Sunday, 20 August 2006

Oh Yes, I Put the "Der" in Derridean A few months back, I wrote a long post about why I don't "do theory" anymore. In it, I identified what initially drew me to theory-doing: There's something about modernist literature which lends itself to and/or is consonant with continental philosophy. Joyce, Proust, Woolf, &c. attract people who study Lacan, Deleuze, Derrida, &c. That's what I said. What followed that statement, however, had little to do with it. I tied my intellectual development to my progress to and through graduate school, moving from one charismatic professor to another, adopting and discarding perspective after perspective until I became who I am. As CR pointed out, my development seemed "a bit overdetermined." At the time, I wanted to reply that the overdetermination was a function of the narrative, or that I would consider charismatic those with whom I was already inclined to agree. Both responses seemed inadequate. The first because you can always blame the narrator for his narrative, which he could have, but chose not to, narrate differently; the second, because I adopted and discarded with proselytical glee. I think I have an answer now: In a conversation elsewhere about the relation of thinkers to their adjectives, I mentioned a crack Derrida made about feeling "insufficiently Derridean." Possessive pronouns aside, his legacy would not be his, nor would it relate to the body of his thought. Neither would it belong to other philosophers. It would be the property of English professors; so much so, he mused, that the adjective "Derridean" didn't even refer to him. It was an abbreviation for "The Yale Derrideans" (Paul De Man, J. Hillis Miller and Geoffrey Hartman). I remember thinking the obvious question—"What does the 'Derridean' in 'The Yale Derrideans' refer to?"—and being struck by the profundity of the obvious answer: "Not Derrida." Not the man, his words, his thought, or anything he could control, but the tradition he inspired. As traditions are wont to evolve, that means his name could be attached to thought which bore little resemblance to his own. (Which is why he could be "insufficiently Derridean" in the first place.) While there are many possible referents for "Derridean," the only viable one is "what people who describe their work as 'Derridean' do." The connection is incidental, not inherent. Certainly not essential. "Derridean" means what it means because Derrida was embraced by English departments in the United States at a particular historical moment. In retrospect, you can muster a convincing explanation for how it came to mean what it means. But only in retrospect. And only for "Derridean." You can't generalize from its adoption how, for example, English departments in the States at a different historical moment adjectivized a different thinker. I didn't think this at the time. Back then, I banged my head bloody against walls of theoretical necessity: There (bang!) must (bang!) be (bang!) some (bang!) essential (bang!) connection (bang!) between (bang!) thinkers (bang!) and (bang!) their (bang!) adjectives (bang!). Head pounding, hair blowzy, I decided to drop the issue and...
Deadwood and To Whom Its Dialogue Is Beholden On Unfogged the other day, we had a long, productive conversation about the merits of Deadwood. (I presented my case rather better there than I have before, but I still dig Sean’s more.) We can continue that conversation, but I actually want to have another one, based on Ogged’s latest post, in which he claims that: just as the dialogue in NYPD Blue seemed cool and edgy at the time, and now seems like a strained attempt at mimicking tough-guy culture, I think the dialogue on Deadwood will seem simliarly stupid in several years. Why do I want to parallel a conversation from there over here? Do I think I can compete? No, of course not. But I think the best response to him lies in our domain: namely, that NYPD Blue‘s language was stylized, whereas Deadwood‘s is literary. To that end, I present—below the fold, as this is a family blog—the line of dialogue we discussed before Ogged’s latest post: Ellsworth: I’ll tell you what: I may have fucked my life up flatter than hammered shit, but I stand here before you today beholden to no human cocksucker. Why does that sentence work? My best guess: The “I’ll tell you what” is conventional enough. Only, which convention does it partake of here? Is it the quiet, conspiratorial “I’ll tell you what” salesmen whisper when they want to do us a favor and throw in the top coat for an extra $400? (They’ll have to run it by their manager.) If it is, the “tell” and “what,” the speech and its content, would be emphasized; the “I” and “you” would sink, unstressed, in order to abnegate responsibility for the fucking “I’m” about to do to “you.” That doesn’t seem to work. So, how about the one in which the stresses fall drunkenly on the first and third beats? “I’ll tell you what” embraces the responsibility for the beating “I” declare, for all to hear, that “I’m” gonna put on “you.” This works much, much better. Such statements should, by law or enforced custom, incite terrible violence ... only this one doesn’t. Instead, we’re treated to a somber but forceful self-introspection. Ellsworth, we learn, “fucked [his] life up flatter than hammered shit.” Look at mess of alliteration and assonance there. We have the f sounds stumbling in and out of “fucked,” “life” and “flatter.” Notice how the poetic trickery staples the phrase together. The fə occurs in “fucked” and draws “life” and “up” together, almost into a single word (li-fəp), uniting life up with that what’s been fucked. You know, life. The third f introduces the next sound, what linguists call the “near-open, front unrounded") æ which occurs in the word which best describes it: “flat.” The flæ pulls together the alliterative fs with the assonant æs. (It also flips the l and f sounds of “life up,” a mirroring which’ll manifest thematically half a second later.) The repetition of the internal æ does what it describes: it hammers. The æ,...

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