Holding on to your Shadow

For anyone who didn’t manage to get a copy, The Wheel is in pdf format here. Looks great, and as Sean says he “managed to get the file down to a fairly respectable 9 megabytes.” Below is the text of my essay. Also, I finished 2666 yesterday.

A starting point for a this text was initially put forward in the form of a question;

What is the ethical defensibility of criticism in the wake of failure?

The question was abruptly sidelined, but its slightly naïve proposition still begs consideration. For it seems to be a two-pronged question, offering in itself more questions than its solution might. It certainly throws up two problems; first, the ethical demand, which may or may not accompany the practice of criticism; and second, the entire premise of failure, which may or may not also reflect back on this first, ethical presupposition. The question is phrased defensively; criticism is almost personified, backed up against the wall and desperately striving to defend its value in the face of failure. It struggles, perhaps vainly, in counteracting this supposed failure. But what is failure, and how can the ethical dimension of criticism be measured in tandem alongside notions of success and failure?

I will diverge slightly at this point, for I suspect these questions are somewhat gargantuan for this piece. The ethical dimension is what I will engage with here, more specifically, the ethical validity pertaining to the practice of criticism. This investigation will take the form more of a series of thoughts than linear hypostheses: what does it mean to be a critic, and what kind of ethical responsibility does this entail? Additionally, how should the critic be treated, even in, as the question suggests, the face of failure? Is the critic exempt from ethics and if so, how must she be considered ethically? These are simply some questions which have plagued me for some time now; the question need not even have been broached. For to be a critic is to accept, in a sense, the inability to create anything new. It is to be vaguely parasitic, albeit soothed by a kind of hand-me-down creativity. I am not sure how comfortable I am with this. And yet I know the scope for creativity – parasitic or not – is great, and often illumimnating.

I am currently reading Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, and look set to do so for some time to come. One of the five books contained within this tome is entitled The Part about the Critics, and deals with the actions of four superficial, nepotistic and utterly careerist academics – Pelletier, Espinoza, Norton and Morini – in their search for the willfully elusive author Archimboldi. The author is flavour of the month on campuses across Europe, and the four critics take it on themselves to attempt to wrangle him from deliberate anonymnity. Their reasons are clearly self-serving; more than merely attaining Archimboldi his recognition, the critics – most particuarly Pelletier and Espinoza – desire more than anything the chance to unmask the author and unveil him before the world, catapulting themselves into Ivy League posts in the process.

Their lives seem so vacuous and immoral, incestuous and vapid. Archimboldi is nothing but mere fodder for their own ambitions: ethically, their actions are repugnant. There are many, but there is one dizzying passage in particular that struck me more than all others. In it, another critic, Amalfitano, attempts to describe to the others the peculiar shape of the Mexican academic, specifically a man named El Cerdo (The Pig), for whom academicism is merely a matter of political duty. El Cerdo is a state-sponsered intellectual, whose activities – loyal or incendiary, conservative or liberal – are enabled by a seemingly benign government; a governement that, ‘adds layers of lime to a pit that may or may not exist[i].’ It is worth quoting at length from Amalfitano’s labyrinthine monologue;

Literature in Mexico is like a nursery school, a kindergarten, a playground, a kiddie club, if you follow me. The weather is good, it’s sunny, you can go out and sit in the park and open a book by Valéry…and then you can go over to a friend’s house and talk. And yet your shadow isn’t following you anymore. At some point your shadow has quietly slipped away. You pretend you don’t notice, but you have, you’re missing your fucking shadow, though there are plenty of ways to explain it…But the point is, your shadow is lost and you, momentarily, forget it. And so you arrive on a kind of stage, without your shadow, and you start to translate reality or reinterpret it or sing it[ii].

I think the prospect of losing one’s shadow is never far from the critic’s mind. For the four critics, the search for Archimboldi is simply the desperate attempt to reclaim it. Amalfitano continues to say;

Sometimes he thinks he sees a legendary German writer. But all he’s really seen is a shadow, sometimes all he’s seen is own shadow, which comes home every night so that the intellectual won’t burst or hang himself from the lintel. But he swears he’s seen a German writer and his own happiness, his sense of order, his bustle, his sense of revelry rest on that conviction[iii].

All of this he relates to the four critics, who in their reluctance to see themselves in this light – shadowless – fail, or refuse, to understand; ‘I don’t understand a word you’ve said[iv]’, to which Amalfitano responds, ‘Really I’ve just been talking nonsense.[v]’ Although it is clear that he has not been talking nonsense: the critics fail to understand what he has described because he is talking about them; Amalfitano negates his own comments because he knows he is talking about himself, also.

But the prospect of losing one’s shadow must, I believe, hold some correlation to the field of ethics. How should a critic or intellectual behave in order to hold on to one’s shadow? Implicitly, success cannot retain it; Pelletier, Norton, Espinoza and Morini are experts in their field, and yet Amalfitano, whom they pity as a lowly academic in a disconnected university, seems the most close to retaining, or at least winning back, his shadow. Therefore, failure, at least in an ethical sense, appears as success. Amalfitano is the only one who articulates his own futility, though he cannot fully accept it.

That passage will stay with me for a long time. I don’t want to lose my shadow; more than that, I abhor the idea of a career spent trying to recapture it, even if that career is successful.

How then should the critic, the intellectual, call it what you will, act in order to retain that shadow? There must, it would seem, be an ethical dimension that diverges from notions of sucess and failure. Edward Said, in his study Representations of the Intellectual, says that, ‘there is no such thing as a private intellectual, since the moment you set down words and then publish them you have entered the public world[vi].’ This world, this ‘public’ world, is an inherently ethical one, from which no field is exempt. Therefore, to act as an intellectual is not to estrange oneself from the world, to sling shit from an ivory tower, but rather to insert oneself into an entirely ethical relation. Said goes on to say that neither is there are purely public intellectual, as, ‘there is always the personal inflection and the private sensibility, and those give meaning to what is being said or written.[vii]’And so the intellectual, and I use this word loosely, is always caught in a bind somewhere between public and private, autonomous and subservient. That is his lot; to retain his shadow within this space is a task of herculean proportion.

Another thought: Michel Foucault talks about the practice of parrhesia[viii], a Greek concept roughly translated as ‘fearless speech’. For me, this articulates well what the ethics of criticism might entail. Foucault outlines five conditions for parrhesia; frankness, truth, danger, criticism and duty. One must be open and relate everything that one is thinking, one must speak the truth and in so doing must put oneself in a position of danger; parrhesia should also take the form of criticism, and the parrhesiastes should be free to do otherwise i.e. he should not do so under duress, but feel obligated to engage in parrhesia out of a sense of inherent moral duty. Two of these conditions, criticism and danger, are of most interest to me. Criticism, more pointedly criticism from a position of inferiority, ushers in the threat of danger, which is central to the parrhesiastic act. The person engaging in parrhesia must not be in a position of superiority with regard to the addressee; thus by so doing he invites retribution from above. Looking back to Bolaño, it could be argued that Amalfitano is a kind of parrhesiastes, albeit of an essentially reluctant sort. He obliquely denounces the other critics from a position of inferiority, in so doing inviting danger – whether that be of a reputational, verbal or indeed physical kind. Additionally, he invites danger upon himself; the subtext of his monolgue is that is fundamentally an inditement of his own existence, also . However, Amalfitano’s parrhesia never gains ground: when he describes it as ‘nonsense’ he discredits the truth of his words, in so doing halting any personal threat of danger.

Right now I am sitting in a darkened flat on an unseasonably warm Spring day, considering the pitfalls of my chosen profession. I cannot help being reminded of that line from the Smiths; ‘spending warm Summer days indoors, writing frightening verse, to a buck-toothed girl in Luxembourg.[ix]’ And yet to consider the ethics of criticism is an essential task, if only to come to the conclusion that it be of minor importance. The act of criticism is essentially bound up with failure; the failure pertaining to all signification, the failure to really get at the thing, which you consider. With regard to art, this is even more acutely felt and thus, even more closely aligned with failure. But all of this has been said before. Yes, ‘impoverishment is de rigueur[x]’, but the ethics of criticism need not, by that logic, be situated here; ethically, there might still be hope. Returning to Bolaño, Amalfitano’s monolgue goes on to describe a proscenium (figure 1.), where he situates the intellectuals, and implicitly, himself.

Upstage there is a cave or mine, from which unintelligible noises rush forth. The intellectual, because he faces the audience, cannot see where these noises come from; neither can the audience. All the intellectual can do is, ‘translate or re-interpret or re-create them.[xi] Without seeing where these noises come from, the critic or intellectual can never truly present them; he must re-present, which is basically flawed. This is the failure of writing; straining to make out rumblings in the dark, whilst at the same time trying to keep your eyes facing outward, towards the audience. To present those noises faithfully is to embrace failure, but to embrace failure is to accept the threat of danger – be that reputational or otherwise. In short, it is an ethical form of failure; a failure that might usher in a form of criticism, as Foucault marvellously put it, of ‘scintillating leaps of the imagination. It would not be soverign or dressed in red. It would bear the lightning of possible storms.[xii]


[i] Roberto Bolaño 2666 (2009) London, Picador pg. 121

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid., pg. 123

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Edward Said Representations of the Intellectual (1994) London, Vintage Books pg. 12 (italics added)

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Joseph Pearson (ed.) Michel Foucault: Fearless Speech (2001) Los Angeles, Semiotexte pp. 11-20

[ix] The Smiths Ask (1986)

[x] Jacques Derrida Différance (1968) in Jacques Derrida Margins of Philosophy (1982) trans. Alan Bass, Chicago, University of Chicago Press pg. 49

[xi] Ibid. i, pg. 122

[xii] Michel Foucault Politics Philosophy Culture: Interview and Other Writings 1977-1984 London and New York, Routledge pg. 326

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2 thoughts on “Holding on to your Shadow

  1. Hi Rebecca

    Some comments on a piece that really made me think:

    First off, as you show in your first para, that’s a very strange question at the start. Maybe I’m too long away from Theory but I don’t understand it. Second, I would cheekily suggest that an investigation must be more than a ‘series of thoughts’ (and your essay is certainly more than that), as must the act of criticism. Whatever about its ethics, the value of investigation (and by extension criticism) is the deepening of understanding that results from the systematic testing of a thesis. Even where an act of investigation or criticism ‘fails’, if it is coherent then it deepens our understanding. Yay or nay, at the end of the act we know something that we didn’t know before. That’s the something new that critics create, in my view. The best ones (Foucault a great example) build radical or brilliant systems that allow them to formulate novel hypotheses about familiar things. I don’t think there’s anything hand-me-down about Foucault’s creativity, his political action or his moral impulse. As for Bolano, he was a poet/drifter/novelist/’artist’ but I would say perhaps most intrinsically a fierce critic. I’ve not read 2666 and in fact never finished The Savage Detectives but what I’ve read of it really stayed with me and its his passion for poetry as politics – constantly talking about schools, credos, manifestos and movements – that was most stirring.

    Of course the act of criticism is bound up with failure. Every act is. Creative acts ‘succeed’ because people do them anyway. ‘But all of this has been said before.’ No it hasn’t. OK Morrissey’s probably said something similar better but we could say that about a lot of things. Critics of culture seem susceptible to a particular strain of self-loathing gloom but the best of them are absolutely creators and craftspeople worthy of the highest renown and respect. Reading Greil Marcus on Dylan or Simon Reynolds on Acid House or Declan Kiberd on Joyce has been some of the most illuminating time I’ve ever spent with a book. I’m sure you have loads of similar experiences.

    Finally, Foucault’s ‘fearless speech’ sounds like just the ticket for a critic in search of a code. But if we’re searching for an ethical footing I’d start with truth and duty rather than frankness, criticism or danger. Plenty of people are blunt, critical or reckless, not many are smart enough and strong enough to approach the truth and to do their duty by it.

    As I think hologram Al told Sam Beckett after another disastrous Quantum Leap:

    All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

  2. Hi Shane, thanks for your very considered response. It always surprises me when I get such a thoughtful response: all of a sudden I have to switch from apparent monologue to dialogue – the inconvenience of it! Obviously I’m joking here.

    You made some interesting points. Firstly you alluded to the somewhat bewildering nature of the question I posed at the start of my essay. It really it a bit of a challenge, and whether that baton should be picked up at all was the focus of the essay. I’m not sure it has to be, but at the same time I do think it contains some kernel of importance, even necessity. The fact that it seems nonsensical doesn’t necessarily mean that it has no value as a proposition.

    I disagree with a your view that the act of criticism should prove or disprove something. It is not science: to lay the demands of empiricism on it is in truth to stifle it as a discipline. This does not mean that one cannot learn through it, but rather that learning should not be governed by a polarity. One can learn through ambiguity and indecision also.

    I think searching for a code, even if it is in vain, can be a necessary task. Sometimes I think I live with my head completely up my own arse, and a process of evaluation is definitely needed. Sometimes this does involve a weighty gloom, but mostly just some form of evaluation.

    In terms of fearless speech, I disagree that truth and duty are of most importance. To be bound to tell the truth by duty alone implies that one has no choice but to tell the truth, and so does it under duress. It cannot be fearless. But to do so from a position of inferiority, where the only duty involves a moral one, can be so. Your ‘duty’ is unspecified – it could be derivative of factors other than morality i.e. the duty that derives from monetary recompense.

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