News of Calais

Calais’s “Jungle”: Refugees, Biopolitics, and the Arts of Resistance

by Debarati Sanyal

This past spring, as the EU brokered its refugee deal with Turkey to “save lives” in theFig. 12 (Magnin - 'Dans le calme, le face à face entre migrants et CRS') Mediterranean, the French state razed a portion of Calais’s “jungle,” encampments that currently shelter 10,000 refugees, while building a container camp. In this essay, an analysis of recent film and photography highlights practices of resistance to the interplay of humanitarian compassion and securitarian repression, nuancing the view of borderscapes as sites of total biopolitical capture, and of refugees as bare life. Read the full advance version of this essay free of charge here.

A revised and updated version of this essay will be published in our Spring 2017 issue. This is unedited version is being posted in advance (October 24, 2016) in light of the swiftly changing circumstances in the Calais camps.  According to today’s Guardian, “Hundreds of migrants and refugees have left Calais on buses for accommodation centres elsewhere in France on the first day of an operation to clear and then demolish the refugee camp in the northern port town.”

DEBARATI SANYAL is a professor in the French Department at the University of California, Berkeley.


Across the Great Describe

Interpret or Describe?

by Cannon Schmitt

The essay opens with a page spread from Alison Bechdel’s 2012 graphic memoir, Are You My Mother? Cannon Schmitt then begins:

UnknownWhat do we require of these pages? Or, to anthropomorphize and so shift the emphasis: what do they require of us? Such questions are at once theoretical and methodological, and the potential answers are so varied that reducing them to any binary between x or y way of proceeding would clearly be insufficient. Nonetheless, at present one pair of options stands out among others: should we interpret or should we describe? Is our task as readers, viewers, critics, scholars, and theorists the interpretive one of assigning or discerning meaning, crafting a reading, making the object of our attention speak its hidden truth? Or is it, on the contrary, the descriptive one of limning all the details, redoubling the object in our commentary on it, refusing the obviousness of the obvious by exhaustively accounting for what is to be read or seen?

I write “on the contrary” as though interpretation and description were opposites, somehow mutually exclusive. This is indeed how they figure in much recent debate. To take only one example, useful because especially explicit: in a 2010 article in differences, Ellen Rooney states categorically that “description as a mode of reading doesn’t work at all.” Attacking the “surface reading” advocated by Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus in the introduction to their special issue of RepresentationsThe Way We Read Now,” Rooney claims that such an approach—and, by clear implication, any similar descriptive method—naively “dreams itself free of . . . the conflicts that emerge when description is defined as always already a matter of interpretation.” But it’s superfluous to quote from the body of the article because all we really need to know appears in its title, which exhorts us not, as the state motto of New Hampshire has it, to “Live Free or Die,” but rather to “Live Free or Describe.” For its opponents, description equals death: death of critical responsibility, death of political engagement, death of relevance.

We have to go back the better part of a century to find someone with a comparably virulent antidescriptive stance. In his now-classic 1936 essay “Narrate or Describe?” the Marxist philosopher and literary critic Georg Lukács codified the aesthetic superiority of what he called narrating to describing. Although the distinction sounds properly narratological, as if it could be arrived at with recourse to categories of analysis such as narrative voice or focalization, in Lukács’s idiosyncratic usage it has to do with something more elusive, namely a writer’s stance toward a fictional world. Novelists narrate when they present a world in flux, riven by forces of change—change, moreover, in which the novelist and her or his narrator have a vested interest. Of necessity, then, narration is committed to action (including inner action: epiphany or disillusionment, for example). It also links every detail in a novel to the fate of that novel’s characters. Narration admits of no filler. Description, by contrast, is all filler. Novelists describe when they enumerate the details of a world in which those details do not finally matter. Description treats as mere backdrop or setting that which, in narration, would be freighted with consequentiality. As a result, description amounts to nothing more than a kind of “still life.”

Narrating and describing, as Lukács elaborates them in connection with fiction, are far from perfectly analogous to the critical approaches of interpreting and describing. Nonetheless, the overlap is significant enough to be instructive. To begin with, Lukács associates description as a fictional mode with death, just as present-day detractors (and even some proponents, including Heather Love) do with description as a critical mode. If his condemnatory labeling of the world rendered via description as “still life” isn’t clear enough on this front, we need only consider in addition the assertion that, in the work of Émile Zola—for Lukács the quintessential practitioner of novelistic description—the problems and contradictions that vex a living reality are “simply described . . . as caput mortuum of a social process.” Latin for “dead head,” caput mortuum was originally an alchemical term used to designate, per the OED, “the residuum remaining after the distillation or sublimation of any substance”: in its current, figurative usage, “worthless residue.” Thus, in “Narrate or Describe?” narration and novelistic description admit of the same relation Love has posited between interpretation and critical description: that of “the fat and the living” to “the thin and the dead.”

Animated, living narration; static, dead description: a stark opposition. But even as he wields it in the service of a partisan history of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literary production (on which more below), Lukács can find no novelist who only narrates or only describes. Despite the either/or choice of its titular question, that is, “Narrate or Describe?” answers with a both/and: narration and description require each other. I call attention to this apparent contradiction not as an example of faulty logic or inconsistent positions but instead as a useful model for how we might understand the related opposition between interpretation and description. The point is not that we cannot distinguish between the two. It is, rather, that they depend on and implicate each other in ways that render jettisoning either untenable. That no critical description can purify itself of interpretation is hardly news: such antidescriptive absolutism is now so widespread in the humanities as to constitute a kind of truism. But the inevitability of interpretation’s reliance on description has found few standard bearers. In what follows I make the case for that reliance by way of Lukács, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), and, finally, those two pages from Are You My Mother? with which I began. Continue reading …

This essay is a contribution to our special issue “Description Across Disciplines” edited by Sharon Marcus, Heather Love, and Stephen Best. You can read the introduction to that issue here.

CANNON SCHMITT, Professor of English and Associate Director of the PhD program in English at the University of Toronto, is the author of two books, Darwin and the Memory of the Human: Evolution, Savages, and South America (2009; paperback reprint 2013) and Alien Nation: Nineteenth-Century Gothic Fictions and English Nationality (1997), and co-editor of Victorian Investments: New Perspectives on Finance and Culture (2008). His essays have appeared in Representations, Victorian Studies, ELH, Genre, and elsewhere. He is now at work on the sea in Victorian fiction and the possibility of literal reading.

Fiery Cinema

Fiery Cinema: The Emergence of an Affective Medium in China, 1915-1945

by Weihong Bao

Berkeley Book Chats

Wednesday, Oct 19, 2016 | 12:00 pm to 1:00 pm
Geballe Room, 220 Stephens Hall, UC Berkeley

Mapping the changing identity of cinema in China in relation to Republican-era print media, theatrical performance, radio broadcasting, television, and architecture, in Fiery Cinema Weihong Bao constructs an archaeology of Chinese media culture. She grounds the question of spectatorial affect and media technology in China’s experience of mechanized warfare, colonial modernity, and the shaping of the public into consumers, national citizens, and a revolutionary collective subject.Bao_large

A major contribution to the theory and history of media, Fiery Cinema rethinks the nexus of affect and medium to offer key insights into the relationship of cinema to the public sphere and the making of the masses.

Weihong Bao is associate professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures and Film and Media at UC Berkeley. Her short essay “From Duration to Temporization: Rethinking Time and Space for Durational Art” will appear in the fall issue of Representations (the special issue “Time Zones: Durational Art and Its Contexts”), available next month.

After an introduction by Andrew Jones (East Asian Languages and Cultures, UC Berkeley, and Representations editorial board member), Bao will speak briefly about her work and then open the floor for discussion.

Bob Dylan: Nobel Laureate

Ain’t no use

…to sit and wonder why Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature yesterday. In the words of Sara Danius, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, he is honored for having “created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

Timothy Hampton, author of  “Absolutely Modern” Dylan, Rimbaud, and Visionary Song” (Representations 132, Fall 2015), would certainly agree. As Hampton shows in this recent essay, the new Nobel Laureate is not just an American bard but also a modernist visionary. “Dylan’s work during the mid-1960s,” writes Hampton, “might be seen as a search for a set of forms that would keep faith with Rimbaud’s famous axiom, ‘One must be absolutely modern.’…Dylan’s version of Rimbaud’s modernism involves processing an entire phantasmagoria of raw material previously unexplored in American songwriting—movies, history, literature, legend, travel, exotica, cartoons, and so on. And Dylan’s self-creation in music includes the struggle to marshal this material. Thus we might posit Dylan, not as some mere ‘genius’ who simply outpaces the competition (though he certainly does that), but as a kind of site at which a newly complex image world is engaged and managed” (2-3).

Read more about this essay here.


D. A. Miller on Hitchcock

a University Press Books event
University Press Books, 2430 Bancroft Way, Berkeley, CA 94704

5:30 PM — 7:00 PM

unnamedHidden Hitchcock, D. A. Miller does what seems impossible: he discovers what has remained unseen in Hitchcock’s movies, a secret style that imbues his films with a radical duplicity.

Focusing on three films—Strangers on a Train, Rope, and The Wrong ManHidden Hitchcock shows how Hitchcock anticipates, even demands a “Too-Close Viewer.” Dwelling within us all and vigilant even when everything appears to be in good order, this Too-Close Viewer attempts to see more than the director points out, to expand the space of the film and the duration of the viewing experience. And, thanks to Hidden Hitchcock, that obsessive attention is rewarded. In Hitchcock’s visual puns, his so-called continuity errors, and his hidden appearances (not to be confused with his cameos), Miller finds wellsprings of enigma.

Hidden Hitchcock is a revelatory work that not only shows how little we know this best known of filmmakers, but also how near such too-close viewing comes to cinephilic madness.

Rope, dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1948

Rope, dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1948

About The Author

D. A. Miller is Professor of the Graduate School and the English Department at the University of California, Berkeley. His recent books include 8 ½ and Jane Austen, or the Secret of Style. In 2013, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Miller has published on Hitchcock twice in Representations: “Hitchcock’s Understyle: A Too-Close View of Rope (121, Winter 2013) and “Anal Rope (31, Fall 1990).

Audio Description Described

Audio Description Described: Current Standards, Future Innovations, Larger Implications

by Georgina Kleege

The essay begins:

In April 2015, Netflix, the video rental and online streaming service, announced that its new series Daredevil would be available with audio description for the blind and visually impaired. The company also announced that soon it would increase the availability of audio description for all its in-house productions. This step may have been taken in response to protests from disability activists who remarked on the irony that Daredevil, whose title character is a blind superhero, would not be completely accessible to blind viewers. It may also have been a preemptive effort to avoid a lawsuit. In 2012, the National Association of the Deaf won a settlement against Netflix that compelled the service to provide closed captioning for all its on-demand programming. Additionally, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has set mandates compelling television broadcasters to increase the number of programs available with audio description and requiring all movie theaters with digital projectors to offer audio description devices to patrons who request them. What all this means for blind people is that there will be a proliferation of accessible movies and television programs. As accessible offerings proliferate, it seems an apt moment to review the history of audio description and scrutinize current standards and practices.

“Audio description” is the umbrella term for techniques meant to make visual media accessible to blind people. These services have been around since approximately the 1980s, when they first began to be offered in live theater performance. The blind audience wore headsets provided by the theater, and a describer was positioned backstage or in the sound booth, from where he or she broadcast brief descriptions about the actors’ movements, gestures, facial expressions, and costumes during the natural pauses between the characters’ speeches. Sometimes more detailed description of the set and a reading of the program were offered before the performance or during intermission. Then, as now, the service is typically offered for only certain performances of the show, and patrons are required to sign up in advance. At approximately the same time that audio description began to be offered in the theater, the service began to be available for television programs and movies. In these cases the description was recorded on a separate audio track accessible to the moviegoer through a headset provided by the theater, or via a setting on the television, and then later by selecting the described version on a home videotape or DVD. At the same time, museums began to offer docent-led tours for blind people and special taped tours or additional tracks on audio tours used by sighted visitors. Over the years, the services have expanded, and the practices have become standardized. While it’s understandable that a certain level of consistency and professionalism is necessary, the rules and guidelines that have become codified seem to arise from problematic assumptions about what blind people can understand and should know about visual phenomena.

Until recently, the standards for audio description have received very little scholarly scrutiny. Literature on the topic is typically written for practitioners and usually only suggests minor tweaks to standard practices or summarizes the results of focus-group surveys of consumers. Some researchers employ the techniques of narrative theory or discourse analysis to collect data from existing audio-description scripts or to tout the advantage of this kind of analysis without necessarily demonstrating how it will produce better results. One research study used eye-tracking technology on a group of sighted participants watching short excerpts of a film, then used the data to write a descriptive track and compared it to an existing audio description of the same film. Blind participants were then asked to evaluate the merits of the two descriptions. Even the researchers admitted that their findings were inconclusive, and that the expense of the technology makes further research of this kind impractical. In disability studies scholarship, when audio description comes up, it typically appears in lists of necessary accommodations to promote the goal of social inclusion for people with disabilities, along with closed captioning, sign-language interpretation, architectural modifications, and so forth. Scholars advocate for audio description in specific situations, in public service announcements for emergency preparedness, for example. But for the most part, in this scholarship, as in the literature for producers, there is a kind of tacit acceptance that the foundational assumptions behind the practice are sound and unproblematic.

What I have at stake here is that I am blind myself, and so a potential consumer of audio description services. As will become apparent, I am skeptical about, even hostile to, the current practices. My critique of the standard practices, however, is blunted by the undeniable fact that I cannot see what I’m missing. So, whenever possible, I try to draw the attention of scholars of literature and visual culture to audio description, in the hope that the perspective of someone who is neither a service provider nor a consumer could eventually lead to innovation. The increased availability of audio description, such as that provided on Netflix offerings, could mean that sighted people might happen upon it and discover some utility beyond what was originally intended. In other words, I resort to a familiar tactic of disability rights discourse and draw an analogy between this relatively new disability accommodation and the most familiar one—the wheelchair ramp. The analogy runs that while a wheelchair ramp, which was originally intended to provide access to people using wheelchairs and other mobility devices, can now be understood to serve anyone, disabled or not, who uses a conveyance on wheels, such as a baby stroller, wheeled suitcase, or skateboard. Thus, my goal here is not merely to critique the current practices of audio description but also to speculate on how it might expand beyond a segregated accommodation to create a more inclusive culture. Continue reading …

Audio description seeks to make visual media—film, television, theater, art exhibits—accessible to blind people. This essay uses the audio-described version of the Oscar-nominated film The Sessions as an example of the current standards. It then speculates on future innovations that could democratize the medium and make it more inclusive.

Kleege_Georgina_0417 - Copy_500GEORGINA KLEEGE teaches creative writing and disability studies at the University of California, Berkeley.  Her recent books include Sight Unseen (1999) and Blind Rage: Letters to Helen Keller (2006). Kleege’s latest book, More than Meets the Eyes (forthcoming in 2017) is concerned with blindness and visual art: how blindness is represented in art, how blindness affects the lives of visual artists, how museums can make visual art accessible to people who are blind and visually impaired. She has lectured and served as consultant to art institutions around the world including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Tate Modern in London.

Upcoming UCB Workshop on Bodies and Political Configurations

Rethinking Political Bodies: A Workshop

Oct 7 – Oct 8, 2016
Faculty Club, University of California Berkeley


Featuring Representations editorial board members Alexei Yurchak and David Bates, along with Camille Robcis, Nima Bassiri, Ethel Matala de Mazza, Danilo Scholz, Rebecca Gaydos, and Stefanos Geroulanos

The relationship between biological concepts and political concepts is longstanding — the “body politic” has always been a dominant metaphor for theorizations of political community. However, organicist models of the state have been thoroughly tainted by 19th and early 20th century ideas of unity, homogeneity, and racial purity. Today, bio-politics is a ubiquitous frame for analysis, yet the biological dimension is often underdeveloped. This workshop takes as its starting point the idea that modern biological concepts provide important resources for thinking about organization, order, control, and other key political problems. Papers will explore new links between bodies and political configurations, on the ground and within theoretical discourses. For more information, visit the workshop web page.

Supported by the UC Berkeley Department of Rhetoric

The Poetics of Description

Description and the Nonhuman View of Nature

by Joanna Stalnaker

The essay begins:

Today, when thinking about the divide between literature and science, we may tend to associate literature with the imagination and science with observation and description. The prehistory of this assumption can be traced back to the eighteenth century, when description first emerged as a contested category in urgent need of definition, beyond the traditional rhetorical notion of enargeia, the figure by which an absent object or person is made vividly present through words. As Lorraine Daston, John Bender, Michael Marrinan, Cynthia Sundberg Wall, and I have shown, the practice of description underwent significant transformations in the eighteenth century, as competing regimes of description emerged and were defined in opposition to each other. Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s famous Encyclopédie, published over two decades beginning at midcentury, offered three separate entries on description: one for geometry, one for natural history, and one for belles lettres. A later iteration of that work, the Encyclopédie méthodique, added yet another entry on the newly invented genre of descriptive poetry, which purportedly undermined classical poetics by failing to subsume description to narrative or didactic design. Yet the disciplinary landscape operative in these definitions—and in the descriptive practices surrounding them—cannot be easily mapped onto our familiar opposition between imaginative literature on the one hand and scientific description on the other.

423px-thumbnailIn what follows, I will look at two writers from the French eighteenth century whose work illustrates the contingency of modern categories and definitions of description. The first is the famous naturalist and renowned stylist Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, whose multivolume Histoire naturelle spurred the vogue for natural history across Europe in the second half of the eighteenth century. The second is the once-celebrated but now obscure poet Jacques Delille, who took the Scottish poet James Thomson as his model and introduced the so-called genre of descriptive poetry in France in the last decades of the Old Regime. Taken together, these two writers exemplify what the great naturalist and zoologist Georges Cuvier called “the age of description.” This age has fallen out of view since Cuvier’s lifetime, lost to the modern fracture between literature and science. Yet I will argue that it holds special relevance for us today, at a time when short-story writers and political theorists alike share an impulse to ascribe agency to nonhuman things and to question the centrality of human perspectives. One of the biggest surprises to emerge from the unfamiliar landscape of the eighteenth-century age of description is its elaboration of a poetics of description grounded in dramatic shifts in scale and nonhuman perspectives on nature. Continue reading …

This article looks at two writers of the French eighteenth century, the naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon and the poet Jacques Delille, whose innovative practices of description call into question our modern opposition between literature and science and raise the issue of how literature might be transformed through attention to nonhuman views of nature.

JOANNA STALNAKER teaches in the French Department at Columbia University. She is the author of The Unfinished Enlightenment: Description in the Age of the Encyclopedia (Cornell, 2010) and is currently working on a book about the last works of the French philosophes at the end of the Enlightenment.

Classifying Mutability

Cloud Physiognomy
by Lorraine Daston

The essay begins…

When it came to clouds, art and science faced similar challenges of description: how to capture almost infinite variety and variability? Both variety and variability flummox description, whether in words or in images, but not in the same way. Perform the following thought experiment: first, imagine all the species of life on earth arrayed together in their dazzling diversity, all circa ten million of them, from the Lesser Antillean iguana to the figeater beetle, from brain corals to black-capped chickadees, from mosquitoes to barley. That is variety, and clouds have it aplenty: cirrus fibratus intortus, cirrocumulus castellanus lacunosus, altostratus undulatus, and on and on. But viewed on a human time scale, it is a static variety. Evolution rarely proceeds before our very eyes. Now imagine all of these ten million-odd species constantly metamorphosing into one another and into intermediate forms—not just evolution speeded up to cinematic tempo but everything changing into everything else, all at once, not just past forms to present forms but also present to past and this present form to that other one, without regard to taxon or phylogeny. That is variability—the vertiginous variability of clouds.

It is not just the variety of clouds but also their fast-paced variability that eludes description: if the pace of biological evolution is too slow to be perceptible on a human timescale, that of cloud evolution is too swift for the human eye to fix, much less to capture in a net of words and images. Although the skies have been scanned and studied since the meticulous astrometeorological diaries kept for more than six centuries by ancient Babylonian scribes, and weather-watching networks sponsored by scientific societies have been trying to systematize observations since the seventeenth century, it was only at the turn of the nineteenth century that two naturalists, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in France and Luke Howard in Britain (it is significant that both were steeped in the practices of Linnaean classification) independently and simultaneously proposed cloud classification schemes—but two quite different schemes based on different principles.

For the next hundred years, cloud observers elaborated their own systems, splitting and lumping the original categories according to local weather patterns and individual proclivities. Is it any wonder that almost every scientific publication on cloud classification from Lamarck’s and Howard’s pioneer attempts around 1800 to the latest edition of the International Cloud Atlas in 1975/1987 begins with a tetchy paragraph defending the whole enterprise against skeptics who point to the notorious mutability and evanescence of their subject matter?

After centuries of serving as the metaphor for mutability, clouds began to be classified by genera and species in the nineteenth century, on the model of Linnaean taxonomy. In order to standardize nomenclature, cloud watchers had to learn to see in unison, recognizing cloud types as one would recognize human faces. The analogy between cloud and facial recognition runs deep: in both cases, a few salient features (that aquiline nose, those long wispy streaks) are foregrounded at the expense of a great many others. What the art of caricature is to faces, condensed description was to clouds: a few bold strokes that focused attention on the essential and screened out everything else. Cloud classification depended crucially on description by omission.

LORRAINE DASTON is Director at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin and a regular Visiting Professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. Her work spans a broad range of topics in the early modern and modern history of science, including probability and statistics, wonders and the order of nature, scientific images, objectivity, quantification, observation, and the moral authority of nature.

Questions of Poetics Symposium

On Friday, September 23, Representations board member and co-editor of the special issue, “Financialization and the Culture Industry,” C. D. Blanton, will participate in a symposium on Barrett Watten’s Questions of Poetics: Language Writing and Consequences at UC Berkeley.

Blanton is Associate Professor of English at the University of California at Berkeley. His research interests include modernist literature and thought generally, as well as the long history of post-romantic verse. He is the author of Epic Negation: The Dialectical Poetics of Late Modernism (Oxford, forthcoming) and co-editor of two volumes of postwar poetry: Pocket Epics: British Poetry After Modernism (Yale Journal of Criticism) and A Concise Companion to Postwar British and Irish Poetry (Blackwell). He is currently working on a project on the end(s) of modernist aesthetics.

Lyn Hejinian will host the symposium, which takes place from 1–2:30PM in room D1 of the Hearst Field Annex, on the UC Berkeley campus. Other participants include Jane Gregory, Donna V. Jones, Andrew Key, Charles Altieri and Barrett Watten.