How to do things with words? — Speak them and see.

Just now came back across this on my personal, mostly non-academic blog from a couple of years ago. It’s about stylized writing in general (aka, the dreaded purple prose), and definitely seems in line with some of the aesthetic concerns some have when it comes to the use of theory-speak, clarity, etc. Thought I’d re-post.

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Purple, I suggest, when it isn’t just showing off, is phrase-coining; an attempt to build longish units of language that more or less replicate sizable chunks of Being in much the same way as the hiss-crack-cuckoo words mimic a sound. There is language  that plunges in, not too proud to steal a noise from Mother Nature, and there is language that prides itself on the distance it keeps itself at. Then there is purple which, from quite a distance away, plunges back into phenomena all over again, only to emerge with a bigger verbal ostentation. It is rather moving, this shift from parroting to abstraction, and then back from abstraction into what might be called symphonic hyperbole. . . .

I am suggesting that purple prose, ornate and elaborate as it sometimes is, reminds us of things we do ill to forget: the arbitrary, derivative, and fictional nature of language; its unreliable relationship with phenomena; its kinship with paint and voodoo and gesture and wordless song; its sheer mystery; its enormous distance from mathematics, photography, and the mouths of its pioneers; its affinities with pleasure and luxury, its capacity for hitting the mind’s eye — the mind’s ear, the mind’s very membranes — with what isn’t there, with what is impossible and (until the very moment of its investiture in words) unthinkable. Purple, after phrases coined by Horace and Macaulay, it may have always have to be called, but I would call it the style of extreme awareness.

– Paul West, “In Defense of Purple ProseContinue reading “How to do things with words? — Speak them and see.”

“A gulp to stave off death”: Quick thoughts on Pascal Quignard’s The Roving Shadows

This weekend I finished Pascal Quignard’s utterly bizarre, sui generis The Roving Shadows. It took a while to get into it, and suspect that a good many will not be willing to extend the patience, but believe all the more that those who do will be rewarded in ways they’d not expected.

Perhaps my affection for it stems for my search for a way to articulate a kind of contemporary, romanticism that is not sullied (justifiably, in many instances) by its 20th-century association with fascism and the like. Quignard never identifies as ‘romantic’ his aesthetic ruminations on life lived in the half-light of dusk & dawn, his preferred color of eroticism and creativity, so I don’t want to belabor the association; but his search for ways to evoke that which is unspoken (but not silent) in that which is spoken — or, the shadows that give color to the lighted, often quite horrific, world around us — taps into some of my previous thoughts on the importance of style. Continue reading ““A gulp to stave off death”: Quick thoughts on Pascal Quignard’s The Roving Shadows

The psychopathology of everyday blogging

I’ve developed quite a reputation as being “against” Speculative Realism/Object-Oriented Ontology, but that’s not entirely true. I think Meillassoux’s thought is brilliant and fascinating — I’ve enjoyed and been challenged by everything of his that I’ve read. Given how much I’ve been influenced by German Idealism, phenomenology, and psychoanalysis, I’m probably doomed to be a dyed-in-the-wool “correlationist,” but I do sympathize with the use of OOO by artists, video game scholars, etc., insofar as I see the appeal of bracketing the intention of the creator and viewing the artifact as an independent object with its own internal logic and necessity. Brassier and Latour seem very interesting to me, though they’re pretty far afield from anything I’m likely to work on in the near term. I will likely check out Harman’s work on Heidegger before teaching Being and Time, but I’m most likely not going to be delving into his or Levi’s “systems” any time soon (again, because they don’t link up with anything I’m working on).

So on the conceptual level, I’d say if anything I’m basically sympathetic, though I’m not signing up for a school or movement anytime soon. Why the negativity, then? It’s basically a reflection of my “method” for blogging: I try to keep everything precisely at the level of blogging. Continue reading “The psychopathology of everyday blogging”

Thoughts on Seminar VII

Yesterday, Stephen Keating and I had a great discussion of Lacan’s Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis. There is much that is impressive about this seminar, which seems to me to operate at a higher level of ambition and reach than the first three, but there is also much that is puzzling — most notably the central question of the sense in which this is an ethics.

As Stephen suggested, perhaps Lacan was not so much putting forward a normative ethics as performing a kind of thought experiment, asking what ethics would look like in light of psychoanalysis. Continue reading “Thoughts on Seminar VII

The awkwardness of casual attire

The Guardian‘s Comment is free has a piece up responding to a campaign devoted to reassuring people that they can wear casual clothing to the opera. The author argues — correctly! — that formal dress can actually represent a more democratic ethos than the current tyrrany of casual. Formalwear may once have been the preserve of the leisure class, but it can make anyone look good regardless of their class background. Two remarks stood out to me as they pointed toward a connection between enforced casual and my theory of “cultural awkwardness”:

Another reason that a dress code is democratic in that you know in advance what you’re supposed to wear, rather than having to spend some time working out what might be acceptable, only to be condemned silently for misjudging an unwritten code when you arrive.


Cultural elitism is to be found in those places where there appear to be no rules, no obvious codes, but where the obscure knowledge needed to be involved is the preserve of a small group whose false claim to democracy is that they don’t wear a black tie.

The latter remark applies particularly well to the dystopian realms of “business casual,” “smart casual,” etc.

Sympathy for Olive Garden

Nothing has changed at Olive Garden since the last time I visited, in 2003 in Momence, Illinois. There had been a long gap between my previous visit, in the late 90s in Flint, Michigan, but I found it to be much the same in that 2003 visit as it was during my childhood and adolescence. The decor, the service, and the food were all the same. The breadsticks were basically the same, as was the salad — with the precisely two small jalapeños and a lone olive. The menu had obviously changed to some degree, but the same old favorites were there: the “Tour of Italy” combo (The Girlfriend’s choice), chicken alfredo, pasta primavera.

And I’m going to take a risk here and admit: it was all pretty damn good. Not the best Italian food I’ve ever had, but definitely a nice dinner. When you think about the scale of the operation, it becomes even more remarkable. Continue reading “Sympathy for Olive Garden”

Some emerging thoughts on a philosophy of style

The truistic nature of some of the things that I have said shows how the free-will of the poet is limited. They demonstrate that the poetry of the future can never be anything purely eccentric and dissociated. The poetry of the present cannot be purely eccentric and dissociated. Eccentric and dissociated poetry is poetry that tries to exist or is intended to exist separately from the poem, that is to say in a style that is not identical with the poem. It never achieves anything more than a shallow mannerism, like something seen in a glass. Now, a time of disbelief is precisely a time in which the frequency of detached styles is greatest. I am not quite happy about the word detached. By detached, I mean the unsuccessful, the ineffective, the arbitrary, the literary, the non-umbilical, that which in its highest degree would still be words. For the style of the poem and the poem itself to be one there must be a mating and a marriage, not an arid love-song.

— Wallace Stevens

I was thinking about this quote recently, and I was struck by how appropriate are Stevens’ metaphors “a mating and a marriage.” If I were the one to write the final line, however, I’m pretty sure I would’ve gone with “a fucking and a fighting.”  In any event, I like where he’s going here: namely, that to deal with, and thus to write poetry, in an age of disbelief, the trick is not merely somehow to find belief. Rather, it is to invent new ways to disbelieve better. Continue reading “Some emerging thoughts on a philosophy of style”

The Aesthetics of Authority

This post grows so directly out of my daily Google Chat conversations with Brad that it is essentially co-authored.

Yesterday, Brad was telling me about a David Graeber lecture that he attended and suggested that the reason so many academics tend to favor the Marxist left over the anarchist left is our desire to have the right answer, which I generalized to a latent (and sometimes not so latent) authoritarianism of academics. Continue reading “The Aesthetics of Authority”

A visit to the museum: On Cézanne and tourists

The Basket of Apples

As part of our training, new faculty members at Shimer College sit in on one of the core curriculum courses that is outside our teaching comfort zone. In my case, it’s Humanities 1: Art and Music, which carries with it a membership to the Art Institute of Chicago, due to the generosity of some alumni donors. The Girlfriend and I went a couple weeks ago to check out the recently added Modern Wing, and we took the standard approach of trying to “cover” the entire area. Our favorite piece was this video installation by Eija-Liisa Ahtila, which had three videos playing simultaneously, displaying (at least at first) three angles on the same scene. Sure enough, before long Ahtila was flying through the forest.

We enjoyed our visit, but as we were walking back to the train, I wondered what we had really gotten out of our rush tour. Here is all this great art that people have devoted whole careers to studying, and we’re giving thirty seconds as a baseline to each piece, maybe stopping to look for a couple minutes if something catches our eye. The Girlfriend agreed in principle, but pointed out that neither of us knows enough about art to know which paintings are really worth spending more time with — better to cast a wide net.

The professor recommended that we go back this weekend to look at their Cézanne holdings, as we were going to discuss several of his paintings on Monday and then were reading Rilke’s Letters on Cézanne for Wednesday. I went for about an hour yesterday afternoon and managed to find a wall that had five Cézanne works, which was apparently the extent of what they’re showing currently. While I didn’t match Rilke’s record of spending two hours studying a single canvas, the amount of time I was able to spend on each painting made it a new experience for me.

Continue reading “A visit to the museum: On Cézanne and tourists”