History, retrospection and narrative

How does art stand in relation to the tradition and history which preceded it? How is the meaning of history made, un-made, or re-made?

It is not that “history is written by the victors.” No, the proper cliché to mention here is the moment in the classic adventure film when the hero’s friend or partner is killed, and, succumbing to his grief, he is brought out of it by the injunction, “Make his death mean something!”

“The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.”

– Jorge Luis Borges, “Kafka and His Precursors.


“Articulating the past historically … means appropriating a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger.”

– Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History” p. 391


“Of course only a redeemed mankind is granted the fullness of its past—which is to say, only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments. Each moment it has lived becomes a citation a l’ordre du jour [a citation to be taken up as part of the business of the day]. And that day is Judgment Day.”

– Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History” p. 390


“To imagine one’s self-composed obituary read at the Judgment Day constitutes the farthest reach in the anticipation of retrospective narrative understanding. It is one that all narratives no doubt would wish to make: all narrative posits, if not the Sovereign Judge, at least a Sherlock Holmes capable of going back over the ground, and thereby realizing the meaning of the cipher left by a life.”

– Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot, p. 24.


“The energy generated by deviance, extravagance, excess … maintains the plot in its movement through the vacillating play of the middle, where repetition as binding works toward the generation of significance, toward recognition and the retrospective illumination that will allow us to grasp the text as total metaphor, but of therefore to discount the metonymies that have led to it.”

– Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot, p. 24.


“In the whole history of Marxism, there is probably only one point at which this non-historical ‘ex-timate’ kernel of history was touched — at which the reflection of history was brought to the ‘death drive’ as its degree zero: Theses on the Philosophy of History, the last text by Walter Benjamin, ‘fellow-traveller’ of the Frankfurt School. the reason for this is of course that it was again Benjamin who — a unique case in Marxism — conceived history as a text, as series of events which ‘will have been’ — their meaning, their historical dimension, is decided afterwards, through their inscription in the symbolic network.”

– Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, p. 151


“Strong poets make history by misreading one another, so as to clear imaginative space for themselves.”

– Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence, second edition, p. 5.


“No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of æsthetic, not merely historical, criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one-sided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them.”

– T.S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” par. 4.

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Art, Poetry, the Imagination and the Future

Is poetry a message in a bottle? A message from the future? Does it unearth the things we know, but cannot yet say?

“In March 2003, Donald Rumsfeld engaged in a little bit of amateur philosophising: ‘There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know.’ What he forgot to add was the crucial fourth term: the ‘unknown knowns’, things we don't know that we know – which is precisely the Freudian unconscious. […] To unearth these ‘unknown knowns’ is the task of an intellectual.”

– Slavoj Žižek, “The Empty Wheelbarrow” in The Guardian, 19 Feb 2005


We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know; we want the generous impulse to act that which we imagine; we want the poetry of life; our calculations have outrun conception; we have eaten more than we can digest.”

– Percy Shelley “A Defense of Poetry


“The primary Imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception.”

– Samuel Coleridge, ch. 13 in Biographia Literaria (1817)


“The case of radical inventions [of semiotic codes] is rather different, in that the sender more or less bypasses the perceptual model, and delves directly into the as yet unshaped perceptual continuum, mapping his perception as he organizes it.

[…] Take the case of the Impressionists, whose addressees absolutely refused to 'recognize' the subjects represented, and said they 'did not understand', that the painting 'did not mean anything', that real life was not like that, etc. This refusal was due to the addressees' lack not only of a semantic model to which the mapped items might be referred, but also of a percept to guess at, since they had never perceived in this way.

In such cases what takes place is a radical code-making, a violent proposal of new conventions.”

– Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1979, p. 254.


"Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gaslamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows ?

– Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying


Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life

– Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying


code-making and invention are aesthetic activities."

– Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1979, p. 254.


“For [the poet] not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present things ought to be ordered, but he beholds the future in the present, and his thoughts are the germs of the flower and the fruit of latest time.”

– Percy Shelley “A Defense of Poetry


“The great Thinker came, the original man, the Seer; whose shaped spoken Thought awakes the slumbering capability of all into Thought. It is ever the way with the Thinker, the spiritual Hero. What he says, all men were not far from saying, were longing to say.”

– Thomas Carlyle, “The Hero as Divinity” in Heroes and Hero-Worship (1840)


"It is naive to think that writing is a simple two-stage process: first you decide what you want to say, then you say it. On the contrary, as all of us know, you write because you do not know what you want to say. Writing reveals to you what you wanted to say in the first place. In fact, it sometimes constructs what you want or wanted to say. What it reveals (or asserts) may be quite different from what you thought (or half-though) you wanted to say in the firs place. That is the sense in which one can say that writing writes us."

– J.M. Coetzee, Doubling the Point, 18


"But poetry, too, can be ahead. La poési, elle aussi, brûle nos étapes."

Paul Celan, "The Meridian" in Selected Prose, trans. Rosemarie Waldrop, New York: Routledge, p. 45


I always assume that a good book is more intelligent than its author. It can say things that the writer is not aware of. 

– Umberto Eco, "The Art of Fiction: No. 197," in The Paris Review

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Slavoj Žižek on wrapping your head around Hegel

Standard Žižek. Vulgar jokes combined with an encouragement to not settle for your initial, first-glance interpretation.


Also, the idea that Hegel somehow thought that history’s over with him, that he comes at the end. It’s — I mean, it’s empirically not true. […] So, at least, empirically, he wasn’t an idiot.

– Žižek, Slavoj, “Slavoj Žižek. The Return to Hegel Part 1/16,” Saas-Fee, Switzerland: The European Graduate School, 2009. YouTube. Web. 21 August 2012.


Allow me to conclude, to propose my final formula. Because still, now, I’m well aware, I just tried to confuse you. Like, you think you, as it were, caught Hegel by his balls and are squeezing them, but no, Hegel finds a way out, and so on. No no no, I nonetheless propose this formula.

– Žižek, Slavoj, “SLAVOJ ZIZEK Negativity in Hegel and Freud, Part 6,” New York: The Deutsches Haus at New York University, 28 October 2011. YouTube. Web. 21 August 2012.

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Žižek, the Coen Bros., and C.S. Peirce on the semiotic reality of math formulas

How do you represent what can’t be represented? (Painfully inadequate metaphors, duh.)

Then, the Symbolic Real.

It’s simply, for example, scientific discourse, scientific formulas, like quantum physics. Why is this Real? For a simple reason: the minimum definition of the Real, for Lacan, is that which resists symbolization, inclusion into our universe of meaning. And isn’t that precisely which happens for example with quantum physics? What is quantum physics? Formulas which work — experimentally confirmed and so on and so on — but we cannot translate them into our daily experience of ordinary reality. As we all know, this is what is so traumatic about quantum physics. We literally cannot understand it. Not in the sense that we, common people, cannot understand it, only a couple of scientists can — even they cannot. In what sense? In the sense that it just works, but if you tried to build a consistent ontology out of it, again, you get meaningless results. You get time running backwards, you get parallel universes, or whatever. In other words you get things which simply are meaningless with regard to our ordinary notion of reality. So this would be Symbolic Real. Symbolic, obviously it is Symbolic: formulas, pure signifiers. They function, it’s a functioning machine, but, meaningless. We cannot make any sense out of it. We cannot relate it to our experience. Which is why we try so desperately to do it, which is why we try to invent metaphors to imagine quantum universe. But, it cannot be done.

— Slavoj Žižek The Reality of the Virtual (2004) (my transcription)


(awkwardly writing formulas on the board)
Okay. So. This part is exciting. So. Am I right? So, okay. So, if that’s that, then we can do this. And that’s Shrodinger’s paradox, right? Is the cat dead? Or is the cat… not dead?


(Shortly thereafter, in Larry’s office.)

So, uh, what can I do for you?

Uh, Doctor Gopnik. I believe the results of the physic midterm were unjust.

Uh huh. How so?

I received unsatisfactory grade. In fact, ‘F,’ the failing grade.

Uh, yes. You failed the midterm. That’s accurate.

Yes, but that is not just. I was unaware to be examined on the mathematics.

Well, you can’t do physics without mathematics, really, can you?

If I received a failing grade, I lose my scholarship. And I feel shame! I understand the physics! I understand the dead cat!

But y-you can’t really understand the physics without understanding the math. The math tells how it really works. That’s the real thing. The stories I give in class are just illustrative. They’re like fables, say, to help give you a picture. I mean… even I don’t understand the dead cat. The math is how it really works.

Very difficult. Very difficult.

A Serious Man (2009) (my transcription)


Thus, an algebraic formula is an icon [i.e. a type of sign which shares some similar property with its object], rendered such by the rules of commutation, association, and distribution of the symbols. It may seem at first glance that it is an arbitrary classification to call an algebraic expression an icon; that it might as well, or better, be regarded as a compound conventional sign. But it is not so. For a great distinguishing property of the icon is that by the direct observation of it other truths concerning its object can be discovered than those which suffice to determine its construction. [par. 279]


Many diagrams [i.e. the second type of “hypoicon”] resemble their objects not at all in looks; it is only in respect to the relations of their parts that their likeness consists. [par. 282]

— Charles Sanders Peirce, Collected Papers Vol. 2

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On fonts, mind control, contexts

Fonts control our minds. Everyone knows that. I feel like Roland Barthes’ Mythologies really needs a chapter on The New Yorker‘s font and its connotations/myth.


Did I read The New Yorker? This question had a dangerous urgency. It wasn’t any one writer or article he was worried about, but the font. The meaning embedded, at a preconscious level, by the look of the magazine; the seal, as he described it, that the typography and layout put on dialectical thought. According to Perkus, to read The New Yorker was to find that you always already agreed, not with The New Yorker but, much more dismayingly, with yourself. I tried hard to understand. Apparently here was the paranoia Susan Eldred had warned me of: The New Yorker‘s font was controlling, perhaps assailing, Perkus Tooth’s mind. To defend himself he frequently retyped their articles and printed them out in simple Courier, and attempt to dissolve the magazine’s oppressive context.

–  Jonathan Lethem, Chronic City p. 12-13


Often when we’re reading stories, and thinking about them and editing them, we’ll say, “Let’s go ahead and put it in the font.” It’s a sort of test marker. It makes things much more official. You get it in there and suddenly it looks much better, or sometimes it looks much worse.

–  Deborah Treisman, New Yorker fiction editor, qtd. in “Jonathan Lethem on the New Yorker Font


We all know that we are influenced in many, many ways — many of which we remain blissfully unaware of. Could typefaces be one of them? Could the mere selection of a typeface influence us to believe one thing rather than another? Could typefaces work some unseen magic? Or malefaction?


I have often wondered about the visual element in text. Yes, we read the word “horse,” but we also see the letters, the typefaces, the shape of the word on the page. Is this not part of the meaning? It seems evident that we respond to different typefaces in different ways, but how many experiments have been done to determine the effect of typefaces on our perception of truth? Do we more readily accept (as true) sentences written in one typeface rather than another?

–  Errol Morris, “Hear, All Ye People; Hearken, O Earth (Part One)” at The New York Times: Opinionator


the most common type of image macro is a photograph with large text superimposed in Impact font, using all upper case letters and coloured white with a thin black outline

–  Wikipedia


I can has cheezburger?

–  Internet Meme


Think about Derrida’s infamous line “il n’y a pas de hors-texte.” Happily, Gayatri Spivak gives us two translations. The second, parenthetical translation is the one I prefer: “there is no outside-text.” In other words, not everything is reducible to pure language, as is the case with structuralism, which indeed reduces things to their relations. What Derrida is saying, by contrast, is that a text is an operationally closed system (in the terms of Roy Bhaskar) that is founded on some kind of externality that it both includes and excludes, that it can’t talk about, but that it can’t help referencing in the negative. A word, for example, depends upon an inscribable surface, ink, and a history and culture of writing . . . The existence of a text is its coexistence with at least one (1+n) withdrawn entity.

–  Timothy Morton, “An Object-Oriented Defense of Poetry” in New Literary History, pp. 218-219


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