Tuesday, January 18, 2011


In Viktor Shklovsky's view, art resists and overturns the deadening effects of habituation. As our "perception becomes habitual," he argues, "all of our habits retreat into the area of the unconsciously automatic" and as a result "we apprehend objects only as shapes with imprecise extensions [. . .]. We see the object as though it were enveloped in a sack" (15). Art promises to recover the sense of immediacy and wonder that habit slowly erodes: "The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known" (16).

Habit, Shklovskky suggests, threatens everything: it "devours work, clothes, furniture, one's wife, and the fear of war" (16). This deadening effect is clearly political: if we do not see work as it truly is, for instance, and do not resist the exploitation that it entails, it is because we accept it as simply a matter of routine. Equally, if we become immune to the fear of war then political leaders can indulge their aggressive impulses. Everything becomes indifferent; apathy reigns.

Art as a technique of defamiliarization, then, renews our capacity for perception and allows us to feel once again the true vitality of things in all their strangeness and apparent incomprehensibility. It jolts us out of our habitual ruts and "prick[s] the conscience" (16).

Yet however much the effect of art's denaturing of perception (perhaps better, its capacity to return our perception to its apparently natural, untutored and pre-habitual state) is ultimately shocking, it's worth noting that Shklovsky is not proposing some kind of "aesthetics of shock." There is nothing particularly sudden about the realization that art provides; we have to work at it. Dehabituation is a slow process.

For the "technique of art is [. . .] to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception" (16). Shklovsky imagines patient readers (and viewers or audiences) who are prepared to mire themselves in apparent incomprehensibility in order gradually to improve (again, or to recover) their capacities of perception.

There is then some distance between what Shklovsky advocates and at least some of the techniques associated with the avant-garde: Buñuel's razor in Un chien andalou, say, whose effect is immediate and visceral; or the scandal of a Duchamp ready-made such as the urinal presented as a "Fountain" to be set alongside the canon of European art. These provocations may rely on upending our expectations, but they do not quite have the pedagogical effect that Shklovsky seems to expect. Note for instance that his example, from Tolstoy, requires almost a page of quotation; and he tells us that to show how defamiliarization works in War and Peace "it would be necessary to extract a considerable part of the four-volume novel" (18).

So I wonder if it might not be better to think of defamiliarization, at least in Shklovsky's version, as a rehabituation? We need new habits of perception, or of working through "difficult, roughened, impeded language" so that "the greatest possible effect is produced through the slowness of the perception" (19). Does this not require us to learn how to read (again), with new forms of attention that themselves have to become habitual, if not necessarily routine.

But of course the risk is that these new habits do become routine. To transpose slightly what Shklovsky is saying: if theory is difficult precisely so as to open up the text and our perception both of art and of things in themselves (or our sensation of them), then theory restores vitality to literature. But the danger is when these acquired habits themselves become routinized. In which case, perhaps, we need a new, meta-theoretical account of theory itself.

Monday, January 10, 2011


Gabriela Mistral was the first Latin American to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1945. To date, she is still the only Latin American woman to receive the prize. The prize citation states that her award recognizes "her lyric poetry which, inspired by powerful emotions, has made her name a symbol of the idealistic aspirations of the entire Latin American world."

Introducing her before her banquet speech at the occasion of the prize-giving, the Swedish Academy's representative stresses the geographical distance she has travelled: "From a distant continent, where the summer sun now shines, you have ventured the long journey to Gösta Berling's land, when the darkness of winter broods at its deepest." The implication here is that this voyage is some sort of novelty, that Mistral has been plucked from her naturally sunny climes to receive her award in frosty Northern Europe. In reality, however, the poet's biography is marked by constant mobility: first in Chile itself, where she worked in secondary schools from Antofagasta in the north to Punta Arenas in the far south; and then, after leaving Chile in 1922, as she moved between consular posts and teaching positions in Mexico, France, Spain, Portugal, Guatemala, Brazil, Puerto Rico, and finally the continental USA where she was to die in 1957. In short, the long trip to Sweden was hardly Mistral's only transatlantic or transhemispheric trip.

The Nobel prize committee's point, however, is no doubt more metaphorical than literal: it may feel that "the darkness of winter broods at its deepest" in that Europe had only recently emerged from the Second World War. As the first post-war recipient of the Literature prize, Mistral's task is to bring some Latin American optimism and "idealistic aspirations" to a climate in which, as German theorist Theodor Adorno suggested, it felt barbaric to write poetry in the wake of Auschwitz.

In response, Mistral says very little about herself and nothing about her (or indeed anybody else's) literary work. She presents herself as the representative of Chilean democracy and Latin American culture, both of which tells us are indebted to European social democracy. In a speech whose hallmark is modesty and self-abnegation, she thanks "the cosmopolitan spirit of Alfred Nobel" for including Latin America within its remit and "the Swedish democratic tradition" for showing an openness to renovation while adhering to "the core of the old virtues, the acceptance of the present and the anticipation of the future." If her prize signals the New World's "idealistic aspirations," Mistral is far from playing the part of enfant terrible or radical innovator. A stress rather on "tradition" and "heritage," both her own and that of the hosts, is the keynote of her modest acceptance as part of the pantheon of global culture.

Saturday, January 08, 2011


Jason read has written a very interesting commentary on Benjamin Noys's book The Persistence of the Negative. It makes me all the more eager to read it--if only it weren't so damn expensive--even though (or perhaps especially because) my tendency, like Read's, is towards what we might call the philosophy of affirmation.

But in Read's words, Noys "is not interested in positing an ontology of negativity against the ontologies of affirmation. Negativity is a practice, not a principle, a destruction of existing positivities." And here I sense I agree with Noys. I'm likewise far from convinced by (say) Negri's unremitting championing of the multitude. As I point out in Posthegemony, we still need to be able to distinguish between good multitudes and bad, and to be able to discern when the multitude turns bad.

Or to put this another way: a philosophy of affirmation does not for all that have to be unrelentingly affirmative. Not everything is to be affirmed.

I agree also that the problem with Latour (and, I would add, Delanda) is that they present something of a mirror image of Negrian affirmation, in which it is rather contemporary capitalist relations (instead of the coming Communist utopia) which is relentlessly affirmed. Where Negri claims that "What ought to be, is," Latour and Delanda simply affirm that "What is, is what ought to be." Either way, critique is discarded.

And I am happy to agree in principle with the notion of negativity as "an insistence on localizing thought and practices, resisting both an ontology of affirmation and an ontology of finitude." Again, in large part, this is what I aim to show with the Latin American case studies in Posthegemony.

Friday, January 07, 2011


Guy de Maupassant's "The Little Cask" ("Le Petit Fût") is a short, cautionary narrative of unequal exchange at the border between two economic systems.

In brief, an innkeeper has his eye on his neighbor's farm. But the owner, an old woman who has spent her entire life there, stubbornly refuses to sell: "I was born here, and here I mean to die," as she puts it. But the two eventually come to an agreement, that the innkeeper will pay the old woman an annuity of fifty crowns a month (which she, on the advice of a lawyer, has bargained up from a mere thirty) and he will inherit the property on her death. With the transaction agreed, life continues as before, and the innkeeper notes despairingly that as the years pass the old woman remains as hale and hearty as ever. He then invites her over to dinner and discovers her weak spot: a preference for fine brandy. So in an outpouring of generosity he arranges for her to receive a constant supply of the fine liquor. Soon enough, she begins to decline, people start talking, and she dies a reviled drunk. When her neighbor comes by to take possession of her farm, in accordance with their agreement, he intones the tale's sad moral: " It was very stupid of her; if she had not taken to drink she might very well have lived for ten years longer."

The joke is the disconnect between the moral and the tale itself, even if the conclusion that the innkeeper draws is literally true. For what is stupid is the old woman's trust in her neighbor's generosity, not realizing the economic motives that underlie it.

But in some ways the joke is also on the innkeeper, though he doesn't notice it and indeed presumably wouldn't even mind. For if, as I say, the crux here is the clash between a relationship to land and property based on habit and affect on the one hand, and the introduction of rational calculation of profit, loss, and risk on the other, we see how the dispassionate logic of capital in fact has to be supplemented by an appeal to the senses. The innkeeper's despair arises from the apparent failure of his actuarial calculations: he is forced to intervene by calling on the rather more traditional gestures of hospitality, neighborliness, conviviality, and the gift economy. It just so happens that his gift is (almost literally) a poisoned chalice.

So the hypocrisy of the final judgment rebounds on the innkeeper (again, however little he might ultimately care about the fact). It is as though everything could indeed be explained by the old woman's unwise choices, her failure to make a rational account of her situation and to act prudently to ensure her continued health and so continued enjoyment of the property and annuity alike. But in fact the story tells us that in origin it is the innkeeper's risk assessment that fails, and that his reputation as a "very knowing customer" or "smart business man" depends on his acceptance of other modes of dealing that are not, in the end, entirely businesslike.

Thus ideology: everything can happen as though the tale's moral were correct, because of course it can't be denied. (The old woman may indeed have lived much longer had she not taken to drink!) One is reminded of the many justifications for the recent bank bail-outs, each of which is on its own terms incontrovertible. But this occludes the continued effectivity of another economy, which apparently rational accounts of profit, risk, and loss can never fully escape.