Tag Archives: Freud

Secondary Woolf

Abel on Woolf (1989)

“Narrative…getting on from lunch to dinner,” but in Woolf, characters do live in time, it’s just complicated.

The “tunneling process” as a way of achieving temporal depth–that is, offsetting narrative by means of incorporating the past vertically


On Dalloway

Bourton is a pastoral enclave that, within the countries of Clarissa’s psyche, excludes the courtship that would lead to marriage. And even Peter’s courting of her is filtered mostly though Peter’s consciousness and memory.

When Clarissa hears of Septimus’ death, she mourns her loss…this is emblematic of how various characters are used as structural devices for refracting the divided consciousness/history of Clarissa: Sally, Rezia, Septimus, etc.

Dalloway takes the form of a developmental narrative as a way out of mourning/melancholia. Clarissa learns to accept adulthood as a rough compromise with a pre-Oedipal fantasy that can never be inhabited again.


To the Lighthouse

To the Lighthouse widens out the scope, and replaces the developmental narrative with a family romance. So Lily, a surrogate daughter, can recover the image of Mrs. Ramsay, which James represses in his developmental accession to his father’s forms of rationality and which Cam can only access by telling a narrative that runs through the father, disclosing her enclosure within masculinist narratives. Also, the ambiguity of the central character…is it mister or Mrs. Ramsay?…opens up questions of definition and orientation.

Mr. Ramsay’s “speculative philosophy” depends upon the erasure of matter/mater, the purging of the signified that conditions the emergence of the pure, anorexic sign. James follows Mr. Ramsay into this linguistic terrain.

Liliy Briscoe marks out an alternative narrative of painting as process. Importantly, this not a static painting that emerges in a  moment of inspiration, eternal and changeless, but a canvas that bears the mark of its history. She forms a relationship  of intimacy with Ramsay that is silent: “Who knows what we are, what we feel?” We see her a curling into the self that refrains from a linguistic register. The painting also refuses the determinacy of an abstract realms of signification, as toggles between separation and synthesis…the activity of the vertical line is itself a knife edge marking out what is gained and lost in the process of memory formation.  Further, this intersects with the strange timing of her vision: “She had her vision” positions somehow in the past tense, presence removed, etc. This another way of describing a phenomenology of rupture, interruption, etc.


Between the Acts

Abel concludes with a very curious reading of Between the Acts and moses and Monotheism. The latter picks up the story of civilization’s emergence by complicating the strict paternal narrative of that early work. The worship of the mother enters between the death of the primal father and the worship of the mosaic God. Civilization emerges when intellectuality wins out over sensuality. [Talk about this in terms of the ban on touching as the conditioned for worshipping…denigration of the body of matter/mater, etc.]

Between the Acts represents a frayed social fabric [Isa saying that we are all dispersed, etc.] and morns the lack of a mothering culture that could act as an alternative: this gives way to a full on fear of paternalism in the shape of Nazism and Fascism [Giles seems eerily like the Nazis he condemns, etc.]

La Trobe tries to convey ten minus of “present time reality” whose absolute dryness is then “douched” by a supernatural rain that returns a (false) sense of collectivity to the crowd that just witnessed that radical fragmentation, etc. Abel argues that this fragmentation finds in answer in the heterosexual eroticism of the closing scene between Giles and Isa…it points forward to pro-creation as the dawn of a new era.


Roberto Esposito – “The Philosophy of Bios” from Bios (2004, trans. 2008)

The final chapter of Esposito’s book articulates a positive biopolitics that does not immediately become the Thanatopolitics which found its most extremem manifestation in Nazism’s reduction of life to death. He does this with the concept of the “immunitary.” He claims that all societies seek to completely immunize themselves from all foreign bodies, rendering themselves completely pure; he tries to build an ethics of contamination, i.e. a Nietzschean concept of living by preserving what is foreign rather than obliterating it. The biopolitical is the tendency to flatten the political and purely biological (146), and while Nazism may have “died,” its biopolitical modalities still persevere in things like preventative war: auto-immunitary process by which an outbreak is constructed and deployed in order to prevent an outbreak ad infinitum. Starting with Arendt, and moving through Foucault, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Freud, Simondon, Spinoza and Deleuze, Esposito attempts to take the three dispositifs of Nazi biopolitics–the double enclosure of the body, the preemptive suppression of birth, and the normativization of  life–and deconstruct them so that they signify in an opposite, positive direction. How?

Arendt does not think the concept of life thoroughly enough, and therefore does not understands its political valence. Instead, she rigorously distinguishes the zone of bios (life)  from the zone of the polis (world): that which exceeds life is the political. Esposito sees an unlikely and partial “corrective” in her teacher Heidegger, who similarly draws a distinction between mere life and “Da-sein.” Life itself withdraws from the political and the philosophical realms of thought: the facticity of life is precisely that which has immanent to its self its own self-reflective form of thought. But Heid can do this by keeping “factical life” separate from biological life. Thus while Nazi biopolitics denigrates “existence without life,” Heidegger will denigrate “life without existence.” In other words, “[life] can only be deduced negatively from Dasein as that which isn’t it” (154). This comes down to the radically opposed stances towards death: while for Nazis death representes a life “emptied of biological potentiality,” for Heidegger death is the authentic mode of being that grants existence possibilities that exceed the category of bare life. Thus Heid rigorously distinguishes between humans that “create a world,” animals that are “the poor of the world,” and stones which are “without a world.” Nevertheless, Adorno’s criticisms in Jargon of Authenticity lurking in the background, Esposito sees Heid’s withdrawing of life from the category of thought as problematic: it is precisely because he politicized life too little–not too much–that Heid opened himself up to appropriation by Nazi philosophy .

THE BODY: Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the flesh rewrites Heid’s ontology of the human by assuming “the poor of the world” as part of human experience itself. He thus inscribes the threshold between man and animal as the form of phenomenological experience. We can see here, as fi in a mobius strip, the mirror image of Nazism’s reduction of the human to the animal. It is for this reason, that Lyotard, Deleuze, Derrida and Nancy are all uncomfortable with the concept of the flesh: in short, they that it cancels the concreteness of the body by placing it under a transcendental signifier fraught with the symbolism of Christianity. Esposito admits that for M-P the flesh is a-political, an excess; for this reason, its politicization opens up possibilities: “a being that is both singular and commun al, generic and specific, and undifferentiated and different, not only devoid of spirit, but a flesh that doesn’t even have a body” (167). Such is “incarnation”: not a modality that incorporates, but one that multiplies and “self-divides.” Esposito sees this “journey to the end of the body” in Francis Bacon’s portraits, which portray the flight of flesh from the body. There is an indeterminate relation between man and animal (all “one flesh”).

BIRTH: The idea of the nation is biological and political (natio). One could say that the biological was once preeminent, but the modern state prioritizes the political, even as it uses the biological to support the boundaries of the political. Birth holds the dual possibility: birthing into a political body, yes, but also introducing the unassimilable fact of existence into a body that can’t contain in it (176). In Moses and Monotheism,  Freud deconstructs the Nazi logic of origins by showing how the originary father/son is always doubled as the foreign body that the nascent nation will need expropriate. Likewise, Arendt will use “birth” to confront the bad “seriality” that marks out mere life from the political. Simondon goes further, however, by integrating birth into the process of life: “life is to perpetuate a birth that is permanent and relative” (qtd. 181). [The connection with Hegel, Darwin, and also with Agamben, should not be missed.] Life is the zone not between birth and death but between the “pre-individual” and the post- or trans-individual. Thus life could be seen as the perpetuation of preservation of impotentiality. [Return to animal, human divide and Levinas on ecstatic ontology]

LIFE: Nazism created a norm of life, not in that it adapted its policies to the demands of life, but that enclosed life within the borders of norm birthed in the state of exception/nature: a norm imposed on nature, nature imposed on a norm. Esposito wants to vitalize that norm (184). Using Spinoza, Esposito proposes to substitute for a logic of presupposition one of reciprocal immanence, where the power of “aliveness” and “action” is that from which rights are derived: “the process of normativization is the never-defined result of the comparison and conflict between individual norms that are measured according to the different power that keeps them alive, without ever losing the measure of their reciprocal relation” (187).To think life philosophically, we need, as Canguilhem argued, to open the “norm of life” to the infinite unpredictability of life. Thus “normal man” equals “normative man” to the degree that individual “mutations” are “self-legislated” [the brush with Kant should not be missed]. He turns to Deleuze’s late work and discusses the move form “the life” to “a life” in terms of Riderhood’s near-death experience in Our Mutual Friend. This depersonalization of life comes so close to that the impersonality that opened up the floodgates of Nazi violence; but here life is not submitted to a norm, but norm and life are seen in one another. The potentiality of life is given to the norm. He ends by echoing Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents:

Whether its [biopolitics’] meaning will again be disowned in a politics of death or affirmed in a politics of life will depend on the mode in which contemporary thought will follow its traces. (194)

Samuel Beckett – Murphy (1938)

Murphy sits most of the day in his rocking chair, to which he ties himself, restricting his body in an attempt to free his brain. He is a student of Wylie, who has supposedly mastered the art of stopping his heart. Much of this novel will focus on the break down of this Manichaeism. He is romantically involved with Celia, who wants him to get a job. A troupe of minor characters are looking for him throughout the entire book, each with their own reason: romantic, financial, sinister, etc. Chapter six, which is constantly referred to beforehand and after, deals with intricacies of Murphy’s brain: quite simply, a paradoxical fantasy of solipsism that cancels itself out. Eventually Murphy gets a job at an insane asylum through his friend Ticklepenny. He is really good at his job because he can identify so well–too well–with the patients. However, before something goes awry–he loses a chess game to a madman (recounted in full detail)–which leads him to go to his room (resembling a cell), and rock his chair until he dissolves into “superfine chaos.” His remains are entrusted to the drunkard Cooper, who gets into a fight in a bar which leads to Myphy’s ashes being used as a soccer ball, before exploding and integrating with “the sand, the beer, the butts, the glass, the matches, the spit, the vomit.” The final scene shows Celia taking care of Mr. Kelly before the final refrain closes: All out.

The opening line: “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. Murphy sat, as though he were free, in a mew in West Brompton.” The two sentence mirror one another, thus implicated language itself in the cycles of repetition and habit that structure our lives and determine our possibilities. The reference to Ecclesiastes performs that staleness of the reference. Yet this time–historical time–is offset by Murphy’s existential time, which runs deliberately counter to these objective structures. The fantasy of Murphy being able to establish his own time is held out throughout the novel until he is eventaully dissolved by the forward moving mill of the plot itself. He is metabolized by time.

The caress vs. the kick – Murphy delineates the demands of objective mediation–the violence of bringing the fantasy of the caress into the real world. The caress can never be anything but a kick.

Talk about the dissolution of the body in terms of Beyond the Pleasure Principle.

The heart – relate to Yeat’s portrayal of the heart (Innisfree, Circus Animal’s Desertion), and Ford’s “heart problem.”

Samuel Beckett – Waiting for Godot (1954)

Act 1

Vladimir and Estragon, two “friends” are waiting for Godot, who never shows up. The domineering Pozzo shows up with his slave, Lucky.  After much confusion and mistaken identity, it becomes somewhat clear that Pozzo owns the land on which Vladimir and Estragon are waiting. Estragon is invited to kick Lucky, but Lucky suddenly kicks him. Pozzo and Lucky (who has long monologue that is pretty much senseless) leave, and then a boy comes along who claims to have been sent by Godot with a message that he will come tomorrow.


Act 2

Starts off much the same as Act 1, but it appears that Estragon remembers nothing that happened the day before despite Vladimir’s attempts to reconstruct the day for him. They come up with various ways to pass the time, such as hurling insults at one another or engaging in an S-M fantasy. Pozzo and Lucky come along again, but Pozzo is now blind and in great pain. He remembers nothing of the day before. Vladimir and Estragon first try to help him and then beat him with little remorse. Eventually they all get up. Then Vladimir kicks Lucky and hurts his foot. Pozzo and Lucky eventually leave. Estragon falls asleep and the same boy comes, remembering nothing of the day before, and bearing the same message from Godot. Estragon wakes up and they decide to go, but before they move, the curtain drops.

Preliminary Notes:

Beckett claimed that ‘the early success of Waiting for Godot was based on a fundamental misunderstanding, that critics and public alike insisted on interpreting in allegorical or symbolic terms a play which was striving all the time to avoid definition’. This gets at the crucial difference between symbol and device which runs throughout twentieth-century literature, from Howard’s End to Godot. Godot is not a symbol with a meaning (he can mean many things of course), but is rather a device with a function. Similarly, the tree on stage, while symbolizing just about everything…also manages through this very polyemy to mean very little. Rather, its function is to dramatizes the resources of signification from which we draw meaning.

Godot was written right after Watt:

‘When I was working on Watt, I felt the need to create for a smaller space, one in which I had some control of where people stood or moved, above all, of a certain light. I wrote Waiting for Godot.’ (Beckett)

Ironically, this smaller space manages to become textually voluminous in its many reference: its sparseness of form, it textual silence, is the occasion for a quasi-Lacanian appearance of the Signified—that is, its absence is registered. So, while metonymy functions in the various repetitions, the occasional broken reference, silence, syntactical “tatter,” etc. become points de capitan—i.e. the emergence of metaphor. This play, between repetitive habit and the break in that habit, is central to Beckett’s dramatic “ontology”:

Habit is the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit. Breathing is habit. Life is habit. Or rather life is a succession of habits, since the individual is a succession of individuals. The creation of the world did not take place once and for all time, but takes place every day. (Beckett)

In other words, Beckett fully accepts Freud’s notion of the death drive, but reverses its affective force by granting it creative power. The idea of an identity that constantly changes is potentially liberating, if chaotic. Elsewhere, Beckett writes, “To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist.”



Virginia Woolf – “Modern Fiction” (1919)

Woolf rejects the idea of scientific or industrial progress being applied to literary history. “We do not come to write better; all that we can be said to do is to keep moving.” Nevertheless, she wants to mark out the difference between an older generation of writers (Bennett, Galsworthy, Wells) from the new (Hardy, Conrad, and most recently and importantly, James Joyce). The former are what she calls “materialists”: “they write of unimportant things…[spending] immense skill and immense industry making the trivial and the transitory appear the true and the enduring.” This is peculiarly close to Woolf’s own methods of composition–one immediately think of the many trivial objects in the Ramsay’s empty house which bear the imprint of human form, the history of life itself. Nevertheless, the problem with materialists is that “life escapes.” Woolf believes that this is because of an unfortunate dependence on convention (social and formal), which restricts the means by which “impressions” are converted into representational forms: of a writer were a free man and not a slave….there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest,” etc. A strange claim: where are these conventions located and who is imposing these forms of repression on the writer-slave? But Woolf insists that these conventional forms do an injustice to Life: “a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.” Writers that are able to convey this halo are what Woolf calls “spiritual”

Paradoxically, the writer achieves this by way of the ordinary:

Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives myriad impression–trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms. (106)

Modern fiction, especially the work of Joyce, is atomic-spiritual. There’s a problematic conflation of the material and the spiritual, but the idea is that by disregarding convention, writes are able to get “closer to life.” Can we think about his in terms of ontological proximity (Levinas) and, at the same time, the discourse of life that runs through Victorian literature (the Brownings, Eliot, Bram Stoker, etc.)?

She concludes with an underhanded jab at both formal and legel censorship, which has been latent throughout.

‘The proper stuff of fiction’ does not exist; everything is the proper stuff of fiction, every feeling, every thought; every quality of brain and spirit is drawn upon; no perception comes amiss. (110)


Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari – A Thousand Plateaus (1980)

“How do you make yourself a body without organs?”

The BwO is the field immanence of desire, the plane of consistency specific to desire (with desire defined as a process of production without reference to any exterior agency, whether is be a lack that hollows it out or a pleasure that fills it in. (154)

The chapter alternates between descriptions of extreme sadistic and masochistic violence and descriptions of “courtly love” and the “caress.” The idea here is to level out desire, so it is no longer defined in terms of lack and fulfillment, but in terms of intensity. Thus, “the slightest caress may be as strong as an orgasm; an orgasm is a mere fact, a rather deplorable one, in relation to desire in pursuit of its principle” (156). Systems that would constrict desire are associated with the “organism,” which is the real enemy of the body, not organs. The body si opposed the organization of its organs called the organism, which Deleuze associates with significance and subjectification.

Yet Deleuze also calls for an economy of “practice”:

You have to keep enough of the organism for it to reform each dawn; and you have to keep small supplies of significance and subjectification, if only to turn them against their own systems when the circumstances demand it, when things, person, even situations, force you to; and you have to keep small rations of subjectivity in sufficient quantity to enable you to respond to the dominant reality. Mimic the strata. (160)

The BwO always risks suicide if deterritorializing flows go too far, resulting in too severe destratification of the body.  It is necessary to experiment, test, try–it is necessary to “taste.” The danger is not so much in the quality of objective mediation, but in  its quantity. Going too far risks becoming a negative line of flight, destroying the subject. Keeping “small rations of subjectivity” is a form of respect, of ethics.

“The BwO is desire; it is that which one desires and by which one desires” (165). This connects with Levinas’s work on “proximity” and the elemental. Both are overturning psychoanalytic systems of signification that constrict the flows of desire.


“Becoming-Intense, Becoming Animal, Becoming imperceptible…”

This chapter attempts to answer this question: How can we grant reality to a becoming that never fully “becomes”?

Becomings-animal are neither dreams nor phantasies. They are perfectly real. But which reality is at issue here? For if becoming animal does not consist in playing animal or imitating an animal, it is clear that the human being does not ‘really’ become an animal any more than the animal ‘really’ becomes something else. Becoming produces nothing other than itself. We fall into a false alternative if we say that you either imitate or you are. What is real is the becoming itself, the block of becoming, not the supposedly fixed terms through which that which becomes passes.

The chapter makes the claim that bodies should be defined in terms of their affective capacity–which is directly linked to the process of becoming:

We know nothing about a body until we know what it can do, in oter words, what its affects are, how they can or cannot enter into composition with other affects, with the affects of another body. (257)

Interesting in terms of the “bottom” limit of affect–that which precedes the subject’s formation: not a subject that can “affect,” but a cross-section of affects that constitutes. Becoming-animal is affect itself.

This leads into a very interesting section on secrets–the secret’s mode of becoming is from the internal form of concealment, a finite secret, to an infinite form of the secret that secretes in public. “The more the secret is made into a structuring, organizing form, the thinner and more ubiquitous it becomes” (289). This could be used to conceptualize forms of reading (and of writing, and of subject formation) that seek to maintain the secretiveness of the secret, rather than transform it into public knowledge. The secret that is not content to take the form of it container, but attempts to make its own form. Henry James accomplishes this, according to D and G.


Joseph Conrad – Heart of Darkness (1899)

Unnamed narrator introduces Marlow. He tells a story on the Nellie, a ship floating on the Thames. The story begins: he can’t find a job, but eventually takes one that will involve traveling into the interior of the Congo as the captain of a ship, where he will help with the ivory trade. He says good-bye to his aunt and sets off. He arrives at the “Central Trading Station.” run by a dubious “Manager.” The boat sinks and Marlow suspects him of sabotage. Marlow keeps hearing about Kurtz. He eventually goes up stream with a small crew. They are attacked, but eventually arrive at Kurtz’s station. With his astounding “eloquence” he has convinced the natives to treat him like a god. He is deathly ill, so Marlow takes him on board. Just before he dies, he gives Marlow some papers, and pronounces “The horror! The horror!” Marlow returns to London where he seeks out Kurtz’s “Intended.” He cannot bear to tell her his final words. He lies by telling her that he last said her name.

Bureaucracy – The opening section is largely about the inefficient bureaucracy plaguing the Imperial project. The manger is the definition of Weber’s bad bureaucrat. Michael Levenson reads the tension between good and bad social forms (between crippling bureaucracy and Kurtz’s “charisma”) being supplanted by “a nightmarish choice between social venality and passionate license,” and “ends by offering the individual moral psyche as a slim third term between these weighty alternatives” (Norton, 403). Marlow is the one who seeks to cultivate this third term, which manifests itself in the style of the narrative itself:

Conrad longs to overcome the separation between fact and value; he longs to see value lodged securely in fact–“the redeeming facts of life”–so that the individual need not rely on the rickety apparatus of social ethics. (404)

Opposed to an ethics of the social, “Conrad” asserts the sensuous as the domain of judgment–which includes the second and third critique. 

This can be connected with the self-conscious attention to the “surface of things” in both Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, as well as in the Preface to the Nigger of Narcissus:

Fine sentiments be hanged! I had no time. I had to mess about with white-lead strips of woolen blanket helping to put bandages on those leaky steam-pipes–I tell you. I had to watch the steering and circumvent those snags and get the tin-pot along by hook or by crook. There was surface-truth enough in these things to save a wiser man. (38)

This falls more or less into Ian Watt’s reading of Heart of Darkness as an education in impressionistic narration. The closing bars of the novel portray the Thames with a vividness learned in the heart of darkness. Conrad, narrator, Marlow: the three join in the truth of cohesive artistic project.

But this reading does not account for the “lie” that Marlow tell to the Intended. The nameless fiancé stands in for the outer limit which a bourgeois  ideology fixes on Conrad’s art. The “horrible” truth must be suppressed in order to sustain the narrative overcoming of the fact-value distinction. In this sense, the act of narration participates in the violence of historical imperialism. What was at first “just a hole” (14), becomes “ostentatious holes to bury stuff in” (50), and then finally Kurtz’s unmarked grave: “the pilgrims buried something in a muddy hole” (69): sensory impression, empirical report, ideological concealment. Perhaps this also could be rounded out into a critique of intentionality (the Intended)  in general (cf. Levinas, M-P, ALF).

The problem of endings is  also a way to talk about Kurtz’s cry “the horror, the horror.” Marlow wonders: “Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge?” Marlow recalls, “It was as though a veil had been rent” (68). Talk about how this “rent” and glimpse into “complete knowledge” is withheld in Lord Jim. Also, compare Marlow’s question to the one asked by Yeats in “Leda and the Swan”: did she take on is knowledge. These are questions about history, about the violence of history. About the possibility or impossibility of narrating that violence. Connect this with Benjamin’s “The Storyteller” and also to Arendt’s comments on “Action” in The Human Condition.

Maps (page 11) – Marlow and Conrad are both obsessed with the colonial map–with the spread of the colonial flag, but also with the blank spaces that represent opportunities for the adventure that is writing itself. Connect this with Naipaul’s A Way in the World, with Moretti’s work on the bildungsroman, and with Peter Brook’s stuff on plotting and mapping in the novel.

Life as (Modern) Art: “that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose” (69).

The heart as a symbol and device  in Conrad, Yeats and Ford Maddox Ford.




An attempt on Conrad’s part to overcome the fact-value distinction. We have contrast between good and bad bureaucracy in the opening, that turns into a contrast, in the second half of the novel, between rigid social control and unrestrained passionated license. Between these two alternatives, Conrad tries to insert his impressionism. which would imbue sensuous judgment with moral judgment–a sort of compression of the second and third critiques. Curiously, for the novel to emerge into this aesthetic reality (so that Marlow can read the Thames as a “heart of darkness,” a social commentary in itself) Marlow needs to lie to the intended. He lies in order to conceal the violence that makes possible Kurtz’s knowledge into socially suitable form.

This connects to other books in which Imperial violence is forceful repressed, as in, for instance, Howard’s End and Mrs. Dalloway.

This connects in very interesting ways to some of Conrad’s non-fiction…he is constantly trying to bring the whole into the particular….every line must carry the full weight of the whole…first line of the Preface. But also, in his work on Henry James, we see Conrad trying to claim for the novelist the position of an historian: an historian of human experience. in this way, we can connect Conrad’s desire to merge fact and value to Yeats’ attempts to render history aesthetic in Easter 1916 and Leda and the Swan.