Cure for the Holiday Chestnut

from “Christmas Yet To Come”: Hospitality, Futurity, the Carol, and “The Dead”

by Paul K. Saint-Amour

When Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and James Joyce’s “The Dead” are mentioned together, it tends to be on regional theater websites or on lists of “great holiday tales” rather than in any more sustained context of affiliation. This essay posits a deeper kinship between these beloved stories: they are both, I suggest, serious meditations on the ethics of hospitality. Unlike the Carol, Joyce’s story dwells on hospitality as a legal and political category as well, but it does so largely by inviting the Carol’s face-to-face ethics of hospitality into the political space of occupied Dublin. That colonial setting hosts an encounter among three forms of hospitality: the social codes of invitation and limited welcome; the ethics of limitless welcome to the absolute stranger; and the call within cosmopolitan political philosophy for a universal right of hospitality. “The Dead” thinks about how these hospitalities inform, delimit, and critique one another and asks whether they can still be thought in a political context of forcible occupation. Reprising the Carol’s interest in futurity, it considers, too, what is at stake in representing—or in refusing to represent—the future political form of a present colony. By the lights of such a reading, the Carol and “The Dead” are in fact antidotes to the holiday chestnut, a genre of foregone conclusions and sealed interiors. But we will not want to sever them entirely from the season with which they are so strongly identified. Insofar as it waits for a radical discontinuity in history—for a chance to welcome what has never yet been welcomed—the expectant temporality of Christmas remains central to these stories’ critical energies.

(from Representations 98, Spring 2007)

THE NEW AGE OF AUTOMATION: algorithms, data, individuations

Today in Paris!

David Bates, author of Cartesian Robotics, will be speaking in the session “L’Automatisation contra l’Autonomisation”  at  LE NOUVEL ÂGE DE L’AUTOMATISATION: Algorithmes, Données, Individuations at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. Bates’s contribution is one of several talks by international scholars, who will be discussing automation as it affects the the human relation to work, time, and space in the evolution of the digital environment.



The Literary Mirror


“When is a traditional Chinese ‘poem on things’ (yongwu shi) not a poem on ‘things’? When the perceived and, eventually, constructed nature of the particular thing being described is at odds with, or somehow exceeds, its prescribed function as a discrete object of perception. One such object is the mirror, which appears in some of the earliest Chinese historical and philosophical documents in our possession, before entering the lexicon of classical poetic expression some time around the third century—at the very moment when the tradition of individual lyric expression as such was beginning to take shape. At that point, although it carried with it centuries of discourse relating vision to questions of knowledge of self and others, its capacity for creating meaning would soon exceed anything that could rightly be called symbolic or even metaphorical. The mirror would become one salient thing that would reflect and shape changes in the very notion of the lyric subject over time.” –Paula Varsano

In her new essay “Disappearing Objects/Elusive Subjects: Writing Mirrors in Early and Medieval China” (Representations 124) Varsano examines changes in the philosophical and literary representations of mirrors—and mirroring—in a foundational period of Chinese history beginning with the pre-classical period and ending in the medieval Tang Dynasty. Inspired by the peculiarity of this object, which acts upon subjects at least as much as it is acted upon by them, this study of the literary mirror, of reflection and reflexivity, provides a glimpse into the larger issue of the construction of subjectivity in premodern China.

Cartesian Robotics

In “Cartesian Robotics,” now available in Representations 124, David Bates looks at Descartes’s physiological theory, and especially his theorization of the nerves and the brain as an information-processing system, in order to offer a new interpretation of cognition within his philosophy. Rather than opposing mind and body, Descartes showed how the operations of the soul interrupted the automatic cognitive processes of the body to provide adaptive flexibility for the human organism as a whole. Bates is Professor in the Department of Rhetoric at UC Berkeley, where he teaches intellectual history.