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eureka! LI figures out what has been bugging us about the term 'subversive'

It struck me today that I was on the wrong track.

I’ve been searching for some use of subversive in art or literary criticism in the 19th century. And I have found texts that are about things that I associate with subversion – for instance, many, many texts about overturning conventions and rules in painting, poetry, fiction. And I have been doing what seems natural - grouping them together, looking for the subversive theme, style, attitude. Yet the actual use of the word subversive is lacking. That isn't a big deal, but it was available. It was certainly as there for Baudelaire or for Delacroix as for me. Yet ... the first use of it in the modern sense that I’ve found, so far, is from a Lionel Trilling essay in the 30s.

And then it struck me: I was not seeing the blank where the blank was. To see a blank is not always the easiest thing. Especially when you are vampire hunting in the vaults of history. Artists, writers and critics wrote in the beginning of the 20th century wrote about revolutionary art. Or they wrote, under the influence of Zola, of experimental art. The blanks were filled in, but not the blank that I thought I was just so naturally filling in. Today, you can find a thousand titles referring to the ‘subversive tradition in Spanish renaissance poetry”, or the ‘subversive Shakespeare,’ but oddly, none of those titles actually quote uses of subversive by the poets or playwrights they are analyzing. Rather, our modern day academic uses the word ‘subversive’, unconsciously, as an instrument, without worrying too much about when it was invented. But LI has been worrying about when it was invented, when it became such a critical commonplace. Thinking about it as competing with experiment and revolution is actually very clarifying. Experiment, linked to modernism by every bond, seems not to enjoy the prestige it once enjoyed. And revolutionary? Nobody is writing about, say, the revolutionary tradition in Spanish Renaissance poetry. Why? because revolution has a bolder profile that would call for some self-consciousness. Delacroix painted the revolution of 1830. When Russian futurists wrote manifestos back in the 1920s, they didn’t call for a subversive literature – they called, explicitly, for a revolutionary one. But who among all of these writers called for a subversive art?

Which makes LI suspect that the normalization of subversion as a critical category is not linked to the rise of feminism, or gay studies, or post-colonialism – but is linked, much more interestingly, to the post 1968 loss of faith in revolution. This has a jarring effect on my sense of the politics of ‘subversive’.



northanger said…
"subvert" in Henry VI, part i.
Lord Talbot to Countess of Auvergne as his soldiers march in...

How say you, madam? are you now persuaded
That Talbot is but shadow of himself?
These are his substance, sinews, arms and strength,
With which he yoketh your rebellious necks,
Razeth your cities and subverts your towns
And in a moment makes them desolate.

- - - -
also, once Katherine agrees that what you will have it nam'd, even that it is, and so it shall be so for Katherine, Hortensio says, Petruchio, go thy ways; the field is won.
northanger said…
Constitutional Hardball :: "A shorthand sketch of constitutional hardball is this: It consists of political claims and practices -- legislative and executive initiatives -- that are without much question within the bounds of existing constitutional doctrine and practice but that are nonetheless in some tension with existing pre-constitutional understandings.3 It is hardball because its practitioners see themselves as playing for keeps in a special kind of way; they believe the stakes of the political controversy their actions provoke are quite high, and that their defeat and their opponents' victory would be a serious, perhaps permanent setback to the political positions they hold [...] the whole point of constitutional transformation is to alter the previously taken-for-granted institutional arrangements. Of course the proponents of transformation are going to place pre-constitutional understandings in question, because they want to replace those understandings with others."
Roger Gathmann said…
North, like I said in earlier posts, to subvert and subversion exist as terms since Wycliff. But the closest you will come to finding them used in the contemporary critical sense is in my quote about the theater under the Jacobin - the subversive spirit. In the 19th century, subversive literature meant something very literal - pamphlets urging workers to strike, or urging the assassination of the czar, etc., etc. The proliferation of the term subversive and its routinization in the critical vocabulary is a contemporary phenomena. To give an example, There's a book entitled Subversion and Liberation in the Writings of St. Teresa of Avila by Antonio Perez Romero. I count over thirty instances of 'subversion' in a book of over 227 pages, not one of which comes from the writings of St. Teresa. They are all descriptions of what St. Teresa is doing. They are about St. Teresa, not of St. Teresa.

Today, if I wrote about, say, the subversive sculptures of Kiki Smith, I bet I could find Smith employing the word 'subversion' - but this is because it has been so distributed in the academic/critical world.
Roger Gathmann said…
I gotta brag about my little blog today: I don't think there has been any work that has looked at 'subversion' using my vampirehunting philological tools. This is a first! I'm eagerly awaiting the camera crew from NBC, ABC and FOX to pound on my door once news of this exciting discovery gets out.
northanger said…
St. Teresa subversive? really. well, yes. lol. wasn't Christ subversive? since we're always trying to get past that pesky inquisition.

your eureka moment has spurted a ... google flurry of activity on this end. still sorting. until then,

The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution —Hannah Arendt
northanger said…
gosh, i think i finally get that THE END OF HISTORY thingy. the endpoint isn't anything related to humanity because everything we have ever done has ... failed.
northanger said…
i saw a save the humans bumpersticker last friday.
northanger said…
i finally figured out what a zippity-zane is, but i gotta admit i don't know where you're headed with this subversive bizness. don't know whether my googlies are tangential or topical. but! there's always the trivial!

a writ of habeas corpus was issued in 1771 for James Somersett to appear before the Court of King's Bench — Lord Mansfield's ruling stated, Let Justice be done, though the Heavens may fall. Somersett was set free. also, while looking at Civil Rights: 1.2 Three Generations of Rights, came across three generations of human rights corresponding to the motto of the French Revolution: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.

Allons enfants de la Patrie
Le jour de gloire est arrivé!
Roger Gathmann said…
North, you are breakin' my heart! What do you mean you don't know where I'm going with this subversive bizness? I've gone. I've arrived. See, I started out thinking, hmmm, what is it I don't like when I read such and such a writer/filmaker etc. has written a subversive novel, directed a subversive film? Well, I don't like the imprecision: subverting what, exactly? But then I became fascinated with how subversion goes from being a description in court and in police files to being an aesthetic description. So I was thinking I was cool about tracing that, when I noticed that nobody was exactly saying they was subversive and shit until the 1960s. Before that, they spoke of rebellion, sublimity, revolution, experiment - but they didn't use the word subversive. Why? It struck me that somewhere, subverision had acquired overtones of secrecy, and that the artistic revolutionaries were quite open about being revolutionary. So then I made my leap. And I'm done!

Doesn't that make sense? A philological vampire hunting caper?
northanger said…
that part i got :) — i was just worried if i was missing some, um, subversive elements! hehe, i forgot you're a texan. i think that means when you scratch your balls it solves most of your problems.

but, i could be just as wrong about texas balls as imus is about nappy-headed hos! :)
traxus4420 said…
This clears up a lot, roger -- thanks! You deserve to brag.

Could we say that 'subversion' has become simply a more politicized (and thus hipper, more relevant) use of the term 'transgression?' (which carries more of an old school 60s and 70s (sexual) identity politics taint?) A way of linking two activities and interests that today are much less related than they are made to appear? Maybe naturalizing the association between a progressively inward-focusing critical approach and politics 'in general?'
traxus4420 said…
which would, in a sense, unite the depressed post-68 crowd with the feminists/gay studies/postcolonial identity people as the political goals and achievements of those disciplines have evolved over time.
Anonymous said…
North, well, the comment I just made disappeared into halohell. I have no luck!

Anyway, re the itching of my testicles - hey, I am a cleanly sort. We Austinites do try to bath or shower at least once a week - which is why we are looked down upon by the inhabitants of Lubbock. They 'spect we are secret Yankees.
As for Imus, who the fuck is this Imus guy? And why can't he be trampled to death by the Rutger's basketball team? Is that too much to ask?

Traxus, thank you thank you. Like the President of Iran today, I want to congratulate the entire world on my discovery!

As for the reason that subversion emerges into a much denser frequency of use from the 80s until now - along with the transgression thing - I think there were two things happening. One is the end of the revolutionary myth. To be part of that tradition without being a revolutionary becomes one of the ways one becomes - as I am - a liberal. The other is the notion of secrecy. Subversive, after all, in the U.S., in the 80s, still has to do with the House Unamerican committee. Secret undermining has the advantage that the underminer doesn't have to explain it - indeed, the underminer can't, as a subversive, put that on his or her business card. That sets up a relationship between the artist and the clever critic that was very much part of the 80s, October-ish scene. And it is in synch with the coming out of the closet, consciousness raising political activity back then. All good things, man - I'm not knocking this. But - there is a nasty phrase that the Art Historian Francis Haskell uses, when talking about Champfleury. Champfleury started collecting French revolutionary popular art in the 1850s, and Haskell says Chamfleury was nostalgic for all past subversions to the same degree to which he was unwilling to commit himself to any present ones. Or something like that. That crack does have some truth.
Anonymous said…
roger--all well and good your reply to traxxus, but I think as he says it is hitting the nail exactly on the head, especially with the 'politicized' being made to seem 'hipper, more relevant', which it is, of course, not in reality.

'A way of linking two activities and interests that today are much less related than they are made to appear?'

and that too, because that describes much of the desire to be hip that one finds among those too weary to tolerate art, but who are capitalizing on it by linking it to something virtuous, possibly reducible to what might be termed 'Adornoism' (as curiously self-consciously unadorned a horrid movement as ever could have been hoped to be useful, and which was...but only to a piffling degree, thank God)...somehow such tripe is the work of non-artists who call themselves theorists by profession but don't like that all that much, so they try to hitch wagons to stars--and it doesn't work.

I don't know how you can say that the 'revolutionary myth' is over. You say that it is over almost just because you yourself somehow were turned into a liberal by something--and it may have been partly that. But I don't know if that is what turned me into one, and the same sort of 'revolutionary myth' would not obtain today as was happening in any of those decades you cited.

'Maybe naturalizing the association between a progressively inward-focusing critical approach and politics 'in general?''

Marvelous use of 'naturalize', because it contradicts itself during the process of producing pure artifice. But it does PRETEND to naturalize. What it primarily does is to become obnoxious and even quite unseemly.
northanger said…
Scarlet Knights vs. This Honky's Nuts

c'mon Rog. it's the schlock monkey's job to tell us about the most awesome basketball team ever.
Roger Gathmann said…
North, I went to the Honkey's nuts site, but... I couldn't get past the 2nd graf, when it says he was voted one of the greatest talk radio hosts ever. That is like, oh, greatest spammer ever. Or greatest nosepicker ever. It isn't something you'd want to tell your kids.
And what is with the look of these talk radio people? Was Imus in a fire or something? He has a sandblasted look. Michael Savage looks like a down on his luck drug dealer. Rush Limbaugh must know, must know, that he bears an unfortunate resemblence to a pig. I'm not trying to be all looks-ist here, mind. Just speculating that Imus is the last guy who should be talking about the looks of basketball players.
Ah, but the rule of misogynist privilege is that the ugliest men think they aren't being unconsciously and eternally funny when they say things like: I'd fuck that!

Patrick, I'm surprised that you'd object to my saying the revolutionary myth has died. I mean, there isn't a left-leaning party that I can think of - the PS in France, Labour in the U.K., the SDP in Germany, the Dems in the U.S. - which, from the perspective of 1970, doesn't sound positively conservative. The appearance of the odious decent lefties in 2003, advocating war in Iraq, wasn't an aberration, but the end result of a post-revolutionary development. At the same time, there is now a strong anti-corporationist ethos building, has been for years, which is not about overthrowing capitalism but about overthrowing a certain specific regime of monopoly - however, its rhetoric is pretty non-revolutionary, as far as I can see.

While I get irritated at the blind use of "subversive", I wasn't trying to be snarky in my little vampire huntin quest. Is that what you mean by Adornoese? Cause, though I adore old Adorno, he sometimes all too blithely merged his private irritations with critique - which makes for awkward bitching under the guise of philosophy.

Anyway, my calmer take on the use of subversion is - well, here's a story. When Pope Gregory sent christian missionaries to the British Isles, he advised them not to pull down the sacred groves. Instead, they were supposed to destroy the idols and sanctify the old pagan temples "so the people will have no need to change their place of concourse." Ruining one faith and erecting another in its bits and pieces. That's a political program for me.
northanger said…
yeah yeah, "Mr. NBC, ABC and FOX pounding on my door". if Imus (NBC) knocked on your door before last week i'd have no doubt where you'd be.
Anonymous said…
'I wasn't trying to be snarky in my little vampire huntin quest. Is that what you mean by Adornoese?'

Of course not, dear. Must you think that one is at all times referencing GathmanText? As much as I get down on my hands and knees to pay homage to the Miracle of GathmanText, I was in this instance somewhat bowled over by traxxus's perfection of execution here (now, not that you aren't often guilty of the very same thing...). He has captured, without a hair out of place, exactly what those who cannot stay with Art any longer than a Scientologist can stay with the family history of a Hollywood Boulevard runaway that he is assessing for recruitability--are doing in all cases: They are not at home with Art, and so they leave it for the greener (if unmoneyed) lands of theoretical judgment, and I DO mean Judgment, where all sorts of non-essential things can be wallowed in to determine if the work is suitable for the Marxist Project. They then attempt to make any artist prove himself based on principles which are not related to Art, but rather a kind of cloying ideal of whether ultimately this will lead to the general welfare of all the thousands of Commie Poppies blooming. THIS...despite your slippery reasoning that the leftists are barely existing enough to even form a myth of their own (I'd agree, but you most likely should not, as you will be more compromised in your attempt...)
Roger Gathmann said…
North, Imus is not on tv, is he? Because that would take the rug out from under my whole on the spot theory of radio talk show hosts. This is most unpleasant.

And Patrick, what can I say except - oops!
northanger said…
Rog, the rug is out.
Roger Gathmann said…
North, I never liked that rug anyway. It had a horrible amoeba design on it, and it smelled of catpiss. So, now I've read two Washington Post editorials about Imus, I've learned he's affiliated with NBC, and I've seen his face. In other words, I've been rousted out of my anti-talk show (except sometimes when I listen to Terry Gross), anti-tv cocoon, and forced to face up to the hard realities of modern life.
But... unless you tie me up in that rug tightly, you still can't make me listen to talk radio!
And hey, I will confess that, since the Lady Horns didn't do so well this year, I haven't paid too much attention to women's basketball. The u.t. coach, Jody Conradt, retired. She had a pretty amazing streak going. Now we are getting the Duke coach, Gail Goestenkors, so ha ha ha. You, with your prejudice against us Longhorns, are gonna see some rug pulling out next year! The eyes of Texas are upon you/all...the livelong day/The eyes of Texas are upon you/you cannot get away" Everybody sing along!
northanger said…
my family, we have buckeyes (bleh bleh!) & wolverines (GOBLUE!). haven't watched college football in ages ... i'm sure i rooted for the Aggies. so patooie on your eyes of texas! did you know Rutgers started the whole school colors thingy? sadly, the closest i've gotten to women's sports is Quarterback Princess. & hey, i was born in nashville - Go Lady Vols!
Roger Gathmann said…
When I was in grad school, the only part of BEVO day I liked (that is the day sports teams parade down guadalupe, led by Bevo, the school mascot) was watching the very fine lady horns. The philosophy grad department was very into basketball. Myself, I'm not bad, or wasn't bad, on pickup defense - my knees won't take that now - but the one time I went out, I knew that I'd die on that court. We had us a couple of 6 foot 8 ringers, and a woman who'd played at Claremont, who was totally into b ball. I liked to watch her watch basketball on tv, because she'd turn from a Plato quoting professorial type to a budweiser slinging foulmouthed fan. It was cool!
I don't know if I want to know about Quarterback Princess. I'm gonna youtube it. And did you notice, in my awfully sweet clip of the UT band, the woman off to the side, making the HOOK EM HORNS sign?
Roger Gathmann said…
North, since you have forced me to think about Imus (isn't there some spiritual therapy that involves staring at your own shit for two hours at a stretch?) I've finally decided: NBC should simply be required to rename his show, The Cracker Hour. Truth in racist reporting - that's all I want. If they chunk him out, they'll just get another cracker from the endless supply down at the Cracker Barrel.
Anonymous said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
northanger said…
Rog, flush the toilet. not knocking the I-Man — but he'd appreciate the analogy — he's just the local drug dealer. follow the money. Imus is probably sincere about changing his show a little, but he doesn't get that option AND expect to stay on air. "hoes" & rap music"? again, follow the money. who buys it? white kids. who sells it? white companies. what're they selling? "black women are hoes". it's product, nothing to do with free speech. do you know i saw Saturday Night Live on PBS first? Detroit's NBC affliate refused to show it. do they show Girls Gone Wild in Austin? i wonder who gets to watch these wonderful commercials & how many times the "liberal media" gets blamed for it when Mrs. Middle White America calls up to complain. money. black women don't have much protective mechanisms in this country. how many years have we been complaining about this? Imus is just repeating the same thing little black girls hear everyday in the marketplace. so if we're going to call Imus racist, then MSNBC, CBS Radio & their advertisers are racist too. & that's when the massive reactionary force WILL stop you. not for calling black women hoes, but for calling MSNBC & CBS Radio & their advertisers racist.

Roger Gathmann said…
Amie, well, now I'm gonna get all frothily Hegelian and say: this notion of necessity comes in as the system of patronage collapses in the arts, and I suspect that a former system of 'inspiration' - writing the music for a funeral, writing a poem on the house of your patron (vide Marvell's Appleton house), painting a saint - is replaced by another system, where the muses are all freelance, and the work itself then becomes - at times - hostile, or strange. Canvas, paint, pen, paper, sound - they all become a bit rawer when they aren't enclosed by the complex system of semi-feudal obligations, but confront the artist as challenges to his very reason for being.
All of which is way too sweeping, but what the hell - it's a good day to be Hegelian!
North, I would put in a word for the local drug dealer, depending on his product. I don't blame the dealer for the fucked up nature of the industry. Obviously, part of the Imus thing is that here this white DJ is, using the word ho, and the word ho is a word coming from rap, and rap is supposedly taking it from the street, etc. Now, I am pretty sure that MSNBC, CBS radio and the rest of them are racist, covertly and overtly, as you say. I don't really need the mouth of Imus to clue me on that - I can wander through the streets of Austin and see who has the money and the power and who has the surveillance and the redlined neighborhoods. But I'm not sure about this deflection onto rap - is Imus a big fan of rap? Does he have rappers on his show? I would bet donuts to dollars that he is the kind of guy to put down rap - I can't see him going on about the artistry of Tupac. Of course, I can't see or hear him at all - I've never heard his voice, and until yesterday, only knew his name as a figure in D.C. that's mentioned on various blogs. That he'd only take the worst things from rap is actually pretty much part of the system forever. In The Invisible Man there are a lotta glosses on this - Ellison had a real subtle sense of the white need for black degradation. That's actually the whole point of the Battle Royale, and the visit paid by the Invisible Man with Mr. Norton, his school's white millionaire patron, to Trueblood's shack. Trueblood says, about his daughter (who he raped): "sometimes a man can look at a little ole pigtail girl and see him a whore." And this gets the millionaire Norton all flushed and excited, and eventually gets the invisible man kicked out of college. A parable that has made everybody who reads it uncomfortable ever since. Good old Ralph E.! Images that were true to the state of the races in America in 1930 and are still easy to dig up. I don't care if Imus is fired or not - but I have looked at the comments on the stories about him at the Washington Post, and it is the same depressing parade of the crackers from the cracker barrel - any time a white guy is attacked for saying something obviously rancid and racist, out of the barrel they will march, like little toy soldiers in a ballet, foaming about Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, and obviously bearing the big psychic wound that the civil rights movement inflicted on their poor lardish hides. And I just say: fuck em. I know these folks down to the marrow, I've was raised with them, I know what they say over the dinner table, I know who they talk back to when they watch their tv shows, I got such a heavy dose of them when I was raised up that I have no need to listen to Imus or to watch him on NBC to know all about him, his audience and their mutual psychosis, I know the smell and tenor of their breath, the state of their souls, the beat of their blood, the will o the whisp excuses that they follow in their dreams.
Anonymous said…
'foaming about Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson,'

There is plenty of difference in the two and you should look up Sharpton's publicity-mongering, his offering of The Keys to the Sewer to every single possible civil rights event no matter how blatantly false (get out your 'After Henry' you quoted from yesterday and inform yourself on the Tawana Brawley mess if you haven't already; Michael Jackson is defended for nothing but a kind of blind Mob sensation, this despite my own belief that Jackson's verdict was correct.) Imus's remarks were crude, offensive and needed massive apologies (and got them) and to be humiliated by having to appear with that totally insincere freak Al Sharpton is sufficient enough cruel and unusual punishment. The 2-week suspension was exactly right--but there was still a lot more outcry about this than there was about Ann Coulter calling John Edwards a 'faggot'--her phrasing was hardly subtle, but everybody knew what she was doing. In some ways that was worse, as it was directed at a specific named person, and she got away with it--lucking up that she managed to slip it to Edwards before his wife's prognosis was anounced.

'and obviously bearing the big psychic wound that the civil rights movement inflicted on their poor lardish hides. And I just say: fuck em. I know these folks down to the marrow, I've was raised with them, I know what they say over the dinner table, I know who they talk back to when they watch their tv shows, I got such a heavy dose of them when I was raised up'

Yes, and to a degree you are still one of them, as am I, which is why you go to far with this, guilt beyond guilt, as well as with the rap business, which is all money too. Now that you bring it up, some black gals I talked to recently in a sex chat use 'hos' all the time, including for themselves. I've never heard Imus either, I don't think. All that talk radio is shit, and meant to be.

'that I have no need to listen to Imus or to watch him on NBC to know all about him, his audience and their mutual psychosis,'

Oh, yeh, yeh, yeh. So maybe do us up a post on white niggers.

'But I'm not sure about this deflection onto rap - is Imus a big fan of rap? Does he have rappers on his show? I would bet donuts to dollars that he is the kind of guy to put down rap -'

That means nothing, the word 'ho' has come into common usage from rap and everybody knows it. The girls at Rutgers have everybody reason to be angry and hurt, but they've already shown that they are trying to be bigger than the culprit by meeting with him and deferring judgment till then. Even though there is one who said she thought she was 'scarred for life'.

Please. This is TRULY the end of the world.
Roger Gathmann said…
Patrick, I agree with you on some things, but on others I definitely dont.
I don't think Ann Coulter doing her gaybaiting schtick before assembled conservatives is worse - the Rutger's Women's Basketball team is not in the same category as John Edwards, or other public figures.

And I think that the woman who said it scarred her for life is just using the usual speech patterns of twenty year olds, who generally go for the most extreme modifiers - absolutely instead of sure, for instance. That she was very hurt seems likely to me.

As for Al Sharpton, well, it was Imus' choice to appear on the Al Sharpton show, wasn't it? And you don't think there might be a little calculation going in that choice? A nice way of mixing scents, splicing one scandal with another. Get Al Sharpton to denounce you and immediately you get a nice long detour through years of this and that. Being a talk radio host with an audience that apparently likes a Sambo joke, you might know the response to anything all Sharpton said in advance, no? If I made some nigger remarks on the radio and was a star, the first thing I'd know is that there will be a buncha crackers rooting for me, and the second thing I'd know is that displaying contrition in the presence of Al Sharpton would nicely make the conversation... all about Al Sharpton.

And finally, re the ho thing in the first place. Reading the interview in WAPO with them, ho doesn't come to mind. Nor does it come to mind because they have tattoos - my god! Either Imus hasn't been out of his studio in thirty years, or he has bizarre ideas about tatoos. I don't believe I have met a Whole Foods clerk in the past decade who doesn't sport a tattoo. So I think it was just another in the endless stream of race baiting crap that we see in these here states, and has little to do with the rap from which it was boosted.
Roger Gathmann said…
Okay, haloscan, let me in.
northanger said…
ah. (rotflmao). ..the KATRINA backlash. ladies, gentlemen ... i'm proud to present the Reverend Al Sharpton. i AM Tawana Brawley & i approve his message.