From (what was chosen to be) the first page of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King:
Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the A.M. heat: shattercane, lamb’s-quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek. An arrow of starlings fired from the windbreak’s thatch. The glitter of dew that stays where it is and steams all day. A sunflower, four more, one bowed, and horses in the distance standing rigid and still as toys. All nodding. Electric sounds of insects at their business. Ale-colored sunshine and pale sky and whorls of cirrus so high they cast no shadow. Insects all business all the time. Quartz and chert and schist and chondrite iron scabs in granite. Very old land. Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.
“Insects all business all the time.” The line breaks – in its brilliance, but a brilliance that comes of its impersonation of a cliché – the lyrically chanting list of “stuff in a field.” (One can almost see an inspirational poster made of the phrase, the drone ants lifting improbably [if relatively] enormous items in their eternal effort to keep calm and carry it on. A horrific poster in an Amazon fulfilment centre?) It’s as if one part of realism (that Barthian effet de réel that comes of the mentioning of objects that serve no role in the plotward establishment of meaning) intersects with another notion of realism, the one mentioned in the post to which this one is an addendum – the deflationary mode, that which operates through the undercutting of lyricism, the bringing of things down to earth.
It’s an intersection like a minor car accident is an intersection, a comedic if jarring one. That’s what we sometimes forget about realism, perhaps, just how funny it is, is often meant to be. A higher form of comedy.
Lydia Davis in her foreword to the new collection of Lucia Berlin’s short stories:
A description can start out romantic – “the parroquia in Veracruz, palm trees, lanterns in the moonlight” – but the romanticism is cut, as in real life, by the realistic Flaubertian detail, so sharply observed by her: “dogs and cats among the dancers’ polished shoes.” A writer’s embrace of the world is all the more evident when she sees the ordinary along with the extraordinary, the commonplace or the ugly along with the beautiful.
Berlin’s animals seem to me to be more a matter of painterly than “Flaubertian” realism. Think of all the animals going about their animal-business at the feet of the humans involved in climactic events in Renaissance paintings.
But I do like Davis’s general notion as a starting place: realism is that which undercuts the romantic, the lyrical, the sensational. It’s the worry that you’ve left the kettle on during the climactic meeting, the crying child in the buggy during the hushed but pivotal marital conversation, the iPhone buzzing in the middle of fantastic sex.
I am in Amsterdam on a ‘working holiday,’ and specifically today I’m trying to finish a section about Karl Ove Knausgård. In particular, I am trying to say something more specific and definite about the uncanny power of his evocations of the everyday or the banal.
Other critics have struggled (productively!) to give a clear description of how it works. For instance, James Wood, in his review of the first volume of the series, describes ‘a simplicity, an openness, and an innocence in his relation to life, and thus in his relation to the reader.’ Wood finds himself working through descriptive contortionism in order to describe the strange effects of Knausgård’s prose and its ‘banality is so extreme that it turns into its opposite, and becomes distinctive, curious in its radical transparency.’ Similarly, Zadie Smith has written in the New York Review of Books that:
As a whole these volumes work not by synecdoche or metaphor, beauty or drama, or even storytelling. What’s notable is Karl Ove’s ability, rare these days, to be fully present in and mindful of his own existence. Every detail is put down without apparent vanity or decoration, as if the writing and the living are happening simultaneously. There shouldn’t be anything remarkable about any of it except for the fact that it immerses you totally. You live his life with him.
She seems to be drawing here on the vocabulary of the contemporary enthusiasm for quasi-Buddhist ‘mindfulness’ meditation… When you have to reach to the New Age section of your vocabulary to describe a literary effect, you know you’re in a bit of a strange spot.
Anyway, in the course of this work I decided to have another look in on Hegel’s statements about the ‘prose of life’ in his Aesthetics. It was quite something to be reminded, given where I’m sitting (the picture above is the view from my desk) of the body of artistic work that he is discussing when he uses the phrase:
Yet if we wish to bring to our notice the most marvellous thing that can be achieved in this connection, we must look at the genre painting of the later Dutch painters. What, in its general spirit, is the substantial basis out of which it issued, is a matter on which I touched above in the consideration of the Ideal as such. Satisfaction in present-day life, even in the commonest and smallest things, flows in the Dutch from the fact that what nature affords directly to other nations, they have had to acquire by hard struggles and bitter industry, and, circumscribed in their locality, they have become great in their care and esteem of the most insignificant things. On the other hand, they are a nation of fishermen, sailors, burghers, and peasants and therefore from the start they have attended to the value of what is necessary and useful in the greatest and smallest things, and this they can procure with the most assiduous industry. In religion the Dutch were Protestants, an important matter, and to Protestantism alone the important thing is to get a sure footing in the prose of life, to make it absolutely valid in itself independently of religious associations, and to let it develop in unrestricted freedom. To no other people, under its different circumstances, would it occur to make into the principal burden of its works of art subjects like those confronting us in Dutch painting. But in all their interests the Dutch have not lived at all in the distress and poverty of existence and oppression of spirit; on the contrary, they have reformed their Church themselves, conquered religious despotism as well as the Spanish temporal power and its grandeur, and through their activity, industry, bravery, and frugality they have attained, in their sense of a self-wrought freedom, a well-being, comfort, honesty, spirit, gaiety, and even a pride in a cheerful daily life. This is the justification for their choice of subjects to paint. (Knox translation, 597-8, italics mine).
Work was just about over for the day, and we’ve been trying to decide whether to go back to the Rijksmuseum or not. At least we know where Hegel stands on the matter.
Just to start: my father worked for a consumer products company, one that made biscuits and the like. Cookies, crackers, breakfast cereals, that sort of thing. And when I was a small boy, he used to say to me, in that cryptic way that dads often distribute nuggets of gnomic wisdom, things like: “See that cereal that you’re eating? Do you know that when mum pays for that, mostly what she’s paying for is the box.”
What he meant is that the cereal (or cookies or what have you) itself was incredibly inexpensive to manufacture. (Or, as his company always called it, to “bake.” They had bakeries, not factories.) Most of what it cost the company to bring their goods to market and to sell them on that market went into PR – the design of the packaging, the composition of the ad campaigns, and of course the price to place the advertisements where they appeared. When you buy the Corn Flakes, mostly you’re paying for the iconic rooster on the box, etc.
And so: today, from a Huck Magazine post, which seems to be inspired by Paul Mason’s new book, called “Five postcapitalist projects that offer a blueprint of a new world.”
When was the last time you saw an encyclopaedia? Upsetters Wikipedia have destroyed the old model of profiting from information by locking it away and charging people to access it. Wikipedia not only allows anyone to read for free, but its open editing has allowed it to grow faster than a commercial operation ever could and its advertising-free setup is believed to deprive the ad industry of $3 billion per year. See also: Wikileaks who are using open source principles to revolutionise access to information and hold governments to account.
There is something – and something I’ve long been preoccupied with on this blog – incredibly strange about one of the sentences in this paragraph. It is this one: Wikipedia not only allows anyone to read for free, but its open editing has allowed it to grow faster than a commercial operation ever could and its advertising-free setup is believed to deprive the ad industry of $3 billion per year.
If you want to see the face of the new, or not really that new but at least burgeoning drive to establish new enclosures of the commons, it is visible here. There’s an odd mysticism, or dark metaphysics, that is at play. Wikipedia, in providing content without advertisements, is actually stealing away or squandering income that might have been derived, in private hands, from advertisements or sales. Which, in a certain sense – a sense highly palpable if, say, you were the owner of the failing Encyclopaedia Britannica business – would seem pressingly true.
But of course it is not true, not in the least. No more than the fresh air that we breathe is stealing from the possible fresh air companies that might be formed to sell it to us, or the water we drink is stealing from corporations that, improbably, bottle the same stuff that comes out of our taps only to label it and sell it back to us for prices that are often higher than petrol. (Oh wait…)
But while (fortunately) the Britannica people didn’t, it seems, have the money to fight the market encroachment of the Wikipedians nor, perhaps, a leg to stand on argumentatively, this sort of attack on the state sector – in this case not as inefficient but as all too efficient – has become increasingly prevalent of late. The entire funding crisis at the BBC is grounded in attacks of this sort. There’s the kiss of death logic of the “If it’s popular, it’s beyond their remit to show it” argument. Strictly Come Dancing or Wimbledon could well be generating profits for Sky or someone else, and besides, they actually make people feel like the license fee isn’t such a bad deal after all.
But it’s not just the BBC that’s targeted by this “logic.” There’s a gathering storm regarding higher education “state monopolies” and the mystifying message that they’re blocking access to the “market” through their accreditation cartels. It’s further absolutely clear that the animus against the NHS that exists amongst many Tories is equally based on anti-welfare-state ideas and the sense that there is big money to be made, that’s currently not being made, in the business of medicine. I’m sure if the cost of housing wasn’t so absurdly and eye-wateringly high, we’d be hearing attacks on the few vestiges of social housing left here and in America for inciting “market distortion.” And there are undoubtedly loads of bureaucratically subterranean aspects of the state sector, here and abroad, that are suffering from the same sorts of sorties.
Cynical ploys all of them, and in that sense no more interesting than any of the other hypocritical, fallacious, or just plain cruel attacks on the state sector than any of the others that we’ve seen during our age of austerity. But there is one thing that’s perhaps a bit interesting, as it’s a bit complex, about them.
In addition to the pretext of this line of argument, that state entities suck up market share without generating profit from it, there is an important subtext as well. Namely, that advertising costs us nothing. That is, of course it costs the corporations that advertise, but for the end user of the content that is funded by advertising, it is free.
This, of course, is little discussed. Certainly the media men aren’t going to bring it up. When Murdoch and his lobbying minions and PR flacks say, for instance, that “the BBC is a publicly funded entity that partially destroys our ability to sell advertising,” they of course never continue on to say, “advertising, that given the price that is paid for it, obviously must extract a huge amount of capital out of those that would be watching our channels instead of the BBC.”
When you ride on public transportation, that the bus interior or the carriage of the train is festooned with advertisements, does it cost you money, beyond the fare, to do so? Does it cost you money to use gmail, given all of those little ads that you ignore (but, we can assume, someone’s not ignoring them) on the sidebar? How much more does your newspaper cost you, given all of the car and mobile phone and supermarket advertisements that you find inside of it? How much do you spend, beyond the satellite bill and / or license fee, on spending a night in in front of the television?
I’m absolutely positive that corporations sometimes waste money on advertising, and I’m pretty sure that I’ve never clicked through a “sponsored ad” on Google. But on the other hand – they simply can’t be dumping all of that money, can’t have been dumping, for ages, all of that money, if someone, somehow, isn’t making it back in profit. If Wikipedia is running content that otherwise could generate $3 billion per year, then presumably the attention captured by this content, if not in the hands of the Wikipedias, is worth at least $3 billion per year to the companies that would have been advertising on these sites.
It all, it seems to me, goes back to what my father used to tell me all those years ago. “Mostly the price of the Cornflakes is the box of the Cornflakes.” What I’d like to work on (although sometimes it seems to me to be potentially a project of Kapital-like demands on my brain-power and time, neither of which I have at this point) is a study of just this quasi-mystical value equation. What does the ad before the YouTube video cost us to watch? What would we “save” were the ad not there, were YouTube a public institution rather than an arm of a massive profit-seeking corporation?
I want to do this because I’ve long believed that the leap from Why not ads on the side of the bus to Let’s dismantle the remains of the welfare state is not only a short one, it’s one in which each step is informed by the selfsame logic. That is, it’s informed by a deep misapprehension about the value of the commons and the sort of life that is lived on them.
UPDATE: Armando Ianucci is on the case this morning in the Guardian:
“It’s Facebook and Google who came along and ate up all newspapers’ classified ads. Yet it’s the BBC, who run no ads, that gets the blame, while it’s Google and Facebook that get the helpful tax arrangements from HMRC.”
While on the other hand, in the same paper on the same day, we have Sturgeon and the SNP showing her/its true colours:
“One of the things the last 12 months has demonstrated is that the old model of public service broadcasting – important though I think it is – doesn’t work well enough. It no longer reflects the complex, varied and rich political and social realities of the UK.”
It hits hard, when you’re the sort of person inclined, as I am, to the critical analysis and evaluation of others’ behavior, when you do something yourself that you know is legible. By legible I mean open to readings that endow said action with a meaning beyond the immediately obvious and literal. All the chattering I do, spoken or un, about other people and their foibles returns with a vengeance – I have made myself available to skeptical treatment that is all the worse for the the fact that I will probably never hear it, only sympathetically imagine it.
I’ve done a few things that cause this rather reflexive – even paranoid – reaction in me. The other day I threw a strop outside of my house because there was a summer street party on and someone had stuffed my rubbish bin full of street party debris. The neighbors, with whom I’ve exchanged less than a hundred words since I moved here last November saw me do this, and now I avoid them at all costs, even more diligently than I avoided them before. I can almost hear them discussing my over the top reaction in their bed at night, which sits a few meters away from mine behind, of course, the wall between our places.
Even worse, perhaps, is the fact that I moved to this street in the first place. My current house is on the same street as my home during my previous marriage. It’s a street that runs for two blocks, so it’s not like once living at the bottom of 5th Avenue in Greenwich Village and then moving, a few years and a divorce later, to the same street on the Upper East Side. Or even the bottom of Tottenham Court road in Soho and then moving to one of those flats that sits atop Warren Street Station. My new place is exactly 50 house numbers away from the old one. And given the opposing sides of the streets, that places me 25 houses away from the place that I used to call home.
You can understand why I can hear, echoing, the readings of this development. “He wants to reset the clock. To start over. He’s trying to get it all back. Can you imagine, out of all the streets in London, or even just North London, he picked the selfsame one???”
One of the jokes, perhaps a bit defensive, that I used to make is that I can now go back to my old GP and simply claim that they have my house number wrong. I never bothered to transfer to another doctor, as I’ve not been to a doctor since I last lived here. Full circle, the trip has been, to the point that even the NHS won’t notice I’ve ever been gone.
I can’t decide if I am an incredibly sentimental person or a completely anti-sentimental person. Probably it’s the sort of geometric arrangement where everything meets at the poles, and the least becomes most and vice versa. But I do know that, on the one hand, there were clear reasons to me why I chose to buy this house, reasons that of course had nothing to do with my previous incarnation on this street. They are solidly sensible, middle-class sorts of, reasons. The space afforded, quality of presentation, school catchment zones, relative un-horrificness of the commute. And of course there’s a Waitrose in walking distance. When asked or prodded, I respond, “I am good at the real estate business. If I picked well once, why wouldn’t I pick the same thing again?”
Definitely not a clincher in the decision, but something that was at the back of my mind, was the fact that when my daughters visit, as they are doing right now, they are in a neighbourhood that they know and love. That, during our last visit, when I still lived in Highbury, they begged me to return to over and over so that they could run into their friends at the park behind their old school. Which of course, now, we do.
But the funny thing is: now that they’re back, and recognized constantly on the street by people that are strangers or half-strangers to me, mothers of their friends or their old friends themselves, they draw away, reluctant to engage, half-heartedly waving and saying “hi” but basically pulling me back toward our house. And then they say, or at least the oldest does, “Please can we go home now. I’d rather just be at home with just my sister and you.” The same thing on the way to the park itself, that object of fascination and long bus rides just last year. “It would be cool if people were there. But I kind of hope they aren’t and we can just hang out. Is that weird, dadda?”
If I were honest, I’d reply that it is a bit weird, but at the same time utterly understandable. For we, as a family, are town people – the bourgeoisie, if you take the term literally – and we I think corporately believe in the “good fences make good neighbors” stuff. They are sisters, but they seem to have inherited my only child’s love of solitude, or the relative solitude of family life behind chained front doors and closed shutters. I can’t remember ever knowing my New Jersey neighbors during my childhood. And now they themselves, my daughters, primarily live in New Jersey. Plus ça change…
I wonder further sometimes whether all of this has anything to do with my interest in the novel as a form. After all, as I tell my students over and over again, the form gets its start in an increasingly bourgeois-ifying world, when the doors are more often shut and the shutters more often pulled. One started to wonder – as I tell my classes – what exactly is happening over the reception room, the kitchen, the bedroom next door. And so the novel pulls down the walls, doll house style, and shows…. The spousal argument in the reception room, the euphemized or not sex in the bedroom, the man with his children who normally live in New York, feeding breakfast to them in the kitchen one Kellogg’s box and yogurt pot at at time, and wondering what exactly it is that we’ll do together today to make day fourteen of thirty-nine go well in a memorable sort of way.
Just before bed, my youngest daughter queried my wife about what the prefix “step-“ means. What a stepmother is, a stepdaughter, a step-sibling, and the like. It’s really no wonder: in the past year or so she and my older daughter have gained a stepmother, a stepfather, a stepsister, a stepbrother, and now an as yet unborn half-sister, which they only learned about last week.
She seemed especially baffled, as the conversation went on, about how it was possible that I could be the new baby’s father, given that I am her father but my wife is not her mother. That is to say, her mother is no longer my wife.
Of course, in part, this is the natural impulse of the newly re-sistered to protect her turf, to stake out her claim of specialness and special parental attention. But it also seemed to me like genuine bafflement – a sort of child’s version or inversion of the Freudian axiom about the essential unknowability of paternity.
I remember being confused about such things too when I was her age. I had no pressing reason to wonder about it, but these things edge into the quasi-metaphysical when considered by the six-year-old brain. How can my father father a child who is not my full-sister? What does it mean to be “related” to someone if they are neither my mother nor my father nor my sister nor my brother nor my cousin etc.
For better or worse, I had a less complex childhood than my daughters had, so mostly my own perplexity had to do with the difference between “real” cousins or uncles or aunts and those people who were simply called cousins or uncles or aunts. Living without siblings, and being born to a mother without siblings and a father who clearly would rather have been such, brings these questions to the fore. Do I have any real family at all, save for you two? I also remember being utterly stumped by the branching and self-entangling family tree of the British royal family.
In the end, she had to be put to bed as we have to get up early tomorrow, but I am not sure that she ever fully grasped the whole step- and half- and full- situation. There is a monumentality to parenthood, in the eyes of a six-year old. It’s like the familial version of the mathematical principle of identity: “each thing is the same with itself and different from another” just as “my dad is my dad and is no one else’s dad… save of course for my older sister, who was here even before me.”
But there is a principle of identity at play for my wife, their step-mother too. At some point in the conversation, my youngest offered the following equation, in conversation, to her.
“You are not my mummy.”
“That is true. I am not your mummy.”
“Actually, you’re just my Rosie. You’re my Rosie.”