interests of society ahead of the interest of any faction to which they might be attached.” Crucially, however, this revision did not radically alter the precepts of the theory to align more explicitly with the selfish personality exhibited by WN. For Smith, there seems never to have been an urgent need to bring the two works into dialogue. To complicate matters still further, the alleged contradiction may well arise, at least in part, from the anachronistic imposition of generic differences that at the time were not perceivable. What would only later be recognized as political economy was still, at the point of Smith’s writing, in the process of coming into being. As Margaret Schabas notes, “Economic phenomena were viewed as contiguous with physical nature” up until the mid-nineteenth century, when the notion of “the economy” as a delimited entity first arose.

It is in large part due to these complex compositional, generic, and historical contexts that scholars have, over the past three decades, increasingly tired of the Adam Smith Problem, with its binary options. In 1998, Amos Witztum declared briskly that, “for modern readers this is not a real problem.” More recently, David Wilson and William Dixon claimed, “The old Das Adam Smith Problem is no longer tenable. Few today believe that Smith postulates two contradictory principles of human action.” Close readings of the concepts of sympathy, prudence, and self-interest in TMS and WN have led critics to conclude that Smith does not openly recommend two polar opposite theories of human motivation, albeit “there is still no widely agreed version of what it is that links these two texts, aside from their common author; no widely agreed version of how, if at all, Smith’s postulation of self-interest as the organizing principle of economic activity fits in with his wider moral-ethical concerns.”

This paper applies a novel computational mode of analysis to the large question of genre and to the more specific issues that arise in Smith’s work. We do so, however, not to flog the dead horse of das Adam Smith Problem; we do not believe that such a debate could ever be decisively “settled” one way or another. We do, however, believe that the computational analysis of large corpora (and subcorpora) permit us to discern both the continuities and discontinuities of conceptual usage across different works—continuities and discontinuities to which more standard modes of intellectual history, for all their many virtues, remain blind. We thus interrogate two interlocking questions: first, to what extent does the sympathy so cardinal to TMS, and the self-interest so essential to WN, participate in broader conceptual networks, whose existence is statistically verifiable? Second, to what extent do such local continuities or discontinuities prove representative of broader generic differences in the culture at large? Chief among the virtues of such a computational approach, we believe, is the critical vantage it offers with regard to genre. Rather than simply accepting the markers that authors or publishers apply to the texts at hand (“political economy,” and so on), we use patterns of lexical collocation to investigate whether such distinctions are indeed valid. Continue reading …

In this article authors Ryan Healey, Ewan Jones, Paul Nulty, Gabriel Recchia, and John Regan join Peter de Bolla in using the methodologies of de Bolla’s The Architecture of Concepts to uncover the complex conceptual networks in which lexical items are embedded. For de Bolla, because concepts are “units of ‘thinking’ that cannot be expressed in words without remainder,” they may be stretched across constellations of collocations circulating in a “common unshareable” domain of the textual culture at large.

PETER DE BOLLA is Professor of Cultural History and Aesthetics at the University of Cambridge where he also directed the Cambridge Concept Lab. His most recent monograph is The Architecture of Concepts: The Historical Formation of Human Rights (Fordham University Press, 2013), and he is currently writing a book on the artist Pierre Bonnard.


Peculiar Attunements

Peculiar Attunements: How Affect Theory Turned Musical 

by Roger Mathew Grant

In his second book, Roger Mathew Grant offers a new way of thinking through affect historically and dialectically, placing contemporary affect theory in relation to an overlooked historical precursor—European music theory of the eighteenth century. Struggling to explain how music could move its listeners without imitation (as a painting might), theorists of that period developed a “materialist theory of vibrational attunement.” Carolyn Abbate describes Peculiar Attunements as a “tour-de-force” that provides “a formidable and extraordinarily clear-headed critique of affect theory, while at the same time identifying and then demystifying its strange affinities with eighteenth-century theories about music’s power.”

Grant’s work on affect theory’s antecedents in eighteenth-century music theory appears in Representations 144, in the article “Music Lessons on Affect and Its Objects.”

Roger Mathew Grant is Associate Professor of Music at Wesleyan University and the author of Beating Time and Measuring Music in the Early Modern Era (Oxford, 2014), which won the 2016 Society for Music Theory Emerging Scholar Award.

Thoughts While Shaving

RAND Narratology

by Kent Puckett

Robert S. McNamara. US News & aNd World Report, 1965

This penetrating essay by Representations own Kent Puckett looks at the unlikely historical and aesthetic overlap between narrative theory and strategic defense thinking in the middle part of the twentieth century. Taking in the many writings and frankly odd intellectual styles of nuclear war planners working at the RAND Corporation, the essay examines the unexpected play between the material facts of intellectual history, the obscure but nonetheless real force of narrative desire, and the unthinkable costs of nuclear war.

The essay begins:

In late 1947, John Williams, recruiting for what was then called Project RAND, sent the Hungarian mathematician John von Neumann a letter offering him two hundred dollars a month in exchange for just a little slice of his time:

In practice I would hope that members of the Project with problems in your line (i.e., the wide world) could discuss them with you, by mail and in person. We would send you all working papers and reports of RAND which we think would interest you, expecting you to react (with frown, hint, or suggestion) when you had a reaction. In this phase, the only part of your thinking time we’d like to bid for systematically is that which you spend shaving: we’d like you to pass on to us any ideas that come to you while so engaged.

Von Neumann—who, with Oskar Morgenstern, wrote 1944’s Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, more or less inventing game theory—would go on to work, and not only while shaving, with RAND on a number of its key Cold War projects, especially helping to refine its early application of game-theoretical models to the problems of nuclear war planning and strategic deterrence.

The story is characteristic of the early days at RAND. First, it is one of many RAND anecdotes about von Neumann that highlight the fact and local value of his uncanny and apparently unlimited brilliance; it is thus proof not only of von Neumann’s reputation for intellectual virtuosity but also of the peculiar emphasis that RAND placed on brains, on an intelligence that was rapid, ruthless, burning bright. A colleague at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study reported that “Johnny’s mind . . . was lightning quick—stunningly fast. If you gave him a problem he either solved it right away or not at all.” More than just a prerequisite for the analysis and modeling to which RAND was committed, excessive, throwaway, for-its-own-sake brilliance was, as we will see, an important and, indeed, constitutive aspect of the early RAND style. Second, Williams’s note suggests a kind of desperate whimsy that seemed almost de rigueur at RAND. Hard drinks, good music and good food, modernist interior design, Ping-Pong, dirty jokes, cool jazz, fraternity pranks, and sci-fi: accounts of the early days at RAND make it look as much like a David Lodge novel or an episode of Mad Men as the well-funded think tank that in fact it was. The RAND milieu, writes one critic, “offered the exhilarating emotional palette of a certain type of boy’s world: a virtuous people menaced by evil zealots, the fate of millions concentrated in the hands of a daring few.” “Life at RAND,” writes another, “was a boy’s conception of what a man’s life should be, down to the fragrant pipe tobacco, fast cars, and clubby exclusivity.” Its humor was a boy’s humor, too. Like Williams, von Neumann was “an inveterate jokester”: “Merrill Flood recalls the time that Einstein was supposed to go to New York and von Neumann offered to drive him to the Princeton train station. Von Neumann purposely put Einstein on a train going in the wrong direction.”

A similarly affected eccentricity appears in Williams’s own popular introduction to game theory, The Compleat Strategyst: Being a Primer on the Theory of Games of Strategy (1954). In addition to its cod-Elizabethan title, its leaden gags, and its water-cooler misogyny, Williams’s book was illustrated in an urbane, by-the-way style reminiscent of the New Yorker. Where, however, contemporary comics by Carl Rose, Jules Feiffer, and Herbert “Herblock” Block displayed real wit about midcentury life and things directly relevant to RAND, Charles Satterfield’s illustrations feel unmotivated and, predictably, a little distasteful. One image of a besmocked painter pausing fussily before applying yet another color to a globe wouldn’t be all that funny in any case, but it seems especially ham-fisted appearing as it does in a RAND publication introducing ideas that backed American policies of containment, strategic deterrence, second-strike capacity, and, in time, proxy war in Southeast Asia and elsewhere.

What’s more, Satterfield’s image and Williams’s text rely on a more general and long-standing relation between war and games that connects the abstract and deadly serious modeling at RAND with a longer if equally fraught history of Kriegsspiel, with, that is, the idea of war as not only a terrible necessity but also an almost aesthetic activity that—like painting, mixing drinks, or telling jokes—is said to give special pleasure when done all for its own sake. Indeed, the offer to pay von Neumann for his nearly idle shaving thoughts, for his extra ideas, for time that would otherwise go to waste, for work that was valuable precisely and paradoxically because it bordered on waste, is evidence of the prodigal ethos of the early days of RAND, an appreciation for the beau geste that could seem to run against the grain of the group’s clean-cut, clinical, avowedly pragmatic, and broadly amoral work on military strategy at an especially high-stakes moment in American and world history. What is most interesting to me is what this all reveals about the generative relation between, on the one hand, RAND’s “hard-headed” realism and, on the other, the elegant, seductive, and oddly excessive qualities, first, of game theory, which was not invented but rather cultivated at RAND, and, after game theory had run out of steam, of systems analysis.

Elegant, excessive, and, as I will argue, strikingly if also—and this is important—minimally narrative. Take, for example, the prisoner’s dilemma, the most famous of game theory’s many models, which was developed at RAND by Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher in 1950 and subsequently filled out and crucially named by Albert Tucker. Game theory is, roughly, the use of quantitative models to account for or to predict the cooperative or competitive behavior of rational actors within defined states of conflict, and the prisoner’s dilemma is a two-person game that imagines two prisoners who have together committed a crime and must choose separately under interrogation either to remain mum or to confess and thus to incriminate the other. If A and B both speak, both spend two years in prison; if either only A or only B speaks, the one who speaks will go free and the other will spend three years in prison; if neither A nor B speaks, both will spend only a single year in prison. Although the prisoner’s dilemma is an abstract and, in that sense, apparently timeless conceptual construct, it is also a little story, a “stock narrative,” a concrete example that motivates abstraction in terms that recall the bare but nonetheless real narrativity of the folktale: it has characters, a conflict, a setting, and something like a beginning, middle, and end. What’s more, the story of the story, the story of the dilemma’s itinerant passage from RAND through Tucker and then out into the wider world might—again, just barely—mirror the trajectory of the traditional folktale: “Not published as such until years after its invention, the prisoner’s dilemma spread through the scientific community of the 1950s by oral transmission that would satisfy the folklorist’s definition of a dilemma tale.” If the dilemma’s utility is a result of its capacity to quantify conflict, its considerable and enduring appeal is due, at least in part, to what was only apparently inessential or extra to it: a minimally developed narrative set-up that motivated abstraction in the familiar terms of temporally distinct and yet causally related events: crime, confession, punishment. Just as structuralist and formalist thinkers were working in the 1950s and 1960s to theorize literariness as an objective, more or less present, and semi-autonomous aspect of some kinds of language, the quantitative realists at RAND demonstrated—and not only in their early work on game theory—a similar commitment to the ostensible autonomy of rules, systems, and, as I’ll argue, to narrative understood as independent of whatever it might in fact narrate.

It is important, given a tendency simply to equate RAND nuclear thinking with game theory, to note that game theory was finally an early and ultimately abandoned expression of a more varied commitment to systems thinking and the quantification of conflict: as Robert Leonard argues, “This burst of game-theoretic analysis of tactics in the late 1940s and early 1950s, although intensive, was short-lived. Although formally impeccable, little of it ultimately found its way into the larger systems analyses conducted at RAND, the studies most influential upon the Air Force client.” If, however, game theory per se seemed quickly to hit a wall at RAND, its rationalist, discursive, and minimally narrative promise continued in both more and less diffuse ways to inform the think tank’s culture, style, and rhetoric: “That the Cold War was literally a game in this stripped-down, spare sense remained a consistent point of departure for discussions of arms races and nuclear war, even as the adequacy of game theory’s calculating brand of rationality for dealing with such situations came in for criticism.” At a moment when the enormity, immediacy, and speed of thermonuclear war threatened the very idea of significantly different but related beginnings, middles, and ends, RAND advocated styles and strategies that betray not necessarily a commitment to military victory (an increasingly hollow concept in the age of the bomb), or even to meaning at a moment when meaning seemed under threat, but rather to an unmotivated desire for what we might call bare narrativity. Continue reading …

The author of War Pictures: Cinema, Style, and Violence in Britain, 1939–1945 (2017), Narrative Theory: A Critical Introduction (2016), and other books, KENT PUCKETT teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, where serves on the editorial board of Representations. He is currently writing a book about the aesthetics of electoral modeling.

In Analogy to Painting

Vera Molnar’s Computer Paintings

by Aline Guillermet

The Hungarian-born French painter Vera Molnar pioneered the use of the computer as a creative medium beginning in the late 1960s. This article by Aline Guillermet explores how Molnar’s computer-generated works used programming as a means to reflect on the autographicity of the handmade trace in drawing and painting.

The essay begins:

In 1948, Claude Shannon and Norbert Wiener each published a work that would durably shape the concept of information for the digital age. Both mathematicians defined information in terms of entropy—a term borrowed from physics, which describes the disorganization or unpredictability of a system. While they differed in their interpretation of the term, both agreed to define information as a probability function wholly independent from material conditions. As Wiener famously stated in his book Cybernetics: “Information is information, not matter or energy.” The distinction Shannon and Wiener inaugurated between information and its context would have lasting consequences far beyond the narrow realm of communication engineering. Writing fifty years later, the literary critic N. Katherine Hayles summarized: “The time was ripe for theories that reified information into a free-floating, decontextualized, quantifiable entity that could serve as the master key unlocking secrets of life and death.”

The definition of information as disembodied pattern, in turn, led to a series of misconceptions that still inform contemporary conceptions of digital media. By contrast, Hayles argues that “for information to exist, it must always be instantiated in a medium. . . . Conceiving of information as a thing separate from the medium instantiating it is a prior imaginary act that constructs a holistic phenomenon as an information/matter duality.” In this article, I aim to extend Hayles’s analysis to the history of art by focusing on a series of computer-generated works produced by the Hungarian-born French artist Vera Molnar. A classically trained painter who started working in French computer laboratories in 1968, Molnar opened a space of mediation between the computational realm of information processing and the material practice of painting; in so doing, she directly challenged the duality between information and materiality that Hayles condemned.

Information needs to undergo a certain amount of analogizing before humans can experience it, a task that today is routinely, and more or less invisibly, performed by interfaces. Information, therefore, not only needs to be “instantiated” in a medium in the general sense, as Hayles contends, but also relies on specific material conditions in order to be perceptually experienced and cognitively processed. This holds important consequences for the visual arts. Well before the advent of the user-friendly interfaces that we know today, early technologies of data visualization and inscription enabled such an experience. Originally developed for the military during World War II, the electronic visualization and plotting of data (on a cathode ray tube [CRT] screen and on paper, respectively) was refined throughout the 1960s for the benefit of the booming postwar industry. It is in this context that a few computer scientists, working in research institutions that encouraged collaboration between engineers and artists, exploited the creative possibilities of the machines at their disposal.

As early as 1962, the engineer A. Michael Noll produced a series of “computer-produced patterns” at Bell Telephone Laboratories, using the newly acquired Stromberg-Carlson 4020 microfilm printer (also known as the “microfilm plotter”). From the outset, Noll situated his “patterns”—black and white plotted line drawings generated by connecting a series of points with straight lines—at the periphery of artistic creation in order to avoid “an unintentional debate at this time on whether the computer-produced designs are truly art or not.” However, the relation between these computer-produced works and modern visual culture was far from unambiguous. While Noll did not set out to create “art,” several of his productions appropriated an aesthetic derived from the canon of modern painting, whether intentionally or not: for instance, one of his first patterns, Gaussian-Quadratic (1962), “reminded [him]” of Pablo Picasso’s cubist painting Ma Jolie of 1911–12. Two years later, Noll also produced a series of computer-generated simulations of Piet Mondrian’s Composition in Line (second state; 1916–17)—a work to which I shall return in reference to Molnar’s practice.

In Europe, too, computer graphics originated within a scientific context. At the University of Stuttgart, the first works of computer art were produced between 1963 and 1964 by the mathematics students Frieder Nake and Georg Nees using the Zuse Graphomat Z64 plotter. Yet these early works were already embedded in a broader intellectual environment that sought to rethink the production and reception of art in the age of the computer. As early as 1964, the inventor of the Graphomat Z64, Konrad Zuse, had foreseen that his device—while primarily designed for technical purposes—could be put to artistic use. Moreover, Nake and Nees were closely associated with the philosopher Max Bense, whose information aesthetics aimed at developing a mathematical framework for the perception and creation of art. For these pioneers of computer graphics, modern art and visual culture functioned as a point of reference rather than as an example to emulate. However, as the context I have sketched indicates, their endeavors existed in tension with, rather than outside of, the artistic sphere.

By the late 1960s, a small number of artists had started experimenting with computers. For these artists, computer graphics did not exist in contradiction to modern art; rather, they envisioned using the machine to further develop features usually associated with human-made creation, such as inventiveness and organicity. Foregrounding the importance of materiality at the point when the algorithm is not only traced but also drawn and painted became a key strategy to legitimize the computer as an artistic tool. At the time, however, such works were largely dismissed by critics of traditional art, who failed to recognize any aesthetic specificity to the artistic appropriation of the computer as medium. Today, computer art is no longer an object of condemnation; yet it has remained on the periphery of the artistic canon and is generally classified by museum institutions under the category of print media. While media history and media archeology have done much to clarify the technological context of emerging computer art, such approaches fail to account for the way computer art has related to fine art. Among those artists who saw in the computer a new means to expand the possibilities of painting, Molnar best brought into productive discussion the so-called immateriality of the algorithm and the materiality of the computer-generated trace.

Molnar studied painting at the Budapest College of Fine Arts between 1942 and 1947 and moved to Paris in 1947. Between 1947 and 1960, she collaborated with her husband, François Molnar, an academic researcher in experimental psychology at the CNRS (Centre national de la recherche scientifique), the French national center for scientific research, on artistic productions they saw as “scientific experiments.” Having gained access to a computer in 1968, Molnar relied on the new discipline of information aesthetics, developed independently by the French physicist and philosopher Abraham A. Moles and the German philosopher Max Bense during the 1960s, as a theoretical framework for her creative practice. As a result, the balance between randomness and redundancy—crucial to information theory and its application to the visual arts—became central to the dialogue between classical painting and computer programming that she inaugurated. The manipulation of random parameters, in particular, enabled the production of “autographic” effects, such as trembling and hesitation, suggesting that the plotted line could imitate key characteristics of the handmade trace.

In this article I argue that Molnar’s computer-generated works reflect upon painting as a practice, a historical tradition, and an aesthetic experience. This claim, in turn, invites a reassessment of computer art in relation to the materiality of painting. The elements that constitute computer art as a medium—the coding process, the computer, the screen, the plotting table—all engage with materiality in ways that are fundamentally different from drawing and painting. Molnar’s production, however, shows that as soon as code becomes materialized, it is perceived in relation precisely to these existing instances of materially instantiated visual culture. My argument is structured around three series of works realized between 1973 and 1988. The first section deals with Molnar’s appropriation of information aesthetics in two series of plotter-drawn variations, Hommage à Barbaud (Tribute to Barbaud; 1974) and Computer-rosace (Computer-rose; 1975), in which Molnar experiments with Bense’s concept of an “aesthetic state.” In the second section, I investigate the different ways in which the materiality of computer-generated paintings comes to the fore, first in (Dés)ordres ((Dis)orders), a plotter drawing in color ink on white paper (1974), and second in a group of acrylic paintings begun in 1973 entitled Computer icône (Computer icon). In the last section, I focus on a single series of works produced during the 1980s, entitled Lettres de ma mère (My mother’s letters), to suggest that coding, in simulating autographic qualities, may evoke the materiality of painting. Continue reading …

ALINE GUILLERMET is a Junior Research Fellow at King’s College, University of Cambridge. Her research interests include postwar German art, the impact of technology on painting, and digital art. She is currently completing a book on Gerhard Richter.

Lyric Archaeology

Pindar, Song, and Space: Towards a Lyric Archaeology

with authors Leslie Kurke and Richard Neer

Geballe Room, 220 Stephens Hall, UC Berkeley

In Pindar, Song, and Space (Johns Hopkins, 2019), Leslie Kurke and coauthor Richard Neer develop a new, integrated approach to classical Greece — a “lyric archaeology” that combines literary and art-historical analysis with archaeological and epigraphic materials.

The focus of their study is the poet Pindar of Thebes, best known for his odes in honor of victors at the Olympic Games and other competitions. While recent classical scholarship has tended to isolate poetry, art, and archaeology, Kurke and Neer show that these distinctions are artificial. They argue that poems, statues, bronzes, tombs, boundary stones, roadways, beacons, and buildings worked together as a suite of technologies for organizing and inhabiting space that was essentially political in nature.

LESLIE KURKE is the Gladys Rehard Wood Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of The Traffic in Praise: Pindar and the Poetics of Social Economy. Her essay “Plato, Aesop, and the Beginnings of Mimetic Prose” appeared in Representations 94.