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.

 

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.

John Lockwood Kipling’s Animals

On Verminous Life

by Parama Roy

Using John Lockwood Kipling’s Beast and Man in India (1891) as her text, Parama Roy examines the encounter of two contrasting economies of animal protection and animal cruelty, especially Kipling’s understanding of carnivory as the basis not only for human sociability but also of kindness to the nonhuman.

The essay begins:

In thinking about the history of animal protection in the nineteenth century, there is a familiar narrative that we rehearse. Prompted by a century’s worth of thinking, writing, newspaper campaigns, and abortive legislative attempts to address the question of the feelings or capacities of nonhuman animals and their claims to moral consideration from humans, the British Parliament passed an act in 1822 “to prevent the cruel and improper treatment of cattle.” Known widely as Martin’s Act, in honor of its sponsor Richard Martin of Galway, it was the first in a series of legislative undertakings—the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1835, which was repealed and replaced in 1849, 1850, 1854, and 1876, and the Wild Animals in Captivity Act of 1900—designed to curb certain forms of animal cruelty and to provide legislative recognition of the entitlement of (some) animals to human protection. Together these acts were responsible for limiting or abolishing organized animal combat, animal baiting, the beating or torture of draft animals and livestock, and live pigeon shooting, though campaigns against animal vivisection had limited success. The enforcement of these acts and the concomitant education of the public in principles of animal protection were aided by the formation in 1824 of the Society for the Protection of Animals (SPCA), a body that would gain royal sponsorship a decade and a half later. Not only was Britain the venue for what has been called “the world’s first organized animal welfare movement,” part of a wave of social reform inspired by Evangelicals, Methodists, and Quakers in the Anglophone world. By the century’s end it also boasted “the most comprehensive animal protection laws in Europe.”

Fascinating as such accounts are, they would be enriched by consideration of the fact that debates on ending animal cruelty occurred in multiply scaled transimperial, national, and regional contexts. The colony was to become a crucial theater in the nineteenth century for thinking about the ways in which models of just and civilized sociability encompassed forms of obligation to the nonhuman. More significantly, debates about what constituted animal cruelty or animal protection occurred across a religiously heterogeneous and multilingual pluriverse, including in places with well-established and consequential traditions of theory and practice about moral engagement with nonhuman life. A consideration of these transimperial, cross-continental, and extrametropolitan archives opens up the possibility of reconstellating extant narratives of cruelty and care in the nineteenth century.

Such a claim is something more than a plea, by now familiar, to grasp the interlocutions and commonalities or contiguities across metropolitan and colonial histories. It is also a meditation on the possibilities and hazards of engaging evidence across significantly disparate civilizational contexts. Reading for signs of cruelty, sympathy, and protection under such circumstances involves forms of both learning and unlearning that are instructive for an understanding of what was indubitably a multipolar modern economy of humaneness and obligation.

As an example of a text that instantiates some of these issues in a particularly emblematic way, I present John Lockwood Kipling’s Beast and Man in India (1891), without question the best-known nineteenth-century Anglophone publication on the status of animals in India. But first, a few words about its author. Kipling was a polymath whose thirty-year career as a museum director, curator of international exhibitions, art-school educator, illustrator, preservationist, journalist, and editor, first at the Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy School of Art and Industry in Bombay and then at the Mayo School of Industrial Arts at Lahore and the Lahore Central Museum, had a momentous influence on the revival of traditional arts and art education in the subcontinent. Loss of princely patronage, combined with an onslaught of mass-produced British goods, had led to a decline of craft skills in many places; Kipling took significant pains to revive these, drawing in the process upon a colonial sociology of caste to recruit students from artisan caste families to work at these institutions. He himself did not enjoy elevated status in an obsessively hierarchical imperial administration in India—he was artisanally trained and of lower middle-class origin—and yet his wife Alice and he were acquainted with several viceroys, most notably with Lord Dufferin. He achieved a significant measure of Indian, transimperial, and international fame, curating more than two dozen exhibitions in Paris, Jeypore (Jaipur), Calcutta, Glasgow, Melbourne, and elsewhere. He was a key figure in the staging of the Imperial Assemblage of 1877 that celebrated the official proclamation of Victoria as Empress of India. He had a hand, moreover, in the execution of two prestigious royal commissions—the Durbar Room at Victoria’s Osborne House and an Indian-style billiard room for Victoria’s son, the Duke of Connaught, at Bagshot Park in Surrey. He was well known in art and curatorial circles for these achievements, as well as for his many articles and illustrations, including those produced in his capacity as founder and editor of the Journal of Indian Art (later the Journal of Indian Art and Industry). Whatever he wrote on Indian arts, or Indian culture more generally, was likely to receive wide and respectful consideration.

For his Anglo-Indian compatriots, it was of equal consequence that he was a journalist of long standing, writing for the most influential newspapers of Anglo-India, the Pioneer (Allahabad) and the Civil and Military Gazette (Lahore)—as would his famous son Rudyard. In these outlets he wrote not with the expansive (if Orientalist) sympathy he brought to art education and conservation but in the legible and comparatively unoriginal idiom of Anglo-Indian conservatism; his articles thus underlined the shortcomings of the Indian educated middle class, Hindu reformers, and Indian political aspirations and mocked the follies of Bengali “baboos” and Indian servants. Several of his vignettes and written sketches for the Pioneer were repurposed for publication in Beast and Man. The book echoes sentiments widely shared by Anglo-Indians and, indeed, many Britons in the nineteenth century, though expressed much more wittily and often enlivened by the naturalist’s keen observation; many familiar tropes of Anglo-Indian writing on animals, religion, and ethics in the subcontinent reappear in it. It circulated quite extensively and, with very few exceptions, received strongly positive reviews on both sides of the Atlantic and in Anglo-India.6 It quickly came to be regarded as the single most important Anglophone text on animals and animal cruelty in India in the late Victorian period (and beyond).

Part of the remit of Beast and Man is to furnish a catalog of the varieties of domesticated and semidomesticated animal life in colonial India. But it is also a key document in thinking about animal protection and animal cruelty in the civilizational space of the colony. In this essay I will consider not the text in its entirety but its introduction, where these questions of protection and cruelty are taken up pedagogically through a proliferating set of parabolic maneuvers. Kipling’s overt objective is to furnish evidence by way of facts about the widespread practice of cruelty against animals in the subcontinent and to urge, by contrast, the superiority of a pragmatic modern economy of minimizing pain—an economy that demonstrates kindness to nonhuman life while simultaneously establishing carnivory as the basis of human concord and interdependence. But on the terrain of the Indian colony, Kipling’s economy of care and inclusion was to encounter a long-standing Indic economy, seen as non- or premodern, of vegetarianism and nonkilling of animals. This order he seeks to cast, not as kindness to animals, but as a form of cruelty to them. The encounter of these two contrasting economies of animal protection and animal cruelty in Kipling’s work yields some curious lessons about the unstable—rather than invariably triumphalist—idioms of animal protection and care in conversations that occur within and across a transimperial consortium. But before we can engage with the lessons of Kipling, it is necessary to scrutinize the two economies that meet agonistically in his text—the first being something that I name a Bania economy of conserving or saving life and the second, a modern economy of reducing suffering and administering care. Continue reading …

PARAMA ROY is Professor of English at the University of California, Davis. She is the author of Indian Traffic: Identities in Question in Colonial and Postcolonial India (UC Press, 1998) and Alimentary Tracts: Appetites, Aversions, and the Postcolonial (Duke UP, 2010), and co-editor of States of Trauma: Gender and Violence in South Asia (Zubaan, 2009). Her current book project is titled “Empire and the Nonhuman.”

Manufacturing Myth

Art, Judaism, and the Critique of Fascism in the Work of Ernst Cassirer

by Victoria Kahn

The essay begins:

The coincidence of the Trump presidency in the United States and the upsurge of rightwing movements in Europe, including Alternativ für Deutschland, make this an appropriate moment for reconsidering Ernst Cassirer’s analysis of fascism in the last chapter of The Myth of the State. Composed in the 1940s, when Cassirer was in the United States, and published posthumously in 1946, The Myth of the State was Cassirer’s last and most explicitly political work. In this work he suggested that the right lens for thinking about authoritarian political movements was myth, not the organic myth of earlier primitive cultures but instead the manufactured myth of late capitalism, which involved the appeal to irrational instincts and the manipulation of symbols. At the same time, Cassirer held on to the possibility of a rational critique of fascism. In our current era of such manufactured myths as “fake news” and “the caravan,” it is worth reflecting on an earlier historical moment when Cassirer confronted the manufactured myths of the Nazi state and offered a defense of rationality missing from much of our current political conversation. In this essay, I explore the basis of Cassirer’s surprising optimism, which I argue has to do not simply with his “symbolic turn,” his critique of neo-Kantianism for its neglect of language and other symbolic systems in shaping human experience, but with his recovery of art as central to the human capacity for critical thinking and his linking of this capacity to the survival of Jewish ethical traditions.

In an eloquent passage in the last chapter of The Myth of the State, Cassirer spoke to his dawning realization that the technological manipulation of myth could fundamentally transform human nature:

Of all the sad experiences of these last twelve years this is perhaps the most dreadful one. It may be compared to the experience of Odysseus on the island of Circe. But it is even worse. Circe had transformed the friends and companions of Odysseus into various animal shapes. But here are men, men of education and intelligence, honest and upright men who suddenly give up the highest human privilege. They have ceased to be free and personal agents. . . . They act like marionettes in a puppet show—and they do not even know that the strings of this show and of man’s whole individual and social life, are henceforward pulled by the political leaders.

Cassirer went on to argue that “the usual means of political oppression would not have sufficed to produce this effect.” It was technology understood as a series of techniques for producing (and as the new twentieth-century media for amplifying) the myth of the state: the systematic degradation of language, the introduction of new rites, the unifying myth of a master race, and the mythic view of time and history as fate.

Despite the eloquence of the last chapter, the book was not well received. In an early review of The Myth of the State, Eric Voegelin accused Cassirer of subscribing to an idea of historical progress, whereby myth was superseded by rationalism. Only someone who subscribed to this view could be surprised by the upsurge of myth in modernity. He also faulted Cassirer for not explaining why such myths arose and for failing to see that “the new myth emerges because the old myth has disintegrated.” At the same time, Voegelin noted the difference between Cassirer’s last book and some of his earlier work: in The Myth of the State, Voegelin found “no awareness that the myth is an indispensable forming element of social order though, curiously enough, in his earlier work on the philosophy of the myth Cassirer, under the influence of Schelling, had seen this problem quite clearly.”

Leo Strauss, who had written his dissertation under Cassirer, was also critical of The Myth of the State. He noted that, in Cassirer’s historical narrative, the achievements of the Enlightenment were called into question by Romanticism, with its “‘deep wish to go back to the sources of poetry.’ . . . The political insufficiency of romantic aestheticism, in its turn, paved the way for the ‘realistic’ political use of myth in the twentieth century.” (Ironically, Cassirer had made something of the same connection in The Myth of the State.) But Strauss then turned this characterization against Cassirer himself, asking, “Is not aestheticism the essence of his own doctrine?” By this, Strauss seems to have meant Cassirer’s failure to elaborate an ethical philosophy that would provide the grounds for a critique of the Nazi state. Strauss quotes Cassirer’s observation about Plato: “No modern writer would ever think of inserting his objections to poetry and art into a work dealing with politics. We see no connection between the two problems.” Strauss then objects: “But is not the obvious connection between politics and ‘art,’ according to Plato as well as other philosophers, that both must be subservient to morality?” For our purposes, what is interesting about Strauss’s comment is not simply its preoccupation with the source of morality but also its diagnosis of an ambivalence at the heart of Cassirer’s work about the role of art. Though Strauss doesn’t make this point, it’s notable that in earlier work, and in essays written about the same time as The Myth of the State, Cassirer did in fact defend the ethical dimension of art, in which he found, along with reason, a counterweight to myth.

More recent critics have also judged The Myth of the State to be disappointing and/or naïve. In a fascinating recent article, Chiara Bottici accepts Voegelin’s critique of The Myth of the State but then argues that the draft of the book in Cassirer’s Nachlass (collection of posthumous unpublished material) presents a far less optimistic view of human reason. Here, Cassirer admits that myth is a permanent function of the human mind. Moreover, he implies a dialectic between reason and myth that is not far from Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (I will return to this connection later in the essay):

The fiercest and most horrible things were done in cold blood. They were ordered, regulated, calculated. These crimes were no longer crimes of passions; they were methodical crimes. There arose quite a new “science” of political crime that could be taught and that quickly was learned. This science was based on fixed and entirely “rational” principles. It proceeded in a clear and consistent way.

Bottici then asks, “Is Nazism the result of a practical regression into mythical forms of life or of the invention of a new science based on completely rational principles? But if the latter is the case, then we have to conclude that Nazism was not a sudden and possibly only German deviation in an otherwise progressive road from myth to modernity, but rather the result of the application of modern principles themselves—and, to begin with, the very principle of modern science.”

What are we to make of these differences between the Nachlass and the published book? Bottici surmises that either Cassirer’s editor cut these passages to preserve the image of Cassirer as a rationalist, or Cassirer was himself ambivalent about his insights into the potential violence of reason and suppressed these formulations in the draft that was eventually published. And yet, the tension Bottici locates between The Myth of the State and the Nachlass is apparent in the published version of The Myth of the State as well. In the central chapters of the book, Cassirer describes Niccolò Machiavelli as the inventor of a new science or technique of politics, even if one can also find an occasional recourse to myth in his works. Cassirer thus implicitly raises the question of the relationship between Machiavelli’s technique and modern political techniques. And later, discussing the Romantic and Hegelian reception of Machiavelli, Cassirer writes that “Machiavellism showed its true face and its real danger when its principles were later applied to a larger scene and to entirely new political consequences. In this sense we may say that the consequences of Machiavelli’s theory were not brought to light until our own age,” and until “our modern forms of dictatorship.” Here Cassirer himself suggests something like a dialectic of enlightenment or at least of rational technique that paradoxically brings forth what he describes as “the most uncouth and uncompromising materialism in political life.” Continue reading …

Kahn’s essay argues that Ernst Cassirer’s thinking about the spontaneity of form-giving in the creation of art, which he allies to the ethical dimension of Judaism, informs his critique of fascism inThe Myth of the State. Aesthetics, for Cassirer, is not divorced from politics but one of its conditions of possibility.

VICTORIA KAHN teaches English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. Her most recent book is The Future of Illusion: Political Theology and Early Modern Texts (Chicago, 2014). Her new book, The Trouble with Literature, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press in March.

Graphic Performativity

Powers of the Script: Prescription and Performance in Turn-of-the-Century France

by Antoine Lentacker

For all their concern with the nature of medical authority, historians of medicine have paid remarkably little attention to the history of the medical script, the main medium in and through which the doctor’s authority is enacted. This essay analyzes the medical prescription as an instance of a written performative. While focusing on the changing uses of one particular documentary genre in turn-of-the-twentieth-century France, it seeks to outline a broader theory of graphic performativity, or of the conditions under which the symbolic power of the oral performance is transferred and transformed as it is transcribed on paper.

The essay begins:

 

Although a somewhat stern personality, Paul Brouardel, dean of the Paris School of Medicine, enjoyed an occasional night out at the theater. On one such night in the late 1890s he had found himself particularly entertained by a vaudeville scene that had some relevance to his line of work, so he decided to relate it to his students. That scene, in his summary, involved an on-duty physician at a fictive theater who, longing for a night off, left his seat to a friend who was a stranger to the medical arts. By a stroke of fate, a young lady in attendance that night finds herself unwell, and all eyes turn toward the man occupying the on-call doctor’s seat. Put on the spot, the doctor’s friend quickly realizes he has no way out, so he rushes to the patient’s side, unlaces her corset, and, for good measure, pretends to write up a prescription, scribbling a few words without rhyme or reason on a slip of paper and signing it as illegibly as he could. While the ink is still drying, the script is snatched out of his hands and an usher is dispatched with it to the nearest pharmacy. Thankfully, the potion he returns with has the effect everyone counts on, and the indisposed spectator promptly recovers her health.

How are we to interpret such a scene? Is it that the prescription is useless? If a cure can be effected with a prescription that is senseless, illegible, and apocryphal—hence flawed in all the ways that seem to matter—what added value, we might ask, is there in the proper prescriptions of licensed and qualified physicians? Or is it on the contrary that the prescription does it all? That the accuracy of the diagnosis and the nature of the drug prescribed matter less in achieving the desired effect than the ritual of the prescription itself? Brouardel did not tell his students. Instead, he deemed the story “very fitting in a comedy, but not so in practice” and proceeded to lecture his audience on the need to write prescriptions clearly and legibly. Only later, in an article of 1905, did he appear to ponder what might have been the implicit lesson of the comedy he had delighted in ten years earlier:

The first source of the efficacy of the physician’s action is the trust that the sick place in him. The patient complies with and fulfills prescriptions in whole only if he surrenders completely to the authority of his physician. Trust sustains his moral fortitude; moral fortitude acts upon physiological processes; hope restores strength and resilience in the struggle against disease. The lack of trust has the opposite effect. Prescriptions fail to be fully observed; despair takes hold of the patient and recovery is compromised.

This essay follows Brouardel’s lead in accounting for the double nature of the prescription as both a drug to be consumed and an order to be trusted and obeyed. While suspending judgment on his psychophysiological speculations, it also sees the efficacy of the prescription as residing in an alchemy of words and gestures as much as in a chemistry of substances, and it sets out to describe what this symbolic efficacy owes to the form and medium in which the prescription is administered.

To name and analyze the symbolic powers of the medical script, I shall argue, we need a concept of graphic performativity. In elaborating this concept, two main pitfalls ought to be eschewed. The first mistake would be to locate the powers of performative speech in speech itself rather than in the relations of power between speakers and their addressees. Instead, we need to understand performativity as John Austin originally did—namely, as a theory of ritual whose efficacy is linked to a number of sociohistorical, as well as linguistic, conditions. Of the “conditions of felicity” of performative speech, the first to be mentioned in How to Do Things with Words is the “position of the speaker”: to produce its effect, ritual speech must be delivered by the “person appointed” to do so. Socially efficacious speech, in other words, is inseparable from the casts of socially codified roles in which speech is produced. In this sense, a theory of the performative speaks to the vaudeville scene Brouardel related to his students. The prescription in that instance worked its magic only because its author was, quite literally, in the doctor’s place, and also of course because he was a man of a certain age and poise, the sort of man who could claim doctors among his friends. Furthermore, it speaks to a rich historiography on the changing roles of doctors, patients, and (to a lesser degree) pharmacists in nineteenth-century medicine, a body of work in which few subjects have been as thoroughly investigated as has the struggle of an institutionalized medical profession for the exclusive authority to diagnose and to prescribe.

The opposite pitfall, however, would be to view the script as merely registering or reflecting relations of power constituted elsewhere and by other means. Authority is relational, and so it ought to be examined through its media as well as through its figures or possessors. On this the historiography has less to offer. For all their interest in the deployment of professional authority, medical historians have left the prescription, the main medium in and through which the doctor’s authority is expressed and enacted, virtually unattended. And so does Austin, whose performatives are typically oral performances engaging a kind of spectacle of the speech act. While there is no doubt that prescribing is a performative in Austin’s sense, a speech act whose proper performance endows words with a certain binding force and validity, it is an act deposited in a graphic artifact and mediated by it. Once the patient walks away from the stage of the medical consultation, the performance is over and only a script remains. Hence the specific question here is: How to do things with written words? As a general rule, writing frees the powers of speech from the body of the speaker, even as it threatens to undermine these powers by severing the link to the performance and performer from which they emanate. This means that there are specific conditions of felicity to the written performative—and specific ways it can go wrong.

By graphic performativity, then, I refer to the ways in which the graphic artifact captures and transforms the powers of the oral performance as it is transcribed on paper. My argument takes aim throughout at what might be termed a fetishism of the document. Documents do not attest, authorize, or document on their own, but only within shifting scriptural usages, practices, and institutions. To illustrate this point, I focus on one specific moment in the history of the medical script and examine it from the viewpoint of the three main figures involved in acting it out—physicians, pharmacists, and patients. The special attention the genre attracted in fin de siècle France resulted from the rise of a vast proprietary drug industry whose products were advertised in newspapers and available over the counter. France was not unique in this, but, for reasons explained in the first section of the essay, it was exemplary. French physicians during this period registered with unique acuity the erosive effects of printed medical advice on the authority of the script. Their conversations on the subject generated the trove of sources on which this essay relies. The next two sections consider the matter from the perspective of the pharmacist who judges the validity of the doctor’s note. This allows for a description of some of the concrete ways in which the script creates or loses a connection to the original scene of its production. The final section returns to the effect of the prescription on the patient. Its goal is to reveal the script as a medium in which the subject positions of physician and patient were not merely mirrored but also at once made, maintained, and destabilized. Continue reading …

ANTOINE LENTACKER is Assistant Professor of History at the University of California, Riverside. His work is broadly dedicated to investigating the effects of changing communication technologies on the governing of people and things in Europe since 1800.

Looking and Geological Time

Staring into the Abyss of Time

by Stephanie O’Rourke

The essay begins:

Beneath the rock, more rock. It stretches deep into the earth in layered deposits of sandstone and shale, whose limits extend far beyond the edges of the plate. The engraving of the Harz Mountains [above], first published in 1785, depicts the textured surface of a quarry face recessed within a grassy landscape. To the right, a single figure ascends a hill toward a built enclosure. To the left, the curtain of the earth’s surface has been cut away to reveal a hypothetical cross section of its unseen depths. The composition symmetrically divides the realm of the human from that of the geological, with the quarry in the center acting as a fitting intermediary; it is, after all, a site where matter is “unearthed” by human labor and converted into resources. But within a few decades of this print’s publication, the preferred geological illustration of choice looked rather different, as an early example of a “stratigraphic diagram” found in Georges Cuvier and Alexandre Brongniart’s Essai sur la géographie minéralogique des environs de Paris makes clear [right]. Decorative elements borrowed from topographical landscape drawing have been abandoned, and the human figure is excluded altogether. Instead, rock strata are organized along a vertical axis whose annotations reflect both their relative depth and the geological era in which they were thought to have formed. In late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century stratigraphic diagrams, geological history came into view for the first time, pictured as a function of depth.

The distinctions between these two kinds of illustrations may seem subtle, but the emphasis the stratigraphic diagram placed on geological history reflected a broader scientific preoccupation with the relative age of different rock formations. While not itself antagonistic to human-centric time scales, this kind of illustration participated in the emergence of a new model of geological history that left little room for human history, human agency, or human experience. Whereas the cross section of the Harz Mountains integrated the human scale and the geological scale, whose compositional elements were presented in symmetrical harmony, human elements were purged in later stratigraphic illustrations or relegated to a small detail atop the uppermost strata along with the mise-en-scène of the landscape. In the intervening decades, scientists and savants alike were coming to terms with radically new accounts of how and when the earth was formed. The chronological scale used to measure geological history continually expanded as naturalists attributed ever-greater temporal depths to the rock formations that populated their world. And, correspondingly, human history occupied an increasingly small portion of that geological record; the human figure in [the Harz Mountain] illustration was, in a sense, shrinking. This trend reached its fullest expression in the concept of “deep time” put forward by the Scottish geologist James Hutton in the final decades of the eighteenth century. Hutton proposed that the earth’s formation took place over such a long period of time that it could not even be comprehended in terms of the time scale of human history, rendering human history comparatively inconsequential. As the sweep of geological time grew in the early nineteenth century, “human tenure on the planet” came to seem, in the words of Noah Heringman, “insignificant.” But in other quarters, the geological and the human were still being figured alongside each other.

Atop the rock, man. The German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich, known for his love of the Harz Mountains, pictured a strikingly different early nineteenth-century encounter between the human and the geological in his Wanderer Above a Sea of Clouds. From a granite outcropping, an eponymous wanderer placidly surveys the rocky mountain formations shrouded in mist below him and the faintly rendered peaks that flicker into view in the distance. The figure’s physical elevation over his environment and his panoramic view suggest the fantasy of a geological landscape visually possessed and perhaps also physically mastered by the human subject. Long used as a kind of art-historical shorthand for European Romanticism in general, the painting has more recently been taken as emblematic of a model of early nineteenth-century bourgeois subjectivity concomitant with the rise of modern spectatorial practices: “the ascendancy of newly realized bourgeois aspirations, fantasies of autonomy” that, Jonathan Crary writes, “permitted at least an optical appropriation” of the natural world, if not a literal one. Like Crary’s, a number of influential accounts of the painting grant interpretive priority to how the painting frames the role and status of the human figure qua a perceptual encounter with nature, whether mediated or direct.

Yet as a cursory inspection of the two aforementioned geological illustrations makes clear, this was a period in which the relationship between the human and the natural was undergoing extraordinary changes within mainstream scientific discourses—and in ways that posed significant challenges for the dominance assumed by a very model of subjectivity predicated on the unconstrained visual appropriation of the natural world Friedrich’s protagonist seems to experience. Might this figure be poised not on a precipice but along a widening fault line between conflicting models of historical and natural time? After all, [the Harz Mountain] illustration and Friedrich’s painting are not as intellectually and historically distant from each other as we might assume. Mining and geology were important elements of a constellation of cultural practices within which European Romantic thinkers like Friedrich engaged with and conceptualized nature. “It would have been difficult,” Theodore Ziolkowsi notes, “to assemble a group of intellectuals in any of the centers of German Romanticism without including at least one or two guests who were somehow involved with mining” in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Both Johann von Goethe and Georg von Hardenberg (better known as Novalis) were employed overseeing regional mines. Goethe even wrote rapturous lines about geological formations in his 1785 essay “Über den Granit.” As several scholars have noted, Friedrich himself possessed a genuine interest in geology and mountaineering and lived near one of Europe’s foremost centers of geological research for most of his adult life. It is apparent that Friedrich’s work might have both practical and conceptual points of contact with late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century geological discourse.

From this perspective, we might consider whether several of Friedrich’s works—and especially Wanderer—picture a perceptual encounter between the human and the natural that discloses not the sovereignty of bourgeois subjectivity in this period but rather its precarity in the face of divergent models of historical and natural time. In what follows, I reexamine Friedrich’s art with a particular eye to how it frames nature and history, on its own terms and also in relation to larger trends in German Romantic thought. By placing the “geological” aspects of his work within its broader scientific context, it becomes clear that a model of subjectivity predicated on spectatorship—and particularly the act of observing the natural world—was coming under extraordinary pressure in the early decades of the nineteenth century. As an encounter between the human and the geological, do paintings like Wanderer point toward the ascendance of bourgeois subjectivity or to its imagined annihilation? Continue reading …

Art historian Stephanie O’Rourke here examines the role of geological time in the work of the German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich in the early nineteenth century. Her essay foregrounds the challenges this model of time posed for the relationship between the human and the natural—a relationship usually considered central to Friedrich’s work—and for the perceptual powers of the viewing subject.

STEPHANIE O’ROURKE is a Lecturer in Art History at the University of St Andrews, where she specializes in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European art and visual culture.

Charismatic Talk

Talk That Talk: Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis and the Seductions of a Form

by Matthew Hunter

The essay begins:

England’s Parnassus has long been studied for what it includes. Published in 1600, the printed commonplace book culls together passages from Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, and other lodestars of its fin de siècle moment. The inclusion of such vernacular authors sets England’s Parnassus apart from the commonplace books that came before it, which anthologized only writers of classical antiquity. It also aligns the volume with more recently printed commonplace books, like Francis Meres’s Palladis Tamia (1598) and John Bodenham’s Bel-vedere, or The Garden of the Muses (1600), which collectively ushered in what Zachary Lesser and Peter Stallybrass have called “a novel conception of commonplacing,” whereby “‘Moderne and extent Poets,’ who wrote in the culturally and geographically marginal vernacular of English, [are treated] as suitable authorities on which to base an entire commonplace book.” But England’s Parnassus is just as notable for what it leaves out. When the coy Adonis, in Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, resists the advances of the goddess of love, he protests by urging her to “Call it not love, since love to heaven is fled, / Since sweating lust on earth usurped the name.” It is just one of the many aphorisms from the poem that Robert Allott, the book’s editor, excerpts. But that is not quite how the passage goes in England’s Parnassus. “—Love to heaven is fled,” it reads, “Since sweating lust on earth usurpt the name.” As a heavy dash effaces the metalanguage that begins Adonis’s pronouncement, England’s Parnassus offers an early modern example of the transcultural tendency, documented by Greg Urban, for transcriptions to delete the metalanguage that marks them as transcribable in the first place, “as if the metadiscursive portions of the discourse were invisible (or inaudible) and yet capable of exercising an effect.”

So far as Adonis’s aphorism is concerned, Urban’s parenthesis is crucial. An imperative to speak that is itself spoken, Adonis’s metadiscursive “call” is a particularly self-conscious reminder that the many aphorisms of Venus and Adonis are part of an extended conversational exchange. In fact, although it is rife with passages of lush and alluring description, the epyllion resembles nothing so much as a dialogue, since its primary narrative action comes from the heated discourse that unites its two protagonists. Shakespeare’s most outrageously successful poem, in other words, is also his chattiest, and the aphorism is its principle form of talk. By deleting Shakespeare’s metalanguage, however, England’s Parnassus deletes the words that give Shakespeare’s aphorisms their situated, conversational force. The excision would seem to have set a standard for the criticism that has flourished in its wake. While scholars have been rightly attentive to the place of Venus and Adonis in early modern sexualities, or in the formation of Shakespeare’s durable career, or even in the history of rhetoric, the poem’s remarkably dialogic texture would seem to have been taken for granted.

This essay reads with Allott’s commonplace book and also against it. It returns Shakespeare’s aphorisms to their most significant context, the amorous conversations of Venus and Adonis, in order to show how the form flourishes in that poem as a potent and seductive form of talk. In this respect, Venus and Adonis does not simply reflect early modern attitudes toward the aphorism; it actively shapes them. The poem’s outsized popularity—it was reprinted ten times during Shakespeare’s lifetime—came in no small part from the way readers reproduced its aphorisms in their own conversations, in just the way that its protagonists encouraged: that is, erotically. Like other works from the early modern period, Venus and Adonis celebrates the aphorism as a model of conversational competence, but it takes that celebration a step further by turning the budding early modern art of conversation into just the erotic practice that, as Jeffrey Masten has recently reminded us, its etymology implies.

This essay follows upon Masten’s investigation into the multiple early modern meanings of “conversation:” “interchange of thoughts and words,” “intimacy,” “sexual intercourse,” and “conversion.” But it departs from his avowedly philological approach in order to consider not iterations of the word “conversation” but one especially erotic (and especially popular) enactment of conversation. By drawing together talk and desire, using the former to illuminate the latter, I extend to early modern studies the methodologies and critical frameworks of a field that has come to be called “language-in-use.” Language-in-use treats as its foundation what Charles Sanders Peirce called the indexical—or pragmatic—nature of language: the way words are saturated with meaning through the situated occasion of their use, as the empty pronoun “I” most readily demonstrates. Resisting literary analyses that, in the words of Michael Lucey and Thomas McEnaney, “seem to arise out of the encounter between a critic’s intellect and a text understood as a thing to be contemplated by that intellect,” language-in-use studies “how a work’s form, how the forming of a work, connects it (indexically) to the social world from which it emerges and also to the social worlds through which it circulates.” At the same time, the indexicality of language demands our consideration not only of how words absorb meanings from the contexts of their delivery, like a sponge in water, but also of how language meta-indexically—or metapragmatically—construes the very occasion of its unfolding.

The aphorism is at once indexical and constitutive of social relations. In Shakespeare’s moment as in ours, it is a form most readily associated with wisdom, learning, and erudition. We might think of these qualities as the aphorism’s pragmatic effect, the intersubjective meaning that the form communicates without making explicit in the moment of its utterance. Yet it is worth stressing from the outset that such meanings are in no way inherent or unvarying. As Asif Agha observes in an important treatment of language and social formations, “Cultural value is not a static property of things or people but a precipitate of sociohistorically locatable practices.” Any form is a relay of social relations, but if those relations ever seem essential or fixed—a property internal to the form—that is only because of how durably the form has been saturated with cultural value through reflexive and historically contingent occasions of use. In other words, the pragmatic effects of a form—didacticism, say, or wisdom—are metapragmatically achieved. Venus and Adonis is particularly illustrative of this achievement because it works to construe the social effects of the aphorism as erotic effects. Not only does the poem enlist the aphorism in seductive moments of talk, but it also metapragmatically accords the aphorism a metapragmatic effect of its own: in use, the aphorism frames the occasion of talk as just the erotic experience that Masten describes.

That sexual power comes from the aphorism’s two-pronged manipulation of conversation and contact. First, the aphorism indexes a speaker’s attention to—and respect for—talk as a collaborative undertaking. The form’s brevity projects a speaker who is not so caught up in his emotions, his anxieties, or his own words as to lose sight of the others to whom he speaks and from whom he solicits a reply. In this respect, the aphorism is a form of mastery. Its pith is the expression and the performative accomplishment of a presence of mind—call it composure—in the midst of the most demanding of social tasks. For Shakespeare’s Venus and the many readers who quoted her, seduction is one particularly demanding such task; it rouses the nerves, excites the body, and risks a humiliating loss of face. The aphorism offers a counterbalance to such challenges. It projects a speaker whose bodily excitations are held in check, who is assured in speech, and who is, accordingly, entirely present.

That presence turns the speaker into an erotic object, a figure who is fully open to his addressee. Yet the eroticism of the aphorism is just as much an effect of its curious self-effacement. As a pointedly brief expression of universal truth, the form announces that “fresh talk has momentarily ceased,” as Erving Goffman puts it, and “an anonymous authority wider and different from ourselves is suddenly being invoked.” The aphorism thus makes its speaker both charismatically present and alluringly, even seductively, withholding. The effect of that opacity is to draw us in. In projecting a speaker who is as absent as he is present, who is as withholding as he is composed, the aphorism issues an unspoken invitation, soliciting further contact from the speakers to whom it is addressed. This silent invitation brims at the heart of even modern-day aphorisms—think of the way pithy, seemingly profound declarations create speakers we want to hear more from—but in Venus and Adonis, it is pointedly sexualized. The invitation to talk, in this poem, is also an invitation to sex.

By framing the speaker as an erotic object, the aphorism simultaneously frames the conversation as itself an erotic encounter. This is the second, corollary effect of the aphorism, as indeed it is of any speech act meant to frame its speaker as a sexual object, since a definition of the self is always also a definition of the situation in which the self speaks. Yet what properly distinguishes the aphorisms of Venus and Adonis is the fantasy the poem generates about their use. As a poeticized conversation in which both parties trade aphorism for aphorism, Venus and Adonis unfolds as a script for how conversation might go, and, according to this script, the aphorism’s seductive power is to invite the addressee to respond with an aphorism of his or her own, as Adonis does when Venus courts him, so that the occasion of talk becomes a back-and-forth exchange in which each reply functions as part of a larger, unified whole. One word for such pointed exchange is stichomythia. Familiar to scholars of classical and Renaissance drama, stichomythia names idealistically formalized repartee in which alternate lines of a versified dialogue are delivered in rapid succession, drawing speakers into intimate and supercharged contact, sometimes even against their will. Such formalized repartee enjoys its fair share of treatment on the early modern stage. We might say that any instance of stichomythia produces a fantasy of how talk might go. I focus on Venus and Adonis, however, because it is the period’s most sustained attempt to embrace the eroticism that so often only simmers beneath the surface of aphoristic repartee. The aphorism is such an erotic form of talk, the poem shows, because it invites another to join in the collaborative, pleasurable improvisation of form. Sex is one of those collaborative, improvised forms. Talk is another. Continue reading …

In this essay Matthew Hunter draws upon the work of Erving Goffman and Michael Silverstein to read Shakespeare’s first poem as a guide to mastering the burgeoning early modern art of conversation. The epyllion follows the conversation manuals of its day in embracing the aphorism as a charismatic form of talk, but it departs from its precedents in attributing to the aphorism an overtly erotic force. By according to the aphorism the power to turn conversation into an erotic encounter, Venus and Adonis elaborates its period’s most seductive fantasy of talk.

MATTHEW HUNTER is Assistant Professor of English at Texas Tech University. He has just completed the manuscript of his first book, The Pursuit of Style in Early Modern Drama, which studies the panoply of styles that early modern plays codified as scripts for interacting in a newly public world.

Resistance by Art

Slow Protest in the Occupation of Cambodia’s White Building

by Brianne Cohen

The essay begins:

 

In 2011, artist Khvay Samnang offered “piggyback” rides to residents and visitors of the White Building in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, as part of his performance piece, Samnang Cow Taxi. Titled colloquially with his given name, it was a humble undertaking. Khvay wore handmade cow horns (fig. 1) and, despite his svelte frame, humorously carried people on his back as if he were a robust workhorse. Evoking the water buffalo, a laboring animal crucial to Cambodian agricultural practices, seemed an odd choice for someone ferrying people around the more urban setting of the White Building. Moreover, the taxi ride seemed to grant a touristic gaze for nonresidents of the dilapidated public housing complex. Yet the physical intimacy of the gesture, as well as the slowness and toil of it, lent a critical edge to the playful jaunt around the famous white apartment structure, transformed into a muddy gray from decades of neglect. The White Building was erected in 1963 as a modernist, utopian experiment in public housing. It was created soon after Cambodia’s independence in 1953 as part of a socially optimistic, homegrown wave of New Khmer Architecture, and it was intended to house civil servants and municipal workers. After the devastating Khmer Rouge regime collapsed in 1979, many returned to the city in need of housing, and the modest apartments were repopulated with dancers, musicians, artists, and filmmakers. Khvay’s own practice has been deeply indebted to the site and people of the White Building, and his slow, caring, arduous gesture highlighted a community of residents who, like the building itself, have been historically subject to state neglect, inattention, and habitual violence.

Today the building no longer stands. It was razed in July and August 2017 in order to make way for a new $80 million development by a private Japanese firm. The government had long threatened demolition of the White Building, claiming that the neighborhood was overrun with drugs, petty crime, prostitution, and poverty. Against this stigmatization, the artist collective, Stiev Selapak, roughly translated as “Art Rebels,” established an experimental arts space in the building, Sa Sa Art Projects, in order to raise positive publicity for its vibrant neighborhood of skilled cultural and municipal workers. “Sa Sa” is an abbreviation of Stiev Selapak, and the group is composed of three members: Khvay Samnang, Lim Sokchanlina, and Vuth Lyno. Yet despite their community efforts, the White Building’s five hundred households were more or less forced to sell their apartments to the development company and were evicted with minimal compensation. The land, after all, is in a desirable central location near the riverfront. After many years of resistance, the dynamic neighborhood was finally dispelled.

In this article, I argue that the artistic efforts of Stiev Selapak and many others to save the White Building constituted a form of what I term slow protest. In a sense, they worked to artistically “institutionalize” the building in order to validate its importance for local, national, and international audiences. This process of art institutionalization was effected through more “official” programs, such as educational initiatives, a physical and online archive, and the establishment of a regionally oriented artist residency. Yet it also assumed more “vernacular” avenues of institutionalization, through temporary experimental performances and collaborations with neighborhood residents, which emphasized the everyday, changing life of the building. Samnang Cow Taxi is an instance of the latter….

…In the end, Stiev Selapak’s and other artists’ attempts to institutionalize the White Building signaled an ethos of slow protest through occupation. Plainly, the building was a site of inhabitation, but by “occupation,” I mean also to evoke questions of political assembly and resistance to regime-made disasters. In light of actions such as Occupy, Arab Spring, and the Umbrella Movement, scholars have recently underscored the importance of such movements’ transience. In contrast, in analyzing the longer-lived, slower protest enacted by artists for the institutionalization and preservation of the White Building, I aim to tease out temporal nuances between resistant acts of occupation and inhabitation, and, in the end, I argue for the value of more permanent, intergenerational, and infrastructural forms of resistance that often receive less critical attention. The idea of slow protest signals the need for a type of activism that may not be immediate or spectacular, as in the case of revolution, but that could be more habitual, accretive, or eroding; less instantly recognizable; and geared more toward questions of maintenance and transformative infrastructure. Continue reading …

In this short Field Note in our current issue, art historian Brianne Cohen describes a resistance process she calls slow protest. She argues that through this process the Cambodian art collective Stiev Selapak and many others attempted to save Phnom Penh’s iconic White Building by working to artistically “institutionalize” the building in order to visualize and scaffold a more “official” space of appearance – physical and virtual – for its precarious inhabitants. Such slow protest served as a more durational instance of occupation, or resistance to state violence through political assembly.

BRIANNE COHEN is an Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Her research focuses on contemporary art in the public sphere, primarily in Europe and Southeast Asia, and she is the co-editor of the anthology The Photofilmic: Entangled Images in Contemporary Art and Visual Culture (Leuven University Press and Cornell University Press, 2016).