Hyperrhiz 12: Reviews/interview

Michael James Rizza: an Interview

Dean Casale

Kean University

An interview with Michael James Rizza, author of The Topographical Imagination of Jameson, Baudrillard, and Foucault (Noesis Press 2015)

Q: Why Jameson, Baudrillard and Foucault? What is it about these thinkers from the Great Theory Wave that makes them particularly of the moment in 2015?

A: Part of me never likes opening a book to find an apology for the subject on the first pages. It is a standard practice, but a whole politics and aesthetic seems to be implied in asking for the usefulness and relevance of a text up front. Still, another part of me knows it's a fair question. The influence of these writers is extensive. For example, it's impossible to imagine New Historicism or Gender Studies without Foucault's contributions. Yet what attracts me about these theorists is the sense of urgency in their writing. The stakes are high. As long as Capitalism continues to degrade our humanity, people continue to be Othered, and consumer culture continues to inscribe itself on our minds and bodies, we need these writers and the analytical tools they offer to diagnose the problem.

Q: In your Preface you remark that Jameson, Baudrillard and Foucault purposefully "displace the subject-position[s] from which they speak," and in your Introduction you discuss at length "alienation" and the "subject's defeat." The disillusion and subsequent dethroning of the Sovereign Subject, of Cartesian cogito, is one of the hallmark assertions of modernist/post-modernist critique, yet thinkers like Perry Anderson have pointed out that post-structuralist philosophy must, per necessity, smuggle back some concept of the "Subject" into their discourses to enable themselves to "speak." Where does the subject stand in relation to "the topographical imagination" you so eloquently describe?

A: Jameson imagines an evolution of the subject from the centered individual in modernism to the decentered individual in postmodernism, which harkens toward a future moment of the decentered collective subject. Baudrillard and Foucault have each offered their own configurations of the subject, which are well known. Yet, I think your question is actually pointing to the meta-critical approach that each of these theorists employ, in other words, the position of themselves in relation to the object of their analysis. It is easy to argue that the theorists try to erase themselves, as though the archive and the episteme arrogate a consciousness to themselves. Yet the real issue, particularly for Foucault, is that they do not take their subject positions for granted and that they continually factor it into their analysis. The archeologist who stands above and outside the archive marks a subject position. The genealogist who argues that bodies and pleasure needs to replace subjects and sexuality is making an ethical claim, which, too, intimates a subject position. So the subject does sneak back in. But the theorists' insistence on the awareness of their own position, their meta-critical stance, strikes me as an ethical move, one that's complicated and perhaps impossible to maintain, but necessary. I argue that the topographical imagination is the consequence.

Q: In your Preface you write: "Jameson qualifies his theory as concepts and terms that possess a detached, transitory reality that is merely useful at the moment of analysis, Baudrillard speaks of floating theories, and Foucault confesses that he has written nothing but fiction, offering his readers a handful of analytic tools. The result is not quite science fiction or a parallel universe but, rather, a sort of spatial imagination that provides order and coherence for their ideas." This sounds very much like Derrida's "supplement" – that is, a systematic linguistic construct located outside of a closed system that nevertheless enables and allows that system to function and speak. Would you consider your mapping a "supplement"?

A: I tend to think of the three theoretical projects I discuss as representations aware of their status as representation, so it is not quite accurate to speak in terms of representation, because the representation is consistently displaced, and the act of representation seems to threaten and hover but yet remains arrested. Thus, I borrow Pynchon's term "projection." The theorists themselves may be trying to resist representation and avoiding anything systemically coherent. For the most part, I think they pull it off. Once again, they are making an ethical move, because as soon as you represent reality, you delimit it. You decide what's rational and what's real and legitimate, and entire ways of being and knowing are excluded. We all know this, because it's so obvious, but the brilliance of Jameson, Baudrillard, and Foucault is that they insist that we don't forget it. "Supplement" feels too abstract for me. Their topographical imagination, their suspended and bracketed projections, is willful, contentious, and ethical.

Q: Literary texts serve frequently as examples of theoretical ideas in your book; they often illustrate concepts and serve as the backbone for analysis. How does the literary relate to the philosophical?

A: I know that the literature makes my book less ponderous, more lively. My PhD is in American literature, and I sometimes find it strange that theory is applied to literature, as though literature is subordinate. Instead, they are different modes of discourse dealing with like situations in the world. Rather than apply Baudrillard to Don DeLillo, let them both speak on their own terms, in their own ways. In my book, I make a brief reference to Jon Simons, who offers a "Pynchonesque reading of Jameson." We should smile at the insightful reversal, but, of course, Simons intimates something more: DeLillo and Pynchon can reveal things that Baudrillard and Jameson cannot. In short, I privilege neither mode of discourse, and I read them both as fiction, which is in no way meant to deny their importance.

Q: Your book traces a "trajectory" of each of these theorists' developing thinking as it expresses itself from book to book over the course of a career. Is this developmental narrative structure (and in some ways, interpretive assertion) your, to use Wallace Stevens' language, "necessary angel"?

A: In regard to tracing a trajectory, that's truer for Foucault and Baudrillard than for Jameson, because I primarily look at his analysis of the Bonaventure Hotel. For Stevens, reality is shaped by the imagination, and if it's a collective imagination, as pervasive and inescapable as ideology, then we ought to be vigilant over who is doing the imagining. The poet needs to be up for the task, the new high priest; otherwise, politicians, ideologues, and consumer culture will define reality. Yes, my book is a modernist project, because there is a good chance that the three maps I draw provide shapes that could have been drawn otherwise. I shore up the fragments into a pattern. But such maps are necessary for orientation; they enable understanding. Or, perhaps (and this is a point I make in the conclusion) the maps actually belong to the theorists' themselves, which would suggest their "blessed rage for order," and I merely charted the contours of their imagination.