Tom Habinek, realism vs. the ‘glob’, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.; tempora cum causis (11)

Ancient. Last weekend was the annual meeting of the Society for Classical Studies. Since I was still back in the UK with my family over the New Year, I missed most of it, but I was there for the last day to take part in the panel commemorating Prof. Tom Habinek, who sadly died last year. Tom was my PhD advisor, and a major influence in the field of Roman Studies. The event was very poignant, but fitting. On Sunday evening I posted my part of the panel, which you can read here: “Tom Habinek on ‘generativity’.” 

Modern. In an essay originally published in 1971, “The Culture of Criticism”, Hayden White describes the frustrations of Ernst Gombrich, Erich Auerbach, and Karl Popper (respectively: art historian, philologist and literary critic, philosopher of science) with the avant-gardists as typified by, for example, the abstract expressionist, Jackson Pollock. Each of these scholars held an attachment to realism; in some cases considering realism, in historiography and art alike, to be a means of resisting authoritarianism, with its power to overwrite the experience of reality by means of ideology. White (2010*: 105) writes that for these critics, historical, literary, or artistic realism, i.e. an attempt to represent reality as it actually is or was “results from the controlled interplay of human consciousness with a shifting social and natural milieu.” In the face of the fact that realism is supposed to reflect the human perception of reality, the avant-garde is taken by these critics to be a frustration of perception rather than a refinement of it. More than this, this break with tradition is a challenge to perception. White writes (2010: 107): 

“The surfaces of the external world, so laboriously charted over the last three thousand years, suddenly explode; perception loses its power as a restraint on imagination; the fictive sense dissolves — and modern man teeters on the verge of the abyss of subjective longing, which, Auerbach implies, must lead him finally to an enslavement once more by myth.”

(The fear of “myth” — figured as an antitype to so-called “rationality” in tandem with “realism” — has probably produced a number of negative results itself.) By the end of this essay, White (2010: 108-110) points to one of the real comforts of realism, one which lies in its hierarchical nature. Realistic art or narrative reflects a grammatically syntactical worldview, i.e. a mode of composition which privileges certain ideas over others, and arranges information around that privilege; whereas artefacts of the avant-garde might be interpreted as paratactical — presenting discrete elements “side-by side” (= παρά) in a “democracy of lateral coexistence” (2010: 109).

In Washington DC last weekend, I found myself face-to-face with Hans Hofmann’s Oceanic (1958) in the Hirshhorn Museum. I was really struck by the large heaps of paint in certain parts of the work, which I have now affectionately come to call “globs.” It feels appropriate!

Inspired by that visit, when I returned to Boston I wanted to go and look closely at more oil paintings in the MFA. Last night we got up close with some more excellent globs from Lee Krasner (Sunspots, 1963) and Joan Mitchell (Chamonix, c. 1962):

Digitization is vital, and I depend on it for my teaching and my scholarship, and I would never want digital resources to be taken away from me. But there is pretty much nothing like looking a glob straight in the eye, if you get the chance to. You can get a general sense of texture from a photograph. But the glob is just so noticeable IRL. Krasner applied oils straight from the tube onto the canvas for Sunspots, and you can tell. Looking at that painting tells the story of its making. As for Mitchell’s Chamonix, you can see the movement of her body in its wide, energetic strokes. Each is a record of embodiment, one which figurative, narrative, and supposedly veristic accounts tend to leave invisible. Back to Hayden White (2010: 110) one last time:

“The avant-garde insists on a transformation of social and cultural practice that will not end in the substitution of a new elite for an old one, a new protocol of domination for the earlier ones, nor the institution of new privileged positions for old ones — whether of privileged positions in space (as in the old perspectival painting and sculpture), of privileged moments in time (as one finds in the older narrative art of fiction and conventional historiography), of privileged places in society, in privileged areas in the consciousness (as in the conservative, that is to say, orthodox Freudian psychoanalytic theory), of privileged parts of the body (as the genitally organized sexual lore insists is ‘natural’), or of privileged positions in culture (on the basis of presumed superior ‘taste’) or in politics (on the basis of a presumed superior ‘wisdom’).”

* “The Culture of Criticism” (1971) is reprinted in The Fiction of NarrativeEssays on History, Literature, and Theory (2010), edited by Robert Doran.


Excerpt. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. 1987: 44: “I thought about myself and art: that I could catch the likeness of anything I could see — with patience and the best instruments and materials. I had, after all, been an able apprentice under the most meticulous illustrator of this century, Dan Gregory. But cameras could do what he had done and what I could do. And I knew that it was this same thought which had sent Impressionists and Cubists and the Dadaists and the Surrealists and so on in their quite successful efforts to make good pictures which cameras and people like Dan Gregory could not duplicate.” 

Daily Life. We spent New Year’s Eve walking along the shore at Troon. 

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Tom Habinek on “generativity” (SCS 2020)

On 5th January 2020 I took part in a commemoration of Tom Habinek at the SCS organized by James Ker, Andrew Feldherr, and Enrica Sciarrino; with Basil Dufallo, Zsuzsanna Várhelyi, Scott Lepisto, and Enrica Sciarrino, and myself as panelists. With the generosity of Hector Reyes, we were able to read Tom’s (incomplete) book manuscript on the topic of personhood and authorship. Here’s the text of my contribution to the workshop, in case of interest. Enormous thanks to everyone involved and everyone who came to the panel.

It is my task today to speak on the concept of generativity as discussed in Tom’s manuscript. When I think of Tom’s work and the influence he had on students like me, it is, indeed, particularly his theorization of generativity which I feel to have been the most impactful. In earlier works, Tom’s interest in generativity manifested in his study of social generation via cultural production and reproduction, with a focus on how ritual acts instantiated Roman community. In a key passage of The World of Roman Song (2005, p129), Tom cited the work of the anthropologist, Paul Connerton, who, in How Societies Remember (1989, p62) discussed Thomas Mann’s understanding of the Freudian ego: 

“We are to envisage the ego, less sharply defined and less exclusive than we commonly conceive of it, as being so to speak ‘open behind’: open to the resources of myth which are to be understood as existing for the individual not just as a grid of categories, but as a set of possibilities which can become subjective, which can be lived consciously. In this archaising attitude the life of the individual is consciously lived as a ‘sacred repetition’, as the explicit reanimation of prototypes.”

The “explicit reanimation of prototypes” is how Tom understood Roman self-construction: the invocation of ancient exemplars; the continuous citation and reinscription of Roman ancestral memory; rituals which resubstantiated the dead in the bodies of the living. Roman literary and political history demonstrates clearly that the Romans were interested in how their culture generated and regenerated itself; how the present day related to the past and preserved a tensile balance between new iterations of Roman youth, and their ancestral blueprints. All we need think of is the late Republican Brutus contemplating his ancestor, the expeller of kings; or perhaps Cicero in the Pro Caelio raising the ancient, blind Appius Claudius from the dead to speak with Cicero’s own lips and chastize Cicero’s own enemies.

In his latest work Tom approached the question of Roman generativity from some new perspectives. In his search for an understanding of Roman personhood, he figured the Roman persona as an active process, not a passive state; I think that for Tom persona was not a noun, but a verb. “Personifying” is a practice — it is an action, it is alive. Starting from this position, Tom was able to see different kinds of ancient evidence not as discrete, disconnected elements of Roman intellectual systems, but rather mutually supportive organs of an organic, synthetic whole. Tom’s work instantiates a theorization of human culture which does not merely render literature, or law, or art objects into cynical, insensate records of elites and auteurs. His organic approach reveals that the ancient artefact is an expression and mirror of biological as well as cultural forms. To put it another way, without really knowing that they are doing so, humans make things which reflect their insides. Tom’s work makes you realize that when you read a Latin text, that text is actively trying to constitute you into a Roman reader — like a 3D printer with instructions to produce a piece of plastic in a specific way, the scientific, ethical, political scripts of the Roman text tries to make us.

With this, or something like this, in his mind, Tom in this latest work proceeded to examine generativity in a number of different types of ancient evidence, ranging from the practices of Roman bride dowries to the emergence of birthday celebration as a theme in Latin love elegy. Underneath each artefact, Tom found a consistent preoccupation in the Roman attitude to cultural and biological reproduction which expressed a profound anxiety, one which can be conveyed in the form of a simple question. Will we continue to survive?

Romans expressing this anxiety in different ways figured reproduction, with its insistence upon a continuity of resources, as relating to survival in the long term. The fact that Roman bride dowries are reabsorbed into the natal family to allow women to marry again and to have children is, Tom suggests, an intentional defense mechanism against the failure to reproduce. As a result, generativity in Roman thought relates not only to explicit, biological reproduction (i.e. producing children), but making provision for a self-sustaining reabsorption of assets as part of a framework which allows such reproduction to take place. At its core, this legal provision expresses a care to conserve not just culture or biology but energy; like keeping a little something left in the storeroom in case of an unexpected hunger. Cast in this light, Roman conservatism, which is so frustratingly obvious and, frankly, obtuse sometimes (just think of Cato the Elder) seems to be not simply fanatical traditionalism, but indeed a form of conservationism.

It is an impulse to conserve that Tom saw in the Roman discourse around luxuria. The chastizing of luxuria is not simply, Tom suggests, a knee-jerk political reaction against perceived excesses and hedonism, but rather a criticism of “pointless growth” — i.e. the expenditure of energy which will not return, will not be reabsorbed and thereby conserved for future use. Tom notes that criticism of luxuria in Roman texts so often employ agricultural and botanical metaphors because luxuria was an metaphysical outgrowth which defied the boundaries of the carefully proportioned Catonian fields, designed and tended to produce year after year. Incidentally, Tom made a point to note that luxuriant excess — a squandering of resources, the refusal to regenerate, to conserve, to recycle — expressed itself in many different ways: the fact that furniture, fine art, construction, urban development, and non-reproductive sex were each as bad as each other speaks to the intersection of conservatism with conservationism in the Roman attitude; i.e. having fancy pedestal tables and sideboards (Livy 39.6) is just as bad as fucking your boyfriend because you should, good Roman, be conserving your attention and energies for generative activities. Here, Tom seems to have revealed a kind of biological essentialism in Roman thought which is not usually, I think, made explicit. Tom notes that while the elegists and other figures from the Roman counter-culture were “ambivalent” about such a formulation of luxuria, they nonetheless accepted its definition; that is, while they did not play by these rules, they accepted that these indeed were the rules. Even if you are walking away from Rome rather than towards it, you are still on the road to Rome.*

Tom translates the Latin luxuria as “pointless growth”, “withering growth”, “wild growth.” An agricultural, biological symptom of “bad” growth is itself a helpful tool to reveal the nature of “good” growth, and Tom realized that, in Roman thought, “good” growth often related to an inseparable dualism: life and death. An insistence that growth (that is “good” growth, not luxuria) is actually related to death appears, Tom says, in the Pro Marcello (23): Cicero’s exhortation of Caesar to propagate new growth includes the impossible wish that Caesar could bring the dead back to life, if only that were possible. Indeed, the relationship between the living and the dead at Rome was one of Tom’s deepest preoccupations; in the book proposal for the project, Tom had focused in on a passage from Rudolph Sohm which I believe was, for him, programmatic: “the heir is treated as though he were deceased…the deceased continues to live in the person of the heir” (1907, p504). Indeed, the idea that the dead live in the face, the name, and the actions of the living is one of the vital aspects of Roman generation, regeneration, generativity. Tom’s discussion of generativity in this manuscript reveals a living organism, a beating heart underneath the details of textuality. According to his understanding, the Romans formulated their generative function as a life pulse which conserved itself, returned to itself, and, being limited, precious, did not waste itself.

*Ursula Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969/1999, p151): “To oppose something is to maintain it. They say here ‘all roads lead to Mishnory.’ To be sure, if you turn your back on Mishnory and walk away from it, you are still on the Mishnory road.'”