Disciplinary Life: A Defense

The Interdisciplinary Fantasy

by Jonathan Kramnick

The essay begins:

The desire to overcome boundaries between disciplines of knowledge and to integrate fields of study is nothing new. Specialization has always had its discontents, and programs for interdisciplinary cooperation or the creation of new disciplines out of the synthesis of old ones are a perennial feature of academic life. In recent years, however, the idea of bringing together fields of study has made a turn to an argument against the very existence of disciplines and departments in the first place. Faced with the task of reforming academic institutions and the work that goes on inside them, many advocates for interdisciplinary approaches have come to maintain that a carved-up institution gets in the way of understanding and fails to serve students. I will argue in this essay that this strong version of interdisciplinarity rests on a mistake: namely, that the separate disciplines have a common object to which they can be reduced or oriented. I will further argue that this mistake extends even to the weaker forms of interdisciplinarity with which we have been long familiar and which have independently compelling virtues. Clarifying this mistake would begin with the recognition that a pluralistic array of disciplines matches up with a pluralistic vision of the world: endocrine cells for the biologists, tectonic plates for the geologists, librettos for the musicologists, and so on. Fixing it would begin with the recognition that the best way to be interdisciplinary is to inhabit one’s discipline fully.

The present-day quarrel with disciplines has several varieties: from ostensibly scientific reductionism, to the management theory popular in some corporations, to a historicism that overlaps with both. In what follows, I’ll describe these movements one at a time, point to their overlapping premises, and provide some account of what I believe to be their origins and goals. What I have to say would apply, in principle, to the full range of study from art history to zoology. And yet no accounting for such things occurs in the abstract. There is a reason literary scholars so often feel that calls for them to be interdisciplinary are attacks on what they do. Arguments that undercut the rationale for separate disciplines of study apply unevenly to those with depleted capital. Departments of English are far more often called to explain the reason for their existence and far more often encouraged to coordinate their work with what’s going on elsewhere in the academy or the world than departments of electrical engineering. That this is so is hardly surprising, but is worth some thought.

Let me begin with some propositions.

  1. A discipline is an academic unit. It is neither a natural kind nor an arbitrary relic of the history of higher learning. Rather, any given discipline is a body of skills, methods, and norms able to sustain internal discussions and perform explanations in a way subject to its own consensus acts of judgment.
  2. The world does not have a single order that is reducible to biology or physics. Some things are known only at their own level of explanation. These things are equally real. I will call this a principle of ontological pluralism.
  3. Following from the first and second propositions, disciplines explain the part of the world to which they are directed and with respect to which they are organized. I will call this a principle of explanatory pluralism.
  4. Following from the third proposition, no one discipline should be reducible to another because such reduction would eliminate the method and norms adequate to any particular level of explanation.

These propositions add up to an apology for the disciplines and to a way of modeling relations among them. Such modeling would be interactive not reductive, even when relations go very deep. It would take as its premise that each discipline has something to contribute to matters of shared concern in virtue of its own methods and objects. For reasons that will become clear, we might consider this model to propose a horizontal relation among the disciplines. For now it is perhaps enough to say that the interdisciplinary fallacy tells us not only about intellectual history and the political economy of the university but also about the nature and organization of what we do. Continue reading …

This essay examines various arguments against the existence of disciplines, from scientific reductionism to the new corporate university to historicism, and proposes in their place a defense of disciplinary life as an epistemic and ethical ideal.

JONATHAN KRAMNICK is Maynard Mack Professor of English at Yale University. His new book, Paper Minds: Literature and the Ecology of Consciousness, will be published this year by the University of Chicago Press .

Circular Thinking

How to Think a Figure; or, Hegel’s Circles

by Andrew Cole 

The essay begins:

No philosopher better epitomizes circular reasoning, nor more fittingly embodies the logical fallacy of circulus in probando, than G. W. F. Hegel, because he loves talking about circles and his points often go in circles. This essay isn’t about Hegel’s endearing oral delivery, about which plenty has been said since the man himself was alive. Rather, this is an attempt to think philosophically about circles and rethink so-called Hegelian circularity.

Why we would even bother thinking about circles is on account of their “eternal” symbolism within philosophy and theory—the fact that the circle always stands for something, ever the symbol of this or that thing you don’t really like. Invariably, that something is Hegel, on the grounds that he typifies the circularity of thought. For example, Ludwig Feuerbach writes: “The circle is the symbol and the coat of arms of speculative philosophy, of the thought that rests on itself. Hegel’s philosophy, too, as is well known, is a circle of circles.” This is indeed one of those long-standing clichés about Hegel. So it’s no surprise that Louis Althusser—whose anti-Hegelianism can be forgiven in the knowledge that he’s really not a deep reader of Hegel—draws a circle around himself in order to step out of it, striding from ideology to science:

The whole history of the “theory of knowledge” in Western philosophy from the famous “Cartesian circle” to the circle of the Hegelian or Husserlian teleology of Reason, shows us that this “problem of knowledge” is a closed space, i.e., a vicious circle (the vicious circle of the mirror relation of ideological recognition). 

That’s a lot of circles, a lot of symbols. What do they mean? What do they really “show”?

These symbolic circles mean too much and not enough: call something a circle and the point about it is somehow immediately clear, but wait, how is something that’s not actually a circle like a circle or identical to a circle? Such symbolic circles mean what you want them to mean, which is exactly why all symbols are hopelessly bound up with the proverbial problem of meaning—tokens of the human need to line things up, to know where things go, ever since we first took soil for filth and polluted it accordingly. All the more reason, then, to think dialectically about our problem in an essay that both defends and extends Hegel’s thinking on this question of circularity and figures.

Our problem is this: Hegel rates figures below concepts but he needn’t always do so. In his mind, figures are just a bunch of numbers and lines annoyingly uncommitted to either Thought or Being. He also dislikes figures because they aren’t language, or are a lesser language. Hegel has his reasons for these positions. But those reasons may not be good enough, judging by the way he seems to equivocate about figures. Sometimes figures are so perfect as to figurate the very significance of his philosophy (and that’s no small feat!). And sometimes they are pretenders to proper conceptuality, conceptual thinking by other means. Hegel is all over the place on this question, as we’ll soon see. But if one applies even a modicum of mathematical wit to the figures Hegel does offer us—and most of them are circles, with triangles as a close runner-up—then we discover some rather interesting spaces in which dialectics might wander.

Here I propose that figuration (in my renewed Hegelian sense) is what Walter Benjamin tried to describe a century later as “dialectical images”—only Hegel’s figures are already in motion, are already an action, and already an “image of thought” that’s not static but dynamic. Figures are figures of thought because they move, just as thinking and the dialectic itself must move, according to Hegel. Figures both initiate and image the movement of thought. Figures are for thinking, whereas symbols are for reading and interpretation. Figures are dialectical. As such, they supply a way of practicing Hegel’s abiding ambition, as laid out in the preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit, “to bring fixed thoughts into a fluid state [festen Gedanken in Flüssigkeit zubringen],” so that we can apprehend “dialectical form [dialektische Form],” which is the representation of philosophical, critical thinking: in other words, Darstellung. Just what this thought process involves, the circle may help us grasp … and think. Continue reading …

In this essay Andrew Cole suggests that Hegel’s philosophy of the concept is also a philosophy of the figure, a demonstration of conceptuality by other means. Neither images nor symbols, Hegel’s figures—primarily, circles—initiate and image the movement of thought.

ANDREW COLE is Director of the Gauss Seminars in Criticism and Professor of English at Princeton University. Forthcoming works include Foundations of the Dialectic and Unmodernism.

Aesthetic Feelings

Reading for Mood

by Jonathan Flatley

The essay begins:

We all know that we have feelings when we encounter works of art. We laugh, we cry. We feel pity and fear. We like and we dislike. We shudder and shiver and tingle. We are amused, delighted, thrilled, teary, bored, relaxed, turned on, horrified, enraged, surprised, depressed, embarrassed, shocked, and fascinated. We know that these “aesthetic” feelings constitute one of the primary values of art as such, and that the problem of how to analyze and evaluate these feelings is one of the basic problems of aesthetic theory, at least since Plato worried about the way poets affected their audiences in The Republic. Many of our fundamental aesthetic categories—tragedy and comedy, the beautiful and the sublime—have become fundamental because they offer ways to think about how art affects its audiences.

Yet it is not always clear how to translate the insights from this theoretical tradition into the reading of specific works of art or literature. It can be hard to shake the sense that the discussion of “how art makes us feel” is necessarily subjective or anecdotal. Doesn’t the affective response produced by a given text depend on the reader and the reader’s particular situation? Don’t observations about aesthetic experience say more about the reader or viewer than the work? This, of course, is the concern voiced in W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley’s essay on the “Affective Fallacy,” where they warn that evaluating a poem in terms of the feelings it produces “is a confusion between the poem and its results (what it is and what it does).” Such a project, they write, “begins by trying to derive the standard of criticism from the psychological effects of the poem and ends in impressionism and relativism.” As a result, “the poem itself, as an object of specifically critical judgment, tends to disappear.” Even if critics are no longer as compelled as they once were by the New Critical devotion to the poem as an autonomous “verbal icon,” doubts remain about how critics can or should account for the particular affective or emotional impact of a given text on the readers who encounter it. The suspicion of “impressionism and relativism” lingers. At best, mustn’t such a claim be a specific  sociological account of a particular audience and a particular situated encounter? Don’t we risk universalizing our own subjective responses when we try to talk about the aesthetic experience of a particular work? Continue reading …

Beginning with a consideration of the distinct places of affect in aesthetic theory and in critical reading practices, this essay makes a case for mood as a critical concept that helps us to read for the historicity and potentially political effects of aesthetic practices.

Walter Benn Michaels has responded to the essay in his January 1, 2018, post at nonsite.org: Grimstad on Experience, Flatley on Affect.

JONATHAN FLATLEY is Professor in the English Department at Wayne State University, where he was the editor of Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts from 2007 to 2012.  He is the author of Affective Mapping: Melancholia and the Politics of Modernism (Harvard, 2008) and Like Andy Warhol (University of Chicago, Fall 2017).

Beginning with Aristotle

Fallacy: Close Reading and The Beginning of Philosophy

by D. Vance Smith

The essay begins:

The formal study of fallacies began, as have so many other intellectual disciplines, with Aristotle. In a short treatise called Peri Sophistion Elenchon (On Sophistical Refutations, referred to in the Latin Middle Ages as De Sophisticis Elenchis), he classified thirteen types of fallacious argument—six that depend on slippages of language and seven that do not. As with much of Aristotle’s work, this emphatic division belied a dense cluster of problems that later expositors would tease out, and which this article will explore in a moment, beginning at the primal level of what, precisely, “fallacies” are. The change in terminology from “sophistical refutation” to “fallacies” belies an immense epistemic shift—nothing less, really, than the emergence of medieval philosophy out of classical thought. The Latin Middle Ages assimilated Aristotle’s treatise into the logical curriculum simply as “On Fallacies” (De Fallaciis), from fallare, “to deceive,” or “to trick.” In William of Sherwood’s influential twelfth-century Introduction to Logic, which expounds five of Aristotle’s logical texts, De Fallaciis is the sixth and final chapter. On the face of it, the word fallacia in medieval logic retains the implication of deliberate misleading, the problem that motivates Aristotle’s treatise, which is essentially a manual on how to spot the tricks an opponent might use to derail one’s argument. But deception is used one way in medieval philosophy, another in Aristotle’s.

Aristotle’s definition of sophistical refutations itself is deceptively complex, beginning with what seems to be the plainest declaration of what they are. The very first sentence of his treatise defines them as what they are not: they “appear to be refutations but are really fallacies.” From the start, sophistical refutations involve a dialectic of appearance: they are what they do not seem to be, and are not what they seem to be. Medieval discussions swerve around this problem by arguing that fallacies have both “semblance” or “appearance” (apparentia) and, seemingly paradoxically, nonexistence (non-existentia). What they mean by nonexistence needs to be qualified: a fallacy exists, of course, in the domain of language, and to that degree has the same ontological status as a valid syllogism. As William of Sherwood says in his foundational Introduction to Logic, fallacy and valid syllogism appear to be the same because they share a verbal identity: the resemblance comes “ex identitate sermonis.” But what leaves the fallacy in the realm of pure appearance only is that it doesn’t mean anything real: it diverges from valid syllogism “ex identitate rei.” But William (and subsequent commentaries) doesn’t say that what a fallacy refers to doesn’t exist; it is the fallacy itself that doesn’t have existence. To put this definition more precisely: a fallacy must meet the condition of appearing to be a syllogism and of “its nonexistence” (“non-existentiam eiusdem”). It exists only in apparentia, and its existence only there means that it does not actually exist.

For Aristotle, the phainomenon of fallacies is elusive, but so is the language we use to speak of them. They are “really” fallacies, paralogismoi, statements that lie outside of reason or of rational discourse (para-, outside, beyond + logizomai, to think, to calculate, to consider; the word is from logos, the Greek word that means anything from word to reason to order). That is, not only can we recognize sophistical refutations only by what they are not; we also cannot use the term itself to describe them, since they occupy a position outside of discourse. Sophistical refutations are actually not refutations at all (ouk elenchon legomen). Strictly speaking, a treatise on sophistical refutation is a logical impossibility, the first deception in a treatise full of them. Continue reading …

This essay by D. Vance Smith locates the beginning of philosophy in Aristotelian syllogistic logic, where fallacy is the precondition of rationality. Smith then turns to medieval commentaries, which treat fallacy as a nonreferential discourse and develop what is essentially a theorization of fictionality and its practices.

 

D. VANCE SMITH is Professor of English at Princeton University. His current work includes the completed Arts of Dying, a study of logic and death in medieval literature, and a book on medieval Africa, Blood Flowers.

 

“Boy, if life were only like this!”

“You Mean My Whole Fallacy Is Wrong”: On Technological Determinism

by John Durham Peters

The essay begins:

In Woody Allen’s romantic comedy Annie Hall (1977), the world’s most famous technological determinist had a brief cameo that in some circles is as well-known as the movie itself. Woody Allen, waiting with Diane Keaton in a slow-moving movie ticket line, pulls Marshall McLuhan from the woodwork to rebuke the blowhard in front of them, who is pontificating to his female companion about McLuhan’s ideas. McLuhan, as it happened, was not an easy actor to work with: even when playing a parody of himself, a role he had been practicing full-time for years, he couldn’t remember his lines, and when he could remember them, he couldn’t deliver them. In the final take (after more than fifteen tries), McLuhan tells the mansplainer, “I heard what you were saying. You, you know nothing of my work. You mean my whole fallacy is wrong. How you ever got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing.” In the film, the ability to call down ex cathedra authorities at will to silence annoying know-it-alls is treated as the ultimate in wish fulfillment as Allen says to the camera, “Boy, if life were only like this!” Rather than a knockout punch, however, McLuhan tells the man off with something that sounds like a Zen koan, an obscure private joke, or a Groucho Marx non sequitur. There is more going on here than a simple triumph over someone else’s intellectual error. Isn’t a fallacy always self-evidently wrong?

That a fallacy might not necessarily be wrong is the question I take up in this essay. Whatever technological determinism is, it is one of a family of pejoratives by which academics reprove their fellows for single-minded devotion (or monomaniacal fanaticism) to their pet cause. At least since “sophist” was launched as a slur in ancient Greece, it has been a regular sport to contrive doctrines that nobody believes and attribute them to one’s enemies. Terms ending with –ism serve this purpose particularly well. As Robert Proctor notes in an amusing and amply documented survey of academic nomenclature, “‘Bias’ and ‘distortion’ are perennial terms of derision from the center, and the authors of such slants are often accused of having fallen into the grip of some blinding ‘-ism.’” Often these -isms, he continues, “are things no one will openly claim to support: terrorism, dogmatism, nihilism, and so on.” (Racism and sexism are even better examples.) Terms ending with –ism, such as economism, fetishism, formalism, physicalism, positivism, and scientism, often stand for “zealotry or imprudence in the realm of method,” with reductionism standing for the whole lot. Corresponding nouns ending with –ist designate those people accused of harboring such doctrines—reductionist, fetishist, formalist—though –ist is a tricky particle. Artist, economist, psychologist, and above all, scientist have positive valences; artistic is a term of praise, but scientistic suggests being in the grip of an ideology. (It might be bad to be a positivist, but Trotskyist is strongly preferred to Trotskyite; it would be a big job to fully describe the whimsical behavior of the –ism clan, tasked as it is with policing ultrafine differences.) Pathologies such as logocentrism, phallogocentrism, and heteronormativity are often diagnosed in people who do not realize they are carriers.

Technological determinism belongs to this family of conceptual maladies thought unknown to their hosts but discernible by a savvy observer. It is one of a long line and large lexicon of academic insults and prohibitions. As old as academic inquiry is the conviction of the blindness of one’s fellow inquirers. From listening to the ways scholars talk about each other, you would not think they were a collection of unusually brainy people but rather a tribe uniquely susceptible to folly and stupidity. The cataloging of fallacies has been motivated by a desire to regulate (or mock) the thinking of the learned as much as of the crowd. The academy has been fertile soil for satirists from the ancient comic playwrights to Erasmus and Rabelais, from Swift and the Encyclopédie to Nietzsche to the postwar campus novel. Whatever else Renaissance humanism was, it was a critique of scholarly vices, and Erasmus’s Praise of Folly is, among other things, a compendium of still relevant witticisms about erudite errors. There are as many fallacies as chess openings, and the names of both index exotic, often long-forgotten historical situations. We shouldn’t miss the element of satire and parody in such cartoonish names as the red herring, bandwagon, card-stacking, and cherry-picking fallacies. “The Texas sharpshooter fallacy” is drawing the target after you have taken the shots. The “Barnum effect” describes the mistake of taking a trivially general statement as uniquely significant (as in fortune cookies or astrology readings). The study of fallacies gives you a comic, sometimes absurdist glance at the varieties of cognitive tomfoolery.

One reason why academic life is the native soil for the detection of fallacies is the great profit that can be wrung from strategic blindness. Looking at the world’s complexity through a single variable—air, fire, water, God, ideas, money, sex, genes, media—can be immensely illuminating. (Granting agencies smile on new “paradigms.”) A key move in the repertoire of academic truth games is noise-reduction. John Stuart Mill once noted of “one-eyed men” that “almost all rich veins of original and striking speculation have been opened by systematic half-thinkers.” A less single-minded Marx or Freud would not have been Marx or Freud. Intellectuals can be richly rewarded for their cultivated contortions.

But one man’s insight is another man’s blindness. The one-eyed gambit invites the counterattack of showing what has gone unseen, especially as prophetic vision hardens into priestly formula. Nothing quite whets the academic appetite like the opportunity to prove what dullards one’s fellows are, and, for good and ill, there never seems to be any shortage of material. (We all know people who think they can score points during Q&A sessions by asking why their favorite topic was not “mentioned.” Someone should invent a fallacy to name that practice.) At some point every scholar has felt the itch to clear the ground of previous conceptions and ill-founded methods; this is partly what “literature review” sections are supposed to do. (The history of the study of logic is littered with the remains of other people’s attempted cleanup jobs.) Scholars love to upbraid each other for being trapped by the spell of some nefarious influence. How great the pleasure in showing the folly of someone’s –istic ways! The annals of academic lore are full of tales of definitive takedowns and legendary mic drops, and social media platforms such as Facebook provide only the most recent germ culture for the viral spread of delicious exposés of the ignorant (as often political as academic). This is one reason McLuhan’s Annie Hall cameo continues to have such resonance: it is the archetype of a decisive unmasking of another scholar’s fraudulence or ignorance.

But it is also a classic fallacy: the appeal to authority. Who says McLuhan is the best explicator of his own ideas? As he liked to quip: “My work is very difficult: I don’t pretend to understand it myself.” You actually get a better sense of what McLuhan wrote from the blowhard, however charmlessly presented, than from McLuhan. The disagreeable truth is that what the man is doing isn’t really that awful or that unusual: it is standard academic behavior in the classroom at least, if not the movie line. Laughing at someone teaching a course on “TV, media, and culture” is, for many of us, not to recognize ourselves in the mirror. The fact that so many academics love the Annie Hall put-down is one more piece of evidence showing our vulnerability to fallacious modes of persuasion. Why should we delight in the silencing of a scholar by the gnomic utterances of a made-for-TV magus? Since when is silencing an academic value? And by someone who doesn’t really make any sense?

Silencing is one thing that the charge of technological determinism, like many other so-called fallacies, does. Fallacies need to be understood within economies and ecologies of academic exchange. They are not simply logical missteps. To accuse another of a fallacy is a speech act, a communicative transaction. The real danger of technological determinism may be its labeling as a fallacy. The accusation, writes Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, “frequently contains a whiff of moral indignation. To label someone a technodeterminist is a bit like saying that he enjoys strangling cute puppies; the depraved wickedness of the action renders further discussion unnecessary.” The threat of technological determinism, according to Wolf Kittler, “goes around like a curse frightening students.” The charge can conjure up a kind of instant consensus about what right-minded people would obviously avoid. The charge of technological determinism partakes of a kind of “filter bubble” logic of unexamined agreement that it’s either machines or people. Jill Lepore recently put it with some ferocity: “It’s a pernicious fallacy. To believe that change is driven by technology, when technology is driven by humans, renders force and power invisible.”

There are undeniably many vices and exaggerations around the concept of technology. But my overarching concern here is not to block the road of inquiry. (No-go zones often have the richest soil.) In a moment when the meaning of technics is indisputably one of the most essential questions facing our species, do we really want to make it an intellectual misdemeanor to ask big questions about “technology” and its historical role, however ill-defined the category is? What kinds of inquiry snap shut if we let the specter of technological determinism intimidate us? The abuse does not ruin the use. The question is particularly pointed for my home field of media studies, whose task is to show that form, delivery, and control, as well as storage, transmission, and processing, all matter profoundly. If explanations attentive to the shaping role of technological mediation are ruled out, the raison d’être of the field is jeopardized. It is so easy to sit at our Intel-powered computers and type our latest critique of technological determinism into Microsoft Word files while Googling facts and checking quotes online. We are so busy batting away the gnats of scholarly scruples to notice that we have swallowed a camel. Continue reading free of charge  …

This essay, a contribution to the special issue “Fallacies,” offers both a genealogy of the concept of technological determinism and a metacritique of the ways academic accusations of fallaciousness risk stopping difficult but essential kinds of inquiry. To call someone a technological determinist is to claim all the moral force on your side without answering the question of what we are to do with these devices that infest our lives.

JOHN DURHAM PETERS  is María Rosa Menocal Professor of English and Film and Media Studies at Yale and author of The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media (2015).

 

The Rhetoric of Hiddenness in Traditional Chinese Culture

BERKELEY BOOK CHATS at the Townsend Center

Wednesday, Oct 25, 2017 | 12:00 pm to 1:00 pm

Geballe Room, 220 Stephens Hall, UC Berkeley

Editor Paula Varsano talks about this collection of essays exploring the role of hiddenness  in the history of cultural production in China from the Warring States Period (403–221 BCE) to the end of the Qing Dynasty (1911) and beyond.

After an introduction by Michael Nylan, Varsano will speak briefly about her work and then open the floor for discussion. 

Paula Varsano is Associate Professor of East Asian Languages & Cultures at UC Berkeley, where she specializes in classical Chinese poetry and poetics from the third through the eleventh centuries. She is the author of Tracking the Banished Immortal: The Poetry of Li Bo and its Critical Reception, and is currently at work on a book tentatively titled Coming to Our Senses: Locating the Subject in Traditional Chinese Literary Writing. Her essay “Disappearing Objects/Elusive Subjects: Writing Mirrors in Early and Medieval China” was published in Representations 124.

Fray: Art and Textile Politics

Julia Bryan-Wilson will be talking about her new book

Fray: Art and Textile Politics

in the Townsend Center for the Humanities‘ monthly Berkeley Book Chat series

 

Wednesday, Oct 11, 2017 | noon to 1:00 

Geballe Room, 220 Stephens Hall, UC Berkeley

In 1974, women in a feminist consciousness-raising group in Eugene, Oregon, formed a mock organization called the Ladies Sewing Circle and Terrorist Society. Emblazoning its logo onto T-shirts, the group wryly envisioned female collective textile making as a practice that could upend conventions, threaten state structures, and wreak political havoc. Elaborating on this example as a prehistory to the more recent phenomenon of “craftivism”— the politics and social practices associated with handmaking— UC Berkeley’s Julia Bryan-Wilson explores textiles and their role at the forefront of debates about process, materiality, gender, and race in times of economic upheaval.

After an introduction by Natalia Brizuela, Bryan-Wilson will speak briefly about her work and then open the floor for discussion.

Julia Bryan-Wilson, co-editor with Shannon Jackson of the recent Representations special issue Time Zones: Durational Art and Its Contexts, is Associate Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art in the Department of History of Art at the University of California, Berkeley. In addition to Fray, she is also the author of Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War EraArt in the Making: Artists and Their Materials from the Studio to Crowdsourcing.

Advance Look: Jeffrey Knapp on “Selma”

In recognition of the speed at which the world and its histories are changing, we’ve just posted an advance version of Selma and the Place of Fiction in Historical Films” by Jeffrey Knapp. The essay will appear in print and online in our Winter 2019 issue, but you can read it here right now.

In the essay, Knapp compares the place of historical fictionality in William Wyler’s 1940 film The Westerner and Ava DuVernay’s 2014 Selma.

“’This isn’t right,’” the essay begins, in the voice of Martin Luther King as depicted by David Oyelowo, in Selma. “Almost as soon as the man resembling Martin Luther King Jr. has begun to speak, he interrupts himself in frustration. ‘I accept this honor,’ he’d been saying, ‘for our lost ones, whose deaths pave our path, and for the twenty million Negro men and women motivated by dignity and a disdain for hopelessness.’ What does he think isn’t right? Is it the racial oppression he has been evoking? Or is it the felt inadequacy of his words to that injustice? As the man turns away from us, we find that he has been speaking into a mirror, and that he is frustrated in the immediate context by his efforts at getting dressed. ‘Corrie’ — it is King, we now understand, and he’s not alone; his wife Coretta is with him — ‘this ain’t right.’ ‘What’s that?’ she asks, entering from another room. ‘This necktie. It’s not right.’ ‘It’s not a necktie,’ she corrects him, ‘it’s an ascot.’ ‘Yeah, but generally, the same principles should apply, shouldn’t they? It’s not right.’” Read full article …

JEFFREY KNAPP is the Eggers Professor of English at UC Berkeley and author of An Empire Nowhere: England and America from Utopia to The Tempest (1992); Shakespeare’s Tribe: Church, Nation, and Theater in Renaissance England (2002); Shakespeare Only (2009); and Pleasing Everyone: Mass Entertainment in Renaissance London and Golden-Age Hollywood, published this year by Oxford University Press. He is also a contributing editor for Representations.

Boccaccio’s Realism

Mimesis on Trial: Legal and Literary Verisimilitude in Boccaccio’s Decameron

by Justin Steinberg

The essay begins:

Boccaccio is generally the least appreciated of the “Three Crowns” of the Italian literary canon (after Petrarch and Dante), yet his focus on the realistic, even gritty details of everyday life, everyday characters, and everyday language has no real precedent, at least not one of the scope of the Decameron. Studies of the novel typically identify Boccaccio’s masterpiece as an influential precursor in the development of modern literary realism, and Erich Auerbach devotes a critical chapter to the Decameron in his monumental history of Western mimesis. Although recent scholarship has called into question Boccaccio’s supposed modernity, underlining the allegorical aspects of the Decameron and its continued debt to medieval textual practices, it is difficult to deny that, at the very least, Boccaccio expands the frame of what can be legitimately represented in literature.

At the same time, something is inevitably lost when we view the Decameron from the end point of the modern novel. Our retrospective glance privileges a very specific conception of realism, a conception defined by its rejection of rhetorical notions of appropriateness and fittingness. (This unruly literary style befits a genre “in which one can tell absolutely any story in any way whatsoever.”) Auerbach, for example, maintains that only once literature has freed itself from the rigid confines of classical decorum is it possible for authors to depict the world in its complex, particularistic entirety. Yet this version of realism does not admit the extent to which Boccaccio’s mimetic art remains preoccupied by rhetorical verisimilitude. While it’s true that Boccaccio incessantly interrogates the status of verisimilitude throughout the Decameron—what it means for something to “fit” in a given scenario—he does so by delving into the precise components of the circumstantiae (the who, what, where, when, why, and how of a case, deployed by an orator to enhance the “true-seemingness” of his argument). Even when exploring its inner contradictions, that is, Boccaccio innovates through, rather than from, rhetoric. Studies that neglect the influence of rhetorical verisimilitude on Boccaccio’s realism, preferring to imagine a seamless evolution from the plausible to the particular, miss this essential tension at the heart of the Decameron between competing notions of the real.

Rather than treating the Decameron as a stepping-stone on the path toward modern realism, I will argue that Boccaccio’s realistic style is a historically specific response to a historically specific crisis of verisimilitude. This crisis was propelled by a critical institutional innovation: the rise and spread of the medieval inquisitorial procedure. In the inquisitorial trial, judges were frequently called upon to estimate the likelihood of circumstantial evidence; this migration of notions about the probable from the rhetorical to the judicial sphere, from persuasion to evidence, is Boccaccio’s primary focus and concern. Through the many trial scenes in the Decameron, he illustrates the dangers that arise when judges, witnesses, and prosecutors are “trapped by a picture”—when the theater of justice becomes a self-fulfilling mimesis of the already known and always seen. The singular, remarkable details that eventually come to the fore in these trials (and that characterize the plot lines of Boccaccio’s novelle) reveal the disconnect between norms of likelihood and the particulars of a case.

Not only do the trials in the Decameron probe the legal uses of verisimilitude as evidence, they also raise questions about verisimilitude as a literary device. What is the relationship between an aesthetic principle of “fittingness” and the normative knowledge of “what happens for the most part”? What is the role of innovation in an art of the probable? How can a plausible account of the facts encompass historical contingency and singularity? These simultaneously legal and literary questions are exactly what the Decameron is wired to navigate: the degree to which the verisimilar picture must be open to the singular case, the structure open to the event.

My argument, then, is not simply that Boccaccio was influenced by rhetorical verisimilitude but also that he employs the numerous “procedural” tales in the Decameron to reflect critically on the nature of, and the increasing real-world power of, realistic narrative. Continually questioning the very realism he employs as a poet, he puts mimesis on trial. Continue reading …

In this essay Justin Steinberg argues that the celebrated realism of Boccaccio’s Decameron responds to the new prominence of verisimilitude in legal contexts in his time.

Justin Steinberg is Professor of Italian literature at the University of Chicago and editor-in-chief of Dante Studies. He is the author of Accounting for Dante: Urban Readers and Writers in Late Medieval Italy (Notre Dame, 2007) and Dante and the Limits of the Law (Chicago, 2015). He is currently writing a book on Boccaccio, representation, and the law.

 

Video on the Hippie Ward

Televising Psyche: Therapy, Play, and the Seduction of Video

by Carmine Grimaldi

The essay begins:

In 1967, the San Francisco Chronicle ran the panicked headline “HIPPIES WARN CITY—100,000 WILL INVADE HAIGHT ASHBURY THIS SUMMER.” With the specter of homelessness, disease, addiction, and moral depravity looming, the city scrambled for some response: that summer, the San Francisco Assembly Committee on Public Health held a series of hearings to determine who exactly these new residents were, and how the anticipated crisis could be stanched.

Sitting before the committee, Dr. Ernest Dernburg, the director of psychiatric services at the Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic, offered his professional opinion on the moral character of the hippie. He was working on the front lines of the crisis and would have been considered far more sympathetic to the counterculture than those working in traditional hospitals. And yet the portrait he drew was damning. The new generation, he explained to the committee, was “passive, withdrawn, emotionally unresponsive, drug dependent. They suffer . . . from massive psychological poverty.” He then pointed to a potential culprit: “Keep in mind that this generation is the first to grow up in front of the television set. These children have been sitting passively before it, receiving stimulation from it, living mostly inside their heads, all during their period of development.” This sentiment was hardly new; the moral panic about television has run in tandem with the medium’s history. At the beginning of the decade, when many of Dernburg’s patients were “growing up in front of the television,” one widely read study warned that television “anesthetize[s] a person against pain and distress” and asked rhetorically, “In how many cases does television meet children’s needs in the same way as alcohol or drugs might do so?” If one wanted to assign blame for the legions of white, middle-class kids who were dropping school and acid, television was as good a candidate as any.

Langley Porter Institute, San Francisco, 1966

Following Dernburg’s rather alarmist evaluation, Dr. Harry Wilmer, then a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), spoke before the committee. Like Dernburg, he had founded a new psychiatric clinic for hippie drug users, just twenty blocks from the Haight, at the Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute. And like Dernburg, he agreed that television and mass media were largely responsible for the emergence of the counterculture. But unlike his colleague, who adhered to popular techniques of psychoanalysis and pharmacological remedies, Wilmer explained that he was developing a new approach that had only entered psychiatry in the last few years: it was a “pilot study” that sought to cure patients through the very medium that had originally harmed them—if used correctly, Wilmer explained, the television screen could be a potent medicine. In the next two years, he planned to use video feedback, made possible by videotape technology, to restructure the consciousness and sensorium of those who had fallen through the cracks of society. As he explained to the committee, “We are trying to reawaken the power to see and to interact.” This Janus-faced power of television clearly caught the imagination of the public—in what was the first of many newspaper articles about Wilmer’s project, the San Francisco Examiner’s headline read, “How TV Produces and Heals a Drug Generation.” Continue reading …

San Francisco’s “Hippie Drug Ward,” an experimental therapeutic clinic opened in 1967, sought to cure a wayward generation through an immersive multimedia environment. Examining archival records only recently made available, this paper explores the way the moving image—and in particular videotape—created a space in which style, affect, and psyche became commingled.

CARMINE GRIMALDI is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Chicago and a fellow at Harvard’s Film Study Center. His writings have appeared in the Atlantic and Filmmaker Magazine, and his films have screened widely at festivals in the United States and abroad.