Tag Archives: History

Fragments of Frank: “The Argument…”

10.6.10 (con.)

The Argument We’ve Been Presenting

Remember how we described one of the characteristics of Homeric poetry? Something that is related to the way they make the poems? The poems are “retarded” in the sense that the dramatic action doesn’t determine what is said or what the words are? So a person could say…The best example is in Book I when Achilles picks up the staff and is going to swear on the basis of his crook, which is a sign of his authority as a prince. As he picks it up the poet describes the crook in six or seven lines: “the wood came from Mount Pelion! It was carved carefully!” And there he his, he’s holding the damn thing still while the poet describes it. The action: the way we would experience that in real life, is “retarded,” that is, slowed down. [A chuckle from the group.] Yes, slowed down. The only reason I use the word “retarded” is because the person who wrote most about this called it “Homeric retardation,” not that there was something wrong with it, but that it just holds back the dramatic action. Now if you read Herodotus he does the same thing. He stops to describe things. And significantly–at length. It isn’t as dramatic as the Homeric poems where people are giving speech after speech and you’re following the action of the characters in a much more focused and deliberate way, but it still holds back this story. It still seems like—and the examples which I picked out, the foreshadowing of Thermopylae, for instance—you see lots of places where there are huge catalogs, like, for instance, where he describes where all the people come from. That’s a big giant ethnography. If you read Book 2 of Homer, it’s the catalog of warriors. It’s almost the exact same thing as what you read in Herodotus. So you have these elements which are not directly part of mytho-poetic tradition. But the point of the mytho-poetic methodology…Herodotus is doing something very similar to the poet. You have to juxtapose that, the ethnographic piece. And remember: don’t trash the poets so much that when they do their own ethnography, they’re not doing real ethnography. Just for the sake of discussion, remember that Havelock’s argument is that it was the cultural encyclopedia. It’s what people understood about the world. That’s what they found in Homer. His understanding doesn’t have so much to do with the content, it has to do with the state of mind that everyone’s in as they learn the content or provide the content. But they don’t have that capacity to move into that objective position as knowers. That’s the argument we’ve been presenting.

Reading Thucydides

The word that Thucydides uses at the beginning, he says “I want to write.” The Greek word is “sun graphe.” First of all, let me tell you something. We haven’t talked about this yet. If you were to read Thucydides in Greek it is staggeringly difficult. It is staggeringly difficult. This is self-reported. You could be studying Greek for 4-5 years and when you get to Thucydides it’s a different universe. It’s a very complex and difficult…the process of rendering it into English is a challenge. Most of the people who really know how to read Thucydides really will never know whether they really know how to read Thucydides. Because they’ve already read Thucydides, and it took such pain to read it, that they could never know whether they’ve read Thucydides or not. There’s nothing else written by Thucydides and there’s nothing else that’s as hard to read. The word “sun graphe” is a word that’s made up. You can’t understand it by looking at the other uses of it. You can’t figure out what the semantic field was for that word. You have to figure it out. The word “sun” in Greek means “with” or “together.” It’s like our “communicate” or “compose”: it’s the “com” part. Which always means “together” or “bringing together.” So somehow he created a word which means “bringing everything together” and “writing.” “Graphe” means writing. So he really saw himself as a writer. Even though later he’ll talk about people listening to his work, because he knows that despite the fact that he wrote it, that it will be read and listened to more probably than any other way, just simply because of the basic logistics of being able to reproduce something at that time, which was so difficult. We’ll talk about that more when we get to the printing press. So “sun graphe” is his word. That seems to imply that he’s doing to do something that some people would describe as giving you a “complete view.” Based on his analysis. He talks about his analytic efforts: in that first passage, after he does his little review of the history for which there are no sources. He basically trashes his own history with no sources, and he says he’s going to do everything looking forward despite that, and how careful he’s going to be.

The First, Most Powerful Statement of Something That Never Made Any Sense To Me

Herodotus he uses a different word, which I haven’t studied as closely in preparation for today, but it’s “apodeixis,” which means “display.” So he’s going to lay out in front of you something you can see. The word is often used in the context of the rhetorical tradition. People who are learning to be great artists, who are practicing speeches, where they’re learning to display themselves. Or if they were doing something like…If I were to use the adjective in English, “apodeictic”: for Thucydides it would be the funeral oration of Pericles. Which is an effort to create in your mind two distinct images. One of them is a powerful state and the other image is of an ideal citizen, all directed at convincing people that it’s okay to die for your country. That’s the first, most powerful of statement of something that never made any sense to me.



If You’re A Hipster And You Know It, Clap Your Hands!

N+1 held launched Mark Greif et al’s “What Was the Hipster? A Sociological Study” this past Friday. Greif, a professor at the New School and N+1 editor, brings the philosophical discourse on hipsters to an academic level in this series of essays and commentaries.

It’s important work. Hipsters, though the butt of many jokes, are the occasion for engagement with our time in history. Though not everyone may have been a hippie, for example, that group is still a locus for important questions that define a historical period. By identifying or not identifying with the group– analyzing the literary, musical, fashion, philosophical, and psychoanalytical  streams present in it–we explore what we are and aren’t members of. It’s a locus, an opportunity, an occasion to explore how we’re participating in history.

Hipsters, for better or worse, are a window to our own moment. Getting clear about what they are will help us get clear about what we are. Greif’s project helps us do this. It covers important ground. But we should go further.

A few weeks ago I wrote my most-read blog post ever, a short essay called “Hipster Defined” where I define hipsters set-theoretically as the group whose members believe they’re not members of any group. This definition entails a formal set-theoretic paradox (what I call the Hipster’s Paradox) since hipsters compose a group, but to be a member of this group one must believe one is not a member of any group whatsoever.

This definition also entails an existential explanation for the term’s pejorative use. Here we are, a group of people trying not to conform but doing so together according to rules we must follow. We’re non-conformists conforming. In that sense the hipster is absurd: there’s a clear reality–that we’re part of a group–but we behave and speak as though we’re not members of any group.

In this way I found Greif’s account histiographically rich but definitionally clunky. His approach doesn’t offer a clear definition. Rather, in line with most of the critical hipster cannon, he provides lists of colorful exemplars alongside a variety of relevant social theories.

In addition to being complex (and possibly ironically self-reflexive) I find this approach politically deflating. It doesn’t offer anything for the future. It doesn’t tell us what to do next, what to make of this hipsterism, how to evolve into something new.

But there is a way to do this. Let’s say we are, in fact, members of a group whose members don’t believe they’re members of any group. If we identify as hipsters, if each of us says “Yes. I am a hipster” then we’ll no longer be absurd. We’d recognize ourselves as being members of a groWe’ll recognize our place in history and achieve a radical authenticity. Our public selves will merge with our private selves and we can just be. We can live in the world, be in it without lies or apathy or disappointment. This would be a psychoanalytic revolution. We’d feel a release. A relief. The heaviness of the hipster would dissolve into self co-incidence and self-centricity.

It doesn’t end there. When I admit I’m the member of a group whose members don’t believe they’re in any group, I’m not part of the group anymore.  I believe I’m the member of a group. The hipster definition is violated. I no longer fit it. I can move on. Once I admit I’m a hipster I’m no longer a hipster. I’m just myself.  And this is a radically human conclusion: I’m a contradiction. I’m part of a group and not part of it. I’m free of society but still bound by it.

At the book release I told Greif about my argument. An extremely warm individual, he laughed and nodded and took it seriously. He said my idea begins where his book ends, that he can’t admit he’s a hipster because he just can’t identify with the group. He said this was a function of his age. He told me that he gave a lecture on hipsters at a university recently and during the question/answer period a young student, obviously a hipster, asked him: “I’m a hipster, what should I do?” Greif said he couldn’t sympathize with her. He told her, “I’m not sure.”

That student had the answer. She admitted she’s a hipster. In that moment of self-awareness she produced the possibility for an answer to her own question. When you admit you’re a hipster you’ll no longer be one and the time for a new moment of authenticity arrives. You’re yourself. You’re free. Celebrate this! If you’re a hipster and you know it, clap your hands!


N+1 declares hipsters dead. This fact is proof to the contrary.

N+1 is publishing a sociological investigation of hipsters.  They argue there is no such thing. (Via Huffington Post)

Though I haven’t read it yet, the book is probably proof against itself. The argument that hipsters are dead is evidence that hipsters are alive and well. Since a hipster is a member of a set that believes it’s not a member of any set, s/he will obviously affirm that there is no such thing as a hipster. According to the formula, by definition, if you assert that there’s no such thing a hipster then you’re actually denying that there’s no such thing as a hipster–which means that there is such a thing as a hipster. By extension if you believe hipsters are dead then it’s actually true that hipsters are alive. Further, by extrapolation, the reason you believe that hipsters are dead is probably because you’re actually a member of the group. This is intuitive: only hipsters talk about hipsters. Only people who have disdain for group membership would make such a claim.

The only way to prove that hipsters are dead is to never think or talk about them.  But this is very difficult given the concept’s powerful grasp in contemporary (elite) discourse.

As I argue in ‘Hipster defined’ the only way to negate the hipster-concept is to admit that you are a hipster. Then you achieve authenticity. So long as you fail to accept your hipster-fate along with the rest of us you’ll be going in skinny-jeaned circles, whether you’re wearing a pair or not.