A few gems from our archive to ease the candy hangover:
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On December 17, 2010, the Tunisian public was gripped by a horrific act that I will qualify as a melancholy act. A young street vendor, Mohammad Bouazizi, set himself ablaze in front of the municipal headquarters of Sidi Bouzid, southern Tunisia, following his alleged humiliation by a local policewoman, who not only fined him and confiscated his cart but also slapped him, spat in his face, and insulted his dead father. While terribly tragic, Bouazizi’s act proved, retrospectively at least, somewhat empowering: it sparked what would become a nationwide wave of contention and protest whose ripple effects would then reach Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria (among several other countries not only in the Arab world but also in the world at large, where demonstrations against dictatorships and the neoliberal dispensation took place).
Bouazizi’s act, which also gave rise to several copycat self-immolations across North Africa, is reminiscent of many instances in the Arab world where suicide has served for some as the only means left for communicating their rage and disgust and for protesting against injustices of various kinds. These instances have ranged from the infamous suicide bombings in Palestine, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere in the Arab world to the very shocking suicide of the modernist Lebanese poet Khalil Hawi, who shot himself to death on June 6, 1982, to protest against the Israeli invasion of Beirut that same day.
The ideological motives and empowering or disempowering effects of these suicides (not just in the sense of autosacrifices but also of heterosacrifices or martyrdoms, as in the case of Palestinians living under the iron-fisted system of Israeli Occupation) remain debatable and vary from case to case. But there is ample evidence, I argue, that they are individual materializations of a more collective or group disposition toward melancholia, on the one hand, as a psychoaffective response to the ever-deepening crisis of the postcolonial project of Arab nationalism and, on the other, as a desperate or despairing response to the unyielding hegemony of the joined-up forces of local despotism and global imperialism. Regardless of their variably distinct individual or ideological character, these suicide protests are nurtured by the affect that occasions them, ranging from the circumstantial shaming of a single person to the historical shaming of entire peoples or collectivities, which is what colonialism constitutes from a deep or surface psychic and cognitive perspective. The interconnections between individual and collective responses to acts of shaming cannot be overstressed: while Bouazizi’s case illustrates how personal shame results in collective identifications and mass protests, Hawi’s case demonstrates how the Israeli invasion of Lebanon as an act of colonial aggression is privatized and decried at the personal level of one individual poet and Arab subject.
Given the continuities between settler colonialism, neocolonialism, and authoritarianism in the Arab world, there is no logical, much less historical, disconnect between Hawi’s and Bouazizi’s suicides. Both are embodiments, or graphic materializations, of a morbid affective disposition that is equally outraged by colonial and national acts of aggression and shaming. It may be the case that both suicides are, from a Lacanian perspective, the tragic testaments to the conscious assumptions of the unconscious death drive—not to say modes of self-realization in the face of the “subjective impasses” generated by the collusion of authoritarianism and colonialism in Tunisia and Lebanon—except that they are, from a historical perspective, unequivocal indictments of both authoritarianism and Zionism. Insofar as shame is variably embedded in colonial and postcolonial societies—instilled and felt at both the individual and collective levels—there will always exist a psychoaffective response that runs along the spectrum of melancholia from depression and self-loathing to reactionary rage and regressive or assertive narcissism. The loss of national sovereignty and individual self-regard may be embodied and substituted by an ideology or a leader, or displaced by cultural forms of artistic creativity that aim in various ways at the recovery of or from lost sovereignty.
Bouazizi’s act does not then so much constitute a melancholy turn as a return to the morbidly traumatic legacy of the June 1967 Six-Day War, in which Israel singlehandedly defeated and shamed the Arab armies of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan and expanded its territory to the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai Desert (now returned to Egypt in the wake of the 1978 Camp David Accords). While the events of 1967 have routinely been used in the social sciences as an analytical lens through/against which to read the Arab Muslim world (in the very same manner that notions of Islam or “the Arab woman” have previously offered Orientalists indispensable categories of analysis), they have rarely been studied as an object of analysis per se, much less through the combined lenses of postcolonial theory and psychoanalysis. In this respect, the late George Tarabishi’s 1991 book, Al-Muthaqqafūn al-Arab wa-Turāth (Arab intellectuals and tradition), is a salutary undertaking—really, an exception to the generalized reluctance, if not resistance, by Arab intellectuals to discern the psychoaffective legacy of 1967 through the productive lenses of psychoanalysis (in favor of generally Marxist and historicist methodologies).
For Tarabishi, the 1967 defeat resulted in “a psychic epidemic or wabā’ nafsī” that poisoned the affective map of the Arab psyche and resulted in a “pathological effect on Arab subjectivity [maf‘ūl mumriḍ ‘alā al-shakhsiyya al-‘arabiyya].” The subtitle of Tarabishi’s book is Al-taḥlīl al-nafsī li‘usāb jamā‘ī (The psychoanalysis of a collective neurosis); as such, it offers a symptomatic reading of Arab thought in the aftermath of the 1967 military defeat, foregrounding the psychoaffective dynamics of which it was a product. For Tarabishi, while the sudden 1798 colonial encounter with European modernity (Napoleon in Egypt) had resulted in a productive shock that impelled Arabs to start the process of modernization (the so-called nahḍa, or Renaissance), the 1967 defeat resulted in a counterproductive trauma. This trauma compelled Arabs to look backward to the protective shield of tradition, a move that ran against the opening and openness to European modernity that the nahḍa had enacted. In other words, the 1967 defeat compelled Arab intellectuals to turn away from the nahḍa rather than return to it. Disowning the nahḍa, which had opened the region up to European modernity, and reclaiming early Islamic tradition became synonymous with the effort to regain cultural identity and national sovereignty.
This disowning and reclaiming became, according to Tarabishi, all the more pronounced as Israel’s phallic omnipotence (symbolized by the superiority of its air force) was seen to neutralize Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser and his power as a protective father figure. With the demise of that towering figure, Arabs, for Tarabishi, found in the return to turāth (tradition) an alternative or compensatory symbolic father. While the nahḍa was dominated by the searing sense of belatedness and the urge to catch up with Europe, the naksa (setback) of 1967 was dominated by the shame of castration and the impulse to act out, react, repair, or compensate for the traumatic losses incurred in the war. The 1967 defeat was traumatic, according to Tarabishi, not only because of its utter unexpectedness (at a time when victory over Israel was thought to be only a matter of time) but also because of its humiliating decisiveness and recursive aftereffects—aftereffects that still reverberate in Arab contemporaneity and that can best be illustrated by the dawning realization that victory over Israel has become as impossible as protection from its aggression. It’s as if the defeat had catapulted or expelled Arabs out of history at the very moment when they were reentering it with the ideology of Arab nationalism and the success of anticolonial movements (especially in Algeria). These nationalist and anticolonial movements have become exemplars of a third-worldist and nonalignment imagination. The symbolic victory of Nasser in 1956, which had engendered feelings of euphoria and good omens at the time, must have made it even harder to stomach the subsequent trauma of the 1967 defeat. Its untimeliness was too much to bear at a moment of high expectations for renewed Arab glory, which is why, for Tarabishi, it resulted in many regressive psychopathological practices.
The defeat of 1967 was, then, the beginning of an end that would later be gradually, but steadily, hammered home by a series of events ranging from the Camp David Accords to those in Oslo, up to the by-now routine Israeli onslaughts on Gaza. The finality of the defeat was such that it foreclosed the possibility of a second round. What is traumatic is not so much the defeat in itself, but the afteraffect in which it was and continues to be experienced and relived as an irreversible destiny—as a continually retraumatizing re-memory and reenactment of the foreclosure of a possible future, or worse, the foreclosure of the very possibility of a future. In other words, the defeat has left Arabs bereft of a dignified, let alone promissory, future, and, what is even more damaging, it has left Arabs with a sense that their past achievements (Arab Islamic glory and high nationalism) are actually the best they could ever have aspired to or achieved. Arab contemporaneity has become from this perspective unlivable unless it is imagined as a future anchored in a glorious Muslim past—“a future past,” to borrow David Scott’s felicitous expression.
Arab contemporaneity is then stranded, or suspended, in a present without potentiality, an impasse of individual dignity and national sovereignty. The severity of the defeat—its irrevocable verdict—matches only the cruelty with which it remained inassimilable to the Arab psyche. The very fact that the defeat is called a naksa or setback speaks volumes about the ways in which it had already been displaced and disavowed rather than reckoned with and worked through. Yet, the issue may not be with accepting defeat, much less with working through shame, but with giving up the struggle against the joined forces of local despotism and settler colonialism. Accepting defeat in the Freudian sense of mourning would amount to accepting the verdict of reality (Israeli superiority) and the injunction to mourn the lost object (sovereignty and dignity). The reverse amounts to the unyielding determination, or stubborn fixation in psychoanalytic terms, on recovering what is lost and redressing the colonial past of injustice and transgression. Indeed, Bouazizi’s suicidal protest and the various uprisings that followed suit suggest that the 1967 defeat has not been assimilated by the Arab psyche precisely because it continues to be contested locally through what I have been calling melancholy acts. While Slavoj Žižek contends in a recent article that melancholia has become the norm that must be subverted, I argue that in the Arab world melancholy acts of this sort are indeed ethical acts not only because of their fidelity to lost objects or lost causes but also because they dissent from the normative structures of mourning, which are in the Arab world aligned with the system of global imperialism and settler colonialism. There is a clear continuity between Hawi’s and Bouazizi’s suicides, just as there is a continuity between resisting authoritarianism nationally (Bouazizi) and colonialism transnationally (Hawi). The question for me henceforth, though, is not so much how suicide protests spark popular revolutions or at least public contentions, but how popular revolutions sparked by suicide protests are materializations of a cultural and critical capital that has largely been determined by a collective disposition toward melancholia.
There is of course nothing strikingly strange (or familiar for that matter) from a psychoanalytic viewpoint about the surety and reliability of the nexus I am trying to establish here between melancholia and militancy. It is already there in Freud’s “The Ego and the Id,” and it is especially articulated in Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. Toward the end of The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon overturns Freud’s conception of pathological and autodestructive melancholia and states that the French psychiatrists in Algeria “were accustomed when dealing with a patient subject to melancholia to fear that he would commit suicide. Now the melancholic Algerian takes to killing. The illness of the moral consciousness, which is always accompanied by auto-accusation and auto-destructive tendencies, took on in the case of Algerians hetero-destructive forms. The melancholic Algerian does not commit suicide. He kills.” Fanon does not theorize further this hetero-destructive disposition of colonial melancholia (which he also calls “pseudo-melancholia”) and does not actually worry that much, since, in the colonial context, everything, including psychic pathologies, would be mobilized for the purpose of decolonization in the very same manner that psychoanalysis, and more so psychiatry, were mobilized by the French colonial administration in the service of colonization. At any rate, the dynamic relationship between melancholia (regardless of its pathological component) and decolonial resistance in the decades following WWII were very much in the air and well established, such that by the time Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari published their Anti-Oedipus, Michel Foucault could gibe in the preface to the American translation of the book, perhaps in a fit of impatience and frustration: “Do not think that one has to be sad in order to be militant.”
The longer project from which this article is extracted seeks to probe the concept of melancholia in psychoanalytic and postcolonial thought in order to illuminate its far-reaching relevance to an Arab decolonial critique of colonialism and neocolonialism alike. Because of space constraints here, I will not engage in detailed analyses of the literary examples I intend to make use of as illustrations. Instead, I will cite short statements and dictums and at times even aphorisms in order to first hammer home what I mean by “melancholy acts” and then show how these “melancholy acts” do indeed serve as acts of decolonial critique. If, as Edward Said argues, Arabic literary writing became “a historical act” in the aftermath of 1948 and, “according to the Egyptian literary critic Ghali Shukri, after 1967, an act of resistance,” my aim herein is to inquire about the psychoaffective apparatus, force, or disposition that must have sustained the production of literature as a resistant and dissident act.
By “a melancholy act,” I mean to describe, insofar as the literary examples are concerned, the manifestation or materialization in language of the melancholic after-naksa-affect whose illocutionary and agentive force registers no less than an act of refusal of forgetful mourning practices and a demand for justice and redress. It is my contention that melancholia’s underappreciated dissent from normative structures of mourning is a threshold moment of critical and cultural empowerment in colonial and postcolonial societies, namely, in the Arab world, where the nexus between proxy and settler colonialisms continues to produce and reproduce almost all aspects of literature and culture. In this sense, Enzo Traverso’s postulation that “melancholic critique is the condition of all critical thinking,” is nowhere more relevant than in the context of the Arab world where this melancholy condition of critical thinking is compounded by the litany of wars and military defeats that mark modern Arab history. The various literary and cultural examples I engage with make legible—at the level of language, imagery, and rhetoric—the legitimacy of Arab political grievances and the continuity Arab artists have established between resisting authoritarianism at home and fighting colonialism abroad. Continue reading …
This essay discusses the politics of affect in post-1967 Arabic literary and cultural production. It argues that melancholia’s underappreciated swerve from normative structures of power and mourning is a threshold moment of critical and cultural enablement in the Arab world, where the nexus between proxy and settler colonialisms continues to produce and reproduce almost all aspects of literature and culture.
NOURI GANA is Professor of Comparative Literature and Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of Signifying Loss: Toward a Poetics of Narrative Mourning and the editor of The Making of the Tunisian Revolution: Contexts, Architects, Prospects and of The Edinburgh Companion to the Arab Novel in English. He is currently completing a book manuscript on the politics of melancholia in the Arab world and another on the history of cultural dissent in colonial and postcolonial Tunisia.
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More than ever we call the spaces we inhabit units. Many university students live in them—some of mine at the University of California, Berkeley, live in Units 1, 2 and 3, names ill conceived for domestic coziness. They were built between 1958 and 1964 by the architectural firm of Warnecke and Warnecke as part of the urban renewal of the city. The dedicated website for Unit 1 states that the complex consists of six buildings built around a court, with a “unit office” at the center. These units make little attempt to look like anything but impersonal superblocks. Recently, the university has countered their anonymity by “theming” parts of them African American, Native American, Asian Pacific American, and Latinx. Such units are modern, impersonal, institutional. The themed programs are more than an attempt to dress them up with new multicultural curtains: they work against the premise of the unit as a “single number regarded as an undivided whole.” In fact, they divide, and in so doing they point out one of the central contributions of multiculturalism: to challenge the perceived uniformity and homogeneity of American society. While housing units flatten and regularize, the themed programs attempt to show the many grains of American culture.
Unit. What a cold word to describe a domestic space; and this gets right to how fitting this odd usage is and why dormitories at large public universities acquire the name. The word was coined by English mathematician and natural philosopher John Dee in his preface to Sir Henry Billingsley’s translation of Euclid’s Elements (1570). More tellingly for the unit in the dormitory, it is a “single thing regarded as a member of a group,” a definition perfectly suited for large apartments, anonymous collections of spaces, and buildings. If born of mathematics, it is a word that matured in the context of nineteenth-century mass society, bureaucracy, manufacturing, the modern military, and large institutions—the world in which the modern profession of architecture came of age. Although Raymond Williams did not include it in Keywords (1976), unit is an intimate relation of words like bureaucracy, management, masses, and institution. How did it enter the house or the apartment and become attached to other spaces of modernity? This is its semantic, architectural, and spatial journey. Continue reading …
This essay peers through the peephole of the word unit to reveal the word’s journey across multiple fields from the mid-nineteenth century through the present. A keyword hidden in plain sight, unit links science and the world of measurement to society (family units), politics (political units), architecture (housing units), cities (neighborhood units), and, more recently, big data, the carceral state (crime units), and managerial oversight.
ANDREW M. SHANKEN is an architectural historian in the Department of Architecture and American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He publishes on architecture and consumer culture, memorialization, expositions, preservation history, and imagery in urban planning.
Brett Kavanaugh threatened us with the revenge of a (presumably apocalyptic) whirlwind yesterday if–what? If we don’t believe him? In an effort to dispel that mini dust storm in advance, we scoured the Reps archive today for essays that might help clear the air. The special forum “Crime, Lies, and Narratives,” from shortly after 9/11 (another great time of national name-calling and angst), offers three such essays, perfect for weekend reading:
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It is at least ironic that the characters and narration of Jane Austen’s Emma articulate excessively their preference for verbal and temporal economy. Clever Emma, who admires Mr. Martin’s proposal letter to Harriet for being “strong and concise; not diffuse,” observes later that charades “in general cannot be too short.” And at the end of dinner at Randalls, “while the others were variously urging and recommending, Mr. Knightley and Emma settled it in a few brief sentences” (122). It might surprise us that at the novel’s turning point, “a few minutes were sufficient for making [Emma] acquainted with her heart” (382), were it not the case that by this time, we have already heard the phrase “half a minute” ten times.
Aversion to waste and surplus takes perhaps its most glaring form in the frequency of the expression “to throw away.” When it appears outside dialogue, the phrase is always either ironic or negated. Suspicious Emma thinks Jane’s “caution was thrown away,” but that discretion successfully conceals the secret engagement to Frank (158). And we know that Mr. Elton, who arrives at Mrs. Bates’s house “so hot and tired that all [Mrs. Elton’s] wit seemed thrown away” on him, rather escapes than misses out on any so-called “wit” (429). The phrase’s early appearance teaches us that “danger” in Emma will be posed not by murder or intrigue but by waste, for “by Mr. Elton, a young man living alone without liking it, the elegancies and society of Mr. Woodhouse’s drawing room . . . were in no danger of being thrown away” (21). Incessantly, as if anxiously, the narration provides confirmations of safety from such danger: “The anxious cares, the incessant attentions of Mrs. Weston were not thrown away” at the Crown Ball where Mr. Knightley’s dancing “was not thrown away on Harriet” (306, 307).
The threats of waste here arrive in packages that announce the emptiness of their contents, assuring us that we can throw them away. But the possibility of waste is less easily dismissed when it threatens human beings. “Oh! But, dear Miss Woodhouse! [Jane] is now in such retirement, such obscurity, so thrown away. Whatever advantages she may have enjoyed with the Campbells are so palpably at an end!” (263). Here in passive voice, “thrown away” leaves unspoken the truth to which Mrs. Elton alludes, but like every Austen reader, she knows that future “advantages” can await Jane only in the right marriage. Indeed, a person’s safety from being thrown away in Emma is always constituted by an appropriate submission to the conjugal imperative—“appropriate” meaning something particular to each spouse. When Mr. Elton leaves Highbury to find a wife and returns with Mrs. Augusta Elton, we learn that “the story told well: he had not thrown himself away” (170). If the story of Emma tells well, perhaps it too avoids waste—perhaps for it, as for the snubbed Harriet, “to know that [Mr. Elton] has not thrown himself away, is such a comfort!” (252). Aversion to waste, especially within and surrounding the dominating context of marriage, would supersede or at least equal aversion to anything else.
Like the marriages that occur over the course of the novel, the parts of this argument number four. Part 1 applies the methodology of quantitative economics to model the dynamic between waste aversion and marriage in Emma, illustrating how its ending is a demonstrable utilitarian ideal. This illustration undergirds part 2, which argues that Emma advances the moral philosophy underlying the capitalist outlook that classical political economy began to theorize in the years leading up to the novel’s publication. Part 3 reveals the entwinement of political economy with economy of language, explaining how the novel’s concision works in tandem with its verbosity to iterate qualities of the free market that are in tension with the standards of maximum utility highlighted by the model. Whereas parts 2 and 3 rely primarily on the model’s conclusions, part 4 considers the model’s form, using it to understand the relation between the temporality and referentiality of the novel’s discourse.
The novel suggests several economies and numerous exchanges and congruities among them. There is first the capitalist economy as understood in the political economic theory that, as part 2 argues, informs the novel’s moral philosophy—a region’s system of producing and consuming goods and services. That economy has both a homologue and an analogue within the novel. The homologue is a conjugal economy that is composed of putatively rational actors seeking to maximize marital satisfaction. The analogue is a verbal economy involving the allocation of lexical efficiencies and inefficiencies (concision and diffusion). The nexus among these three economies is “economy” without an article: waste aversion, the result of economizing or being economical. Within both the homologue and the analogue of the economy—each one an economy—arise instances of economy. And, as parts 2 and 3 elucidate, it is the very nature of these instances that enables each economy not only to act as a parallel of the other and of the capitalist economy but also to iterate and advance capitalism’s dynamics and moral philosophy. Finally, underlying the entirety of the novel’s discourse and significantly modulating its free-market argument is a particular management of narrative speeds—what part 4 refers to as a temporal economy.
The very singularities of Emma that allow the perception of these economies also render it the quintessence of interrelations among economies and economics throughout Austen’s oeuvre. What emerges is a distinct and comprehensive account of Austen’s relation to contemporaneous economic theory (a relation much debated and theorized), of economy in her verbal and narrative style (much presumed and relatively little theorized), and of the correspondences between these two phenomena. Some of Emma’s singularities also help to delineate the entwinement of capitalist values with formal characteristics of the novelistic form generally. Likewise, the application of economic methodology to understanding Austenian economy evinces the potential of quantitative modeling to illuminate the forms and philosophies of literary texts. Continue reading …
By proposing a quantitative game-theory model of the marriage plot in Jane Austen’s Emma, Trisha Banerjee demonstrates that free-market moral philosophy underwrites Austen’s representation of matrimony and key formal elements of her writing—particularly, matters of verbal profusion. Her famed stylistic “economy” is revealed to be structured by the emerging capitalist economy that Adam Smith theorized in The Wealth of Nations. Establishing the correspondences among several kinds of economy, the essay unites economic and formal approaches to Austen’s work.
TRISHA URMI BANERJEE recently received her PhD in English from Harvard University. Her current book project theorizes the relation between the dorsal surface of the human body and fundamental narrative structures.
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There is a notational oddity in the autograph score of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cantata 199, “Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut” (My heart is swimming in blood). Instead of writing out the word “heart” every time it appears in the text, at several points the composer used the familiar heart symbol—not exactly shaped like the physical organ, but apparently as instantly recognizable then as it is now. In some instances, the abbreviation may have resulted from pragmatic considerations of space, but in others clearly not. Instead, perhaps Bach was invoking, in an inconsequential and semi-private manner, the rich significatory potential of this pictogram. Already by the early seventeenth century, the heart image had come to appear frequently in a variety of contexts, from courtly chivalry and religious iconography to sets of playing cards, encompassing an extensive field of associations and meanings. Severed from the human body, the organ could be subjected to a dazzling variety of treatments, as in the extraordinary Emblemata sacra (1622) by the German Lutheran theologian Daniel Cramer. In this widely distributed volume of devotional emblems, the heart appears in no fewer than fifty different scenarios, demonstrating its protean capacity to stand in for the believer’s life, soul, conscience, consciousness, memory, earthly existence, or inner self: the heart as a rock being softened by God’s hammer, a winged heart escaping from the claws of earthly demons up to heaven, the heart with a seeing eye, Jesus inscribing his name on the heart, the heart adrift in a stormy sea, a burning heart filled with cooling liquid from the Holy Spirit, the heart’s mettle being tested in a hot oven, and so on.
As the seat of life and the source of sin, the heart in the Christian tradition mediated between flesh and spirit. It could taste, sing, sigh, and melt; it could be given to God or cleaned out and inhabited by Christ. And so one might also imagine a heart “swimming in blood,” as the German poet Georg Christian Lehms wrote in his cantata libretto of 1711; a text set to music not only in 1714 by Bach but also two years before by his German contemporary Christoph Graupner, and subsequently heard by congregations in Weimar, Cöthen, Leipzig, and Darmstadt. Lehms’s poem draws on a long-standing Christian devotional tradition that conjoined hearts and bodily fluids, in visions of faithful hearts crying blood or sinners’ hearts drenched in waters of fear. But what was it like to be a body whose heart could undergo such procedures? What kind of physiology underpinned the veracity of these formulations? Simply casting them as poetic flights of fancy would mean disregarding the fundamentally embodied nature of such metaphors, which acquired their meaningfulness precisely through a more or less tangible link to a perceived corporeal reality. In heeding Gail Kern Paster’s call for an “interpretive literalism” in approaching early modern tropes based on bodily parts and functions, we might instead start from the assumption that experiences of seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century bodiliness were historically particular in such a way that they could give rise to this kind of imagery without too great a sense of rupture or alienation. If Lehms’s poetry strikes some present-day listeners as “repellent,” this response may exactly map out the distance to be traversed in order to recover those past modes of being-in-the-body that could produce and sustain such language.
Recuperating these historical forms of bodiliness has formed a key preoccupation of early modern scholarship at least since Thomas Csordas’s programmatic call in 1990 for a focus on “embodiment” in the study of human cultures, approaching the body less as a text to be deciphered than as the locus of lived experience. Of course, as Mark M. Smith has recently reminded us, any claims toward the recovery of a usable, consumable sensory past, potentially culminating in “lickable text, scratch-and-sniff pages, touch-and-feel pads” to convey an authentic historical experience to present-day readers, must be treated with extreme caution. My argument here, too, stays well clear of an attempt to recreate for current listeners any of those past corporeal habits of which a careful historical investigation might offer some glimpses; music already went through its own “authenticity” debate some decades ago, after all. Still, Bruce R. Smith’s invitation to “project ourselves into the historically reconstructed field of perception as far as we are able” can seem particularly intriguing in the case of music, since it not only encompasses the duality of presence and pastness in uniquely challenging ways but also ostensibly performs that effortless merger of sensation and meaning, both of which it produces in abundance, every time it sounds. Past musical practices and sound worlds in this sense offer an especially promising access point for a historical inquiry that aims to steer a course between the two extremes of positing the body either as pure presence or as mere representation.
In the early modern context, such an exercise in retro-projection initially requires a fundamental repositioning of the category of “body,” by which that post-Cartesian self- contained entity separate from the mind is refigured instead as “body-mind,” or, in Susan James’s terminology, “body-soul composite.” The wealth of physiological and psychological processes that constituted these body-souls comes into sharp focus when setting out to reconstruct the ways in which music acted upon or within them. Since the historical record is frustratingly slim with regard to actual flesh-and-blood listeners caught in the act, their experiences of engaging with music (in particular in the context of a worship service) are pieced together here from a range of theological, scientific, and musical sources chosen for their proximity to the German Lutheran milieu inhabited by Bach. If, as Daniel Chua has observed, by the middle of the eighteenth century music would by and large come to be understood as only that which is heard, it is this later reduction to the acoustic that needs to be reversed (unthought and unfelt) in order to recapture how music’s sounding materials reverberated not only through “throats, mouths, lungs, ears, and heads” but also through hearts, guts, and limbs, as well as spirits and souls. Although the study of music as a performed, sounding activity has recently become something of a new orthodoxy within musicology, and this focus on performance has made the bodies behind (or, rather, in) music more immediately tangible, those bodies are still in need of much more nuanced historicization. Like James Q. Davies in his recent study of nineteenth-century virtuosity, I suggest that acts of musicking, in their capacity not just to reflect but to generate particular modes of inhabiting the body, offer a hitherto underused resource in coming to grips with the animate bodies of the past. What I envisage, then, is a kind of somatic archaeology that pushes Elizabeth Le Guin’s proposal of a “carnal musicology” to a new level of fleshliness. Such an approach might thereby begin to address that “huge gap in early modern sensory history” to which Penelope Gouk has recently alerted us, moving toward a radically revised, somatic ontology of early modern music making. Continue reading …
This essay proposes a somatic archaeology of German Lutheran music making around 1700. Focusing on a single cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach, it sets out to reconstruct the capacities of early modern body-souls for musical reverberation, affective contagion, and spiritual transformation.
BETTINA VARWIG is Lecturer in Music and Fellow of Emmanuel College at the University of Cambridge. She is the author of Histories of Heinrich Schütz (Cambridge University Press, 2011) and is currently working on a book project entitled An Early Modern Musical Physiology.
The essay begins:
On the morning of January 9, 1649, Sergeant-at-Arms Edward Dendy rode into Westminster Hall, surrounded by an entourage of officers and followed by six trumpeters on horseback, with more than two hundred Horse and Foot Guards behind them. Drums beat in the Old Palace Yard, the trumpeters sounded their horns in the hall, and the crier announced the “erecting of an High Court of Justice, for the trying and judging of Charles Stuart King of England.” Eleven days later, the two great gothic doors opened to a space transformed. The trial’s managers had torn out the hall’s ramshackle barriers and the booksellers’ and milliners’ booths that lined its walls and constructed a central raised stage flanked by galleried boxes, whose decorative columns supported balconies fronted by ornately carved balustrades. They had spread Turkish carpets on the tables and platforms and hung yards and yards of scarlet draperies from the elevated seating at the back of the stage. And they had built, at the center, a three-tiered dais with a trio of armchairs, the furniture adorned in gold-fringed, tasseled crimson velvet and studded with precious metals. Into this magnificently appointed space marched several hundred guards bearing brilliantly gilded “rich partizans” and “javelins” decorated “with velvet and fringe.” With them was the sergeant-at-arms, holding aloft the great golden mace of the House of Commons, and behind him a sword bearer carrying the Sword of State brought from the Westminster Jewel Tower. Those in charge had issued an order: even outside the precincts of the court, the presiding judge was to be referred to only by his new title: “Lord President of the High Court of Justice.” As the sixty-seven commissioners serving as judges ascended to their scarlet-draped seats, the “Lord . . . of the High Court,” in a “black Tufted Gown” with an inordinately long train (carried by an entourage of attendants), paraded toward his dais amidst the sea of begilded and velvet-fringed javelins. This was hardly the austere mise-en-scène one might expect from the “godly Puritans” who had mounted their coup d’état and put their king on trial—in part, at least, in the name of stamping out ceremonial idolatry and the gaudy pomp of the vainglorious Stuarts.
When the Rump Parliament brought Charles to Westminster Hall in 1649, no reigning monarch had ever before been subjected to a public trial. The unprecedented step of staging the trial publicly was, of course, a bid to legitimize the overthrow (or at least shackling) of the monarchy through the appearance of legality and public consensus. The Parliament that had voted to try Charles consisted only of those who remained after a radicalized army had forcibly barred moderate members from entering the House of Commons and abolished the House of Lords. The Westminster Hall setting would help quell doubts about the trial’s legality. To hold such a trial in Westminster Hall was to appear to follow the long line of parliamentary trials that had been held there, and to remind the public of Parliament’s ancient judicial power. Moreover, Westminster Hall stood for principles of transparency and public accountability. Those in charge (said Colonel Thomas Harrison) despised cloak-and-dagger “privat[e] violence” and all such “base and obscure undertakings.” The largest public space in England (with a capacity of thousands), Westminster Hall had been chosen (the principal Parliamentary newspaper declared) because it was “a place of publicke resort, . . . the place of the publicke Courts of Justice for the Kingdome.” There, all would be “open, and to the eyes of the world,” and “all persons without exception, desirous to see, or hear” would be welcome: rich or poor, merchant or gentry, Presbyterian, Independent, Leveller, or even Royalist. The trial would represent the English people as a whole: the very body in whose name the court had come into existence.
Scholars have largely accepted this political account, explaining away the trial’s elaborate ceremonialism (usually mentioned only in passing, if at all) as a transparently straightforward attempt to strengthen its bid for legitimacy. But a political analysis does not fully account for either the grandiosity of the trial or the details of its unorthodox staging. One of the central goals of the religious radicals who put Charles on trial was in fact the elimination of spectacular rituals, Popish images, vestments, ornaments, and other “Idols of the Theatre” from churches, court, entertainment venues, and other public places. Why did the men who planned the trial’s staging and effects, mostly fervent iconoclasts wary of spectacular display and committed to visual sobriety and frugality, spend so much time and money on staging the trial as an elaborately theatrical, magnificently appointed, outrageously costly ritual (gorgeous vestments and all), when such a spectacle would appear to violate some of the most important principles for which they stood?
Unlike previous scholars (who have largely focused on the trial’s legality, its political consequences, or its literary and visual representation), I attempt to answer this question by focusing on the visual and visceral unfolding of the trial itself, looking closely at spatial arrangements, icons, and scenic configurations in order to explore the theological meaning of its densely symbolic, visual, gestural, sartorial, iconographic, and aural staging. When I describe Charles’s trial, or other legal events and practices, as theatrical, I mean two related things: first, that they draw on techniques not exclusive to but elaborately developed in the institutional theater; second, that contemporaries often identified such events and practices as theatrical, through a highly inflected constellation of terms that associated them with the institutional theater and related forms of enacted entertainment (spectacle, show, tragedy, stage tricks, and more). These terms and the attitudes they convey both shaped and reflect the meaning of the events they describe and are key to understanding them. Continue reading …
The trial of Charles I (said mid-seventeenth-century radical Protestants) was “a Resemblance and Representation of the great day of Judgement.” Situating the trial in its theological and iconographic context, viewing it as an expression of broader Puritan performance culture, this essay offers a close reading of its staging, arguing that we should view the assertion that the trial resembled Judgment Day not as an abstract theological aspiration but as a concrete description of the trial’s visual, spatial, and dramatic representation of the Last Judgment.
JULIE STONE PETERS is the H. Gordon Garbedian Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, where she teaches on a range of topics in the humanities, from drama, film, and media to law and culture. Her most recent book is Theatre of the Book: Print, Text, and Performance in Europe 1480–1880. She is currently working on a historical study of legal performance.
Énard’s character Franz is here referring here to a fictional Representations article, written by another character, Sarah, entitled “The Wine of the Dead Sarawak,” which Énard himself says was inspired by Peter Metcalf’s classic essay “Wine of the Corpse, Endocannibalism and the Great Feast of the Dead in Borneo,” published in Representations 17, Winter 1987.
The Los Angeles Review of Books called Compass a “brilliant, elusive, outré love letter to Middle Eastern art and culture.” We’re reading it now to confirm.
Wildfires to the north of us here in Berkeley, extreme heat just beyond our fog belt, and drought in parts of the globe usually saturated this time of year prompted us to look through our archive for essays that deal in one way or another with views of nature. Among the many relevant pieces, our search revealed a pair of fine-grained essays on the 18th-century naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon:
Noah Heringman’s Deep Time at the Dawn of the Anthropocene argues that the concept of deep time is essential to the intellectual history of the Anthropocene—the name widely (though not yet formally) used for our current geological epoch. Buffon’s Epochs of Nature, one of the earliest secular models of geological time in Enlightenment natural history, uses inscription as a metaphor to mark the advent of biological species, including humans, in the course of earth history. The Anthropocene extends this project of writing ourselves into the rock record. Buffon makes a productive interlocutor for the Anthropocene because he is one of the first to examine climate change and related constraints on human agency in the context of deep time. Heringman examines Buffon’s natural history and associated Enlightenment discourses of primitive art and culture to gain a purchase on the challenges of scale posed by the Anthropocene.
Joanna Stalnaker’s Description and the Nonhuman View of Nature also looks at Buffon, but her focus is in counterpoint to Heringman’s. In her essay, Buffon is discussed in tandem with the poet Jacques Delille, Buffon’s near contemporary, whose innovative practices of description call into question our modern opposition between literature and science, raising the issue of how literature might be transformed through attention to nonhuman views of nature.
Read them together–in the shade if you can find it.
The essay begins:
“This is where we should go on vacation—in winter. What snow, light, mountains!” These lines were written by Aleksandr Rodchenko to his wife, Varvara Stepanova, from the White Sea-Baltic Canal, which was then being constructed by prisoners at an eponymous forced labor camp, one of the Soviet Union’s first, where more than twenty-five thousand—and possibly as many as fifty thousand—inmates lost their lives from 1931 to 1933. Had the photographer not yet seen the atrocities of the camp? Was he highlighting holiday pleasures in case his letter was read by someone other than its intended recipient? Rodchenko’s pronouncement is so utterly damning in its willful ignorance of the human toll of the construction of the canal as to render any possible justifications moot. This description of a gulag—bracketed, to top it off, with declarations that the sun and the air are “wonderful”—effectively bars any interpretive engagement. One’s only recourse, it seems, is to denounce Rodchenko’s deliberate blindness to the grim efficiencies of the state machine.
Yet I open with this letter not to offer additional evidence against the artist. Rather, while keeping the letter’s dismaying omissions firmly in mind, I want to move past the screen that its glibness presents and focus on what it reveals about Rodchenko’s time at the canal: there he experienced a landscape, a place. Descriptions of nature—uncharacteristically for Rodchenko, since he was hardly enamored with the romantic notions of an earlier century—fill his brief letters home, and landscape appears, far more forcefully than ever before, in his photographs from the canal. These images of nature are remarkable in the context of the ideological climate from which they emerged. As the first Five-Year Plan (fulfilled in four years, 1928–32) unfolded, the Soviet state looked for ways to rationalize both the breakneck industrialization and mass repressions—developments joined at the hip, for the latter powered the former—that it undertook. The philosophy that underwrote both was the call for the complete transformation of the existing “old” world into a “new” socialist universe. The ideology crystallized and reached its apex in the rhetoric surrounding the White Sea-Baltic Canal project and its policy of “reforging” (perekovka), the term coined at the time to denote the discourse of molding both criminals and landscapes resistant to Soviet rule into productive, socialist beings through labor. The environment became, in essence, the most obdurate class enemy of the socialist state, whose intent was to transform the landscape’s sublimity and unpredictability into a pliant, rational, and productive entity. If, as the by-now canonical way of thinking in art history has it, landscape helps naturalize ideology, what happens when a state declares that nature must be radically, even totally, refigured? And how, then, might we begin to explain the aesthetic of Rodchenko’s canal landscapes, their quasi-romantic qualities above all? Continue reading …
In this essay art historian Aglaya Glebova traces the evolution of landscape imagery in Aleksandr Rodchenko’s photographic oeuvre, focusing especially on images produced during his journalistic trip to the White Sea-Baltic Canal, one of the first Soviet forced labor camps. Through close reading of photographs, she argues that Rodchenko’s abandonment of avant-garde aesthetics, in particular the emphasis on photography’s transformative powers and its medium-specificity, in these images did not represent a shift toward socialist realism but, rather, held critical potential in the face of contemporaneous official censure of formalism and “contemplation” in both science and art.
AGLAYA GLEBOVA is Assistant Professor in the departments of Art History and Film and Media, as well as the PhD Program in Visual Studies, at the University of California, Irvine. She is currently completing a book on Aleksandr Rodchenko and photography under Stalin.