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Monthly Archives: June 2008

I have just been browsing through a book I picked up a few weeks ago at a local used book store. I am not actually supposed to be buying more books until I find the shelf space to put them, and this particular book does fill rather a lot of shelf space, but I had nothing else to do downtown while my wife was shopping, and it looked like such an interesting book, so I bought it anyway. The book is Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project.

Let me be clear. I am most certainly not recommending that you go out and buy this book, not unless you are the sort of person who likes spending too much money on books that you will probably never read but that you keep around because they are interesting in a useless sort of way. The Arcades Project is not a book that you will likely read. I have no intention of reading it through myself. There are two versions of an essay that Benjamin based on the project, and these do make interesting reading, but The Arcades Project itself is less a coherent text than it is an experiment in research method. It has more in common with something like Roland Barthe’s S/Z, despite being entirely dissimilar in structure, than it does with a standard work of theory. It is the method behind a certain approach to theory, and this is what makes it both so interesting and so unreadable.

Structurally, The Arcades Project is essentially a huge notebook, or, perhaps more accurately, a huge series of files on various subjects, mostly related in some way or another to the development of a certain culture that Benjamin associates with the rise of the arcade as an architectural form in 19th Century europe. Each of these loosely organized files contains quotations from a range of authors, many of whom are very obscure, along with Benjamin’s own commentary, which ranges from brief notes, to longer reflections, to the beginnings of more polished works. The sum of these collections and reflections is massive, running to something like 850 large pages in my edition: a truly staggering piece of scholarship.

The effect of the volume, even on a mere browser like myself, is to portray the subject of research, even something as seemingly insignificant as the arcade, as inexhaustible. No matter how minute and rigorous, it seems to say, research will never attain mastery over its subject. Its proper mode is not to be definitive, but to wallow in the infinity of its task, to revel in its minutia. Its proper product is not the authoritative text but the collage or the notebook. There is something both beautiful and impossible about this.  Perhaps this is why I cannot stop browsing the book but I cannot start reading it either.

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I encountered a friend yesterday afternoon, a woman who would certainly prefer to remain anonymous here and probably everywhere else as well. She is a passionate gardener but has very little space to garden at her apartment, so she has for many years gardened small plots of dirt alongside city roadways and parks, wherever she feels that a few flowers would do most good. She is a practitioner of what I call guerrilla gardening.

During our conversation yesterday, I happened to mention that I had finished ripping out plant matter from my new garden and that I was looking forward to doing some planting, beginning with some trees and shrubs this fall. She asked me why I was not now planting any of the edibles that I would eventually like to grow in the garden. I responded to the effect that I would like to do things in order, to have the large plants and landscaping done before I begin introducing the perrenials and finally the annuals. She brushed off this explanation, informed me firmly that it is possible to do both things at once, and insisted that I take from her a selection of vegetable seedlings, arriving at my door a few hours later with seedlings for several varieties of tomatoes, brussel sprouts, chives, and some ornamentals.

The gift was not inconsiderable. This woman has little enough in the world to give, and she gave out of the plants that she had so patiently gathered and seeded for her own gardening. She gave out of the things that she loves most. I was moved, and the plants that she has given me seem a little different than those that I would purchase myself. To plant and tend these gifts becomes a response to them as gifts. They become more than plants because they represent something given and received between friends. The gift of friendship has transformed them, as it transforms everything.

I want to begin replying to TC’s comments on Social Holocaust by expressing how significant these kinds of responses are to me, whether they are received through this present medium, or through conversation, or through my classes. In each case I feel myself honoured beyond what I deserve, indebted in ways that I do not know how to repay. The responses of others continually recall me to humility, and I am always grateful for them.

TC suggests that eliminating the encounter with the other is also an elimination of the self, and that the decision to refuse the encounter with the other is perhaps the result of a decision, even if only a subconscious one, to refuse the self. Now, I think that TC is speaking psychologically here, and I am not at all qualified to respond in those terms, but I would agree that in ethical and philosophical terms this is precisely the case. The refusal of the other is always a refusal of the other in me. The more radically I refuse to encounter the other, the more completely I refuse to encounter myself. The refusal to encounter the other, therefore, is often an expression of my unwillingness to encounter myself.

I am aware that I have introduced some terminological confusion here, and in previous posts also, when I refer to encountering the self as other, and I think an explanation of my terminology in this respect might be useful to clarifying exactly why I think TC’s observation is both accurate and significant. In making reference to the self as other, I am following Emmanuel Levinas in his idea of “the third”, though I am using different terminology. Levinas argues that a pure ethics is never possible because, among other reasons, it requires my self and the other to be the only ones concerned. The introduction of a third person makes ethics impossible, because there are now two others, and my responsibility to each of them is infinite. Any fulfillment of my responsibility to the one will necessarily come at the expense of my responsibility to the other. The third, therefore, is a recognition of the practical limits of an ideal ethics.

Levinas goes on to argue that it is never possible to find a pure ethics by escaping the third, because if I were alone with the other I would not have escaped myself. The self who appears to me as myself always plays the role of the third for me, always introduces impossibility into the ethical responsibility that I bear to the other.  In this sense, I bear for myself an ethical responsibility also, just as much as I bear responsibility for the other, and even as a condition for the responsibility I bear for the other. I can love the other only as I love myself. I can bear responsibility for the other only as I bear responsibility for myself. This is to say that I necessarily love and bear responsibility for the other and for myself as an impossibility, because I must love and bear responsibility infinitely and must do so more than once.

Returning to TC’s comments, the implication for me here is that the rejection of the other cannot be separated from a rejection from the self, even on the most fundamental philosophical level. The desire or the need to refuse the self, whether or not it is subconscious, will always be also a desire and a need to refuse the other. Because I fear to encounter myself, I refuse to encounter the other. The logic of holocaust, then, proceeds from myself, from a fear of myself as other, and from a fear of encountering my self as other. I eliminate the other because I must eliminate my self as other.

Jean-Luc Marion, in an essay entitled “Evil in Person” (see Prolegomena to Charity), traces a similar logic in his description of evil. He argues that the logical end of all evil is suicide. Though suicide is not necessarily the worst of all evils, it is the end where all evil logically terminates, and for some of the reasons that I have been discussing. All evil, he argues, is evil because it separates us from the other, because it places the logic of revenge between us. This logic appears to affirm the self, insofar as it eliminates what is not the self, but in fact it is also a negation of the self, since it also eliminates the other in the self, to the point where self is nothing. The evil that I perpetrate on others, even and especially when this evil is revenge for the evil done to me, is thus always also an evil that I perpetrate on myself, and its result is always separation and isolation. The final end of this logic, of course, is suicide, the ultimate act of separation and isolation, the act in which is shown most essentially that the separation of the self from others is always accompanied and perhaps motivated by a desire to separate the self from the self.

It is for this reason, Marion argues, that “Hell is the moment when the soul finds itself alone.” Discovering itself apart from everything, even its self, the soul discovers itself absolutely alone, definitively imprisoned in its isolation, solely responsible for its isolation. The movement that I have been describing, therefore, and that TC has refined for me, the movement of holocaust, always ends up including the self in its destruction and perhaps even secretly originates in the desire for this self destruction. Social holocaust, in this sense, becomes the outworking of social suicide, the ultimate and essential act of separation.

The Atomic Cafe, directed by Kevin Rafferty, Jayne Loader, and Pierce Rafferty, is the film I screened at tonight’s Dinner and a Doc. It is a remarkable film, a kind of collage that satirizes the whole of an era’s relationship to the atom using only the era’s own documents. There are no contemporary interviews, no editorial voiceovers, no expert analyses, only footage from the early atomic age, edited together in ironic and often humorous ways. This approach represents the source material in such a way that it can only satirize itself, and it forces the viewer to see the ironies in the official propaganda, the media hype, the well-intentioned education, and the opportunistic money-making that surrounded the cultural effect of the atomic bomb. The film makes unavoidable the gap between reality and what the average citizen is usually told.

I realized tonight, however, that this kind of satire only becomes effective when it is too late to be really useful. The culture in the United States during the fifties would not have interpreted much of The Atomic Cafe ironically. For many people at the time, the culture of the atomic bomb was still too present and too real, and the voices that were constructing this culture for them still held too much authority. In fact, to the degree that the editing made the irony unavoidable, many people of that era might have found the film untruthful and irresponsible. In order for people to see and accept the irony of the film, they needed to be separated by time and culture from what was being satirized.

This is an important idea for me, because it helps explain why irony and satire are not more dominant modes in Western culture today. The problem is certainly not that there are no opportunities for them, as the success of satirical news shows like The Daily Show and the Colbert Report can attest. The problem is that the broader portion of people in our culture are still too enmeshed in their own culture, still too subject to it. They do not often see the ironies of their own political, economic, and social existence, and they do not often choose to accept these ironies when they are forced upon them. It will likely take the next generation, looking back through the lenses of our own media, to point out the absurdities in our ideas of terrorism, or national security, or ecology. Of course, by that time, it will already be much too late.

I love G. K. Chesterton, though he is not much in literary favour any more. I love how his novels feel as though they were written for a lark in fifteen minutes on the back of a restaurant napkin. I love their utter disdain for things like narrative pace and plot unity. Most of all, I love the sincerity of their absurdity.

I have just finished reading Chesterton’s The Flying Inn, a fantastical hypothesis set in a future where a kind of adulterated Islam has conquered most of the world and made alcohol illegal throughout England. The book can only be read as racist today, though this would not have occurred either to Chesterton or many of his contemporaries, but it would be unfair to the story’s other qualities if I was too dwell on this fact too much. Islam was for Chesterton merely a convenient binary for English Christian culture, which he also represents unfavourably, a binary of the sort that he loved to push to illogical and satirical extremes. In this sense, Islam is more a literary figure for Chesterton than it is a religious and political fact.

I do not have the space to discuss the text in detail, because I would like to attend to one detail in particular and to the tangent where it has led me, so I will say only that, like every Chesterton novel, there is much to love and much to hate in it. It bears certain similarities, in the central protagonist especially but also elsewhere, to his first novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, but there is a greater seriousness to its fantasy, though not perhaps the kind of theological implications of The Man Who Was Thursday. I do recommend it, of course, along with everything else Chesterton has written and a good biography of his life.

I recommend Chesterton so heartily, not only because I enjoy him so much, which I do, but because his surreal approach to narrative has had such a tremendous, and also largely unrecognized, influence on certain strains of subsequent literature. The most obvious of these strains is that of popular fantasy, where he has been a favourite of writers from C. S. Lewis to Neil Gaiman, even making several appearances as a character in Gaimon’s Sandman series. Less obvious and less recognized is the influence that he has had on the development of magic realism in the novel, mostly because this influence is indirect through the work of Jorge Louis Borges, whose short stories and fables (see Ficciones) were a central inspiration in the kind of writing that is practised by authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie. Borges mentions Chesterton’s influence explicitly several times in Other Inquisitions, a collection of essays and other oddities, and I think there may be an essay or two to be written on the subject.

In any case, it was an entirely different tangent that I found myself following after reading The Flying Inn. Late in the story, Humphrey and Dalroy, the protagonists, are partaking of a giant cheese that they have taken from one of the last pubs in England, dragged all over the countryside, and shared with those they happened to meet. Wimpole, the latest friend to partake of the cheese, declares that it tastes holy, which Dalroy explains by noting that it has been on pilgrimage. He then goes on to conjecture on what sort of cow would produce a cheese that tastes so holy, saying, “I think this cheese must have come from that Dun Cow of Dunsmore Heath, who had horns bigger than elephant tusks, and who was so ferocious that one of the greatest of the old heroes of chivalry was required to do battle with it.”

Now, this quotation may seem a little obscure to warrant sustained attention, except that one of my favourite books is The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin, and I have often wondered about the origin of the Dun Cow, though not seriously enough to go looking for an answer. This reference to a Dun Cow, however, in a book that Wangerin might well be supposed to have read, intrigued me very much, so I decided that it was probably time that I did go looking to find what answers there might be. In the event, it is unlikely that the story Chesterton references was the inspiration for Wangerin’s title, for several reasons.

The Dun Cow of Dunsmore Heath is entirely unlike the Dun Cow of Wangerin’s story. The mythic beast was huge with massive horns, one of which, more likely an elephant tusk, still sits in Warwick Castle, the supposed home of the ancient hero of chivalry that Chesterton mentions, Sir Guy of Warwick. Besides being very large, the cow’s milk was also said to be inexhaustible, but when one woman was not satisfied with a single pail of milk, the cow became angered and began rampaging over the countryside until it was slain by Sir Guy. A contemporary translation of the most famous verse description of the myth, reads as follows: “On Dunmore heath I also slew / A monstrous wild and cruel beast, / Called the Dun Cow of Dunmore Heath, / Which many people had oppressed.” This beast is not very likely the source of the Dun Cow of Wangerin’s narrative, who is a gentle and holy figure.

Now that I had begun my search, however, I was not satisfied to discover what Wangerin’s Dun Cow was not. A cursory search was all that was required to inform me that Book of the Dun Cow is actually the translated title of a 12th century Irish manuscript, the oldest to contain narrative materials. Its name comes from the myth that it was made from the hide of a cow by St. Ciarán of Clonmacnois, one of the twelve apostles of Ireland. This source is much more consistent with the character of Wangerin’s Dun Cow and also with the archaisms that Wangerin uses throughout the text, though it still does not make any clearer who the Dun Cow might be supposed to allegorize. Perhaps she might be meant to represent St. Ciarán or one of the saints more generally, though this does really account for the role that she plays in the narrative.

The result of Chesterton’s reference, then, and the subsequent directions that it has sent me, is not exactly increased clarity, but it is at least increased knowledge and also increased avenues for exploration and speculation. I now have a link to the complete translated text of the Irish Book of the Dun Cow manuscript, which I intend to read next in this little textual chain.  Hopefully it will lead to others.

Several months ago, just before I began writing this pseudo-blog, I began experimenting with the wiki format on my courseware website. I wanted to see what writing through that medium would look like, with all of my writing, even abandoned drafts and nonsense pieces, in one place, linked loosely to one another, changing and adapting as I worked with them. It was my hypothesis that this kind of format would allow the different genres, styles, degrees of completion, and individual purposes of my writing to inform each other more fully, so that I might have a better sense of my own practise, my own strengths and weaknesses. I was also hopeful that the ability of the wiki to keep old versions would give me an understanding of my process.

The experiment seemed initially successful. I posted a small number of selections from as wide a variety of my writing as a could, choosing pieces that were short and could be incorporated quickly. I began to link between them in a tentative way, trying to get a sense of what sorts of links would be useful to me as the wiki grew. This initial success continued even once I began writing in the blog format, when I began dumping selected posts into the wiki as well. However, as soon as I began to try and write new material through the wiki, I began to encounter some difficulties.

The very functions that I thought would enable me to understand my writing better actively distracted me when I came to the actual task of writing. I felt overly conscious of the versions of what I was writing, because they too would be available for others to browse, would become part of the work, like a palimpsest, but many layers deep. I also found myself concerned by the kinds of connections that a piece should have to the other texts on the wiki, since it quickly became clear that these too would become part of its literary structure. By making these allusions formal, by forcibly directing them to the readers’ attention, I was privileging them in ways that made me uncertain. It was not that I felt that it was wrong to determine these elements, because writing is always precisely this kind of determination, but I was so unfamiliar with this kind of writing that I was unable to make these choices in an informed way. In short, I spent more time thinking about how the medium was forcing itself onto the writing than I did doing the actual writing.

While these more or less theoretical distractions were certainly interesting, and I do plan to return to some of them in greater detail, I was not getting any writing accomplished. I found that I was drifting back to my old practises just so that I could progress, and I stopped using the wiki at all except to remove spam edits and make an occasional blog update. In any sense related to my writing and thinking it became almost entirely useless. So, I have decided to let the wiki die. I will not delete it entirely, because a fair amount of time and and work went into its creation, and I have learned by too frequent experience that what seems like garbage in the present sometimes finds a purpose for itself in the future. I am, however, putting it into storage, as it were, and I have no immediate plans for it.

Even so, I am more convinced than ever that wiki tools are capable of producing some interesting intellectual and artistic effects in writing. Though I found the medium to be difficult in some ways, and though I do not have the time or the energy to persevere through this difficulty at the moment, there is an opportunity there to do something that is at least novel and perhaps even useful, if any one is so inclined.

I need to preface this post by saying that cheese is something of a religion in my family. My paternal grandfather was a dairy farmer. My father is a professor of food science specializing in dairy and in cheese making. I was weaned on yoghurt and buttermilk and cheese, most of it made by students, much of it made with questionable quality, some of it made to be intentionally odd, either coloured green or pink or flavoured with strange spices. When I was young, we made our own yoghurt. We hung around the university labs, stealing cheese curds and watching milk be pasteurized. We wandered through the rooms where the cheese was aged, all filled with the singular smell of mould and ripening cheese. Even today, we treat cheese like some people treat wine or scotch. Cheese is a passion.

So, this past weekend, when my family attended my step-brother’s wedding in Toronto, it should come as no surprise that we gathered early and long around the cheese platters, tasting what there was to taste. Most of it was good, if unspectacular, but there was one cheese that was in my opinion both good and spectacular. It was a gouda, but unlike most of the Dutch goudas I have eaten, which are firm with a nutty kind of taste, this gouda was textured much more like a crumbly old chedder, and its nuttiness had the intensity of an old chedder’s flavour as well. When I saw it on the plate, I assumed it was a gouda. After I had eaten it, I actually had to ask my father to confirm what it was, so different was it in both texture and flavour from what I was expecting.

Later, I located the label from one of the trays. It was indeed a gouda, and the only gouda that is made in Ontario, at Thunder Oak Cheese Farm near Thunder Bay. Apparently it is possible to go there, have a coffee, and watch them make the cheese on certain days of the week. I will certainly do so if I am ever that far North, but for the time being, I will have to content myself by ordering their gouda from afar.