I Like __ A Lot
Five Works of Theory You Should Consider Reading
It always surprises me when creative people admit they don’t enjoy reading theory. Aside from the bountiful inspiration of ideas it provides, certain theoretical works can also inspire formal techniques. For proof, check out E.M. Cioran’s approach to the philosophical prose poem in something like The Temptation to Exist or A Short History of Decay. Or check out Luce Irigaray’s lyricism in This Sex Which Is Not One. Tons of other examples abound, from Baudrillard’s fragments to Benjamin’s montages, Blanchot’s récits to Bataille’s grotesques.
Part of the aversion to theory, as far as I can tell, comes from the mistaken assumption that the genre we call theory should be read differently than the genres we call fiction or poetry, because it’s “critical” rather than “creative.” On the contrary, I think it’s quite productive to read theory as if it were poetry or fiction, which is to say as if its primary function was to affect rather than educate.
I recognize that my position is contentious. I’ve taken heat in the past for advising people to suspend their desire for comprehension while reading theory. For reasons unknown, some readers still think understanding a text is important. I’m not one of those people. I read theory and fiction and poetry to experience, to consider, to become other, to shift, to mutate, to change. I most certainly do not read those things to understand them.
What follows are five works that lend themselves to a reading strategy conducive to works of fiction or poetry. Granted, between poetry and fiction a demarcation is said to exist, and granted some read the one different than the other, and granted different styles within different genres require different heuristics, I think readers would benefit from considering the following works as “creative” rather than merely “critical.”
Syncope: The Philosophy of Rapture
by Catherine Clément
Around the 290 page mark of A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari distinguish between “assemblage haecceities (a body considered only as a longitude and a latitude)” such as a mountain, a marble, or a marmot, and “interassemblage haecceities, which also mark the potentialities of becoming” such as the individuality of a day, a season, a year, a life, a climate, a wind, a fog, a swarm, a pack, etc. In other words, different kinds of thingness. Consider syncope the ecstatic liminal experience of an interassemblage haecceity manifesting.
Clément seeks out syncope as unlikely paradigm and poetic metaphor in music, literature, psychoanalysis, philosophy – and, courageously, in life. She finds it in various physical mental, musical and more far-flung places: held breath, cold sweats, cerebral eclipse, epileptic seizure, delayed beats in a syncopated jazz rhythm, the backward dip in the Tango, orgasm and between urine and feces in Left-hand path Tantric ecstasy, and in a host of related phenomenon, she tabulates the sundry time-outs, disruptions, breaks in linearity and involuntary secessions from the space-time continua wherein syncope gains its foothold and human beings can achieve ecstasy.
by Michel Serres
To become this book, to become any of the books I am listing, to allow the infection of them to circulate through you, the way you greet them is paramount: let go. Do not resist, do not indulge in negative reaction, allow the words to work in you, fall into them in the same way a skateboarder falls into a halfpipe: when standing at the top of the pipe you must lean forward and commit your body to gravity despite the scary sensation of losing control, of imminent threat. Move with the force of the text, not against it, the way you turn into a skid should your car spin out in the snow.
A brief explanation of the title of Serres’s book might help, a book that was originally published in French as Le Parasite. In French this terms has three meanings: 1. biological parasite; 2. social parasite; and 3. noise. Noise is a term from information and systems theory to describe the interference that occurs when a message is being transferred between a sender and a recipient along some channel. Serres argues that noise, which we can also call nonsense, disorder, chaos, is fundamental to the transfer of a message: this would seem contrary to what we would normally understand noise to be, that is, merely a nuisance. Serres draws out the positive quality of noise or interference to suggest that it is out of noise that new systems and patterns, and perhaps even new ways of thinking can emerge.
Glas by Jacques Derrida
“As a piece of writing,” wrote John Sturrock, in his review of the English translation of Glas for The New York Times, “it has no known genre.” I would disagree. I think the genre is clear and obvious: badass, irreducibly singular, anomalous, experimental literature. Unfortunately, you might have to sell a kidney to get a copy of it.
Jacques Derrida’s Glas (1974) may be one of his most important and yet least read publications…variously described as “Derrida’s chef d’oeuvre”, “Derrida’s hypertext”, or “a Fleurs du Mal of philosophy”, makes the boundaries between ‘coupure’ and ‘crochet’, digest and vomit, philosophy and literature, book and electronic media tremble.
Glas (1974) by Jacques Derrida is such an antibook. Each page of Glas is divided into two columns: the left offers passages from Hegel with comments, while the right is a commentary on the French novelist Genet. Paragraphs set in and around other paragraphs and variable sizes and styles of type give the page an almost medieval appearance. There is no linear argument that spans the columns, yet the reader’s eye is drawn across, down, and around the page looking for visual and verbal connections. And the connections seem to be there, as words and sentence fragments refer the reader back and forth between Hegel and Genet.
Crack Wars: LITERATURE ADDICTION MANIA (Texts and Contexts)
by Avital Ronell
The scholar Gregory Ulmer, who happens to be a UF Gator and therefore (I guess) my sworn enemy or something, has said that “Avital Ronell is perhaps the most interesting scholar in America.” Whether you agree or not, Ronell is, I think, unquestionably in the running. I could’ve easily listed other of her books; two I’ve loved in addition to this one: Stupidity and Dictations: ON HAUNTED WRITING. Keep in mind that she studied with Derrida and Cixous, and she was friends with Kathy Acker, so intellectually speaking she rolls deep.
Literature as quintessentially narcotic.
Avital Ronell asks why “there is no culture without drug culture.” She deals with the usual drugs and alcohol (and their celebrities: Freud’s cocaine, Baudelaire’s hashish, the Victorians’ laudanum), and moves beyond them to addictions that are culturally accepted–an insatiable appetite for romance novels, for instance, and romance itself.
by Gloria Anzaldúa
This book has haunted me since my first encounter with it. And perhaps more than any other, this book has had a profound effect on my thinking in terms of identity. Before Borderlands, I don’t think I’d ever seriously thought through what it means to be a middle class straight white guy. Understandably, I reacted passionately against this book when I first read it, probably seven or eight years ago. I took it as a full frontal assault on my identity. At the level of content, it seriously pissed me off; but on the level of form, I loved it. Sometimes when things piss me off, I take that as a sign of the thing’s success. To provoke such a strong reaction, Anzaldúa had to have been doing something right. So I spent time with it. I read it again and again. Over time I came to realize that the reason I disliked it so much was because it held a mirror up to my privilege and when I saw my face in the mirror I was embarrassed and ashamed of my complicity. I was mad at Anzaldúa because she had shown me the Hyde lurking behind my Jekyll. Now, I am so thankful that she did that.
In a radical genre she calls autohistoria, which offers an innovative way to write history, Gloria Anzaldua presents a non-linear history of both the geographical and psychological landscapes of Borderlands. Anzulda’s autohistoria is a genre of mixed media—personal narrative, testimonio, factual accounts, cuento, and poetry—that refutes stasis just as the Borderlands from which Anzaldua comes.
In Borderlands, Anzaldúa tenses racial, class, and sexuality differences to the limit by subjecting them to the category of being female, being poor, being Chicana, and being lesbian, living in English but thinking in Spanish.