a while ago i tried to join this really nerdy, but super-cool LiveJournal group. (here is a hilarious quote from their profile: “There’s a thin line between being a theory head and giving theory head; we prefer that line not be crossed.”) i didn’t actually fail their application process; i withdrew. a friend of mine also decided to apply when i told him about it; his application did not go well at all. he clashed with the site’s moderators; they asked me about him. it really sucked for everyone. i really wanted to join and, although i don’t think it’s his fault that my application went badly, i may be ready to try to join again.
the application process is as follows: you choose 10 works of theory and “prepare to be deconstructed” by their community. however, as i am a re-applicant, i must choose 50% new material for my list.
here was my original list, in no particular order:
1.eros the bittersweet, anne carson
this is one of my favourite books by one of my favourite authors. it is, among other things, a sustained reading of sappho (whom carson also translated as if not, winter). the book’s main focus is on desire and how it is represented in greek poetry and beyond. a must read.
2.sacrifice your love, l.o. aranye fradenburg
a very good book that looks at chaucer from the seemingly antithetical perspectives of historicism and (lacanian) psychoanalysis. her reading of chaucer’s poem, troilus and criseyde, pretty much blew my mind.
3.resistance and the empty archive, julian patrick (from lost in the archives)
this is a short article. it is a very good reading of melville’s bartleby (another favourite). he uses some deconstructionist ideas and a hell-of-a-lotta psychoanalysis to show that the “resistanceless” bartleby is, ultimately, resistance par excellence.
4.fashionable nonsense, alan sokal and jean bricmont
i read this book out of curiosity. it totally changed my theoretical perspective and opened up my eyes to the abuses of certain french postmodern thinkers. although i have not given up on postmodernism, this book helped me to understand that science should not be used to bolster a theory. i especially liked their “deconstruction” of deleuze, whom i have never liked anyhow.
5.lacan to the letter, bruce fink
if you have trouble reading lacan, and, let’s face it, who doesn’t?, then this book is for you. although some of fink’s readings of lacan are suspect at best, he does offer some guidance in reading the more difficult of lacan’s texts, in particular “the lacanian phallus and the square root of negative one” and explanations of lacan’s “graphs” of desire. there is also a very sharp critique of bricmont and sokal’s fashionable nonsense.
6.discipline and punish, michel foucault
admittedly, it is not his best work. my interest in the body and its role in theory is what drew me to this book. disciplinary practices and the discourse around them do more than just punish bodies – they refine the laws meant to deter crime, and they refine criminal activities to better evade the law.
7.forget foucault, jean baudrillard
this book helps us to understand the importance of foucault, despite the title. baudrillard argues that foucault’s discourse is everywhere operative and therefore ineffective as a method of critique. this is somewhat like the analysand who has read too much psychoanalysis and resists analysis with the discourse of the analyst.
8.the body in pain, elaine scarry
this is one of the most important books one can read. scarry not only reads “pain discourse” in an engaging way, she re-reads judeo-christianity and marxism in light of “the production of artifice.” one idea i really liked was the idea of “god” as the prime artifact. it is known that “god,” outside of a dogmatic religious understanding, is a creation of humanity. yet, in all religious discourse, humanity has always attributed its own creation to “god.” this creating of the creator is the primal act of creation, which allows us to “remake” ourselves through the creation of artifact(s).
9.purity of heart, soren kierkegaard
what can i say? this book will help you in anything you attempt to do. it allowed me to quit smoking (twice). kierkegaard’s writing, in addition to being some of the most beautiful writing one can read, is edifying. even outside of the deeply religious context in which it is situated, kierkegaard speaks of a much wider “state of being” – that of being “pure at heart.” although dogmatic or fundamentalist religious types will probably dislike kierkegaard, the average reader cannot help but be struck by his seriousness combined with a certain lightness, which makes his discourse less like preaching and more like conversation with an old friend.
10.on certainty, ludwig wittgenstein
the person who recommended this book to me called it “epistemological soul food,” and i think she is right. wittgenstein is here trying to find out how we can be certain of anything: whether the earth existed 100 years ago, what his address is, whether or not grounds for doubt can lead to grounds for certainty, etc. the point is that even when we are dealing with facts, we may still have reason to doubt. and even when we cannot doubt, this does not mean that we are certain. there is difference between certainty and truth, and this book tries to explain that difference.
i’m thinking of changing my list, as they are allowing some works that might not necessarily be considered “theory” now. here is a draft of a possible list, in no particular order:
1.resistance and the empty archive, julian patrick (from lost in the archives)
2.purity of heart, soren kierkegaard
i will retain these two.
3.wittgenstein, derek jarman
i decided to replace an actual wittgenstein with this film about him. the film is very strange, probably about as strange as ludwig himself was. however, it does go into some of his later thoughts on certainty, language, language games, and truth. it does not go very deeply into any of these subjects. there is “young ludwig” played by a very cute boy and “ludwig proper” played by a very convincing look-alike actor. the film is important as theory because it shows, partially, ludwig’s struggle with his own ideas and his struggles with cambridge and the society there. this film portrays ludwig in a very fictional light, but some of the details are real (one handed piano playing brother, for instance). what we don’t get from reading the tractatus, philosophical investigations, or on certainty is the sense of what ludwig had to go through to achieve these momentous tributes to pure thought. this film shows us what it might have been like.
4.selling out isn’t possible, kevin barnes
i love of montreal’s music. the essay by barnes is against all the “indie-fascists” who say it’s wrong for a musician (or any artist, for that matter) to make money. but it’s more than that, he talks about capitalism as “an interesting challenge,” which i think is a valid view of capitalism.
5.introduction to lost in the archives, rebecca comay
although it is very short – it is profound. she talks about the “trauma” of the archive: “trauma, not is some vague, trendy sense (a whiff of melancholy here, a blurry photo there). but trauma in a technical, freudian sense: trauma as the slippage or non-synchronicity of experience.” why is it that we remember the bad, but often face real difficulty when trying to speak or write about it? if this piece were longer …
6.in search of lost time, marcel proust
i mean, if you ask me something specific about it, i could defend it as theory all day long. memory, forgetting, aesthetics, ethics, cruelty, manipulation, friendship, love, jealousy, death, incest, insanity … – it’s all there in proust.
7.literature and evil (on blake, bronte, kafka, proust), georges batailles
these essays are incredible. if only there were included his “lost essay” on lautréamont! it is funny that (some of) his favourite writers are english, which is surprising for a frenchman. (although i have read that proust’s favourite writer was ruskin, so, go figure.)
8.the marriage of heaven and hell, william blake
it is not known whether or not hegel read blake. however, if you read blake you can almost bypass hegel … (just don’t tell anyone i told you that.)
9.cool memories, jean baudrillard
“theory is never so fine as when it takes the form of a fiction or a fable.” baudrillard said this in one of the cool memories. i love these collections of fragments for many different reasons. i flip through them often to gain some inspiration – they never fail me. my favourites are CM iv and CM v, but they are all pretty good.
10.uncommon visage, joseph brodsky
even though i don’t really dig brodsky’s poetry, this “speech” is absolutely incredible. he says that “aesthetic reality precedes ethical reality.” the emphasis on ethics today is the exact opposite of what brodsky was getting at. if one has no sense of aesthetic judgment, how can one possibly be ethically responsible? having “aesthetic sense” is about reading literature, not simply being literate. even though this gets us into the dangerous terrain of “what constitutes literature,” i think it rings true. first we need to establish the preeminence of creating aesthetic consciousness, and then deciding what is literature and what is not.
hopefully, the next time i apply i can become an “established theoretical hottie.” the essay by kevin barnes is sketchy, as is the entirety of MP’s SLT. however, the barnes’ essay is more theoretical that at first may appear; musicians are perhaps the most often criticized for “selling” their art. i don’t necessarily agree with barnes on the subject, but i do like his defence of his own integrity. yes, he sold his song to outback steakhouse but this did not prevent him from continuing to make the kind of music he wanted to make, the kind of music i still really enjoy listening to. hopefully, i will be able to convince their community that MP established the run-on-sentence as something, if not acceptable generally, then at least having the potential to be pleasing aesthetically.
here are my alternates, in case they decide against one or more of the works i’ve chosen:
object-choice, klaus theweleit
theweleit wrote male fantasies, but i like this little book more. it is humourous, it engages with the music of the era of “free love,” and it shows how people choose their partners. it is a very recent phenomena, he argues. it is lightly psychoanalytic. its other title is “fragment of a freud biography.” it looks at freud’s relationship; hitchcock’s; and heidegger’s. as always, fascism lurks beneath what theweleit is writing but is not as present as in his other works.
straw dogs, john gray
see my review of this book.
the pervert’s guide to cinema, slavoj zizek
this is a movie that is at once informative and entertaining. it is almost like looking awry and everything you wanted to know about lacan but were afraid to ask alfred hitchcock combined into one. films discussed include psycho, blue velvet, mulholland drive, and many others i can’t remember right now.
mother’s of heroes, mother’s of martyrs, suzanne evans
i recently read this book. it is amazing, the canadian-female version of theweleit’s german-male reading of fascism (male fantasies). it looks at the media of canada in the war era (mostly cartoons, newspapers, some sculpture and painting). the only thing wrong with this book is its lack of deep ideological critique. otherwise, it outlines how women are used to recruit men into killing one another, how politicians can manipulate women (with the promise of “enfranchisement”), and how women themselves, despite the strength of “maternal love,” can sacrifice their own children.
the speech and manners of american women, henry james
this is along the same lines as brodsky’s, uncommon visage applied to women in america. james wrote this after returning to america after a lengthy sojourn in europe. he notes how “crude and vulgar” are the speech and manners of his fellow countrywomen (and men, for that matter). he speculates why this is and what may be done about it.
all of the works listed have either had a profound effect on my thinking, or they are works that i simply love and could not imagine living without. a rare few are both.