Sunday, 31 May 2009

Carl Schmitt

You know, I shouldn't be surprised when a Nazi political theorist turns out to be genocidally racist, should I? But I'm working with Carl Schmitt's The Nomos of the Earth at the moment, for Chapter Three, and it's making me feel a bit sick.*

In 16th and 17th century international law... great areas of freedom were designated as conflict zones in the struggle over the distribution of a new world. As a practical justification, one could argue that the designation of a conflict zone at once freed the area on this side of the line – a sphere of peace and order ruled by European public law – from the immediate threat of those events ‘beyond the line’... The designation of a conflict zone outside Europe contributed also to the bracketing of European wars, which is its meaning and its justification in international law (pp.97-98).

A couple of pages later (p.100):

A rationalization, humanization, and legalization – a bracketing – of war was achieved against this background of global lines. At least with respect to continental land war in European international law, this was achieved by limiting war to a military relation between states.

I keep finding it really hard to believe that he actually means that the territorial dispossession and genocide of indigenous peoples in America, Asia and Australia was a good thing because it 'humanized' war in Europe. But he really, really does mean that. I mean, he really does. And his translator is all like 'hey, this book is awesome' rather than 'there's some good theory in here, but remember you have to completely invert the ethical thrust of the argument'. I just.

(All quotes from Carl Schmitt, The Nomos of the Earth, trans. G L Ulmen [New York: Telos Press, 2006 (2003)], originally written in Berlin 1942-45 and first published, as far as I can make out, in 1950).

*Una, we talked about this last time I was in Cambridge and we talked about whether humankind should TAKE TO THE STARS in the manner of Sylvia Engdahl - you'll be pleased to hear that Schmitt doesn't think that'll work, which is making me think that maybe it will:

The traditional Eurocentric order of international law is foundering now, as is the old nomos of the earth. This order arose from a legendary and unforeseen discovery of a new world, from an unrepeateable historical event. Only in fantastic parallels can one imagine a modern recurrence, such as men on their way to the moon discovering a new and hitherto unknown planet that could be exploited freely and utilized effectively to relieve their struggles on earth. The question of a new nomos of the earth will not be answered with such fantasies... Human thinking again must be directed to the elemental orders of its terrestrial being here and now. We seek to understand the normative order of the earth.

Friday, 29 May 2009

Oh, stuff. Hello

You know, I really love my job. At the moment it's marking season - and of course I have to have a draft of Now and Rome ready to send to my army of beta-readers (I should actually warn them about this plan, shouldn't I?) in six weeks' time. So I have a strange sort of existence, being in three different workflow/timeflow modes at once, but I like all of them, and I'm enjoying the alternation:

(1) Writing time!
I can't always write all day - often I have to stop after about four hours, and then I spend the afternoon doing other stuff - but if I am going to write on a given day, I must begin the day with writing. I have to turn the internet off before and throughout writing time, and I've quit smoking, and I can't find a free download of Minesweeper or Hearts for the Mac (for the love of God, if you know of one, DO NOT TELL ME ABOUT IT), which were things I did as distraction/procrastination, yes, but also things I used to do meditatively, while letting the next paragraph/idea/transition slot into place. I have new and better ones now: knitting and the Rubik's cube! Also making cups of tea and occasionally eating bread and Branston pickle (lunch is anathema to writing, you have to just eat something without noticing when you go into the kitchen.)

The main point about this, though, is that writing time is protected, don't-talk-to-me, focussed, single-tasking time, unlike

(2) Marking time!
The thing about marking time is that it's erratic - I'm pretty good with first-marking now, but I often just can't tell how long second-marking will take. And of course you never know when you're going to need to meet with a second-marker to agree marks, or when your second-marking will show up, and there's all this fiddly stuff that I always forget to account for: calculating unit marks on the basis of four differently-weighted assessment tasks, filling in mark sheets, all of that. So it's a sort of rapid-response thing: we're (academics) always behind where the office wants us to be, so I'll be like, okay, I finished marking my second-year exams, great, I'm done for the year, and then suddenly a unit of second-marking will appear without warning out of nowhere with a request to get it back to the office yesterday. It's kind of fun* and collegial and urgent and stressy, and we all commiserate with each other like mad while doing our two-photocopies-of-the-cover-sheet, staple, paper-clip, thing in the photocopy room.

(3) Scholarship time!
'Scholarship' is a new category that appeared on our Time Allocation Survey forms this year or last year or something. It's for, like, reading journals and generally hanging out in an academic kind of way, the 'significant soil' of academic life which may or may not nourish the eventual yew tree of research, if you like, and why should you. What my friend A calls 'baggy time'. At the moment, this basically involves me and a sofa and a cup of tea and a giant tower of books about the social construction of childhood and children's literature, which I am playing around in happily while beginning to put together the reading lists and ideas for the third year undergraduate unit I'll be teaching next year, 'Literature's Children'. It's lovely, non-focussed, non-directed, playful kind of work and I'm really enjoying it.

*At least it is for me, this year, because I have barely any marking for some reason: all the units I've taught have been really small numbers and mainly assessed by coursework, so I don't have any of the big 70-student options with end-of-year exams to mark. Huzzah!

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

upcoming attractions/note to self

I want to post about:

Torey Hayden
interdisciplinarity and theory

Monday, 4 May 2009

that quote from eric

When one looked at him that day with his straw hat on and its neat light-blue ribbon, and the cricket dress (a pink jersey and leather belt, with a silver clasp in front), showing off his well-built and graceful figure, one little thought what an agony was gnawing like a serpent at his heart... It was long since he had stood before the wicket, but now he was there, looking like a beautiful picture as the sunlight streamed over him and made his fair hair shine like gold.

It's not really what you think of when people say Victorian masculine values, is it? (There's also an awful lot of crying, hand-holding, hair-stroking, breaking-down-and-getting-brain-fever-from-the-least-little-thing, and picking flowers for other boys.) Very unfamiliar gender system.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

books i have(n't) read

I am reading A La Recherche du Temps Perdu in French, by which I mean that I took about a year to read Du cote du chez Swann a year or two ago and have just got A l'ombre des jeune filles en fleur out of the library. My French is very bad, and I read at the rate of one or two pages a night, without using a dictionary or a grammar book, so (a) I keep having experiences like when people refer to 'the scene with the hawthorn bush' and I go OH IS THAT WHAT AUBEPINE MEANS, and (b) I expect it will take me at least ten years to finish it. But I'm actually really enjoying it, in a strange, impressionistic kind of way (and I absolutely bloody hated Madame Bovary, which I also read in French without knowing what lots of the words meant, so some kind of encounter is going on between me and the text.) It makes me think about Pierre Bayard's How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read, and how the idea of having 'read' a book covers so many different kinds of encounters with and knowledges about a text - there are books I haven't read that I 'know' quite well (Joyce's Ulysses, of which I read the first 42 pages in about 1990), and books I have read that I have entirely forgotten, and all points in-between. Which is something which pulls together all the kinds of teaching that I do: I teach a course on 'contemporary writing' which is focussed through rewriting and appropriation, and I'm getting more and more interested in the rewriting of books one hasn't read (Walcott, in his epic poem Omeros, has his narrator claim that he 'never read' the works of Homer 'all the way through', and Alison Bechdel's Fun Home is very closely related to Joyce's Ulysses, which - according to the story she tells about it - she too has never read.) But also, I'm teaching a Latin course (Level B, for post-beginners) and thinking about the ways I ask the students to 'read' Vergil and Lucan, that very normative, close, philological/critical kind of reading, attending to the grammar and the syntax and the literary qualities all at the same time. The kind of back-and-forth between part and whole which has to go on, paying attention to detail and texture and individual words, but knowing that their meaning is conditioned by their total context (which itself, of course, is constructed and contingent, never finally determinable). And how does that idealized model of reading actually map onto the experience of reading in a language at which one isn't very proficient, like me and French? It's something to think about, the way I demand my students should be able to account for every case, mood, and tense of every word in the texts they read, versus the impressionistic way I read Proust, missing lots of words and lots of sentences and lots of paragraphs but somehow loving it nonetheless, having lots of it remain with me in nonverbal ways.

And I've also been meaning to write about how much I love Eric, or Little by Little, and how much it reminds me of my own fiction, and how I feel like I should only love it in some sort of kitsch or ironic way, but actually I just really love it for the same reasons I love books that I know are actually much better, as books (as crafted artefacts and as pieces of what Benjamin calls 'counsel', 'wisdom woven into the fabric of everyday life', in his essay 'The Storyteller'). Everyone has so many feelings about everything, and there are so many wonderful words, descriptions, moral asides, narratorial interjections... So overwrought and highly-coloured and excessive. Actually, it reminds me of a quote from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick which I used last week in a brief 'position paper' for a debate about interdisciplinarity (and which I used in my essay on fanfiction, I can't let it go):

I think that for many of us in childhood the ability to attach intently to a few cultural objects, objects of high or popular culture or both, objects whose meaning seemed mysterious, excessive, or oblique in relation to the codes most readily available to us, became a prime resource for survival. We needed there to be sites where the meanings didn’t line up tidily with each other… The need I brought to books and poems was hardly to be circumscribed, and I felt I knew I would have to struggle to wrest from them sustaining news of the world, ideas, myself and (in various senses) my kind. The reading practices founded on such basic demands and intuitions had necessarily to run against the grain of the most patent available formulae for young people’s reading and life… Becoming a perverse reader was never a matter of my condescension to texts, rather of the surplus charge of my trust in them to remain powerful, refractory, and exemplary.

So let this be my 'in memoriam' post for Sedgwick, who died a few weeks ago and who saved my life and many others. Not good enough as a memorial for her, not nearly good enough, but at least perhaps she would like the context: genderfucked Victorian boys' fiction (remind me to post the quote about Eric in his pink dress with the silver clasp that shows off his figure*) and Proust, high culture and popular culture, mysterious, oblique and excessive.

*in which he is playing cricket, naturally