segunda-feira, 5 de janeiro de 2009

Where was LUSITANIA?


I would like to begin what is ostensibly being positioned as a re-reading of LUSITANIA today with what may first appear, at cursory glance, as two rather incidental and seemingly irrelevant lapses of editing or translation. I hesitate to call such orthographic or typographical errors “mistakes”, since they are neither obtuse enough to distract the reader, and moreover, as a type of acte manqué, they in fact constitute precisely the discursive horizon that determines my reading. In fact, these two lapses also situate—the locative metaphor seems to me an apt one—what turns out to be an explicit if nostalgic relationship to the magazine to which I am now asked to be respondent, but which, in a kind of classic analytical irony, I had already but was unbeknownst to me. Perhaps in what Schiller called the “naïve of surprise,” the lapses may, as with the detective in Robbe-Grillet’s Les Gommes (1953), have been put there for me later to discover them—perhaps placed there as purloined letters. Those lapses, as most do, function as constitutive, whose lack of unequivocal significance—perhaps by virtue of being so meaningless—come to structure a reading nonetheless. So to begin:

1) On the cover of issue #3 entitled “Kultura Control”, the graphic emblem of the magazine bears the descriptive motto—latter abandoned—of “A Journal of Reflection and Oceanography.” On the inside front matter, however, the colophon text reads “a Journal of Reflexion and Oceanography.” So that this homophonic difference is not lost on the listener, the first is reflection spelled with “ct,” the second with “xi”. Reflection (both the state of being reflected and thoughtful consideration and its resulting ideation) is somewhat distinct from “reflexion” which bares the trace of reflex and is the British variant. The variant spelling is suggested as due to a kind of semantic containment from correction, which is ironic but which hopefully makes my point somewhat less tedious and justified.

2) In that same issue—it is rather suffused with small errors, excused by the sheer density and thematic richness of the text—before that colophon, there is a collage of New York Times articles from a variety of decades, including one which bares the front page story of the sinking of the eponymous ocean liner that gives the magazine its name. Below it, in a block of text, there is an unaccredited “editorial” which provides a brief exegetical discursus, seemingly the only, on the choice of the publication’s name and its transcultural connotations. The only typographical indicative of any difference between proper nouns—the ocean liner, the magazine—necessary, and here I side with William Empson, to distinguish between the two, is one case of capitalization. This text is translated into English—of course it could be the other way around—with the exception of that one word, also capitalized, and which is conflated at each turn for an object, a proper name, and a floating signifier: “o nome Lusitania” translated, as “the Lusitania,” for instance.

It is rather obvious that such trivial inconsistencies or lapses can be ascribed to either Sod’s Law, or simply working within a bilingual context and the resulting orthographic confusion. I cannot help though, in my invited reading, to see these rather as symptoms that invite “reflection,” and as such, are related to a structure that determines their interpretation. This is to delineate, as I aim to do, what in Heideggerian-Gadamerian terms can be called the “hermeneutic horizon” of LUSITANIA and its link to a historical condition of ideological and cultural critique to which it serves, for a new generation negotiating the territory between criticality and complicity, as testament.

We know, of course, that the unconscious of the subject manifests itself through a repertoire of tropes: ellipsis, periphrasis, catachresis etc. In analytic discourse, it is of course not really the surface utterance that tells; is rather the function of metaphor and metonymy within the utterance, the syntactic logic of the signifier, which rhetorically speaks. Freud’s first mention of such phenomena of ‘lapsus’ in speech, writing, or action, what he called ‘Fehlleistung’ or ‘faulty action’ and which we have come to know as ‘parapraxes,’ or the Freudian slip, is in a letter to his friend and colleague Wilhelm Fleiss in 1898. The fascination is much earlier, at least as far back as Goethe, in the recognition that there is a different reading to what is enunciated than what this signifies, such that what is actually said is always something more than what the words mean or denotate.. It is thus a case of knowing how to read.

Lacan, for example, asks us to “consider the flight of a bee:”

A bee goes from flower to flower to gather nectar. What you discover is that, at the tip of its feet, the bee transports pollen from one flower onto the pistil of another flower. That is what you read in the flight of the bee. Does the bee read that it serves a function in the reproduction of phanerogamic plants? Does the bird read the portent of fortune, as people used to say---in other words, the tempest? That is the whole question. It cannot be ruled out, after all, that a swallow reads the tempest, but it is not terribly certain either.

This ambiguity of reading is in fact the strict meaning of ‘appearance’ in phenomenological terms: that which announces itself, but does not itself appear or show itself, but is announced through something that does appear, as say the symptoms of a disease. Thus the acte manqué can act as a literal pointing towards, but towards a presence that is found precisely in its absence.

What the two typographical ‘symptoms’ propose then, as a reading, is reflection that announces itself, overdetermines them as meaningful. In fact, they double themselves, since the exegetical discursus turns self-reflective, describing LUSITANIA precisely as untranslatable, or rather, lost in the “contingency of translation”, and the “culture of transient meanings.” But it is not so much a matter of translation but of differing semantic fields, of proposed units of transmitted or intended meaning. The specificity is not lost in translation, but rather escapes it, since the terms are themselves within a discursive field which both negates and affirms them; LUSITANIA is neither “Portuguese” nor “American”, but is written in both Portuguese and English most of the time—a fact I cannot remember ever being justified—yet not explicitly about either Lusophonic or Anglophonic thematics. Its territory is situated elsewhere therefore, and here lies the Greek origin of metaphor: meaning to transport, or transfer, as in the transfer of the meaning of a word to another, the two semantically linked by a logic of resemblance. True to poetic resonance, in Modern Greek, mass transit vehicles are called metaphorai—in what Merleau-Ponty deemed the “underground trading of the metaphor” one takes a ‘metaphor’ to get someplace---and an ocean liner will do nicely.


Nostalgia, as an ersatz construction coined in 1688 by Swiss physician Johannes Hofer, replaces the rather less urbane term of mal du pays. Comprised of nostos (or ‘returning home’) and algos (or ‘pain’), nostalgia covers a kind of ‘homesickness’, yet as its modern cobbling of Greek attests, a longing for a home that in fact never truly existed and thus can never be reclaimed. It is, in short, the abiding melancholy of the immigrant and of diasporic experience, blurring history with memory.

The Portuguese have the even more precise, and like LUSITANIA, ‘untranslatable,’ term of ‘saudade,’ for the sentiment of nostalgic, fatalistic longing for something lost. Yet both imply a trajectory of possible return and reconciliation, rather than the possibility of being between two worlds as a “double stranger,” (and thus with no home, in the sense of an original place one longs to return to, nor home, in the sense of a place where one sets root). That is, neither assimilated into the culture to which one is an emigrant nor ‘belonging’ to the culture into which one was born. Both tropes are thus too locative—perhaps LUSITANIA as a provisional site situated between discourses, and to which my reading returns, will do for now?

When my family emigrated from Portugal to the United States in 1989, my father went to work at a small printing firm in Newark, New Jersey called Trade Thermotype—in fact the same firm which typeset the “Kultura Control” issue that following year, in which the typographical ‘reflections’ that constitute this reading appear. I was neither proficient enough in English at the time to understand the right hand column of black text, nor old enough (I was 11) to fully understand the complexity of the blue Portuguese text on the left. They both would have been in a foreign language to me—in a semantic and discursive field of unintelligibility, and so my reading is thus what Nabokov deemed as the transition from one tongue to another: “the slow journey at night from one village to the next with only a candle for illumination”.

In The Function of the Little Magazine (1946) Lionel Trilling writes of the Arnoldian function of small publications as the “impulse to insist that the activity of politics be united with the imagination.” In this necessary link between politics and culture (for instance, the Kantian premise of the fictive as an agent of moral imagination), there is an implicit lack of tolerance for what is deemed the ‘lesser’, meaning less difficult or ‘serious’ discourse, and for the opening up of a space for critique which denounces the facility of spectacle, what Tocqueville called the “hypocrisy of luxury,” and the Culture Industry, and for the concomitant assertion that “politics is imagination and mind. “ Both politics and culture provide, in Trilling’s understanding of liberal tradition, an expansion of the conception of the possible, and as such, an affirmed role in the formation of a social imaginary. This is, in fact, Adorno’s claim for the radicality of dodecaphonic music, in that it shatters the apparent self-evidence that sustains the “canon of synthetically produced modes of behavior,” breaking through the ideological patterns of normalized or naturalized social forms, and revealing them as such.

Politics without imagination is thus merely an atrophied politics; but imagination is also the ameliorative of the political, not its negation, a lesson altogether lost on Diderot, Madame Bovary, contemporary forms of placating liberalism, and mutantis mutandis, as permissiveness and pluralism, in the rabidity of the so-called “culture wars”, the dawn of which in fact coincides with the birth of LUSITANIA.


After Nietzsche, Mallarme, Joyce, Bakhtin, Blanchot, Derrida, De Man, New Criticism et al, can we even conceive of a text as being reducible to a finite meaning or set of meanings, but rather, are we not forced to accept the paranoiac possibility that the text is merely a set of allegorical procedures, the loci of an interpretative act, in which meaning is itself dispersed by the very act of reading? Every reading thus presupposes a ‘hermeneutical horizon”, a kind of totality of what can be realized or interpreted at a given time and within a particular culture. It is difficult, for instance, not to read LUSITANIA as a document of the historically effected consciousness of the “culture wars” of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and as an associative confrontation with precisely what Slavoj Zizek calls its “phantasmic support.” Thus, The Abject, America, and the new motto in that issue now via Bataille: “fin-de-siecle non-productive expenditure.”

As I was becoming a teenager in the 1990s, it seemed that American society, as quickly as I discovered it, was spiraling into a decadent conspiracy divesting it of everything it once held proper and dear. Within this mephitic, violent assault on so-called moral values—in controversies over abortion, religion, race, ethnicity, art, entertainment, sexuality, public-school curriculums, immigration, language, etc—these were being replaced with the ‘abject’ that had been repressed by those values. The phantasmic enemy created by the culture wars—take the AIDS spreading homosexual pervert—was all the more insidious for not being real: in extremis it allowed, through a nostalgia for a wholesome past that never was, for the real decay of even the most centrist liberal tendencies in American culture.

This is because played out along with the moral aspect was the contested symbolic economy of cultural relativism, from the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano, to the establishment of cultural, and gay and lesbian studies programs, and of course, the spread of poststructuralist thought in American literature and philosophy university departments. A kind of ‘phantasmatic support’ underlies this aspect on both sides, as for the conservative element, culture becomes a battleground to ‘prove’ the inherent immorality of liberals and therefore dismiss their political values (“See what they call art!”), while for the left, it provides libidinal investment in something as usually innocuous as culture—proving that the symbolic does matter, which the left sometimes seems to anxiously suspect is not true.

It was Grasmci, after all, who argued in the 1920s that cultural hegemony was to blame for the failure of class-consciousness to germinate into a widespread proletarian revolution throughout Europe. Gramsci therefore argued precisely for a culture “war of position” to reject the normative systems of domination, and with it, the practices of the ruling class, and through which anti-capitalist culture might claim mass media. As a form of ideology critique, this would destabilize the way in which prevailing cultural norms come to be viewed as naturalized. In the culture wars, this entailed an emphasis on the representation of identity and social life, pitting the “capitalist imaginary and the creative imaginary” against each other, to use Cornelius Castoriadis’ terms, and attempting to assert, however naively, the structural oppositional rhetorical between transgression and social cohesion, between the avant-garde and society. Trilling called this somewhat dialectical process the “legitimization of the subversive.”


Cultural critique, whatever its historical condition, must always, and always struggles, to determine its object. From the 19th century philological sense, to critical debates on whether the function of cultural critique is exegesis or polemic, descriptive or demonstrative, theorizing about meaning or evaluating quality, it is within a historical and interpretative horizon, a frame, that it does so, say as with the idea of normative teleology and ‘quality’ in the 1950s, a focus on phenomenology and material formalism in the 1960s, critical theory and social history in the 1970s, and identity politics and poststructuralism in the late 1980s and 1990s. The latter entrained a pluralistic notion of value and meaning which precisely derailed—at least according to its critics—the very notion of an understanding of history with which to frame or position cultural critique. Such a fragmentation and dispersal of master historical narratives, not to say a de-centering of the notion of the subject, was positioned as being conflated with pluralism in a social sense, that is, as a democratic tendency. Rather, it allowed for the center to swallow the periphery and create a curious paradoxically double-bind: asserting its own ‘democratic’ impulse, the ‘center’ also negated the ‘marginality’ that gave the periphery precisely its efficacy.

There emerged in the 1990s a new set of artistic practices that implicitly negated the received assumptions of a polarity between the anomic function of culture and the society to which it directed its antagonism. The critical suppositions of these new practices—neither concerned with transgression nor resistance in any conventional sense—effectively called for a new set of critical apparatuses through which to frame them. For instance, rather than assert a radical negativity, a critique of spectacle or commodification, or the autonomy of the work of art—the fetish object of modernism—these new practices instead maintained a position of skepticism towards the socially transformative power of art or its agency in political resistance. This is in keeping with Adorno’s claim in Negative Dialectics (1966) that, “no theory escapes the market anymore: each one is offered as a possibility among competing opinions, all are made available, all snapped up.”

These practices choose instead to foreground the imminent value and relationship of symbolic discourse to late capitalism itself. This is to assert that culture reifies, sustains, and positions ideology, and the institutions and orders of knowledge and power that support it, precisely by being positioned outside of it. This notion is in stark contrast to the foundational assumption of the modernist avant-garde, itself negating many of the assumptions of 19th century art, in suggesting that rather than the public critiquing the artwork—therefore calling on the faculty of judgment and on notions of ‘taste’—it was the artwork that was in effect, critiquing society.

Yet as Zizek points out in The Plague of Fantasies (1997), this ‘inherent transgression’ is in fact the support of ideology: “there is no ideology without a trans-ideological ‘authentic’ kernel,” but rather “it is only the reference to such a trans-ideological kernel which makes an ideology workable.” Thus what is positioned as outside ideology, as say the myth of individuality that sustains the modernist notion of the artwork, becomes itself primary to the operations of capitalist ideology, providing for an inherent ‘negation’ that it easily sustains.

And so we have, developing in the early 1990s, an articulated focus, as a kind of determinate negation, in these new practices, on sociability, communication, symbolic exchange, spectacle, labor, circulation, and the commodification of creativity---all principal aspects of late capitalist political economy.

The locus of critique thus becomes the social imaginary significations that sustain them, say on the level of the subject, desire, or the institutional apparatuses that enact them. It is on this level that LUSITANIA positions itself —and as it can re-read today---as the intersection of discourses that frame or support the operations of cultural phenomena, or the phantasmic screen that supports the symbolic side of late capitalism. In the words of Stan Allen, writing in the introduction to LUSITANIA issue #7—whose colophon beards no motto and which is not translated into Portuguese---this acts as a “relentless refusal of totalizing explanation, an ‘interminable analysis’ dedicated to laying bare the hidden ruptures in the smooth fabric of received opinion. “

As such a site of intersection, (“sites and stations”, “Taste/Nostalgia”, “The abject, America”) LUSITANIA floats through and takes up a reading of that ideological support which structures the symbolic—what Saul Ostrow describes in #11 (Beyond Form) as “late capitalisms ideological ability to transform the flow of goods, services and events into cultural spectacle while dismantling the rationalizing structures that once formed the cultural real.” Such a reading points towards critical discourse as a reflexive and reflective determinate negation, a complicity of ideological identification, and for us today, a reminder of the tension between what can be conceived as possible and what merely supports the real.

João Ribas

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