The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

Month: January, 2015

An Almost Total Want of Arrangement

Disciplinarity is a concept which the current blog has long found somewhat questionable. Nor does interdisciplinarity make the thing any more appealing. For interdisciplinarity presupposes disciplinarity, and that epistemological inquiry – or in outdated humanist terms, the pursuit of knowledge – must rest on the merging of disciplines is contrary to this blog’s stance, which calls not for the merging, but the dissolving of all disciplines. Disciplinarity is a function of the modern age. A function, perhaps partly, of the fact that we know too much. it was once conceivable to know everything. The position of The Last Person to Know Everything is one that has had many pretenders. It was often, and still is sometimes, said about Goethe (d. 1832), to give perhaps the most well-known example. Now, we are all agreed, it is impossible to know everything. Hence disciplinarity. Disciplinarity, then, needs to be historicized as a condition of knowing too much and of having developed technological and scientific methods of great complexity; not naturalized as the condition in which knowledge is found

We may still have something to learn from the Condition-of-England debate of the mid-19th century, one of the last occasions, perhaps, when public discourse transcended the disciplinary. And who better to exemplify that state of affairs than Thomas Carlyle, the writer who invented the term Condition-of-England in Chartism (1839), and set the terms for the debate in many other ways. What was Carlyle?

The range of Carlyle’s output and certain details of his life have evoked numerous attempts to categorize him as a Preacher, Teacher, Reviewer, Philosopher, Prophet, Poet, Artist, Man of Letters, Social and Political Commentator, Sage. None of these categories is fully satisfactory. At best they offer, and were often used by his nineteenth-century critics, as, a set of open-textured definitions, the merest starting points for reading particular texts. (Ralph Jessop, Carlyle and Scottish Thought, p. 17-18)

This is precisely the sort of thing that cannot be done in these disciplinary times. Is that wholly for the better? The complexity of systems built up in the social sciences and humanities for examining specific phenomena is impressive. But as humanity is always in a state of creating itself, and the complexities of society – or even the single individual therein – are so great as to defy systematization, it is necessary that we should leave a space for the undisciplinary. By that I mean not intuitionist approaches to knowledge, but the approach that takes all empirical evidence as its field, rather than setting out a methodology beforehand which prescribes what will be seen, and what will not be. If a methodology is a lens, then the undisciplinary process is an eye – less sharply focused, perhaps. but more wide ranging, more easily able to see peripherally and well as both up close and at a distance, and able to accept the input of the other senses before coming towards a composite picture of the affair. Just as the methodology is entirely open, so will the conclusion reached be far from full or exact.

Such a process is, undoubtedly, anathema to the more scientifically minded. The argument is that as we know our own thought processes to be inflected by social construction, we cannot simply trust our own judgements. This is true, but it is a double-edged sword, for our methodologies are also socially constructed, and we cannot trust them either. to consider these methods the more trustworthy of the two is an argument from authority. We must perform a constant dialectic between the two: the individual judgement versus the institutionally imposed method. On which side the balance should fall? At this moment, for this blog, on the side of the individual judgement. Ironically enough, I feel that I have found agreement to such a stance in Michel Foucault, the high-priest of methodologies in contemporary humanities/ social sciences. Foucault, we should remember, was a person. One, undoubtedly, who was and whose theories were socially constructed and whose personal interests come out quite blatantly in his social theories (not that I believe that should be held against him, but also it should not be swept under the carpet when we examine his theories, which do not arise from a personal vacuum – in other words, I believe in ad hominem). Anyway, quoth Foucault:

[A]t every moment, step by step, one must confront what one is thinking and saying with what one is doing, with what one is. (Rabinow, ed., Foucault Reader, 1991, p. 374.)

This is quite a contrary approach to adopting a methodology and applying it. And, I suggest, the humanities is just the place for such an approach to be defended. That is, indeed, how I would like to define the humanities, in practical terms: as a place where the methodological, the instrumental, the idea of the human as the wholly theorizable and predictable homo economicus, is absent. The methodological can be left with the social sciences – this is not a critique of these disciplines in themselves, but they are no longer in themselves – they have taken over humanities to an extent that leaves little room for the self-scrutiny Foucault called for. Instead, the space we need is one in which method is abjured, and progress is not mechanical, but is undertaken on a moment-by-moment basis, that accounts for the very specificity of the moment and the place. What would that produce? Would it be something like the following, a description of the work of the fictitious Professor Diogenes Teufelsdrockh:

Apart from its multifarious sections and subdivisions, the Work naturally falls into two Parts; a Historical–Descriptive, and a Philosophical–Speculative: but falls, unhappily, by no firm line of demarcation; in that labyrinthic combination, each Part overlaps, and indents, and indeed runs quite through the other. Many sections are of a debatable rubric, or even quite nondescript and unnamable; whereby the Book not only loses in accessibility, but too often distresses us like some mad banquet, wherein all courses had been confounded, and fish and flesh, soup and solid, oyster-sauce, lettuces, Rhine-wine and French mustard, were hurled into one huge tureen or trough, and the hungry Public invited to help itself. (Sartor Resartus, I, 4)

This blog says yes. History and philosophy are to be taken, not as disciplines apart, but as open-textured definitions, more or less useful in the given case for performing the fundamental task of the study of the Teufelsdrockhian Things-in-General. To be any more specific than Things-in-General would be to do the critical endeavor a disservice. It is time for knowledge to acknowledge itself as “some mad banquet”, not a set menu from which ingredients may be chosen singly or combined methodically. We will still have to choose our subjects, but we will answer for them on a moment-by-moment basis, in response to a world that knows little of disciplines, and does not arrange itself for the benefit of our categorizing endeavors.

Žižek on Hebdo

Perhaps one of the more interesting responses to the Charlie Hebdo massacre has come from Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, published in the New Statesman. Or there may be many more interesting responses, but I haven’t read them. My reading on the subject has been fairly desultory. Žižek in this piece takes an almost psychologizing angle, trying to get into the mind of a terrorist, and reaching some conclusions thereon. Hereafter, I paraphrase his argument (possibly misreading, but who’s keeping score?)

The rage of the terrorist against Western society is, says Žižek, proof in itself that he (the terrorist) does not really believe that images of Mohammed are an offence against God. The true fundamentalist, Žižek argues, would have no interest in punishing those who offended God, as he would be secure in the knowledge that God can look after himself. But the terrorist is filled with rage because he has, partially, at least,* internalized western standards to the extent of feeling his own shortcomings in relation to them. The terrorist then, is not an arch-fundamentalist, but in his consciousness occupies a mid-point between the real fundamentalist (marked by “indifference”, to use the term Žižek employs), and the cynical, jaded subject of Western culture (marked, I suppose, by another kind of indifference).

It is perhaps presumptuous to try and get into the mind of a terrorist in this manner, especially when no attempt has been made to look at the empirics of the manner. Why did not Žižek look into work that had been done on terrorist psychology with terrorists themselves? The answer is that he is a theorist, and a writer. It is the quality of Žižek’s response that we want to read; we don’t want the facts, not from him, anyway. In other words, the Author is not Dead, no matter what one hears to the contrary. To begin to agree or disagree with Žižek, one would have to have some knowledge of the empirics of the situation. This, of course, the present writer does not have.

Yet the present writer is of course reminded of the Carlylean Imagination, totalitarian in its implications, as many have said, filled with rage against society as then constituted. Whence Carlyle’s rage, as expressed, not in acts of terror, but in brutal diatribes against Blacks, the Irish, the Poor, the Idle, and so forth. Certainly it did not come from a true and absolute fundamentalism. Carlyle’s personal correspondence and his posthumously published Reminscences make this clear: he was a tortured soul, always lacking the comfort of true fundamentalism. Nietzsche, another philosopher with a penchant for psychologizing, put it perhaps most incisively: “Carlyle is an English atheist who makes it a point of honour not to be one.” Hence, perhaps, Carlyle’s sadistic and brutal rage, and it is just possible that this is something he shares with those drawn to acts of terror.

*The “partially” is mine. Žižek just says the terrorist has internalized said standards, but had he wholly internalized them (if it’s even possible to wholly internalize any ideology), then surely he would simply be a normal, Western citizen. The terrorist mentality is, surely, better thought of as product of a war within the consciousness between  the standards of the parent-culture (which, Žižek seems to be saying, the terrorists secretly believe – or at least suspect – is inferior: I say “seems” because Žižek in the passage quoted only specifically says the terrorists believe themselves inferior, but it is in the context of their “cultural-religious identity”) and those of the target culture. It is the inability to arrive at an acceptable ideological reconciliation that produces a defensive rage (perhaps).

From Žižek’s essay in the New Statesman:

[He’s riffing on Yeats’ line “The best lack all conviction while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity”] It is here that Yeats’ diagnosis falls short of the present predicament: the passionate intensity of the terrorists bears witness to a lack of true conviction. How fragile the belief of a Muslim must be if he feels threatened by a stupid caricature in a weekly satirical newspaper? The fundamentalist Islamic terror is not grounded in the terrorists’ conviction of their superiority and in their desire to safeguard their cultural-religious identity from the onslaught of global consumerist civilization. The problem with fundamentalists is not that we consider them inferior to us, but, rather, that they themselves secretly consider themselves inferior. This is why our condescending politically correct assurances that we feel no superiority towards them only makes them more furious and feeds their resentment. The problem is not cultural difference (their effort to preserve their identity), but the opposite fact that the fundamentalists are already like us, that, secretly, they have already internalized our standards and measure themselves by them. Paradoxically, what the fundamentalists really lack is precisely a dose of that true ‘racist’ conviction of their own superiority.

History, Fiction and So Forth.

In preparation for a presentation at a symposium in a few weeks, I have been reading for the first time Hayden White. White is the go-to theorist as far as the confluence of literature and history goes, and this is a direction I would like to take. We make sense of history through narrative, and we often use fictional narratives as a way into understanding historical events. To use a familiar example from my reading, in his 1859 preface to A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens says:

Whenever any reference (whenever slight) is made here to the condition of the French people before or during the revolution, it is truly made, on the faith of the most trustworthy witnesses. It has been one of my hopes to add something to the popular and picturesque means of understanding that terrible time, though no one can hope to add anything to the philosophy of Mr Carlyle’s wonderful book.

So Dickens was motivated by, among other things, the wish to enhance public understanding of the French Revolution, though he is perhaps somewhat naive in believing that the philosophy underlying that event is entirely set down in Carlyle’s “wonderful book”. He wasn’t adding anything to Carlyle’s philosophy, just reproducing it, and doing so in a more accessible manner. Two Cities has gone on to be the most popular novel ever, according to Wikipedia (albeit no proper citation for this stat is provided – but it’s one of the most popular, at any rate). Taking his Carlylean source, Dickens managed to create for popular consumption a vision of a great historical event that communicated certain ideas about that event, that posited a certain meaning of that event. There are a few ways you could formulate Dickens’ “message” in the book: perhaps the most important element was that of retribution or nemesis – the rich kind of deserved it, or at least brought it on themselves:

It was too much the way of Monseigneur under his reverses as a refugee, and it was much too much the way of native British orthodoxy, to talk of this terrible Revolution as if it were the only harvest ever known under the skies that had not been sown—as if nothing had ever been done, or omitted to be done, that had led to it—as if observers of the wretched millions in France, and of the misused and perverted resources that should have made them prosperous, had not seen it inevitably coming, years before, and had not in plain words recorded what they saw. Such vapouring, combined with the extravagant plots of Monseigneur for the restoration of a state of things that had utterly exhausted itself, and worn out Heaven and earth as well as itself, was hard to be endured without some remonstrance by any sane man who knew the truth. (Two Cities, Bk. II, Ch. 7)

So it was a harvest: it didn’t come from nowhere. This is, in a way, quite a benign and optimistic reading of the French Revolution. If you don’t want a bloody harvest, then don’t sow one! It was a matter of injustice, cruelty, selfishness on the part of the nobles. Be less selfish and more open to change, and revolution won’t happen. This was not a meaning for the past or about the past, it was a meaning derived from a narrative of the past that was applicable to Dickens’ own contemporaries (or so he thought). He doesn’t really make this explicit, but coming on the back of the several explicit Condition-of-England novels he had just written, such a reading is hard to avoid. He does say in the famous opening that the time in question was very like “the present period”. History is not just history, it also has lessons for the present and the future. The present is the past, give or take a variable number of elements. What the past  means, then, is very important for reading the future and for future conduct. Therein lies its interest.

Hayden White, as a theorist of history, says that, “ideology is the central problem of intellectual history because intellectual history has to do with meaning, its production, distribution, and consumption, so to speak, in different historical epochs” (190). Each epoch, then, has to produce meaning anew (though never wholly anew, either, always inflected by the past), and the task of the intellectual historian is to analyze the means by which meaning is produced within different social and cultural milieus. White’s approach to this is purely semiological, based on an apparent belief in the possibility of outlining a sophisticated sign system at play in any given work, and citing Barthes’ S/Z as a model (196). The faith in semiology dates White a bit, though even at the time the book was published (1987), semiology was already passed its heyday in the humanities. White uses it here for an interesting reading of The Education of Henry Adams, a book I haven’t read. The Education is an autobiographical text, therefore factual, therefore a historical document. Biography is by definition on one end of the scale in terms of truth; fiction is at the other.

Biography 1. the process of recording the events and circumstances of another person’s life, esp. for publication (latterly in any of various written, recorded, or visual media); the documenting of individual life histories (and, later, other forms of thematic historical narrative), considered as a genre of writing or social history.

 Fiction 4.a. The species of literature which is concerned with the narration of imaginary events and the portraiture of imaginary characters; fictitious composition. Now usually, prose novels and stories collectively; the composition of works of this class.

Biography documents; fiction invents. But really what biography can ever be wholly documentary, and not at all subjective? And what fiction can wholly escape the world? Do we not always read to find something out about the world we live in? Even fantasy obeys rules of realism in the realms such as that of character motivation, if not in that of setting (but, again, how many fantasy setting are recognizably of this world – Game of Thrones is basically set in the European middle ages, for example [with dragons]). So, invention and documentation are on a continuum: fiction cannot be wholly fictional; documentary cannot be wholly documentary – but in relative terms, a text may be more or less fictional, and by implication less or more documentary, without approaching the absolute in terms of either concept.

Historical fiction is thus the paradigmatic text. It is avowedly both documentary and fictional, both of the real world and of the world of the imagination. It explicitly is what other texts effectively are. Avrom Fleischmann sets out some criteria for a historical novel in The English Historical Novel:

1 The plot must include a number of historical events, particularly those in the public sphere, mingled with and affecting the personal lives of the characters.

2 At least one historical figure must appear in the novel.

and, more abstractly

3 The novel must convey, by imaginative sympathy, the feeling of how it was to be alive in another age.

Time-wise, Fleischmann suggests that the historical novel has to take place at least 40-60 years in the past, which he admits is somewhat arbitrary.

Apropos of the last point, I would suggest another reasonable way of gauging it would be that the novel must be set in a time before the target readership were born; or,alternatively, before the author was born [this would probably have a significant overlap with Fleischmann’s criterion, as – guessing – I’d say the majority of books may well be written by persons aged between 40 and 60.]

Apropos of 2, I don’t think there is any historical figure in Two Cities, but it would seem odd to suggest that it is not, therefore, a historical novel. Indeed, it is one of Fleischmann’s primary discussion texts, and he doesn’t mention its failure to comply with his rule at all. Still, I would prefer to see it as an exception to a decent rule, rather than a proof of the invalidity of said rule. Classically, in novels like War and Peace. one will find real historical figures mingling with the fictional characters.

There are also novels of contemporary history; and narratives of contemporary history in other media. One thinks of a series like The Newsroom, in which the plots revolve around actual news stories, be they the Trayvon Martin case, the Petraeus affair, or whatever. But what is the purpose of such narratives? Do we as receivers use narratives to help us think through important public issues? Or do authors use such events to foist their ideas on us, and to tell us how to think about such matters? Some do, certainly. But there is no choice. We cannot use narrative for pure escapism; we are shaped by reality, and it is always with us. We can only begin to analyze the ways in which reality inflects our imaginative works, and the place to start is those works which are both imagination and factual; from here we can begin to understand how imagination works with and works on reality. Narrative cannot shape physical reality, but it can shape our ways of perceiving it, and we, in turn, shape in more or less important ways the physical reality that surrounds us. The way we shape it may well be in line with the narratives we hear and internalize. W.B. Yeats once asked, “Did that play of mine send out/ Certain men the English shot?” The answer: I don’t know about that case specifically, but in general the stories we tell ourselves and each other do seem to empower us to act in certain ways. The great religions of history are built on stories; more recently we have tried to remove the narrative from our understanding of the world; science deals with the physical, laws and charters with the moral. Narrative is relegated to the subsidiary role of entertainment and escapism – and rightly so! I don’t want to suggest that we should live according to some story to which we ascribe divine significance. If we could take stories for what they are, as being always completely sui generis, and not as representations of deep and unalterable general truths, we would perhaps be better off. But can we? And by “we” I don’t mean me. I mean, arrogantly, all of those persons for whom a story has an extractable lesson, a nutshell, a content inside and outside the form, for whom it attains the grandeur of a moral lesson, even a foundational myth, even The Word of God. All of those people who experience events and stories symbolically, and who seemingly have to do so to find this world livable.

A story is only itself, just as a fact is only itself. A story about a fact is many things, a dialectic of event and reaction, and a shadow of many other events and reactions. There is no end to the things it can be. But it can never be one exact thing, except, tautologically, its ungraspable, indefinable, practically inexistent self.

Avrom Fleischmann, The English Historical Novel: Walter Scott to Virginia Woolf (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1971)

Hayden White, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1990)

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