On Annotations


Yesterday on Twitter, there were some interesting discussions in early modern circles about a digitized edition of Erasmus’ New Testament annotated in the margins by none other than Martin Luther. The digitization had been published by a wonderful new-ish web project at the Universiteit Utrecht called Annotated Books Online, which — just like it says on the tin — is a growing collection of these unique volumes digitized for public consumption.

Clicking through the volume, my non-existent Latin led me to consider the form — printed books with manuscript annotations — more closely than the content. Such volumes, I suspect, reach their most fascinating when both the text and marginalia bear some authority. We all care already about what Erasmus thought about the New Testament; we care just as much about Luther’s views. The immediacy of this sort of tension in a single volume is simply tantalizing as a material instantiation of something so abstract as theological debate.1

This man was hired to depress art!

I immediately recalled one eighteenth-century example of this phenomenon, the British Library copy of the 1798 Malone edition of The Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Reynolds, in his role as the first president of the Royal Academy of Art, had antagonized a young William Blake, and Blake — the prototype of the art school dropout — let the world know how he felt in the margins. This is the only example of the form that I have actually read, in its the Eighteenth Century Collections Online digitization (regrettably, ECCO is only available to those with access to a good research library, so that link may not get you too far).

This was all the more exciting, because although these annotations were widely known to Blake scholars, they weren’t previously known to me. I was just looking for an edition of Reynolds’ “Third Discourse” in PDF form for reading on the train. Imagine my surprise as I figured out what I was looking at!

How much did Blake get?

In short, Blake felt that Reynolds’ style and pedagogy were too conservative, too focused on copying and skeptical of invention and inspiration, too cozy with elite patrons. But there were larger stakes as well. What it meant to be an artist was changing in Blake’s lifetime. Some young artists like Blake were unhappy with the professional identity represented to them by the late Reynolds — easy to caricature as a well-paid lapdog of the elite, prostituting his talents to their vanity projects. As he makes clear in the margins, Blake preferred the visionary rebellion of his professor James Barry, an Irish painter who famously disdained the portraiture practiced by Reynolds in favor of high-concept history painting. Barry, difficult to work with, was eventually ejected from the Royal Academy.

At right: in response to a note breathlessly enumerating the earnings of Reynolds, Blake has snidely asked: How much did Barry get? The answer, we are to understand, is not much.

We might also note that this sort of angry marginalia is an apt, if pessimistic, figure for Blake’s anti-establishment vision for the arts.

ECCO’s digitization has cut off some of the marginal comments, but happily, Blake scholar David Erdman has transcribed them, to help those of us far from the BL. It makes fascinating reading.

I’d love to hear about other notable annotated books that others have encountered.

[1] Although maybe I should write a blog post someday about the used paperback copy of Edward Said’s Orientalism I read as an undergraduate, which was rendered all the more fascinating by the marginal annotations of two different prior readers with different pens and handwriting, whose underlinings and notes betrayed different interests. Anonymity can be interesting, too, in its own way.

Identity and Authenticity

Less a post than a public note to myself: What are the possibilities of an approach to ethnic identity that proceeds from the following proposition?

Your ethnic identity is that with respect to which you feel inauthentic.

The roots of this idea are in Lacan’s symbolic castration, which registers the damage done to subjectivity by things like names. I worry that it might be too grounded in the experience of postmodern whiteness in America, but I think it has a bit more reach than that.

Roast chicken, according to me.

This isn’t what I normally post up here, but I just wrote this up for a friend and figured I might as well share it with the world. I’ve been tweaking this recipe for at least twenty birds, and it has worked well.

Roast Chicken

Serves six. Prep time: two hours, semi-attended.


  • 1 Chicken, about four pounds. This is right on the edge of the fryer/roaster divide; a large fryer or a small roaster will do great. Air-chilled is desirable.
  • 1 Medium carrot,
  • 1 Celery stalk
  • 1 Shallot
  • 1 Lemon
  • 6-10 sage leaves
  • 2-4 sprigs rosemary
  • 1/2 stick butter
  • Salt and pepper


  1. Take out your chicken maybe half an hour before you plan to cook it. Unwrap it, remove giblets (if any), and rinse it inside and out in the sink, to wash off any dried blood — yuck!. It helps to get a plate or cutting board and some paper towels ready before rinsing, so that you’re prepared to…
  2. …dry the bird off, inside and out, with paper towels, and leave it to dry for a few minutes. It needs to be thoroughly dry and nearing room temp before you roast it. A drying rack over a cutting board is useful for this part.
  3. Now would be a great time to preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.
  4. While the bird dries, finely dice the carrot, shallot and celery stalk, combining in a bowl to form what is known as a mirepoix.
  5. Chiffonade — or just finely chop, whatever — one or two of the sage leaves, and chop one sprig’s worth of rosemary leaves. Add these to the mirepoix.
  6. Wash the lemon with either fruit/veggie wash or a touch of dish detergent to remove any of the waxy bullshit the distributors spray on citrus. Rinse thoroughly and dry. Cut two or three broad longitudinal twists, pole to pole, from the lemon.  I use a paring knife. Dice one of these twists into quarter-inch squares and add them to your mirepoix, which is, by now, so much more.
  7. In a few minutes, you’ll need melted butter. I use a saucepan over low heat, so that takes lead time. Other people have microwaves. You could probably use a bowl and the pre-heated oven.
  8. Return to your bird. Place it breast up, legs towards you. Ease the blade of your paring knife between the skin and the meat of the breast, and tuck a sage leaf and a slice of lemon twist under the skin. Repeat for both sides of the breast, and depending on how much sage you have, for the neck end of the breast, also.
  9. Turn the bird so that the legs are away from you. On each side, cut a small slit with your paring knife in the baggy skin between the thigh and the body of the bird, and tuck more sage and lemon twist inside the resulting space.
  10. Generously cover the skin of the bird with salt and pepper, on all sides. Pat it onto the skin.
  11. Spoon your augmented mirepoix into the body cavity of the bird.
  12. Optionally and preciously, use a paring knife to poke holes on the excess flaps of skin surrounding the cavity, and pin these closed with a sprig of rosemary. This is a bit tricky, but it does a good job of keeping your mirepoix where it can work its aromatic magic, and it looks amazing.
  13. Brush the melted butter onto the skin of the bird.
  14. Set up your roasting pan. Ideally there should be some mechanism, such as a rack, to keep the bird from soaking in its juices. I have improvised a rack with carrots to good effect more than once. Put the bird on the rack breast-side down.
  15. Put the bird in the oven. Set a timer for 20 minutes.
  16. After 20 minutes, check on the bird. It should be browning at least a little, and should smell *amazing.* Turn the heat down to 400 degrees. Set a timer for 25 minutes.
  17. After 25 minutes, flip the bird over. I take the pan out of the oven, and use tongs and a broad spatula. Turn the heat back up to 425, to brown the top. Set a timer for 20 minutes.
  18. When the last timer goes, take the bird out. An instant read thermometer jabbed in the meat of the thigh should read 165 degrees. If not — ovens vary — put it back in for a few more minutes. Avoid the bone with your probe, or your reading will skew high. Tent the bird with foil, and rest it for ten minutes before carving.

Carve and enjoy! If you prefer a very crispy skin, you can experiment with heats up to 450 degrees.

The Rolling Jubilee: a World Historical Event?

I had a very interesting experience about a week ago. While I was preparing a talk, “Jubilee and Nationalist Time,” for a panel at the Midwest MLA conference, held in Cincinnati over the weekend, the history I was recounting changed before me.

I experienced this change, as one does these days, through Twitter.

My talk, posted here, traces the Old Testament concept of the jubilee — a periodic general release of debtors and slaves, and a return of land to its prior owners — into the British eighteenth century, showing, principally, how it lost its economic sense and gained new senses in different contexts. You should read the talk: it’s about 3000 words, and there are precisely three jokes.

But here’s what happened last week that changed this story: Activists affiliated with the Occupy movement, calling themselves “Strike Debt,” have organized something called a “Rolling Jubilee,” in which they are raising money to buy distressed debt from collection agencies, who are willing to sell it at a large discount — to anyone but the debtor him- or herself — and forgiving it. An exciting and interesting project, to be sure: I’ve given them some money, and you should consider doing the same. The website for this group is here.

I mention this because the jubilee has had a number of configurations in the last 3000 years. It has been:

  • An ethnically-distinctive economic/cultural practice of the ancient Hebrews, exercised among themselves and specifically denied to foreigners, to hold the group together, and forestall the accumulated depredations of the market from leading to the decline of the community. It served to make sure that any economic gains made by Jews were at the expense of non-Jews.
  • A celebration performed by the Catholic church beginning in the fourteenth century, in which the Church offered remission of sins to pilgrims who visited certain holy sites in Rome during a designated period. No economic meaning remained, although the Catholic jubilee contributed a certain universalism. In principle, this was available to “pilgrims of all nations.”
  • An anniversary party, with no spiritual or economic content, typically of an event of  nationalist significance, like a royal accession or successful battle.

This history is not exhaustive. It, like all histories, is drawn up for the purposes of a specific project — in this case, my dissertation project. I am aware of at least one other sense in what might be called Black American liberation theology, but don’t know enough about that to comment. I would very much like to know more; any pointers in the comments would be richly appreciated. There are likely others.

That caveat aside, this strictly economic sense of release put forward by the Strike Debt group, neither spiritual nor nationalist, not about policing the boundaries of an in-group and an out-group, is quite possibly a world historical event.

(Also others — Strike Debt is here a synecdoche for this larger group of affiliated scholars and activists. I know David Graeber has been talking about jubilee for awhile. Also notable are activists working for the forgiveness of sovereign debt in developing nations, another interesting project.)

While I believe that this work is of unsurpassed importance, I also fear that pitfalls are all around. There are well-worn conceptual pathways towards which this notion tends, and they can be ugly. Fore-warned is fore-armed.

In which: the Business School Visits My Coworking Space.

I’ve been working very satisfactorily and productively these last few months at a coworking space in downtown Ann Arbor called Workantile. It’s great.

A few days ago, we were visited by a professor and some sort of graduate student from Michigan’s Graduate School of Business. Coworking is a fashionable topic among MBA types, as it’s closely associated with Bay Area startup culture, “innovation,” etc.

But this is Ann Arbor. I’m not the only academic who works here — split pretty evenly between the humanities and the social sciences. And while the people who run the space gamely spoke to the representatives of the business school, a few of the rest of us took it as an opportunity to reflect on differences in research culture between professional schools and the rest of the university. One former archaeologist with a PhD from an anthropology department, wryly asked them if they’d filled out the paperwork to perform research on human subjects. They didn’t know what he was talking about. They are not us.

My reflection was to note my own strange transformation in the eyes of these scholars of work as soon as I crossed State Street, the main dividing line between UM’s central campus and downtown Ann Arbor. Were I a graduate student at Michigan, doing precisely the same work over in Angell Hall or the Grad Library, not only would I not have cheap access to good coffee, I would also not be doing interesting work in the eyes of the business school. God knows the academy isn’t a model they would have any interest in whatsoever.

Yes, there are all manner of project managers and software engineers clicking away on laptops, but you’ll occasionally find a stack of blue books on a desk, too. Lawyers are doing Westlaw searches, but I’m bouncing packets through UC’s VPN to search ECCO and Project Muse, tracking down citations. Perhaps one lesson here, which I feel may not be getting picked up, is about how laptop computers have create an undifferentiated aesthetic of ‘work.’ Coworking is about the materiality of ‘immaterial’ labor, in which we recognize that the alleged ‘immateriality’ of this labor would be better named its ‘plasticity.’

But man, that exposed brick.

A little late-night Hegel reading…

From §21 of the Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit, in Miller’s translation: 

It is reflection that makes the True a result, but it is equally reflection that overcomes the antithesis between the process of its becoming and the result, for this becoming is also simple, and therefore not different from the form of the true which shows itself as simple in its result; the process of becoming is rather just this return into simplicity. Though the embryo is indeed in itself a human being, it is not so for itself; this it only is as cultivated Reason, which has made itself into what it is in itself. 

Well, that seems clear enough. Who said philosophy never condescends to concern itself with questions of public import?

On due process

A friend tweeted a resolution not to vote for President in 2012; I’ll avoid citation to save him from the trolls. His concerns center around Obama’s embrace of the targeted killing of terror suspects without any suitable juridical process. These concerns are reasonable. I think — I hope — that history will look back at the events of the last ten years with a shudder. It’s undoubtedly grim.

I do not at all want to diminish his concerns; indeed, the purpose of this blog post is mostly to share the analogy that was the fruit of a meditation on those concerns, which I think any reasonable person would share. But I should make clear where I stand from the outset. My position is that it is irresponsible for “beautiful soul” reasons to act as though a vote is to be an expression of one’s own personal political beliefs. That’s the sort of thing I did as an eighteen year-old. A vote is a much more Hegelian expression of one’s dissolution into the polity, an oscillation across the divide from quality to quantity and back. It’s not about you. Not at all.

It’s not even about “choice.” To hear all these lefties critique electoral politics as consumerism, as the adoption of a subjective attitude centered on choice, and then propose instead that we counter that by not voting: …well, I’ll be blunt. That’s a precritical stance. So much for the fucking dialectic, right? Presupposing for the moment that we all accept that the space of the political is deeper and broader than the sphere of the electoral, how, exactly, has the withheld vote carried these non-voting lefties past the impasse of choice? What great emancipatory possibilities do you see from your new critical standpoint sulking in the corner?

(Seriously, though: if you see some, let me know. Until then, I’m planning to vote.)

It makes me mourn the state of critical theory education in this country. With that rant out of the way, though, I want to turn to the analogy that prompted this post.

In California and likely elsewhere, there is a well-documented relationship between the parole board and the Governor. The Governor has the ability to overturn the recommendations of the board as to which prisoners should be freed. In principle, this means that an elected representative of the people has a say on these important decisions. But in practice, this produces a situation in which extremely few prisoners are ever paroled. The governor, more directly accountable to the voters, is necessarily more risk averse than s/he probably should be: Schwarzenegger got a lot of attention for overturning something like eighty percent of the parole board’s recommendations. If a paroled criminal were to commit a serious crime, well, you can already hear the attack ads, can’t you?

Now, the thing is this: California paroles a number of criminals routinely, upon release. These peoples’ recidivism rate is high, around 70 percent. But those whom the parole board has examined and reviewed? Their recidivism rates are quite low, around 1 percent. Right?

I think a similar effect is at work with respect to targeted killing. Now, I am not a pacifist. I don’t think it’s unimaginable that there could be a legitimate reason for a state to kill someone. Shit gets real out here on these streets: life is conflictual. Decent people see this as regrettable.

But it does not follow that the government should kill everyone we think might pose a threat to the United States. So we need to set up a decision-making process that errs on the side of letting people live. Presidents are too accountable to the bloodthirsty electorate to get these decisions right: like the governors of California, presidents have a structural impediment to doing a good job on that question. Presidents will get this wrong not because they are unaccountable, but because they are: they are accountable to the worst attributes and tendencies of the electorate.

And I don’t want to hear any guff about how democracy is incompatible with this sort of atrocity. An honest look at the American nineteenth century should disabuse any but the most blinkered of such a ludicrous notion. Executive summary: Andrew Jackson, the man who ‘democratized’ the Presidency, is also the man most responsible for the popular and genocidal Indian Removal Act. Representative democracy at work.

Obama, for me, has been an interesting test case. I see him as an intelligent, capable, decent man, who is sincerely trying to do the best he can. As an individual, he’s probably about as good as we’re ever likely to do under our current electoral arrangements. This is not to say he’s infallible: not at all. Rather, he’s a test of the system — it’s not the President, it’s the Presidency. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

In practical terms, then, this means that we need the Supreme Court to take this out of the Executive Branch’s hands; it’s not like President Hillary is going to do any better.

Between Romney and Obama, who’s more likely to nominate justices who will get this one right? Yeah. So vote.

On Zizek on Hedonism

[This is a comment I wrote for a thread at Crooked Timber about an essay of Slavoj Zizek’s on religion and ethics. I liked it, so I’m posting it here. Sorry, Slavoj: the font I chose for the blog doesn’t have a glyph for your Z-diacritics.]

Zizek does a thing, in my view, where he runs too quickly through “pleasure” in Lacan, blending together a few senses of the word that would be better held distinct. So I want to take a few minutes to parse out the consequences of this elision. While I’m mindful that defenses of this sort of thing are liable to fall on deaf ears in this venue, I actually and genuinely believe that there is something in this line of inquiry that could be extremely productive for a lot of the kinds of folks who hang around here.

“Pleasure” and “enjoyment” are terms of art in Lacanian psychoanalysis. As always in psychoanalysis, these have an interesting and complicated relationship to economic utility — e.g., Freud says in “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” that the subject in the thrall of the pleasure principle is akin to the rational, calculating homo economicus, in that he’s willing to put off enjoyment for greater returns. But Lacan’s twist is in consideration of pleasure as a kind of Hegelian tendency that generates its own resistance — indeed generates subjectivity as this resistance. Illustratively, ‘jouissance’ first appears in the Lacanian corpus in the mid-50s in a discussion of the master-slave dialectic. The point, in that discussion, is that pleasure — which is to say, achieved pleasure, utility — is experienced as a kind of loss of subjective reality, akin to what happens to the master half-way through the master-slave dialectic. Pleasure is evanescent, like a subatomic particle produced in an accelerator. The productive position is that of the slave, for whom ‘jouissance’ is the famous self-impeding enjoyment that approaches but never really quite reaches pleasure, and in which the subject recognizes itself. This is Lacan’s take on the world of dissatisfaction and unhappiness in which we all actually live.

Now, by the seventies, there is a new formulation, “surplus enjoyment,” and opinions differ about how this should be understood. Does the new formulation register a new wrinkle in Lacan’s thought on the relationship of pleasure to utility, or is it just a clarification of the old jouissance, which already meets utility obliquely? It seems to me that jouissance is to be understood as enjoyment that misses pleasure, as it were, by perpetually falling short; while surplus enjoyment is “useless” pleasure, which misses satisfaction by simply being irrelevant to need. Cigarettes are jouissance: the smoker needs them, and yet the satisfaction that each smoke offers is fleeting — indeed, by indulging the addiction, it engenders the (artificial) need for the next. And indeed, we smoke (well, I don’t), at great cost to ourselves, in order to have small, frequent needs that we can actually mostly meet. In contrast, the paradigmatic example of surplus enjoyment is Coca-Cola — a wholly vacuous pleasure, which in the satisfaction of which, we recognize something in alterity that we desire. In a word, consumerism. You do something, and then you realize that you wanted it.

(I should clarify: we’re talking about subjective attitudes, not the commodities themselves. The point isn’t what smoking or Coca-Cola are really like; the point is that both are easier than solving any of our actual problems.)

Of course, Zizek knows all this — hell, I learned much of what I know of this stuff from his Sublime Object of Ideology. But sometimes, as in the linked piece on hedonism, I find he tries to have it both ways: to insist on the complexity of the psychoanalytic concept of enjoyment when it suits him, and fall back on a naïve utilitarian concept when it doesn’t. This isn’t the first time I’ve noticed him do this, usually in popular pieces where he is staying away from jargon. So, when we read that hedonists “dedicate their lives to the pursuit of pleasures…”, we need to ask Zizek to slow down and explain exactly what he means (which he likely does in the book) because on that question hinges the issue of the relationship of pleasure to super-ego, and super-ego to ethics.

I think this confusion is a product of the constraints imposed on Zizek by Lacan. At the end of the day, he wants to make an argument that squares with Lacan’s take on the ethical, but that’s a tricky thing to pull off. Getting off the wheel, going “beyond the pleasure principle,” for Lacan, does two things: it corresponds to a different sort of ego loss (as the subject moves from the world of desires to the world of the drives), and it is also the transcendental ground for the ethical act. Those keeping score at home will thus note that Lacanian ethics has nothing to do with super-ego or calculation. Rather — and here I’m speaking in Alain Badiou’s language — the ethical act, like a revolutionary act, cannot be fully comprehended within the preexisting situation. It’s always tinged with the irrational. What this highlights is how dangerous ethics is. It’s not for nothing that Lacan’s ethics is a reading of Antigone. Indeed, Kierkegaard’s “religious suspension of the ethical” is roughly congruent to Lacan’s “ethics.”

In this light, let’s take a look at another passage from the article.

Religious ideologists usually claim that, true or not, religion makes some otherwise bad people to do some good things. From today’s experience, however, one should rather stick to Steven Weinberg’s claim: while, without religion, good people would have been doing good things and bad people bad things, only religion can make good people do bad things.

I think there’s a Lacanian argument to be made there, but I’m not at all sure that it is the one Zizek is making, at least in the short form. The argument I would make instead is that just when it looks to us like we’re assuming control over our own ethical choices, just when we’ve killed God or whatever, we are blind to the way we’ve simply substituted poorly-examined conventional wisdom, institutional and individual self-interest and precritical morality for true ethical action.* True ethical action is, after all, terror: too unstable to really hang around.

*I think that’s what Zizek is doing with his reference to political correctness, but I’m straining the bounds of a charitable reading here.