Category Archives: Non-fiction

James Vernon: Hunger A Modern History (2007)

Vernon tracks the concept of hunger as it shifts from being understood as the result of Providence and individual choices of those that are hungry to a result of large social forces existing outside the causal nexus originating in the hungry person. He calls this the “humanitization” of hunger, since it gives rise to humanitarian aide in its modern form. This is a cultural history, Vernon persistently insists, “concerned with elaborating not the material causes or consequences of hunger, but its changing and historically specific meanings” (8). He inherits various paradigms of social power form Foucault: “The struggle to define and regulate hunger produced its networks of power, its own political constituencies…. it was not that hunger was an ungovernable problem; on the contrary, it was so amenable to a range of reforming schemes that the circuits of power multiplied around the many locations in which the war on hunger was fought” (8-9). The book has its most verve when reveling in hunger’s (that most materially based activity) susceptibility to cultural analysis’ ability to understand ideology’s ubiquity.

[For my part, I am curious how this intersects with Blumenberg’s work on non-conceptuality, where something like “taste” or “hunger” cannot be reduced to a range of clear material referents, on the one hand,  nor can it be abstracted from the material world all together. Vernon is working in this middle zone with impressive competence.]

The early parts of the narrative involve a shift in values at the level of statecraft: England slowly moves away from a Malthusian acceptance of hunger (resignation, inevitability, larger healthy body dependent on broad swaths of population dying of starvation because they do not refrain from sex, etc.) to a Smithean belief in the market’s ability to eventually remove hunger from the polis, and finally to a system of groups functioning outside of the market, working to alleviate hunger that has been produce by systems such as Imperialism and neoliberalism.

After the so-called “discovery of hunger,” various political radicals (inside and outside of the metropoloe–suffragettes, Gandhi, etc.) mobilized hunger as a form of political critique, through hunger strikes, fasting, and hunger marches. The wanted to pinpoint the incompetence of British rule. In the first two decades of the twentieth-century, political minorities participated in hunger strikes. Terence MacSwiney fasted to his death (after 74 days) in 1920, which “the whole world watched in anguish” (62). Thomas Ashe died in 1917 from force-feeding (62), causing mass protests in Dublin. Suffregettes in London were routinely force-fed, causing public outrage. The act was likened to rape in the media (67). The government often combated hunger strikes by “demystifying” the physiological processes of the hunger strike.

Vernon focuses more on the attempts of scientists in the early decades of the twentieth century to demystify  the mechanics of hunger. In short, the emergent field of nutritional science shifts the attention from quantity to quality. Nutritional scientists began to hold increasingly important government posts, as cafeterias became a way of maintaining a healthy and productive work force. The focus on production should not be underplayed: the documents that Vernon cites are explicit about efficient and productivity, and their rudimentary metabolic and biochemical science is put to the service of the factory. “Scientific food” was distributed (89). Not surprisingly, Vernon contends, “nutrition was revealed to be a historically specific science whose universality was always breaking down in the process of constitution” (100). Extensive experiments were conducted using animals, but transfering these results to the human “motor” proved difficult. Scientists turned to the colonies in order to make human analogies–Sir Robert McCarrison fed Indian and British food to rats and then imported racial stereotypes to describe their relative weaknesses and strengths. Gandhi would later protest that this revealed a bias towards meat-heavy diets. The English began to revert to older explanations for starvation: the refusal to eat good English food is what caused famine in India. “In this way, nutrition made possible the discourse of colonial development” (109). The tension between biological and social understandings of nutrition still persist:

During the first three decades of the twentieth century our understanding of hunger thus assumed a novel, profoundly technical, form, by contrast with previous definitions of hunger, which were highly politicized, local, and subjective. (117)

The science of nutrition was integral to the establishment of canteens and other public institutions in the post-war years. By 1917, 840 canteens were established, feeding more than 800,000 workers, which increased productivity (165).

These welfare developments were accompanied by a rigorous educations of the domestic sphere—housewives often took the fall for the relative malnourishment of the populace. The Ministry of Food was established in 1917, and it played a crucial role in creating “model” kitchens and nutritional programs. Self-rationing was incentivized, but in 1918 was made mandatory (206-7). The poor and middle-class resented the well-to-do preaching to them about lessening their food intake (Vernon’s end notes are choc full of useful primary resources on this topic…all sorts of great stuff on scientific cooking, etc.). The food industry jumped on nutrition as a means for marketing, and the critiques of industrialized, processed food began. “Natural foods” and “male slimness” became in vogue (215). Vitaman “overdosing” threatened imbalance in diets. Dorothy pell began editing the Daily Mail’s Women’s Page, which constructed a very specific ideal of home efficiency. Exhibitions of the ideal home included contrasting rustic appliances with American counterparts, etc. The “art of living” was ultimate goal (218). During these years, poor housing for the first began to separate out separate rooms for cooking (222).

Vernon concludes:

It has been my contention that, far from being a timeless and unchanging condition, hunger, along with the meaning that people gave to it and therefore the systems used to govern it, underwent a series of dramatic transformations between the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries. Broadly speaking, although the classical political economy of Smith and Malthus had established hunger as an unavoidable, man-made problem, rather than the curse of nature or providence, their view of hunger removed responsibility for its control from the state….

…[But] in the wake of the New Poor Law and the Irish famine, journalists and social innovators developed new techniques to represent the innocent suffering of the hungry…giving it a human face.

Yet hunger remained a vague object of human  sympathy until, at the turn of 20th century, social investigators enlisted the new science of nutrition to offer a precise definition and measure the extent and social costs of hunger.

When nutritionist redefined hunger as malnutrition after the First World War, it was no longer perceived as the problem of the poor alone but was instead reconceptualized as a nutritional challenge for all…[it] was ceded back to individual consumers, responsible for promoting their own nutritional health.

 

[Interesting to read Wyndham Lewis’ invectives against vegetarianism in these contexts, as well as Loy’s political radicalism/anti-domestic stance]

Advertisements

Andrew Benjamin – Art, Mimesis and the Avant-Garde (1991)

Benjamin uses art, mimesis and the avant-garde to reconceptualize the task of philosophy out of a ontology of “ontological difference,” which is a constituent component of “existence.” He transforms Heidegger’s division between Being and beings into a division or difference between various modes of being. “This shift has occurred because difference is henceforth differential rather simply marking a negation or non-relation” (3). Adorno lurks in the background. If the history of philosophy is of constantly falling prey to the trap of identification (between concepts and objects, Being and facts, etc.), then Benjamin wants to claim there is always already “plural ontologico-temporal” existing in the primacy of the already present. This temporally produced differential is crucial for Benjamin’s particular take on mimesis. For him, the artwork bears this internal temporal fracture and therefore participates, through its mimetic function, both in the “here and now” and in the past and future that exceed its context.

In chapter 9 “The Decline of Art: Benjamin’s Aura,” he uses Barthes’ theory of “significance” in “Le troisième sens” to explain his peculiar take on Benjamin’s aura. Significance refers to that which exceeds “pure information” and “symbolism.” The former is confined to the semiotics of the message, while the latter is more complex, but solely dependent on context–whose “temporality is therefore inscribed within its contextual existence.’ The third sense manifests itself in the moment that Barthes realizes, “I cannot detach myself from this image.” This “obtuse” meaning “sterilizes metalanuage (critique),” because it is indifferent to history and to the obvious meaning, and facilitates a distance from the referent” (145).  In A. Benjamin’s words, “Significance is a primordial presence occasioning, if not grounding, the possibility of the continuity of interpretation and hence of reinterpretation. Furthermore, it is a presence that can never be included within the temporality of he instance and therefore ontology of place, both of which involve the conceptions of time and being proper to context.” Therefore, “Significance is linked to survival and the capacity of the object of interpretation to live on” (146). Basically, this is what makes the photograph a work of art.

Benjamin’s reproducibility essay claims that experience is in a state of decay. He is ambiguous as to the loss of aura’s negative and positive effects. Importantly, it is not only our ability to experience, but the object of experience’s ability to “look back” that is decaying. A. Benjamin latches onto this intersubjective modality in order to claim that the primordial (which characterizes Barthes third sense) is “an otherness within presence which is part of presence itself” (149), thereby guaranteeing semiotic survival outside of the regimes of history and information.  He argues,

If the aura can be related to the primordial then the experience of aura needs to be understood beyond the melancholy interplay of nostalgia, loss and redemption. (151).

Yes! This adequately accounts for Benjamin’s point: “We define the aura of the latter [natural objects] as the unique phenomenon of distance however close it may be.” This “differential” marks the inherence of the primordial–the guarantee of semiotic survival: “The idea of life and after life in works of art should be regarded with an entirely unmetaphorical objectivity” (from Task of Translator). Which is to say, that metaphor no longer acts as the semiotic structure for understanding the enduring power of art (link to Levinas, de Man, et al). Thus the “truth content of the work of art…becomes its capacity to live on” (153). We need to better understand what this unmetaphorical living is….

Hans Blumenberg – Prospect for a Theory of Nonconceptuality (1960)

A small essay appended to the longer work Shipwreck with Spectator, trans. Steven Rendall (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1977). He argues that Metaphorology (i.e. the shipwreck, etc.) can be seen as a special case of nonconceptuality. Whereas metaphorics had been seen as the study of discursive phenomena irreducible to literal coordiantes, nonconceptuality emphasizes the opposite: “the connections with the life-world as the constant moving support…of all theory” (81). Metaphors are “fossils that indicate an archaic stratum of theoretical curiosity” (82), but also as (in the moment) ways of repairing disturbances in consciousness and experience. Metaphor acts as a “resistance to harmony” (Husserl) that also reestablishes harmony by incorporating that which exceeds a given paradigm of experience. Thus metpahors are not only read as contributing to concept formation, but as establishing various a-concpetual links to a Husserlian life-worlds.

But metaphors do not come from nowhere: unlike abstraction, they carry the social and cultural weight of their own heritage. Saying the “laughing meadow” disrupts the flow of information, but reestablishes harmony “by assigning the meadow to the inventory of a human life-world in which not only words and signs but also  things themselves have ‘meaning'” (84). Through a series of examples (book of nature, fluxus temporis, “The Devil’s time is short) Blumenberg gives what he calls a “historical phenomenology,” which “[attends] to decayed forms, which appear after speech that is taken literally, as embarrassment in the face of the demands of realism” (93). The point is to disassociate the nonconceptuality from intuitiveness, since the former does not necessarily come temporally prior to something we might call “abstraction.” Rather, there is a sort of uneven development. At times, metaphor can be a late form, not only evading realism’s demands, but establishing its own forms of realism in the form of analogy (95).

Blumenberg finishes by comparing symbol and metaphor. The former is indifferent to the presence of what it represents. Money, for example, represents a value that is not present. Or, take Heidegger’s question about “the meaning of being.” We are meant to already possess the answer to this question–not in conceptual form, but within a primordial structure of consciousness. “here, nonconceptuality consists in our thoroughly learning what kind of thing the understanding of being is not” (99). This implies a strict prohibition of metaphor that is nevertheless violated over and over again–for nothing cn be represented of all mode of behavior are rooted in a care that runs too deep for understanding. A similar prohibition applies to Kantian “Freedom.” Blumenberg argues that this essentially converta all the critiques into “practical” philosophy. Thus nothing is no longer theoretical: everyone is indeed appeased, but nothing is learned” (102). And to believe that this freedom can then be converted into a mode of unrestrained action, is simply to mistake an absolute metaphor for something literal.

 

 

Wyndham Lewis – The Credentials of the Painter

The English Review; Part 1, no. XXXIV (January 1922), 33-38; Part II, no XXXIV (Aprl 1922), 391-96. Reprinted in Creatures of Habit, Creatures of Change, 66-78.

Begins  by arguing that each artist correlates with a certain type of man. He contrasts the painter and the musician. The musician, however austere his music may be (Schoenberg), still cannot help but affect the body of the spectator; whereas the painter, especially the painter of abstract forms, can be completely cold and cut off. However, somewhat contradictorily, he also claims, “the fundamental and trump credential is…that he alones gives you the visual fact of our existence. All attachment to reality by means of the sense of sight is his province or preserve” (69). This mimetic function has he potential make the spectator participate in a certain type of life:

A portrait evidently ceases to be a portrait when it has that transporting effect that makes you feel, not only that you are sharing a moment of life removed by centuries from your own lifetime, but also that you are participating in a heightened life, that living of which only is an event as solitary and fixed as the thing at which you are gazing. (68-69)

Very curious why it must cease to be a portrait. Something here about mimetic comportment and the experience of history…relate to Pater’s fulness, perhaps. Lewis is frank about this contradiction: “that the painter participates more in life itself in one way than any other artist; but in another sense he is most removed from it” (71). NB: Hegel and Adorno will work through a similar contradiction in their aesthetic theories.

Part 2 broadens out the conversation to artists in general. He claims that there are no clear-cut laws that can be universally applied to artistic production. Neither are there universal, rational laws for deciding between good and bad art.

Argument and reflection are certainly very necessary, much as people dislike them, where the finer, or better the finest, art, in any kind, is concerned. But, in the interests of this dialectic, no laws can be adduced of universal application. The work of art, in the end, has to impose itself on men like a living individual. Instead of appealing to their intelligence only, supplying them with a mechanical formula of universal efficacy, it must appeal to their whole make-up, or to their taste. The taste is a sort of higher, more complex intelligence. Every faculty serves it, and is found represented in its composition. (73)

This, so far, is a very Schillerean notion of taste–not necessarily (only) a separate faculty, but the fruit of the development of a range of other faculties. For Lewis, taste serves as “a synthesis of the ego,” something which brings order to otherwise fragmented existence: “it is taste alone that can make him a dependable and ordered being” (73). This is meant as a corrective to metaphysicians who transform the “aesthetics” into an appendage of a philosophical system. He uses Hegel as an example. He also implicitly critiques Kant’s strict association between art and pleasure:

But is [pleasure] not also the object of any other activity higher than bread-winning? To make the majority of men feel comfortable and keep them quiet, the notion of the dignity of toil, in the sense of mechanical labor, was long ago invented. To unrivet the perception form the need, to disentangle art from the practical artifice of life, is the artist’s constant task in his work. (74)

He thus goes on to define his own concept of taste: “Taste, as I have described it, is what would occur of David Hume’s ‘argument and reflection’ became a habit, something that accompanied a man in whatever compartment of his existence he might be passing at the moment” (75).

He concludes by constructing two sides of a dialectic–that between a human world (civilization) and a material world (stones and matter):

If, however, without identifying ourselves with mater entirely, we yet evolved into a total material aceticism, how would it be with art then? One is bound to admit that art has so far been dependent on religion, a luxurious life, or superstitious fancy for its existence. But for any life that we could evolve into, short of identification with matter, or the other extreme of disassociation from it, there would be an art, or “expression.” It is a half-way house, the speech, life, and adornment of a half-way house. Or it is a coin that is used on a frontier, but in neither of the adjoining countries. As we know nothing about these or any other countries, it is impossible for us to say. Art is a coin, if you like, that has no aesthetic value, only an historic one. But it must be composed of a certain metal, and it must ring true. To recognize this ring you depend entirely on your ear. Your eyes, and even your teeth, ca also be brought into play, ANd you can speculate on the character of the stranger who is tendering you the coin. These, taken together, make up your “taste.” (76)

Lots to say about this: coin as medium (gold, exchange, etc.); taste as mediation between two “worlds” (relate to Hegel and art, but also transition to modernism; the way he keeps he make definite claims and then slightly shifting an qualifying them; the “teeth” as part of taste; identification with matter, but not entirely, etc.

Gerhard Richter – Afterness (2012)

Richter identifies his neologism afterness as a near universal trope in modern aesthetics and thought. The German word for after “Nach” gets at the dialectical nature of this temporal progression:

To live nach does not mean to emancipate oneself fully from ongoing proximity. O live nach does not mean to emancipate oneself fully from what went before but, on the contrary, to be subterraneously determined by it to a greater or lesser degree.  (10)

This afterness manifests itself in trauma, dreams, echoes and repetition. In this, way that which comes after, that which “ends” a certain moment, also acts a productive mechanism in the realms of thought and art. Quoting Hegel:

The question should rather be whether this end, incapable as it is of being an end, could possibly be the beginning of something.

Thus every discourse of “ends”–end of art, end of history, end of the human, end of taste–must always be conjoined with a discussion of the reorganization of conceptual paradigms within an emerging discourse. Using Dasein as an example, he notes how various tropes of withdraw simultaneously attempt to name the space that remains to be thought–so a leave-taking entails a conception of a future that has yet to be realized. Thus afterness, as Richter will repeat again and again, holds us in its grip. It materializes as something atemporal–as an experience that is lived.

Richter’s short chapters all take similar form. He clusters three or four thinkers around the relationship between Afterness and some other term: aesthetics, modernity, critique, etc. He uses afterness as a way to unlock the kernel of key theoretical texts, such as Negative Dialectics:

Afterness can be understood here as the affirmation of a dismantling that does not merely destroy its object, but liberates what previously had remained unthought within that object precisely through its dismantling. (52)

Adorno becomes a key figure for Richter, since Adorno so relentless theorizes the anxiety and stagnation produced by mere repetition–a sort of “bad,” ahistorical, reified afterness that is alien to all forms of authentic subjective experience. “Philosophy misses its purpose,” Adorno writes “when it already exists in the realm of repetition, of reproduction” (54). Adorno’s closing words in Mimima Moralia most famously lays out the importance of assuming a position of afterness (of redemption) in relation to the things of the world. Correct perspectives on the world can only be gained from “contact with the objects,” yes, but paired with a cognition that determined these objects as bearing the semblance of the already-redeemed. Here we begin to glimpse the elective affinities between art and thought–in Richter’s words, “the fragile promise of any negative dialectics” (69).

If this sounds like Benjamin, it’s because Richter’s Adorno is shot through not only with Benjamin’s influence, but also with the theological predilections of Heidegger, who is brought in (sometimes uncritically) as unproblematic interlocutor in almost every chapter. “Appearance” becomes a crucail phenomenological terrain for Richter’s arguemnt. Benjamin writes, “That of which one knows that one soon no longer will have it in front of one, that becomes image” (GR 143). [NB: could be linked to the genealogy of impressionism, but also to a description of life without material guarantees…where food becomes image the moment it is cognized. not sure…back to marx]. To solve the problem, Richter reads Heidegger-Deleuze to claim that the path thinking must take is one that is free of image all together–or, more precisely, an image of imageless thought, of image in perpetual withdraw. Adorno silently drops out in moments like this. Would have been nice if Richter had more clearly staged where Adorno would no longer agree with a tradition more comfortable with this passivity/fluidity/ontology/etc….

In perhaps the most compelling chapter, “Afterness and Experience (II): Crude Thinking Rethought,” Richter uses Brecht’s term “Plumpes Denken” to put forth a program for thought in the humanities today:

The task–an infinite task, to be sure–would be to engage in an articualtion of dialectical concepts and deconstructive moments of thought that would remain faithful to their radical singularity, autonomy, nd otherness and at the same time break with that fidelity to allow us to relate to the possible and nonnaive transformative reverberations of the material inscriptions that these thoughts and movements leave in the world. (174)

One feels the convergence of many realms of thought in this passage–deconstruction, marxist critique, phenomenology, psychoanalysis, Deleuzean mondaology–which is precisely what makes this book so compelling. Its lose paratactic form, familiar from Adorno’s “Essay as Form,” allows for maximum capaciousness. Derrida makes a late entrance that feels perfectly in line with the group of thinkers that current critical practice tends to pit against deconstruction. Derrida llows us to think memory as future-oriented–memory is always the memory of a future that is for us (yes, Kafka’s notion of hope is hovering here).

 

One also registers Adorno’s influence in the more or less paratactic, “constellated” style of Richter’s book.

Modernists on Fiction

ONGOING:

A bunch of writers had things to say about the art or act of fiction: James, Conrad, Woolf, Forster, Lawrence, Beckett, Stein, and others. I’ll just summarize their main points here (with some help from Jeff Wallace’s chapter “Modernists on the art of fiction” in some Cambridge Companion”:

James is into the point of view as the means to registering the immense variety of human life (often this means dramatizing the failure of point of view, as in “The Jolly Corner”), the “strange irregular rhythm of life.” This means that it is impossible to distinguish between moments of “description” and moments of “narration”: they always penetrate one another. There’s a lot more to James, of course, but he can be summarized, sort of: art can become life to the degree that it hold to outmoded codes of “realist” representation, preferring to offset its description to things as they get pushed through the lens of a character.

Woolf is also invested in life: for her, life describes a liminal zone between consciousness and the outside world (semi-transpartent envelope, a luminous halo): the artist job is to represent “atoms” as they collide with this halo.

Both Lawrence and Forster are attuned to the class politics underwriting the claims for the novel as “high art.” Lawrence diagnoses the social constraints dogging the novel in Hardy: he thinks the novel should embrace a full-blooed Nietzschean ideal. The novel is able to full convey this: it is “the highest complex of subtle inter-relatedness that has discovered.” Likewise, Forster praises the novel’s flexibility (saying that the highly wrought aesthetic beauty of James late fiction sacrifices the human).

Beckett uses Proust to describe Modernism more generally in terms of Bergson–in short, involuntary memory in Proust breaks down the subject by spatializing time, allowing the subject to inhabit (to be inhabited by) multiple temporalities: we do not have memories, we are memories. [Talk about opening of Dalloway] We can “reconstruct” the past outside of the strictures of cause and effect.

William Morris – The Lesser Arts (1877, 1882)

Originally a lecture with the title “The Decorative Arts,” given to the Trades Guild of Learning in London, 1877.

Opens with a sentiment consonant with News from Nowhere: neither laments the past, nor despises the present, nor despairs the future…but believes that all the current activity is merely life itself moving toward the betterment of mankind. The lecture explains why the decorative arts are integral to this historical process. In short, they “beautify the familiar matters of everyday life” (234). Morris draws no distinction between the forms of art and the forms of any human product: all must be either beautiful or ugly. Referencing Ruskin’s “Nature of the Gothic,” Morris claims that we should reject the “curse  of labor” thesis, and rather say that labor has become a curse only because of the artificial separation between art and work, which has degraded “the lesser arts” to mere mechanism and “the greater arts” to mere frivolous non-utility.

Morris is not calling for a return to a childish past, in which beautiful things were unconsciously made. Though history itself can be read in these quotidian forms, he does not call for a negative “unconscious intelligence” but rather a “new art of conscious intelligence” (241). Nature and History should be the teachers. Indeed, in 2102, Morris believes that the concept of nature will disappear all together, no longer able to be defined in contrast to a human that somehow would use it for ends exterior to it. History needs to be conceived from the dialectically mediated present. The restoration movement gets this wrong: they hypostasize a romanticized past and seek to patch over the real history that the centuries of “repairs” bear in themselves. [Curious dialogue could be conceived between Morris, Victor Hugo, Jude Fawley, and Jacob Flanders.]

Of course, this means that art loses its status as “useless” or “purposeless”: Morris writes, “nothing can be a work of art which is not useful.” His qualification isn’t enough to make this statement any less strange: “that is to say, which does not minister to the body when well under the command of the mind, ot which does not amuse, soothe, or elevate in a healthy state” (251). Simply put, the agreeable, the beautiful and the sublime are all lumped together, as is the mind and the body, work and rest, etc… Sympathetic to all this, but Morris needs to engage the history of aesthetics a bit more, perhaps. He also reverses the relation between taste and life. In Kant, the faculty of taste precedes the feeling life. In Morris, “Simplicity of life, begetting simplicity of taste…is of all matters most necessary for the birth of the new and better art we crave for; simplicity everywhere, in the palace as well as in the cottage” (251). One wonders whether the palace reference is a nod to Kant….