Saturday, March 19, 2011


The Saturday photo, part XV: In Southern California, a younger reader comes to grips with the intricacies of posthegemony:

(Many thanks to Erin Graff Zivin for the image, which she swears is totally unposed.)

Thursday, March 10, 2011


I love Aki Kaurismaki, and here's the trailer for The Man without a Past:

Best line: An electrician helps M to "borrow" power from the closest pylon and connect it to his container. When M enquires about his fees, the guy answers "Turn me over if you find me face down in a ditch one day."

Wednesday, March 09, 2011


In Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things George Lakoff argues: first, that emotions are concepts, that they do a form of cognitive work and constitute “an extremely complex conceptual structure” (380); and, second, that these “emotional concepts are embodied, that is, that the actual content of the concepts are correlated with bodily experience” (408).

To prove his argument, he presents dozens of idiomatic sayings or expressions, taking the particular case of anger. Anger, he shows, is conventionally associated with heat (“hot under the collar,” “hot and bothered”), pressure (“burst a blood vessel”), and agitation (“hopping mad,” “quivering with rage”). Such idioms correlate, Lakoff suggests, with a “folk theory” that imagines anger in terms of a contained liquied, an imaginary that enables a whole series of “metaphorical entailments” (384). So anger produces steam (“all steamed up”), can at least temporarily be held back (“bottled up”), but, if it does not find relief (either “vented” or “channeled”) is liable to lead to explosion (“flipping her lid,” “blowing his top”).

Lakoff goes further: he presents a sort of basic narrative of anger in terms of this metaphorical structure. An offending event excites anger, which the victim of the event fist tries to control but then fails, until he or she can enact some retribution for the purported wrong-doing (397-98). This is the embodied folk theory of anger.

Where Lakoff goes out on a limb, however, is with his claim that “the conceptual metaphors and metonymies used in anger are by no means arbitrary; instead they are motivated by our physiology” (407). If we think through the body, it is because somehow the body knows best; the verbal idioms and linguistic categories through which we understand emotion in common parlance are rooted in a primary corporeal experience that is transcultural and transhistorical: “if we look at metaphors and metonymies for anger in the languages of the world, we will not find any that contradict the physiological results” (407).

It is therefore all the more startling that Lakoff moves immediately to a discussion, in very similar terms, of idioms of lust and ultimately the language used to justify rape. Though he is careful to note that he himself in no way condones violence against women, he seems very close to naturalizing and so legitimating the fundamentally sexist “folk argumentation” that claims that (in his words) “a woman with a sexy appearance makes a man who is acting morally less than human. [. . .] To be made less than human is to be injured. [. . .] The only way to make up for being injured is to inflict and injury of the same kind” (414).

If language is only an expression of a somehow more fundamental set of embodied concepts, then those concepts are put beyond reach and thoroughly naturalized. It is surely better to see the body as an always contested (or contestable) point of contact between conceptual schemes of diverse origin, between affect and emotion, and between a social order and a corporeal experience that is never anything other than social. The body, in short, is the site of a habituation whereby (in Pierre Bourdieu’s terms) an arbitrary symbolic power is made, quite literally, to feel timeless and necessary.

Bourdieu tries to capture this notion with the concept of “bodily hexis, which he defines as “a political mythology realized, em-bodied, turned into a permanent disposition, a durable manner of standing, speaking, and thereby of feeling and thinking” (Outline of a Theory of Practice, 92-94). Or, as he puts it elsewhere, in an only very slightly different context:
The practical acts of knowledge and recognition of the magical frontier between the dominant and the dominated that are triggered by the magic of symbolic power and through which the dominated, often unwittingly, sometimes unwillingly contribute to their own domination by tacitly accepting the limits imposed, often take the form of bodily emotions--shame, humiliation, timidity, anxiety, guild--or passions and sentiments--love, admiration, respect. (Masculine Domination 38)
The very fact that we seem to be betrayed by our own bodies, by a logic that precedes or undercuts rationality, can seem to legitimate the structures of power that the body thereby apparently confirms. But it is what Slavoj Zizek, in turn, would call the ideological structure of social reality (which is far from ideology as it is usually conceived) that has itself to be interrogated and overthrown.

Monday, March 07, 2011


In Posthegemony I point out that “For all his fame as a novelist of magical realism, and so purportedly of surprise, creativity, and delight, Gabriel García Márquez is as much a writer of habit, tedium, and repetition” (178). This is nowhere more true than in the Colombian writer’s early novella, La hojarasca.

Of course, it is not as though García Márquez were only a writer of “habit, tedium, and repetition.” The very concept of the “hojarasca” or leaf storm that gives this book its title suggests the tumultuous forces of modernization and industrialization that tear through even a town as remote as Macondo (introduced here for the first time) in Colombia’s otherwise sleep Caribbean litoral:
Suddenly, as if a whirlwind had set down roots in the center of the town, the banana company arrived, pursued by the leaf storm. A whirling leaf storm had been stirred up, formed out of the human and material dregs of other towns, the chaff of a civil war that seemed ever more remote and unlikely.
Even here, though, in the story’s opening lines, there are some strange tensions. What does it mean for a whirlwind to “set down roots”? Even the exceptional becomes, somehow, rooted in the everyday--and isn’t this after all the classic formulation of magical realism? Or at least the whirlwind becomes routine until, just as suddenly as it arrived, it leaves.

For the events recounted in La hojarasca take place long after the leaf storm has up and left. And these events are minimal indeed: we are in a boarded-up house where an old man (a doctor who has long since abandoned his practice) has died, has committed suicide by hanging; another old man (a similarly long-retired colonel), with his daughter and her son, has come to the scene to prepare for the ensuing funeral. The dead man’s body is placed in a coffin; there is a minor disagreement with the mayor as to whether the burial can go ahead as planned; finally, it is agreed that it can, and the house door is forced open so the coffin can be carried out to the street. The whole action takes place over the course of exactly half an hour, between two and three o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon.

These small, ritual actions and the long pauses between them (the wait for the mayor to return in the suffocating heat) provoke a series of reflections and recollections on the part of the three members of the funeral party, and it is of these that the narrative consists: the old man and his daughter think back to their history with the dead man; the grandson observes them as they remember and considers what he might be doing otherwise, if it weren’t for this brief interruption to his routine. But even the history that the older two recount takes places almost entirely after the leaf storm has already departed, concerns long periods in which literally nothing happens, and focusses mainly on a couple of brief, dramatic interludes in which, again, stubbornly and unyieldingly, nothing happens.

Indeed, perhaps García Márquez’s genius resides, both here and elsewhere, in his masterly evocation of the intense drama he shows us can be found in anticlimax, in disappointment. In the end, everything takes place as it always would have taken place. García Márquez’s theme is this inexorability of a fate that at almost every point looked as though it could have been avoided, but never is.