University of Toronto

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Eddy Moretti Dissertation

Question: You are currently completing your PhD at NYU. What are you specializing in?

Moretti: Here is what I concocted as my dissertation:

I wanted to analyse the essay “An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film” by Maya Deren. Really analyze it deeply. To begin with, I wanted to show the world that the essay was a failure at least in form — An Anagram” is not an anagram at all. I wanted to show that there is no such thing as an anagram of ideas: anagrams simply do not operate at the level of discourse. I imagined I could spend at least a hundred pages proving that, possibly even more (maybe less). But that wasn’t the heart of the dissertation I wanted to write.

Once I got myself (and the reader) past the silliness of “an anagram of ideas,” I wanted to deal with what I saw as the deeper, more fundamental intent behind Deren’s failure.Why did Deren want to construct such a thing? Was it just a fun structure to direct her writing? Was it a ruse not meant to be taken seriously? Or was there something more to it? I thought there was something more.

I wanted to push down hard on the question “what animates the desire for an anagram of ideas.” This was the heart of my dissertation. The idea was to push on this question and dissolve the real historical figure Maya Deren — the writer and the filmmaker; dissolve her and along with her all her weirdness and idiosyncrasies (there were many), make her disappear so that I could see something else. The idea was to read into her project for an “anagram of ideas” something much bigger and more universal, something philosophical and at the same time something historical: I wanted to find and name and then contemplate and pull apart an actual impulse of — or in — thought itself. The impulse I was hoping to find and name and contemplate and then pull apart (with clear prose and hopefully some wit too) has of course been discussed by many important writers before me: it’s the impulse (at least in Western thought — the only thought I know) toward the construction of total systems of human knowledge or human culture: the impulse towards a complete mathesis of knowledge or culture, with the innovation here (by Deren) that this mathesis should be expressed as utterly non-linear, completely combinatorial, and re-combinatorial too. That special impulse was/ is very interesting to me. I figured getting through that Second Chapter of the dissertation would have probably required several hundreds of pages to do properly.

Once done with that, the Third and final chapter of my dissertation would have examined this impulse historical: I wanted to read this impulse it in the context of the histories of science and technology of the post-War period. Conveniently, I thought (and still think), this impulse and the histories of science and technology converge in the post-War period. It’s at this special moment in history that this impulse for total and non-linear system thinking is finally expressed adequately in mathematics and other symbolic systems on the one hand, and also quite physically and materially on the other at the same time. This is the moment in history where science and technology finally catches up with the impulse to total non-linear cultural mathesis; its the time when the impulse is expressed in a very productive form (finally outside of philosophy!) as a series of doctrines collected under the rubric called “Cybernetics,” while being also being expressed quite literally as a very physical object: the first computer.

So that was supposed to be my dissertation: poking at the rhetorical structure of an essay on film and art by Maya Deren and ending up at the dawn of a whole new age of machines meant to literalize and concretize an impulse to total cultural seamlessness and everythingness. I blame all of this on Annette Michelson by the way. She pointed me in this direction when she told me to pay close attention to this word “cybernetics” and to look up the thinker who coined it. Sometime in 1999, somewhere in the back of The Strand bookstore on Broadway, I found an original, hard-cover edition of the book “Cybernetics” by Norbert Wiener. It’s one of my prized possessions.


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