Friday, 07 October 2005

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How to Open a Victorian Novel; or, The Greatest Opening Sentences That Never Were I'm always stumbling across sentences in the middle of paragraphs buried deep within chapters nestled in some sub-sub-section which, if I had my druthers, would instead find themselves the opening line of a classic Victorian novel. "Why," I ask myself, "would someone bury this perfectly serviceable first sentence of a Victorian novel in the middle of the middle of the middle of a book?" I've often thought of keeping a notebook of such sentences, or at the very least, a running list of them on this humble blog. It could be a series easier to update than the failed "A. Cephalous Word of the Every Other Day or So." (Which, I should add, I remind myself to update whenever I bump into words like "calcate," which means "to trample or stamp under heel." But while I'd love to show my shiny new word to the world, writing faux-usage histories seems so been-there-done-that I can't bring myself to go there and do it again.) But I digress. This sentence from the third chapter of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking should be opening some dusty Victorian tome: It was deep into the summer, some months after the night when I needed to be alone so that he could come back, before I recognized that through the winter and spring there had been occasions on which I was incapable of thinking rationally. Marvel at its potential. Looking at it now though, I wonder whether this particular example is more Victorian or postmodernly faux-Victorian. Because I think I may've read that Paul Auster novel. Back to the point: I'm going to start a collection of such sentences, and if you run across any feel free to deposit them in the comments section. I'm not entirely sure what I'm going to do with this collection, or what possible purpose it could serve humanity, but at the very least it could be a way to think more systematically about great opening lines without having to limit ourselves to idiosyncratically great opening lines. (As we did a few months back at Bérubé's place.) We'd limit ourselves to Victorian or postmodernly faux-Victorian novels instead.
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On "The Kind of Critical, Obliquely Ontological Investigation of Some Sort of Self" [cross-posted to The Valve] Two long posts, both concerning theory, both beginning with a quotation of a previous discussion. Serendipity? The constitutional inability to resist having the last word? Doesn’t matter. Also unimportant: the experiment I concocted whereby I would post this here and ask Mark to post it on Long Sunday to see whether the two crowds would treat the material differently in some meaningful way. But I digress. (Despite not even having started yet.) Ahem: I accused Mark Kaplan of reading Foucault’s account of historical interest naively. I quoted this bit as proof: So, for example, the sexual practices of ancient Greece – were these not, for Foucault, partly a way of thinking his way outside modern notions of ‘sexuality’ and the historically ingrained ‘regime’ supporting them. And followed with this assessment: I think Mark’s severely underestimating Foucault’s congenital pessimism, both about historical change and, more importantly, the idea that we can understand the discourses which saturate our lives in the moment that we live them. He responded, quite rightly, that I glossed over Foucault’s notion of “the critical ontology of the self,” the practice he identifies with Kant’s Aufklärung, which my Oxford Duden German Dictionary tells me means something along the lines of “clearing up,” “solution,” “elucidation,” “explanation,” “a reconnaissance plane” or “the Enlightentment.” Some of these things are not like the others. I’ve wondered why the English translation of the essay—"What is Enlightenment?"—failed to capture the reference there both in Kant’s German ("Was ist Aufklärung?") and Foucault’s French ("Qu’est-ce que les Lumières?"). Might this slight tick in the English be indicative of some abstractive impulse at the heart of Anglo-American Theory? (Yes, I capitalized it, but for reasons which will eventually become apparent.) I’m not too inclined (yet) to attribute such a thing to American Theory because Kant’s work, as well as Foucault’s gloss of it, speaks directly to the problem of philosophical thought reflecting on the present moment: I have been seeking, on the one hand, to emphasize the extent to which a type of philosophical interrogation—one that simultaneously problematizes man’s relation to the present, man’s historical mode of being, and the constitution of the self as an autonomous subject—is rooted in the Enlightenment. On the other hand, I have been seeking to stress that the thread that may connect us with the Enlightenment is not faithfulness to doctrinal elements, but rather the permanent reactivation of an attitude—that is, of a philosophical ethos that could be described as a permanent critique of our historical era. This permanent critique of our historical era should entail “the analysis of ourselves as beings who are historically determined, to a certain extent, by the Enlightenment” and “‘the contemporary limits of the necessary,’” i.e. “what is not or is no longer indispensible for the constitution of ourselves as autonomous subjects.” All that emphasis are belong to us. We, er, I’ve empahsized those passages not because I’m being excessively pedantic about hedging key philosophical claims: I’ve emphasized them because in the...

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