A Few Don'ts (And Dos) By A Cultural Phenomenologist

Steven Connor

Incubism (In Praise of Monsters)

Because cultural phenomenology would avoid the reduction of the plurality and analytic nonsaturability of cultural experience to common currencies and finalising formulae of all kinds, it would need to nurse an irritability about academic language, and to do without that hunched defensiveness which characterises contemporary critical writing and which seems to me to be having so inspissating an effect on the writing and thinking of those of us schooled in its forms and habits. At the same time, it will involve a confidence in the powers of language, and the possibilities of a cultural poetics. When I first read the work of Derrida, Barthes and Lacan, for example, it was their monstrosity and outlandishness that grasped and called me. The remorseless amalgamating machine of critical theory, and the various agencies for the management, distribution and control of that theory (including a number of books that I have myself written), have pounded that outlandishness into an insipid emulsion, which is now available to applied on every occasion and to every surface.

(It's not at all `theory' that I mind about, in fact; it is the theory that has emerged of what `theory' is supposed to be for and be able to do, along with the theory that there is a special kind of defended and certified intellectual enterprise called `theory'. The theory is that theory is an operational guarantor of truthfulness, of being able to see things steadily and see them whole, and thus to be a stay against doubt, delusion, self-interest and ideology. This is the same theory that suggests that theory is the royal road to political emancipation.)

Cultural studies began as the inheritor of a desire to pay attention to forms of popular culture which themselves had seemed to require - for instance in some of the work of Georg Simmel, Walter Benjamin, Georges Bataille and Humphrey Jennings - new ways of conceiving what it meant to pay attention. The diffuse and fertile body of dreams and inklings about how to study culture began to go wrong at the moment of its conspicuous success, when it started to become cultural studies, and conceived itself as a programme rather than an inauguration (which is to say, perhaps, around the time we began to describe cultural studies as an it rather than a they), and therefore became too concerned with securing its legitimacy, survival and continuance. I am proposing that we (or, less alarmingly perhaps, I) give up on the struggle to fit ourselves or our students out with generalisable models, methods and critical procedures; which means giving up thinking of ways of reproducing ourselves, of preserving what we take to be our present purposes in reliable and replicable procedures. Or giving up thinking of ways of regulating intellectual conduct, and keeping the barbarians and the nincompoops out.

What would it mean to work, and more particularly to write, without such things? I would like to think of taking as a model Joyce's hypertrophic method of working in Ulysses. Joyce may at some point have had a classically architectonic conception of his novel, as a series of chapters, each with their particular point of focus and thematic concern. Quite late into the writing of the novel, he even produced a schema, or table of relations and correspondences for each of the chapters. But this is not how he found himself having to write his novel, or assist at its writing. As he formed each new chapter, he found himself having to accommodate - or, really, to incubate - a wholly new and newly importunate set of demands. Rather than fitting into the scheme with which he had provided himself, rather than providing the epic of the finished, classical body which he had proposed to himself, Ulysses kept on sprouting new organs, new idioms. One of the less-often noticed byproducts of Ulysses was the transformation of critical language it forced in Joyce when he was required to describe what he was doing to others. When he was attempting to describe the style of the `Nausicaa' chapter, for example, the deficit of metacritical terms forced Joyce to give a specimen of the style rather than a characterisation of it. The chapter is written, he wrote to Frank Budgen, in a `namby-pamby jammy marmalady drawersy...style with effects of incense, mariolatry, masturbation, stewed cockles, painter's palette, chitchat, circumlocutions, etc etc'. Rather than following a series of methods or frameworks, the chapters in Ulysses enact a series of inveiglings, or incubisms (the latter Joyce's own word for the kind of writing, bred in the dreaming bed, that he was perpetrating). Joyce's work is often said to have an encyclopedic form; but the `epic of the body' put together in Ulysses is more like the fantastic, disordered and mobile body imagined by Diderot in his unfinished Elements of Physiology than the ordered and coordinated corpus of knowledge that finds its official form in Diderot's and d'Alembert's Encylopédie: Diderot imagines that each organ and even each sense of the body has its own life, independent of the life of the whole: `Certainly', he writes,`there are two, or even three, quite distinct forms of life. The life of the complete animal. The life of each of its organs. The life of the molecule.'

| Steve Connor | English and Humanities | Birkbeck College |