Sunday, 21 August 2005

On Names, or How Acephalous Lost His Head Searching Technorati to see whether Arts & Letters Daily's recent link to Morris Dickstein's contribution to the Theory's Empire Event had sparked conversation, I stumbled upon Joseph Duemer's account of a recent workshop he chaired on "blogging basics." (Among the ten blogs he recommends his students tour are The Valve, Bemisha Swing and Cliopatria.) Around the same time, I received an email from Mark Kaplan in which he asked me whether the name of this humble blog came from the cultic société secrète organized by Georges Bataille called Acéphale. While I would cherish the cultural capital naming a blog after a Surrealist splinter group would net, I confessed that Bataille had nothing to do with the christening of this blog. (Nor did I harbor monstrous intentions or know anything about vampyroteuthis infernalis.) As I composed my reply to Mark I kept thinking about Duemer's workship, the end of which involved the participants "going to Blogger and creating an account and weblog of their own." The question "What would these workshoppers name their blogs?" circled through my head as I explained the origins of Acephalous to Mark. Would they unintentionally infringe on Adam Kotsko's trademarked dry wit? Would they unwittingly imitate John Holbo and Belle Waring's dead-pan mastery of the obvious? Would they venture down the respectable trails blazed by Amardeep Singh and Michael Berube? Or would they engage in gentle self-mockery like Miriam Burstein or vicious self-deprecation like Yours Truly? Vicious self-deprecation. That is what I said. As I explained to Mark, there are levels to my self-deprecation. The first marches alongside Acephalous up there at the top of the page, informing potential readers of the possibility that I'm one of the "Acephalous people" some "modern travellers still pretend to find in America." That quotation from Emphraim Chambers' Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences should have satisfied even the most ardent self-deprecators. But I wanted more. So I installed a double-super-secret self-deprecatory mechanism deep in the bowels of my dissertation. On page 38 the bold can discover the following account of how Herbert Spencer nuanced Jean-Baptiste Lamarck's account of cephalopod evolution: Adaptation allows the animal to survive long enough for the force of progress to work on it, and adaptation depends on what Lamarck called sentiment intérieur, the ability to adapt, reflexively if not consciously, to environmental vagaries. In a revision of his last major work, The Principles of Ethics (1897), Spencer nuanced Lamarck’s statements on the subkingdom Mollusca. Lamarck, it will be remembered, considers the entire subkingdom to belong to the animaux sensibles or “sensitive animals.” [snip] [Spencer] divides Mollusca into the “cephalopods,” the higher mollusks, and what Lamarck had called “acephala,” the “head-less” or lower mollusks. I have chosen to focus on the subkingdom Mollusca because the division between its orders is so stark: some have heads and are non-adaptive, others have heads and are adaptive. To be a headless mollusk is to remain beholden to the whims of the force of progress. For Lamarck, Chambers, and Spencer,...
Literary Interest, Part II: This Time, It May Even Be Coherent In the earlier version of this post I impatiently criticized arguments I had yet to establish, the result being a brazenly inaccurate or deeply stupid account of the argument Knapp forwards in Literary Interest. I promise no assumptions’ll be prodded until after I proffer his argument in toto. He articulates the short version of his argument at the end of the fourth chapter: The object of literary interpretation is necessarily the meaning intended by some agent or collectivity of agents. But the object of literary interest is not an intended meaning; in fact, it isn’t literally a meaning at all. The object of literary interest is a special kind of representational structure, each of whose elements acquires, by virtue of its connection with other elements, a network of associations inseparable from the representation itself. (104) Floating there alone, far from the arguments which substantiate it, that claim surely strikes readers as the conventional formalist claim for the autonomy of the literary object. Its “representational structure” closes in upon itself such that being interested in the regicide in MacBeth is “not to be interested in regicide as but in regicide as set in its “galaxy of symbols"--regicide, that is, as suggesting, and suggested by, the thoughts and emotions appropriate to daggers, and crows, and naked babes, and so on” (104). The previous version of this post jumped the tracks by overemphasizing the arguments Knapp proposes and dismisses as he updates Wimsatt’s notion of “the concrete universal.” Here they are: The intended world of an author like Milton should allow “his reader to imagine states of affair whose interconnections would be tight enough, for example, to sustain an inference from Eve’s speaking to Eve’s having a mouth; or from Adam’s standing to Adam’s being in contact with the ground” (9). If he succeeds, his intentions can be divined. If he fails, his intentions can be probed and critics can attempt to supplement the work with whatever it needs to achieve coherence, e.g. the Romantics reenvision Milton’s intentions and in so doing create the coherent Miltonic world Milton himself could not. But Knapp insists that “one’s interest in the problem of Milton’s authorial agency can go beyond an interpretive interest in figuring out what action milton performed or failed to perform” (27). Therefore an interest in analogies between poets and their poems, or poets and readers, or readers and poems is hard to account for in either theoretical or interpretive terms. But [his] claim is not that a non-interpretive and non-theoretical interest in analogies is for that reason anomalous or mistaken. On the contrary, it is precisely for this kind of interest that I propose to reserve the adjective “literary.” (29) Via Keats’ Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil and Kant’s Third Critique, Knapp then discusses the possibility that aesthetical ideas, as represented in metaphor, are suggestive without being meaningful in any predetermined way. Metaphors brim with “negative capability” because they communicate only indirectly. Whatever cognitive content a metaphor possesses, it also possesses...

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