Friday, 7 March 2008

In Memorium

Today is the death-day of Bakhtin, whom I mentioned in a post the other day.

Birthday Wishes

Happy birthday to Abigail and Brittany Hensel, who turn 18 today.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Journal #9: Sidney, Jameson, and Bakhtin: A Chimæric Idea

The Lives of Amphibians and Chimæras:
Journal #9
Sidney, Jameson, and Bahktin: A Chimæric Idea[1]
I propose, in utter unfairness to the initial subjects, to create a chimæra of Sidney, Jameson, and Bakhtin--or more accurately, of their ideas.

First, from Sidney: "to teach and delight," and that the poet teaches the lessons of the moralist through examples (like the historian), but unlike the historian does not need to bend to real events. Instead, the poet creates examples specifically designed to teach those lessons--and delight while doing it.

Second, from Jameson: that aesthetic acts--pieces of art--solve social problems that are, in real life, unsolvable. (Jameson can keep his horizons; I don't want them.)

Third, from Bakhtin: that a text can hold many bickering voices within it, and that the critic shouldn't pick one and make it represent the work.

Already I suspect that Bakhtin and Sidney will disagree with one another, as one asserts a clear meaning from the author and the other asserts tha the reader will detect no direction at all--but then one was a poet and the other a novelist, one was on the defensive and the other on the offensive, and Bakhtin predicts disagreement anyway.

We learn from Sidney that a text ought to teach us, and to delight us in the process. The second may argue for aesthetics' inherent value but, practically speaking, we're more likely to remember the lessons of an enjoyable book than a boring one. Jameson builds one Sidney's ideas that fiction need not conform to historical events; instead, it can propose impossible solutions to unsolvable social problems. Finally, Bakhtin enters and makes things difficult. His voices debate; these may be the contradictions Jameson was talking about, but, unlike Jameson, he suggests that even within a text not all of the contradictions can be resolved. And thus we have the resulting text: intended to teach us and to offer idealistic solutions, but instead leaving us with a compilation of different and ultimately unreconciable viewpoints (after all, when one heteroglossic language is swallowed by the unitary language, another springs up to replace it--this situation a synthesis of Hercules' Hydra and Star Trek's Borg: both resistance and assimilation are futile). And how, the skeptic will argue, can such a mess of quarreling moral systems teach us anything?

I, for one, am not convinced that, because no single presented viewpoint is reliably truer than the others, there is nothing to learn from a text. The reader has a unique ability that the characters of each language in the text do not have, and that is to change perspective to a different language. We can hop from one to another; we can see from, or speak from, each voice. To a certain extent, we can learn from each voice, but we can also learn how to reconcile contradictions...but for this we turn to John Donne and to a new set of symbols, and so this topic must rest until the next entry.


[1] I know that these names may mean nothing to a casual reader; I apologize for this. I think, though, that I summarize each sufficiently in the first four-five paragraphs that you should follow it easily enough. Sir Philip Sidney, "An Apology for Poetry." Fredric Jameson, "The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act." Mikhail M. Bakhtin, Discourse in the Novel.

Saturday, 1 March 2008

Journal #8: Dual Selves and Berger's Women

The Lives of Amphibians and Chimæras:
Journal #8
Dual Selves and Berger's Women
From Berger's Ways of Seeing, I have extracted a few quotations that I want to examine:

"Reproduction isolates a detail of a painting from teh whole. The detail is transformed. An allegorical figure becomes a portrait of a girl."

"...this has come at the cost of a woman's self being split into two."

"[She sees] the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman."

Now, I disagree on some details and agree on others, but the direction of Berger's argument is not really what interests me. The idea of a split self does.

The 'gift' of being able to see yourself as an other has many benefits. For instance, you can control how people see you; Berger makes this point and deplores that it is women's only source of power, and he's right. However, it is a source of power and even men, who according to Berger have power based on how others perceive their potential, could use it. Those who seem to have no self-consciousness are often outcast as socially unacceptable. Those who are incapable of self-reflection often do not grow and learn as well as those who are capable. The ability to perform a sort of mental mitosis and become two 'selves' is thus useful. Notice Nineteen-Eighty-Four's doublethink: mental dexterity allows belief in contradictory thoughts, which allows survival. The conditions were not ideal, for sure, but conditions never will be. In less-than-ideal circumstances, the dual self is useful.

The difficult comes, of course, when you cannot turn this 'gift' off--if your two new selves don't come back and be one self again but instead go on being two different selves, you (vous, not tu) get a bit of a problem. In the case of women, one self objectifies the other self--or, the woman objectifies herself. This could clearly lead to problems of self-esteem and self-worth. The theory (though contestes) goes that this sort of thinking, taken to the extreme, leads to disassociative identity disorder--multiple personalities. Of course, DID is the (known) extreme, but the point is that there are dangers involved.

And now to the first quotation: Venus, out of context, becomes a young woman. Berger argues that reproduction (and selection) changes the work. But I say the detail, the women herself, is not "transformed." Instead, how we observe her is--essentially, the detail contained both meanings and both women (that is, the detail was both Venus and an ordinary woman). One is allegorical and thus a self presenting her (other?) self in a certain way, and the other is a self as she is. I ask, rhetorically, why it can't be the case that it is both a person and a symbol? Perhaps it is because symbols are less useful if they have their own agency. But then I'm more concerned with the agency of the symbol than how useful it is to an author... after all, doubling should give power to the doubled.

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