Saturday, February 05, 2011

Against all 'decent restraint': Jack Ross talks about EMO

One of the themes of the recent discussion here about intellectuals and blogging was the decline in the quality and quantity of offline publishing, and the necessity of using the internet to pick up the slack. A number of contributors to that discussion pointed out that, without the stout theoretical journals and weekly or fortnightly magazines of old, lefty intellectuals have been forced onto the internet to debate and develop their ideas and analyses.

But it is not only political discussion which has suffered from the decline of the offline media in the West. As many periodicals either go tabloid, jettisoning any intellectual pretensions, or go under altogether, the spaces available for the discussion of literature have also declined. It is not surprising that many of the most interesting book reviews and literary interviews now appear online.

I'm certainly pleased to be able to publish an interview with the venerable Jack Ross which has apparently proved too long for any of our local offline literary journals to host. The interview was conducted by Richard Taylor, a man with a longstanding and well-deserved reputation for digression, and moves through subjects as different and differently interesting as life on Mars, the future of the book, the last days of the Roman poet Ovid, the 'socio-sexual extremism' of Kathy Acker, Auckland's 1998 power blackout, and the political consequences of the suppression of emotion.

As they chat, Jack and Richard return again and again to EMO, the large and strange novel Jack published in September 2008. Jack has a vast private library, which he has catalogued in disconcerting detail on a website named A Gentle Madness , and EMO, with its multiple layers of text, multiple plots, and slips between distant times and places, often seems like an attempt to fit a whole library between the covers of one volume. Precisely because of its improvisational, wide-ranging nature, Richard's chat with Jack makes a good introduction to the book.

Richard: EMO – what does it mean and why is it the title?

Jack: Well, it’s a musical style – and a kind of lifestyle choice. “Emo” stands for “extremely emotional” (or so I’m told). It’s rather like the Goth style, only Goths tend to see Emos as very suburban and spurious. When I heard about it a few years ago, I thought it perfectly summed up what I was trying to do in this book – both the excessive emotionalism and the faint air of the spurious. After that, though, I started making up a whole series of puns as retrospective justifications: E/ Earth – M/ Mars – O / Otherworld; and E/ Eva – M/ Marlow – O/Ovid. That gave me my core cast. The mood preceded the material in this case.

Richard: To what extent is or are your three books, Nights with Giordano Bruno, The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis, and EMO in some way to be thought of as a trilogy – I mean not so much a trilogy in a narrative sense, but perhaps in sense that they share similar experimental locations, as well as certain common ‘themes’ or ideas. One would be surely the exploration of various states of consciousness, and or of physical states?

Jack: This one was written consciously to try and complete a pattern which I could see starting to work itself out in the other two books, even though the first of them (at any rate) was written as a completely stand-alone text. Since that first book used Insomnia as its central image for alienation, and the second used Amnesia for its own set of concerns, the idea was to move one step deeper in this final book and focus on Blindness. A very hopeful set of tropes!

Richard: I note that in fact EMO itself is, or could be seen to be, a trilogy (or has three sections) and your quote at the start of EMO is: “According to certain Buddhist schools of thinking, three rebirths are the minimum to reach enlightenment … one for the harvesting and liberation.” Is EMO, or the third chapter of EMO, rebirth that reaches enlightenment? If so, how does this happen? What is this enlightenment?

Jack: Yes, EMO is a trilogy: a set of three novellas, revolving around all the false starts and misunderstandings which cripple communication between people. Mostly, I suppose, it’s about relationships. I suppose I hoped that by working through the three narratives, the reader might be positioned to think about what “enlightenment” might be. That’s the best I can do, myself. There’s an attempt at a sort of poetic resolution at the end of the book, but I’m not in any way thinking that that could be enough. A step in the right direction, though, hopefully.

Richard: How much do you ‘owe’ to postmodernist theory? What writer or thinkers are “behind” what you are writing? (Of course Jack Ross is “behind” all the books)…

Jack: I guess when I first started reading Derrida and the other poststructuralists much of what they were saying seemed self-evidently correct to me. They pointed out that all of our metaphysics and analysis was based on extremely shaky ground – that each web of meanings was used as justification for the next web of meanings, but there was no solidity or certainty beneath it all. But then, that was obvious to me already. Isn’t it obvious to everyone? The only real question then becomes how to function in such an uncertain universe, and some of the ideas they had about that seemed quite sensible as well. Derrida used the language and methods of metaphysics to deconstruct traditional metaphysics. Why not? He was quite conscious of the paradox involved in doing so, but what alternative did he have? I guess my style of writing fiction (and “novels” in particular) is a kind of use of fictional tropes to question the nature of fiction itself. It can be an absorbing occupation. Do we really need an overarching theory to make sense of everything before we start thinking and analysing things? I’m not sure that we do, and Derrida gave me a kind of starting-point for continuing to assert that.
Richard: I read some essays by Walter Benjamin – one in particular on translation seemed to me to say, more or less, that translation, if it was really worthwhile or significant, in fact transformed a work into a “higher” work.

I know you were interested in Benjamin – I don’t know much about him – but how much has the idea of translation, or transformation, been a significant aspect of your work and in particular
EMO? For me it seems that you are pretty much “obsessed” with many variants of various works and tales (the Tales of the Arabian Nights of course and also, via Ovid, whose Metamorphoses are transformations of various kinds (echoing the strange world of nature itself in fact), as well as Greek mythology, sexuality etc And EMO is, it seems to me, a constantly shifting, changing, transforming work…And you yourself are quite conversant with many languages – and have translated much literature. (Such as Borges and much else…)

Jack: I guess I see Walter Benjamin more as a poet than as an historian of culture. His ideas are interesting, but it’s mainly the harmonious sense of a mind finding beauty in unexpected twists and turns of thought that’s really inspiring, I think. His essay on the role of the translator is a classic, but it’s totally over the top at the same time. He sees it as inherently involving a kind of transcendental act. My own ambitions as a translator are rather more humble. I do it because it’s a useful way of bringing in a kind of complex cultural apparatus without having to feign or manufacture it yourself. It’s yours and not yours at the same time. The idea of transformation or metamorphosis is (you’re right) at the heart of these books because it interests me intensely, but then it interests most people, don’t you think? Ovid, Apuleius, the Nights, these are all texts which use it as a central metaphor, but then transforming oneself, and thus (hopefully, by example or contagion) transforming society is surely such a basic poetic device that using it needs little justification. We need to transform ourselves in order to avoid the errors of the past (our own and others’) – by definition.

Richard: Am I right in that EMO is also quite different because now you are yourself quite vigorously using the Internet and Blogs to allow the reader to follow the various "strands" of the book?

- And further that this adds a multiplying or magnifying effect or potential to EMO so that by implication and de facto it is all texts done by Jack (who is amusingly found missing – that is on page 98 a blurb to another book (another text inside a text by the way!?) says: “Ross has disappeared…” and thus again there is a wry “Death of the Author” (etc) question…or am I wrong?); and all texts are thus interacting - I am trying to express the Barthesian and Derridean aspects of your work - the endless chase of signifiers and the "Death of the Author" are subtexts I guess at. Clearly the author is not dead! Never was wanted to be as such! But it is implied by the many stories - especially when I read in your notes that run transverse to the "main story" where you discuss, in relation to 1001 Nights, the fact that no one is sure who the author of that work is. Now this text, with all its many stories and comments on stories, "feeds" into the main text and thus, as I suspect that EMO is in fact another story inside what is effectively a Borgesian or Escherian endless loop of stories in Jack's, or the Non Author's, endless book, it seems to me the text is "authored” by all other texts. In particular by your own reading and learning in life and in literature, art etc. In fact this all reminds me of Jealousy or Voyeur by Robbet-Grillet (and the poem of that name by Manhire).

Jack: The internet and the idea of hypertext and shifting plains of reference is certainly a gift to the aspiring labyrinth-builder. Joyce and Escher seem to have got along okay without it, but I guess for me the world-wide-web is a kind of democratisation of the impulse: everyone their own Borges, with a tithe of the effort. As far as the death of the author goes, well, there is another Jack Ross – a hard-bitten desert-loving Reno detective in the works of a guy named Bernard Schopen (and actually, since EMO was published, yet another Jack Ross has surfaced: a Scottish crime-writer who wrote a book called Requiem) – so maybe I am dead after all, and just don’t know it … I deliberately fail to name the protagonist in all three books of the trilogy. Which makes sense to me because they’re all focussed on a central male figure undergoing some kind of extreme turmoil (they might all be versions of the same person, in fact). But actually all three books are by me, and I’m a male, resident in Auckland (where all three books are set), sharing many experiences with these central figures, etc. So of course they are all me. But then they’re not, either, because they’re fictionally-projected personages in mysterious mirror-worlds. These seem to me unavoidable accompaniments to the whole business of writing fiction. You could say that I was deconstructing fiction by undermining certain aspects of the projection – pointing out the paradox of pretending to be someone else when everyone knows it’s just you in a funny wig. But then Cervantes did all that in Don Quixote and it didn’t stop his characters seeming real –or believable, which isn’t quite the same thing.

I guess EMO takes this lack of verisimilitude pretty far. It’s hard for me to believe that many readers will be comfortable with such naked and perfunctory scaffolding I provide in various parts of the story. But then I’m not particularly interested in making people feel comfortable. You’ve got to go pretty far nowadays to wake them up at all – to break up the frozen sea within them, as Kafka said.

Richard: Regarding influence again – I know you once emphasized your debt to Kathy Acker.

What of her (or other writers) have influenced you and what in particular about her… I know she dealt with certain “shocking” things as sex and so on, and like Burroughs tended to cut and paste and so on. And the cut up, the breaks and divergences, etc, have all become a part of most “cutting edge” writing …

Jack: I like Kathy Acker’s use of cut-ups. I like her political and socio-sexual extremism. What’s not to like about her, in fact? I love how badly she writes at times. She’ll repeat the same paragraph twice on one page – she shoves in anything that comes into her head. It takes real guts to do that. So many people will just assume that you lack the talent to write “beautifully.” You could say that it’s because I’m so jaded, searching for fresh kicks all the time, that I go for deviants like Kathy and Burroughs (or J. G. Ballard, for that matter), but really it’s that I feel that “beautiful” writing is inappropriate to the kinds of horrors we face at present. I read that thing The Road by Cormac McCarthy – beautifully and stylishly written and all – and was completely unmoved. Way to make post-nuclear holocaust sound dignified and restrained and even manly in a weird sort of way! Give me some ravings from Kathy any day.

But I guess the most straightforward thing she helped me with is her complete refusal to acknowledge the conventions of genre. “Essay” – “story” – “novel” – “poem” – they’re pretty much all the same to her. You literally can’t tell which one she’s setting out to write most of the time, and that also enables her to get away with a lot. Her publishers and editors label them one thing or another, but there’s little intrinsic evidence to support their choices most of the time. Basically, she hates decorum – literary or any other kind. That’s not hard for most of us to sympathise with.

Richard: I have pencilled some notes on the f.e.p. etc of my copy of EMO. Here they are – these are possible themes and connections - perhaps not only questions per se

Language [significant, central to this book, Jack’s writing or world view/] – intersection of narratives generating new forms [I meant of e.g.
1001 Nights and “Eva Android”] – then all is translation, transformation (or even transgression?)

- labyrinths, dreams

- states of consciousness

- infinity

- transformations and (de facto and by implication the role of translation in all senses of that term

- books and reading – collections – knowledge

- language and philosophy

- magic, witches, transmigration, arcana, “horror”

- sci fi and fantasy

- The Writer, The Book (questions of the nature of what a book or text should be

- hence – the ‘magical’ role of stories

- sleep, REM (dreams again) and sleeplessness

- Benjamin wanted to write a book completely composed of quotations –Jack also – or almost?

- book titles as chapter titles

- Illuminations – hence “seeing” and not seeing

- blindness – sleeplessness – forgetting

- Blindness – of a ‘seer’ – but also ‘moral blindness’ to the ‘truth’

- Evil v good (and other oppositions or “contrasts” e.g. Hitler has a dog, Joyce fears dogs, Eva has or had a cat, Hitler v Ovid of the Third Reich or Augustus’s Rome and so on)

- “high” v “low” culture – Britney Spears and comics v Ovid, Celan and Mandelstam etc

- Eros in all its guises

- exile – hence the state of the poet – the alienated artist and so on

- love, compassion, seen particularly in the opening section between Eva and her “master” and paradoxically between Eva von Braun and Hitler – BEFORE he was clearly the monster we now, perhaps too automatically, think of him as.

How do you respond to my musings here?

Jack: I like it. Clearly on my wavelength. I guess all the stuff about slaves and dictators makes it obvious that I’m interested in power relations and how they deform (and inform) personal relations. And – I hope – that I’m interested in these things not because they’re “central to my work,” or any other wanky artist’s cliché but because if you’re not interested in these things then you must be crazy. We really are in trouble. We really do need new ways of thinking about these things. And anyone who starts scoffing and saying, “Oh yes, of course that’s all been done – the idea of silence as expression, that’s in von Hoffmansthal, and that idea of reforming the world with your writings, that’s an old cliché from the thirties” is basically just braindead. It’s really the equivalent of saying, “Oh yes, that idea of breathing in and out – that’s been done, you know – or that idea of not beating the shit out of every second person you meet: that goes back to Kierkegaard, you know …” Sorry to rant. I think I spend too much time in the company of comfortable, well-fed, know-it-all academics.

Richard: Do you think that there are too many “strands” or “themes” in EMO?

Jack: Well, there’s a lot of stuff in there, certainly. I make no apology about that. Too much is a value judgement every reader will have to make for themselves. I’d say there were too many plots and stories in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, myself – it’s not a particularly unified work. Is EMO so overpacked as to be incoherent, I guess you’re asking. I’m sure some readers will think so. But I suppose the readers I want are the ones who like to read into things – who don’t expect everything to present itself elegantly on the surface so they can move on to the next thing as rapidly as possible. Nobody’s obligated to dive into EMO. I hope, in fact, that only the people who get a kick out of that kind of thing do. It’s hard to see it seriously comparing with the Cantos or Finnegans Wake or Maximus or those other twentieth-century whales when it comes to being packed with material, though. Even Moby Dick or Tristram Shandy, for that matter.

Richard: I don't see EMO as only a novel. In fact I don't see it fitting into any particular genre. (Although I would argue it is a narration, if not a typical, or "popular" narrative, whose purpose and meaning is complex.) I would say that EMO is multi-textual and involves (like Nights and The Imaginary Museum) many visual elements. It also connects to popular and high culture and so on. While it has an objective purpose it has "subjectivity" to the extent that your passions (for 1001 Nights, for Ovid, (and hence for books -for use and collection - and thus for writing itself), for Science Fiction, for other writers such as Borges, Poe, Apuleius (who links via his The Golden Ass and his Metamorphoses*), to the 1001 Nights and Ovid, for translation, for stories, and so on, are intermixed here in what is a complex weave.

Jack: I’d certainly concur with that. And again, I don’t claim any great originality there. It’s got a lot of competing generic elements (as do Kathy Acker’s “novels”). I chose the designation “novel” for it for various reasons, I guess:

1. because it sounds more approachable (and therefore salable) than calling it an “experimental text” or something like that.

2. because I’m in love with the idea of the novel form: a genre so debatable, so potentially all-inclusive that it can straddle bourgeois fiction, magic realism, Apuleius, traditional Chinese & Japanese forms, and virtually anything else you can throw at it. Where are its limits, in fact? We haven’t reached them yet.

Richard: Did you deliberately place the text that is “horizontal”, which I call the “subtext”, and which contains all the stories and other texts on your other Blogs etc, in such a way that it obscures the “main text”? This “slowing the reader” down, making the reader pay attention to the process of your writing? Jack: Yes, that was one reason. A literal metaphor for the contextualising we all do when we try to make sense of one text in terms of another. Really, though, it was because I saw some letters written in the early nineteenth-century, around the Jane Austen era, where the writer had crossed the text – written first horizontally, then vertically, on the same piece of paper – with every confidence that their correspondent would make sense of it. That was done purely to conserve paper, of course (at a premium during the Napoleonic wars, I understand). But it just looked so fantastic – so impenetrable and mysterious. I immediately started to wonder how one could reproduce that effect in a printed book.

Why should one bother is I guess one valid question, but the answer must be because it enables you to literally incorporate many texts in one. There are, then, three books contained within the one book of EMO. There’s the principal text on top, the three novellas, but underneath that there’s a complete book of critical essays on the Thousand and One Nights (written by me, of course, but attributed in context to the main male character in the Eva Ave story – insofar as that isn’t me. I created him, and he wrote my book, so in a sense he is me, but of course he’s also fictionalised and gifted with a lot of ideas, opinions and character traits which I certainly hope aren’t true of me, since I find them quite abhorrent). As well as that there’s a book of 15 collage-poems (mostly published in brief magazine at various times) called Jack’s Metamorphoses, which includes a set of 15 short essays on the numerous English verse translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. So that’s three books in one: fiction, poetry and essays all bound into the one cover. But as well as that I include the Latin text of Ovid’s exile-letters from the Black Sea underneath the third section of the book, Ovid in Otherworld.

All of that is there. But of course there has to be a fictional justification for it in the world of the book itself as well. And that is basically that the (blind) almost-invisible protagonist of the whole narrative, who’s presumably dreaming up all these stories and printing them out, has accidentally started to use a set of pages which already had writing on them. He can’t see the effect, but we do. That’s also why the texts underneath are running backwards, in reverse to the flow of the top, “executive” narratives. That’s what would happened if you picked up a stack of Xeroxed pages and run it through a printer backwards.

Richard: Further to this – the subtext either adds or subtracts to the reader’s response to the main text almost as if we are looking at two waves or weaves of ideas. And thus the reader is challenged to either “give up”, or to fight on in what is literally an even more obscure book. I mean obscure in the sense of literally not being easy to even see especially for such as myself with relatively diminished eye site (no problems - just age and I have lost my glasses – I need a new set). In addition, like you other books, I found I had to turn the book. This "forcing " or challenging the reader, and this use of open form and writing at 'angles' etc, goes back at least to Mallarmé and then Apollinaire, through to Olson and later to such as Susan Howe. To read some of the last part of the Maximus Poems I saw Creeley rotating the whole book at lecture here in 1996.

Jack: Books are physical objects. They have many other manifestations as well – in the minds (and hearts?) of their readers; in oral/ aural form at a reading or on a CD – but I think it’s important to remind people of that. The last thing I want is a complete opacity of form that defeats potential readers, but I don’t want an (apparent) completely transparent interface of form and content which stops them asking questions about the relationship between the two. I think the top-text of the book is almost completely legible throughout, except on one or two pages – the crossed-texts below are a different story. Those are only occasionally legible. I hope that helps to make them seem more intriguing, but I was aware that some readers might find that frustrating. That’s why so much of their content is available online. For the curious who want to follow up on the other books within this one.

Richard: There are hundreds of comments and questions I could ask but this would get too long for now. Lastly, a couple more – the images, photos, symbols, diagrams and the font changes and alternations; together with trace of the subtext “behind” the main text make this book quiet visually and conceptually exciting for me. Apart from all else the very layout of the book has a kind of beauty.

Jack: I hope so. It took an awful long time to achieve some of those effects, I must say. I was on the edge of my seat till the very last minute to see how the printers would deal with that bleached-out subtext and deliberately boldened top-text. It had to be at least potentially readable to work …

Richard: You are quite interested in codes and symbols? I gathered that by the text and the book Arthur Gordon Pym – the first novel by Edgar Allan Poe? A book that ends with a revelation but then is added a preface (at the end – I only “know” this thanks to Wiki!) which is by Pym! And Poe could or boasted could, crack any code…one thinks of “Gold Bug”, and his “who dunnits”. And we have also an echo here of EMO itself? Perhaps also a book where the author keeps shifting…it seems that once we are “inside” the narrative we are not sure who the protagonists is. You “quote” other books. Poe copied out whole sections of another book into Pym. Expectations of genre are “violated” by the author or authors? The visions seen at the end of the Otherworld [and other world is a book by a certain F S Flint who apart from other things was of Pound’s circle a great translator as pound was] or Mars section is the second rebirth? The first “Ovid” is executed (we are not sure) in part one.

Jack: Yes, I guess that “being interested” in codes and symbols is putting it mildly. I’m a huge admirer of Poe’s work. The nineteenth-century French (Baudelaire and Mallarmé principal among them) were entirely correct in their assessment of his genius, in my opinion. What I like best about him, though, is not so much that wowing-the-public-with-his-own-cleverness stuff (though he was undoubtedly very clever), as the way he can write intensely seriously in one mode while simultaneously taking the mickey out of it. Compare (for instance) “The Pit and the Pendulum” with the much-less-well-known spoof “How to Write a Blackwoods’ Article.” Arthur Gordon Pym is his only novel – if you can call it a novel – and it’s bizarre almost beyond description. The second section of EMO, set on “Mars”, is the one which seems to have caused most difficulties even to sympathetic readers. I’m not sure I’d want to take self-consciousness as far as Poe does, but I do feel my own bizarreries rather pale beside certain aspects of Pym (Jules Verne actually wrote a sequel to it in which he tidied up and rationalised a lot of the strangeness – I’m not sure he really understood what Poe was getting at in the first place, but then, does anyone?)

Richard: I haven’t talked about the writing – the interviews and the translations often have writing that is in my view quite brilliant. Ovid’s Tristias work well by restraint as well as the strange one-sided conversations, or e-versations, of the psychologist nurse who is supposedly looking after Ovid-The Author. (We, the readers, are not sure of anything as, indeed, there are so many riddling transformations and “translations” in this book. It is not clear even within the narrative, which narrative is the true one or who is dreaming and who is in fact simply mad!)) And much is quite moving. Also of course there is a “cold level” and a lot of “diurnal grind” (to ostentatiously quote Geoffrey Hill who wrote – of course, King Log, whose rather dark but beautiful opening poem you quote!); there is the mundane. This seems to interact by contrast, or resistance, to the more “epiphanic" moments”. Jack: Yes, a novel needs a certain duration to achieve its effects of contrast. There must be a diurnal grind of sorts, but I think you’ll agree that I’ve been pretty sparing with it. My rule of thumb is that if it bores me, it’s likely to bore a reader. Personally I love intensely-detailed realist texts, but I’m not sure that I see a serious need for more of them to be cranked out at this date in time. I have no problem with people writing them, just as I see no reason why people shouldn’t paint photo-realist landscapes and portraits still, but advances in technology inevitably do have an effect on the logic of artistic practice. Has a century of stories told in film changed what we can expect of written narratives? Some would say not, but I think that there’s no need to write in the same old way when other genres can handle certain aspects of traditional fiction better – or at any rate differently. I think a book should need to be a book. EMO could only be a book. It could perhaps be filmed, but all that would mean is that certain aspects of it inspired a film-maker. The result would be closer to the relationship between Cronenberg’s film and Burrough’s book of Naked Lunch, or (for that matter) Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books alongside The Tempest. Traditional “adaptation” from one medium to another seems a pretty odd idea to me anyway. In this case it would be quite simply impossible.

Richard: Doubles? Symmetries? “Ovid v divO", "Eva avE", Dog v Cat, (Hitler loved dogs, whereas Ovid like Joyce – also near blind most of his life - is frightened of dogs.)

Jack: Oh yeah, if you want to hunt them out, there’s quite a few. I like excessive patterning (you might have noticed). I like it because it’s excessive, perhaps – surplus to requirements. It’s a characteristic of early forms of prose narrative that they tend to be excessively patterned and symmetrical – I wrote an essay about it comparing the storytelling patterns and parallelisms in certain stories in the Arabian Nights with those found in Malory’s Morte d’Arthur (you’ll find it in one of the under-texts of EMO). It’s not just something that “mature” novel traditions grow out of, though. Dickens is a classic case of a writer whose stories get more and more elaborately patterned and over-determined as he gets older. If you prefer Pickwick or Nicholas Nickleby to Our Mutual Friend or (extreme case) Edwin Drood, you won’t exactly thrill to my similar addictions.

Richard: There are so many connections. On page 196 - where the chapter is titled “Blinding” you have an image of what appears to be either camera shutter or an Iris (Iris referred to earlier also); this is quite strange and beautiful…and on the next page in another Tristia poem:

If anyone still remembers me

back in the city

think of a wheel of stars

that never sinks


for days

the lines are down

I see here at least three “themes”, such as the sadness of exile, and the cruelty of Augustus-Hitler; questions of history (as in Geoffrey Hill’s work). And exile is effectively death for Ovid-The Poet (especially Ovid as he hated to be away from the city and civilization). The reference to “memory” again, the lack of communication; and another reference to the power blackout (and of course you play with “Black Power” in the same poem!) in Auckland in 1998) previously mentioned (in the subtext; and indeed the connection of the symbol to a “wheel of stars” – almost Poundian line from The Cantos; but of course the symbol is of an eye – or like an eye.

Jack: So many connections, yes. On the one hand the point is that there should be many connections – regardless of their actual nature – since the book is about complex interweaving systems and the curious similarities between them, about (in the final analysis) the possibility of learning by analogy how to solve one problem in terms of another. The problems, misunderstandings, mutual hurts and bruisings of inter-personal relations are at the heart of the book – but then that’s because the personal is the political. The two cannot be separated. Some people feel quite sincerely, I would acknowledge, that it’s quite advantageous to pigeonhole them and consider them in separate terms, but I believe equally strongly that that’s a pernicious fallacy – shown to be so by repeated callous abuses of power on every level. Interconnection, then, is everything in this book (as it is everywhere else, so far as I can see). The fact that you can tease out that particular set of connections so elegantly, though, reassures me that they are coherent in context. There’s a risk of disappearing into a cloud of interconnectedness when you begin to see universal patterns in everything. Specificity is, after all, the job of any fiction.

Richard: It seems that another issue is highlighted especially in the first part of the book when Eva tries to contact her “sister” (from whom she is cloned – and the moral ethical issue of cloning is of course here also); and then we see both the Writer and Eva struggling for contact. So the reader is faced with the dilemma or question: what is it that makes us human? How do we realize or convey love? (This I feel becomes more urgent as the middle section exposes us to scenes of madness, vivisection, sadomasochistic orgies and killings, horror, nightmare and so on.) The pathetic, but surprisingly moving (because so well written), story of the Cat that Eva tries to befriend, is significant here. (I am also reminded obliquely of David Lyndon Brown's novel Marked Men).

Jack: Yes, and I guess that brings us full circle, really. Why on earth would anyone want to write a novel called EMO, enshrining emotionalism, when Emo (as a style) is so naff, so despised by the cool-at-heart? (I saw a great t-shirt in a café the other day with a picture of a great big pale crying face with greasy black hair and the inscription “Cheer Up, Emo Kid!” – I wish I could get one of those for myself …) If you don’t get the bit about the cat in the Eva section, the book can mean nothing to you. It’s over the top, it’s sentimental, but if you don’t feel any qualms at the destruction of innocence, at the suffering of the helpless, then you’re not really human, it seems to me. It’s perhaps ruthless of me to make the test such a severe one – the reign of irony in literature has almost succeeded in persuading us all that emotion must always be approached in a circumspect way, handled with kid gloves, treated like a kind of unexploded bomb. To hell with that, I say. I can certainly see analogies there with David Brown’s work – with his poetry as well as the novel you mention.

If we were in good shape as a culture, a civilisation – just a few little glitches here and there – I’d have no problem with a bit of decent restraint. But we’re not. We’re in deep trouble, possibly worse than we’ve ever been in. Time to take off the blinkers and call things as we see them. Eva and her cat are certainly not in the book by accident.

Ovid was a big cry-baby, too. Critics used to apologise for the “unmanly” tone of his begging letters from exile, but now they’ve rather changed their tune. Not because of any advances in literary critical understanding (perish the thought!) but because history has intervened. How can you understand Ovid if you don’t know about Hitler and Stalin? Augustus’s gulag may have looked a bit better than the Soviet one, but it’s hard for cushioned liberals to understand the pitiful crushing of human personality achieved by totalitarianism throughout the ages. I respect Ovid’s pain. It wouldn’t occur to me to sit in judgement on such a man and criticise his “tone.” How does Shakespeare put it? He jests at scars, that never felt a wound. That’s about right, I think.

Richard: Is Metamorphoses the alternative name?

Jack: It can be if you want it to be. Strictly speaking, Jack’s Metamorphoses is the title of one of the underlying texts in the book, the collection of poems. Apuleius’s novel The Golden Ass is also called (in Latin) Metamorphoses, of course – and I guess you can see how much I’ve been influenced by it. It’s certainly in my top ten favourite books, if not my favourite of all. You can see it in this book as much as the more directly invoked Ovidian epic. So, yes, this book is the conclusion to a conversation about the idea of Metamorphosis or change conducted through all three parts of the trilogy, Bruno, Atlantis, and EMO. The titlepage of the first novel in the sequence includes a quote from an Italian book about Giordano Bruno, in fact:

II fine di tutto l’operazione è forse essenzialmente questo, modificarsi.

[The point of the whole operation is perhaps just this, in essence:




Anonymous down to earth said...

hmmm...I don't see how the different parts of this interview fit together. JR says that Derrida convinced him that every truth is artificial, just a thin layer of invented concepts that covers up the essential meaninglessness of the universe. But then he condemns Hitler and Stalin and Augustus. Who is to say that they were evil or liars if truth does not really exist?

In general I think intellectuals get led too far from common sense in debates like this one.

11:05 am  
Anonymous down to earth said...

What I mean is...why is Hitler's truth any less authentic than JR's truth? After all truth is just a lie, according to JR at the top of the interview.

11:07 am  
Anonymous down to earth said...

Sorry. To make myself clearer. A quote from Derrida:

'Once we use language (speech or writing) to refer to reality, that reality is linguistically formulated and therefore indeterminate.'

I deny this. Yes language affects the way we see things, but not so much as to make meaning totally slippery. For example: it is a fact that men walked on the moon in 1969. It doesn't matter if you say it in English of Swahili or any other is a fact, not 'indeterminate'. Likewise it is a fact that Stalin killed many Soviet citizens...

11:49 am  
Blogger Richard said...

The interview was not face to face so I don't actually answer Jack's points I just let Jack say what he has to say.

I also did a review which would give a better picture but you really need to read what Jack has written. And as with all reading only a close and at attentive reading can revel those things of importance or interest to you the reader.

Jack's writings not primarily philosophy any more than any other novelist but there is a "deeper" undercurrent - as well as a satirical or comic aspect - towards various "deep" issues.

Always remember that literature or "art" is also very much concerned with entertaining (or even consoling?) its consumers as Jack's writing is ...although his is perhaps a bit of an acquired taste.

3:13 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

dear Down to Earth,

i guess Derrida was bored.
you bore me too
so i stopped reading you
to me you do not exist
until such time as I get further verification
or negation

up 2 u

4:08 pm  
Anonymous Nestor Notabilis said...

I disagree. Derrida wasn't bored. He just asks you to "weigh your words". So Stalin killed people, huh? But wasn't 'Stalin' just a character in a book by Jughasvili? The question shouldn't be one of authenticity. The question is about a lack of authenticity, a lack of authority, a lack of authoring. That is, it is about the spirit of negating hypothesis which we allow to proliferate rather than to use moral precepts (shaped like forceps) to deliver us the truth about something without us having to weigh things up.

That is to say: how to do you know a man walked on the moon. he may have skipped. he may have pranced. he may have been in a basement in Hollywood. It doesn't matter. The point is that words are arbitrarily assigned, and that their meanings a lot less stable than speech often suggests. But simply because we see language and reality as indeterminate it does not mean that we abdicate all opinions, merely that we become falliblists.

And if a man J Ross' age found his superstitions in Derrida then, well, that's a round about way to get to Nietzsche isn't it? What, was Nietzsche too camp for you? Were you like, "ew, I've heard this Nietzsche guy is all about idle twilight and getting one over on man. That's not the kind of roughage I'm into! i won't even bother to read him?"

4:23 pm  
Anonymous Rich Meros said...

@ Nestor

Your problem is that you didn't read the interview, you just took down to earth's representation of JR and Derrida and ran with it. If you look at the actual interview, you will see that Derrida is lumped in with poststructuralists of all ilk as a reply to a question about postmodernists. The hyperlink, BTW, of representations on postmodernism goes back to a February 2009 blogging by the Maps on postmodernism. I say this for the interests of clarity.

4:34 pm  
Blogger maps said...

The hyperlink the last commenter mentions goes back to a discussion on this blog a couple of years ago between myself, Giovanni Tiso, Jack and many others about Derrida and other thinkers: I just thought it, along with avarious other odds and bobs I linked to, might make interesting reading alongside the interview.

This stuff about men walking on the moon reminds me weirdly of the title-poem in my book To the Moon in Seven Easy Steps, where I ripped off GE Moore's famous proposition 'I know that my body has never been to the moon'. Moore offered this claim as an example of something which he knew for sure to be true. It's ironic now to think of the claim that men have walked on the moon being used as an example of something which is incontestably true!

I don't have a problem, though, with treating either Moore's claim that he had never been to the moon or down to earth's claim that men have been on the moon as incontestably true. If we can't be sure that an early twentieth century Oxford don never visited the moon and if we have to give credence to conspiracy theories about faked moon landings them we're in serious trouble.

As Richard notes, though, a statement or general position which seems untenable for a philosopher can be the raw material for a novelist or short story writer or poet, because creative writers operate according to their own, very different logic, and can thrive on what seems paradoxical and even irrational. I might know rationally that my body has never been to the moon, but my imagination might think differently...

5:37 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Actually, I just looked Moore's essay up on the net, after not having seen it for about fifteen years, and this is what he has to say about the question of the location of his body:

'There exists at present a living human body, which is my body. This body was born at a certain time in the past, and has existed continuously ever since, though not without undergoing changes; it was, for instance, much smaller when it was born, and for some time afterwards, than it is now. Ever since it was born, it has been either in contact with or not far from the surface of the earth...'

Somehow I turned this into 'I know that my body has never been to the moon'. It sounds better, anyway...

5:43 pm  
Anonymous down to earth said...

["creative writers operate according to their own, very different logic, and can thrive on what seems paradoxical and even irrational"]

Translated as: we can say what we want and no one can hold us to account.

OK. But why take you seriously then.

7:01 pm  
Anonymous Pete O'Keefe said...

When one worships one’s self as god, then supporting Marxism, and those who follow Mohammad is natural. In the New Age one can do whatever feels good.

Placing limits on one’s self like morality is extreme. Marxism, and false religions like Islam are more comfortable as both lead individuals away from the G-d of Noah, Abraham, and Moses. There is no god in Marxism, and one can never know the god called Allah.

7:27 pm  
Anonymous Johnny Twosheds said...

My head hurts. Can't someone sing a nice song?

9:52 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

The reference to Derrida paradoxically leads in fact (in the interview) to a more or less "humanist" approach or thought by Jack (and as a writer, and thus, a thinker) he comes of course from a "traditional" source, and his readings and influences are not just Kathy Acker, or Derrida, or earlier symbolism or surrealism, or sci fi (it may include some or all of these and or more), but he has read the classics, and knows and respects the tradition (but perhaps not as enthusiastically as Harold Bloom the advocate of the Great Western Canon and Great Books). One main book mentioned is Apuleius's 'The Golden Ass' which is also called 'Metamorphosis'. The protagonist in that book is changed into an ass and has many adventures. The last section there is an account of (I think it is) Ovid's version of the Psyche and Eros story (James Merrill made great poem based on that story). So we are coming from at least one thousand years ago. And the Arabian Tales go back further. They are stories, shear stories. (Or are they only? But they surely have magic of the story.

Derrida and postmodernism might be important but Modernism, classicism and Romanticism also play a part as well as the tradition (even and especially when working in opposition to that tradition). Literature, history and the interplay of ideas are continuous process. A dialectic.

I myself don't fully grasp Derrida et al but I am interested in him and others and their approach but this doesn't mean I embrace or endorse "mad theories". I actually think that 9/11 could have been an "inside job" but that is not because I have read a lot of postmodern writing...I have only read one sentence by Derrida... the rest I know (and what I have gleaned from Barthes and Derrida and some critical books etc.)

I like the essays of Barthes but I also like Montaigne and Huxley and Updike say (of "Odd Jobs") as essay writers) from critcal books or whatever. For me it is all (modernist to postmodernist philosophy) pretty hard follow (& rather abstract) but then so is a lot of other philosophy.

The point is that in many modernist or postmodernist or "experimental" texts and essays nowadays a lot is going on: many strands and genres and media, much juxtaposition of culture from different places and times. Not too much is assumed to be true.

Ross's EMO may or may not be "great" book but it is certainly original and interesting. (Sometimes in some of the pages it is quite eerily intense.)

By the way Jack and I probably disagree on a lot of things, and this as it should be, but there is no questioning that Jack has he ability and much erudition. And writers (and thinkers) need to read a lot, whatever they do or believe.

10:50 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Kathy Acker is similarly challenging, but she is not everyone's cup of tea.

Much of Ross's works deal with many of the issues we all, loss, loneliness, injustice and the abuse of power, sex, and much else; as well as being focused on play and the interplay of language and image etc. This is in its own way a continuation of the tradition. But by moving away from traditional forms writers such as Ross stimulate new ideas and new (or more intense) ways of seeing these questions)(or this world), the the new and old questions.

EMO is thus not just a cold and ridiling book. It has irony and even humour and some darkness but there is a vein of concern and as as human, without being "soft" (if it is not perhaps Humanist) as say Victor Hugo or any other great writer (Romantic or 19th Century or...but again, EMO doesn't avoid certain frightening questions posed by new technologies and the future. Ross seems even more concerned than I am about the fate of human beings...sometimes one feels he is perhaps too ornate or complex, but, as I say that is an emanwe have thus more interesting book. After all a lot of writing or art is "superfluous" is hard to create a "great questioning narration" and something new, as well as a concerned and "moral" book, shall we say.

But intertextuality is important also.

Has Ross succeeded? I am not sure. It is for sure however, that EMO is quite an extraordinary work.

Don't fixate on Derrida or whatever...or whether men have been to the moon - it probably doesn't matter whether the US went to the moon! The landed on the moon just as we heard about the My Lai Massacre.

10:51 pm  
Anonymous Genevieve Alsoran said...


I am glad we are talking about seriousness. But when you say 'we' are in serious trouble, I am not sure of the we you are meaning. Could you elaborate?


down to earth
ha ha! yes, of course, why take writers seriously. perfect. if we could all take them less seriously then perhaps they would write less seriously and the liberal ironists amongst us would get a bit more traction. But you, sir, sound like you've something weightier on your mind. prey tell... where's it at? what's grinding your teeth?

11:34 pm  
Anonymous Pete O'Keefe said...

sPostmodernism (actually thats not even a word - is totally tied in with Obama and his Muslim world state agenda. And his communism.

The tenured radicals who inhabit our universities not only lack that ability, they lack the ability to make sense of what they've read. They give mediocrity a bad name.

I've been at university (Albany) for a term, before I got asked to leave for getting high grades and knowing and shaing the name of the Lord. So about. I know what its talking about.

Einstein/Marx was an utter fool, andastoundingly smug about it.

I'm amazed that there's more of a connection between these Islamist terrorists and our good ol' leftist pals than I thought -- I thought that it was primarily the leftists' fault to begin with, but, wow!
This proves it, postmodernism is evil (as if we didn't know that already).

Postmodernism = relativism.

"The Rule of Law", upon which American government is based, is only one of the "Christian worldview" founding principles that is incompatible with the relativistic worldview.

Relativists are a threat to human liberties when they are able to obtain enough power and control.

So shoud postmodernist be allowed to ruin universities like little Massey?

11:50 pm  
Anonymous Pete O'Keefe said...


Because leftest ideology flows from Islam and its prophet. It isn't a new philosophy. It is stoneage male dominance and he who carried the biggest club ruled the tribe. It was insane then, it is worse now because lefty women who have no clue are buying into the propaganda that Islam is truly peaceful. The other side of the story is the Identity and Nations people using the insanity that is Islam to bring recruits into their *different-people* hate groups.
In short, it is politically correct because it can be a useful tool for either side, and either way, it is a lie.

11:53 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

"JR says that Derrida convinced him that every truth is artificial, just a thin layer of invented concepts that covers up the essential meaninglessness of the universe. But then he condemns Hitler and Stalin and Augustus. Who is to say that they were evil or liars if truth does not really exist?"

Thoughtful points. Perhaps such questions are what such books as EMO provokes and should indeed provoke.

He may actually simultaneously condemn and celebrate them. I myself have done...I would love to see all life, all the cosmos, as part of an inevitable and mysterious weave. (But this may not be JR's approach)

I celebrate and feel deeply for David Gray and Hitler as well as say (think of a very kind humane and "noble" or non disturbed person!)

I think that the answer is that no one can say (anything certain re the probity of) of Hitler or Stalin. We could say that they are wonderful and believe it. (Or we could say they are not wonderful and believe that.)...They are part of an extraordinary and strange and fascinating reality or unreality as you may see it or may not. (We don't have to care about anything, nor do we have to be logically consistent).

But any the philosophy that includes uncertainty is that which brings us into conflict with the black reality of the universe. But however we go with that, we remain human, and real...and philosophy is only a rough guide for us here...our views on Hitler and right and wrong (however those concepts are or can be defined) are shaped by social knowledge and much else.

Our more complex beliefs or philosophic views don't always help us. Somehow we "know" that Hitler is evil. (Or do we? How do we "know"?) Or we know and feel certain things are wrong regardless of this deep uncertainty.

In fact it doesn't have to come via Derrida. I am influenced myself by Jacob Bronowski's writings in "The Ascent of Man" [he is however, to me, a bit too optimistic!] In that book he talk of the importance of the Uncertainty Principle and much else...That is my view. It doesn't lead to us being 'better' or more noble, but it means we are less sure, and can then choose. We may or may not chose to see Hitler or whoever as "bad" but we are less arrogantly sure of anything.

I am not an academic. I have always worked outside universities in factories and so on most of my life excecpt when I was a lineman. Jack is an academic but he bewails that a little in the interview, but there is nothing wrong with being a teacher or an "academic"...that is also work, and also a reality.

But, in my view, I don't think that we CAN be so sure that Hitler is, say, "evil" and some other person or historically significant person is thus "good"... these choices are not in conflict with the realization of that deep feeling of the uncertainties of existence and meaning.

Nor does it mean we cant usefully use logic.

This is a complex issue.

I might believe the moon is made of cheese, but I decline to have it for dinner! I might think that in theory my (close relations) might not exist, but I can still love them deeply...we are strange and contracdictory beings.

There are no certainties. We cant ever be "assured of certain certainties." (T S Eliot's "Bradford millionaire)

11:58 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

down to earth said...

" ["creative writers operate according to their own, very different logic, and can thrive on what seems paradoxical and even irrational"]

Translated as: we can say what we want and no one can hold us to account.

OK. But why take you seriously then."

You should never take any creative writer seriously.

12:02 am  
Blogger maps said...

Golly, Pete, I've just seen you add two posts in about two minutes, and I wonder - more specifically, I worry - at your stamina. Remember, dear comrade, that you were banned from this blog last year after overloading a fairly innocent post about union work at Auckland university with dozens of cryptically vituperative epistles...

Genevieve: I was just thinking about the many controversies this blog has invited over the years by highlighting and lambasting various forms of pseudo-scholarship and pseudo-history. As the archives show, I've had run-ins, in the court of public opinion and in the High Court, with a persistent Holocaust denier, and I've tackled the various racist theories which hold that white people arrived in New Zealand thousands of years before Maori and developed an advanced civilisation which Maori conquered and plundered. 9/11 Troofers have also suffered from slings and arrows fired off merrily from this blog. As far as I'm concerned, Holocaust deniers, progenitors of absurd theories of ancient white civilisations in New Zeakand, and 9/11 Troofers all deserve sustained bombardment: they not only advance views which are absurdly wrong, but they advance these untenable views with an unpleasant politicial agenda in mind.

If epistemological standards are to be dropped so low that they can't even support the contention that GE Moore was a thoroughly earthbound creature, and that the claims that the moon landings were hoaxed were complete bollocks, then I don't see the case against Holocaust denial and the argument against the notion that whites are the tangatua whenua of New Zealand can be sustained. If we can't be certain even about basic stuff like GE Moore's lack of levitational skills and the reality of Neil Armstong's moon walk then we are essentially bowing in the face of a very extreme version of epistemological nihilism. We are lobotomising ourselves. But I don't believe for a moment we'll go down such an absurd road.

12:09 am  
Blogger maps said...

down to earth: think about HG Wells' War of the Worlds, a fine novel, and the raw material for an above-average musical, as well as -regrettably - an execrable Tom Cruise vehicle.

Wells describes an attack on Earth by an advanced Martian civilisation. I'm not sure if Wells believed that malevolent chaps lived on Mars when he wrote The War of the Worlds more than a century ago, but the wonders of modern unmanned space travel and robot probes mean we can now discount the possibility.

Does this discovery at all affect our opinion of Wells' novel, though? Do we treat The War of the Worlds as a proposition stating that Mars has an advanced and aggressive civilisation? If we do, then we must can the book, in the same way we would can a discredited claim by an empirical scientist or an illogical claim by a philosopher.

In reality, of course, the fact that The War of the Worlds is based upon a fictional rather than real portrait of Mars does not affect our reading of the book. We get our pleasure and our enlightenment from other aspects of the text.

Arguably, Wells chose to make Martians the invaders of the earth and the despoilers of complacent bourgeois England because he wanted to carry out a radical and perhaps slightly sinister thought experiment. He wanted to imagine a force powerful enough to throw the smug, increasingly wealthy nations of imperialist Europe into a profound crisis. He wanted to make Britons and other imperialist peoples experience the sort of devastation which their armies had brought to distant lands during sordid events like the colonialist 'scramble for Africa'. He wanted to show the oppressors what oppression felt like. Unable to find a credible opponent for European imperialism in the cosy fin de siecle world he inhabited, Wells turned to Mars. The question of whether the Martians actually existed was irrelevant.

What I'm trying to suggest is that The War of the Worlds is a book which takes a position which is untenable on empirical grounds, and is probably irrational in other ways too, and turns it into a powerfully impressive work of literature-as-thought-experiment. What seems to a scientist or a philosopher like an untenable claim can be the raw material for an eloquent and vastly informative work of literature.

12:27 am  
Anonymous Pete O'Keefe said...

LOL Thanks for the olive branch Maps...

I don't come here t fight but to bring the gospel of the Lord.

Quite a lot of what I say is taken from the Free Reublic check it out yourself.

In the end Yahweh knows.

But he has many names and many disguises.

Peace to you all.

There is a surreal quality to this thread where the comments go on for a ways and then there is...

silence? lies?

Listen in the reeds for the harp of God.

The have logic that you can't comprehend.
Surely you're not that naive?

I really Jack Ross/Richard Taylor may have opened the doors for the wheels to finally come off the obama bull shit machine...... Of course time will tell, but anyone with half a brain can see the writing on the wall...

good night to you all and god bless once again...

12:48 am  
Anonymous G Alsoran said...


oh I don't truck with those other epistemological nihilists you are talking about. the thing about taking writers seriously was about creative writers. much the same point as richard makes.

then again, the consensus is that neil armstrong did not walk on the moon. i've never seen anyone else move like he did? you call that bobbing about 'walking' - I think that's what they mean. he certainly didn't do the moonwalk on the moon. so what did he do? and i am not expecting some analysis of walking - we'll not replay Diogenes and Plato chat about man as a featherless bi-ped.

9:02 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pete O'Keefe...fuck off

9:24 am  
Anonymous Rich Meros said...

I think it's time to make the point again that was mentioned by Nestor earlier and that is the point of fallibilism. As a friend of his, I can quite confidently guess that by invoking fallibilism he is making a gesture to the great, late Rick Roderick, who borrowed the term from the pragmatists to show that relativism and nihilism don't go hand in hand.

Roderick says that there are no actual relativists and to pretend that there are is just making a straw man out of epistemological issues. So it is not that relativists have no beliefs. Obviously they do. But the point is that they are not certain, at a meta level, that their beliefs are true. Perhaps, like the ironists, they experience unease at the final language sets that they use to describe their beliefs (which, given that they are often also liberals are quite strongly held beliefs). And so the relativist is fairly well convinced of her belief, and yet has a belief about their beliefs.

Again, this is only my guess at the use of the term that Nestor makes. i could be wrong.

9:38 am  
Anonymous herb (SAL) said...

heh...just to put this all into context...

Statement of the Revolutionary Socialists of Egypt

Glory to the martyrs! Victory to the revolution!

What is happening today is the largest popular revolution in the history of our country and of the entire Arab world. Mubarak’s departure is the first step, not the last step of the revolution

We will not accept to be guard dogs of America and Israel

This system does not stand alone. Mubarak, as a dictator was a servant and client directly acting for the sake of the interests of America and Israel. Egypt acted as a colony of America, participated directly in the siege of the Palestinian people, made the Suez Canal and Egyptian airspace freezones for warships and fighter jets that destroyed and killed the Iraqi people and sold gas to Israel, dirt cheap, while stifling the Egyptian people by soring prices. Revolution must restore Egypt’s independence, dignity and leadership in the region.

The revolution is a popular revolution

This is not a revolution of the elite, political parties or religious groups. Egypt’s youth, students, workers and the poor are the owners of this revolution. In recent days a lot of elites, parties and so-called symbols have begun trying to ride the wave of revolution and hijack it from their rightful owners. The only symbols are the martyrs of our revolution and our young people who have been steadfast in the field. We will not allow them to take control of our revolution and claim that they represent us. We will choose to represent ourselves and represent the martyrs who were killed and their blood paid the price for the salvation of the system.

A people’s army is the army that protects the revolution

Everyone asks: “Is the army with the people or against them?”. The army is not a single block. The interests of soldiers and junior officers are the same as the interests of the masses. But the senior officers are Mubarak’s men, chosen carefully to protect his regime of corruption, wealth and tyranny. It is an integral part of the system.

This army is no longer the people’s army. This army is not the one which defeated the Zionist enemy in October 73. This army is closely associated with America and Israel. Its role is to protect Israel, not the people. Yes we want to win the soldiers for the revolution. But we must not be fooled by slogans that ‘the army is on our side’. The army will either suppress the demonstrations directly, or restructure the police to play this role.

Form revolutionary councils urgently

What we need right now is to push for the socio-economic demands as part of our demands, so that the person sitting in his home knows that we are fighting for their rights. We need to organize ourselves into popular committees which elects its higher councils democratically, and from below. These councils must form a higher council which includes delegates of all the tendencies. We must elect a higher council of people who represent us, and in whom we trust. We call for the formation of popular councils in Middan Tahrir, and in all the cities of Egypt.

Call to Egyptian workers to join the ranks of the revolution

The demonstrations and protests have played a key role in igniting and continuing our revolution. Now we need the workers. They can seal the fate of the regime. Not only by participating in the demonstrations, but by organising a general strike in all the vital industries and large corporations.

The regime can afford to wait out the sit-ins and demonstrations for days and weeks, but it cannot last beyond a few hours if workers use strikes as a weapon. Strike on the railways, on public transport, the airports and large industrial companies! Egyptian Workers! On behalf of the rebellious youth, and on behalf of the blood of our martyrs, join the ranks of the revolution, use your power and victory will be ours!

Glory to the martyrs!

Down with the system!

All power to the people!

Victory to the revolution!

11:26 am  
Anonymous Pete O'Keefe said...

Most people live in the real world. They have to. But some people have the luxury of living in their heads. They have the leisure time to imagine an ideal world organized in an ideal way and run by ideal officials.


I was immunized against the elitism I was exposed to at the university.

Immunized by CHRIST.

12:07 pm  
Anonymous G A said...

I rather like the idea that all these sagacious middle-class folks fancy that they want their kids to experience the limits of their minds to make them as humble as humble pete (yet perhaps not so applepious).

I like the idea that these real world middle class dwellers consciously accept the university daydreamers, and, in fact encourage them to think and think and think, so that their children have a wild old time from 18 to 22 and then hit their own real worlds when they are expected to get jobs.

and so the real world dwellers see create these expansive minds as simply another specialisation. these real world people don't scream against these all-in-the-head types. they appraoch them with a mix of humour, pity and envy. humour in that they don't see why these people take such removed questions so seriously. pity for the despair these all-in-the-head folks seem to constantly be in. envy for the apparent leisure and occasional profundity of these all-in-the-head folk.

but idealism is not just the preserve of these people. the free-market is idealism, god is aeutopian and the discourse of immunization is distopian.


12:26 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why is it any literary posts here tend to get submerged under political bickering? I'll recognise that politics informs the work under discussion, but cannot agree that the work is determined by its politics. Anyway, Richard: some good approaches to Emo. I'm looking forward to reading it (once I've finished the imaginary museum). Maps didn't happen to do some judicious editing, by any chance?


12:59 pm  
Anonymous g said...

they probably get submerged cos literary theory, outside of politics, is as dull as dull.

1:24 pm  
Blogger maps said...

'literary theory, outside of politics, is as dull as dull'

True. But politics without the arts and the imagination is equally dull. We need somehow to find a balance. Unfortunately, this discussion thread is rather unbalanced, and in more ways than one...

2:06 pm  
Blogger maps said...

And as for the idea I edited down the interview! Has anyone ever seen a *longer* interview!

2:07 pm  
Anonymous RAG said...

I wonder where your response, maps, would be in terms of epistemology other than a position against relativism. Why not bring EP into it? Or are you going the way of Habermas or Rawls?

2:47 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Hi RAG, I spelt out my position at rather tedious length in this post back in February 2009, and so didn't want to make everyone suffer by restating it in this thread:

I think Derrida et al had a right to question the hubris of both right-wing American social scientists who believed they could turn every bit of reality into a statistic, and Stalinist thinkers who constructed a teleology of history into which every human society was awkwardly fitted. To that extent, the postmodernist critique of over-precise language and 'grand narratives' of history is justified. But the absence of narrative and the aboliiton of precision are quite as oppressive as overtidy categories and overarching narratives.

I think Derrida et al got their knickers in a twist because, like Derrida all those centuries ago, they set the bar for what counts as 'truth' far too high, and forgot that meaning is created by ordinary people living in communities performing useful tasks, not by academics in seminar rooms. Here's a quote from the piece I linked to earlier:

...the whole paradigm Descartes had put in place was questioned by Martin Heidegger. In his 1928 book Being and Time, Heidegger dismissed the Cartesian notion of an isolated individual sitting down and discovering absolute, eternal truths through a series of deductions or thought experiments. Instead of following such a path, Heidegger tried to draw attention to the 'pre-theoretical' aspects of our thinking - that is, to the presuppositions that we bring to the table when we think about any subject. We do not choose these presuppositions ourselves - they are given to us by our environment, our history, and our traditions. All thought is therefore both social and historically situated.

Nothing seems more absurd to Heidegger than the notion of the philosopher painstakingly accumulating a list of true statements about the world, one statement at a time. In a famous passage of Being and Time, Heidegger aks how we could possibly understand even a simple object like a hammer in isolation from the context of its use. Even if we do a painstaking phenomenological description of the hammer's shape and surface, we will grasp nothing of its nature, because its nature derives from its relation to a whole set of other objects - nails, wood, and so on - and to the uses humans make of it. A hammer simply cannot be understood in isolation; nor, for that matter, can anything.

Heidegger's arguments were repeated (though less interestingly) in the mature philosophy of his contemporary Wittgenstein, and both men echoed, although they did not know it, some of Karl Marx's broadsides against philosophy in texts like the 'Theses on Feuerbach'. Philistine Marxists often interpret their master's claim that 'practice' is the test of all theory as a celebration of political activism as the be all and end all of human existence. But when Marx talked about the primacy of practice, he was not urging his followers on to more paper sales and recruitment drives - he was arguing that the world, human beings, and language exist together in an indissoluble unity, and that it is pointless to try to examine one without reference to the other.

The spectre of radical scepticism which had haunted Descartes seemed to Marx, as it would later seem to Heidegger and Wittgenstein, like a pseudo-problem. It was only because Descartes set the bar for reliable knowledge ridiculously high - only because he accepted only absolute, eternal knowledge, derived through stringently logical thought - that he got worried about such a ridiculous matter as whether or not he existed. Descartes' daily decision to feed and dress himself - his practice - gave the lie to his doubt about whether or not he existed.

3:09 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Angry Arab has been fretting about the possibility of stagnation in the
Egyptian Revolt. He argues or rather hints that the occupation of Tahrir
Square could become the be and end all of the strategy of the revolutionists
and that could prevent them from breaking out. Certainly the regime is
working closely with the Americans to undermine the revolution. That is a
no brainer.

Yet these are still early days. the Egyptian Army seems to be continuing its
policy of not slaughtering the people,. but at the same time working to
clear the streets and to render as much assistance as they can to the regime
short of a brutal crackdown. Thus they pushed the people in Tahrir square
but they met with determined resistance. There is a very moving photo of the
crowd five deep standing in front of the tanks.

This snip from is worth reading in this context:

*Our Cairo sources further report that the effort to restore normal activity
in the country was only partly successful. There were long lines outside the
banks which had been closed for most of last week. And when account-holders
finally reached a teller they were dismayed to find a $10,000 cap on
withdrawals. Many of the ATM cash machines shut down after a short time. The
markets reported deliveries of no more than 40 percent of their regular
The police presence was patchy, consisting mainly of traffic cops and
officers on the beat at markets and stores. The Interior Ministry's security
squads, the government's main law and order enforcers, were nowhere to be
seen on the streets of Cairo. They feared a settling of scores for their
brutal crackdown in the early stages of the protest.*

If the security squads remain scared of the people, then the revolution is
not yet in terminal trouble.

What of the role of America? The initial reaction of the Americans can be
summed up with one word "Israel". That was and still is the sole litmus
test. What ever happens in Egypt must protect Israeli interests. What of
American interests? Recently Gen Petraeus half muttered that pro-Israeli
policies cost American lives. American lives though are cheap to the
American elite. However what of business interests?

Will the tail continue to wag the dog and will Netanyahu and the Zionist
lobby remain in charge of what constitutes American interests? It looks
like it. But I have difficulty in believing that this will always be the
case. But first it would seem that the revolution must mature and really
threaten American business, before the relationship with Tel Aviv comes
under threat.



3:46 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Y the FUCK does Ross Brighton

Ross Brightone, geddit...

of course you geddit you fucken morons

not figure more prominently on this blog?

Ross is young and hungry.

Forget these old fucks.

kr - nc

4:00 pm  
Anonymous Nestor N said...

sounds Althusserian, bro. you know, you pray therefore you believe, and it is only a short step from there to Hegemony and Socialist Strategy and the work of Chantal Mouffe to show how the work of Derrida, in particular the idea that the constitution of any group is based on that which is outside of it. Now, if you're saying that truth is constructed by practice and not in isolation then you're totally in line with what Derrida is saying. Derrida was basically, and this is how Rorty frames it, doing to Heideggar as Heideggar had done to Nietzsche had done to Hegel. They were all talking about the history and philology of metaphysics and the failure of the previous to make their critiques without creating a new metaphysics. But to me it just seemed that Derrida had a lot more playfulness about the whole project than the preceding people.

But to liken Derrida's approach to epistemology to the stringency of Decartes is laughable. And Derrida would laugh, "a-ho-ho-ho", you know like pepe le pew.

5:09 pm  
Anonymous nz,29,m said...

was that guy calling Derrida an angry arab. i say we have him hurled out of the club. "garcon, garcon!"

5:12 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Y the FUCK does Ross Brighton

Ross Brightone, geddit...

of course you geddit you fucken morons

not figure more prominently on this blog?

Ross is young and hungry.

Forget these old fucks.

kr - nc "

Ross is indeed Bright, but perhaps not brighter... but I don't see that he wont be written about, and he could contribute to this spiel, he is knowledgeable on postmodernism art lit theory etc

5:56 pm  
Blogger maps said...

'to liken Derrida's approach to epistemology to the stringency of Decartes is laughable'

The difference of course is that Descartes after doubting everything finds Truth with a big T and builds up a philosophy on his discovery, whereas Derrida remains stuck doubting everything. But both have the delusion that it's possible to doubt everything.
We can no more doubt everything than we can levitate to the moon.

I much prefer the approach of what we might call the practice-oriented philosophers - the ones who say 'Let's think about what we already know and show to be truthful in our pre-theoretical life outside the lab or seminar room'. Heidegger's discussion of the hammer, which I mentioned above, is brilliantly instructive, but there are many others who take a similar line. I mentioned Wittgenstein and Marx, but WV Quine and his web theory of knowledge is also very instructive.

11:04 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Here's an excerpt from an interview I like with contemporary philosopher Richard Polt, who uses the term 'everydayness' where I have been using the term 'philosophy of practice':

'It appears to me that Heidegger's analysis of everydayness in Being and Time was the initial impetus for his popularity...

This analysis of everydayness is the basis for a new way to do philosophy. Instead of doing philosophy by reflecting on an ideal world as Plato suggested, or imagining oneself as a detached subject in the mind dealing with or experiencing objects out there, Heidegger philsophizes about man already thrown into a world of meaningful things...

man in Heidegger's examination of the everyday deals with things without having to first reflect on their "substance", and that Heidegger aims to "deflate" the Cartesian or substance dualism that had dominated western philosophy up until that time.

That philosophical focus on the everyday was taken by other philosophers, despite being misinterpreted often, and was hugely influencial. In French philosophy alone we have Sartre's examinations of interpersonal relation, Merleau-Ponty's critique of perception, Lefebvre and the Situationists' critique of Marxism for ignoring everyday life, and many more.'

11:11 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Polt is just waffling.

11:36 pm  
Anonymous Nestegg said...

oh boy,

i mean, you can be a radical democrat without taking on the whole Heideggar garish-heidi identification with man as experiencing the world pre-reflexively, like some child skipping through the swiss alps collecting daisies.

though it does have a lovely aryan ring to it

why not just side with the fallibilists? just say, that you have beliefs that you hold strongly, you know, due to all of our book learning, but in the end you could be wrong about them. and you could be wrong about the possibility that you could be wrong. wouldn't you rather be a soft relativist with the cool kids than a stuffy old Marxist pretending to have a lived experience in common with the pre-reflexive people?

12:12 am  
Blogger maps said...

I think you're really caricaturing what the phrase 'pre-theoretical knowledge' means. Here's the key phrase from Polt:

'[hu]man[s] [are] already thrown into a world of meaningful things'

We all grow up, learning language and learning how to think, within a nexus of things and people to which we are related in various ways. Meaning is something we get as part of the complex sets of relationships into which we're 'thrown' when we enter this world and grow in it. Meaning's a package deal.

It is a mistake to try to understand meaning, and to try to build a philosophical system, by isolating individual features of the world - by taking them out of the relationships which give them meaning, and analysing them.

Descartes wanted to arrive at one incontestable proposition and then build from there. Russell and the Logical Atomists wanted to build up a system of correct propositions one proposition at a time. There have been extreme reactions to this sort of project which have seen people denying the possibility of finding truth in any proposition.

This atomistic approach to philosophy is as absurd as taking an artefact out of the ruined city of a newly-discovered ancient civilisation and trying to analyse it and establish its meaning in isolation. The artefact will only make sense alongside other artefacts, and inside some sort of account of life in the ancient city.

In the same way, harking back to the example used upthread, somebody unfamiliar with a hammer will never grasp its meaning without understanding the complex web of relations - with objects, like nails and wood, and with people, like carpenters - in which it existed.

You don't have to use Heidegger to make these arguments. I mentioned WV Quine, who argued that all our beliefs about the world make up a sort of 'web', connected to and supporting each other, and that it therefore makes no sense to analyse isolated propositions about the world.

For Quine as for Heidegger, it is not possible to claim that everything is false, or that we can doubt everything. The very sentences in which we'd try to frame such claims are self-contradictory ('all statements are false', for example). In order to doubt some things, we have to believe other things.

12:50 am  
Blogger maps said...

Just to answer the question:

'why not just side with the fallibilists?'

As far as I can see - and forgive me if I misunderstand you - you mean by 'fallibilism' the view that human knowledge is a shaky thing, that we have to be careful to avoid intellectual hubris, and that we cannot be confidently sure that any one of our beliefs is true, though we can have a bit of a hunch.

As I said upthread, I've got no problem at all with the way that some postmodernist thinkers have reminded us of the dangers of massive intellectual systems and sweeping teleological narratives of history. I think such reminders were particularly useful in the '60s and '70s, when the rival dogmatisms of right-wing positivism and Stalinism cast spectres over the Cold War world and the academy.

I get off the bus, though, when people start talking about the meaninglessness of all claims about the world, or the impossibility of knowing whether any claim about the world is truer than any other. The claim that we can't be completely, confidently sure about any knowledge-claim - that we can only have a hunch - is a little less extreme than the 'we can't know anything' line, but I still disagree with it.

I know with absolute certainty that millions of Jews were slaughtered in Europe in the 1940s by the forces of Nazi Germany and their allies.

Now, of course, I'm aware that I don't and can never know the precise number who died, and I'm aware that there are ambiguities in some of my terminology which could be queries (what do you mean by Nazi allies? what exactly counts as Nazi Germany? etc etc).

I'm also aware that, for reasons which I gave in my previous comment on this thread, my claim about the deaths of millions in the Holocaust is dependent for much of its meaning on a series of other beliefs I hold. It is, to use Quinean language, part of a web of beliefs.

When I claim that millions died in the '40s then I am also implicitly making a whole series of other assertions. I am claiming that there is a group of people known as Jews, that there was an entity called Nazi Germany, that there was a period in time called the 1940s, and so on and on.

But I nevertheless believe with absolute certainty that millions of Jews were killed by Nazi Germany in the 1940s. I have this certainty because, despite the inevitable imprecisions of some of my language, and despite the fact that my belief rests partly on other beliefs, I have overwhelming evidence for the truth of the event we call the Holocaust.

This evidence comes wrapped up in language, and gets filtered through my many background beliefs, but it is nevertheless real and overwhelming. Language and my background beliefs do not obscure the evidence: they allow me to experience it. Words are not completely hermetic, autonomous things: they can be records of human history and thought. When I read Tadeuz Borowski's autobiographical accounts of life in a death camp I am not lost in some linguistic game of infinite indeterminacy: I am a witness, albeit an historically distanced witness, to the horror of the greatest tragedy of the twentieth century.

Do you have more than a hunch about the Holocaust?

1:30 am  
Anonymous Nests said...

To start with, I think that it is a straw man of the poststructuralist that you are presenting, some imaginary poofy haired man (1/3 Derrida, 1/3 Baudrillard 1/3 hyena), who throw up his hands and says "i know nothing! nothing!"

And by the by, the role of post-structuralism today is against (a) the absolute certainty and authority of scientists as they drift from negating hypothesis in the lab to suggesting biological and psychological truths and (b) the same paleo-conservatives as they absolute certainty of economic liberalism, with a few remaining jibes for the (c) analytic philosophers who maintain their search for universal truths and fundamental origins. I think that you and they agree: philosophy is dead.

I would say "I am certain the Holoaust took place" as you have described, but am not sure is to the function of adding absolute. Is the addition of absolute aimed at the refutation of the deniers? I suppose that it is. But why quantify your certainty?

For example, down here in Wellington, we are absolutely positively Wellington. It sounds to me like we have more doubts than if you were to say that we were certainly Wellington. These superlatives don't make for super lattes... they just make us seem desperate and uncertain as we try to conquer the world with an espresso machine.

But back to the point. What else are you absolutely certain about? Anything? It seems quite slippery once we need an extra qualifier to certainty. As a fallibilist I would stick to my certainty, as produced by my evidence, but I wouldn't close the files on more, closely scrutinized evidence. Thats also not to say that I wouldn't act with as much suspicion about the holocaust deniers if I met your man Kerry at a Willis St brunch.

why was the Holocaust worse than Stalin's handiwork? as you mention endways... i heard he knocked off tens of millions

oh and for clarification, I think that you read too much nihilism into the playfulness of poststructuralist authors-you seem to read it as a flirtation with the insanity of infinite indeterminacy. i see it as a freedom from needing the starched uniforms of the the-buck-stops-here experts. but don't worry, my girlfriend is on your side, but no need to get into the psychology of that (an American).

apologies to Mr Ross, I know how much it sucks when a thread. I will certainly read your EMO if I like the first ten pages.

9:59 am  
Anonymous Nestor Notabilis said...

oops... just reading the Guardian about some Hitler card game where they had this to say:

"A copy of the €10 game – which has no connection to Top Trumps – was seized at the Nuremberg toy fair on Friday. Hitler appears alongside Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin and Joseph Stalin. The Nazi is the top trump – der Blitztrompf – because he was responsible for the most deaths – 55 million, according to the game. Other categories include "age at taking power", "time in power" and "private wealth"."

It makes me wonder if Hitler has been accorded all of the WWII deaths. Whatever it was, it seems that more died as a result of something else that Hitler caused...

10:07 am  
Blogger maps said...

A thoughtful reply, Nestor, which I'll have to chew over.

I suspect that you might be erecting your own straw man when you talk of scientists 'drifting' from 'negating hypotheses' to asserting 'absolute certainty and absolute authority'.

You suggest that scientists are philosophically naive and ready to jump to dogmatic conclusions on the basis of their empirical work. I think such a suggestion ignores the modern history of the philosophy of science, which has often found ways to affirm rationality and the growth of knowledge without being hubristic, and the influence of this philosophy on practicing scientists.

There are some extremely subtle and thoughtful discussions about methodology and about the problems of theory-building within various the sciences (if Edward Ashby is reading this thread he'll probably talk about a few of them).

You appear to suggest that scientists should restrict themselves to 'negating hypotheses', but to take this line would be to take a fairly fundamentalist view of what scientists are supposed to do. As post-Popperian philosophers like Imre Lakatos and Quine have pointed out, individual hypotheses rely for their cogence on a whole network of other hypotheses, and the falsification of one hypothesis seldom kills off a theory. Most theories, in their early stages, are ballasted by speculation and by what Lakatos calls 'ad hoc manoeuvres', as they struggle to get a grip on their subject area. Only over time are they made more rational and consistent. Falsification is a process that can take decades or even centuries, and it is not the only way to test a theory: as Lakatos noted, prediction can also be important.

Derrida was without doubt a good man, without a bigoted bone in his body, but his well-intentioned yet badly off-key contribution to the Paul De Man controversy makes me doubt how compatible his approach to thinking is with a robust opposition to Holocaust denial and other forms of bigoted irrationalism.

For readers who might not know about the De Man controversy and Derrida's role in it here's an introduction I found online:

11:18 am  
Blogger maps said...

Bugger, here's that link again:

11:19 am  
Anonymous Nestor Ninetails said...

oh yes, Derrida made all sorts of stumbles. and I wouldn't know if he was good or not... though reading his reply to a fourway Mouffe, Critchley, Laclau and Rorty conference I can offer the completely contextless quote from Derrida "I believe in happiness".

In terms of your reply and the de Man controversy, a fellow whose writing and controversy I am unfamiliar with, I can barely manage a retort. Will a snuffle do?

I don't feel that focussing on the Holocaust is a very good place to set the legitimacy of the sort of everyday 'hammer' knowledge you mentioned earlier or the language communities debate. Do you know what I mean?

Sorry, but re-reading that last post by NN, I feel so empty, having stumbled over the finishing gloss of three or more sentences. It is like I have spilled soup on my blouse. Embarrassed, I will now probably retreat from this discussion.

12:16 pm  
Anonymous Johnny Twosheds said...

I'll just sing to myself then.

9:13 pm  
Anonymous Edward said...

Just wanted to say this has been a rather interesting discussion to follow, and of a kind I seldom enjoy to watch elsewhere. I do find it difficult to grasp when people are asked what philosophical school they belong to, as, at least to my laymans mind, all philosophical schools are not without their problems or paradoxes.

Falibalism, for example, sounds fine when we think of the possibility that knowledge claims could be mistaken, but there surely comes an inevitable point when such non-answers become tedious and inconsequential. It may be, again, my laymens take on it, but even when we move to the related epistemology of pragmatism we can run into trouble. Rationalism (I tentatively label myself as having scientific rationalist tendencies) is also full of problems, and falls short of providing knowledge for every kind (i.e. metaphysics, human experience).

To me it becomes uncomfortable to align myself with any particular stance, yet, like Maps, I am no fan of relativistic (or even 'soft relativistic') approaches when it comes to explaining or examining the world. This is not to say that I have issue with critical theory or postmodernism, on the contrary, I think it informs us of much, but I like it when Maps says:

"Language and my background beliefs do not obscure the evidence: they allow me to experience it. Words are not completely hermetic, autonomous things: they can be records of human history and thought."

I also tend to agree with Maps' opinion that the following is a bit of a straw man:

"the absolute certainty and authority of scientists as they drift from negating hypothesis in the lab to suggesting biological and psychological truths"

I've never met a scientist who holds themselves to have 'absolute certainty' about a phenomena, let alone hold 'absolute authority' over any scientific truths. My reading and experience of science is that an argument, hypothesis, or theory is only either less correct or more correct based on the weight of evidence - never 100% wrong or 100% right. A sound theory is a very strong working (and continually evolving) explanation for a phenomenon which is evidenced by a varied and mutually supporting web of evidence. Some philosophers of science call this 'tacking'. I also think it a bit unfair to assert that scientists jump from 'hypothesis testing' to biological or psychological truths in a single haphazard bound. It is one thing to mindlessly test hypotheses, but without explanation you might as well save your time and never bother pursuing science at all. In my own field of archaeology, the postprocessual movement of the late 70s and early 80s began to look solemnly at the problems of theory-building (Ian Hodder springs to mind), and developed a school of thought almost obsessed with philosophers of science and methods of knowing.

I guess I am just of the opinion that epistemology which is scared of attempting explanation is usually of little use in reality.

11:14 am  
Anonymous Rich Meros said...


The fallibilist stance is less about not explaining and not having beliefs and more about having the meta-belief, about your beliefs, that they could be wrong. I would say that the tendency to see psotstructuralist thinkers as getting all quagmirey about evidence and explaining is that they are dealing with, or trying to deal with, social phenomena that are so intricately linked to that under study that a scientific method perverts their workings.

For example, in my book 'On the conditions and possibilities of Helen Clark taking me as her young lover', I show how the writing of the book itself becomes the most likely source of any possibility that the former PM would take me as her young lover. And how would one theorise a situation like that? How, I asked, might things play out?

In terms of absolute certainty, the reference was to Maps' discussion that he was absolutely certain that the holocaust took place, you know, regardless of people like Giorgio Agamben's (or was it Primo Levi?, no I think it was Agamben) analysis that links the term holocaust to a type of self-imposed Jewish suffering. Did a large scale, self-imposed Jewish suffering take place?

Now, obviously, he would say it did not take place. He would say something else took place. You may say that in reality the deaths of millions of Jewish people took place, and I would agree, but when we get into discussing history, only a small percentage of the analysis is fact asserting, and much more is the framing with particular languages. I find an investigation of this language to be the reality in which we comport both our self-as-identity work and our relation to others.

Finally, my reluctance to accept the scientist as the final arbiter of truth-seeking is based on the link between the institutions the scientist pursues research through and their economic foundations. I have met too many people who's focus of study is determined by business and military interests to be comfortable with the results generally tendered. This is not to say the theories that come out of any rigorous, scientific study are invalid and I am more than happy to accumulate opinions based on this research. But too often I feel that that which is presented has been popularised either by the media seeking to extract a story, or by the 'scientists' themselves, who know how well a public profile will work for their careers. This sort of environment leads me to skepticism of the truth claims made by scientists in, yes, toto.

11:51 am  
Blogger maps said...

I quite agree with Richard Meros that scientists should not be the ultimate arbiters of what is true and untrue. But most scientists would probably oppose that idea, too.

I like the way that Hans-Georg Gadamer and, in a different but related manner, people like William Morris and EP Thompson have argued against a rigid separation between aesthetic and scientific thinking.

Gadamer talks of a subtle, partly subjective 'judgement-based thinking' being increasingly supplanted, in the twentieth century, by a crudely quantitative 'calculative' mode of thinking which is falsely equated with the scientific method. I suspect that many practicising scientists would acknowledge the role of subjectivity and even aesthetics in their work. They're not usually responsible for the way their trade is presented in the media and used by corporations.

Richard seems to want to try to reconcile his certainty that millions of Jews were killed by Nazi Germany in World War Two with his commitment to fallibilism by reviving the notion of a rigid distinction between facts and theory. He seems to want to present the deaths of millions as a fact about which we can be certain, but then suggest that we can put many different theoretical interpretations on this fact. We can know facts for certain, he suggests, but theories are another matter.

The trouble with Meros' new argument is that it takes us back over a hundred years to the days when historians and other scholars believed that facts existed 'in the raw', free of theoretical contamination, and that a scholar's task was to gather up a load of facts then interpret them into a theory. You don't have to be a postmodernist to know that an absolute distinction between facts and theory is impossible. Every fact we encounter in our research comes wrapped up in concepts and in our own preconceptions.

It seems to me, then, that Meros' new argument contradicts the wider fallibilist position it is supposed to defend. I don't know why it is so hard to say that we know for certain that the Holocaust happened. Theory and language aren't irrelevant to us knowing this, but neither do they stop us from knowing it. They *help* us to know it.

12:18 pm  
Anonymous JJ Meros said...

no, no: I said the word 'certain' (or Nestor did) but I didn't say 'absolutely certain'. That is where I am reluctant. And so the point is not that we cannot know, per se, but that what we know today we may have to repudiate tomorrow. With this knowledge, we frame today's descriptions with as much care as possible.

I don't hold a rigid distinction between facts and theory. I'm a damned relativist, see? I don't even find those terms that useful for how I would interpret knowledge, and moreover I am not interested in work on facts. I am interested in the ways in which people, particularly myself and friends, make sense of the world. I am interested in your attempts to pin down facts in the face of other's belligerence, but it is not a game that I am rather interested in playing.

Perhaps I subscribe more to Sylvere Lotringer's methodology "I let each man choose the tree by which he will hang himself."

And so it would seem we are on either sides of Mr Gadamer. I wonder what how much subjectivity is allowed by his 'partly-subjective'? Obviously there would be some context in the broader quote but it sort of reminds me of a friend's mothers approach to discussing that old nature-nurture chestnut. First she says 'it's al nurture', but when someone raises an eyebrow she say, 'no, it's all nature', and as a mouth opens to add some thought, she says 'OK OK OK fifty-fifty. it's fifty fifty!'

If I were not trying to find common ground, I don't think I would steer very far away from Derrida's saying 'there is no outside-text', though some would have it 'there is nothing outside of the text'. I prefer the first reading.

But when you say that one encounters facts that are wrapped up, it tends to minimise the role of these surrounding concepts and our own preconceptions . I am as disappointed at this framing as the voyeur in the Matryoshka (Russian Doll) strip club. Then again, isn't the titillation in the expectation, that is to say, in the unwrapping? What say you?

1:00 pm  
Blogger maps said...

It's precisely because of the way that reality is always experienced wrapped up in language and preconceptions that it isn't very helpful to say that 'there is nothing outside the text', in the style of Derrida, or that 'there are facts, and then there are theories and descriptions of facts', in the style of an old-fashioned naive empiricist historian like (say) Elton. The second statement is false and the first is at best a truism.

What about the statement 'what we know today we may have to repudiate tomorrow'?

Do you really believe that we may have to repudiate the notion of the Holocaust tomorrow, or any time after tomorrow? Do you really believe we may have to decide that Auschwitz was a hospital or a transit camp, as the Holocaust deniers argue, and not a site of mass extermination?

It's notable that Holocaust deniers nowadays continually defend their activities by insisting that we 'can't know for sure' whether Auschwitz was really a death camp and so on. They present themselves as tough-minded investigators and accuse those who are certain that the Holocaust took place of being irrational. The reality, of course, is that it is irrational not to be certain that the Holocaust took place.

1:18 pm  
Anonymous Edward said...

I agree with much of what you say Rich, but again I struggle with the notion that our ability to know things is thwarted by language. Yes language is symbol, but some things can be known irrespective of what symbols are used, or at least that's what I think. Human interactions with the environment - where people lived and what people ate, can be known in the same way I know where my local dairy is (it's a solid building which doesn't move) and the same way you can sift through my rubbish bin to learn that I eat chicken. I think scientists (for example) do recognize that their theories can be wrong, so I am unsure where the notion of scientists as final arbiters of truth-seeking comes from? Science is an epistemic method of understanding certain kinds of things, and I am sure most scientists today don't really believe in the 'theory of everything' idea. Nor do I think most scientists ascribe to a form of scientism, whereby nothing can be known but through science itself.

The theory of plate tectonics is not regarded as 100% infallible, neither is the theory of evolution or the theory of germs, or gravity, and indeed, all of these theories have been subject to questioning and change, yet the evidence is so overwhelming and the power of explanation so much stronger than alternative theories, that these are the closest to truths we have for each respective phenomena. They are such strong theories that they may be taken, for all intents and purposes, as fact even if not true in a puritan sense. It is as if, on the irreducibly small probability that plate tectonics are actually the result of brawling ice giants, we must subject ourselves to eternal agnosticism 'just in case'. To me, overemphasis on the small probability that something isn't is not very helpful. Something to keep in mind, definitely, but something to dwell on to the extent of forming insecurities, not a chance.

1:32 pm  
Anonymous Meros said...

Well, first, I said that there are a few readings of Derrida's "il n'y pas hors-texte" - goodness me, a truism! I wonder if he would have also said "there is nothing inside the text", or "there is no inside-text". Perhaps he would have said, "there is only inside-text".

Once more, maps, i don't think there is anything consistent in saying that it is certain that something took place, and that I have a meta-belief that perhaps I could be wrong. Cursory glances at those who deny the holocaust, today, show them to have such a blatant agenda that I don't bother with them. I don't think that the issue is so tendentious that they will ever change anything. They will die; their idiocy melting away like so much spring snow.

I believe that tomorrow, or in the near future, we will have to repudiate some idea that we hold as true today. At the least we will have to reframe it. And yes, we may have to reframe the Holocaust. Maybe the murders of the other 49 million (re: That Guardian article) will take on more importance, beyond the racial elements of the genocide that gets more attention.

And so while I feel strongly about many things, about things that have happened and that should not happen again, but which will, I will not allow my strong feelings to determine my epistemological stance. Or do you think that epistemology ought to be subjugated to political, or ethical, or politico-ethical necessity?

1:52 pm  
Anonymous RJ Meros said...


Its not that language thwarts us, but that language is the condition of possibility of knowledge.

On Science: its more the ways that science is used. The scientists I have known have seemed to be careful, kind and studious. But the kinds of compromises they have had to make and way the knowledge that they produce leaves much to be desired.

Oh, I agree on all the leave sleeping theories sleep stuff. But why does eternal agnosticism seem to be something that we are subjected to seem to be such a painful thing? Obviously, the agnostic isn't waking each morning wondering if they are wrong about gravity, but the knowledge that the theory could be wrong informs a broader skepticism that, when kept as a constant possibility, will produce better results for that which is being questioned today.

I do worry, though, that there is some sort of unwillingness of people to be exposed to a psychological indeterminacy that makes them favour surety over agnosticism, and constancy over risk. I find that kind of thing pretty boring to have to live with. Ahhh, but we all have our choice about living. Touche, touche.

2:01 pm  
Blogger Dr Jack Ross said...

It seems kind of funny that all this learned discourse appears to have sprung from one remark in my conversation with Richard about having felt a certain affinity with "Derrida and the other poststructuralists" when I first started to read them.

The first commenter in the stream paraphrases this as "JR says that Derrida convinced him that every truth is artificial", whereas what I actually said was: "But then, that was obvious to me already. Isn’t it obvious to everyone? The only real question then becomes how to function in such an uncertain universe, and some of the ideas they had about that seemed quite sensible as well."

By comment 59 we seem to have worked around to something similar in R J Meros' statement: "the knowledge that the theory could be wrong informs a broader skepticism that, when kept as a constant possibility, will produce better results for that which is being questioned today."

Just another couple of points from the long meander along the way:

Nestor Notabilis: 'And if a man J Ross' age found his superstitions in Derrida then, well, that's a round about way to get to Nietzsche isn't it? What, was Nietzsche too camp for you? Were you like, "ew, I've heard this Nietzsche guy is all about idle twilight and getting one over on man. That's not the kind of roughage I'm into! i won't even bother to read him?"'

And yet I clearly state that I didn't find my relativist "superstitions" in Derrida, but rather found them confirmed there! To construe from this that I have some kind of beef against Nietzsche is too silly for words.

hd's interesting question: "Why is it any literary posts here tend to get submerged under political bickering?" is quickly countered by g's witty counterthrust: "they probably get submerged cos literary theory, outside of politics, is as dull as dull." And political bickering isn't? Literary theory might well seem dull to some, but that does translate to literature? Possibly so. In any case, hd makes the valid point that - for once in a blue moon - that's what was under discussion in the interview, at least.

"Forget these old fucks" says another contributor (one I have a certain amount of sympathy with, I must say). Nestor's own summing-up reads: "apologies to Mr Ross, I know how much it sucks when a thread [...]. I will certainly read your EMO if I like the first ten pages."

Not at all. I've hugely enjoyed watching this fascinating thread build up over the last few days. And I hereby absolve each and every one of you of any responsibility to go and check out the work in question. I fear the first ten pages would be decisive - they're just not likeable. And I say that who wrote them ...

Oh, and one more thing, despite all the learned debate in the last few entries over Derrida's famous apothegm , misquoted (alas) by Meros as "il n'y pas hors-texte." The point of the original is that it reads "il n'y a pas de hors-texte" -- in French, this makes it possible to pun on the word "dehors" [= outside], and the phrase "de hors" [anything beyond]. The sentence can therefore be translated as "there is nothing outside text" or "there is no context / subtext". However, as you all correctly note, the two statements swallow each other like a serpent's tail.

Happy blogging!

9:19 am  
Anonymous Meros said...

i don't really get why someone thinks that we're all old fucks. I'm not even 30, and Scott's probably not even 40. And all of the ranty anti-communist/obama anons are me, too, so that's relatively young... relatively, you see, as in relative to other existing conditions...

p.s. I ripped that Derrida French part from wikipedia. I don't own the book that it is from. I only own one Derrida book.

"This is not a quote"?

10:07 pm  

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