Saturday, 17 September 2005

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The Machine's Only As Reliable As Its Cogs; or, Are Such Statements Ever True? Whilst rereading Rereading Jack London (1996) I often stumble across statements like “Naturalism’s claim to be a catalyst for change is perpetually undermined by its own combination of pessimistic determinism and Social Darwinism” (151). Readers familiar with this humble blogger’s dissertation immediately recognize one cog in Christopher Hugh Gair’s claim that’ll cause some consternation, but I’m not on the Social Darwinian beat for the time being. I want to focus on the category of the claim itself, on what it means to refer offhand to a body of thought so grossly generalized as to never resemble that to which it presumably points. To put it another way: any summary of Marxism will, to the studious Marxist, summarize vulgar Marxism. Another still: everyone else’s interpretation of Das Kapital so exaggerates some sub-sub-sub-claim of a point itself so inconsequential that to call what he or she preaches “Marxism” sends Marx sliding down a slippery slope (at the bottom of which Andrew and Dale Carnegie consume crumpets while discussing the merits of the responsibility assumption). Given that contemporary “categorical” debates are always hotly contested, why are critics so comfortable with historical categories? At what point does the need to qualify end and a category’s life as a cog begin? I ask this in part because of CR’s comment yesterday: And the thing is, things are heading now in the other direction. Ebb tide. Toward serious scholarship, historicism in the New Historicist sense, but even worse: textual criticism is coming back (for non-initiates, that doesn’t mean close reading but rather hanging out in libraries, looking at multiple copies of the same dusty book—yuck!) Theoretical extravagance is regarded as outre and kind of silly. [...] In other words, a specter’s haunting English, a specter that brings narrowness, specialization, horrendous boredom, and useless expertise. CR implies that theory is as parasitic on the work of “serious scholars” as their work is on whatever unacknowledged theories subtend it. If that’s the case—if these categorical beasts are as beastly as I contend—then despite the horrendous boredom works of “serious scholarship” ostensibly entail,[1] without such work the quality of theoretical tinkering will decline. The machine’s only as reliable as its cogs. What disaster would befall the machinist who depends on cogs of talc! Springs all sprung but the talc cogs have evaporated and the machine, dear readers, the machine, its innards dusted with a fine coat of talc, grit for future gears. Grit for future gears! Given that any theoretical approach necessarily builds on these historical commonplaces, its fate is inextricably bound to the claims beneath the claims beneath its claims. If some of those are of dubious quality, then no matter how sophisticated or interesting the theoretical edifice built upon them, they fall with the foundation. Everywhere I turn I find foundations I wouldn’t even pitch a tent upon. (Much less build a house.) Since muddy foundations and putty cogs endanger all in equal measure, the call to continue pouring water on dirt from mixers made of talc...
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The Mamet Meets The Beckett or A Fairytale Reference Maybe Mamet moves more briskly when watched in an insomnious state, but in the midst of a battle with wakefulness unlike any I've waged lately I thoroughly enjoyed his Spartan. (Why I had insomnia after a night of feigning a prodigious drunk baffles me. Had I imbibed an abnormal amount of high-octane alcohol last night I would no doubt have passed out like a petrified log. Instead I stood giant like the sequoia, surveying the vast expanse of consciousness that lay before and behind me and praying for an illegal timber outfit to clear-cut me out of my misery. But I dendro-digress.) In Spartan, Robert Scott belongs to the government agency involved in the operations. As the film opens, the woman being chased by the man in the woods passes the seated Scott. The man sees Scott then looks at the woman. The woman stops running and shrugs. Scott turns to the man. Says You've had your whole life to prepare for this moment. Why aren't you ready? The man claims he is and runs after the woman who seeing the man resume chasing resumes fleeing. Cut to the military barracks. The woman loudly informs Scott of her prowess with knives in close quarters. Scott: What they got you teaching here young sergeant? Black: Edged weapons sir. Knife fighting. Scott: Don't you teach them knife fighting. Teach them to kill. That way they meet some son of a bitch who studied knife fighting, they send his soul to hell. Then things happen. The truck is driven. The helicopter piloted. Now Scott leads the task force to find the girl. The girl had been kidnapped. The government official named Burch corners Scott: Burch: What about if we had to go off the meter? Scott: The door is closed sir. Burch: I need to ask you to do something. Scott: I am here to get the girl back sir. And there is nothing I will not do to get the girl back. Eventually the only native speaker of Mametese (William H. Macy) arrives. The shots are fired and the credits roll. Perhaps I exaggerate Mamet's desire to create a conspiratorial mood via the definitive article. Perhaps. But in Spartan this technique works to spectacular effect. Mamet employs a variation of the technique Hugh Kenner attributes to Samuel Beckett: Two men waiting, for another whom they know only by an implausible name which may not be his real name. A ravaged and blasted landscape. A world that was ampler and more open once, but is permeated with pointlessness now. Mysterious dispensers of beatings. A man of property and his servant, in flight. And the anxiety of the two who wait, their anxiety to be as inconspicuous as possible in a strange environment ("We’re not from these parts, Sir") where their mere presence is likely to cause remark. It is curious how readers and audiences do not think to observe the most obvious thing about the world of the play, that it resembles France...

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