Category Archives: Critical Inquiry

On Jonathan Franzen’s The Kraus Project

Marjorie Perloff

Shortly after my essay (“Avant-Garde in a Different Key:  Karl Kraus’s The Last Days of Mankind”) went to press, Kraus, whose work has long been neglected in the Anglophone world, suddenly found himself at the center of lively controversy in the press. The occasion was the publication in October 2013 of Jonathan Franzen’s The Kraus Project (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).  Ironically, it has taken the attention of a celebrated novelist like Franzen to bring a great figure like Karl Kraus to the attention of our own literary/intellectual community.  Or so we may conclude from the dozens of serous reviews devoted to The Kraus Project in the autumn of 1913.  Most of these reviews—for example, Michael Hoffmann’s in The New York Review of Books– treated Kraus as a fascinating—but finally flawed—polemicist, whose virulent critique of the Hapsburg monarchy and especially of the media was perhaps too extreme—and certainly too local—to retain its satiric punch today.  One notable exception is Eric Banks’s long and richly documented piece in Bookforum (Sept/Oct/Nov 2013).

Whether praised or denigrated, Franzen’s eccentric study can hardly be taken as any sort of beginner’s guide to Kraus’s oeuvre:  it is much less about Kraus than about Franzen himself—his own progress as a writer, his studies in Berlin, his own withering contempt for the world of the internet and social media   When Franzen compares Kraus’s dichotomy between the Germanic emphasis on literary content versus the French concern for form to that of the “sober” and “functional” PC versus the “cool” and “elegant” Apple, one feels that the author is being little more than frivolous.   And it is never clear why The Kraus Project chooses, as its texts to be translated and annotated, the two youthful essays “Heine and the Consequences” (1910) and “Nestroy and Posterity” (1912).  The critique of the great German lyric poet for his excessive Francophilia is, to my mind, one of Kraus’s least successful literary essays; and the Nestroy essay can’t mean much to contemporary readers, who are not likely to have heard of the obscure nineteenth-century Austrian dramatist.  But then, Franzen uses these essays only as the jumping off point for his own wild and whacky commentary, interspersed with glosses by the scholar Paul Reitter and the German-Austrian writer Daniel Kehlmann.

There are fascinating aperçus scattered throughout this collage-commentary: Franzen is, for example, very perceptive about Last Days, which he calls “the strangest great play ever written,” and remarks, “At first glance, it can be mistaken for postmodern, since the bulk of its 793 pages consists of quotation; it’s unabashedly a play about language.  Kraus maintained that, with the exception of the Grumbler-Optimist scenes and the verse fantasias, every line spoken by it several hundred characters was something he had personally heard or read during the First World War” (p. 257).  Yet, Franzen argues, “what makes the play modern, rather than postmodern, is the figure of the Grumbler, who in most respects is indistinguishable from Kraus himself.  His friend the Optimist keeps coming to him with fresh phrases of propaganda and journalism, trying to persuade him that war is a glorious thing and is going well, and the Grumbler aphoristically demolishes every one of them. . . His coordinating subjectivity is too central to be postmodern” (257).  This description of the roles of Grumbler and Optimist strikes me as quite accurate but it is also the case that the Grumbler’s didactic summations become tedious–he is indeed Kraus’s mouthpiece—and undercut the play’s dramatic power.  And since didacticism is hardly a characteristic of Modernism, my own conclusion would be that The Last Days is best understood as a postmodern work manqué.

The Kraus Project, in any case, is not likely to bring the Austrian writer a new readership:  its technique—translation, commentary, commentary on the commentary by others—is too confusing, its conclusions about politics conclusions about politics too idiosyncratic. But I applaud the book’s publication because it has certainly succeeded in enlarging the discourse about Kraus’s writing, if for no other reason than that the reviews, responses, and letters to the editor have brought new facts to light.  The most important of these is that there is a new translation of Last Days of Mankind.  In November 2013, the British writer Michael Russell, whose career has been in television drama, responded to the ongoing discussion of The Kraus Project by posting the following on his website dedicated to Kraus:

1914 saw the start of the First World War and of Karl Kraus’s bitter, relentless and incomparable dissection of its progress. 11 November 2014 will see the publication of my full translation of ‘The Last Days of Mankind – Part One’ as an e-book on Amazon; that is to say the prologue, act I, act II & act III, with commentary (part two, acts IV & V, & the epilogue, will be published in 2016). Almost 100 years on this will be the first ever English version of Karl Kraus’s complete text of the play. The translation will be revised from the work-in-progress version used to provide the condensed material currently on this website; the commentary notes will be revised and extended…

I am happy to report that Russell’s translation is excellent—certainly the best I’ve seen to date. I only wish it had been available when I began my own work on Kraus!  But now that it is here—and very accessible on line—I urge readers to take a look, especially at the scenes discussed in my own essay.  It seems, then, that in time for the centenary of World War I, Kraus’s great war drama is finally going to get its due in the English-speaking world.

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January 13, 2014 · 9:38 am

From Mr. Chips to Scarface, or Racial Capitalism in Breaking Bad

Curtis Marez

As the acclaimed series comes to a close, critics have routinely repeated the claim of Breaking Bad’s creator, Vince Gilligan, that the show traces Walter White’s transformation from Mr. Chips to Scarface, but the larger implications of the character’s arc are rarely investigated. “Mr. Chips” is the nickname of an initially stern but ultimately kindly English public school teacher in the 1939 film whereas “Scarface” is the alias of Tony Montana, the ruthless Cuban immigrant drug lord in Brian De Palma’s 1983 film of the same name.  As played by Al Pacino, Montana is perhaps the most iconic Latino character in Hollywood history, inspiring a host of imitations and homages in film and music. Indeed, the figure of Scarface anchors multiple forms of mimetic desire whereby his fans feel compelled to repeat his best, heavily accented lines (“Who do I trust? Me, that’s who”; “Say hello to my little friend”). In analogous ways over the course of 5 seasons Walter White has come to copy the Latino drug dealers he triumphs over.  In fact, the character’s transformation is represented as a kind of “becoming Latino” in ways that presuppose a broader borderland political economy, built on sedimented layers of colonialism, that depends upon the incorporation of low wage migrant labor. Continue reading

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September 25, 2013 · 7:16 pm

Further Thoughts on Occupy: Open Letter to W. J. T. Mitchell

 

I’ve just been catching up on my journal reading and very much appreciated the recent bundle of articles on the Occupy movement in Critical Inquiry. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/668047 But I also have one critique. Initially I hesitated to write, but I realized I was reading something that was very familiar to me, not only in your writing but in many others, that bears commenting on. Your preface offers an overview of the Occupy movement from an almost invisibly American perspective. Of course you are American, and so you may argue that this perspective makes sense. But I think there is a problem when it leads to misrepresentation. I especially think there is a problem in our current world of geopolitical inquiry, globalization, and transnationalism.

            As I’m sure you know, the Occupy movement took its name from the Vancouver-based magazine Adbusters. Occupy movements were present in every major city in Canada. In my city, Ottawa, which also happens to be the nation’s capital, the movement produced controversy as well as assent, a space for debate and gathering as well as a space of occasional violence. But when you reference the Occupy movement geographically you interestingly “confine” it primarily to the US. Consider your references. Occupy moves “from highly particular events in New York’s Zucotti Park” (this is true enough), to its relation to “American politics,” to “uprisings that spread like a virus across the Middle East to Europe, the United States, and beyond.” This virus apparently bypasses Canada, the US’s closest neighbour. Later you note that “protests spread from Zucotti Park to scores of cities all over the US.” Later still you refer to “nonviolent protestors across the US.” Of course it is fine to discuss the Occupy movement in its American context, but it is just the assumption that this context is the context for the movement that troubles me.

            I want to be clear: I am by no means calling for national inclusion; my point is not that Canada was left out of your narrative. I am not suggesting that you add “and Canada” to your lists. Rather I am making a plea for rethinking and reframing the way that nation is discussed, in general, and the way that the US is referenced, in particular. Too often, it seems to me, American intellectuals read large political and social movements only through the lens of American geopolitical identity. The imagination of a broader context does not even enter the discussion (or, if it does, it is captured by the vague and uncritical “and beyond.”)  

            You are in a prominent position to make an intervention here. When a leading intellectual participates in and reinforces this sort of partial, geographically bounded, description of a major social movement, it limits the way that we think about the issues. I am making a subtle request but I do believe it is hugely consequential for the ways in which we understand our roles in the academy and our vision for the future of intellectual inquiry. For, as you suggest, a shift in language can trigger shifts in our conversations that expand the limits of what is both thinkable and possible. 

             

Barbara Leckie
Associate Professor & Graduate Chair
Department of English &
Institute for the Comparative Study of Literature, Art, and Culture

Carleton University

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The Subject of Love

Leo Bersani, the Critical Inquiry Visiting Professor at the University of Chicago for 2012, will be conducting a graduate seminar called The Subject of Love.  The course will run for four weeks from 16 April to 11 May. Here is his course description. For more information, please email Jay Williams, Senior Managing Editor, at jww4@uchicago.edu

 

 The Subject of Love
     Concepts and representations of love in certain philosophical, literary, and psychoanalytic texts, as well as in film, from Plato to Godard.  If love is constituted by the language used to “describe” it, we might also argue that the construction of love as a psychic reality is inseparable from the elaboration of particular forms of subjectivity.  To represent and to theorize different modes and objects of human love is, at least implicitly, to propose varying structures of selfhood.  A history of amorous discourse reenacts and reformulates the Foucauldian project of tracing “the hermeneutics of subjectivity” in Western culture.  We will be testing this hypothesis first in a few texts by ancient writers (Plato, Sophocles) and then, primarily, in modern works by Freud, D. H. Lawrence, Proust,  Duras, Claire Denis, and Godard.

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THE ARTS OF OCCUPATION

The Arts of Occupation:  A Call for Crowd Sourcing

Critical Inquiry announces a call to assemble a virtual archive of the Arts of Occupation.  We invite our readers to send images in all media, as well as links, anecdotes, brief essays, reports, games, scripts for performance, and videos that will document the aesthetic as well as the tactical and political side of practices of occupation.  We are interested in the “creative” aspect of the global occupation movement, the ways in which it produces new forms of spectacle, space, face, and inscription.  We are asking for our readers’ aesthetic judgments, not just their political views.  What images and statements have impressed them as especially elegant, powerful, salient, eloquent, penetrating, and—well, yes—beautiful?   What specific images (both metaphors and visual images) have had the most impact, and why?    Is there a new image of the crowd  itself, as a bodily presence in a real place, and as a virtual entity, a mass  social movement?  Is there a new image of the individual, at once non-subject and non-sovereign?  How have the media, both old and new, from Twitter to the People’s Mic, produced and reproduced the emergent forms of democracy?   How is the “sensible,” meaning both sensuous and thinkable, re-distributed by the actions and images of the Occupy Movement?

We do not wish to limit the archive to 2011, though this year just past will clearly stand as the historical beginning of a new sense of the words and images associated with “occupation.”  After a half century of thinking of this word as invariably coupled with military occupation, and with landscapes of  conquest and colonization, a new meaning has suddenly imposed itself.   At the same time the image-concept of the camp and encampment has shifted from a site of detention and dehumanization to one of insurgency and non-violent resistance.  “Occupation” has turned from the sphere of power to that of weakness, disenfranchisement, poverty, as well as resistance, insurgency, and creative direct action.   What are the aesthetic aims and effects of lying down under a red carpet at the entrance to a Chamber of Commerce gala? Camping in a public park until the police remove you?  Erecting a tent city in the midst of Tel Aviv?  Shutting down harbors in Oakland, Long Beach, Portland, and Seattle?  Opening free clinics, libraries, clothing exchanges, media centers, educational projects?  Scribbling slogans, questions, declarations, accusations,  demands, and jokes?  Assembling as an embodied movement on symbolic sites—capitols, city halls, banks, museums, schools, and foreclosed homes.

And, finally, we invite critical and theoretical reflection on the Arts of Occupation.  There needs to be some recognition of the “black arts” of occupation (violence, exploitation, domination) that have mostly characterized the preceding era.  We want to know which arts, and which specific performances, have had the greatest effect in mobilizing this counter-movement?  What have been the failures and successes, and what can we learn from them?

Submit your entry simply by responding to this post.

And to follow Critical Inquiry contributors Slavoj Žižek and Judith Butler on the Occupy movement, click on the following links:

Žižek  in the Guardian

Žižek  in the Observer

Žižek on YouTube

Žižek  on Verso Books

Butler on Salon

Butler on Occupywriters.com

Butler on Worlds of Change

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Filed under Arab Spring, Arts, Critical Inquiry, Criticsm, Media, Occupy

REPORT FROM CAIRO–FURTHER THOUGHT

One more furious thought.
The formation of the government is nothing but an outloud catastrophy. In addition to the “ancient” PM, there is a scandal about the minister of Interior Affairs. He was the assisstant of the security head general in Alexandria. For those who are not aware what Alex stands for please recall the murder of Khaled Said, the precursor of the Revolution; and the brutal torture of Sayed Belal for 9 hrs as a suspect of explding the famous Church “the Saints”, that was on the eve of the New Year!! This is just a tiny example of the “new” government. Indeed those people who have been anti the Revolution should relax now, the scene looks familiar. To add more to the farce, this minister is to perform the oath today and soon on the 25th Dec he is to go to court to answer to the accusations of “murdering” protesters of Alex in last January. And…we are still receiving the blessings of the West…
Sent from Etisalat Misr by Shereen Naga, Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Cairo University

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On Translating Panofsky

Jas Elsner and Katharina Lorenz

[Managing Editor’s note: In anticipation of the appearance of their translation (in conjunction with a substantial essay) of Erwin Panofsky’s “On the Problem of Describing and Interpreting Works of the Visual Arts” in the spring 2012 issue of Critical Inquiry, we asked Jas and Katharina for their thoughts on the project.]

Jas Elsner:  I got into the rather recherché business of translating Panofsky by an odd sidetrack.  As an expert in late antiquity, I decided I needed to know more about the critical historiography that brought this concept into being, and especially about the historical and cultural drives behind the invention of late antique art as a topic of scholarly interest in the late nineteenth century.  The key oeuvre for this is the work of Alois Riegl, one of the greatest of all art historians.  Little did I realize at the time that Riegl’s most acute and committed critic throughout the 1920s and early 30s was Panofsky in his German career.  The first key paper in Panofsky’s rethinking of Riegl (‘The Concept of Artistic Volition’, 1920) had been translated in the early 1980s by Kenneth Northcott and Joel Snyder in this very journal [Critical Inquiry], but the hugely important and difficult essay which developed Panosky’s scheme into a system of fundamental concepts for art history remained untranslated and virtually unread by non-German speaking art historians.  I approached Katharina Lorenz to help me (with what turned out to be one of the most difficult texts I have ever read and in one of the most difficult intellectual enterprises I have ever attempted), and we translated ‘On the Relationship of Art History and Art Theory’ (1925) for Critical Inquiry in 2008.  However, as we worked, it became obvious that this piece was only the second stage in Panofsky’s most creative process of philosophical thinking in his German career, and that the brilliant, assured and much more readable essay (originally published in 1932) translated in this issue of CI [that is, the spring 2012 issue]—astonishingly never before translated into English and only rarely alluded to in English-language scholarship—was the culmination of that trajectory as well as the foundation of Panofksy’s theory of iconology.

Katharina Lorenz: I have to say ‘On Describing and Interpreting Works of the Visual Arts’ was much less of a brain ache than the art theory piece we translated earlier—with regard to its language and use of art historical jargon, but not least because for a classical archaeologist of German training it has the obvious attraction of opening with a piece by Zeuxis, and some en passant sneers against Lessing! Yet, what on the surface is seemingly much more straightforward and easier to grasp in the 1932 paper, in fact drills much deeper into how we deal with pictures than the earlier piece ever could, stuck as it is in its lofty binaries and abstract philosophizing. Indeed, what is amazing is how fresh and insightful the 1932 piece still remains as a meditation on both the problems of description and the limits on subjectivity in interpretation. And yet so many of the wild and wonderful things about it were later lost in the English emulations produced by Panofsky himself in his American career.

JE: Of course, it is precisely the distance between the German and the American models of iconology—both produced by Panofsky and claimed by him to be identical—that is so fascinating.

KL: Equally interesting is the paper’s relative insignificance in German scholarship—which is of course a result in part of the eclipse of Panofsky by Nazi-inflected art history after 1933, and of a subtle resistance to his ascendancy in America in the postwar discipline in Germany.  But even where people did use his work, many a time they refer to the later English versions of iconology (or German paraphrases of it), rather than the first German version, despite the palpable fact that the German essay is much more acute and propositional.

JE: Do you think that this is in part to do with the fact that the English versions of the piece— in Studies in Iconology (1939) and Meaning in the Visual Arts (1955)—are more general, as it were universally applicable, and without the rich empirical base of numerous specific visual examples from which the argument is constructed?

KL: One thing that is really interesting here is how important are pictures to the argument. I am wondering to what extent the 1932 discussion of Grünewald and others, like Franz Marc (which are cut in the American versions of the piece), are essential to Panofsky’s argument. Would the essay have worked in the same way with other pictures? Certainly, his American focus, or entrée, not on an actual work of art but on an action event—the episode of greeting someone on the street, which opens Studies in Iconology—shifts the emphasis of his argument. In the 1932 German version, he had only used that type of social encounter to demonstrate some aspects of his notion of “intrinsic meaning”; but by the time he reformulated the paper in America, it comes to stand in for the interpretive model as a whole. The way Tom Mitchell dissects Panofsky’s use of this social event, and contrasts it with Althusser’s greeting parable, is indicative of the fact that Panofsky did himself and his pictorial enterprise no favours by moving from painting to event. This aside, on a personal level, one thing I find particularly exciting about the 1932 paper is Panofsky’s implicit insight into how thoughts are governed by language (and then again also by images), and how the use of specific choices in language bears upon both interpretation and argument. This, along with the comparison between his choices of language here and those he will adopt in English later, is much more telling of the process his thinking undergoes between German and English than his own statements on the matter later in the 1950s.
JE: I certainly agree with this. But it may also be observed that because the stakes are raised so high by what happened in Germany in the 30s and 40s, and by Panofsky’s choice to confront Heidegger in the 1932 paper, the problems of one’s choice of terms, one’s ethics of argument, the limits one should apply to willfulness in interpretation, are more acutely and pointedly raised by the 1932 paper than by most writing in the history of the discipline.

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