Saturday, 22 October 2005

On the Salubrious Effects of Public Masturbation; or, Not Foucault's discussion of the public vs. the private in The Use of Pleasure: Volume 2 of The History of Sexuality bothers me in ways my own historicism often does. Discourse, for the late Foucault, communicates through winks, blinks and sly suggestion. History shouts. I understand this reasonable distrust of historical and archeological accounts and sympathize with his preference for reading ancient Greek customs through Plato, Aristotle and Xenophon. After all, the seams show under the strain of philosophical consideration much more vividly than they do in the official record. One can infer that certain laws were written in order to ban an unfortunate but common behavior, like murder; but one cannot assume that all laws address actual behavior, like the oft-proposed flag-burning amendment. (They burn 'em overseas, I know, but I believe that outside our jurisdiction.) So instead of relying on inference, Foucault (and a generation of New Historicists) plumb non-standard cultural artifacts for information likely not included in official records. In short, Foucault reads the history of Greek custom through Plato, Aristotle and Xenophon for the same reason I read newspapers, circulars, and literature to understand fin de siècle American culture. But this is old news. Foucault didn't invent the social history, and his quarrels with the Annales school notwithstanding, his theory of discourse and its theory of mentalities spanning la longue durée share more assumptions than either party admits. But Foucault's approach hit the American scene at the height of dissatisfaction with the a-historical quality of American literary studies in its New Critical and post-structuralist incarnations. (Neither was nearly so a-historical as both accused the other of being. But that's not significant now.) So the adoption of Foucault by literary scholars has as much to do with his timeliness as the substance of his thought. His "history" bucked the historical stuffiness they thought retrogressive, so when the profession turned to "history" it couldn't help but slam into Foucault. His timing aside, the political nature of Foucault's post-1968 corpus appealed to the newly tenured and increasingly powerful (within the academy) former campus radicals. From here this account ventures in two different, but related, directions: it speaks to the problems with Foucault's historiography or it could address the adoption of those problems (and their dogged pessimism) by New Historicists. Late Foucauldian Historiography When I mentioned how Foucault employs Plato, Aristotle and Xenophon in The Uses of Pleasure, I deliberately elided his other major source, Diogenes Laertius, because Diogenes Laertius was not himself a philosopher so much as an historian of philosophy. His Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, written sometime between 200 and 500 AD, is exactly the kind of source Foucault otherwise eschews. Whatever information it contains, based centuries old heresay, cannot be said to belong to Greek culture in the same manner as the work of Plato, Aristotle and Xenophon's did. So the infamous story about Diogenes the Cynic, as related by Diogenes Laertius somehwere in the ballpark of 300-600 hundred years after Diogenes the Cynic died, should...
Come it Aire, Come it Late, in May, er, November Comes Cow-Quake; or, Ill Bairns are Best Heard at Home, I Know Grant Proposal Writing Season is upon us! Certainly the most wonderful time of the year 'round here. I imagine all the things I'll barely be able to afford if I win the grants I know I'll fail to score and then I die a little more inside. (Yes, I know, "Ye drive a Snail to Rome.") Yet despite this knowledge I insist on filling out endless forms, spending my days revising my work to suit some committee's conception of worth and my nights fretting over things which will not forestall my inevitable failure. (True, "Wit in a gowk's head and mosse on a mountain avails nothing," but I persevere.) Why do this to myself? Why not? What better do I have to do during my last year of teaching eligibility? Drink? ("Quhen wine is in wit is out!") Work on the actual version of my chapter? ("Many smalls make a great!") Why should I finish that? ("Rome was na bigged the first day!") Now that we can table that most ungentle wheeze (and its Scotch antistrophê), I want to share the sort of sentence I produce when consolidating months of research into coruscant sentences: From the various threads of unrelated Darwinian thought Hofstadter wove a rope by which to hang his Social Darwinist. Critics see the noose swinging and infer the hanging even though its loop has never snapped tight. This damnable London chapter will be finished as soon as I stop writing around the issue and start addressing it directly. Circumlocution pads page counts but little else. I produce mounds of fluff in every draft of every chapter because I must stuff the pillows before I place them firmly on the face of Social Darwinism. This strikes me as the excessive but necessary result of conceiving chapters not as chapters but as potential articles. To think of them as proper chapters encourages tame reference to points already proven; to think of them as articles entails frantic recapitulations of the entire dissertation. (Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny? Indeed!) All of which is only to say that posting may be light through the end of October. As the Scots say, "he that does bidding never deserves dinging." I've bidding aplenty to do and don't much care for being dung. But if I'm dung, at least I can comfort myself with the knowledge that "he is fairest dung when his own wand dings him."

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