Three Books


Madness and Civilization by Michel Foucault. English translation by Richard Howard. Second edition Pantheon hardback, 1965. Cover design by Pan Visual, featuring a detail from Bosch’s Christ Carrying the Cross.


Correction by Thomas Bernhard. English translation by Sophie Wilkins. 1983 first edition trade paperback by Aventura. Cover design by Keith Sheridan featuring an illustration by Marshall Arisman. I wrote about Correction here.


The Tanners by Robert Walser. English translation by Susan Bernofsky. Irregular-sized trade paperback by New Directions, 2009. Cover design by Erik Rieselbach.

W.G. Sebald: Image, Archive, Modernity — J.J. Long

In W.G. Sebald: Image, Archive, Modernity, J.J. Long posits that the work of the late German author W.G. Sebald is best understood as the struggle for autonomous subjectivity in a world conditioned by the power structures of modernity. If the term “power structures” wasn’t a big enough tip-off, yes, Long’s analysis of Sebald is largely Foucauldian, and although he cites Foucault more than any other theorist (Freud is a distant second), the book is not a dogged attempt to make Sebald’s prose stick to Foucault’s theories. Rather, Long uses Foucault’s techniques to better understand Sebald’s works. As such, Long examines the ways that modernity affects power on the human body in Sebald’s work, tracing his protagonists’ encounters with modern institutions that exert power via archive and image.

From the outset, Long distinguishes his book-length study on Sebald from the tradition of so-called Holocaust studies, as well as some of the other foci that dominate analyses of Sebald — “trauma and memory, melancholy, photography, travel and flânerie, intertextuality and Heimat.” Long claims that these are simply “epiphenomena” of the “problem of modernity” that dominates Sebald’s work, and goes on to scrutinize Sebald’s novels like The Emigrants, Austerlitz, and The Rings of Saturn by focusing instead on the various ways that modern institutions proscribe power on the subject’s body. Long writes–

Sebald is interested in the ways in which subjectivity in modernity is formed by archival and representational systems through which various forms of disciplinary power are exercised. He is also concerned with the scope that might exist for eluding disciplinary power or reconfiguring its archival systems in order to assert a degree of subjective autonomy or evade the determinations of power/knowledge.

Long’s study of Sebald is very much a description of modernity; in particular, of modernity as a series of affects of power and discipline upon the subject (again, very Foucauldian). It’s not particularly surprising then that Long, after locating so many Sebaldian traumas in the 19th and early 20th centuries, asserts that Sebald is a modernist and not a postmodernist. He bases this claim not on the formal elements of Sebald’s prose, which he readily concedes can just as easily be read as postmodernist, but rather on the way his “texts respond to the specific historical constellation” of modernity. Long continues–

What is notable about Sebald is that the fictional worlds he constructs are not postmodern spaces of global capital, hyperspace and ever-faster cycles of production, consumption and waste (despite his narrators’ occasional visits to McDonald’s). His texts do not present unrelated present moments in time, nor do they partake of the waning of history that is frequently noted as a characteristic of the postmodern. Sebald’s spaces are those of an earlier modernity that are deeply marked by the traces of history.

If the question of whether or not a book is postmodern or modern strikes you as merely academic, that’s because it is merely academic. Long makes a solid case for Sebald-as-modernist, but the best parts of his book are really his Foucauldian analyses of Sebald’s texts. They make you want to go back and reread (or, in some cases read for the first time.) I’m inclined to believe that Sebald (along with a host of other writers) is better described as something beyond modern or postmodern, something we might not have a name for yet, but that’s fine–we need distance, time. In Long’s take, Sebald is, of course, trying to sort out the detritus of modernity–even as it’s happening to him. But I’m not sure if that makes him a modernist.

W.G. Sebald: Image, Archive, Modernity is available now from Columbia University Press.

Noam Chomsky, Intellectual Elitism, Po-Mo Gibberish, More Attacks on Deconstruction, and Bad Writing Revisited

While doing some background research for an upcoming Graduate Symposium I’ll be participating in later this month (more on that in the future), I somehow stumbled upon this post from Noam Chomsky in which the famous linguist/activist attacks post-modernism and its heroes. In this email/posting Chomsky criticizes what he views as “a huge explosion of self- and mutual-admiration among those who propound what they call “theory” and “philosophy,”” as little beyond “pseudo-scientific posturing.” Immediately, my thoughts jumped to the discussion of the Sokal Hoax I posted a few weeks back. Chomsky continues his affront to post-structuralism, arguing, much like Sokal, that the major figures of this movement–Derrida, Lacan, Foucault, Kristeva, etc.–obfuscate their arguments with an incoherent vocabulary rife with misused and misapplied scientific terminology. Chomsky on Derrida:

“So take Derrida, one of the grand old men. I thought I ought to at least be able to understand his Grammatology, so tried to read it. I could make out some of it, for example, the critical analysis of classical texts that I knew very well and had written about years before. I found the scholarship appalling, based on pathetic misreading; and the argument, such as it was, failed to come close to the kinds of standards I’ve been familiar with since virtually childhood. Well, maybe I missed something: could be, but suspicions remain […]”


But Chomsky’s not done yet:

“Some of the people in these cults (which is what they look like to me) I’ve met: Foucault (we even have a several-hour discussion, which is in print, and spent quite a few hours in very pleasant conversation, on real issues, and using language that was perfectly comprehensible — he speaking French, me English); Lacan (who I met several times and considered an amusing and perfectly self-conscious charlatan, though his earlier work, pre-cult, was sensible and I’ve discussed it in print); Kristeva (who I met only briefly during the period when she was a fervent Maoist); and others. Many of them I haven’t met, because I am very remote from from these circles, by choice, preferring quite different and far broader ones […] I’ve dipped into what they write out of curiosity, but not very far, for reasons already mentioned: what I find is extremely pretentious, but on examination, a lot of it is simply illiterate, based on extraordinary misreading of texts that I know well (sometimes, that I have written), argument that is appalling in its casual lack of elementary self-criticism, lots of statements that are trivial (though dressed up in complicated verbiage) or false; and a good deal of plain gibberish.”

Illiterate gibberish? Charlatan? Cults ? (This is a really common charge leveled at psychoanalysis in particular, and when one considers that both the work of Freud and Lacan was carried on by their respective daughters, there may be some validity to the claim. Still…)


Two things:

First, as a linguist, Chomsky is searching for an underlying, “universal grammar” or deep structure, a core pattern that underpins/organizes/generates all human languages. In this sense, Chomsky is searching for an ideal, a foundation. This method is in direct opposition to deconstruction, which as I understand it, seeks to decenter and disrupt all metaphysical anchors. I will never forget the class in transformational syntax I took at the University of Florida with Mohammed Mohammed (or MoMo, as we affectionately were permitted to call him). The class was a split grad/undergrad section, and MoMo scared away all of the undergrads in the first session, with the exception of myself and another student. After that point, he was always very kind to us (the undergrads) and cruel to the grads. MoMo was a Palestinian; he identified as a Jordanian refugee. He was a devout Chomskyian (cultishly so, perhaps). Derrida spoke at UF while I was in this class. I didn’t really understand what Derrida’s lecture was about, but it was very long and his English accent wasn’t so great. The next day in class, MoMo savaged Derrida for the entirety of the period on points both specific and general, most of it over our heads. It was a true rant, one of the best I’ve ever witnessed, culminating in (and I quote): “He’s full of shit!”

So Derrida certainly provoked MoMo, a strict Chomskyian–and why not? If you spend your academic career and your adult life searching for something that another person says you could never find, wouldn’t you be upset? (I believe that more than anything MoMo was upset over Derrida’s reception at UF, which was rock-starish to say the least). For MoMo, Derrida was a phony, a pied-piper misleading the children from the real issues.

Which brings me to point two–Chomsky is primarily a political figure, and really a pragmatist at heart. The core of his argument is not so much that po-mo writing is high-falutin’ nonsense, but rather that it ultimately serves no practical purpose. Here is where I would strongly disagree. The people that Chomsky attacks and their followers are re-evaluating the canon and the very notion of received wisdom. Chomsky attacks them for “misreading the classics”–but just what are the classics, and whose value systems created the notion that the classics were indeed “classic”? If Derrida & co. appear to “misread,” it is because they seek to recover the marginalized knowledge that has been buried under a sediment of givens as “truth.” Yes, the post-modern movement might have elitist tendencies, and yes, the subjects and themes of their work might not have much to do on the surface with the plight of a refugee (cf. MoMo in Jordan in 1948)…but the goal is actually in line with Chomsky’s goal–to make people question the powers that structure their lives.

I do agree, as I’ve said before, that post-modern writing often comes off as so-much sophistry and hogwash (I admit to plenty of this myself), that in some sense it relies too heavily on a coded vocabulary that seems unaccessible to the untrained eye, and that all too often an air of self-congratulation, an atmosphere of winks and nods replaces an environment of real thinking and debate. But my real take is this: any philosophy that could shake MoMo into discomposure is good. MoMo is a brilliant man and his class was fascinating, but to have seen him that day–his feathers so ruffled, his foundations tested–so infuriated over ideas–that was a beautiful thing. Right then, I knew there must be something to Derrida, something I wanted to figure out. And that’s what the best of these writers do–they infuriate us by provoking the truths that we are so sure that we hold in ourselves. They destabilize our safe spaces. They don’t allow for easy answers; they rebuke tradition. And if this approach falls into the norm in academia, becomes lazy and sedimentary, undoubtedly someone will come along and call “bullshit” on it, thus reigniting debate, questions, language. Nietzsche speaks of language as a series of hardened metaphors, language as petrified lava, sedimentary givens. This is the goal of deconstruction: to get that lava flowing again.