Questions of Poetics Symposium

On Friday, September 23, Representations board member and co-editor of the special issue, “Financialization and the Culture Industry,” C. D. Blanton, will participate in a symposium on Barrett Watten’s Questions of Poetics: Language Writing and Consequences at UC Berkeley.

Blanton is Associate Professor of English at the University of California at Berkeley. His research interests include modernist literature and thought generally, as well as the long history of post-romantic verse. He is the author of Epic Negation: The Dialectical Poetics of Late Modernism (Oxford, forthcoming) and co-editor of two volumes of postwar poetry: Pocket Epics: British Poetry After Modernism (Yale Journal of Criticism) and A Concise Companion to Postwar British and Irish Poetry (Blackwell). He is currently working on a project on the end(s) of modernist aesthetics.

Lyn Hejinian will host the symposium, which takes place from 1–2:30PM in room D1 of the Hearst Field Annex, on the UC Berkeley campus. Other participants include Jane Gregory, Donna V. Jones, Andrew Key, Charles Altieri and Barrett Watten.

Improvisational Conceptuality

The Point of Precision
by Kathleen Stewart

The essay begins…

ANNIE DILLARD’S Pilgrim at Tinker Creek opens with a series of scenes attuned to “the unthinkable profusion of forms” encountered in her daily walks in the woods; “the inrush of power and light … the curl of a stem” are not just sensory details described, but material-aesthetic registers of what Wallace Stevens called “the mobile and immobile flickering / In the area between is and was.” A “form gulping after formlessness” that can “seem physical if the eye is quick enough.”

This is what Derek McCormack calls a “radical empiricism,” here entrained on a bid, according to Félix Guattari, to “capture existence in the very act of its constitution.” Here, the act of description, then, is a peering, accidental glimpse of what matters—what comes into matter in the cocomposition of objects in contact, what shifts its matter in a moment of recognizable, though unnamed and partial, significance. Isabelle Stengers calls this a “vivid pragmatics.” Erin Manning and Brian Massumi, following Alfred North Whitehead’s theory of the prehension of all things, call it “thought in the act”: “Every practice is a mode of thought. . . . To dance: a thinking in movement. To paint: a thinking in color. To perceive in the everyday: a thinking of the world’s varied ways of affording itself.”

Dillard’s description of her walks in the woods is not a report of finished events and known entities but a realism of prismatically energetic states: “Mountains are giant, restful, absorbent”; “light . . . suddenly runs across the land like a comber, and up the trees, and goes again in a wink.” Things radically perform their capacities. A mockingbird takes a single step off a roof gutter into the air. “Just a breath before he would have been dashed to the ground, he unfurled his wings with exact, deliberate care . . . and so floated onto the grass.”

Thought and practice, telling and sensing, foreground and background, fuse in a soft focus trained on tonal differences, a spark of color, a modulation in tempo, the half-patterned expressivity of a scene teemingly differentiated and marked by thresholds of matter. Subjects and objects are at once taken aback and literally transformed by their own self-surprised acts and effects.

This essay proposes a kind of critique aimed at approaching the improvisatory conceptuality of ordinary forms emergent in everyday life. Using a slowed ethnographic attention to the immanent aesthetics of objects, it argues that the singularities through which forms take place animate both event and perception.

KATHLEEN STEWART teaches anthropology by means of writing experiments at the University of Texas, Austin. Her books include A Space on the Side of the Road (Princeton), Ordinary Affects (Duke), Worlding (forthcoming from Duke), and, with Lauren Berlant, The Hundreds (in preparation).

Describing Behaviors

Observable Behavior 1–10
by Liza Johnson

The essay begins…

1. IN ACTING, BEHAVIOR IS A word for observable gestures, pulses of affect. It is a primary craft element of screen performance; alongside dialogue and action, it is one of the main ways that anything becomes legible in cinema—character, plot, meaning. It’s also the element that is generally unscripted, so, for actors, behavior is a site of invention and interpretation. It’s very rare that a screenplay dictates behavior: ‘‘She bites her lip,’’ or, ‘‘He lurches a little to one side.’’

2. Some people rely a lot on observing behavior. Everyone does it, but not everyone does it in the same way, and not everyone is good at it. At least in my experience, if you’re outside a culture or a friend group, or in figurative or literal ways you don’t speak the language, you must rely on observing behavior. It makes other people think you have ESP, when in fact you are really using sensory perception in a way that culture would prefer you didn’t.

It is said that the children of addicts and other erratic parties are especially good at this kind of observation, of reading all the surfaces of the world all the time. I like to think of it as a special skill that is learned eccentrically, outside the academy. This may be one of the reasons that acting remains a semidemocratic site of class mobility, because the things that make you really good at observing or reproducing behavior are unsystematic, unpredictable, or at least not the same things that get you into Harvard.

There are different words for this: if you want to pathologize, you call it hypervigilance; if you want to psychoanalyze, you call it projective identification; or if you are an actor of a particular training, you might also liken it to Anne Bogart’s viewpoint of kinesthetic response.

Behavior comes before language, before affect can be named as feeling, or explained or narrated, or described in words. It is arguably one word for the legible pulses of affect that people can pretend are illegible, so you seem psychic if you recognize them.

In this “listicle,” filmmaker Liza Johnson proposes ten ways of thinking about—and looking at—behavior, through her own and others’ films and writing.

LIZA JOHNSON is an artist and filmmaker. Her feature films include Elvis and Nixon (2016), Hateship Loveship (2013) and Return (2011.) Her short films and installations include South of Ten (2005), In the Air (2009), and, with Elizabeth Povinelli and the Karrabing Indigenous Corporation, Karrabing: Low Tide Turning. She is Professor of Art at Williams College.

Building a Better Description

Introduction to the special issue Description Across Disciplines
edited by Sharon Marcus, Heather Love, and Stephen Best

The introduction begins …

Academics don’t necessarily know what description is, but they know they don’t like it. “That talk was wonderfully descriptive; let’s give him the job”—said no one ever. When scholars from multiple disciplines gather to evaluate grant proposals, they can usually agree on one thing: the wisdom of rejecting any project they consider “merely descriptive.” And at least one university department’s grading rubric formalizes its low judgment of work that “is correct but largely descriptive, lacking analysis” by assigning such papers a C. Boring and static, rote rather than creative, reproductive rather than productive: description in such moments does not even rise to the status of a necessary evil. Instead, it is defined by failure or falling short: lacking a compelling argument or organizing perspective; insufficiently self-conscious of its own procedures; basic in the bad sense of naive and mechanical. Even the clearest accounts of description often contrast it to what it is not—not interpretation, not explanation, not prediction, not prescription.

Yet description is everywhere, a ubiquitous and necessary condition of scholarship, and in practice, if not in preaching, attitudes toward it vary across and within disciplines. Although scientists aim at explaining causal mechanisms and identifying predictive laws, many consider description an activity sufficiently worthy in its own right that one can find highly cited articles whose titles identify them as “descriptions”—of forest geckos, road surface roughness, molecular excitations, or valence bonds. Social scientists express more overt ambivalence about description. In 1980, economist Amartya Sen wrote, “It is fair to say that description as an intellectual activity is typically not regarded as very challenging. To characterize a work in the social sciences as ‘purely descriptive’ would not normally be regarded as high praise.” Three decades later, John Gerring similarly noted that in political science description “has come to be employed as a euphemism for a failed, or not yet proven, causal inference. Studies that do not engage causal or predictive questions, or do not do so successfully, are judged ‘merely’ descriptive.” But Sen and Gerring also contest this view by underscoring the fundamental importance of descriptions in social science and by foregrounding the skills needed to produce them. Nor are they alone. Many historians and ethnographers would say that without description, albeit of a highly interpretive kind, they could not produce historical narratives or field notes. Humanists often keep their engagement with description tacit and articulate their explicit discomfort with “mere description” by insisting (rightly) that description cannot be separated from interpretation. Even so, art historians, literary critics, and musicologists must learn to describe the paintings, sculptures, texts, and musical works that they study.

We believe that description is a core, if unacknowledged, method in all scholarship and teaching. In order to proceed, interpretations, explanations, and prescriptions must give an account of—describe—what they interpret, explain, or evaluate. Description makes objects and phenomena available for analysis and synthesis, and is rarely as simple as its critics imply. An elusive object that travels by many names, and sometimes by no name at all, description’s dictionary definitions include representation, drawing, report, portrayal, and account. Description can take many forms, including lists, case studies, sequences, taxonomies, typologies, genealogies, and prevalence studies, and it involves many actions, including observing, measuring, comparing, particularizing, generalizing, and classifying, using words, images, and numbers.

We write from the perspective of literary critics who became interested several years ago in questioning the dominance of interpretive methods in our discipline. In 2009, Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus published a special issue of Representations called “The Way We Read Now.” The introduction to that volume gathered a set of recent developments in literary studies under the rubric “surface reading,” referring to methods trained on “what is evident, perceptible, apprehensible in texts.” In 2010, Heather Love published an essay called “Close but Not Deep” that proposed the observational social sciences as a model for descriptive readings of literary texts. It was in part the controversy generated by these essays that prompted us to take a closer look at description: to assess what were widely cited as its limitations, or even dangers, and to further explore what we still imagined to be its unacknowledged and even untapped potential. What, we wondered, would it mean to acknowledge the ways that our critical and pedagogical practices make description central—to prosody, plot summary, histories of the book, even to allegorical and symptomatic interpretations? What would we learn if we widened our purview to ask scholars and practitioners from disciplines beyond literary studies to reflect on their own practices of description? Continue reading (free access until October 31, 2016) …

Universally practiced across the disciplines, description is also consistently devalued or overlooked. In this introduction to the special issue “Description Across Disciplines,” Sharon Marcus, Heather Love, and Stephen Best propose that description is a critical practice more complex (and less contradictory) than its detractors have taken it to be.  They argue that turning critical attention toward description’s nuances gives us access to the ways that scholars conventionally assign and withhold value and prestige. The authors set forth a number of principles (using their contributors’ essays as a guide) toward the end of “building a better description.”

SHARON MARCUS is Dean of Humanities and Orlando Harriman Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University as well as the co-founder and co-editor in chief of Public Books, an online review of books, arts, and ideas.

HEATHER LOVE is R. Jean Brownlee Term Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (Harvard) and the editor of a special issue of GLQ on Gayle Rubin (“Rethinking Sex”).

STEPHEN BEST is Associate Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of The Fugitive’s Properties: Law and the Poetics of Possession (University of Chicago, 2004).

New Special Issue on Description

DESCRIPTION ACROSS DISCIPLINES

edited by Sharon Marcus, Heather Love, and Stephen Best

Number 135, Summer 2016 (read on Highwire)

Now available

1.cover-source

SHARON MARCUS, HEATHER LOVE, and STEPHEN BEST
Building a Better Description (the issue introduction: free access until October 31!)

LIZA JOHNSON
Observable Behavior 1–10 

KATHLEEN STEWART
The Point of Precision

LORRAINE DASTON
Cloud Physiognomy

JOANNA STALNAKER
Description and the Nonhuman View of Nature

GEORGINA KLEEGE
Audio Description Described: Current Standards, Future Innovations, Larger Implications

CANNON SCHMITT
Interpret or Describe?

JILL MORAWSKI
Description in the Psychological Sciences

MICHAEL FRIED
No Problem

Badiou’s Paradox

Heideggerian Mathematics: Badiou’s Being and Event as Spiritual Pedagogy

by Ian Hunter

The essay begins:

This paper is an experiment in redescription and reinterpretation. It seeks to take a text that enunciates a Heideggerian metaphysics of the “event”—understood as an encounter in which a subject meets itself emerging from the “void”—and to treat this text itself as an event in a quite other sense: as an ordinary historical occurrence. I will thus be approaching Alain Badiou’s Being and Event historically, in terms of the publication of a written work, but of a highly particular kind. This is a work whose discursive structure programs a refined spiritual pedagogy, and whose composition and reception only make sense within the historical context of the elite academic-intellectual subculture in which this pedagogy operates.

If we consider that Badiou regards his text as a “metaontology” that enunciates the emergence of events and indeed of historical time itself from the domain of nonbeing, then to treat this work as a kind of writing that occurs wholly within a particular historical subculture will imbue our redescription with an indelibly polemical complexion. It should be noted at the outset, however, that this complexion arises from the choice of a particular intellectual-historical method, rather than from any normative contestation of the content of Badiou’s work. This method or stance treats even the most abstract objects of reflection as products of an open-ended array of historical intellectual arts: rhetorics of argument, formal and informal languages, mathematical calculi, “spiritual exercises,” pedagogical practices. As a result, even a mode of reflection that claims to apprehend its objects at their point of emergence from the “void” and the “unthought” will be described in terms of the contingent historical use of a particular array of such arts. These will be those arts through which a philosophical elite learns to fashion an illuminated self whom it imagines keeping watch at the threshold of the void for the emergence of things newly minted from nonbeing through their naming. It is the task of a certain kind of philosopher to fashion such a self. The task of the intellectual historian, however, is to describe the intellectual arts used in this “work of the self on the self,” and the historical circumstances and purposes governing their transmission and use. Continue reading …

This essay provides a historical redescription and reinterpretation of Alain Badiou’s major work, Being and Event. The work is approached historically, as a text that uses Heideggerian metaphysics to perform an allegorical exegesis of mathematical set theory and does so as a means of fashioning a supremacist spiritual pedagogy for a philosophical elite in the context of a national intellectual subculture.

IAN HUNTER is an emeritus professor in the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Queensland, Australia. He has published a number of studies on early modern philosophical, political, and juridical thought, most notably Rival Enlightenments: Civil and Metaphysical Philosophy in Early Modern Germany (Cambridge, 2001). Professor Hunter has also published a series of papers on the history of “theory” in the humanities academy, including “The History of Theory,” Critical Inquiry 33 (2006), and, most recently, “Hayden White’s Philosophical History,” New Literary History 45 (2014).

T. J. Clark Lecture

NASSR 2016 poster finalOn Friday, August 12, T. J. Clark will give one of two keynote lectures for the 24th Annual Conference of the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism (NASSR). The lecture, “Too Deep for the Vulgar: Hazlitt on Turner and Blake,” will take place at 6 pm in room 2050 of the Valley Life Sciences Building at UC Berkeley.

Clark is Professor Emeritus of Modern Art at Berkeley and was a long-time member of the Representations editorial board. His books and other writings, several of which found form originally in Representations, have influenced a generation of scholars.

The NASSR conference will take place from August 11 to 14 at various venues in Berkeley. More information and a full program are available at http://nassrberkeley2016.wordpress.com/.

Fireworks from the Archive

If you need a little respite from neighborhood shenanigans this weekend, consider these two flares from the Representations archive:

Michael Rogin’s “The Two Declarations of Independence”

and

“Glenn Ligon and Other Runaway Subjects” by Huey Copeland

In the former, Michael Rogin asks “What is the bearing of our radicalized national culture on the color-blind innovation of individual rights?” Discussing the American Declaration of Independence in light of the affirmative action debates of the 1990s, Rogin traces the declaration’s legacy through race relations in both the old and the new Hollywoods.

Less well known than Rogin’s other writings on race and film, this short essay appeared in Representations‘ special issue “Race and Representation: Affirmative Action,” edited by Robert Post and Michael Rogin in 1996. The issue quickly went out of print, but is now back in circulation in pdf format.

MICHAEL ROGIN was the author of many books on race, culture, politics, and history, including Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot and Independence Day, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Enola Gay. He taught for many years at the University of California, Berkeley, and was a founding member of the Representations editorial board.

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Am I Not a Man and a Brother? Woodcut, 1837. Courtesy Library of Congress

Am I Not a Man and a Brother? Woodcut, 1837. Courtesy Library of Congress

Huey Copeland’s 2011 essay “Glenn Ligon and Other Runaway Subjects” looks at contemporary artist Glenn Ligon’s multiple engagements with the history of American slavery, particularly as evinced by his 1993 installation To Disembark. As Copeland shows, in casting himself as a runaway slave, Ligon points up the relationships between regimes of power, violence, and resistance that continue to produce black subjects as fugitives in life and in representation.

HUEY COPELAND is Associate Professor of Art History at Northwestern University, where he teaches modern and contemporary art. He is the author of Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America.

Symposium on Imagination

Symposium on the Imagination

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Natura Morta, 1956, Giorgio Morandi

Friday, Feb 19, 2016 | 9:00 am to 4:30 pm
Geballe Room, 220 Stephens Hall, UC Berkeley

A day-long conversation exploring the riches of the imagination among scholars, including Representations editors and authors David Bates, Victoria Kahn, Anthony Long, Mary Ann Smart, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, and Paula Varsano.

From Death Mask to Portrait Bust

A Case of Corporate Identity: The Multiplied Face of Saint Antonino of Florence

by Urte Krass

The essay begins:

Strolling through an Italian diocesan museum or an exhibition on the art of the Italian Renaissance, a visitor will inevitably encounter many images of saints, alone or in groups, presenting themselves and their attributes to viewers inside and outside the picture within which they are framed. After a while, any reasonably observant viewer will notice that there is one face that stands out from the crowd of painted saints: that of Saint Bernardino of Siena, the Franciscan preacher and vicar general who died in 1444 and was canonized only six years later. One of the innumerable examples of this uniquely recognizable face is Antonio Colantonio’s Saint Francis Giving the Rule to His Disciples in the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples (fig. 1). In the group of men on the left, the saints have been given individual faces by the careful artist. But Bernardino’s face seems markedly different; it seems to stem from our own world, whereas the individualization of the neighboring saints reminds us more of faces in the medieval sample books used in workshops. The beholder’s gaze is compelled by Bernardino’s authentic, emaciated, recognizable features, which are in stark contrast to the other saints’ obviously fictive faces.

KrassPrintFig1

Figure 1

Bernardino of Siena is the first saint whose face, that is, its recognizable physiognomy, is his most important attribute, and the first saint who, thus, can always be recognized even without other identifying characteristics. This is explained mainly by the fact that he was the first Christian saint whose death mask left its traces in further representations of him. Painters and sculptors would copy this mask when they wanted to represent the venerated mendicant friar. As a result, in fifteenth-century Italy, a new visual medium was invented for representing the saints: the veristic saint’s portrait bust, modeled after—or even directly from—the death mask. Continue reading …

This article focuses on the development of portrait busts of saints beginning in the early Renaissance. The category of the portrait bust, which emerged slightly before 1440, is characterized by its reference to—and at times even integration of—the death mask of the recently deceased saint. As such, these images must be seen in close relation to traditional head and bust reliquaries. The particular group of busts showing the features of the Florentine archbishop Antonino Pierozzi is here analyzed through hitherto obscure written sources, and the proliferation of Pierozzi’s bust is then related to that of other saints.

URTE KRASS works as Assistant Professor at the Institute for Art History of the Ludwig-Maximilians-University, Munich. Her research focuses on saints’ images from icon to photography, on early artistic theory in the Italian novelle of the fourteenth century, and, more recently, on the political use of images in Portugal and its overseas empire in the early modern period.