Modern Media and Cultural Studies

Dior’s Designs


Written so as to understand the gay aestheticism of Roland Barthes, Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward and high fashion ads, this essay offers a close reading of a cycle of ads about the ménage a trois of the three “Diors.”

Dior Gallery

"Before the World of Ad, aren’t most of us divided between suspicion and desire? On the one hand, we are always already forewarned that ads image forth an ideal world, so as to confer upon the commodity the aura of a totemic object, which becomes a surreal fetish with magical transforming powers. We all ‘know’ that the ad is nothing more than a fabulous construction, a most seductively coordinated artifice of sound, word and image; and yet, in spite of this skepticism, well cultivated in virtually every child of the Symbolic of advanced capitalism, we are all at times mesmerized into spectatorship before the World of Ad. And few of us, I would venture to say, are left with our desires unmodified by its dazzling flux and reflux of representations."
Citation: Word & Image, Ed. Mark Crispin Miller, 2:3, pp. 351-379.

'Love in a Life': The Case of Nietzsche and Lou Salome


This essay uses the brief, idealistic infatuation of Paul Rée, Nietzsche and the beautiful Russian, Lou Salomé, to see Victorians as experimenters in love. What this trio uncovers are the tensions between enlightened feminism and Victorian morals, and between philosophy and life.
"As the locus of unexpected passion and conflict, Salomé becomes a figure in Nietzsche’s life for the resistant ‘other,’ the contingent which traverses life, displacing it out of its intended directions. … The experiences of the year, as they unfold around the axis of the passion for Lou Salomé, test, confound, and displace the philosophical postulates of The Gay Science which first seems to give this love so much support."
Citation: The Victorian Newsletter , Spring, pp. 14-17.

Nuclear Coincidence and the Korean Airline Disaster, with Richard Klein


Richard Klein and I wrote this essay because the downing of the Korean Airlines flight 007 by a Russian fighter on September 1, 1983 seemed to us to offer a symptomatic instance of the kind of misreading of the intention of the other that could lead to global nuclear war.
"Just as in the physics of sub-atomic particles where there is inverse relation between the observer’s ability to measure simultaneously the mass and the velocity of a particle, similarly there may be an absolute limit on our ability to determine and know simultaneously both the time and the implications of the occurrence of a nuclear event. Our study of the KOL 007 suggests just such a limit. When it comes to that posture and machine called nuclear deterrence, and owing to reasons as various at the legal and historical character of nation states, the accelerating development of faster and more precise technologies, the psychodynamics of rivalry and paranoia, there may be an absolute limit to the ability of politics leaders and military planners to see, know, anticipate, and defuse the coincidence which, intersecting in fateful and unforeseen ways with both the systems of defense and the political moment, could become nuclear."
Citation: Diacritics, 1986, 16:1, pp. 2-21

Chance and the Text of Experience: Freud, Nietzsche, and Shakespeare's Hamlet


While I began this text with a poststructuralist, language-centered theoretical engagement with the concept of chance, as I wrote, I developed the book into a consideration of how biography (literally, life-writing) becomes mixed upon with urgent theoretical questions: Freud’s debate between the influence upon psychic formation of the memory of a real event or the projection of fantasy; Nietzsche’s speculation upon the way chance encounters, like his meeting of Lou Salome, become turned into the necessity that cannot be missing from one's life. This book juxtaposes these two theorists of the self formation with a reading of Shakespeare’s most self-conscious and auto-biographical protagonist, Hamlet. The interplay of experience and contingency that this book tracks is described in my reading of Nietzsche’s mediation upon "The Thought of Death" in The Gay Science (Section 278).
"The silence this text repeatedly links with death is not the antipodal opposite of the noisy, shouting, life-thirsty people Nietzsche’s narrator celebrates. Just as all sound must be framed by some silence so as to be heard at all, so the silent thought of death is a necessary supplement to life and its noisy voices. But neither death nor its thought can be recuperated by life: death is not negated, abstracted, and rendered a mute partner of life. In this scheme, death as a thought is never really absent or forgotten—it lurks in a contrapuntal way in the silences and shadows. Death is half-there, half-heard, half-acknowledged. It shadows us just as our own shadow does, just as silence shadows our voice."
Citation: Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Spectacular Seduction: The Case of Freud, Masson & Malcolm


Janet Malcolm’s articles describe a delicious explosion within psychoanalysis occasioned by Jeffery Masson’s ‘exposure’ of Sigmund Freud’s cover-up of the literal sexual violence that he argues lies behind the neurosis of Freud’s patients. My article takes off from Freud’s nuanced theoretical mediations upon the weight in psychic life of the memory of a real event, and/or, the projective power of fantasy, as it reworks, condenses and displaces memory. I make use of Freud’s early speculations to explore the tension between visibility and truth in psychoanalysis (Freud), in scandalous exposés (Masson), and in contemporary journalism (Malcolm).
"What finally limits the speculation on dreams and prevents the solar agency of interpretation from compelling the dream text to foliate into spectacular clarity is figured by Freud in this strange metaphor of the navel. Just as the navel is the trace of a relationship to another of which the person was once a part (the mother’s body), it also marks the person as delivered of, cut off from, the very body which is its origin."
Citation: Raritan, 6:3, pp. 122-136.

Treating Me Like an Object: Reading Catharine Anne MacKinnon


This essay was occasioned by a collection that encouraged men and women scholars to join a debate, organized by Linda Kauffmann, about critical issues in feminism. By responding to the ambitious attempt to develop a radical feminism, I sought to challenge a master trope I detected in many feminisms: ‘man is to woman as subject is to object.’ The resulting essay elucidates the limitations of this analogy and the antithetical, mythic oppositions that proliferate in its wake.
"There is no way to think sexuality apart from the object, for sex and its pleasures are experienced by the subject through an object—the subject’s sensate body. The object is not just the medium, it is also the focal point of sexual pleasure. Lovers – to know each other erotically, to feel desire for each other’s bodies—probably need to objectify the other, perhaps as beautiful, or as a possessor of this or that part or quality. Within a psychoanalysis of sexuality, the concept of the fetish suggest the instability of the opposition between subject and object…"
Citation: Feminism and Institutions, ed. Linda Kauffman, Blackwell’s, pp. 90-126.

The Resistance to Popular Culture: on Lawrence Levine and Andrew Ross


The Marxist celebration of popular culture as the voice of the people, and the earnest intention to tolerate almost all forms of popular culture that Lawrence Levine and Andrew Ross attempt in their books, have the paradoxical effect of demonstrating the impossibility of the tolerance they mandate: how can one not show critical resistance to the often blatantly compensatory character of popular culture?
"Anyone who would efface the resistance to popular culture with tolerance risks erasing the pathways for knowing popular culture. … Those who would produce knowledge about popular culture will find themselves thrown into an odd double relationship to popular culture—cultivating tolerance as well as disrespect, being vulnerable and standing apart, one feels impelled to overcome the resistance to popular culture (in others and one’s self), yet one realizes that such an effort can only partially succeed."
Citation: American Literary History, 2:4, pp. 726-742.

Spectacular Action: Rambo, Reaganism, and the Cultural Articulations of the Hero


The turn toward Marxist cultural studies was given a programmatic conceptual cast in this landmark collection. In this essay I used Stuart Hall’s concept of ‘articulation’ and negotiated meaning to read the special effects of the most popular action adventure film of the 1980s (Rambo: First Blood Part II, 1985) in relation to the aggressive militarism of Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy.
"How does one understand the relationship between new detours in the history of pleasure, the developing technology of the action film, and the ideologically fraught debates about ‘America’s position in the world?"
Citation: Cultural Studies, ed. Nelson, Grossberg, and Triechler, Routledge, pp. 672-688.

Censorship and Free Speech in Media (A Web Essay)


In many discussions of censorship and free speech, free speech is assumed to be an unconditioned good and “censorship!” to be an epithet thrown at the benighted and the backward. This brief essay attempts to show how censorship is a constitutive part of all expression and representation, and thus, property understood, is the condition of the possibility of “free speech.”

Stopping Cultural Studies, with Clifford Siskin


Clifford Siskin and I wrote this piece to resist and interrupt the facile elision of the difference between the privileged object of English studies – literature written in English – and “culture,” as it came to be understood in a comprehensive anthropological sense by the Marxist and feminist cultural studies of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Cultural studies within English studies had developed through several imperatives: Theorize! Politicize Knowledge Work! Historicize! Go Beyond the Literary!
"The new horizons that cultural studies had helped us open reveal a landscape that it cannot help us to traverse. The strategic vagueness of the term and concept 'culture,' which was so important to the inclusiveness, emancipatory promise, and growth of cultural studies, can no longer take literature studies where it needs to go."
Citation: Professions 2008. New York: Modern Languages Association.

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