mass arousal on the tgv: aggregate, anticipatory fiction
Just read a story, if that’s the word, called “This is for you” by Emmanuel Carrère in the new issue of Granta. It’s not online, and likely never to be… So unfortunately if you want to read it you’re going to have to shell out the (outrageous! though maybe they’re actually paying their authors, who knows) £12.99 / $18.99 for issue 110. (Shhh… If you ask nicely maybe I’ll play about with the new departmental pdf-capable photocopier on Monday and see what I can do…*) I’m trying to look into this story a bit which was originally published in French and in a newspaper, having some trouble finding anything out, so I’m a bit vague on some of the details, but let me try to describe it to you very very briefly.
Basically, the “story” takes the shape of a sort of public letter to Carrère’s lover “Sophie.” Apparently the story first appeared in a summer fiction supplement in Le Monde, and, according to what’s written here, Carrère arranged for it to be published on a specific day when Sophie would be traveling by train to visit him on the Ile de Ré in the west of France. The new issue of Le Monde will have just appeared as she’s about to board the train and he anticipates that she’ll buy it and turn to the supplement to see what he’s written. But what the letter consists of are a series of basically masturbational instructions for Sophie to follow, think about this, touch that, and so on. The kink is that, due to Carrère’s precise planning of the whole affair, there would likely be a large number of people on the same train reading the same “story” as she read it… Toward the end he has her go to the cafe car, the trick being that anyone who was on the train and who got the timing right might well show up looking for this ostensibly sexually aroused woman following a publically published set of erotic instructions… And then who knows what happens after that…
It’s a bit parlor-trickish, isn’t it, and a kind of banal version of the sort of thing that you might expect from a biographer of Philip K. Dick. But there’s also something interesting about it, even if it’s not what Carrère thinks is interesting about it. He thinks that the story is about the performative function of language:
I like literature to be effective; ideally, I want it to be performative, in the sense in which linguists define a performative statement, the classic example being the sentence ‘I declare war’, which instantly means war has been declared. One might argue that of all literary genres, pornography is the one that most closely approaches that ideal: reading “You’re getting wet”, makes you get wet.
But of course he’s wrong about this, or not quite right. “I declare war” or “By the powers granted to me by the great state of New Jersey, I now pronounce you man and wife” are of a different nature than what he’s up to here. The problem is this: imperatives (“get wet”) or wishful descriptions (“bet you’re getting wet now”) are not phrases that are actions, they implore or anticipate action without of course necessarily having the power to provoke the action itself. That’s because the performative is about power – I just said “I declare war on South London” out loud in my kitchen, but as far as I can tell no bombs are falling on or around Clapham Common.
So he’s wrong. But actually he’s on to something interesting, even if he misunderstands what it is in part because he lacks the language that he needs to understand it. I’ve been working on and off for a year now on a theorization of something that I am calling aggregate fiction – here are some of the posts in that line. As Carrère’s story (and, if it works, Sophie) gets to the café car, it leaves behind the close attention to her subjective response to work with a broader character set. But look at how he establishes the shift:
In real life, a writer might sometimes see a stranger reading his book in a public place, but that doesn’t happen often; it’s not something you can count on. Quite a few passengers on this train certainly do read Le Monde, however. Let’s do the maths. France has 60 million inhabitants; Le Monde‘s print run is 600,000 copies; it’s readers thus represent 1 per cent of the population. The proportion of readers on the Paris-La Rochelle high-speed train on a Saturday afternoon in July must be much higher, and I’d be tempted to jump it up to 10 per cent. So we get roughly 10 per cent of the passengers, most of whom – because today have the time – will at least take a look at the short-story supplement, just to see. I don’t want to seem immodest, but the chances of these just-taking-a-look passengers reading all the way to the end hover in my opinion around 100 per cent, for the simple reason that when there’s ass involved, people read to the end; that’s how it is. So about 10 per cent of your fellow passengers are reading, have read, or will read these instructions during the three hours you will all spend on the train. […] There’s a one-in-ten chance – I’m probably exaggerating but not by much – that the person beside you is at this moment reading the same thing you are. And if not the person next to you, someone close by.
This is the sort of thing that I’m interested in. A shift of fictional attention from the deeply explored single (or coupled) subjectivities to the informed but ultimately intuitive anticipation of statistically-aggregated subjectivities. The odds are that… It’s a way of changing the number of fiction without simply backing off into a panoptic wide-angled mass image. Neither simply the teeming crowd and its patterns, nor the classical bourgeois interiority, but an aggregation of anticipatory selves – educatedly guessed though never quite circumscribed. The scene that Carrère imagines at the conclusion of his piece – a group of random yet predictable Le Monde readers, assembled in the café car of the TGV to La Rochelle attempting to figure out which one was Sophie, then drifting off to masturbate singly yet also in the company (across closed toilet doors) of others who know the game that’s on – seems to me to be an anticipation of an alternative frame for fiction, one that does the math and then sketches out the probabilities. It’s not the performative so much as the probable, it forethinks assemblies of individuals rather than presumes the centrality of this or that self. Its characters are ghostly, futural beings, like the CAD people in real estate advertisements, there because they’re bound to be rather than simply because we suspend disbelief and learn to indulge ourselves in ourselves by solipsistic proxy.
The problem with aggregate fiction, this thing that I’ve been trying to describe for a year now, is that the actually existing examples are wonderful pieces of prose. Carrère’s story is tacky, a bit creepy, and generally bound to put people off rather than turn them on. Still, I’m going to keep cataloging what I find, in the hopes that I might be able to
* Some question in my mind why I shouldn’t simply scan the story in and freely distribute it to you – it’d be to every party’s benefit I’m sure. I could talk about it without extensive redescription, you could of course read it, but most importantly (from the legal-economic perspective) several hundred readers, probably none of whom I’m guessing (just as Carrère does with Le Monde) subscribe to Granta, would be introduced to the magazine as a possible source of interesting stuff to think about. The temporality of blog reading suggests that any sales the magazine accrues will come on future issues, not my readers sprinting to their local bookshop to buy the thing to read with my post now… Hmmm…. We’ll see what happens Monday… Granta editors feel free to permission me, if you see this, in the meantime…