Off the map

•November 19, 2007 • 1 Comment

While I’ve been mostly absent from my own site, I’ve been haunting a few comment threads:

  • In a series of comments to Joseph Kugelmass’s “The Haunting Wordsworth: Romantic Poets and Monkeys With Typewriters” post at the Valve, I take up a series of positions about the role of intention and intentionality in meaning. I argue, against Knapp and Michael’s position in “Against Theory,” that meaning is not reducible to authorial intention. At the same time, I argue against John Holbo’s attempt to get out of “Against Theory” by defining meaning in functional terms. Knapp & Michael’s are wrong, I suggest, not because they define meaning in terms of the origin of an utterance, but rather because of the assumptions they make about that origin: they assume that human discourse necessarily originates in a singular intention capable of grounding the meaning of an utterance, assumptions which I counter with the notion of a “split origin” and De Man’s comments on the craftsman as copyist. An excerpt:

    If the craftsman can learn to blindly copy without knowing what he copies … then the functionality of the object is not contingent on the craftsman’s intention. We might still account for the origin in terms of function (maybe the only reason there was a chair there to copy was because chairs are good for sitting on, and this particular chair would not exist without there being a chair there to copy), but the origin is no longer the labor of the craftsman (the origin is the original chair), and the ontology of the object is no longer controlled by his intention. This, I would suggest, is exactly what happens in language, composed as it is of borrowed words, phrases, metaphors, genre forms, etc. from multiple overlapping traditions that one cannot master, gathered without necessarily being guided by a fixed intention. In this way, Knapp & Michaels aren’t really stating a tautology – even when the word “meaning” is used to refer exclusively to origin, there can be intentionless meaning because writing is not inherently driven by intention.

    Another way to explain this is to say that deconstruction formulates a “split origin,” an origin that is never one, never present, whether as a conscious intention of the author (What would this even mean? Would a conscious intention be language in the thoughts of the author? What, then would ground the meaning of these thought-words?) or even as unconscious intention insofar as the unconscious is thought of as an entity (homologous to consciousness but inaccessible to it) rather than a process by which the uncontrollable play of copies inscribe a trace. This would amount to saying that all writing is similar in certain ways to Wordsworth’s words appearing on a beach – if all there is is author’s intention, then all poetry, or at least the best, no longer counts as language, in K & M’s definition, precisely because it doesn’t originate in an empirical, psychological intention, but rather in the intentionless literary act that can be belatedly hypostatized into the intentional structure of a literary object.

    [I’ve dropped out of the comment thread towards the end and am no longer following it, so if you plan to revive the discussion over there, please drop me a note]

  • In a comment thread to Adam Roberts’s “Three Answers to Riddle 69,” again at The Valve, I gave an alternate answer to the riddle of the sphinx, which I’m working on in relation to Baudelaire’s Spleen (II). An interesting discussion of how riddles work quickly ensued, and has ended up in an ongoing debate about the role of context in interpretation, in part revolving around the validity of Adam’s suggestion that “milk” can count as an answer to the Anglo-Saxon riddle “On the way, a miracle: water becomes bone,” Riddle 69 from the Exeter Book. The answer is normally considered to be “ice” (reading “water” literally and “bone” as a metaphor for solidity), but by an almost symmetrical series of operations (reading “water” as a metaphor for liquidity and “bone” literally) the answer can also be “milk,” insofar as milk is a liquid that builds strong bones. The problem arises in that milk would not have been available as an answer in the original Anglo-Saxon context of the riddle, assuming a lack of knowledge about the role of milk in building bones. I’m not entirely sure what claims I will settle on here, but I’m supporting the “milk” answer on the grounds that it follows the same set of rules as the answer “ice.” The original context puts forth a code and a grammar, a series of more or less stable rules, that produce unanticipated results exceeding the original context. In short, context cannot provide a stable criteria for interpretation, insofar as it produces repeatable structures of meaning whose rule-governed play it cannot control. The attempt to limit acceptable answers to those available in the original context actually requires us to make a lot of assumptions about the role of “context” as a criteria of meaning in Anglo-Saxon culture, and to subordinate Anglo-Saxon notions of context to the disciplinary assumptions of contemporary Old English historicist scholarship. I’m not entirely happy with the way I’ve carried on my side of the discussion so far, but I’m even less happy with the way the guy I’m discussing with is carrying on with his side: he has a tendency to overgeneralize how “language works” based on very specific examples of utterances like “Is there salt on the table?” which cannot universally represent the complexities of other, less referential types of language.  Anyway, I’m beginning to see the end game, which, I guess, I’ve sort of just given away…
  • Unlike myself, uncomplicatedly is back from her pre-exam disappearance from the blogosphere.  Her new post features an excellent reading of Robert Frost’s “Hyla Brook,” in which she argues that “Frost is the beginning of … an aesthetic practice of humble attention in a certain tradition of American poetry in the 20th century.”  I try to complicate this a bit by pointing to the poem’s peculiar use of tense, and asking whether this practice of humble attention succeeds in bringing its objects into greater focus or merely marking a certain aporia in the act of attention itself.

Commenting has been productive for me.  It requires less initiative than posting from scratch and has a certain internal momentum to it that keeps me writing.  The back and forth exchanges have required me to constantly adapt my positions and develop a greater awareness of where I stand.   Inhabiting someone else’s space, people also seem more willing to engage directly with my positions – the playing field is sort of leveled in a way that it isn’t on my home territory.  I do plan to return to blogging here, though: expect an occasional post until April, including another set of year end best of lists currently in the works, then hopefully more consistent output after I take my exams.

Is Rilo Kiley’s New Album Supposed To Be A Joke?

•September 23, 2007 • 14 Comments

This post arrives somewhere that I didn’t anticipate when I began it. Hopefully that justifies the fact that I’m blogging about an album I don’t even like instead of finishing Dialogue and Deconstruction: The Gadamer-Derrida Encounter.

Just my first time through “Under the Blacklight,” giving it an obligatory one listen despite bad impressions of the two tracks I’ve heard (“Moneymaker” and “Silver Lining”). So far, all polish and nothing worth listening to a second time. The sell-out factor was unmistakable as soon as I heard “Moneymaker,” as was the irony:

You’ve got the money maker
They showed the money to you
You showed them what you can do

…though it’s pretty easy to dismiss as an unfortunate coincidence – the joke’s on Rilo Kiley, who maybe doesn’t realize how bad this album sounds. But it’s hard to believe they’re not in on the joke when you start listening to, really, every song.

From the start, “Silver Lining” situates the album in the band’s catalogue: Continue reading ‘Is Rilo Kiley’s New Album Supposed To Be A Joke?’

Exam List 1: The Colonization of Space and Place in Pre-1700 Colonial Latin America, Part 2

•September 14, 2007 • Leave a Comment

(This post continues my efforts from my previous post to write a revised and expanded version of my headnotes for my exam list on Colonial Latin America.)

Therefore, and in order to delimit the problem in relation to the concern for spatial experience expressed in my other exam topics, this list will follow Mignolo in investigating colonial semiosis in the Latin American context through the lens of the discourses of space and place. In addition to providing historical background for subsequent considerations of urban space in 19th century Buenos Aires, this list also anticipates the investigation of the relationship between orality and writing that constitutes a key modality of 20th century avant-garde movements and experiments in narrative form. Finally, by thematizing the limits of the hermeneutic principles invoked in asserting a connection between discursive practices and spatio-temporal experience, my analysis will draw on deconstruction’s questioning of the hermeneutic project.

Within the general problematic of the colonization of space, it is possible to distinguish several levels on which the transformations in spatial understanding might be registered, each corresponding to a distinct set of critical problems. At the global level, the colonial encounter entails a radical transformation of European and indigenous cosmology, as both cultures struggle to integrate the existence of unfamiliar lands and peoples into existing conceptual frameworks. According to O’Gorman, America could not be simply “discovered” as an already constituted object, but had to be “invented” and given a meaning within the European system of cosmology. O’Gorman traces the process through which this occurs from its roots in Greek cosmology and Christian theological debates through the voyages of Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci. At the culmination of this process, Europe was eventually forced to admit that the Americas were a new geographical entity or “fourth part” of the world which did not easily fit into a preconceived worldview, and thus to abandon the notion of the world as a limited space assigned to man by God in favor of a limitless world over which man (and, in particular, European man) was sovereign. To an extent, then, what Mignolo calls “putting the Americas on the map,” constitutes a significant step in the shift, within the European worldview, away from a mythological or allegorical division of space into heterogeneous regions and towards the adoption of the homogenized, geometrical projection of space represented, according to Mundy, by the emergence of modern European cartography. Thus, by the beginning of the 17th century, El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega could without hesitation begin his Comentarios by insisting, “no hay más que un mundo,” ironizing the name “Nuevo Mundo” by identifying its discovery as the crucial experience in the collapse of a worldview divided into heterogeneous zones. Nonetheless, the subtle overlaying of Cuzco and Rome in Garcilaso’s account of pre-Columbian Peru bears witness to the persistence of a tropologically organized spatial ontology. Guaman Poma is even more explicit in projecting Peru into a European mythological cosmography, dividing both Christian and Indian history into five parallel ages marked by multiple intersections, including a account mapping St. Bartholomew’s evangelical mission to India on top of the Indies in order to legitimate Peruvian culture as the location of a more authentic Christianity only corrupted by the arrival of the Spanish. Thus, even as the “invention of America” contributes to the emergence of a uniform geometric European cosmography, the Americas themselves do not escape the grasp of a mythological cosmovision which organizes space in asymmetric ways. As Mundy notes, despite the best intentions of Spanish royal cosmographers like Santa Cruz and López de Velasco, the respondents to the geographical surveys of the Relaciones Geográficas rarely evidenced sufficient mastery of cartographic principles to produce maps usable for the larger project of a geometric uniform map of New Spain. Local geography and, as a consequence, global cartography, remained organized around human institutions. Nonetheless, the overarching mythological cosmology that allowed Columbus to envision the New World as the nipple shaped paradise of a pear shaped earth did not endure intact.

(More to follow…)

Exam List 1: The Colonization of Space and Place in Pre-1700 Colonial Latin America, Part I

•September 6, 2007 • 1 Comment

(Over the next several posts, I’ll be writing a revised version of the headnotes for my exam list on Colonial Latin America; when I’m done, I’ll compile the results and update the Exam List 1 page in the sidebar)

Recent trends in the study of Latin American colonial society have emphasized the “revolution in modes of expression” (Gruzinski) that accompanied the imposition of the Spanish colonial system on the indigenous populations of the South America and Mesoamerica. Martin Lienhard suggests that pre-Columbian discursive systems were dominated by oral traditions which employed pictography as a means of conservation supporting oral performances. Studies such as those in Writing without Words, however, emphasize the diversity, complexity and utility of indigenous recording technologies, ranging from Mayan glyphs and the iconographic systems found in Mexica codices and cartographic histories to the more abstract systems of the Peruvian tocapu and quipu. The imposition of alphabetic writing and European practices of visual representation into the American context as instruments of the colonial enterprise, supplemented by the loss of cultural knowledge resulting from the collapse of pre-Columbian socio-political arrangements and the rapid decline of indigenous populations in the sixteenth century, irrevocably altered existing traditions with devastating consequences. According to Mignolo, the Spanish, often drawing on the ideology of an evolutionary model of writing still present in 20th century scholarship, interpreted the absence of western-style alphabetic writing as evidence of a less advanced civilization and used the resultant assumption of cultural superiority as an ideological support for domination. During the three centuries following the conquest, the Americas witnessed a systematic restructuring of Spanish controlled territory around an urban lettered elite, as described by Rama. The predominance and gradual adoption of European discursive practices were encouraged by the educational practices and methods of religious indoctrination of the colonial period, and by the clerical demands of colonial administration, as seen in the documentation of lienzos, or land claims, and in indigenous responses to the geographical surveys of the Relaciones Geográficas as analyzed by Mundy. Nonetheless, the sign systems and conventions of pre-conquest discursive practices survived in modified form to produce new and unique practices of graphic representation defined by the hybridization of Spanish and indigenous discursive conventions and habits of thought.

While the privileged status granted to Spanish, Latin, and, in certain cases, the alphabetized vocabularies of indigenous elites in legal, economic and religious domains itself constitutes a significant consequence of colonialism insofar as asymmetrical access to Western literacy both reflected and helped to sustain an inequitable distribution of power, the differences in discursive practices that preceded and emerged out of the colonial situation cannot be reduced to an account of the differences in access to power of the demographics that employed them. Instead, the transformation and redistribution of graphic codes over the course of the colonial period represent a significant alteration of the modes of production of meaning that accompanied seismic shifts in worldview along spatial and temporal axes on both sides of the Atlantic. Mignolo’s notion of the “Colonization of Space,” for example, articulates a point of intersection between traditional notions of colonization as physical occupation of space, and the more discourse-centered dimensions of colonization laid out, for example, in “On the Colonization of Amerindian Languages and Memories.” By focusing on the impact of colonization on cartography, Mignolo is able to trace a visible discursive shift in both European and Amerindian semiosis while at the same time presenting a convenient means of connecting that shift in writing back to a shift in the principles of organization of spatio-temporal experience that radically restructured the modes of cognition corresponding to emergent socio-cultural formations during the colonial period. Reading shifts in colonial sign production as indicative of changes in the understanding of space and place thus provides a tentative solution to the hermeneutic questions thematized in Mignolo’s introduction while simultaneously inaugurating a project for subsequent analysis of colonial semiosis. Although alternative avenues exist for exploring the cognitive significance of new discursive practices – Mignolo and Gruzinski, for example, have each effectively traced the reorganization of indigenous memories resulting from the cross-fertilization of Spanish and indigenous modes of expression – the focus on spatial experience constitutes a particularly fertile ground for exploration, particularly given the magnitude of the impact of what O’Gorman calls “the invention of America” on the European cosmovision.

(More to follow…)

Mapping Colonial Latin America: Typvs Orbis Terrarvm (1570)

•August 30, 2007 • Leave a Comment

Typus Orbis Terrarvm (1870)

Unlike the Cholula map I discussed in the previous post, I chose the other map for the header without the Spanish/Latin American context particularly in mind. In fact, the map was produced by a Flemish mapmaker named Abraham Ortelius in 1570 as part of a work considered to be the first modern atlas. Nonetheless, juxtaposed with the Cholula map, Ortelius’s Typvs Orbis Terrarvm map is quite revealing with regards to the colonial encounter from the European point of view. As part of the first modern atlas, the Typvs Orbis Terrarvm reflects the impact of the discovery of the Americas on the emergence of a modern European cosmovision. In particular, it represents an intermediary stage in the emergence of a rationalized, geometricized conception of global space as a consequence of what Eugene O’Gorman calls the Invention of America.

T-O Map (Guntherus Ziner, Augsburg, 1472)

The reason America had to be “invented” rather than merely discovered is that Europe in the 15th century was still dominated by a mythological world view. Even in 1492 European cosmography remained under the spell of the medieval “T-O map,” pictured at the right, which divided the world into three discrete parts (Europe, Asia and Africa) centered around Jerusalem, with each part corresponding to the domain granted by God to a particular race – the descendants of each of the three sons of Noah.

Columbus’s arrival in the New World, though initially filtered through the misinterpretation that he had arrived on the eastern coast of Asia, gradually disrupted the tripartite worldview of the T-O map because it introduced a fourth part of the world which could not be incorporated into the mythological schema. Forced to abandon the model of a world divided into a discrete number of parts, European cosmography in the 16th century adopted instead a homogenized, geometrical conception of space organized around Ptolemy’s grid of latitude and longitude. At the same time, Europe gradually gave up the notion of the world as a limited space assigned to man by God in favor of a limitless world over which man (and, in particular, European man) was sovereign.

Ortelius’s world map of 1570 shows the process of filling in the grid at work. Notice in particular the relative accuracy of the vertical dimensions of the map, in contrast to the rather distorted horizontal dimensions. By 1570, European cosmographers had perfected a method of measuring latitude, but a reliable method for measuring longitude was slower in coming. López de Velasco attempted to include with his geographical survey instructions for a process involving measurements of the location of the moon during an eclipse, but the colonial officials who received the instructions were either apathetic or inadequately trained to perform the tasks with any degree accurately, if they performed them at all.

As in the Relaciones Geográficas map of Cholula, the gridlike structure of Oretelius’s world map as a framework exceeds the information with which it is filled in. Both maps bare witness to a moment when the grid signifies only itself, when the imposition of grid lines, meant to facilitate the ideal of a mimetic, one-to-one correspondence between the geography of the map and the geography of the landscape, comes instead to mark the very ideality of the grid in the European imagination.

Mapping Colonial Latin America: Relaciones Geográficas Map of Cholula (1581)

•August 28, 2007 • 4 Comments

Visitors to Oublié Sur La Carte (not so many these days, I know, since I haven’t posted in a while) are greeted by a quotation from Baudelaire and a pair of map images. When the site was first launched, I offered some comments on the quote. Here are some thoughts on the maps, in anticipation of some revisions to the headnotes of my Exam List 1, covering representations of space in Colonial Latin America, which I’ll begin posting soon. Many of the ideas in this post are culled from Barbara Mundy’s excellent work on colonial map-making, The Mapping of New Spain (University of Chicago Press, 1996).

Map of Cholula from the Relaciones Geograficas (1581)

Beginning in 1578, a survey of 44 questions authored by Spanish royal cosmographer Juan López de Velasco was distributed throughout the Spanish controlled portions of the Americas as part of a larger effort to extensively map the region and document its features. Though the survey was addressed only to colonial officials, many such officials, lacking either interest or sufficient familiarity with the region to answer the questions, passed the survey on to members of the indigenous population. The resulting documents, known as the Relaciones Geográficas, constitute a fascinating and varied collection of colonial semiosis, a heterogeneous mixture of graphic and print sign systems drawn from both Spanish and indigenous traditions in order to represented a colonial landscape that was itself already organized in conflicting ways around Spanish and indigenous patterns of understanding and inhabiting space.

The map above, produced by an indigenous mapmaker in 1581 in response to the Relaciones Geográficas, depicts the town of Cholula in Mexico, an important Tolteca-Chichimeca religious and political site and one of the largest population centers in Mesoamerica at the time of Cortes’s conequest of Mexico. Several aspects of this map make it a striking example of a number of the issues involved in the study of colonial representations of space:

Continue reading ‘Mapping Colonial Latin America: Relaciones Geográficas Map of Cholula (1581)’

More on Derrida’s Letter to UCI

•July 16, 2007 • Leave a Comment

Having had the opportunity to think more carefully about the issues raised in this post, I’ve taken the occasion of a new article on the subject in the Chronicle of Higher Education to write a somewhat lengthy comment to a brief write up of the article by John Holbo at the Valve.  If you’ve been following this discussion, please weigh in at the Valve – for good or for bad, this issue doesn’t seem to be going away, and all the whispery talk in the comment fields of my last post doesn’t seem to be helping anyone think this through.