incoherence is learned, not just incoherent
Daniel A. Foss (U17043@UICVM.BITNET)
Sat, 9 Mar 1996 07:45:42 CST
Maurice R. Stein's lecture, slack-jawed, open-mouthed. The two hundred other
people filling the lecture hall, students or wanderers-in, would have been
slack-jawed and open-mouthed as I was, except that they'd somehow absorbed
this was Inappropriate, which I hadn't. Maurice R. Stein was among the first
thinkers, if not the very first, in the Greater Harvard-Brandeis Metropolitan
Area to have built a complete post-modernism in a basement, attic, or garage.
He was so, as the media phrase went, *charismatic* - where would the media have
been without Max Weber in the Sixties, *charismatic* for the Early and *life-
style* for the Late - that had he, Maurice R. Stein, taken up anticommunism
instead, he'd have been on weekly-newsmagazinecovers. Maurice R. Stein was to
me Model, Ideal, Role-Model, God. I wanted to be him when I grew up, but that
has long been impossible; I allude of course to growing up.
I didn't give a fig about the post-modern. It was the incoherence that had
me star-struck. It ran something like this, though I cannot do it justice with-
out a tape, including the frequent helplessly laughing audience responding to
Maurice R. Stein's spontaneous, not merely unplanned but onforeseen, unimagined
by the speaker and unimaginable to the listener in juxtaposing utter irrelevan-
cies to create mock-meaning, transitory or slightly more enduring. Say,...
"The task, as I see it, no, 'task' may be too teleological, certainly much
too goal-fixated to express whatever I mean, and I wouldn't want to 'mean'
anything too strongly, either, you know, that's itself something to think
about, [unspoken reprise to first two words, ie, "the task"] is to *locate
the coordinates* of the post-modern...."
OWow, as some would have said some years later. Here was a thinker in heroic
pursuit of the ever-receding mirage that was *knowing what he was talking
about*. With the postmodern, as it turned out many hears later, he'd chosen
wisely. Or luckily. For as we now know, the more incoherent the psot-modern
gets, the more post-modern it is. The correlation is grossly imperfect; the
regression line is a nonlinear function; but by the 1970s one could hardly
utter "post-modern" without it's inevitable companion, "sensibility"; and
my first wife, I-forget-her-name, was a veritable sponge for makingtherounds
catchphrases; so she practiced uttering "sensibility" and "postmodern sensibi-
lity" till they rolled off the tongue as if that of an insectivore; she name-
dropped and catchphrase-dropped perfectly, timing was perfect. This was
thirteen years later, though. In 1961-3, Maurice R. Stein couldn't evoke any
*feeling* anent the post-modern, except fleetingly, in himself; did so by
sometimes-contrived, most-often seizing upon opportunistic juxtapositions. If
all else failed, the first lines of adjoining column headlines on the front
page of that day's New York Times would do. But the more incoherent, the more
postmodern only within certain limits, of course; where the latter remain
unidentified. These are the best-established facts about it. If 'it' it is.
Not a "phenomenon," a "Thingie," as I say. But there's more to it than that
ever thirty years. What there now exists is an enormous body of professional
and critical literature; the post-modern is a *content-area*; and Frederic
Jameson is rightly called an Authority in it. But this wasn't so at that time.
Without professional literature, a fixed, ie, unshifting, body of scholarship
(which to be sure Maurice R. Stein would shift, *qua* Reading List, each
semester, if not intra-semesterly; only to be expected, the anticipable
decoagulation and reclotting of the high-nebulosity esthetico-cultural Smog,
ever-drifting, induced Maurice R. Stein to change his mind continually; which
partially hid his never having made up his mind with any certainty ab initio
Had Maurice R. Stein known what he was doing, whatever that means? I myself
am senile now, at 55, and fancying myself for this reason more *objective*, I
Maurice R. Stein would, in large lecture classes, continue without hardly
catching his breath for three hours at a stretch. (Smaller upperdivision and
grad courses, meeting in smaller rooms, entialed 90-minute or two-hour
exposures; hardly the same order of dangerous dosage.) After one of those
three-hour lectures, the now-glassy-eyed crowd milled about. One utterance
was predictably overheard each time: "I can't remember a single word he said!"
"You shouldn't remember anything in particular," I said, trying to be help-
ful. (For years I tried to fake helpfulness, never disarming the quite readily-
leapt-to inference, from manifest isolation imposed by Normals for Good Reason,
that I was Up-To-Something. I was.) Or, maybe and, I said, "The incoherence is
the totality." Or maybe, "The totality is the incoherence." Had I been as
smart as the critical theorist Russell Jacoby, I might have said, "The totality
of the incoherence is the incoherence of the totality." Then I'd have replaced
"totality" with "totalization," lastly making something recondite out of
"incoherence." But I wasn't. Worse, there'd been either a measurement error or
a copying error on my IQ test, spuriously raising the score over 60 points.
(Won't admit here how low the real one is; anyway, I did elsewhere elsewhen.)
Blind faith worked wonders whatever negative evidence stubbornly persisted.
"It *is* that high, Danny."
Consider the possibilities of misconstruction; I hadn't yet learned how to
"fake Smartness," previously demonstrated beyond question on ANTHRO-L. Yet
there was always the possibility of incompetence taken for brilliance: Recall
my initial state, with a hideous speech impediment, dyslexia, disgusting
appearance, obliviousness, and painfully-slow-to-nonexistent writing of class
assignments. Now, at the very end of Fall Semester, work whereof was nearly
all undone, Dr E (shrink of an intellectual celebrity whose books were well-
assigned by the Dept, which included a couple of upandcoming future stars who
got access to the shrink via this connection, then steered me to Dr E given I
was so Crazy no ordinary miracle cure would suffice) prescribed me Drugs. The
diagnosis was Wrong. As the Drugs came from a psychiatrist, they would not, I
was certain, do a goddamn thing. *Suddenly*, I could write great heaping gobs
of muck. I called it "mudpies." Maurice R. Stein called it, "Very creative."
Say, a term paper came out to 55 pages. The writing got *perpetrated*, ie,
it was an Offense, specifically, to the Sensibilities of Decent People. Where
I committed an Infestation of the graduate students' lounge, refrained from
going home, stank like a weed, and of course made no outline of the paper.
The greatest difficulty was reconciling the beginning, which was highly prized,
since I had the utmost difficulties in Starting Things, with the middle, which
was contradictory to it tout entiere. The ending and conclusion reconciled,
never well, the beginning and middle; then, with utmost grunting and groaning
as with a constipated defecation, I last of all *decided what the topic of the
paper was, which wasn't always possible.
Surely Maurice R. Stein wasn't *that* blind. But he was, what with academic
politics had now supervened, reared its ugly head, insinuated itself, snuck in.
In the Soc of Intellectual Life, Prof Lewis Coser(*) didn't think much of my
paper; at last someone who agreed with me. Stein, withal, humiliating Coser
by nullifying his judgment, ie, he, Maurice R. Stein, published it in an
edited colection of articles. Coser now was reduced to sheepishness when he
endeavoured to explain to me how unpublishable he, Coser, knew without question
the paper was. Said paper having been written in the graduate students' lounge,
suffusing the air and staining the walls with the residue of Daniel A. Foss
underarm odour, and horrifying the Dept secretary with a perfect view of the
mess generated in writing the 40 pages in said five days, the effect, to her,
contrary to the Jewish Tradition; what's more, I slept in an airconditioning
The paper acquired notoriety; in the early 1960s, it was Simply Not Done to
say dis...gust...ing stuff about Talcott Parsons.
Fun is fun, but occupational preparation it wasn't. Could it be....?
Yes, it could, and it was: With practice, I'd learned to write the way
Maurice R. Stein lectured. The humour was, if anything, superior (once the
reader ceased to worry about what, exactly, was funny); unfortunately, the
Drugs precluded one-liners, but I overcame that. Each successive phrase or
usage was in utter incongruity with that preceding or following it. In time,
with the exchange-value of one picture set at 1000 or was it 10000 words, and
with a new hero-social theorist, R. Crumb, another one in Abbie Hoffman, to
emulate, I fancied a place in History of Sociological Theory textbooks as the
St Paul of Maurice R. Steinism addressed to the Broad Masses given up on
linear-sequential "sense-making" with the new tools of Crumbian-Hoffmanian
discourse set forth in erudite, sophisticated confusion contradicting itself,
especially the earlier parts, at every turn. This was implimented in the text,
stashed I forgot where, I informally called, "First Draft of Dissertation."
That pile of crud was itself made possible by Maurice R. Stein redefining two
years of aimless hanging-out on Syracuse NY streets (and food-service enterpri-
ses whose managers threw me out daily) as "youth-culture ethnography based on
empirical-qualitative participant-observation data and methodology socially and
temporarily contextualized by massively cited comparative-historical case stud-
ies and analysis." Ie, even the kitchen sink.
Said text I mailed to Maurice R. Stein. The US post office charged me for
eight pounds, total, fourth-class. (The only copy, too, as having written it,
who could be bothered feeding dimes to archaic 1960s copiers? You, maybe. Why
you is where you is, I is where i is.) Stein's response? "It needs a lot of
I called him; nothing worse than writing letters. "Who by? I mean, this
editing. You know me *how long*?" Also, "Into what?" For I'd written a Thingie
whose "meaning," if any, was wholly in the mind, if any, of the editor, -tress,
-trum, if anyone could be found to partake of this canofworms for reasons of
delusional or hallucinated profit-pictures (which artistic period these corre-
sponded to would be one of Maurice R. Stein's comic triumphs; and he'd be
utterly annihilating when anything remotely silly might get dragged into the
purview of his sure-touch scholarship in seventeenth-century French poetry).
If editor-person there was, somehow, mind may have constituted, represented
Money did not suffice to produce the first (volunteer) editor. This was
Barbara B., who loved me. I daresay, had Barbara B. been, uh, exciting, we'd
be married many times by now. But alas, Barbara exuded Normality, a murderous
blow to my feelings. (Ultimately, she blurted out that she'd always wanted to
be Tied Up. Never would I have done such a thing; yet she might have radiated,
how shall we say, "Kinky Signaling," which whist never entailing overt Perver-
sion, ie, behaviourally speaking, *hinted* a JNSQ, you know what I mean. Nice
Jewish Boy from Bronx meets Nice Jewish Girl from Brooklyn; the result is edit-
ed dissertation by means of scissors, paste, and scotch tape. I dedicated the
diss to her: "More than I can possibly say, it is her book." [Note: On a larger
scale, it is relevant to Max Weber studies that his fiendishness on matters of
Rationality corresponded biographically with his refraining from, uh, sexual
intercourse with one exception, the partner having been Marianne Weber's best
friend. On this picayune scale, intellectual excitement slackened, for me,
with the Oppressive Normality, or either of these separately, of any given
woman, it mattered not what she was, if anything, to me.]
Barbara had been completely, hopelessly Wrong; I didn't agree with her on
Maurice R. Stein, in 1970, handed the textoid to Alvin W. Gouldner, series
editor of New Critics Press at Dutton; the thankless editing job he fobbed off
on a graduate student I never met named Cindy Curley who told me over the phone
that she thought it stank. I told her it's been years I'd been trying to hear
those words. The publishers bestowed the title; there was a mockery of a
release, the date whereof identical to the remainder-date; and as it assumed
ectoplasmic form, the book sublimated itself in my first/kast academic appoint-
Nobody at this school was Maurice R. Stein; the inevitable happened. Having
not changed, ie, requiring the same substance for wordlike output, I had, in
the construction made by Maurice R. Stein, descended like Sinner to Hell from
"Very Creative" to "Mind Destroyed By Drugs." Wherein Maurice R. Stein, elegant
Cambridge MA intellectual, exhibited the Substrate of Nice Jewish Boyhood in
Herewith my epitaph: Here lies a Thingie, whose Essence was what the
Entity got Taken For, onceuponatime by Fairy Godmother Maurice R. Stein,
in the Ending Up, by grad school buddy and expert on Drug Abuse, Wars upon
Molecules, and Evil Spirits, who as the wickedwitchofthewest, assured
Maurice R. Stein, at a loss to account for Downward Mobility, is solely
certain of its nonoccurrence among holders of the PhD. Barring Ultimate
Evil. But did I have one, really?
Curriculum Vitae: Daniel A. Foss (final miscarriage of six)
Bachelor of Arts with Honours, McCrory's.
Doctor of Philosophy in Odds & Ends, F Woolworth & Co.
Daniel A. Foss