Category Archives: Books

Book Haul for February 2019 – De Guzman, Badiou, Jameson, Zizek, Althusser, Balibar, Establet, Macherey & Ranciere

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I’m glad to wrap up my February with a good news from Donna Miranda that my books I ordered from Verso finally arrived at their doorstep.

So here’s my book haul for this February:

  • Domingo De Guzmna’s Rescued History: Essays on the New History of the Philippine Revolution Vol 1 & 2
  • Domingo De Guzman’s Trysts, Elegies & Revolutions: Mga pagtatagpo, Elihiya, at Rebolusyon¬†
  • Alain Badiou’s The Communist Hypothesis
  • Frederic Jameson’s The Hegel Variations
  • Slavoj Zizek’s Absolute Recoil: Towards a New Foundation of Dialetical Materialism
  • Althusser, Balibar, Establet, Macherey, and Ranciere’s Reading Capital: The Complete Edition
  • Frederic Jameson’s Valences of the Dialectic

More this coming March!

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Reflections on Roland Barthes’ The Photographic Message (1961)

25 January 2014

[Republished from here]

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Why even bother about Barthes?

I saw the book¬†Image Music Text¬†by Barthes lying on a bookshelf at home sandwiched between two novels by Michael Cunningham. I was drawn to its exterior mold. It has a thinness unusual for a book on critical theory with a cover page exhuming the image of Sergei Eisenstein’s¬†Ivan the Terrible. Eisenstein’s image, his films, and others films from Soviet Montage movement flashed back in my mind. I was invaded once again by memories of my early years in cinephilia.

I first approached it that way, through the¬†act of looking, an act of remembering, a visual encounter, which seizes me to approach it almost without hesitation, as if I have encountered it in the past and now an artifact. This act of looking, this seizing moment came first before the¬†act of thinking.¬†This is a fundamental encounter, a productive one that urges me to produce some form of writing: a reflection, a series of notes, an anti-reflection, anything goes really. My desire for¬†encounters,¬†in this case a textual encounter with Roland Barthes’ essay¬†The Photographic Message¬†(1961), stems from Gilles Deleuze’s¬†C for Culture¬†response in¬†L’Abecedaire de Gilles Deleuze¬†(1988-1989)…

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…where he admonishes the idea of¬†culture¬†by moving towards the¬†power of encounters. Encounters more than culture, and, in the words of Deleuze, to be always ‘on the lookout‘ — these were my initial thoughts when I first approached the surface of Barthes’ essay collection.

I wonder why most people look after his works. In many bookshops I visit these days (2010 – present), from¬†Bookay-Ukay¬†at Maginhawa St., UP Diliman to online bookstores like¬†Roel’s Bookshop, Roland Barthes’ presence is overwhelming. His books are almost¬†omnipresent, at least in Manila, sprawling within the local cultural domain. Have his theories amalgamated within the local discourse on arts, culture, or cinema? One could think of a possible marriage – transnational, if I may say – French-Filipino thinking, in search of ways to ‘understand’ the assemblage of life in the Philippines. Barthes’ entry to local bookstores is symptomatic of the bustling presence of European critical theory in the Philippines, amplified entirely by the thriving (anti)intellectual discourse in social media nowadays (though I haven’t seen a Barthes meme frolicking over my Facebook newsfeed for the past few years.¬†This is a good one though). This is why I wanted to read Barthes: out of curiosity. What is it with him that seems to be so elusive, so seductive for a ‘theorist’?

I fairly do not have warm feelings for theory nowadays – film theory, for that matter. Some critics have announced its eminent¬†death. This made me suspicious of its stability as a field. After discovering D.N. Rodowick and Gilles Deleuze last year, I bade goodbye to theory and move towards a more multiple region in critical inquiry: the cusp between cinema and philosophy,¬†cine-philosophy, where one is forced to be¬†nomadic.¬†A nomad, who has no mother or father – an¬†orphan, must learn how to squat, stare, and observe momentarily¬†at¬†books, texts, films, short stories, paintings, alleys, objects, subjects, benches, and/or open fields. A nomadic life is an active movement of one’s body towards the world, an opening, a journey away from the traditions of¬†home¬†life – a journey of becoming. This is opposed to intellectualism, which forces one to sit, think, and contemplate of singular aspects of life typically displayed by the¬†Thinking Man, a figure of contemplation.¬†A nomad walks on the streets. He is out looking for encounters, not with people, but with objects, ideas, and forms. The street – its intersections, cul-de-sacs, and U-turns – is his home and his guide through life.

My engagement with critical theory came from a nomadic walk away from film theory. I was drawn to its uncanny body, its perturbations, and its transformations. This massive field opened itself to me and, in various entry points, I tried to wrestle with it in fragments. What attracts me perhaps is its massive effort to decentralize traditions. A large part of its task is to revolt against traditional thinking: common sense, common beliefs, common life.¬†Critical theory¬†is one of the pervasive mode of thinking in sociology, arts, and the humanities, created by Europeans to rethink their lives – the society and the culture they belong. Critical theory is a mid-20th century amalgamation of Marxism, psychoanalysis, and linguistics. Multitudinous transformations have occurred within and outside its domain symptomatic of its tempestuous relationship with history, and to some point, technology. I won’t be discussing in detail the immanence of Critical theory or its transformations from the beginning. I would instead dwell on a microlevel: an encounter with critical texts, as excruciating as it might be. This¬†is a self-inflicted torture – to confront each polemical text headlong.

Confronting the text headlong may leave some terminologies and concepts unclear. But like I said in a¬†previous post, incomplete or unclear ideas can create new pathways of thinking. Hence, I won’t be troubling myself with terminologies or their definitions because I might encounter them in the future in a different light.

The goal is to withstand the thrust of the text, to experience it, to read through it like I would read a novel or a short story, and allow the formation of feelings, affects, sensations, intensities. Emotions, affects, and feelings are usually set aside when reading such texts. I wanted to explore this region in critical inquiry: how does one respond emotionally, along with critical response, to academic texts? How does one deal with a strange jargon? What makes the the text inviting?

Each essay has a way of putting words into sentences. Each has its own system of organizing its ideas, and maybe eliciting some sensations: visual or experiential. Almost each one has its own of putting forward a stance, a world, a new concept. I shall approach each text aesthetically along with a crude critical assessment of some of its ideas. Screw me if you think I misconstrue and/or misjudge some elements and concepts from the text as I am not an expert in this area. The key phrase here is experience through encounter.

The Essay[link]

Roland Barthes’ essay¬†The Photographic Message¬†opens with its object (a press photograph) followed by its guiding structure, an ‘assemblage’ in Barthes’ words. He arranged it in a succession: a point of emission (the one who takes the photo), a channel of transmission (the newspaper), and a point of reception (the readers of the newspaper). This is the first image that one has to confront in the opening part of the essay. Barthes presents a pathway with a room in each stop.

Barthes’ use of language is dry and cold. Semioticians write their theories formally with a sleight of hand. A semiotician’s essay has this certain straightforwardness that makes a College Math book look more interesting. Yet Barthe’s essay is few of the most lucid, most crystal-clear writing I’ve ¬†read in my life. In this crystal-clear text, there is, at times, no room for breathing. As Barthes elucidates the nuance of the photographic message, one feels an utter discomfort. One enters a tortuous structured pathway punctuated by large blocks of ideas to confront. At some point, the semiotic jargon seems too alienating for an everyman. Small parts builds on bigger parts. This is a typical touch of a structuralist text: order and control.

Semiotics runs together with the Structuralist movement. It sees the world as an amalgam of signs. While linguistics studies words, semiotics studies the non-words: images, sounds, three-dimensional objects (do they even study cross-linked artifacts like audiovisual displays?), and how they produce meanings. Semioticians also deal with their objects as if they have inherent structures in them. This is the world that one approaches when reading Barthes’¬†The Photographic Message. A press photograph, his object of analysis, is wedged within this preordained world, examined at its limits.

One can find a press photograph in areas where communities thrive, in societies centered on information. For Barthes, this is the simplest visual object that one can encounter in such societies of control, apart from magazine advertisements, which he scrutinized intently in his essay¬†Rhetoric of the Image.¬†The Photographic Message¬†is the critique of the press photograph.It is interesting to note that Barthes version of the press photograph isn’t only a photograph by itself. It is a photograph with a text like this…

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Barthes proposes this as the basic structure of a press photograph: an image with a text. He says that each element, image and text, must be analyzed individually before analyzing their combined state.

The Photograph, a Paradox

When one looks at the picture above, of men and women all joined together to skate, one observes that the picture is a reduced three-dimensional reality. Barthes says this is mathematical transformation (from 3D to 2D) where the image (the photograph) becomes the¬†analogon¬†of the object. This process of ‘copying’ reality is¬†denotation. He also added that this image is the¬†message without a code¬†primarily because it is a continuous imitation of reality. Aside from imitating reality, it must also be accounted that a photograph is also captured in some specific cultural landscape, a certain time and space, and therefore¬†connoted.

Barthes positioning of the photograph as both a mathematical (or mechanical) and cultural object proves important and influential. There were only few theorist before who were interested in studying photographs. Through this essay, Barthes gives the basic framework on how to deal with photographs. If you are semantics student, this will make you happy.

A¬†connotation procedure¬†refers to the manner a photographer captures a photograph.¬†For Barthes, this is the reason why a photograph has no objectivity. It is not created based on a ‘universal symbolic order’, but rather an object ‘worked on, chosen, composed, constructed, treated with professional aesthetics’. It is therefore a¬†message with a code.¬†Barthes suggest that connotation allows the photograph to be read. It connects the photograph again to the world. There is once again noticeable bipolar relation between¬†connotation-denotation,¬†but their functions are far technical and must not be taken lightly.¬†This conceptual tandem rift throughout the text exploring the nuances of the photograph message.

The presence of both messages, the analogon (message without a code) and the connoted message (message with a code), in one is the photographic paradox. Barthes continues his analysis by specifying the various ways connotation can be performed in a photograph. The reader enters an ossified field as Barthes provides a room for each. He identifies six ways: trick effects (i.e photoshop, faking a photograph), pose (i.e. stereotypical codes, a woman wears a skirt, a man wears pants), objects (i.e. artificial arrangement of objects, a old bookcase may signify an intellectual atmosphere of sorts), photogenia (i.e. embellishment of the photograph through lighting, exposure, and printing), aestheticism (i.e. photograph as a painting, painterly effects of landscapes, photography as art), syntax (i.e. putting two (un)related photographs side-by-side to produce a meaning).

This is perhaps what makes Barthes essay hard to grasp at first, at least for me. Each concept has its room: numbered paragraphs arranged from simplest to the most complex terms. The text forwards likes a process of enumeration, one element after the other, proceeding stately and carefully until reaching an end.

The Text

Barthes continues on. He focuses on the presence of the text, the caption, in a press photograph. Barthes says there are three functions of a text in a press photograph. One function of the text is to become a parasitic message to the photograph. The text quickens the connotation. This is, for Barthes, a historical reversal: ‘the image no longer illustrates words, the words becomes a parasite to the image.’ Text burdens the image with ‘culture, moral, and imagination’, Barthes continues. Second function would be duplication/non-duplication of the image. ‘The closer the text to the image, the lesser its connotation’. And lastly, the text also amplifies (pro or anti-image) the connotations of the photograph.

One may find these procedural elucidation of the three functions difficult to understand, but Barthes sees to it that each of these categories returns back to reality by providing examples. In this way, the text has never left us. Examples jut out from various portions of the text surging towards us, connecting us to its difficult jargon. What is blocking us, of course, appreciating the text fully is the lack of connections with subject of semiotics and structuralism itself. As an outside of the field, I struggled through the essay for about a week and half, trying to somehow deal with it.

Is a Photograph of Pure Denotation possible?

Nevertheless, Barthes posed an intriguing question in the end, a staggering rift in the text: “Is…pure denotation…impossible?” He said that a photograph, through connotations, is always historical and cultural, ¬†never natural nor artificial. ¬†These historical and cultural connotations give the photograph a¬†meaning.¬†It allows us to¬†read¬†the photograph. The challenge is to find a way by which this¬†meaning is blocked. In a way, Barthes is posing a question of limits by reaching a certain boundary:¬†Is pure connotation possible? Is pure denotation possible?¬†These inquiries lead us to think of an Outside, a certain Other apart the text.

To answer the question, Barthes says that¬†pure denotation¬†exist in absolutely traumatic images…

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Traumatic Photographs (Top to Bottom): Victims of Napalm bomb during the Vietnam War, Mass grave in Poland during the Holocaust, and the Mendiola Massacre 1987

“The trauma is a suspension of language, a blocking of meaning,” he said. He added: “[…] the traumatic photograph is the photograph about which there is nothing to say; the shock-photo is by structure insignificant: no value, no knowledge, at the limit no verbal categorization can have a hold on the process instituting the signification.”

A limit has been reached, and perhaps this is what I’ve always been looking for in critical texts. A desire exists in the limits, a desire that seizes one to think. And by virtue of encounters, a certain limit must always be reached: an ending that never ends, a beginning that seizes to begin.

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Reading #Goals for 2019

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Here is my to-read list for 2019. Well, when you see Derrida, Hegel and Heidegger in one list, you know you are in for hell the whole year. But since my thesis critically engages with Marx, Hegel and Derrida to understand the phenomenon of long duration, I have no choice but to go through this. I also want to catch up on my reading on literature, hence another list on World Lit. Here’s to another year ahead. Sometimes, cinema can be so alienating, you need a book to reawaken your sensibility, or at least, in an art-religious sense.

Thesis-Related:

  1. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology
  2. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time
  3. Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference 
  4. Jonathan Beller, The Cinematic Mode of Production
  5. Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx
  6. Jacques Derrida, Margins of Philosophy
  7. Karl Marx, Capital Volume I, II, III
  8. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, (Greater) Science of Logic
  9. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit
  10. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, (Shorter) Logic 
  11. Slavoj Zizek, Less than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism
  12. Slavoj Zizek, The Parallax View

World Lit:

  1. Kobe Abe, The Ruined Map
  2. Virginia Woolf, Orlando
  3. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
  4. William Gibson, Neuromancer
  5. Andre Aciman, Call Me By Your Name
  6. Elfriede Jelinek, The Piano Teacher
  7. Naguib Mahfouz, Cairo Modern
  8. William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch
  9. Ha Jin, Waiting
  10. William S. Burroughs, Junky
  11. V.S. Naipaul, A House for Mister Biswas
  12. Roberto Bola√Īo, 2666
  13. Eduardo Galeano, Genesis
  14. Christopher Isherwood, Down There on a Visit
  15. Christopher Isherwood, The World in the Evening
  16. Will Self, Shark
  17. Edel Garcellano, Knife’s Edge: Selected Essays

Not in the photo

  1. David Markson, Wittgenstein’s Mistress
  2. Michael Cunningham, By Nightfall

 

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January Loot pt. 1: Eagleton, Jameson, Cavell

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This year 2018 will be year of reading. With preparatory literature review for thesis at hand, I am expecting a flood of literature this year. Last year was a slow year for me. I was not rigorous with my reading, although I finished close readings of two books Virilio’s¬†The Open Sky and¬†¬†Giorgio Agamben’s The Open: Man and Animal for a withdrawn article in supposed book publication deal for Edinburgh University Press. I wish I had more time for reading. This section will regularly feature some of my surveys of literature (books/manuscripts/journals), most of which are related to my thesis or studies.

Let me start by announcing a recent book purchase I made just this month from BLINK.PH. The online bookstore BLINK.PH was on clearance sale last January the 1st of 2018 and I made it a point to start a year with a decent book purchase. In my five-day New Year vacation at Bicol, I failed to visit our local bookstore at Sorsogon City, so I had to make sure I buy online.

Recent Book purchase

book grabs from BLINK.PH’s 2018 Clearance Sale

BOOK-TOOLS: On Deleuzo-Guattarian Literature

Somewhere in A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari insisted that a book is a tool. We may never understand fully what they meant by that, but the passage come from the first page of Chapter 1: Rhizome, which says:

‘A book has neither object nor subject; it is made of variously formed¬†matters, and very different dates and speeds. To attribute the book to a subject is to overlook this working of matters, and the exteriority of their relations. It is to fabricate a beneficent God to explain geological movements. In a book, as in all things, there are lines of articulation or segmentarity, strata and territories; but also lines of flight, movements of¬†deterritorialization and destratification.’ (p. 3,¬†A Thousand Plateaus)

By tool, Deleuze and Guattari is posturing that each book is generally a multiplicity and it is necessarily structured in a such a way that it  generates a temporal deviation from the structure of reality. It is, in this sense, a machine for a book opens the open. It acts as a differential machine of the world in the same way how film works to open time from its surrendered status of completion. Time in both book-form and film-form neither announces its completion. A book always approaches a defamaliarized state. Or, in simpler terms, a book in itself is neither complete nor gives one a sense of complete determination. It functions as a tool because it unhinges various determinations of reality and reformulates them in various ways.

To think of books as tools, one must carry out a necessary ontological step of rethinking the act of reading. The act of reading, for a long time, has been related to a branch of philosophy called¬†epistemology – or the branch of knowledge or knowing – that specializes on various ways of knowing the world. Reading is a method of¬†knowing the world. To read in order to know: this mantra solidifies the Platonic metaphor of the sun which romanticizes the epistemological idea of knowledge as illumination, meaning, knowledge can only be rendered intelligible only if it comes from goodness. Goodness here should not taken literally. ‘Goodness’ veils the transparent conditions of the institutional morality.¬†In Deleuze and Guattari’s innovative reversal of this Platonic form of epistemology, knowledge is reinterpreted as a machinic assemblage, which constitute the very act of knowing as connected to the generation of knowledge. In a machinic assemblage, all else is connected by disjunctive synthesis.

A book is an assemblage of this kind, and as such is unattributable. It is a multiplicity-but we don’t know yet what the multiple entails when it is no longer attributed, that is, after it has been elevated to the status of a substantive.¬† (p. 4, A Thousand Plateaus)

The tool-like capacity of the book-assemblage lies it its unattributable multiplicity. The book’s content holds enough potential to reformalize the structure of reality.

Part 1. Eagleton, Jameson, Cavell

Terry EagletonTerry Eagleton’s The¬†Task of a Critic¬†is an essential book to my thesis. My thesis on Lav Diaz will proceed as a critique of long duration, and any resource that has the words¬†critic, criticism, critique¬†is assemblagically connected to my critical posturing towards Lav Diaz. I am not very familiar with Eagleton’s works, except for an interesting essay in Ghostly Demarcations: A Symposium on Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx titled ‘Marxism Without Marxism’. Eagleton’s scathing critique of Derrida’s Specters of Marx is quite a satisfying read. It shows Eagleton’s clear commitment to a type of ‘sober’ vanguard Marxism that I am aligned with except, of course, that I come from the context surrounding material productions of postcolonial Philippine culture. Eagleton’s commentary on Derrida’s book goes like this:

Derrida has now taken Marxism on board, or at least dragged it halfway up the gangplank, because he is properly enraged by liberal-capitalist complacency, but there is also something unavoidably opportunist about his political pact, which wants to exploit Marxism as critique, dissent, conveniently belabouring instrument, but is far less willing to engage with its positivity. What he wants, in effect, is a Marxism without Marxism, which is to say a Marxism on his own coolly appropriative terms. 

(p. 86, Ghostly Demarcations)

Like his essay on Specters of Marx, the critical school that Eagleton subscribe to is unforgiving. Yet, among Anglo-Western theorists, Eagleton has a sustained genealogical and reflexive relationship with the idea of criticism. His book The Function of Criticism offers a genealogical study of the European literary criticism. The analysis of historical punctum of critique and criticism is highly important in Marxist studies, in particular, on determining the force and impulse of crisis in relation to critical activity such as writing criticism.

The Task of the Critic¬†offers a similar approach as an assembly of dialogical encounters between Eagleton and¬†Matthew Beaumont. While The Task of Critic is written under the semantic worldview of the literary theory and criticism, Eagleton’s insights is equally applicable to any field including film theory and criticism. Perhaps along the way, in reading Eagleton’s tool-kit book, one will learn to become what he wants us to become: to be modern critics who struggle against the bourgeois state.¬†Fredric Jameson

Fredric Jameson’s Fables of Aggression: Wyndham Lewis, The Modernist as Fascist is one of those books that you cannot just put down. This is a literary critique of Wyndham Lewis’ works. Wyndham Lewis is one of the least known modernist writers in the era when James Joyce and Virginia Woolf conditioned the literary production of the era. Jameson’s book offers a critical outlook of the life and work of Lewis by ‘draw[ing] on the methods of narrative analysis and semiotics, psychoanalysis, and ideological analysis to construct a dynamic model of the contradictions from which Lewis’s incomparable narrative corpus is generated, and of which it offers so many varying symbolic resolutions.’ Jameson’s critical program is conditionally what I intend to deploy for my thesis. However, my study will focus on the critique of cinematic temporality in the cinema of Lav Diaz. This book might come in handy in finding a strategy of unpacking the contradictions in Lav Diaz’s cinema.¬†Stanley Cavell

Another book of interest is Stanley Cavell’s Cities of Words: Pedagogical Letters on a Register of the Moral Life. Stanley Cavell is one of the proponents of film-philosophy. His landmark work¬†The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film elucidates a brand of film-philosophical reflection that activates the link between filmic experience with philosophical memory. In a way, what Cavell refers to as an ontology of film is basically linked to a type of experiential ontology spread in the backdrop of the question of modernism. In Cities of Words, Cavell develops a different kind of film-philosophical reflection. In this book, he tries to uncover the link of cinema and philosophy by reading side-by-side philosophers and film. Cavell’s book generally argues that films can create ideal forms of justice, in particular, it can create an image of a Just City.

Cavell’s book can be an important resource to film-philosophical inflected-research as it provides a methodological tool in crossing between film and philosophy.

 

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