David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

The Waste of Spirit in an Expense of Shame

I see Steve Mitchelmore of This Space has called this blog a pile of shit. (I let his Twitter trackback through.) A few years back it probably would have stung me rather sharply, but now it’s more of a scratch than a wound, though of course I feel it, since Steve’s a litblogger colleague with whom I share some tastes. But in this whole world of social lit-blogging and especially in this odd corner of the web that’s mostly reserved for disconsolate freelance intellectual types, I thought I ought to respond. I was going to write to Steve and do sort of an “I demand satisfaction” act, but I figured that no matter what he said, my response would be more or less the same, which is the response I’m writing right now.

I’m off his blogroll too, so evidently my infraction was a serious one. I don’t know its exact nature, but I can imagine what forms his objection might take: I’m focusing too much unimportant matters; I’m casually dismissing something profound; I’ve become shallow, pompous, or supercilious; etc. The thing about writing here is that no one who is blogging in this way is going to do so without a severe personal investment in what they’re writing about, and that’s true of me as much as anyone else. It’s why I do this. And it’s a double-edged sword. Deviations from carefully-monitored aesthetic standards can easily seem like moral failings. To some extent, we all define ourselves by our opposition to (or at least alienation from) traditional institutional modes of intellectual thought, because if we didn’t, we’d probably be trying to work within those institutions. Lord knows, I am relieved that I don’t have to watch what I say in the way that too many of my friends do. I’m grateful that I can jump from topic to topic. I’m happy that I can write without always having to explain myself.

What happened to me? Literature has come to seem like something that I can’t write about off the cuff as much. Doing pieces like the Krasznahorkai essay over at the Quarterly Conversation has been both exhausting but also rewarding, and there are just too many books that I don’t think merit much comment. That is, writing entries about them would be more about just writing entries rather than contributing anything that I think is worth sharing with the world. Well, the fast horizon and disposability of blog entries makes that hardly a crime, but people like Ray at Pseudopodium (who more or less inspired me to start this blog in the first place) taught me that even if you’re throwing a piece of writing into an enormous swirling vortex of content, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be carefully considered and well-wrought.

So I pissed Steve off, evidently. Sorry Steve. I didn’t intend to irritate you. I try to stick to deserving targets. Steve is overreacting, but hey, this little niche of the blogosphere is made for overreaction, since we take refuge in the realms of deep feelings provided by books as an antidote to what seems to be a careless, callous, superficial world. I still don’t understand the mass of people who go into literature as a career who don’t seem to want to pursue that depth of emotion. Perhaps they find it in different forms; perhaps they find it in less subjective matters; but no, it does seem like they treat it more as a workaday job which they enjoy, but which doesn’t hold out much hope for any transcendental meaning. Just a job, an occupation, a practice. I have respect for that, but it’s alien to me. I can’t imagine spending the exhausting effort of working in the humanities if it didn’t hold out that hope to me. The field has done exactly that, of course, since I was barely a teenager, and I haven’t exhausted the hope yet. But there are those people out there who do great work in the humanities who still aren’t interested in hearing about some new strange author or idea, and I never have much to say to them.

It’s easy to get stuck. You latch on to one person or another, be it Robert Musil or Laura Riding or Maurice Blanchot, and soon enough you get very protective about them and very defensive about any appropriation of them by the academy–or by anyone else, really. How my heart sank every time I ran across that neocon blogger who called himself Robert Musil; I know John Galt wasn’t available, but really?  I wrote about Bolano a few years before he hit it big with The Savage Detectives and afterwards I couldn’t quite hold him in my mind the same way I had when I’d first read By Night in Chile. He lost a bit of that quiet mystique when all the profiles came out about him and there was a mad dash to translate and publish as much of his work as possible, as well as other superficially similar South American writers. (I still don’t think much of Cesar Aira.) I’d love for Laszlo Krasznahorkai to get that sort of fame, but I admit I’d feel ambivalent about seeing my own private connection to his works get buried underneath publicity and hype. It happens.

When I wrote the entry on Hamlet a month ago, it was so striking how Shakespeare’s coyness about meaning and interpretation has given so much space for people to continually conjure new relations to him and his work. Sure, this happens to an extent with all big-name writers, but Shakespeare does seem to have been an intuitive master at leaving readers and audiences the space to invent their own profound, personal, and particular meanings of his work. I don’t know. I like the sense of relating to an author, and if the author is so indistinct that I feel there’s more of me in my projection of the author than there is of the actual author, I get restless. It becomes more of myth than literature.

James Joyce certainly tried, I think, to create the same open space for meaning, but he utterly failed. He conjured life with a pluralistic richness that allowed for vastly more variegation than most authors, but Joyce, his temperament, and his personality is always there. You read his letters and accounts of his conversation and it fits with what he wrote. With Euripides, Lucretius, Kleist, Woolf, and so on down the line, the writer is there as a tangible human presence as I read. Reading Shakespeare can be lonely; you have to find your connection with other readers, rather than with the writer.

Bach was more successful than Joyce, though of course it’s far easier in music to cover your tracks. But Gesualdo, Mozart, Brahms, Schubert…all of them left their emotional traces on what they did, while Bach only left a set of extremely prosaic letters and a reputation for being difficult. Whatever was in the music evidently did not manifest itself in his life. Richard Strauss was a money man and it shows in his music (and he knew it, hence him saying that he was a first-rate second-rate composer; dead on), but with Bach…you just don’t know what was in his head as he wrote. Thoughts of God, I suppose, but what the hell are those? I get something of the same impression when listening to Munir Bashir, though there I have a lack of cultural context that makes it harder to judge.


But when you’re doing a blog and you’re writing about this stuff informally, you don’t get to have that gap between what you’re writing and who you are, or at least you don’t get the pretense of it, even though it is in fact there. And so it’s that much easier to piss someone off or read like you’ve suddenly turned into some sell-out who’s full of it. Waggish is a pile of shit: I am a pile of shit. It’s an easy jump to make.

I’ve actually tried to maintain a bit of that gap through various means. I distrust the categorical statement. I distrust high rhetoric as well, though you’d be hard-pressed to believe that from reading this blog. But the only measure of the stakes is the extent to which people can be seriously affected by what you write, and so I accept that these things have to happen from time to time.


  1. I was kinda surprised to see such a response to your post. Mostly since I thought that you were not voicing your own opinion as much as your were making a statement about how you thought the appropriation/assimilation movement in anglosaxon philosophy would fall out (perhaps you also thought that this is how it should fall out?).

    Rosen’s story about Jewish poker is something that is liable to get people’s blood boiling, and this is because it is a very familiar story, in a familiar controversy and it gives all those familiar and hated accusations. And so we get the usual kind of responses, for example a blog post entitled “A modest proposal to declare Brian Leiter and Michael Rosen philosopher Kings” (google it).

    But both of these stories (Rosen’s story and the replies to it) are very confusing. It seems that Rosen wants us to believe that many well-read and intelligent people have been duped by some obvious charlatan, but isn’t that rather surprising? If Derrida or Levinas or whomever are so obviously wrong, why do not people see it? To say that it is because some lack of character on their part just isn’t a satisfying answer, but it is the only answer Leiter and Rosen give. The counter-charge, that Leiter and Rosen in turn think too highly of themselves and their ability to evaluate other philosophers (which is why they constantly deride others as charlatans) also doesn’t seem right.

    This comment might have fit better after your earlier post, but I was too lazy to type it up back then.

    Anyhow, keep up the good work! I look forward to your next post.

  2. it seems mitchelmore reacted badly to your listing levinas under ‘fraudulent’—but i think he missed the part where you were trying to convey your impression of the general assessments of a specific group of others:

    ‘One of the ongoing debates, though, is which of the theorists are irredeemable. Here’s how the categories seem to be shaking out, from my perspective. (I could be wrong about any of these; this is just a general impression and not reflective of the views of any single person.)’

  3. All this is foul smell and blood in a bag. Nothing wrong with that.

  4. Well, this is unfortunate. I never saw this tweet from Steve, and I can’t find it now (the latest extant ref. to Waggish is his positive link to the Hofmann/Bernhard post). Perhaps he deleted it. Based on the trackback, I’d guess that j is right that he mis-read the post (maybe that’s why the tweet is gone?). For what it’s worth, I’d noticed your blog missing from his blogroll a while back, though I knew he still read you (mine vanished from Dan Green’s myself, and I couldn’t tell you why).

  5. proximoception

    31 January 2011 at 20:26

    No one would say that unless enraged, and the general tenor of your blog wouldn’t have done the enraging. So don’t take this as a considered attack on what kind of pile you are! It had to have been something about those three lists.

    And to get so enraged about that shows the intolerance of the religious, which feeds Rosen’s critique – and, incidentally, explains how intelligent people could have fallen for the more fraudulent aspects of theory: it fits certain needs too well for one to accept any later rescrutinizing. Not that theory promises we won’t die – although some versions verge on that, in their fashion – but liberation from certain other anxieties can be almost as powerful.

    As, of course, can the thought that you are a member of the small and only group ready to face the realest, secretest, truest truth, but lots of us are vulnerable to that one.

  6. Frankly, proximoception, your comments reveal a certain smugness of their own.

    Rather than intolerance (of the “religious” or otherwise, whatever that means), I’d say merely impatience and a hasty misreading. Steve is impatient towards positivism, and maybe he felt Waggish had been moving in that direction? I don’t know; I can’t speak for him.

    I can say that I was somewhat alarmed by the post in question, if only because I can’t imagine wanting to read a continental reader put together by people who are actively hostile towards continental philosophy. Leiter is routinely outright dismissive of it, and is kind of an asshole about it. Rosen, too, reads like a smug prick in the bit Waggish quoted from Leiter’s blog. (Am I being ad hominem? Maybe. But I’m positing that attitude matters.)

    Also, I question the use of the word “fraudulent”. I don’t find it helpful in the least. (I’ve never been able to make any sense of Derrida, but does that mean he was a fraud? Maybe I don’t understand him, or maybe he was just bad.)

    On the other hand, I understand the desire “to write about Continental theorists in comparatively clear and methodical ways”, if only because as an American myself, I struggle with the language. But I have little use for the analytical conception of philosophy as a set of problems to be solved. As a newcomer to philosophy, with a prior interest in science (but strongly opposed to positivism and scientism), with an attraction to certain continental philosophers (like Heidegger & Levinas, but not Derrida), but also a distaste for American post-modernism, I find Leiter and Rosen alienating.

  7. David Auerbach

    1 February 2011 at 18:24

    Thanks everyone.

    I don’t have much to contribute to the battle; it won’t get resolved so much as superseded, so I prefer to stick to meta-commentary on it.

    I will say that I have witnessed the personality cult of some of Derrida’s scions firsthand, and it is ugly. There was also the time when I criticized Carl Schmitt and got a bunch of sneering comments back from pro-Schmitt academics. This does not necessarily say anything about the underlying work, but there was plenty of empty rhetoric being batted around of the sort Rosen decries. I have also seen analytic philosophers dive into the sort of angels-on-pin-counting that they’re caricatured for. I admit I find the former more distasteful, but I do take Rorty’s side in the Rorty v. Soames debate and I think Timothy Williamson is pretty seriously wrong about a lot of things.

    They don’t need defending, least of all from me, but I do think it’s wrong to say that Leiter and Rosen are hostile toward continental philosophy. Because of the turf wars involved, I think they’re especially sensitive to continental philosophy being equated with the particular strand of French critical theory that they *are* hostile toward. But that’s understandable.

    It doesn’t make them positivists, though. And indeed one of the “New Continentalist” complaints is that opposing Derrida & co. immediately brands one a positivist in their eyes–a false dichotomy. A number of the people in the Oxford book–Gardner, Beiser, Stern, Franks, Forster, among others–are doing excellent work. I hope no one is put off of them.

  8. proximoception

    1 February 2011 at 18:58

    Richard: ‘Religious’ because they’re believing not based primarily on evidence but on getting needs met, and therefore a challenge to those beliefs can be genuinely painful, so they react like those in pain. Which will usually manifest itself as impatient and hasty misreading, and occasionally as saying, in public, in a way bound and thus intended to get back to the perceived challenger, that the challenger’s thought is ‘a pile of shit.’ You’re free with ‘prick’ and ‘asshole’ when positing attitude matters – and accusations of smugness presumably on a continuum with those points of infamy? – but ‘pile of shit’ is, like, strong. It’s the kind of thing a prick or asshole would say.

  9. I wasn’t defending the “pile of shit” remark (if it were me on the receiving end, I would have been very hurt). Only noting that people sometimes respond poorly for reasons that are not “religious” and that do not otherwise fit into your schema.

    Have you read Graham Harman, David? He has had some interesting things to say about the analytical/continental divide at his blog

    “They don’t need defending, least of all from me, but I do think it’s wrong to say that Leiter and Rosen are hostile toward continental philosophy. Because of the turf wars involved, I think they’re especially sensitive to continental philosophy being equated with the particular strand of French critical theory that they *are* hostile toward. But that’s understandable.”

    Can’t say anything more about Rosen, but everything I’ve seen from Leiter shows that he is indeed hostile towards continental philosophy. Or perhaps that he equates it all with the French critical theory you’re talking about. (Did you see his list about the top philosophers of the 20th century? When someone mentioned Heidegger, he simply said he was “wrong”. Which, I dunno, sounds dismissive to me.)

    I also have no interest in defending the cult of personality apparently all too common in academia. But that strikes me as hardly unique to “continental” theory circles. Again, my negative reaction was more to the use of the word fraudulent towards some of the actual thinkers themselves. And, in fact, Levinas’ name was the one that jumped out at me as most egregious. (Derrida and Lacan read as gibberish to me, I admit; and Zizek is hard to figure.)

  10. proximoception

    1 February 2011 at 23:25

    Richard, you started unhappy with me and will doubtless get unhappier reading this, but I’ll go a final round:

    Fraudulent may be too strong, but wrong is too weak: all of us can be wrong, and probably everyone alive is wrong about a lot of things someone will one day be right about.

    It’s when bad results are achieved through a bad method, but the results are so appealing, for whatever reason, that they’re held onto and justifiable methodology is instead thrown out the window that we get this pernicious middle category. And we get this extremely often in certain kinds of foundational disputes: if your thesis is that we can never know to what extent our thoughts are written by history, for example, you have an ace up your sleeve when dealing with all criticism of this notion – you can assume that the criticism is itself written by history, since there is no isolatable independent perspective (e.g. ‘transcendent’ logic) from which to judge. Likewise with Derrida’s critique of linguistic presence – what are we going to refute that with, words? Or Lacan’s of the notion of getting past one’s own solipsistic projections – how will you ever prove you did?

    The problem is these positions were reached using a method they themselves retroactively invalidate (you can’t assume history writes us without achieving some kind of independent perspective on history; you must have used language to communicate your message that language can’t communicate messages etc.). But once taking that position, you already assume that all such objections have been invalidated by its truth (or rendered infinitely questionable by its possibility, let’s say) so if you have any other compelling reason to be there you feel free to stay put. That’s why I call this phenomenon religious, since it really does come down to what you’re getting out of it, to what this view of the world does to calm your anxieties.

    A theory’s implication in the very contradiction it purports to expose is the most magical sign of its truth to a lot of people, and tremendously tiresome to a lot of others. And that magical, paradoxical element is what makes the term ‘fraudulent’ feel half-right – something cultic, even Deepak-Chopraesque happened around these figures, something you just don’t see with, say, Chomsky. That aspect’s subsiding now, and perhaps it’s hard to describe to those who haven’t witnessed it. But in the insta-bile that prompted the “pile of shit” comment you’re probably looking at an aftershock.

  11. Richard: If you’re still reading this thread, I don’t know why your link disappeared from the blogroll either. I’ve made numerous changes to it over the past couple of months, and somehow your site got lost. I should have noticed it. I’m restoring it now.

  12. First off, Dan, hi, yes, I’m still reading. Thanks. I should have figured it was inadvertent, given your recent changes. But it feels awkward asking, I admit, though I should have done so.

    Second, proximoception, I don’t know what to say. I feel as though you aren’t really hearing what I’ve been trying to say. I actually have little problem with your comment, except insofar as it seems beside the point I was making. That your examples are Derrida and Lacan says a lot. I have nothing invested in them. I haven’t found anything I’ve read by them (however little–mostly excerpts, I must admit) to be of any interest or value. And, in fact, I am highly critical of American so-called post-modernism. I do however find something of value in Heidegger (though the last thing I’d want to be is a Heideggerian), and in Levinas (though I’ve read very little as yet), and (say) Blanchot. But this is less “critical theory” than philosophy or literary criticism.

    Anyway, I felt compelled to comment on this thread because I was dismayed by this situation, one favorite blogger saying something not nice about another favorite blogger, both of whom I’ve had nothing but friendly interactions with online. I should have been clearer that I think that Waggish is very far from a pile of shit, and that I think the comment was hurtful. But I also felt too compelled to try to understand what might have prompted it, in part also because of my own confusion about the original post; in doing so I tried to communicate some of that confusion. That’s really all I have left to offer.

  13. proximoception

    2 February 2011 at 04:12

    Richard: I was explaining how the term fraudulent could come up, and giving further examples of what I’d meant by the religious aspect. At no point were you unclear that you thought the shit comment was hurtful.

    The guy who made said comment has an entry from a few months ago that seemed virtually gleeful that Tallis, who attacked Derrida in print, was dead. So that’s part of the shit mix. I don’t know what would be fraudulent about Levinas, having never read him. With Heidegger and Blanchot I guess it would depend how you interpret them, but I wouldn’t categorize them that way, even using the weaker version of fraud I described in the last comment.

  14. proximoception, Raymond Tallis is not dead. That this easily verifiable piece of information escaped your attention is likely indicative of your own (faulty) methods and the degree of rigor you apply to the majority of your proclamations here.

    And, no offense David, but you called it with “shallow, pompous, or supercilious” – adjectives that have also been used to describe to Leiter and Rosen (or, if not those exactly, at least elitist, dismissive, and self-aggrandizing) which only serves to fuel their invective, which get people filling the comments with the usual “overreactions” back and forth, which makes something that should, as you (I believe rightly) put it, involve “severe personal investment” into so much soapbox and showmanship.

    I just thought you were better than that.

  15. David Auerbach

    2 February 2011 at 22:29

    John: I have feet of clay.

  16. John, Proximoception is, I assume, referring to this: http://this-space.blogspot.com/2010/10/tallis-is-dead-from-neck-up.html

    Probably he misread it, but you know it’s kind of a vile thing to say. One that as far as I can see doesn’t contribute to the post at all. It’s just name-calling: childishness, not the wit you at least aspire to. I think Tallis doesn’t get Derrida, but he (Tallis) certainly shows a lot of allegiance to Heidegger, who seems one of the points of contention here.

  17. proximoception

    3 February 2011 at 17:50

    John: I admit it, I somehow hallucinated away the neck-up part. And thought the parentheses instead contained the dates of his birth and death, oddly.

    This must mean I’m wrong about everything.

    But anyway, I brought up the entry to point out to Richard that Derrida’s at least part of what got hackles up. That the person attacking Tallis can be nasty had already been established.

  18. I mentioned Graham Harman above. I just came across a link I’d saved to a blogpost he write more than a year ago, which I think is relevant here. (Fyi, since he mentions Derrida, it might be helpful to note that he’s not a big fan.)


  19. Thanks for the link. *Very* interesting to see him endorse the idea of continental philosophy as star system. And it’s ironic that he mentions Williamson, since Williamson represents some of my least favorite philosophical positions (language doesn’t matter?!) and certainly could be taken as an extreme of contemporary analytic philosophy. I respect him, but he and Kripke are both about as far from my own philosophical world-view as anyone.

    But it’s nice to see Harman caricaturing analytic philosophy using Williamson in much the same way that others caricature continental philosophy using Lacan/Zizek/etc. It evens the playing ground a bit.

    Some of the best continentals, from Husserl to Cassirer to Apel, have known that there is much to be gained from the “analytic” tradition, and have had no hesitation in engaging with it. The lesser analytics and continentals prefer to have their turf wars.

    So I hope everyone now reads Wilfrid Sellars!

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