Friday, July 30, 2010

Two Uses of “Rational” and What It Means for Literature

Robert Brandom, Reason in Philosophy, 2009
Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, trans. Frederick Lawrence, 1987
Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. Macquarrie and Robinson, 1962, 2008
Richard Rorty:
“Reply to Six Critics,” in Analyse und Kritik, June 1984
“Signposts Along the Way that Reason Went,” in London Review of Books, Feb. 16 1984
PMN: Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature
CP: Consequences of Pragmatism
CIS: Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity
TP: Truth and Progress
PCP: Philosophy as Cultural Politics

*NOTE* The footnote links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


Robert Brandom is Rorty’s greatest student, and he has done far more often than any other (Jeffery Stout and Bjorn Ramberg are his only nearest competitors) the thing convinced Rortyans are really concerned about: explicating the consequences of Rorty’s vision of culture and overturning specific pieces of the Rortyan oeuvre of claims to better explicate the core of what that vision really is (a formulation that itself owes to Brandom’s Hegelian vision of the implicit/explicit dialectic). Brandom’s Reason in Philosophy is the most succinct account of a number of those alterations, though they are all left implicit (I imagine to give someone like me something to do). By way of an obscure article of Rorty’s, I want to illustrate one revision of a Rortyan commonplace and work out what those consequences might be for some other pieces of the Rortyan picture.

In “A Reply to Six Critics,” Rorty takes up a defense of PMN against a series of articles written for Analyse und Kritik. In his reply to Jay Rosenberg, Rorty says that Rosenberg is “less willing than I to see philosophy as continuous with avant-garde literature on the one hand and the more controversial portions of scientific and political discourse on the other” (82). This is the early version of his notion of “strong poets,” explicated in Kuhnian fashion as the distinction between normal and abnormal discourse in PMN, but pitched awkwardly for philosophy as the distinction between “systematic” and “edifying.”[fn.1] Opposed to Rorty’s conception of edification, which he poses as pointless “chat,” Rosenberg conceives of the philosopher as advancing “a rational vision, that is, one which has a legitimate claim on our reasoned assent and which can be coherently sustained in the face of rational criticisms” (qtd. 82). As a gloss on Rosenberg’s earlier definition of philosophy as “a distinctive intellectual mission within any reflective culture worthy of the name, a necessary project of synoptic self-understanding and self-appraisal” (qtd. 82), Rorty rightly says that “few people who use speech rather than guns do not advance such a vision” (82-82) and that you’d need to “explicate ‘rational’ so broadly that Baudelaire and Brecht and Hamilton will also be advancing ‘rational visions’” (83).

The sense of “rational” that Rorty is forced to fall back on to capture Rosenberg’s sense of the philosopher’s mission—which it turns out is ubiquitous across reflective culture—is as “coherent”: you are rational if you are coherent. For Davidsonian reasons, all people are rational most of the time.[fn.2] Brandom agrees that people don’t walk around in radical incoherence (which would the Cartesian ploy of convincing us that we might be), but he thinks Rosenberg has a point about “a legitimate claim on our reasoned assent and which can be coherently sustained in the face of rational criticisms.” There is something different about what Baudelaire does and Rawls does. Rorty’s concern was metaphilosophical—his point is that “rational criticism” occurs in “normal discourse,” which is to say that a vocabulary/vision has already been chosen as the frame of reference in which arguments can be exchanged. Rorty, and Brandom would agree, is punching up the fact that “synoptic self-understandings” that allow “self-appraisal” aren’t the natural purview of philosophers, but are 1) the implicit background of anyone who’s using a language (Wittgenstein’s point about lebensform) and 2) can be offered by just about anyone using whatever methods and modes they have available.

Most philosophers of language accept (1) these days, but it is (2), and Rorty’s apotheosis of Romanticism (and “literary” writers generally), that still sends chills down the philosopher’s spine. It is here that Brandom wishes to step in. The chill is generated by Rorty’s infamous (and disingenuous) abdication of argumentation (cf. CIS 8-9). This has seemed to most to be a rejection of rationality.[fn.3] Rorty’s right that there is a commonality between Baudelaire, Derrida, Rawls and Sellars at the level of generating a “synoptic self-understanding,” but there are also obvious differences. Or rather, we’ve always thought that the differences were obvious, but now Rorty’s challenging most of the senses in which we’ve tried to explicate them. Rorty usually just falls back on generic differences, but Brandom wishes to help us better understand just what choosing one genre over another does and does not imply.

Brandom’s first step would be to distinguish the Davidsonian sense of “rational” Rorty recurred to above from the sense of “rational” as subject to “rational criticism” that Rosenberg wished to bring into view. He does so by calling the former the “constitutive sense” and the latter the “evaluative sense.” To say that we are rational in the evaluative sense is just to say that we subject our beliefs and choices to the kind of scrutiny that produces reasons (i.e., justification) for believing or choosing X or Y. The insight that Brandom claims Kant first brought out, and Sellars best explicated the consequences of, is that the “evaluative or comparative normative dimension of rationality rests on a conceptually prior constitutive one” (Brandom 2). The pragmatist impetus for critique of the positivist philosophical program since its inception has been against its atomism (the attempt to pair off word-world relations in isolation from linguistic communities) of which Davidson’s holism (the triangulation of world-person-community relations) is the best instance of counterattack.[fn.4] Brandom claims that this holism was, in fact, first Kant’s idea, best captured by Sellars’ slogan of “the game of giving and asking for reasons.” Philosophical atomism is marked by the idea that we use reason to find the correct beliefs to have, the correct word-to-world relations, but this produces a sense of “being rational” beholden to the “having of correct beliefs.” Philosophical holism reverses the way the water flows: one has to be first rational before one can begin the search for correct beliefs—you have to first commit to the game before actually playing the game. (Atomism is what largely produced the notion of an Enlightenment ideology, or the notion that “secular humanism” is a religion, best captured by Gadamer’s pithy slogan about the Enlightenment’s “prejudice against prejudice.” What the Enlightenment was struggling towards was a holistic understanding of reason.)

The relationship between the constitutive sense of rational (which captures Davidsonian holism) and the evaluative sense of rational (which captures the enduring spirit of Socrates that we should have reasons for believing) is that while you cannot be more or less rational in the constitutive sense—once you start speaking a language and having beliefs, you are automatically rational in the requisite sense—you can be more or less rational in the evaluative sense because to be rational in the constitutive sense is to be in the game of giving and asking for reasons, though you can abdicate that responsibility occasionally. “Rational beings [in the constitutive sense] are ones that ought to have reasons for what they do” (Brandom 3). To be constitutively rational is to place yourself under the moral obligation of having reasons. To be evaluatively rational is to agree to offer some.

So—are there reasons why we might want to abdicate that responsibility? Of course, like in writing fiction. One way of understanding the writing of fiction is as a series of “as if” inflections of language. While assertoric prose asks us to evaluate the truth of its individual assertions, non-assertoric prose (which we might just call “poetry”) asks us to “pretend as if” what was being written was true. We might say, somewhat misleadingly, that assertoric prose can be evaluated atomistically, while non-assertoric, as-if prose can only be evaluated holistically. What this catches is the sense in which, for assertions to be evaluated, a background must be taken for granted. For typical assertions, the background is generally well known. It is the atypical ones that catch the atomist off guard, and which seem more like literature, which generates, seemingly ex nihilo, its own background in which individual sentences are to be understood (modern science fiction and fantasy being the obvious cases).

What Rosenberg wants to capture is the difference between the philosopher’s putting forward of a sentence as a candidate for belief in the real world and the poet’s putting forward of a sentence, which seems to skirt in special ways such candidacy. “Special” is the key here, for Rorty does want to claim that poets like Blake were intending to affect real-world belief just as much as people like Newton (which is one reason why Rorty lumped both in his special sense of “poet”). But it doesn’t seem exactly apropos to subject The Book of Thiel to “rational criticism,” while it might to the Principia. This is the point at which philosophers like Habermas, wanting to acknowledge the power Rorty slots under the heading of “metaphor,” distinguish between the “world-disclosing” function of language and the “problem-solving” function. This distinction exactly parallels Rorty’s PMNian abnormal/normal discourse distinction. And when Habermas criticizes Derrida for being blind to the fact that “everyday communicative practice makes learning processes possible … in relation to which the world-disclosive force of interpreting language has in turn to prove its worth” (Habermas 205), Rorty responds that, on his reading, Derrida “knows perfectly well that there are communicative practices to which argumentation by reference to standard rules is essential, and that these are indispensable for public purposes” (TP 313).

What Derrida thinks is difficult to tell, but Rorty’s right that there’s nothing essential to Derrida’s performance that requires him to see non-play (“problem-solving”) as parasitic on play (“world-disclosive”). And though Rorty discussed for years the parasitic qualities of irony—that kind of playful language-use exemplified best by the Romantic poets—when the frame of reference is problem-solving/world-disclosure, it becomes difficult for Rorty to explicate his defense of Derrida while maintaining with Shelley that poets are the legislators of the world (using a Davidsonian understanding of metaphor).[fn.5] For Rorty does want to make the strong poet the essential character in the drama of civilization, forcing the problem-solvers and tinkerers and hammer-outers of new vocabularies to secondary, parasitic status.[fn.6] Brandom, decidedly, does not:
…it has seemed perverse to some post-Enlightenment thinkers in any way to privilege the rational, cognitive dimension of language use. But if the tradition I have been sketching is right [the one that responds to the empiricism of Locke through Kant’s fires to its denouement in “Sellars’s rationalist critique of empiricism”], the capacity to use concepts in all the other ways explored and exploited by the artists and writers whose imaginative enterprises have rightly been admired by romantic opponents of logocentrism is parasitic on the prosaic inferential practices in virtue of which we are entitled to see concepts in play in the first place. The game of giving and asking for reasons is not just one game among others one can play with language. It is the game in virtue of the playing of which what one has qualifies as language (or thought) at all. (Brandom 119-20)
You can just about hear the echoing, “I’m looking at you, Dick,” at the conclusion of that passage.[fn.7]

Rorty wants to apotheosize the poet, and Brandom the philosopher. I find it difficult to decide the answer to that cultural-political question, as Rorty would have wanted it put. However, one thing is clear: Rorty would have agreed with Brandom about the centrality of inference to language, against which divergent uses gain their reflected glory, but the consequences of this thought remained hidden from Rorty because of the terms often used to press it upon him. In the case of Habermas, “problem-solving” doesn’t quite nab the centrality of inference, but rhetorically opposes itself quite nicely in parity with “world-disclosure.” Sometimes we’re solving problems, sometimes we’re disclosing worlds, and sometimes we’re just making stupid puns or spouting gibberish. While Rorty can easily admit that “there are communicative practices” for which reason-giving “is essential” (TP 313), Brandom wants to say that the practice of reason-giving is the essential communicative practice, upon which all other linguistic practices are then parasitic.

I haven’t argued for Brandom’s conclusion, but I am persuaded by it, though it doesn’t tell us which cultural figure to apotheosize. All it tells us is that “rational criticism,” the game of giving and asking for reasons, is the paradigm of linguistic use. So what does that mean for literature? Recurring to Rorty’s discussion of Rosenberg, we might say that while Rorty is right that both Baudelaire and Rawls offer rational visions in the sense of coherent visions, Rosenberg would be right if he said that, while true, Baudelaire himself is not offering reasons to defend against rational criticisms. Rorty will want to agree, but his constant point since the 80s has been that non-reason-giving genres of writing have been just as instrumental—if not more so—as prosaic, assertoric, typically problem-solving genres in cultural evolution.

This verges into the debate still fluctuating in the academy about the role of sentiment in moral progress, and the role of sentimentalism in literary history. Put simply, tear-jerking has seemed like cheating for one side of the debate, who emphasize—like Brandom—the importance of reason-giving in having a healthy secularist culture.[fn.8] I don’t think Rorty ever wanted to deny that emphasis. The issue that Brandom helps make clearer, I think, is how the mechanics of sentiment, or metaphors, work in their impact on our reason-giving practices. The tools were always in place for Rorty: Davidson’s distinction between causes and reasons. The world—or a metaphor or (awkwardly put) a sentiment—can cause us to believe X or Y, but our sudden believing-X does not yet have reasons until it is put into a network of inferential relations. The origins of a belief must be held separate from the justification of a belief (though given a set of practices—such as the practice of first-person observational reporting—referring to the origins of your belief may qualify as an acceptable reason). So little Eva’s death might cause us to believe that slavery is wrong, but our tears are not themselves a (sufficient) reason (it’s doubtful we’d want to admit a practice in which any cause of tears is uniformly extirpated from our culture). And so too does saying, “I’m an abolitionist because I cried when I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” seem a little silly, and distinctly not a good reason. It might be the correct explanation of the origins of your belief, but it does not seem a good justification for continuing to hold that belief.

What Brandom helps us to see, with his inferential vocabulary of commitments/entitlements, is the mechanics of inference.[fn.9] And what this can then help us to see is that while non-assertoric, as-if prose must be treated holistically because of its as-if quality, reasons can be generated from it by a holistic translation into assertoric prose: literary criticism. Great novelists and artists do offer coherent visions—which the right critical reading would capture—but those visions themselves aren’t advanced as assertoric, and so cannot be rational in the evaluative sense, though we might later discuss them as if they were. The “as if” works both ways. And in both cases a holistic evaluation is required to pull out bit-sized atoms of reasoning (for either evaluations of the as-if text or premises in our own reasoning about the non-as-if world). It might occur to you that my definition of poetry as a kind of “pretend as if this is true” doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for poems like Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” or most poems for that matter. “Among twenty snowy mountains,/The only moving thing/Was the eye of the blackbird.” In what sense are we to treat that as true? Asking what sense is exactly the right question, for asking what makes sense of the poem—the beginning of the act of interpretation—will cause you to produce sentences that, if true, will make sense of the poem’s strangeness (and thus the act of haggling over interpretations is the act of calling out your opponent’s sense-generating sentences as not true).[fn.10]

I’d like to close by going back to Rosenberg’s characterization of Rorty’s “edifying conversation” as “mere chat.” His point was that the kind of chatting Rorty wanted to apotheosize doesn’t have a point, which can be contrasted with the kind that does (which we can call “inquiry”). Rorty’s point about metaphilosophical conversation about which vocabularies we should use for particular inquiries was badly put in CIS as abdicating arguments. What Rorty wanted philosophers to better see is a point Heidegger made in Being and Time about “idle talk.” Heidegger said that idle chatter communicates “by following the route of gossiping and passing the word along. What is said-in-the-talk as such, spreads in wider circles and takes on an authoritative character. Things are so because one says so” (Heidegger 212). Rorty wants to say that such talk is not so idle as it appears, but that it is something like “things are so because one says so.” This is the kind of boot-strapping of a new vocabulary that is really a matter of just getting the hang of it. What Rorty wanted was to help breed a more self-conscious space between “idle chatter” and “pointed inquiry.” There are no neutral criteria for deciding what kind of vocabulary one should conduct an inquiry in, but this shouldn’t blind us to the fact that we do need to make reasoned choices. Rorty’s misleading rhetoric that led philosophers to think he was promoting an irrational vision should not blind us to how far his sound point—that there are no knock-down arguments for one vocabulary over another in the high metaphilosophical terrain—does in fact reach. There is only pragmatic cost-benefit analysis for one vocabulary over another, and Rorty wanted to breed higher levels of explicit reflection on why a philosopher thought it was important to do something.


[1] The “Reply” is the beginning of the long sequence of apologies Rorty left littered over his corpus: on 84, Rorty apologies for the whole raft of distinctions in Part III of PMN that reviewers kept conflating together: hermeneutics/epistemology, abnormal/normal, edifying/systematic, Continental/analytic. See, too, Rorty’s amusing apology to the Peirce Society for calling himself a pragmatist (in “Comments on Sleeper and Edel,” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, Winter 1985). Technically the first retraction Rorty had occasion to make, I believe, is in the introduction to CP (xlvn25), but abdication of a philosophical position (in this case, Peirce’s angle on truth) is a little different than Rorty’s rhetorical apologetics.

[2] This is a highly specialized point to explicate, one which I cannot myself adequately defend (not being a professional philosopher), but it involves the confluence of Davidson’s principle of charity—which establishes the conclusion that belief (qua belief) is by its nature veridical (which is to say, as Davidson puts the point less technically, “most of our beliefs are true”)—and the pragmatist point that justification is our only route to truth (which means that most of our beliefs can be given a rational qua coherent accounting). Davidson’s principle is based, roughly, on the considerations of successful communication: because we successfully communicate with each other, what must be true to account for this fact? What must be true is what two speakers of different languages must do to establish successful communication—assume, charitably, that the other person lives in, largely, the same world as you and that which both of you largely successfully navigate. What is initially (from the Cartesian point of view) a shot-in-the-dark assumption to get language-learning off the ground can then be cashed in as correct when you—as we then say—successfully learn the language.

[3] The queer feeling Rorty gave to the analytic community was first amped up, after PMN, in his presidential address to the Eastern Division of the APA, “Pragmatism, Relativism, and Irrationalism” (in CP). See, too, Rorty’s review of the English release of Derrida’s Margins of Philosophy in the London Review of Books: “If you want to know what the common sense of the bookish will be like fifty years from now, read the philosophers currently being attacked as ‘irrationalist.’ Then discount the constructive part of what they are saying. Concentrate on the negative things, the criticisms they make of the tradition. That dismissal of the common sense of the past will be the enduring achievement of the long-dead ‘irrationalist’” (“Signposts” 5).

[4] For a pithy rundown on the route from atomism to holism with reference to the issue of those who use the experience-idiom instantiated by Kant and those who use the language-idiom instantiated by Frege (i.e., the still on-going debate about the “linguistic turn”), see my “Quine, Sellars, Empiricism, and the Linguistic Turn.” Brandom’s route through is to make explicit the underlying thought of Kant’s that Frege made more explicit in the language-idiom. You can do this by reading Kant’s “concepts” as “words,” and reinterpreting Kant’s way of putting them together with experience—e.g., his slogan “thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind” (A51/B75)—by reading the integration of “intuitions” (i.e. experience) by “concepts,” not as a cookie-cutter placed upon formless dough (in Putnam’s excellent image), but as the integration of intuitions into a network of inferential relationships. This is the transformation of a cause for belief (e.g., bumping into a rock) into a reason for belief (“Why do you look like you are in pain?” “Because I bumped into a rock.”). The dialogic explication of the transformation of the first parenthetical to the second is quite intentional. For a good, pithy summary of Brandom’s that can be put to immediate work on this issue, see Brandom 167-70. The crown of his rundown is that those who wish to blur the difference between, as Brandom puts it, sentience (beings with sensuous experience, for whom it makes plausible sense to ask “what it is like to be” them) and sapience (language-using humans) must eventually blur the difference between parrots and thermometers, and even between them and rocks—anything that responds to their environment, thus leading to panpsychism (which Nagel, who best conceptualized the qualia-defending retort of “what it is like to be X,” quite consistently entertains in Mortal Questions). Brandom’s claim about the difference between sentience and sapience, while acknowledging all this about differential response to one’s environment, can then be put like this:
The parrot [squawking “Red!” when it sees a patch of red], the photocell [registering the relative volume of noise in a room], and the chunk of iron [responding to the wet outdoors by rusting] can serve as instruments for the detection of red things or wet things, because they respond differentially to them. But those responses are not claims that things are red or wet, precisely because they do not understand those responses as having that meaning or content. By contrast, when you respond to red things or wet things by saying, “That’s red” or “That’s wet,” you do understand what you are saying, you do grasp the content, and you are applying the concepts red and wet. What is the difference that makes a difference here? What practical know-how have you got that the parrot, the photocell, and the chunk of iron do not? I think the answer is that you, but not they, can use your response as the premise in inferences. For you, and not for them, your response is situated in a network of connections to other sentences, connections that underwrite inferential moves to it and from it. … The responsive, merely classificatory, non-inferential ability to respond differentially to red and wet things is at most a necessary condition of exercising that understanding, not a sufficient one. (170)

[5] Rorty’s first discussions of parasitism were about the form of transcendental arguments, notably in “Verificationism and Transcendental Arguments” (in Nous Fall 1971) and “Transcendental Arguments, Self-Reference, and Pragmatism” (in Transcendental Arguments and Science, eds. Peter Bieri et al, 1979). I haven’t given a lot of thought yet as to whether there is a connection between the transcendental argument’s parasitism—which is common to Davidson’s argument about the scheme/content dichotomy and Brandom’s argument about the centrality of inference to language—and irony’s parasitism, or any other “poetic” uses of language. Given my topic, one particularly interesting earlier approach towards the power of irony, and its parasitic quality, is in “Is There a Problem about Fictional Discourse?” It’s tough to say how much Rorty would apologize for its ironic conclusion: “For the ironist poet owes far more to Parmenides and the tradition of Western metaphysics than does the scientist. The scientific culture could survive a loss of faith in this tradition, but the literary culture might not” (CP 137).

[6] A good, late-stage articulation of this point can be found in “Pragmatism and Romanticism” (in PCP).

[7] Terminologically, Brandom sets out to differentiate himself from Rorty by resurrecting the appellation of “rationalism” for his philosophical program (which is decidedly a philosophical system), which in Tales of the Mighty Dead he traces from Leibniz and Spinoza to Frege and Sellars, and saying recently that “pragmatism is not a romanticism” (“The Pragmatist Enlightenment,” from Brandom’s website, which is full of interesting stuff, but specifically this page).

[8] The literary battle, which takes up lines on the moral one, can usefully be seen to begin with Ann Douglas’s The Feminization of American Culture (which argues, roughly, that books like Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin turns us into a bunch of pussies) and the return fire of Jane Tompkins’s Sensational Designs. The virtue of these two books is that they combine a number of different issues into a coherent vision and argument, though in the end we should disentangle those issues and answer them somewhat separately (for example, Tompkins usefully highlights an underlying modernist aesthetic in Douglas’s canon of good texts, but she leaves it entangled with the issue of the political applicability of the texts).

[9] For a brief account of its basics, see the first part of "A Spatial Model of Belief Change."

[10] I mention “Thirteen Blackbirds,” not just because it is a sweet, aggravating poem, but because my poetry professor had us perform an interesting experiment on it that illustrates what I’m calling the general performance of interpretation. The poem contains 13 small, separated stanzas, all with the word “blackbird” in them (I won’t even be so presumptuous as to begin the act of interpretation by saying they are all “about” blackbirds). The experiment was to treat each stanza as a separate poem and each poem as a response to an implicit question. The trick was then to make explicit the question that makes sense of the poem-answer. So, for the quoted stanza, my question was “If one could discern the horizon, what would stand still?” Naturally, still quite opaque. My favorite two were stanzas 3 and 8:
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.

Can we have theory without praxis in this day?

I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.

You can’t stop thinking about Lenore, either, can’t you?

Friday, July 23, 2010

Dreams, Narrative Structure, and Epistemological Authority in Wieland

This was a final for a seminar in sentimentalism and sensationalism in antebellum American literature, dressed up as a conference paper (we faked one at the end of the course, a great idea and experience for getting the swing of professional practices). What was interesting about the course was that it tried to find parity between a number of axes of discourse and debate: popular vs. high-brow (e.g., is Uncle Tom's Cabin a great piece of writing?), historical (what's going on in America?), theoretical (how does our understanding, then or now, of morals and/or emotions tie into the texts?), political (does Lippard's Quaker City say anything about his surroundings, and how should we care?).

My attraction to Charles Brockden Brown, known as America's first professional novelist, was because of the way his Wieland seemed to register on two valences I'm interested in: philosophical and political. In particular, we might shake out two different epistemological projects begun in the 17th century (and for which we identify as the beginning of "modern philosophy"): personal-epistemology and state-epistemology. Descartes is the paradigmatic father of the former, and Hobbes of the latter. What I have in mind is the well-known idea that Descartes was after certainty in our reasoning: how do we authorize the premises of our reasoning? By taking this to be radically unclear, he hoped to find a foundation to begin building from: the birth of modern foundationalism. My smallish claim is that Hobbes' project is the exact parallel of Descartes': the quest for legitimation of a government in the face of radical doubt about any such legitimacy. My sense is that the connections between these two different projects has largely been unexplored in the philosophical literature (though a good place to start is Toulmin's Cosmopolis).

What I found in Brown's Wieland was the embodiment of the kind of explicit philosophical work I think needs to be done on the connection between how an individual's practical reasoning interacts with the body politic. I was so excited that my first attempts (an initial presentation, an initial abstract, and my first draft) came out as gobbily-gook. I had the good fortune of having a professor who was experienced in putting together philosophy and literature, and who have me great advice for how to shape something presentable. What is below simply approaches the issues I've outlined as the interaction between personal-epistemology and state-epistemology (and what I really want is the historical reconstruction of the common underlying motive that produced two disparate strains of philosophical inquiry that rarely coincide: for some fanciful reflection that begins with the Greeks, see "What Happened to Political Philosophy?"). In particular, the notion of the dream as a metaphor for radical non-constraint can be developed much, much further, and I really did very little to truly capitalize on this potentially rich thought, and it might be a very fruitful historical project in tracing how the dream-metaphor has functioned in intellectual history (I suspect it has played similar roles as that of madness, and seeing both histories together would be interesting).

Since nobody's read Wieland, and I'd at least like to make the issues I try and explore accessible, I'll begin with Tompkins' pithy summary of the plot, which she claims (rightly) is central to understanding the meaning of the novel (not in the obvious way). The fact of the matter is, the plot is simple and bizarre, which makes it inaccessible to a modern reader wondering how on earth somebody could go from a coolly rational person to massacring their whole family because an unknown voice told him it was God, and what God wants, God gets, and God wants'em all to die. Bizarre, frustrating, and hilarious at times, though I'm not sure Brown meant it to be, it also--if read right--provides insight into the process of slipping down slopes that happen because of bad, previous assumptions about what's going on. And for this insight, it isn't the content of the plot that must be emphasized, but the form of the narrative. At any rate, here's Tompkins:
This is what happens in Wieland.

Four young adults--Theodore and Clara Wieland, and Catherine and Henry Pleyel--are leading the most rational and harmonious existence imaginable on a country estate on the banks of the Schuylkill River. One night, after the arrival in their midst of a mysterious person named Francis Carwin, one of them hears a strange voice and after that, it is no exaggeration to say, things go rapidly downhill. Theodore Wieland, who heard the voice, becomes introspective and morbid. Clara begins to hear voices too--men in her bedroom closet threatening to rape and kill her, other men warning her to keep off her own cottage grounds. Pleyel overhears someone say that his fiancee in Germany is dead (she is alive), and later he hears someone say that Clara, whom he loves, has betrayed him with another man (she has not). The climax comes when Wieland is visited by an apparition (he thinks it is God) commanding him, as proof of religious devotion, to kill his wife--which he does--and then demanding that he kill his children--which he also does (he has four of them). Upon learning of this, Clara falls desperately ill, but recovers in time for Wieland to break out of jail in order to kill her, too. She is saved, however, by the interposition of Carwin, whose confession that he is a ventriloquist causes Wieland to doubt whether it was indeed God's voice that commanded him to murder his family. He kills himself. Clara's house burns down. Somehow, the misunderstanding between her and Pleyel is cleared up and they go off to Europe. End of story.

This summary of Wieland's main narrative exaggerates its craziness only slightly. (40)
I might also add that the argument below embodies an increasing reliance on a critical vocabulary that emphasizes the role of inference: my increasing appreciation of Robert Brandom's pragmatism is evident in my construction of how epistemological authority works. And if I'm right about Brown, then Brown knew as well as Kant (if perhaps not as explicitly, which is Brandom's fascinating new interpretation of Kant in Reason in Philosophy) that the content of thoughts depend on their inferential connections to each other (which is my slide between "descriptions" and "deductions" below).

*NOTE* The footnote links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


The dominant interpretation of Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland since the mid-80s has been as political allegory.[fn.1] Lifting off from Brown’s ironic invocation of the Platonic analogy of scale between city and soul, of making “the picture of a single family a model from which to sketch the condition of a nation” (Brown 34),[fn.2] and grounding the allegory’s presence in facts like Brown’s membership to the largely Federalist-leaning Friendly Club and that Brown sent a copy of Wieland to Thomas Jefferson upon its completion,[fn.3] this interpretation seeks to explain the presence of the many kinds of uncertainty in the text as emblems for the dissolution of traditional kinds of authority in a pure democracy. Federalists like Adams and Hamilton thought that a strong central authority was needed to lead and control the passions of the populace, whereas Republicans like Madison and Jefferson were quite sure that a strong central authority was the key impediment to freedom that the recent Revolution had been designed to overcome. And while in political terms this was a debate about how strong the national government should be, the Federalists and Republicans also saw it as a struggle over truth: Republicans believed that truth would come out in the free proliferation of opinions and Federalists thought that was just a screen to believe whatever you wanted.[fn.4] Wieland, on this interpretation, intersects this debate by showing three generations of Wielands progress away from aristocratic, traditional boundaries into a free, idyllic conversational paradise, which suddenly implodes with the introduction of an eloquent outside element that does not have their best interests at heart.[fn.5] Without any central authority to reign in speculation on the mysteries of the voices, Carwin stands as an emblem of the problem of rhetoric in a free-for-all of competing opinions and Wieland as an emblem of the problem of the authority of God in a secular, pure democracy.

I think all of this is right, but the emphasis on the narrative content of Wieland—the story, the plot—tends to de-emphasize the text’s radical penetration into the uncertainty about authority produced by pure democracy. We should understand ventriloquism as a metaphor for secularization,[fn.6] which means not just the difficulties of taking God as an authority in a democracy, but the problem of the general human condition under the auspices of the nebulous authority-structures of democracy. Not just those who claim God as an authority are affected by democracy, but all claims in general are subjected to the uncertainty of decision resulting from democracy’s cherishing of unconstrained conversation. Thus Brown’s allegory ultimately grounds itself in the very real practical situation of making decisions in a democracy. To show this, I will first focus on the narrative structure of Wieland (as opposed to content) in order to suggest that Brown’s choice of how to tell the story of the Wieland family was not haphazard but central to his point. And secondly, I will focus on the metaphor of the dream as a fiction of radical non-constraint to show how deep Brown’s epistemological nightmare goes.

Brown chose the epistolary form as the vehicle for his narrative, and by making the story of Wieland unfold from Clara’s retrospective pen, Brown is able to place us inside of an active mind still entangled in past events. However, Clara not only provides us with her retrospective feelings about the events (as in the beginning of Chapter 6 when Clara struggles for a page gathering “strength enough to proceed” (56), before ushering Carwin onto stage), but Brown also has Clara narrate in the past tense her then understanding and movements of mind at the time of the occurrences. This intimate view of Clara’s mind, where we are allowed into her most private of thoughts and struggles like the close friend we, as reader, have the pretence of being, allows Brown to emphasize the importance of description to the unfolding of events. Clara’s past-tense narration gives us a special view of a person’s mind as they experience an event, but her present-tense narration of the past as she now sees it gives us a view of how descriptions of events evolve, an “if I had only known then…” quality. The important point here is that descriptions change. And while this may seem a platitude, Brown wants to emphasize to us how Clara’s actions at the time rested on her description, her understanding, of the events at the time and how the knowledge of potential change in description creates the precarious feeling of basing actions on mutable reasons. For the reason why you do something is based in part on your understanding, your description, of what the event you're responding to is.

To concretize what I’m suggesting about Brown’s motives for choosing the epistolary form, let me quote a passage (just after Clara has heard the first whisper in her closet):
The maid was my only companion, and she could not reach my chamber without previously passing through the opposite chamber, and the middle passage, of which, however, the doors were usually unfastened. If she had occasioned this noise, she would have answered my repeated calls. No other conclusion, therefore, was left me, but that I had mistaken the sounds, and that my imagination had transformed some casual noise into the voice of a human creature. Satisfied with this solution, I was preparing to relinquish my listening attitude, when my ear was again saluted with a new and yet louder whispering. It appeared, as before, to issue from lips that touched my pillow. A second effort of attention, however, clearly shewed me, that the sounds issued from within the closet, the door of which was not more than eight inches from my pillow. (65)
The narrative grammar of typical passages in the novel is such that events are not shown, but tightly bound to Clara’s acts of showing. Clara does not just tell us what happened, but argues for her description, littering the narration with “hences,” “therefores,” “persuasions,” and “conjectures.” This gives us the odd spectacle of not just a fallible narrator, but an argumentative narrator, and the reader is made to actively question the description of events by the narrator’s own active interrogation. As thinly veiled as Brown’s use of the epistolary form is—which unlike William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy or Samuel Richardson’s Pamela carries none of the accoutrements of a letter, like salutations, dates, places of origin, or names of correspondents—it does allow Brown the pretence of a reading audience, of somebody specifically being communicated to within the frame of the story. This gives Clara motivation within the frame of the story to argue for what she describes. What is heightened by Clara’s argumentativeness is cognizance of the chains of inference that lead us to conclude that a scene should be described as such and such, an event being this and not that.

The narrative action in Wieland, I’d like to suggest, is on the model of a practical syllogism. Syllogisms are short, inferential proofs of two premises and a conclusion, and for my purposes the length of Clara’s mental machinations matter less than three propositional forms typical of a syllogism: descriptions of a scene (“the maid … could not reach my chamber without previously passing through the opposite chamber”), conditional statements to set inferences in motion (“if she had occasioned this noise, [then] she would have answered my repeated calls”), and conclusions resulting in action-outputs (“No other conclusion, therefore, was left me, but that I had mistaken the sounds…. Satisfied with this solution, I was preparing to relinquish my listening attitude”). At one point in the novel, Clara says: “The will is the tool of the understanding, which must fashion its conclusions on the notices of sense. If the senses be depraved, it is impossible to calculate the evils that may flow from the consequent deductions of the understanding” (39). This is Brown’s epistemological situation in a nutshell. The understanding receives sensory inputs and must fashion them into descriptions, “deductions” as Clara puts it, before it is able to tell the will what action-outputs it should perform.

This situation, however, is not simply a private one—it is affected greatly by public discussion. The ongoing public discussion of the voices between the Wieland family, with Carwin being added to the discussion in Chapter 8, mirrors the ongoing discussion of public policy carried out by the Democratic Clubs that came into existence at the close of the 18th century. Defending their right to exist, the Democratic Clubs articulated the idea of a “public sphere” where the citizen, because not at the direct helm of the ship of state as in ancient Athenian democracy, could remain constantly involved in public affairs. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 passed by the Federalists—the same year Wieland came out and Brown’s club, the Friendly Club, dissolved—attempted to suppress this newly created sphere, but Republicans Madison and Jefferson came to the sphere’s aid by repudiating, in historian Eric Foner’s words, “the common law tradition that the national government enjoyed the power to punish ‘seditious’ speech.”[fn.7] In Wieland, Brown is articulating first-hand anxiety over the form of social life that comes about in repudiating traditional sanctions on conversation. To Jefferson’s Miltonic echo of “error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it,”[fn.8] Hamilton would reply skeptically that “Men are rather reasoning than reasonable animals, for the most part governed by the impulse of passion.”[fn.9]

The Wieland family is a double for both the Friendly Club and our national culture. The horror of what happens to the Wielands depends on both the care-free attitude of the Wieland family’s discussions and consequential decision-making. The Wieland family’s attitude to life, where most outside events like war or Louisa’s story contribute “in some sort to our happiness, by agitating our minds with curiosity” (29), and providing “a copious theme of speculation” (33), mirror the Democratic Clubs’ discussions insofar as they are carefree because they lack power—the Clubs are precisely not at the helm and so not responsible for actually making any decisions. However, due to the nature of democracy, public discussion is consequential, which is why the Federalists feared the Democratic Clubs’ very existence.[fn.10] Likewise, the Wieland family does make consequential decisions, like the debate between Pleyel and Wieland about whether to go to Europe. It is the insertion of meaningful consequence into unconstrained conversation that turns the secret knowledge of God’s will into a potential slaughterhouse just waiting to happen. Without any outside authority to restrain Wieland, he’s at liberty to pursue the consequences of his belief. The slim figure that connects the double role of the Wieland family, as both idyll of unconstrained conversation and the potential horror of pure democracy, is that of the reasoning-not-reasonable individual—Clara: the embodiment of a person grown into a culture of unconstrained conversation, unused to the authority of anything but her own senses, and without recourse when those senses fail her, and who, as narrator, is constantly emphasizing this point to the reader in her narrative grammar.[fn.11]

The figure of the dream serves to deepen the problem contained in the authority of the senses. At the beginning of Chapter 7, Clara tells us of a dream she had, in which she sees her brother:
As I carelessly pursued my walk, I thought I saw my brother, standing at some distance before me, beckoning and calling me to make haste. He stood on the opposite edge of the gulph. I mended my pace, and one step more would have plunged me into this abyss, had not some one from behind caught suddenly my arm, and exclaimed, in a voice of eagerness and terror, “Hold! hold!” (71-2)
Clara says that “images so terrific and forcible disabled me, for a time, from distinguishing between sleep and wakefulness, and withheld from me the knowledge of my actual condition” (72), and until Carwin finally corrects her, she believes that the voice was internal to her dream. When Clara hears the words “Hold! hold!” again later, she recognizes them as from her dream and says, “There are means by which we are able to distinguish a substance from a shadow, a reality from the phantom of a dream” (99). Yet, this belief that she indeed possesses these means are what lead her to believe that she heard a supernatural agent come to her protection in telling her to “hold.” In practical terms, we believe that we have these means available (for example, Clara says after Pleyel first confronts her about imputed improprieties with Carwin, “I moved that I might banish the doubt that I was awake” 119), but these means are predicated on a fairly stable reliance on our senses, which is exactly the problem throughout the novel. Brown’s reference to “reality” and “dream” heightens the problems of the Wieland family to an almost Cartesian level given the actual problems they encounter in taking the authority of the senses.

What is interesting about the interaction between the dream and the voices is how, once one has softened the distinction between dream and reality, more and more of what was previously a dream becomes interactive with reality. Upon hearing the dream-voice again, Clara immediately takes stock of the items in her dream, saying her brother, seized arm, and the voice “were surely imaginary”—“yet the words and the voice were the same” (99). As soon as this move has been made, picking away at her certainty about what is on which side of the line between dream and reality, she begins contemplating this “monstrous conception” of her brother from the dream. And though she promptly dispels this “strange and terrible chimera,” she also immediately follows that with “yet it would not be suddenly dismissed” (99). Just as the Federalists feared, in historian Gordon S. Wood’s phrase, the “democratization of truth” that Republicans cherished because there would be no agreed upon method for determining who was right and who was wrong—just a war of opinions, all against all—so does the lack of method in distinguishing dream from reality exemplify this fear, and land Clara in a slippery slope of allowing into her practical syllogisms all kinds of riff-raff. For example: that she has an invisible guardian. Even before Carwin has solidified this belief in Clara, by pretty much out and out stating that she has an invisible guardian, the way was paved in Clara’s own mind by just contemplating the voice and then the dream. She says, “My belief that my monitor [i.e. the mysterious voice telling Clara to hold] was posted near, was strong, and instantly converted these appearances [i.e. shadows in the room and curtains swaying in the breeze] to tokens of his presence, and yet I could discern nothing” (98). As Carwin says in his confession to Clara: “I had filled your mind with faith in shadows and confidence in dreams” (241).

The way the dream is able to seep into Clara’s waking life, the way ambiguity over what parts were dream and which not, serves to make the dream a figure for the Friendly Club, for the dream of democratic society. For Clara’s “fancy” (71) is given control and free reign over Clara in her dream, unconstrained allowance to do what it pleases. The ability of the fancy to do as it pleases in a dream mirrors Federalist fears over the Democratic Clubs. What they feared was that the Democratic Clubs were bypassing politicians in power and making direct appeals to the people, bypassing the traditional currents of power. The Democratic Clubs, in effect, were able to think what they pleased and then set these ideas loose on the American public. This breakdown between a populace that can think whatever it wants because it has no power and a power-controlling inner circle is the parallel breakdown of the distinction between dreams and reality. As the breakdown begins when the “Hold! hold!” moves from dream to reality and Clara’s “horrific conception” of her brother then begins affecting her life, her “reason” flees her. She says her “actions were dictated by phrenzy” and “surely I was bereft of understanding” (101). As the boundary between dream and reality breaks down, Clara turns into the passion-fueled mob Hamilton and the Federalists feared.

In an early essay, “Walstein’s School of History,” Brown comes down on the side of narrative as a better instrument of moral education over “abstract systems and intellectual reasonings,”[fn.12] and this, I think, because narratives are able to embody intellectual reasoning, show its processes and inner workings. In Wieland, the display of the process of reasoning becomes, not just a better didactic tool, but central to his purpose. By showing Clara’s sometimes fantastic movements of mind, Brown is able to show what one person’s mental state is when bereft of traditional authority-structures. When Carwin says that he had filled Clara’s mind “with faith in shadows and confidence in dreams,” I think this is a nod not only to the dream-voice turn invisible guardian, but the dream of democratic society that Republicans were trying to promulgate. Repubican-leaning deists—like fallen Calvinist preacher turned deist orator Elihu Palmer—would speak of the coming “new religion” which taught of the “perfectibility of man” and would usher in the “universal reign of reason, peace, and justice.”[fn.13] We can see Pleyel, “champion of intellectual liberty” (28), especially, in this description, but the Wieland family generally. The nightmare scenario of the plot of Wieland is intended to dissolve an easy faith in this dream. While on the one hand, Brown’s metaphor of ventriloquism strikes at the heart of those who speak in the name of God—placing him in camp with Republican deists—on the other, Brown, in part through the form of the narrative, through Clara’s constant mental deliberations, is able to push this metaphor so that it cuts into any private store of knowledge.[fn.14] Private deliberation becomes an echo-chamber where the slightest push in the wrong direction can send you tumbling down a chain of bad inferences.


Brown, Charles Brockden. Wieland and Memoirs of Carwin the Biloquist. Ed. Jay Fliegelman. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.
Fischer, David Hackett. Liberty and Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Foner, Eric. The Story of American Freedom. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999.
May, Henry F. The Enlightenment in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.
Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
Waterman, Bryan. Republic of Intellect. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007.
Wood, Gordon S. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York: Vintage Books, 1992, 1993.


[1]I take the two major documents of this shift to be Jane Tompkins’ chapter on Wieland in her Sensational Designs and Jay Fliegelman’s introduction to the Penguin edition of Wieland. Tompkins refers to Fliegelman’s earlier interpretation of Wieland in his Prodigals and Pilgrims, published in 1982, as having independently developed an “almost identical” (Tompkins 208n4) approach to her own, and so I read Tompkins’ book as having tipped the scales in favor of political allegory, prompting Penguin to ask Fliegelman to introduce their edition. Bryan Waterman’s book on the Friendly Club, Republic of Intellect, offers a significant revision of this political interpretation.

[2]The allusion is ironic because Pleyel offers the formula in order to say that it “was absurd” (Brown 34).

[3]Tompkins’ attempt to shift interpretation of Wieland begins with this “single fact” (Tompkins 43).

[4]David Hackett Fischer’s “visual history,” Liberty and Freedom, contains a good example of this sentiment, showing a print drawing from 1793 entitled “A Peep Into the AntiFederal Club,” with part of the club’s creed on the wall of the drawing being “liberty is the power of doing anything we like” (Fischer 204).

[5]Tompkins emphasizes the function of the first two Wielands on 56-7.

[6]Jay Fliegelman says this in his introduction to Wieland (Brown xxxix).

[7]Foner 43

[8]Quoted in Wood 363.

[9]Quoted in May 254.

[10]May 254

[11]Wood describes the general milieu of the “democratization of truth”: “Most ordinary people were no longer willing to defer to the knowledge and judgments of those who had once been their superiors. Perhaps plain people did not have the college education, the extensive travel, or the intellectual power of their aristocratic neighbors, but, their spokesmen said, they had eyes and ears, and they knew what was true for them better than some ‘commanding genius’ or ‘learned sage’ did” (362).

[12]Quoted in Tompkins 46.

[13]May 231-2

[14]Waterman, 50-91, expands on the perceived difficulties of knowledge-production entertained in the conflict between Federalists and Republicans, particularly in relationship to Illuminati conspiracy theories, saying that the conflicts between Federalists and Republicans on the one hand and deists and religionists on the other “reveal late-Enlightenment crises of epistemology and public intellectual authority as they raised questions about who had avenues to knowledge adequate to warrant the public’s trust” (53).

Friday, July 16, 2010

Morton and Metaphysics

Timothy Morton's recent book, Ecology without Nature, is an interesting, provocative meditation on the notion of nature in writing--and since all "notions" are conceptual, articulated things, nature, when when we talk about it, is always, in an attenuated sense, "in writing." Morton's book is broken into three massive chapters. The first is required reading for anybody working with nature-writing: Pirsig, Thoreau, Edward Abbey, Aldo Leopold, whoever. The most important portion is a very astute itemizing of rhetorical techniques, what he calls an "ambient poetics," and what they are usually doing for these kinds of writers. Morton calls nature-writing "ecomimesis," which from its Greek roots would mean "imitation of the home." Just playing around with his terminology can yield interesting insights, even if you for the most part ignore everything else.

Which is what I would like to do to large swaths of his book. A lot of it, so it seems to me, is mired in fancy Derridean clothing that, while not tanking his unique perspective (as it totally would of a lesser critic), is quickly becoming out-dated. What I wrote below tries to bring out what that is.

Even as that is so, the second chapter is an attempt to link Romantic poetry, the Romantic ethos, the consumerist ethos, economics and our ethical thinking about nature. And while certain aspects are still too marxist for me to take seriously (which is to say, once you shuck the marxist vocabulary that requires a platonic method to constitute, the sentence loses its polemical point and so any utility at all), Morton has written previously on a much larger scale about only that subject, and some of the things briefly stated in this book are interesting and plausible. I can't wait for the day that our cultural-studies thinking forgets about marxism so that it can really spread its wings. The third chapter is a looser cavalcade of speculative, philosophical thinking about how we might "represent" (the modern translation of mimesis) nature. There are some interesting bits, to be sure, but reading Stanley Cavell (like this chapter from In Quest of the Ordinary) is probably a more productive use of time.

References are to:
Timothy Morton, Ecology without Nature, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), 2007

*NOTE* The footnote links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


Near the center of his book, Morton makes this statement about the center of his book: “Ambience is really an externalized form of the beautiful soul. Without doubt, the discovery of the beautiful soul as the form of ecological consumerism is the most important concept in this book” (121). The difficult equivocation tucked into this statement is between “ambience as the rhetoric of talking about ‘the outside’” and “ambience as an historical construction.” Much of Chapter 1, which is given over to the discussion of ecomimesis and the poetics of ambience, reads like a manual for how to achieve the effect of there being an environment in one’s writing. However, granting that “strong ecomimesis” is “distinct and modern” (32, 33), Morton still spends most of the book talking about just how inescapable this rhetoric is while at the same time speaking of it as historically arising out of particular circumstances. But if the beautiful soul is a peculiar moment in the unfolding of the Western Geist, as Hegel thought and Morton following a Marxist brand thinks, it is unclear how ambience in general could be the externalized form of this particular historical construct, though it is clear how that being the case could make the beautiful soul look nearly inescapable.

One of the virtues of Morton’s book is his elaboration of a poetics of ambience, of the rhetoric of inside/outside. Its main vice is its assumption of the inescapability of metaphysics. Take Morton’s elaboration of the Derridean notion of the “re-mark,” which he takes to be the fundamental mark of ambience. He says, “there is nothing underneath the wave/particle distinction. The same is true of the re-mark. Either the inside/outside distinction is constituted, or not” (50). The analogy is perfect for his purposes, but on elaborating this point again at the close of the chapter, Morton immediately follows with “Not that the distinction is real; it is entirely spurious” (78). What could this mean? For a distinction to be an illusion, there would have to be a reality to the situation that you could then elaborate, but Morton expressly says that there is “nothing underneath” the distinction.

This curious equivocation is repeated in a similar way in Chapter 2, which is a recrossing of Marx back with Hegel to read the phenomenon of Romanticism. Morton suggests that Hegel's notion of the beautiful soul is an amping up of a picture of the mind that Morton calls “the ideology of consumer capitalism”—“the mind is like a supermarket and … our consciousness floats, with free choice, among various ideas that can be selected at will, like so many different bottles of shampoo or magazines” (126). This is an excellent description, as is his articulation of the beautiful soul as, in summary, one who values “transformative experiences” qua transformative experiences (111), whose “purpose is to have no purpose” (112) because the point is not what you are transformed into (the eschewal of content), but the transformation itself (the form). And though elitist Baudelaire-types (Romantic poets, bohemians, hipsters, etc.) realize self-consciously this lebensform, every mindless repetition of “supermarket consumption” reinforces the self-conscious form’s possibility of flowering by emphasizing how every act of “free choice” of this or that bottle of shampoo is but an abstract emblem for one thing: Free Choice. This drains the content leaving only the form (that which lies behind, e.g., the post-9/11 idea that if you don’t buy stuff at the mall, the terrorists will win).

So far a good bit of cultural criticism. However, “ideology” as a term can only receive its utility from a contrast with something else, if not Marxian “science,” then at the very least some other ideological form (taking “ideology” in a very neutral, descriptive sense). So on the one hand we have the ideology of consumer capitalism’s picture of the mind as an empty consciousness floating around making “free choices”—but what is the alternative? Morton nowhere comes close to suggesting that he wishes to revamp a Marxist-like notion of “science” or any other kind of epistemological method with which to pierce behind the veil of appearances to reality, yet he says—in a constant motif of avoiding anything smacking of the “new and improved”—“these ‘new and improved’ versions of identity never entirely get rid of the paradoxes of the idea of self from which they deviate” (176). Morton doesn’t think we can have a new picture of the self: “We cannot come up with a ‘new and improved’ version of identity that will do without the paradoxes and aporias associated with it” (182). And yet it is not at all clear why not. One could grab Iris Murdoch at random from a bag full of anti-Kantians (Richard Rorty, Annette Baier, Bernard Williams, Alasdair MacIntyre) and it would be easy to show that not only does Murdoch identify the trouble with what we might call modernity its picture of an empty self (blaming it largely, though perhaps in the long-run unfairly, on Wittgenstein), but that she feels quite content in elaborating a picture of a non-empty self. What is unclear is not only how her picture of the substantial self catches itself up in Cartesian paradoxes and aporias, but more especially how it wouldn’t only improve Morton’s picture of an ecology without nature.[fn.1]

To help substantiate this, I would point to Morton’s approving mention of the “Western Apache’s use of narrative in the naming of places,” where “there is no difference between a place and the socially reproving and improving stories that the Apache associate with it, and thus, there is no nature” (180). Compare this to Rorty’s extrapolation of Daniel Dennett’s picture of the self as a “center of narrative gravity” to the general picture of any object as a center of “descriptive gravity.”[fn.2] In Rorty’s picture of the self, and indeed anything we differentiate as an object (which means putting into the foreground with a background), language is indelibly wrapped up into it. This has caught Rorty a lot of flack in the anglophone philosophical world, but it chimes perfectly with Morton’s appreciation of Derrida’s comments on narcissism, which are echoed when he says, “One cannot help anthropomorphism” (180).[fn.3] Indeed, Morton goes quite far in laying the groundwork for a rapprochement with American pragmatism when, following Marx’s pragmatism (encapsulated best in the “Theses on Feuerbach”), he says, “In order to be sitting by a fire, you have to satisfy certain needs” (181). This in one fell, odd semantical swoop captures the pragmatist point that differentiations come attached to purposes—it wouldn’t be this or that “place” if it weren’t satisfying certain needs, for which the distinction between an object in the foreground against a background is but the tool.

It is at this point that Morton would start making contortions. For one, he says that the possibility of the expansion of sympathy from the human to the nonhuman implied by Derrida’s work on forgiveness seems to imply “that we should treat animals and plants as ends in themselves and not as means. But the paradox is that maintaining this view denatures nature” (180) What isn’t clear is why this is bad—we are replacing one conception of nature for another, are we not? Morton’s Derridean enjoyment of paradox gets in the way of his point. After making the pragmatist point about tools and purposes I elicited earlier, he says “the debate about environment and world—between humans who are able to contemplate their needs aesthetically (with distance), and animals who make do with whatever is around them—is thus a red herring” (181). Morton, who is referring to John McDowell’s book Mind and World, is absolutely right, though I think his point is obscured by his transformation of McDowell. Morton is referring to a section in McDowell’s book where he is intent on elaborating a distinction between “mere sentience” and “second nature,” which humans have. Here’s the key line: “When we acquire conceptual powers, our lives come to embrace not just coping with problems and exploiting opportunities, constituted as such by immediate biological imperatives, but exercising spontaneity, deciding what to think and do” (McDowell 115) The key disagreement between McDowell and Rorty is McDowell’s reinvention of Kant’s notion of spontaneity as different in kind from “coping.” For pragmatists, the purpose behind the deployment of differentiations is coping. McDowell wants a radical difference between what animals do and what humans do. What’s unclear in Morton’s appreciation of the problem is what he could mean by calling this question “profound”: “are animals capable of aesthetic contemplation?” (Morton 181) For McDowell and Rorty, the difference is language and so, in Rorty’s rejection of the distinction between environment and world as a red herring, he would say the question is as profound as the task of figuring out whether the animal is linguistic.[fn.4] So what could it mean to reject the distinction as a red herring and still find the question compelling and profound?

A capsule summary of the background to Morton’s book would be that it assumes that Derrida was correct when he elaborated the notion that philosophy is rhetorical yet rejects rhetoric and that philosophy is inescapable. Morton’s book has the vices of its virtues in this approach—he precisely avoids all those questions in which the Derrida-like unavoidability of paradox might become suspect. This isn’t exactly a criticism, for it would be like criticizing the creator of a new paradigm for spending too much time constructing it—at a certain point you want to stop abusing the blueprints and see what goes up. The oddity of Morton’s experiment, naturally, is in turning deconstruction into a basis for construction, but this simply embodies the paradoxes Morton continually finds rooted and unavoidable at the bottom of every deconstructive investigation. It is this issue of “unavoidable paradox” that should provide a moment of true curiosity for the deconstructive deep-sea diver—for how is the baptism of a paradox into metaphysical unavoidability any different from a Cartesian Archimedean point?[fn.5] Morton teases out paradoxes in the rhetoric of ecology and, rather than getting rid of them, makes them the basis of his constructive project, the way the world is that we must deal with. But how does this not turn deconstruction into a Cartesian method of piercing behind the veil of appearances to reality and not turn Derrida into a foundationalist? The problem is neither paradigm-deconstruction nor paradigm-construction, but rather—as in all major, interesting philosophical difference—picking the wrong assumptions to hold with conviction (in the Greek: dogma) and build off of. This doesn’t “demolish” Morton’s project, of course, which is the true virtue of his book. For as much as his rhetoric against much thinking revolves around the threat that they are seeking the “new and improved” and he is radically not (somehow), it hardly clouds the interesting ideas that pop out.


[1]Murdoch elaborates this view in “The Idea of Perfection” in her The Sovereignty of Good (Routledge, 2001) (which can also be found in the very representative collection of her essays, Existentialists and Mystics). She says this picture, which she finds behind the behaviorist, existentialist, and utilitarian, is a “happy and fruitful marriage of Kantian liberalism with Wittgensteinian logic solemnized by Freud” (9). Her view of the self is based on emphasizing “contexts of attention” to the process of choice, and of dissolving the notion of a “will” that undergirds Kantian moral philosophy, treating so-called “decisions” as more like “compulsions.” In her attack on the will, she mirrors Williams in his book Shame and Necessity and MacIntyre’s notion of “emotivism” in After Virtue.

[2]This is in his essay “Daniel Dennett on Intrinsicality,” particularly 105-110, of his Truth and Progress (Cambridge University Press, 1998).

[3]For further remarks along this line on anthropomorphism with respect to animals (particularly my reference to Snell), see "The Representation of Animals."

[4]Rorty's most illustrious student, and McDowell's long-time colleague at the University of Pittsburgh, Robert Brandom, has also reconstituted Kant's shadow in the face of Rorty's long-standing battle with it (since "The World Well Lost"). While McDowell tries to breathe life into Kant's notion of "spontaneity" (which Rorty comments on in a 1998 article in the journal Philosophy and Phenomenological Research), Brandom breathes fascinating life into Kant's notion of the "unity of apperception" (in the first chapter of his 2009 Reason in Philosophy). The difference between McDowell and Brandom, and why Rorty would have endorsed Brandom's version of Kant, is that McDowell tries to make an ontological distinction between "mere sentience" and the "second nature" of language. Brandom, on the other hand, takes Rorty's Davidsonian point and works further from there to show just what the addition of language does entail to our difference from animals, for the move from sentience to sapience. This point is most stunningly worked out in the last chapter of that book, "How Analytic Philosophy Has Failed Cognitive Science," where Brandom reverses Rorty's long (long) standing notion that philosophy does not make progress by showing (and convincing even me) that philosophy, indeed, does show results that other disciplines might want to bone up on.

[5]For a little more on metaphysical baptism, see closing two paragraphs of "Dynamic Quality as Pre-Intellectual Experience."

Friday, July 09, 2010

Stuart Hall, Codes, and Theory

This was a presentation whose goal was to explicate two articles by Stuart Hall, "Encoding, Decoding" and "Cultural Studies and Its Theoretical Legacies." It's a useful exercise for students, to help leverage oneself into another's theoretical perspective, but I also took the time to press some of my own positions on Hall's theory of coding. Hall's notions--or rather, perhaps, his metaphor--became extremely popular in the just budding field known to English Departments as "cultural studies." Hall was at the forefront of what came to be known as the Birmingham School, the place where English Marxist critics fled to do what they wanted to do, and one lasting field they helped pioneer was the study of popular culture. (The balance between the two poles of literature and popular culture might best be exemplified by Raymond Williams on one side and Dick Hebdige on the other.) One finds the metaphor of coding, for example, in Fredric Jameson's The Political Unconscious: a Marxist, but only oddly a member of cultural studies (mainly because, hinted at in the last section, most of whom identify as doing cultural studies don't want to say they are working in a discipline, and Jameson still held that Marxism--through its teleological philosophy of history--can still provide a ground for such work).

The article below functions as a primer on dislocating oneself from pre-Quinean philosophy of language. While anglophone philosophers of language largely don't work with Saussure, anglophone English professors largely don't work with Quine. Since whatever background I might be granted is in the anglophone tradition, I bridged the gap by being abstract, but the points Hall scores against the "defunct model," as I call it, are basically the one's post-positivists want to score. Where we go from there is the $64 question not everyone agrees about, and where my line of critical pressure comes from. But the basics about encoding and decoding is the same kind of thing Donald Davidson, for example, would want to say (with his account of triangulation).

You'll also notice a Marxist vocabulary blithely used (ideology, substructure): not my favorite choice, but Marxism underscores almost all the lasting critical trends that have made it to the new millennium. While deconstruction has thankfully petered out, New Historicism, Cultural Studies, and Post-Colonialism are still chugging along. But I cannot emphasize baldly enough: I hate the Marxist vocabulary. I think it just obscures everything important in a cloud of self-righteousness. So, while for some righteousness seems a necessary condition of their writing (like Jameson), for others the cloud lingers and annoys (like Hall, who seems otherwise quite sensible). Call it a bias, but I can't see that anything is gained by talking about "ideology" or "substructure" once everyone's turned in their "I have a science/method to distinguish illusion/ideology from reality/substructure!" cards (which even Jameson admits to not having).

All references are to The Cultural Studies Reader, 3rd Ed., edited by Simon During.


What’s Meaning?

How is meaning generated? In an old version, “meaning” was seen as a little bundle put together by a speaker/writer and sent out into the world to be caught by a hearer/reader—meaning as a kind of paper airplane, or better—bullet. On this model, a reader shotguns sentences into her mind and understanding is a matter of getting each of these bullets right.

Hall sums up this defunct model in “Encoding, Decoding” as the “sender/message/receiver” (478) circuit. The biggest trouble is how thin the notion of each segment in the circuit is—how does the sender construct the message and what, exactly, does the receiver do with it? In an attempt to do justice to both ideology and substructure, Hall constructs a model of meaning generation and dissemination that attempts to capture, in an isolated yet flexible fashion, the various pieces of life that go into the creation of a bit of meaning.


Every piece of communication—from a whisper over wine to Tom Brokaw’s bramble-mouth—has both a means and an end. For means, in the case of broadcast news, we can list cameras, computers, cell phones, satellites, green screens—all of these serve particular kinds of purposes in generating particular kinds of meaning (simply recall the “how cool are we” gesticulations of news outlets during the 2008 election with their holograms and mega-maps). In the case of writing, paper, pens, computers and other devices all contribute to the kind of meaning able to be produced (consider the case of Blake’s engraved poetry). Even—and this is key—in the case of one-on-one verbal communication we must—in order to remain coherent materialists—count utterances as material means. Think of the different kinds of meaning produced by the words “I love you” when said by a classmate versus Johnny Depp over wine. Not simply the producer is at issue here, but too, think if Depp had yelled it or, with all the charismatic power of years playing celluloid (now digital) heart-throbs coming to his aid, whispered it in your ear. When Hall says, “the organization and combination of practices with media apparatuses” (478), I think we must think long and wide. Every computer chip, every light bulb lighting Brokaw’s face, every acting lesson Depp took to get on 21 Jump Street—these all combine to transform senders into the particular kind of sender they are. The “means of production” in Hall’s vision of Marxism is considerably widened: “knowledge-in-use concerning the routines of production, historically defined technical skills, professional ideologies, institutional knowledge, definitions and assumptions, assumptions about the audience and so on…” (479).

Having the means doesn’t produce meaning—you must have a message to impart. Thus enters the notion of having an end-in-view—the combination of the means with an end produces the encoded sign-vehicle (478). In the case of news, “reporting events” might be a typical end-in-view. What Hall highlights is how an actual event we see happening before our very eyes is not what is on the news. What he terms the “‘raw’ historical event” is what we otherwise call “life.” When we attempt to communicate about life—that is when the process of encoding begins, when the means of communicative production transform the raw material of life into a transportable object. Hall’s paradox becomes much more apparent when we replace “life” for “event” in his formulation: “[life] must become a ‘story’ before it can become a communicative [life]” (478). In terms of TV, “events can only be signified within the aural-visual forms of television discourse” (478). When an event goes behind a camera, we put make-up on it, we light it, we shoot it at its most favorable angles. And even if we don’t, this too can become part of encoded meaning. Mockumentaries have raised our awareness of the earmarks of reality, the syle of the real. The rise of the jittery-camera (stemming from, perhaps, Saving Private Ryan's colossal success) as a technique has lent the constructed authenticity of “reality”—somehow we perceive (if not think) that Jason Bourne is deserving of more pathos because we can hardly see him behind Paul Greengrass’ interminable camera-shaking.


Our notion of “meaning” is not complete, however—now that we have an encoded message, we must have a receiver to decode it, untie its message, generate the meaning latent within it. This is where things get tricky for Hall:
Once [encoding is] accomplished, the discourse must then be translated – transformed, again – into social practices if the circuit is to be both completed and effective. If no ‘meaning’ is taken, there can be no ‘consumption’. If the meaning is not articulated in practice, it has no effect. (478)
Hall suggests that the benefit of this approach is the isolation of encoding from decoding, but his description seems to go a bit beyond his cause. Hall seems to suggest that, e.g., if I do not buy Bud Light after seeing a commercial, the meaning-loop has not been closed. If we expand the notion of “social practices” to a very wide parameter, where even an occurent thought—something that just flashes across the mind's eye—counts as a member of a social practice (for Wittgensteinian reasons)—and I think this is the right approach for the lasting value of Hall’s model—then everything counts as a proper effect, up to and including the noise we attribute to foreign languages, for if we’ve previously formulated the assumption that there is an intentionally aimed message careening at us, then even the shrug of nonunderstanding is meaning enough. What meaning? “No meaning,” which is an articulable enough reaction and effect of a communicative event—“Did you see that advertisement for Bud?” “Yeah.” “What did you think of it?” “Nothing.”

I’m pulling a little hard on Hall’s notion, but I hope there’s a payoff. For there is certainly an obvious enough sense to what Hall’s suggesting if we limit ourselves to the example of advertisements and the perspective of advertisement executives. For the encoder, no meaning has been exchanged and the circuit remains unclosed if there is no apparent reaction, like buying beer or laughing at Super Bowl frogs and Clydesdales. It is helpful in this regard to recall William James’s old pragmatic question, “what’s the difference that makes a difference?” If the receiver remains, more or less, unaffected by the message, then should we say the receiver has even decoded it? Not a lot seems to hinge on saying yes or no, since either way the receiver is unaffected.

The trouble that I think begins here, however, is the lack of perspective. There are hardly any people populating Hall’s analysis. When I talked about ends-in-view, this was part pedagogical and part cover-up. What the ends of messaging are dissolved into, in Hall’s analysis, are roughly “hegemonic powers.” To get ahead of Hall, at the close he says, “Majority audiences probably understand quite adequately what has been dominantly defined and professionally signified. The dominant definitions, however, are hegemonic precisely because they represent definitions of situations and events which are ‘in dominance’ (global)” (486). It seems difficult to understand precisely what is said in that second sentence, what extra meaning has been generated to deepen our understanding of Hall’s vocabulary, when it appears tautological. What I think has dropped out and been replaced by an awkwardly rendered, anonymous power is the message-creator, and specifically the ends, or purposes, of the creation of messages. What we get instead is “dominance which is hegemonic because it’s dominant”—a kind of “dominance is as dominance does” answer to the ends of dominance. The end of power might be power, but power itself is always a steady state—it is a person’s share in power that fluctuates (perhaps even in Foucault's analysis).

How Not to Talk About Language

Saussure was wrong—language is not arbitrary, it has no rules, it is not based on conventions. Hard words, and difficult to defend, but evolution is important here: social practices are evolving bodies in reality. Part of the strike against scientific Marxism is the recuperation of the “superstructure,” or "ideology," the flake at the top of reality that Marx didn't seem to take seriously, but later Marxists like Gramsci do. Hall is sympathetic to this. However, if we see the beginnings of (oral) communication as a matter of collating noises to reactions, such that regularity of response to sounds becomes the beginning of a “language,” then the stability and utility of language only exists insofar as regularity is reproduced, sound and expected reaction. This stability is only as arbitrary as our thumbs—it is only from a cosmic, external view of language and species that we should be able to call the use of the word “cow” or thumbs arbitrary. And like thumbs, there are things language can and cannot do, but neither have rules—Wittgenstein’s metaphor of language-games was misleading just insofar as it cast the spectare of mechanical input-output productions. There are no “rules,” only effective and ineffective communication strategies—just as Hall says about the closing of the meaning-loop being the effect in social practices.

Hall seems importantly right to remark that “there is no degree zero in language” (481). In understanding, I take it, there is no point at which language drops out and reality stands apart naked. All signs are “culture-specific” and those that appear “natural” simply display the “depth, the habituation and the near-universality of the codes in use” (481). There are two different notions here that make up the appearance of naturalness: depth and near-universality. We should distinguish between the two to capture the difference between a code’s wide dissemination and how deeply it is ingrained. The zero-degreeness of language and the trappings of naturalness is what stand in tension with Hall’s Sausurrean suggestion that “cow” is arbitrary and built out of convention whereas the pictogram of a cow is not. If we are to take seriously both the slogan that there is “no degree zero in language” and that all events—life—become transfigured in the process of encoding/decoding, including pictograms and TV, then we ultimately have to reject the nature/convention distinction. It is only by standing on the outside of Creation that we can attain the external view necessary to suppose arbitrariness. And this effect of standing outside of Creation isn’t, in fact, difficult to achieve once one follows Wittgenstein’s suggestion that a language composes a lebensform (lifeform) and then get’s dropped into a foreign-language speaking village—every sound will be noise, and the noises seemingly arbitrarily emitted. Why one noise as opposed to another? Why make that noise when you see a cow? To learn a language, however, you have to at once drop the notion that the noises are arbitrarily emitted and suppose that there is a pattern of regularity and stability, the learning of which constitutes the learning of a language. The noise the French make, “vache,” instead of “cow,” only seems arbitrary when you either don’t know the language at all or isolate it from the herd of other noises and compare them by themselves: “Why ‘vache’ instead of ‘cow’? How arbitrary!” Or the person who arbitrarily throws foreign words into conversation: “Why did you say lebensform instead of lifeform? How arbitrary!” Except that, just like what goes behind a camera, these can be earmarks for specific kinds of codes, e.g. a comedic display of erudition or a random display of arbitrariness.

Denotation and Connotation

Following fashions in linguistics, Hall defines “denotation” as “literal meaning” and “connotation” as “associative meanings” (482). Hall’s beef with the linguistic theorists is that they often mistakenly take denotation to be a transcript of reality, whereas connotation is all those extraneous and idiosyncratic associations we make between, e.g., vache and marbles—completely arbitrary to everybody but the person for whom it makes perfect sense. What Hall would rather like to do is take the denotative/connotative distinction as a rule of thumb to be deployed at instances of communication to separate out these two distinct parts. For example, the existence of sarcasm makes “Oh, you look great in those jeans” an entirely different denotation than if sans sarcasm. Denotations and connotations more fluidly interact with the action of communication.

There is a small cadre of problems hidden in Hall’s not-so-different use of the literal/associative distinction (some to do with metaphor, others to do with meanings-as-bundles), but the most interesting for a grasp of Hall’s style is that the use of “literal” allows Hall to eliminate reference to people communicating. If you don’t understand what somebody’s denoting, you ask them, “What did you mean?” and the first answer they decide to choose among a possible bevy of things they were signifying we can call the literal, denoted meaning, with all the others the frosting that makes language a beautiful, associative cake. This dissolves the faceless “literal,” which retains the notion of small, essential monads of meaning attached to small swatches of phrases, into “desired encoding”—what did the sender want the receiver to receive.

This muddies the water, however, for Hall suggests that it “is at the connotative level of the sign that situational ideologies alter and transform signification” (482). Recurring to a different distinction, the up-shot of Hall’s rendering is that the overt message is what is said on the surface while ideology is a covert encoding intended to slip past our decoding censors. “Desired encoding,” on the other hand, obliterates the difference between overt and covert since both are likely desired by self-conscious television news producers.

On the other hand, something terribly difficult happens when Hall continues his faceless analysis by talking about the decoding of denotative and connotative meanings. Things appear fine when he talks about the “‘work’ required to enforce, win plausibility for and command as legitimate a decoding” (484), for we can get the swing of how many techniques are used by people to disseminate a message and its decoder ring, positive reinforcement being the most general category to name it with (give a cookie to the person who cheers back “Bourgeois ideology!”). But something goes awry when we get to Hall’s three decoder positions—are these positions self-conscious or unconscious? Are they just analytically descriptive? How does an analyst know whether the dominant-hegemonic position is being taken if everyone, including the analyst, has to engage in the act of decoding, which produces the position of “am I getting this wrong?” This is where it is helpful to have a concept of agency lying around. Hall can’t ask anyone because his apparatus is built of faceless literal meanings and dominant codes. A lot of useful analysis can be done by Hall’s model, but it runs into a hole when moving to individuals decoding messages. Take Hall’s “simplest example of a negotiated code,” which is one that is a “mixture of adaptive and oppositional elements”: “At the level of the ‘national interest’ economic debate the decoder may adopt the hegemonic definition, agreeing that ‘we must all pay ourselves less in order to combat inflation’. This, however, may have little or no relation to his or her willingness to go on strike for better pay and conditions…” (486). Surely Hall’s worker is not self-consciously “adopting” the hegemonic option? Yet, would it not be terribly easier when talking about decoding to talk about the individual’s relationship to the codes in play? That, on the one hand, the worker feels a simple patriotism and responds to calls for duty, but on the other needs more money? The notion of “adoption” sneaks agency into Hall’s fairly unpeopled vocabulary because he needs it to describe people, but it reflects the same kind of arbitrainess nonsense we need to extirpate from the level of philosophy of language (what they call "decisionism" in moral philosophy). Choices and readings and decodings aren’t made arbitrarily, and some of the work involved in just this activity is elided by his vocabulary.

What Is Theory For?

The epithet I was reaching for at the close of the last section was “overtheorized.” This is a danger Hall takes up in his retrospective gloss on the growth of cultural studies in “Cultural Studies and Its Theoretical Legacies.” At least at two points, Hall stops to remark that he hopes nobody’s reading him as anti-theoretical (39, 41). Nothing could have been farther from my mind, but it strikes up the utility of theory in general. Why should Hall be so self-conscious? Because theory is well-known for being over-jargonized? Well, what is theory if not a specific jargon one wields to approach a problem?

The trouble is that theory still plays two games—one amongst themselves and one with the problems. Over-jargonizing is a sign that theorists have been playing with themselves for too long. So Hall wants to suggest that they get their semiotics dirty (35). However, he also doesn’t want to slight theory. One exemplary metaphor he uses is “theoretical work as interruption” (39). Theory interrupts what you are otherwise doing, like working with people with AIDS. It allows you to create a space with which to wonder about the work you are doing, because in the midst of it you must remain in the midst of it to do it well. This space allows us to become self-conscious about the tools we employ while doing our work, and for cultural studies that means the way we represent, signify, and symbolize. For example, we no longer have autistic children because work done in identity-formation suggests that treating certain kinds of illnesses and whatnot as attributes rather than baggage creates a stymied identity that limits a person’s ability to grow—so we now have children with autism. Representational shifts like this are easily lampooned, but it is difficult to see why such representational experimentation is any different than the R&D we do in technological industry—if there’s a problem, you try and fix it. Some people do it badly, but still, how is that any different than Toyota?