Notes on resistance

irritated about extreme outrage

sign at the Stewart-Colbert Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, 2010 (image source)

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A note by way of foreword, or forewarning. As I write on my “about” page, I am no expert in any of the subjects I blog about here. I write and publish these posts feeling confident in and not even particularly bothered by the probability that someone has written before and much better about the subjects I’m blogging about. Where that proves to be the case I actually do hope you let me know, though I can’t promise I’ll read or follow up (ars longa vita brevis and all that).

I think of this condition of motivated ignorance (more or less) as not accidental but rather essential to my blogging; it’s why I’m interested in writing (blogging) about one topic and not another in the first place. If a subject impels me to serious thought but doesn’t immediately and entirely reveal itself — no matter for these purposes or to me at this stage if my intuition is correct or not — I’m more likely to make a blog post of it. Another way of saying this is that for a topic to eventuate in a blog post it has to hold my attention at a middle distance — neither so short that I get tired of thinking about it after reading a few articles/writing a few sentences, nor so long that I end up mired in mounds of material and with an unwanted book project on my hands. (I’m thinking of an excellent talk I heard Marjorie Levinson give recently at the NASSR 2014 conference in Bethesda, MD, about a middle-distance mode of analysis as essential to understanding a literary genre such as lyric, if not the workings of genre as such.) The sheer volume of excellent “Bartleby” criticism I encountered in thinking about and writing this post threatened to tip it into a much longer project than I anticipated…I feel lucky to have escaped in under 3000 words.

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My aim for this blog post is simple: I want, as briefly as possible, to relocate the concept of resistance from the domain of the will to that of the (predominantly negative) affects. By rethinking the basis of political resistance I want to (re)claim as acts of resistance some mundane responses of irritation, aggravation, or intolerance — negative affects, “ugly feelings” as Sianne Ngai calls them, none of them especially lovable — occurring regularly in daily life and on the same spectrum, I argue, with more easily recognizable forms of political defiance. I hypothesize that resistance — like intolerance, to which it’s related — is not in the first instance a principle or creed or program, or even necessarily a fully formed idea. Rather, resistance is more in the character of an autonomic affective event, a somato-sensory occasion accompanied by at least minimal acknowledgement (perception) of the event. In the political sphere, resistance is not an action, necessarily, but the acknowledgement of a strong negative feeling — which feeling and/or acknowledgement may, but needn’t be, acted on. This acknowledgement almost always begins in rejection, a recoil or radical estrangement from circumstances judged to be intolerable. “Intolerance” is thus fittingly another name for this mechanism of rejection and recoil.

I describe resistance as springing from intolerance, essentially founded on intolerance, and want to explain what I mean in light of the fact that intolerance is not generally recognized as being among virtues the left seeks to cultivate. Indeed insofar as tolerance is among the core values of liberalism (and has been at least since Locke), intolerance is typically charged to the right as the sign of a benighted hostility to difference. Part of this blog post comes from my suspicion (intuition, strong feeling, whatever) that intolerance is a more interesting and politically productive response than that. (I’m obviously inspired here by Sianne Ngai’s effort in Ugly Feelings to “recuperate negative affects for their critical productivity” [3] — and at the same time share her caution against romanticizing these feelings too.)

…Now I’m almost too embarrassed to turn to this text in discussing political resistance, knowing as little as I do about it, the author, the scholarship, etc. But none of these limitations held (or ever holds) Žižek back, so:

Consider what is (in the U.S. at least) the canonical literary case for thinking political resistance, Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853) and its hero’s famous phrase, “I would prefer not to.” Bartleby’s action is inaction, or as the narrator labels it, “passive resistance.” Beyond being an obvious and persistent source of trouble to the narrator of the story, Bartleby is troublesome to the principle of narrative as well, at least so far as fictional narratives are typically understood to feature characters who either act or are acted upon. An inert force at the center of the story, Bartleby occupies virtually the entirety of the narrative without becoming any more intelligible (to the Lawyer or to us) than he was from his first appearance in it.

Ironically for a story with such a profoundly arid main character, “Bartleby” has proven extraordinarily fertile for thinking the politics of resistance. The significance of the character and of Melville’s “Story of Wall-Street” to the Occupy movement in NYC and worldwide is well known and was well documented at the time (see for instance here and here). The bizarre career and influence of “Bartleby” has been just as prominently marked in contemporary fields and industries associated with the scrivener’s profession. No other literary work has remained so indelibly attached to the institutions of literary production and consumption. Melville’s title alone has spawned two major companies representing these spheres of literary consumption and production, respectively:, a massive, post-scribal electronic archive of the world’s classic literature, and Scrivener, the word processing program designed for authors.

How we read Bartleby’s peculiarly inert force in Melville’s story, and thus the unique power of his passive resistance, will of course depend to a great extent on how we read the declaration “I would prefer not to.”  Here is how Leo Marx describes Bartleby’s famous phrase in his influential 1953 essay [JSTOR link], by most accounts a watershed for modern readings of Melville’s story:

“‘Prefer’ is the nucleus of Bartleby’s refrain, and it embodies the very essence of his power. It simply means ‘choice,’ but it is backed up…by will.” (621)

Marx reads in Bartleby’s phrase, in his preference “not to,” an exercise of choice backed by the faculty of will — choice and will implied here as granted by nature to autonomous human beings, and to a minimal degree at least protected by law. Standing at the head of a mighty stream of modern criticism on and political appropriations of Melville’s classic tale, Marx unfolds from Melville’s story and from Bartleby’s famous phrase all the nascent terms for understanding political resistance in the second half of the twentieth century and beyond. Choice, will, agency, reason, defiance — these are qualities we typically ascribe to acts of political resistance; even today these terms seem to structure our understanding of politically resistant action and personhood.

But though choice and will are undeniably compelling and commendable qualities, they are explicitly not the terms Bartleby offers to describe his act of resistance. That these are not Bartleby’s terms is plain from a brief early exchange with the narrator [for the text of Melville’s story see the version freely available online at]:

“I would prefer not to.”
“You will not?”
“I prefer not.”

Žižek’s 2006 assertion [pdf article link] that Bartleby’s phrase needs to be taken literally is both eminently commonsensical and obviously also a gesture in sympathy with the unsettlingly radical conservatism of Bartleby’s quiet protest — both in general and in this particular case against the Lawyer’s slippage from “preference” to “will.”

In “Bartleby,” the scrivener’s “I would prefer not to” is precisely not an expression of willful action and heroic defiance. Instead, the story invites us to think of resistance as taking origin in some poorly defined and understood though powerfully and clearly felt affective response. Resistance is in this sense something closer perhaps to an instinct or a “gut reaction” than to a considered opinion or belief. Bartleby’s paradoxically negative assertion is founded on a judgment, as civilly expressed as possible, of disaffection, distaste, disgust. Intolerance of this sort is typically understood as a form of protest at the bodily level, a physical aversion to and rejection of certain objects or stimuli, food or noise or light, etc., as in the widely reported condition of lactose intolerance. “Intolerance” and related terms — disgust, revulsion, aversion, resistance — is often applied to forms of jointly physiological and ideological response. These autonomic operations of the limbic system, spasms of amygdalic or epiglottal refusal and recoil, cut across and communicate between these separate domains.

What I want to emphasize here is resistance’s orientation in the regions of the gut, linking the mundane complaint of lactose intolerance (say) to more vividly particularized forms of resistance and recoil such as Cayce Pollard’s aversive physical reaction to certain brand logos and icons in William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition. Following Ngai’s lead, Aaron Bady observes the “peculiar communicative efficacy of negative affect” in “Bartleby.” What gives these ugly feelings their peculiar efficacy is that they communicate with perfect clarity and precision without the subject’s ever once appearing compelled to make them intelligible. As with complaints of the body, one may not know the cause of upset but know very well from the fact of upset that something is deeply not right.

Physicians describe digestion as an autochthonous system of the human body, operating synchronously but not isomorphically with the workings of the brain and central nervous system. The gut-mind is capable in other words of “thinking” and delivering with clarity and authority conclusions that the mind-body may not (or not yet) be able to reach. The connection of these kinds of autonomic somatic response to Melville and “Bartleby” is not far-fetched: Ralph Savarese has a 2003 article [article pdf link] illustrating in “Bartleby” and “Cock-A-Doodle-Doo! (another story from 1853) Melville’s extensive engagement with contemporary medical texts that tie the pains of dyspepsia and other digestive complaints to the social ills of modernity. Resistance, like intolerance, is a potent reminder that while some things can be swallowed or stomached, some things simply can’t.

Of course, too much trust in judgments issued from a subjective point of view leaves one open to charges of solipsism based either on ignorance (as in the case of intolerance) or on the unexamined privilege of those who enjoy the liberty to consult, speak for, and act on their own feelings. Charges of snobbery, egotism, or privilege-blindness may be true enough in these circumstances, and are in any event inescapable when judgments are made from a partial (particular, embodied, human) standpoint. The Lawyer early on compares Bartleby’s behavior to that of “the meddlesome poet, Byron” — the implication clearly being that Bartleby’s resistance, his “prefer[ence] not to,” is of a lordly character, aristocratic in temperament and behavior, as if directly patterned after the mad-bad-and-dangerous-to-know poet himself.

But the charge of egotism seems somewhat beside the point here too, in Bartleby’s case as in Byron’s. After all, the stomach may function as the condition of mindedness — as Virginia Woolf famously remarked, one can’t do anything properly if the stomach isn’t satisfied and in good working order — but is not itself “minded” at all. Many of Byron’s protagonists, his Childe Harold and Don Juan and Sardanapalus, are epicurean characters for whom bodily and especially stomach upset is the marker of deep-seated political complaint, even or perhaps especially in circumstances where it is only peripherally perceived in these terms by the complainant. The hero Sardanapalus says, ” I hate all pain, / Given or received.” Whether this position can be made a basis for substantive political action is a question held in suspension and openly debated to the play’s tragic end.

For Byron (as later, in Savarese’s account, for Melville), the monism of body and world is principally inscribed through the digestive organs. Indigestion is Byron’s figure for the body that registers and reacts against social ills and excesses, including those of the individual. In a late canto of Don Juan, indigestion gives the lie to the philosopher George Berkeley’s fantasy of “universal egotism”:

For ever and anon comes Indigestion,
(Not the most ‘dainty Ariel’) and perplexes
Our soarings with another sort of question (11:1-13)

Byron does not disclose *what* question or what sort of question, exactly, proceeds from indigestion; in putting the stomach and mind in a relationship of continued mutual “perplexity”, though, he makes clear that our mental “soarings” remain responsive and ultimately answerable to thought’s material ground.

I’m fascinated by but not especially invested in declaring a side in current philosophical debates about whether powerful emotions such as disgust have a propositional content or depend on prior ideas or beliefs. (For a good summary account of these debates, adjudicating carefully between opposing viewpoints, see Carolyn Korsmeyer, Savoring Disgust, chapter 1.) Like Ngai, I’m interested to think in more pragmatic terms about how everyday responses of disgust, recoil, and intolerance could be more widely reclaimed for political thought and action. To ask how irritation, exasperation, and intolerance might give new energy to political resistance is to revisit more explicitly the agenda of an older generation of critical theorists too. Herbert Marcuse’s essay “Repressive Tolerance,” his contribution to the volume A Critique of Pure Tolerance with Robert Paul Wolff and Barrington Moore Jr. (1965), closes with the extraordinary assertion that the left should make available for politics not less intolerance, but more. Where the ideology of tolerance fortifies rather than upsets the status quo, Marcuse reasons, the cultivation of informed and “militant” intolerance is an essential facet of resistance. Marcuse calls in the 1968 postscript to this essay for “minorities intolerant, militantly intolerant and disobedient to the rules of behavior which toleration destruction and suppression.” Marcuse finds this militant intolerance to be an action of the minority, heroic virtually on that basis alone. It is an exercise of political will, the expression of an irresistable impulse to seek freedom wherever people are unfree.

Affect theorists have in the last decade made considerable progress toward understanding how a range of everyday, mostly involuntary affects including anger, dissatisfaction, and depression might differently ground a politics in theory or practice. The more recent work of Ngai and others enters productively into dialogue with the tradition of left cultural criticism to which Marcuse’s work obviously belongs. (See, in addition to Ngai’s Ugly Feelings, Lauren Berlant, The Female Complaint; Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness; Ann Czetkovich’s scholarly-activist work on depression as a public and political feeling; Rei Terada’s work on a condition she calls “phenomenophilia,” the perverse attachment to transient perceptual phenomena, in Looking Away). More in line with this recent work, my notes here don’t make a call to action outside the potentially momentous acknowledgement of many actions already underway — forms of resistance more voluptuary, intolerant, and far more widespread than one might expect. Think of the most everyday revulsions and distastes — the daily irritations, effusions of biliousness, splenetic episodes — that punctuate a normal day: rush hour traffic, terrible drivers, oblivious pedestrians, the press of bodies on the street or public transport; interminable lines; bosses, toadyism, manipulators, assholes generally; some idiocy or other on the internet; frustration at one’s own body and physical appearance (often a submerged complaint against the fashion and beauty industries and the impossible standards they support). Think of all the things one would prefer not to do, and surely wouldn’t do if not doing so didn’t (as it did for Bartleby and many Occupiers) carry the threat of certain punishment and reprisal. The condition of being repelled by the world is not an exception any longer, but the rule — “Shit is Fucked Up and Bullshit.” The consensus generated from this great seething irritable mass may be the unacknowledged (possibly unacknowledgeable) ground for more particular individual acts of resistance and rebellion that are more readily identified as acts of political resistance and disobedience, whether civil or not.


This book comes out in October, and while on social media the title will doubtlessly inspire a lot of cheap jokes at Žižek’s expense, I’m curious to learn whether it has anything to say about the embodied politics of the “recoil” I describe here.

Deer in a liquor store

Last week a town on the South shore of Massachusetts made news for a day when a deer came crashing through the plate glass window of a liquor store, running through the aisles and to the back of the store for an exit. Witnesses speculate that the deer — panicked and in search of an escape, or, as many joked after the fact, a cold one — was made frantic by traffic on Route 3A outside.


Quick 6 Weymouth security cameras deer 2

This bizarre event, reported on extensively in The Boston Globe and in regional outlets such as Quincy’s The Patriot Ledger, took place on 8 July in nearby Weymouth, Massachusetts, a town of about 50000 people located 16 miles southeast of Boston. After crashing through the window, the deer — a doe from all appearances, bloodied from the broken glass — ran around the store for an exit. A few minutes later, and with the help of the store’s owner and some patrons who happened to be in or near the store, the deer made it outside (passing through the door this time), and ran away.

“It looked like Bambi.” 

The surveillance cameras on scene capture from several different angles a silent real-time documentary of this event. One sees how the sudden crossing of a physical threshold and (with it) a boundary between two worlds causes a brief skirmish; we see both the panic and the quick thinking of all parties involved in the incident.

The security footage is particularly striking where it captures the creature in its brief and frantic moments through this alien, air-conditioned, hardly salutary space. In freeze-frame, some of these images can look as fantastic and otherworldly as the pictures in Brittanie Bond’s The Wilderness Project, a series of photographs superimposing images of wild animals with modern cityscapes. The deer in the Quick 6 could be the subject of one of Amy Stein’s photographs in her series Domesticated, which shows animals living in intimate, uneasy proximity to humans and the built environment. And as moving footage, the Quick 6 tapes are at times visually suggestive of Werner Herzog’s documentary investigations into the bleak, remorseless, and indifferent heart of the natural world (and frequently into the hearts of the men and women, differently composed, who seek to make a home in these unwelcoming spaces). Maybe I think of Herzog because the deer in a liquor store presents a mythic inversion of the situation narrated in Grizzly Man (2005), about Timothy Treadwell’s life and death as a man alone among creatures of the wild.

Let me proceed to paint the scene in Weymouth with tints borrowed from the German master’s palette — to out-Herzog Herzog, as if such a thing were possible.

Some of the images recorded by the surveillance cameras present the deer with a simplicity or economy of line and color that suggests similar representations of these creatures in the cave paintings of Lascaux, Altamira, or the Chauvet caves where Herzog shot his documentary film Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010).

Altamira cave deer

Altamira cave, Spain (source)



Lascaux cave painting deer detail

Lascaux cave, France



deer in the liquor store camera 4 quick 6 weymouth

Quick 6 Liquors, Weymouth MA









The magnificent images of Lascaux, Altamira, Chauvet, etc. were created long before the imagined birth of Art. The Quick 6 surveillance cameras at once show and themselves epitomize a world that lives on well after the “end” of it (see: Hegel; Danto). One might read the passage from prehistoric painting to security camera footage as a transition from the first stirrings of humanism to the full arrival of the posthuman. Still, the Quick 6 images have undeniable beauty and mystery, though none of these effects were produced intentionally. Nor is it the case that the impersonal objective gaze supplied in the present instance by security cameras originally required advanced technical means for its realization. Whatever impulse first led men and women to imprint their marks on the stones and make these earliest surviving images of human and animal life, cave paintings are themselves a kind of documentary (re)presentation. The first artists made the stone walls show an image, as objective as you like, of the world when they walked outside the cave.

The deer in the Weymouth liquor store made news as one of those curious phenomena you’d typically see at the end of a local news broadcast (squirrels on waterskies and so on). But though it’s not terribly common for deer to come plowing through plate glass windows on the South shore, it’s not so uncommon an occurrence either, at least not anymore. From the crowding of species into Boston’s suburbs and exurbs, residential density and scarcity of space creates competition for shrinking land resources that affects human as well as deer and other animal populations. A web search turns up several similar news stories, all describing more or less the same event: a single deer crashes through a store window and around aisles of merchandise, causing havoc. In November of last year a similar incident occurred in Western Massachusetts, in South Hadley; in 2010, a deer crashed through another store window in Lawrence. And in the South shore neighborhood of the Quick 6, only a few months ago a deer crashed through the window of a private home. Some in Massachusetts regard the white-tailed deer population as unsustainably high, and the deer themselves as pests whose numbers should be thinned more aggressively.

What was rare about the incident in Weymouth, in other words, was not so much that a deer crashed through a window and into human space; it was that it happened this time in a liquor store, where security camera systems are for obvious reasons extensive and footage is recorded. The effect of the extraordinary in this case depends to a high degree on the particular but otherwise very ordinary environment in which it takes place.

​In a coda to his film on the Chauvet caves, Herzog introduces the albino crocodile as an uncanny link between the present world (he inventively but falsely links their albinism to exposure to water run-off from a nearby nuclear power plant) and as a bizarre vestigial reminder of the ancient world from which the Chauvet cave paintings came. But a deer in a liquor store, like the white-tailed deer population in Massachusetts more generally, is not an albino crocodile. More familiar but still not like, it is a creature with which we share (without perceiving that we share) much of a common world today. This beautiful elegant creature and many others like it occupy a world adjacent to but typically separate from ours — in the midst of and yet out of place in an environment that other beautiful elegant creatures have made.


Wordsworth on the senses

I recently delivered to Cambridge University Press the final version of a short (ca. 3500 word) essay for the book Wordsworth in Context, edited by Andrew Bennett.  I include roughly the first half of that essay here.  Parenthetical references refer to the Cornell Wordsworth editions and to the Prose Works from Oxford, the standard scholarly editions.  BL refers to Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria from the Princeton Collected Works of Coleridge.  The image below, dated 1800, is a dig at Frenchified sensuality by Wordsworth’s contemporary Thomas Rowlandson.Gratification-of-the-senses-a-la-mode-francois-Rowlandson-LWL-729x1024

   Few poets before or since Wordsworth have made sensation and the bodily senses more central to their poetic theory and practice.  Wordsworth’s famous ‘experiment’ in literary language, as articulated at the outset of the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, is conceived as a venture to impart pleasure ‘by fitting to metrical arrangement a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation’ (LB, 741). From the beginning of this programmatic document, Wordsworth makes the representation and/or evocation of sense experience central to his poetic project in at least three related ways. Wordsworth asserts, first, that the poetry concerns itself with particularly elevated expressions of passion or feeling (‘vivid sensation’), either on the part of the lyric speaker or of the characters depicted, or both.  Second, this experiment in poetic representation is principally designed to produce pleasure; as Lionel Trilling observed years ago, Wordsworth’s commitment to what he calls the ‘grand elementary principle of pleasure’ (LB, 752) and to the centrality of pleasure to poetry is virtually unprecedented in literary history.[1] Finally, Wordsworth designates poetic meter as a privileged medium for the communication of vivid sensation, either raising passion or lowering it as required for the poet’s specific purposes.

            With such statements, Wordsworth establishes the dependence of poetry, as much as the poet, on the senses, and on the ‘elementary feelings’ that follow from them (LB, 743).  In some of the most characteristically Wordsworthian lyrics – ‘The Solitary Reaper’ or ‘I wandered lonely as a Cloud,’ for instance – the physical and cognitive activity of sensing takes center stage, to become the focus of representation as much almost as the perceived object itself.  Seemingly simple impressions of seeing or hearing reverberate in the speaker’s mind long after its passing: ‘The music in my heart I bore, / Long after it was heard no more’ (PTV, 185). The senses are thus directly connected to poetic inspiration, and serve as vehicles of self-expression: in Wordsworth’s famous formula, ‘Poetry…takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity’ (LB, 756), which in representing also re-creates the ‘powerful feelings’ that lay at its source. But Wordsworth makes clear too that both poet and poetry are dependent on a generalized ‘atmosphere’ of feeling, and on sensations that may be singular in nature but are attached to no determinate subject position.[2] Of the poet, Wordsworth writes: ‘though the eyes and senses of man are, it is true, his favorite guides, yet he will follow wheresoever he can find an atmosphere of sensation in which to move his wings’ (LB, 753). This ‘atmosphere’ belongs to no single person, or belongs to all: ‘…this whole Vale, / Home of untutored Shepherds as it is, / Swarms with Sensation’ (HG, 664-6). The poet endowed, as Wordsworth asserts in the Preface, with a greater than usual proportion of ‘organic sensibility’ (LB, 745) is the one who detects this atmosphere most keenly and is most responsive to changes within it.

Wordsworth’s conception of poetry as an art of sensation brings that art into conversation with the contemporary sciences of the senses, the science of physiology principal among them. Though Wordsworth is remembered for having famously decried the scientific rationalist as one who ‘murder[s] to dissect’ (‘The Tables Turned,’ LB, 109), he was in fact deeply invested in the scientific topics and debates of the day. The Wordsworths were acquaintance with several leading scientific figures, including Humphry Davy and Thomas Beddoes. David Hartley’s neuro-physiological account of mind has long been recognized as a durable influence in Wordsworth’s work. More recently, literary historians have perceived links between Wordsworth’s poetic theory and practice and a number of contemporary physiologists and medical theorists, including Erasmus Darwin, physician, poet, and figurehead of the Midlands enlightenment; William Cullen, one of the leading figures of the prestigious Edinburgh medical school; and the Scottish physician John Brown, the controversial and influential opponent of Scottish medical orthodoxy.[3] In 1798 Wordsworth wrote to the publisher Joseph Cottle to request a copy of Darwin’s ‘Zoönomia by the first carrier,’ citing ‘very particular reasons for doing’ (28 Feb or 7 Mar 1798, EY, 199). The poem ‘Goody Blake and Harry Gill,’ which Wordsworth describes in the 1798 ‘Advertisement’ to Lyrical Ballads as based on ‘well-authenticated fact’ (LB, 739), was almost certainly drawn from a medical anecdote included in Darwin’s influential book.

Wordsworth’s poetic theory and practice is closely informed by these contemporary medical contexts, and more generally by a deep vein of empiricist thought that had flourished in Great Britain from the late seventeenth century onward. Of Romantic poets, perhaps only Keats insists more strongly on the power of the bodily senses to do the work otherwise charged to forms of abstract ratiocination. In ‘Expostulation and Reply,’ for instance, the poet addresses an interlocutor ‘who was somewhat unreasonably attached to modern books of moral philosophy’ (LB, 355-6):

The eye it cannot chuse but see,

We cannot bid the ear be still;

Our bodies feel, where’er they be,

Against, or with our will.

In the jocular debate that the poet conducts with his friend, the ceaselessness of bodily feeling is taken as an argument against the necessity of book learning. Wordsworth’s preference for truths immediately and vividly disclosed by the body and its senses informs his critique of abstract systems of moral philosophy (see the ‘Essay on Morals’, Prose, I, 103-4) and of poetic personification in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads.

As committed as Wordsworth obviously is to the primacy of the senses, the poet’s powerful apprehension of the limitations of ‘mere’ bodily experience is equally notable. Wordsworth and Coleridge both write of the ‘despotic’ character of the eye (1805 Prelude, 11.174; BL, II, 107); the suspicion that Wordsworth bears towards the conventionally most privileged of the senses applies, albeit to a lesser degree, to all of them, at least so far as they are capable of achieving ‘dominion’ over the mind (1805 Prelude, 11.174; BL, II, 107). The poet is similarly critical of literary genres, notably that of gothic fiction, which in relying for their considerable popularity on the production of violent readerly effects seem to pander to what Wordsworth unsparingly refers to a ‘degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation’ (LB, 747).[4] Wordsworth’s great poetic narratives of intellectual and imaginative development, The Prelude and ‘Tintern Abbey’ especially, associate maturation with an access of visionary power accompanied by the suspension or momentary dimming of the physical senses. As William Empson demonstrated, ‘sense’ is an extraordinarily polyvalent term in Wordsworth’s poetry, signifying either a primitive excitement of the physical senses or the highest intellectual exercise, or often both at the same time.[5] Wordsworth’s poetry frequently expresses considerable ambivalence as to whether vivid sense experiences are valuable in themselves or only valuable insofar as they serve as a prompt or foundation to thoughts of a higher order.

These equivocations may not ultimately be hedges against unbridled materialism (and the associated taint of immorality or irreligion) so much as reflections of the indeterminate status of aesthetic experience as at once physical and cognitive in its origin. In contrast to ‘sense,’ ‘sensation’ in Wordsworth generally refers to experiences that combine the intellectual and bodily affection. Proceeding from the ‘feeling intellect’ (1805 Prelude, 13.205), they count among that class of experiences that a later generation than Wordsworth’s will call ‘aesthetic.’ Aesthetics, the branch of philosophical inquiry concerned with the nature of the beautiful and of art, took its name in eighteenth-century German philosophy from the Greek term for sense-perception; from its inception this field was concerned with forms of physical and psychological response. In the first of his influential Spectator essays on the subject, Joseph Addison situated ‘the pleasures of the imagination’ in an intermediary zone between sensations and ideas.As the bodily senses are a necessary but not sufficient condition of aesthetic perception, aesthetic perceptions belong to the class of experience that the poet calls ‘[t]hose hallowed and pure motions of the sense / Which seem in their simplicity to own / An intellectual charm’ (1799, 1.383-5). ‘Poetry, ‘the history or science of feelings’ as Wordsworth defines it in his 1800 note to ‘The Thorn,’ (LB, 351), is the paradigmatic aesthetic form of Romanticism in furnishing at once an effusion of powerful feeling and a form of sophisticated reflection on it.

[1]  Lionel Trilling, “The Fate of Pleasure,” in The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent: Selected Essays, ed. Leon Wieseltier (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2000), 427-449. 

[2]  Contemporary affect theory has emphasized the trans-subjective character of affect and feeling.  See for instance Teresa Brennan, The Transmission of Affect (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004). In Romantic studies see especially Kevis Goodman, British Romanticism and Georgic Modernity: Poetry and the Mediation of History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), and Mary A. Favret, War at a Distance: Romanticism and the Making of Modern Wartime (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).

[3]  On Wordsworth’s indebtedness to Darwin, see Richard Matlak, ‘Wordsworth’s Reading of Zoonomia in Early Spring,’ The Wordsworth Circle 21 (1990), 76-81; and Alan Richardson, British Romanticism and the Science of the Mind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001). On Wordsworth and Cullen, see my Science and Sensation in Romantic Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), esp. 75-80, 84-8. Paul Youngquist discusses Wordsworth’s aesthetics in relation to John Brown’s medical theory in ‘Lyrical Bodies: Wordsworth’s Physiological Aesthetics,’ European Romantic Review, 10:2 (1999), 152-62.

[4]  On Wordsworth’s ambivalence with respect to the gothic’s production of vivid sensory effects, see especially Karen Swann, ‘Suffering and Sensation in “The Ruined Cottage,”’ PMLA 106, no. 1 (January 1991): 83-95.

[5] William Empson, ‘Sense in the Prelude,’ in The Structure of Complex Words (New York: New Directions, 1951), 289-305.


Of pleasure problems (and Louis CK)

“There is a host of arguments in these feelings” – William Wordsworth

     I have been working on a project about beauty that attempts to restore to view the mixed and conflicted character of this aesthetic category. The beautiful is conventionally identified with feelings of unmixed pleasure on the part of the spectator, in marked contrast to the sublime. If pleasure is regarded — by Gilles Deleuze, among others — as a domain where affective intensities are neutralized, the beautiful is typically conceived as a refined and uniformly mild expression of pleasure. Yet in experiences of the beautiful, feelings of pleasure and displeasure frequently operate in unison; the feeling of pleasure in beauty regularly appears in conjunction with sensations of irritation, discomfort, or displeasure inseparable from the pleasurable circumstances that call the experience forth. 

     One of my goals in examining such moments to arrive at a new and more adequate account of the relationship between affect and the subset of affective experiences we call “aesthetic.” To this end, the project situates the beautiful in relation to a larger category of what I call “pleasure problems.” The pleasure problem refers to circumstances in which the predictable functions or operations of pleasure have been impeded, arrested, suspended, or set aside. These are often circumstances where pleasure takes on a problematic aspect, though the pleasure problem may with equal likelihood represent conditions in which pleasure emerges, improbably, from problematic circumstances. 

     The larger project draws mainly on writing in aesthetics and poetry from the long eighteenth century. But there is a much longer tradition behind the blended quality of pleasure and pain in experiences of the beautiful — and one needn’t look two hundred years into the past to find an illustration of the pleasure problem either. For a contemporary instance, we can look to the opening sequence from a 2011 episode of the sitcom Louie (season 2, episode 6, “Subway/Pamela”). 

     This episode delays the opening credits and reverses the typical sequence, beginning with Louie emerging from a comedy club rather than descending into one. Louie is shown walking down the stairs onto the subway tracks where a handsome young man in a tuxedo is playing violin. (The piece, as I learned from the internet, is “Csárdás” by Vittorio Monti [1904].) Louie tosses a bill into the violinist’s case as he passes and leans against a girder to watch him. The man playing the violin is beautiful; the piece he is playing is beautiful. 

     As he watches the violinist, an older, heavyset man laden with large plastic bags descends the stairs onto the platform. The man lays out a plastic sheet on the tile floor, removes his shirt, pours soapy water over his head and proceeds to bathe himself with abandon. The man’s appearance on the subway platform is preposterous; his condition would be heartbreaking were it not for the obvious relish (and obliviousness) with which he scrubs himself. We see the man’s body, pink, wet, and glistening, as he reaches down behind himself to soap between his ass-cheeks. The violinist and the homeless man occupy the same visual plane; in one shot (shown above) we see the back of Louie’s head as he looks on at both. 

Louie 2 06

    Critics noted of this scene how in Louis CK’s New York City, the beautiful and ugly, romantic and repulsive, are yoked together in visual proximity. Were Louis CK a sociologist of aesthetics in the Bourdieuian vein, one could read the sequence as pointing to beauty’s silent dependence on an extruded material remainder. The repulsive, shirtless man operates in the scene as the unavoidable background from which the beautiful man and his beautiful music springs. In this way is the beautiful conceived as emerging from a background of negativity, of poverty and privation, even as our unmixed pleasure in the beautiful somehow depends on us being blind to these conditions. Once you admit those conditions into your field of view, beauty ceases to be wholly pleasureable.

     While I detect the elements of an aesthetic theory here, it is not Bourdieu’s. In an interview Louis CK described the genesis of the scene: “The violin player, I came up with because a woman played violin at my daughter’s school concert, and I almost cried just from hearing the music, so I kind of dreamt up that sequence.” This scene of emotion recollected in absurdity converts a beautiful memory into an occasion for laughter by juxtaposing it with something absurd and repulsive. But then too, to get at what is involved in a pleasure so intense as to make one feel like crying, one would have to imagine how the beautiful could produce feelings of discomfort or displeasure. Louie depicts this proximity of affects even before the old man’s entry. In successive shots, we see the stages of Louie’s response, from the clenched and exhausted facial expression many wear in the subway — 

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to a pose of relative contemplation. His face softens. 


In the shot just prior to the old man’s entrance, Louie’s head appears once more in tighter close-up. His face momentarily contorts; the expression is a wince, an expression of emotion, even of pain. 

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Later, shifting his view between the beautiful violinist and the homeless man, Louie again winces, with a face that signals strong discomfort and disgust. Before the entry of the homeless man, however — a wince. The wince of “pleasure” precedes and anticipates the wince of disgust.

     That the scene unfolds entirely from Louie’s perspective (a perspective that, as the second sequence of the episode establishes, may be wholly imaginary) is not incidental. In the interview, Louis CK says: “The whole subway episode was supposed to be an entire episode of me observing and not talking to anybody. I wanted to do a whole episode that just shows me scratching in my notebook and looking at people, and seeing things happen.” The sense that what is seen in the episode is seeing itself explains why all traces of the female are erased (the biographical context of a woman playing violin at his daughter’s school) in favor of the homoerotic (a man observing men) or the intrasubjectively narcissistic (a man contemplating two separate and ludicrously juxtaposed externalizations of his own aesthetic response).

     But what Louie sees is nothing special. He is an ordinary guy, an Everyshmuck; his representativeness as White/professional/middle-aged/divorced/a father is repeatedly emphasized in the show. The scene in other words presents an extravagant image of contrast in order to display something about the everyday perception of beauty. It illustrates how, before the sight of a beautiful person playing (beautifully) a beautiful piece of music, one cries — or winces. 

     The excellence of Louie consists not simply in how imaginatively it represents absurd and improbable scenes of contrast. It is great too for the ease with which it makes visible qualities not typically subject to empirical verification. I’m interested in how this scene articulates a principle I’ve wished to trace more broadly: that to problematize pleasure is a way of visualizing a property of pleasure itself. To problematize an experience like that of beautiful is no more than to ask questions of it — not because the experience is itself so frail (it is not), but because nothing is more natural than to call it into question. Where one seeks pleasure, one finds pleasure problems.  

Of lightness (a likeness)

     If I had any intention in starting this blog (which is questionable), it was not to serve as a space for autobiography or memoir. But neither was it to present a record from which the autobiographical subject is entirely absent. Both principles, the inclusion of something which for want of a better term I’ll call “subjectivity,” and demurral from making self a world of its own, do not seem like positions I take so much as automatic and reflexive responses that are in a sense taken for me. All this to say that in the course of things on this blog I will describe what I see; and if doing this I also happen to describe facets of myself, so be it. (But if I start posting pictures of my late grandparents, please contact the authorities.)

     This past weekend I visited several New York City museums. It was intensely hot outside; inside, the crowds were overwhelming. In these crowded spaces I saw three current exhibitions that make light and the absence of light a central subject: James Turrell’s exhibition at the Guggenheim and two exhibitions on separate floors of the Whitney:  Hopper Drawing, pairing the sketches and finished canvases of Edward Hopper, and Robert Irwin’s Scrim Veil – Black Rectangle – Natural Light, a recreation of the 1977 exhibition in that space. The exhibitions by Turrell and Irwin are natural complements, as both artists are associated with the Light and Space movement originating in southern California in the late 1960s. Hopper’s use of light, his lifelong fascination with the properties and effects of light, is legendary.

     Each of these exhibitions is well worth seeing. To exhibit these works in summer, the season of sun and long hours of daylight, makes perfect thematic sense too. The Hopper exhibition is large and intricately curated, featuring two main types of work: preparatory drawings for his major paintings, paired with those iconic works; and free-standing sketches. This latter type of Hopper’s work (to me equally as exciting as the sketches for the famous canvases) contains early self-portraits, including several sketches of his hands, occasionally bearing the tools of the artist’s trade; of his wife Josephine, portrayed tenderly, or at times with frank eroticism; of New England, Gloucester and coastal Maine (among other places), its architecture and bleak natural beauty. The centerpieces of James Turrell’s exhibition are the installation pieces, including the site-specific installation Aten Reign (2013), which fills the space of the Guggenheim rotunda in concentric circles of colored LED light. A separate room contains Turrell’s works on paper, each lit from above by a powerful spotlight, creating impressions of stark whiteness on a dark surface, as in an image backlit, or illuminated from within. Robert Irwin’s Scrim Veil is simplest of the three exhibitions, consisting of one large installation, but may to my mind be the most powerful of the bunch. The Scrim Veil is Irwin’s name for the diaphanous barrier that extends across the upper two thirds of a large museum room (the “Black Rectangle” of the title), which it cuts in half along its length. This barrier is solid at its narrow base of steel and wood (most spectators will need to duck to pass from one side of the room to the other), but its sheer vinyl plane is partially transparent as it rises to the ceiling, illuminated across its surface by the natural light that makes the third element of the title.

     I take away from these exhibitions a single, simple impression, a retinal afterimage of sorts, of light in an empty (or near-empty) room:

Edward Hopper’s “Sun in an Empty Room” (1963)

Turrell’s “Meeting,” from the portfolio First Light (1989–90)

Robert Irwin’s Scrim Veil — Black Rectangle — Natural Light (1977).


Each of these images is marvelously resonant, evoking a sense of quiet and secular mysticism. That these spare, majestic, auratic works of light are also all creations of white men is not I think entirely incidental. What is it in these vacant illuminated spaces that tells of self? And why should that self be coded as a privileged one? Light is on one account impersonal and available to all: that the sun rises and sets on the good and evil alike is a notion as old as the Gospels (Matthew 5:45). But the enjoyment of sunlight is also of course a privilege. Light is not guaranteed to all, as the New York Times’ Real Estate section and Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence” both clearly remind us:

Some are Born to sweet delight

Some are Born to sweet delight

Some are Born to Endless Night

It is in the nature of privilege that its lack is more clearly specified than its possession. Light confers visibility on objects, but the possession or enjoyment of light (e.g. as whiteness) is itself less visible than its absence. To be “Born to sweet delight” (the language of inheritance is unmistakable here) is to be born to space and light in plenty — the vacant sovereignty of privilege, the room of one’s own. The object of privilege is here clearly pronounced in Blake’s powerful lines (“delight” / “de light”) and conspicuously absent from it.

     Formless and contentless, the medium of light focuses attention to a great degree on the act of seeing itself. One way of putting this is to say that the vacant space invites introspection. But the dark room penetrated by beams of light is one of Locke’s prominent metaphors of mind too. The vacant and illuminated interior, far from representing a site of extreme impersonality, can thus represent a sublime figure of Mindedness in its own right. Such a figure is evident in Hopper’s Sun in an Empty Room (1963). A late work, Hopper’s painting removes the solitary human figure that most often appears in his interiors, leaving the geometrical play of light and shade in a straw-colored room (“outside” is represented by a single windblown tree seen through the window). The painting verges on abstraction, but it is no less inclined to narrative than other of his great canvases — only the narrative subject is more obviously Hopper himself. The painting lays bare, theatrically as in other of his great works, the principle that has animated his life’s work. (“All I really want to do is paint light on the side of a house.”) When asked what he was after in creating the painting, Hopper said, “I’m after ME.”

    Of the three artists, Turrell is most explicit that what one sees as a spectator of his light-based art is in large part nothing other than perception itself. So too, the exhibition struck me as most willing of the three to invite association between the artist’s work and the fiat lux of the creator. At the exhibit, one woman within earshot had a brief exchange with another about the spiritual feeling that Turrell’s light works instilled in her. I felt at once the deep truth of the sentiment and embarrassed to overhear it.

Of drones, and other Impartial Spectators

This is my drone.  I’ve taken a picture of it here at rest, without its battery (see the black and red wire dangling beneath), on a dwarf cherry tree in bloom. I think it looks rather fetching as well as faintly menacing.

Some months ago I conceived the idea of invading my own privacy using a mini toy spy drone. Though capable (the manufacturer claims) of moving within a 120 meter range and of flying in an impressive “Stunt Mode,” the Micro Drone is not capable of carrying a payload, and so wanting a wireless micro camera to affix to it, the invasion of my own privacy is only a thought experiment.

I named my drone the Impartial Spectator, after the phrase that Adam Smith, founder of modern political economy, uses to describe the conscience in his 1759 book of moral philosophy, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The Impartial Spectator is in Smith’s book the internalized point of view of civil society.  Operating in Smith’s text as a figure for the situational awareness of the reasonable individual, it names the imagined response of a rational public to any imaginable scenario or case of feeling.  Smith’s moral philosophy is famously grounded in sympathy, the communication of fellow feeling between members of the human species.  By comparing one’s most powerful, potentially a- or anti-social feelings to those of the Impartial Spectator whom we imagine to be observing us, Smith argues, the individual regulates the excesses of passion, and so brings his or her strong feelings into accord with those shared by the rest of society.  As the imagined, admonitory eye of a watchful public, the Impartial Spectator names a relationship between individuals and others, and (more importantly) between individuals and themselves, that makes possible the smooth commerce of sympathy.

Smith’s book is useful in reminding us that the functions of introspection, never truly private in the first place, have long been (so to speak) outsourced in modern capitalist society.  To look into oneself is to consult a tribunal of imagined others.  Authors have for centuries imagined an externalized agency or presumptively representative rationality of some kind — an Impartial Spectator, imagined community, panopticon, or “common sense” — charged with the role of overseeing an individual’s conduct, thoughts and/or feelings, and prompting us to regulate these.  In this sense at least, the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones used for surveillance today represent the technological implementation of an idea that has been in place for as long as modernity itself.  Intellectual and cultural historians frequently observe that Smith’s book of moral philosophy, published almost a generation before The Wealth of Nations (1776), presents an ethics for a modern commercial society.  (Great Britain had at this time only recently established a system of national debt and begun circulating paper currency in place of coin.)  As “the looking-glass by which we can…scrutinize the propriety of our own conduct” (112), the Impartial Spectator facilitates the kind of regular and predictable social relations on which a society of debt depends, if it is to avoid financial catastrophe.  The Impartial Spectator in other words performs the regulative work in Smith’s moral philosophy (of maintaining and preserving an existing social order) that surveillance drones are imagined to perform in our own world.

As it happens, several hobbyist academics like myself have been led to build and operate drones.  (The link between academia and drone use is in one sense well established: along with police and security agencies, research universities are among the groups most frequently licensed for drone operation by the FAA.)  In an engaging essay “A Drone of One’s Own”, the journalist, law professor, and private drone enthusiast Rosa Brooks rightly observes that no laws currently prevent individuals from buying a drone in order to spy on neighbors (or worse).  Privately owned drones (including drones owned and operated by private companies) have so far flown under the protection of now antique regulations from 1981, which currently permit hobbyists to fly their UAVs to a maximum height of 400 feet in virtually any airspace.  Francis Fukuyama, the academic with the highest profile among academic drone operators and hobbyists, notes in a piece for the Financial Times that these laws are likely to change soon.  The FAA has been charged to come up with new rules to regulate private drones in public airspace by 2015.  In the meantime, private corporations as well as individuals have been eyeing drones for commercial use: Hollywood has asked the FAA for permission to use drones, and other industries (farming, e.g.) will not be far behind.  And a lot of drone use by private interests is already being carried out in the open, with dubious legality.  For a few thousand dollars you can buy drones that are optimized for cinematic use.  In my home state of Massachusetts alone, one such drone was recently spotted capturing aerial footage for reality TV.  And in a local Boston suburb, residents of Quincy have recently expressed consternation about a drone-like object that has reportedly circled the city making a “low-pitched humming sound” over several successive nights.

Drones have unsurprisingly triggered a number of privacy concerns and questions about the wisdom of living in a society of ubiquitous surveillance.  Given the astounding technological resources possessed already by government and other security agencies — resources easily and as yet legally accessible to private corporations and others — what new levels of surveillance will the public be exposed to in the future?  Hobbyist drone operators like Fukuyama and Brooks remind us that we have the means, technical if not quite legal, to spy on our neighbors (if not also on ourselves).  From the perspective of sheer technical capability, little prevents the proliferation of domestic surveillance programs but the willingness of drone users to refrain from such activities.  For Smith, in fact, this impulse to peer too closely into the lives of others is among the excesses against which the Impartial Spectator protects:

This passion to discover the real sentiments of others is naturally so strong, that it often degenerates into a troublesome and impertinent curiosity to pry into those secrets of our neighbours which they have very justifiable reasons for concealing; and, upon many occasions, it requires prudence and a strong sense of propriety to govern this, as well as all the other passions of human nature, and to reduce it to that pitch which any impartial spectator can approve of.  (337-8)

In observing how the natural human emotion of curiosity turns the subjects of surveillance into its agents, Smith remarks (with no apparent irony) that the self-surveilling agency of the Impartial Spectator might ultimately be responsible for preventing individuals from prying unduly into the lives of others.  What stops me from spying on my neighbor may be little more than the near certainty that at any given moment I am myself being surveilled.

My interest in surveillance drones extends to the broadly aesthetic questions that their use (both at home and abroad) confronts us with today.  How does the world appear from the estranging drone’s-eye point of view?  What does being looked in on, or of looking in on oneself from above, look like? What kinds of attachments do we (or will we) form to the UAVs, GPS devices, satellites, and other pieces of sophisticated technical equipment that silently watch over our movements?  Will we someday feel a kind of fondness and habitual affection for these instruments as we already (some of us, anyway) feel for our phones, tablets, laptops, etc.?  And if one can as it were divide oneself in two (this conceptual self-division being essential to how the Impartial Spectator assists in regulating an individual’s behavior), can we imagine entrusting matters of conscience, behavior or even thought, to drones of our own?

My spy drone experiment has been accused of being a solipsistic project.  I accept the characterization, and described the project half in jest as carried out with an aim to execute the most solipsistic drone campaign ever.  (I would also ask: is there another person whose privacy I should violate?)  I don’t have the kind of disposable income that would allow me to pursue a domestic drone program matching Fukuyama’s in technical capability; but I don’t wish to scale up the experiment either.  Without the funds or zeal to pursue a home drone campaign of any sophistication, I am content for my experiments with the Impartial Spectator to represent a miniaturized version and parody of the academic drone hobbyist at the so-called end of history.  Should my personal drone campaign only prove to be a way of accommodating myself to the fact of near-constant surveillance in late modernity, my time spent with the Micro Drone will have served the civilizing, regulative ends for which the notion of an Impartial Spectator was intended.

Happy surveilling!

Most of the links in the post above came to me courtesy of Twitter, both in conversation and from users such as @drones, @dronestream, @eff, @cesgnal, @dgolumbia, and many others.