Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Modernity's Golem

Michael Lujan Bevacqua
Professor Da Silva
Theories in Ethnic Studies

Thinking Fragments, Jane Flax
(apologies for the unfinished sentences)

I’d like to begin with a few banal statements which will hopefully help in finding a way to begin talking about this text. As I am typing, and thinking about the ways in which I might begin, I am resisting the urge to respond directly to the response papers which have already been circulated. That would be a more satisfying and engaging experience than blandly describing the text using such romance killing words such as “generative.”

The writing of papers which elaborate on the main points of any text is always a difficult task for me. In thinking of this, I am reminded of an interview Derrida gave for an American documentary crew, where the initial inquiry boiled down to “love, elaborate.” He responded that he couldn’t do it, and that he had an empty head for love in general. When assigned these sorts of things for classes, I feel confronted with a similar task. “book, write.” But the command “write” comes with all sorts of requirements for profundity or articulation or hints as to how, and when staring into the abyss which is nearly any text (or any person for that matter), it is easy to feel anxiety over how to accommodate the others which are forcing this confrontation. It is so much easier when prompted, whether by culture, by a question, by an event.

It is not that there is very little I can say. That is never the case. Although when encountering dense texts like these, it is usually a choice strategy of representing our choices or our opinions to say that there is very little to say, or that we understand, the problem is always that there is too much to say. And when confronted with the abundance of it, we recoil because of the impossibility to know it or represent it.

Of Flax’s text, I particularly enjoyed her section on Freud. In the construction of the pioneer that Freud was and is, there is nearly always reference to the innovative cartography and mapping devices he created for the human self. But as Flax notes several times, Freud’s works are riddled with an anxiety. After facing the abyss of human consciousness and the possibilities which lay beyond modernity and Enlightenment proposals, Freud notes important things, but in critical ways, also retreats into his class, cultural and gender biases in order to stave off the possible postmodern or antimodern deluge which lay beyond. Depending on whom you believe, Lacan makes the same conscious or unconscious mistakes in his proposal of certain transcendental forms such as the phallus which do exist outside of language.

I guess it would be important here to say make some general statements about the main points of the text before I continue to ramble on. Flax brings out the main theoretical roots and underpinnings of psychoanalysis, feminism and postmodernism in an attempt to seek the best possible critical tools and space in a world fraught with uncertainty over the possibility of ethical action. These three discursive institutions are towering forces in the ways the worlds of today (namely post-nearly everything) and the past (Enlightenment, modernity, etc.) are commonly constructed (although many would say that psychoanalysis is no longer what it once was, the spectre of Freud continues to exert much force, even in just the way people on a day to day basis use his language and his concept, without knowing where they come from). The strengths of each give clues as to the deficiencies in the others. In relating this to Freud, Lacan and psychoanalysis, feminism and its attention to gender provides an important critical tool for taking apart the more obvious gender biases and anxiety in Freud, but also...

Although I would agree with anyone who says that feminism is a postmodern theory, I would also agree with anyone who said it needed to something separate as well. Postmodernism and liberalism suffer from the same easy short circuit, pre-existing statements or edicts makes it difficult to form antagonistic or transformative basises for political action. In liberalism, the existence of formal and admitted symbolic rules for existence, tend to obscure contrary and often more powerful obscene rules. In Flax’s text, Lacan is the perfect example. Of someone who can talk a good game, who can say the right things about women being oppressed, but will still shoulder and palm off deeply rooted biases, which continue to assert men as the unmarked, mobile and agency drunk wraiths of existence, while women, are subordinated by the impossible neutrality of his works, once again the derivative. Returning to the postmodern, feminism is one way in which that theoretical framework can find political success.

I am thinking specifically here of Hardt and Negri’s text Empire, and their idea of absolute democracy. (I guess I should qualify something here, no one is postmodern (in any essential or real sense), but everyone has postmodern tendencies. And it is not because of huge shifts in consciousness because of French theorists who were able to gandha the scene of writing. But more so because postmodernity reintroduced and fused into the language of modernity what are inadequately referred to as pre-modern tendencies to hybridize things actively and openly. (this is not a hybrid’s “return to nature” or a cyborg’s return to the home/factory, although it can of course be interpreted that way). If Latour is correct when we claims that we have never been modern, then all postmodernism does is make valid or legitimate hybrid identities or hybrid political projects. An important point I think in learning to attempt to look awry the walls that are determined to confine and define us. This tangent exists, because my mind snagged on whether or not Empire constitutes a postmodern project.) When reading their thoughts about absolute democracy, I was reminded about the idea of feminist democracy from Mohanty and Alexander’s text, Feminist Genealogies. My first instinct was, they’re working on the same or closely similar projects! But the more I considered the position of the European or white, often times hardly organic intellectual, and the transparency and mobility of their voice that they often engineer in order to speak or represent the plights of others, I began to think that although these two movements may be articulated in roughly similar ways, in that they both take into account the intersections of gender, race, class, and so on. But in today’s intellectual climate, these things are the new political rhetoric, (its morning in America!), it is easy to say these things, but what makes life so frustrating is that it is so difficult to conceptualize and actualize things based on these variables. Postmodernity needs feminism to remind it of the biases which are easily recuperated, namely the naturalizations and easy paths to essentailization based on the things we call realities, whether biological, statistical, social, etc.

My mind persistently returns to Freud, because it is in Flax’s analysis of psychoanalysis that I feel she makes her interesting points. I particularly liked her critique on transference and the problematics of Freud’s analyst. I have always felt that the role of the psychoanalyst and the relationship between the patient was the central part of Freud and also (other than gender issues) his largest source of festering contradictions. After charting a world in which desires and thinking are far more complex and unknown than we know, which amounts to a leveling of the playing field of human life in a way previous proponents of modernity dared not do, in the role of the psychoanalyst, Freud saved modernity’s metaphysical privileging by rhetorically garbing his ideas in a desperate scientific aura, as well as doing his best to prove that the analyst was set apart from the general uncertainty of human life, because of their positionality as an analyst. He infused that position with all the rationality and scientific fabrication he could muster. But because of the very nature of what he was prescribing, the science could never be realized. The analyst cannot be objective, (as Flax notes Freud never was, as he even lent his patients money, and kept correspondence with some of them, after analysis had concluded), it is part of the didactic that he be intimate, that his language only carry the shell of indifference or disinterest. The analyst is the one who must control but not control. Who must be close but distant. It is interesting though. By psychoanalytic terms, this is a doctrinal conflict, however when snatched up by postmodernists or feminists, it can be an important point of departure for thinking about the other, obligations to it and the ethical possibilities involved.

Flax’s text ends with no answers and no conclusions, which I appreciated. Her use of the word partial and fragmented throughout was something I also appreciated. Since we can only deal with partiality, we must begin to think in that way, always with a self-reflective, self-critical qualifier which makes known this fact. Most scholarship and nearly all interactions do not make this formally known, they deny this fact, and continue to assert, even sometimes when attacking modernity, the tenets of its assured self-knowledge and knowable truth. As Buddhist monk once said that “if you resist or confront power, without losing the shell of individualism, then you are only confronting power with a smaller version of itself.” Therefore, you are never doing so much as you think you are, and more importantly CAN so long as you do not rid yourself of the limits which are both imposed on...

I feel that so many people have trouble with postmodern texts because they assume that what must replace modernity (if this can be done, and I believe it can, although, the creatures which inherit this planet after we have destroyed ourselves will only know its benefits), must resemble modernity, or must play its games, must most importantly, live up to its standards of epistemological existence. Noam Chomsky is the perfect example of this. In his discussions about the possibility for language not being merely just a social tool, he always says, well maybe, but any connections which you could make, don’t meet the scientific rigor needed to prove something. Therefore in proving something outside of the limits of something, Chomsky requires that you first prove it using the limits of something. We are all to some extent like this, because what exists beyond what we think we know is by its nature frightening (I’m not sure it is frightening by its nature, or by our nature, or instead because of modernity’s disdain for that which it cannot know (and is therefore not worth knowing)).

When Rumsfeld spoke of the known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns, he was as Zizek says, doing some amateur philosophizing (I really feel he should quit his day job). Zizek points out that what Rumsfeld leaves out is the unknown knowns, namely the Freudian unconscious, or even the Real (Lacanian). In places such as the unconscious, the Real, answers lie, but sorry to be so cliché, how can we unlock them? In recent years Zizek’s work has taken more of an interest in deciphering the Real, and hoping that transformative resistance might lie in the things which to us are not only indecipherable, but must be so. But so long as we search or investigate based on the rules of modernity (and the ways we in our own ways embody those rules), we will be lead nowhere except into the quagmires which most of the students in this class, seem to be stuck in, or have fears of being stuck in.

Finding a way out of modernity means taking risk and chances, both politically and theoretically. It means as Spivak says admitting to an intense vulnerability and accepting that. Spivak, Derrida and De Man all admitted to deconstruction as not making a very good model for long term political action, it is instead useful in tactical situations. And while some may see this as a deficiency, it is far from it. It is instead a refusal to explicitly play modernity’s game. To not replace something with a smaller version of itself, and to refuse to play the game. Instead of seeking universals or eternal projects or tactical acts, it sees that type of thinking about time and mina’ok as modern and violent.

(I admit, I am romanticizing this a bit, but its all in honor of Derrida who passed away last year, and who therefore remain that distant other with whom I shall always seek ethical/hospitable interaction.)

I’d like to conclude with a fairy tale, which may seem out of place, but to me, it illustrates some of the anxiety over the postmodern. The Grimm’s Brothers retell the story about the Golem, a clay (in other versions it is made of something else) creature who protects villagers. By inscribing “aemaeth” or truth into the brow of the Golem, the creature would draw energy from the word and come to life and fight off attackers or invaders. By removing the “ae” from the word, truth became “maeth” or death, thus returning the Golem to clay.

I see modernity in this. Because of its enacting powers, its ability to give life requires an explicit violence and control. It is only because the life and death of the Golem can be controlled, that this method, this act is even allowed or pursued. Because the centrality of humanity, the rational, can be assured in the creation of this creature that it is created. Wandering into the postmodern, or beyond it (if its possible), means ascribing “aemaeth” into the Golem’s brow, but with no “maeth” to stop it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Man, I don't miss having to read all of that kind of stuff again. But I get the point and understand the sides/positions/aneurisms. More power to you to have the patience to read someone's lengthy "factual opinion" without going nuts.

Can't wait for April which is coming around the corner fast.

"Truth is a Pathless Land"



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