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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Wednesday, April 1, 2015


I'm going to try like heck to make this my absolute last essay that owes anything to the HOODED UTILITARIAN post to which I first alluded here. But I have the usual excuse: Noah Berlatsky has a way of bringing into focus exactly the issues that distinguish elitist critics from pluralist critics.

NB, in response to a comment by me about what I termed Sigmund Freud's reductive nature, made an odd comment about something he called "plenitude:"

I don’t see that tradition as particularly reductionist. It tends to argue that authors mean more than they say (and/or say more than they mean.) It’s a criticism of plenitude. People resist it because they dislike the implications of excess, in my experience. 

I won't repeat the thread's discussion regarding the definition of "reductionism," except to say, of course, that I was right. I quizzed NB on the provenance of his term "plenitude" and he said he wasn't "quoting anyone re: Freud." NB's syntax is jumbled, but he seems to be associating Freud's investigatory process as revealing the unvarnished truth beneath what they say or even think they mean, and thus he concludes that anyone who objects to Freud "dislikes the implications of excess." 

I have to assume, then, that "plenitude" and "excess" are linked in NB's mind. A quick Google search confirms that NB is at least familiar with Georges Bataille's use of the term "excess," though if NB is associating that idea with anything in Freud, he's certainly seeing a very different Bataille than I do. I quoted this Bataille passage a couple of months ago, from his 1957 EROTISM:

In the domain of our life [the principle of] excess manifests in so far as violence wins over reason. Work demands the sort of conduct where effort is in a constant ratio with productive efficiency. It demands rational behavior where the wild impulses worked out on feast days and usually in games are frowned upon. If we were unable to repress these impulses we should not be able to work, but work introduces the very reason for repressing them. These impulses confer an immediate satisfaction on those who yield to them. Work, on the other hand, promises to those who overcome [these impulses] a reward later on whose value cannot be disputed except from the point of view of the present moment.

Freud, of course, would never have countenanced this extreme liberalism. Freud believed explicitly in the sublimation of "the pleasure principle" in favor of the "reality principle." Again, it's hard to tell because NB bobs and weaves so much, but I think he's got the idea that "excess and/or plenitude" are not just "wild impulses" that everyone shares. I suspect that he's reading Freud through an ultraliberal lens: plenitude is everything that Straight White Males have traditionally renounced as inferior to their superior existence.

I have a much less ideologically oriented view of plenitude. expressed in this 2009 essay:

Ideological concepts are always spun off from what Northrop Frye terms "secondary concerns," which are no more than the assorted mental strategies humankind devises whereby they get or secure the "primary concerns," which are humankind's primary conduit to both sustenance and its concomitant pleasures. I suggested that the "primary concerns" come down to what some pagans termed the "four F's"-- flags (housing), flax (clothing), fodder and frig. 

Frye's assertion of the primacy of the sensuous is, I believe, much closer to Bataille's meaning than anything written by Freud. It also relates strongly to what the word "plenitude" means to me personally, though with a slightly more Jungian air. Jung regarded the human capacities for "sensation" and "intuition" as "mutually compensating functions." Plenitude for me is the interdependence of the senses with the mind's first attempts to understand them through symbolic action.

If as I believe NB has conflated plenitude with The Things Straight White Males Don't Want to Think About, then the only way this plenitude will ever be realized is in some distant future, a Marxist "end-times" when all the old fictions of Capitalism and Imperialism will be overthrown for good.

If that's the truth NB wants to embrace, that's his business. But as I've said in A BEDROCK OF CHAUVINISM,  I think the sins that elitist critics like to attribute only to Straight White Males are implicated in all peoples in all cultures and at all times. 

To rephrase Luke 17-21:

Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, plenitude is within you!

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