Tuesday, August 29, 2006


The Personal Canon (or, what do we mean by "I should read that"?)

This is an expansion on my pseudo-utilitarian, anti-aesthetic theoretical views expounded upon elsewhere in this blog.

There is a major problem in devoting one's life to ideas, or more particularly, books. Unless one has a prodigious talent for reading and memory (such as Harold Bloom seems to have), one cannot possibly read everything that is great, or read everything that one wants to, or read everything that one "should." There simply isn't time. So we must prioritize" we must choose what we should read and what we should pass off (perhaps for later, if death waits long enough).

In my case, I recognize the distinct possibility that I will never read another Victorian novel. This is not deliberate by any means. It is simply because when I choose what to read, I must ask myself two questions.

1. Might I enjoy this reading experience?
2. Might this work contribute something to my mind?

If you pick up a book that you won't enjoy reading, or won't contribute something meaningful in the realm of ideas, WHY ARE YOU READING IT? Should you ever read something simply because you think, "that's a well known work, I should read that"? So I don't know that I'll ever read another Victorian novel, because I doubt I would enjoy it, and I am skeptical it would contribute much to my life of ideas (and most likely the several post-modern British works I've read that deconstruct the Victorian period and its literature contribute to my lack of interest in reading Victorian novels). But I don't know--perhaps intellectual curiosity will lead me back to such books in the future.

But the two critical questions I propose are not enough for a system. The problem is that you cannot know the answer to the first question until you've at least started the book, and you might not know the answer to the second question for years after finishing the book. So students should read books that they are assigned: somebody with at least some knowledge of the work has decided that the answer to the second question is probably. And sometimes, we should read books we really don't want to because we think we should. We just might get something out of it that we don't expect or no.

So once again, no answers, just ideas.

Derrida and the Failure of Modernism

In "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," Derrida talks about de-centering. Roughly, the center is the main idea of a structure's meaning, and Derrida talks about it no longer existing (avoiding words that suggest a lack or loss of center but admitting language doesn't easily allow it). He also suggests there are two ways to approach this non-existence of the center:

"As a turning toward the presence, lost of impossible, of absent origin, this structuralist thematic of broken immediateness is thus the sad, negative, nostalgic, guilty, Rouseauist face of the thinking of freeplay of which the Nietzschean affirmation--the joyous affirmation of the freeplay of the world and of the innocence of becomjng, the affirmation of a world of signs without fault, without truth, without origin, offered to an active interpretation--would be the other side. This affirmation then determines the non-center otherwise than as a loss of the center" (888).

Editor David Richter paraphrases this way:

"Derrida contrasts two methods of freeplay, Levi-Strauss's and his own. The former is 'sad' and 'negative' in that it seeks a substitute for the absent center once provided by metaphysics; it is 'nostalgic' for origins, 'guilty' over European imperialism (...) On the contrary, Derrida's system of freeplay, like the philosophy of Nietzsche, is 'joyful' in its affirmation of the power of the will to assign and alter all values. For Derrida, the lack of a center betokens freedom, not loss of security" (889).

I've written here before of my waning interest in modernism (not the modernist aesthetic so much as the modernist weltenschaaung). A modernist is distressed by chaos, nostalgic for old values, generally sad about the loss of traditional authority and traditional center (the most important concept in modernism is probably "loss"). A post-modernist celebrates the loss of the traditional authority and center, for it connotes freedom to the individual. The non-centeredness means that we are free to explore and define meaning in new ways that can be independent of the center.

(These quotes are taken from: Derrida, Jacques. "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences." The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, 2nd edition. Ed. David Richter. New York: Bedford:St. Martin's, 1998. 878-889.)

1 comment:

  1. i met someone the other night at our pirate party who grew up with harold bloom as a family friend. she says she knew him as the man who could hardly dress himself. funny.