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crime and punishment

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The sentence that is wrong in this otherwise interesting post is this one:

“Perhaps this is our world-historical punishment for the failure of communism.”

Who is the “our” in that sentence? Who is doing the punishing? Who is it that’s concerned, in that sentence, with the failure of communism?

Got to take care with your metaphors, as they’ll trick your political analysis into theology… And theology leads, as it always has, to the worst sort of quietism.

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August 17, 2013 at 7:57 pm

Posted in catastrophe

“Tis double death to drown in ken of shore”: melville and the politics of spectatorship

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From Andrew Delbanco’s discussion of The Encantadas in his Melville: His World and Work:

In the eighth of the ten Encantadas sketches… This time the fated woman is not a Nantucket bride but an Indian woman, Hunilla, dropped off by a whaleship with her husband and brother on an expedition to gather Galapagos tortoises, prized for the sweetness of their meant. While awaiting the ship’s return, the two men are caught in a squall that capsizes their catamaran:

Before Hunilla’s eyes they sank. The real woe of this event passed before her sight as some sham tragedy on the stage. She was seated on a rude bower among the withered thickets crowning a lofty cliff, a little back from the beach. The thickets were so disposed that in looking upon the sea at large she peered out from among the branches as from the lattice of a high balcony. But upon the day we speak of here, the better to watch the adventure of those two hearts she loved, Hunilla had withdrawn the branches to one side, and held them so. They formed an oval frame, through which the bluely boundless sea rolled like a painted one. And there the invisible painter painted to her view the wave-tossed and disjointed raft, its once level logs slantingly upheaved, as raking masts, and the four struggling arms undistinguishable among them, and then all subsided into smooth-flowing creamy waters, slowly drifting the splintered wreck, while, first and last, no sound of any sort was heard. Death in a silent picture, a dream of the eye, such vanishing shapes as the mirage shows.

 With this harrowing passage, Melville joined a number of ninteenth-century writers who were drawn to the theme of what Shakespeare had called, in The Rape of Lucrece, “double death” (“‘Tis double death to drown in ken of shore”). In David Copperfield, which [Melville] and Lizzie had read aloud in the winter of 1850-51, Dickens describes a schooner foundering just off shore while helpless spectators watch until the last man clinging to the mast goes down in a shower of splinters and spray. Melville now followed his own version of “double death” with a protrait of the surviving witness eviscerated by what she has seen: year after year, Hunilla “trod the cinder beach” with “her spell-bound eye bent upon the incessant waves,” hoping without hope for the sight of a sail.

Delbanco continues this line of thought in a note:

In her novel The Pearl of Orr’s Island (1862), Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a similar scene of closely witnessed shipwreck; a variant of the theme occurs in one of Emily Dickinson’s poems, probably composed in the early 1860s, in which the promise of salvation is described as God’s cruel lie to man: “To lead Him to the Well / And let Him hear it drip / Remind Him, would it not, somewhat / Of His condemned lip?” The greatest nineteenth-century work on the theme of the shipwreck close to shore was Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem The Wreck of the Deutschland (1876).

So a pervasive nineteenth-century literary trope, one that echoes the strange fascination of the images on the news lately of a ship overturned within meters of shore. But it’s one that’s perfect for Melville, given his persistent preoccupation with the politics of spectatorship – what it means, and what it takes, to look on at suffering without “being able to do anything about it.” Suffering in the form of slaves on a slaveship dying of scurvy or suffering in the form of a young clerk deranged by his time at the Dead Letter Office and the precarity of his work. Delbanco is excellent in this book on the moral and political contorsionism that came in the aftermath of the so-called “Compromise of 1850″ in America and the adoption of the Fugitive Slave Law, which made ostensibly clean-handed Northerners spectatorially implicated in the viciousness of slavery. But of course, the spectatorial implication only rendered tangible what was already the case: what sort of money was it, after all, that was filling the coffers of all of those big Northern banks? And what filled the smuggling ships that docked stealthily at Northern ports?

In short, with scenes like Melville’s in the Encantadas - or in genealogies of the trope at large per Delbanco’s – there is something that we can begin to see about our own seeing and what we are shown. That the affective pull of such scenes and images is on one level obvious, based on a dark but easy irony – to drown in sight of shore. But on another level, these scenes are cryptically cleansed echoes of the It can’t be helped that we attempt to down out our I prefer not to (… see, do, whatever) each time we are present, at whatever distance or proximity, at a scene of human suffering. Our I prefer not to is, in the end at once entirely like and entirely unlike Bartleby’s.

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January 18, 2012 at 1:55 pm

Posted in catastrophe, melville

apocalyptic overreach

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See, here’s the sort of thing that I worry about w/r/t the influence of the theorists and pseud0-theorists and their turn to apocalypticism. From the blog of a sometimes AwP commenter:

This wishful thinking wards off the sinking feeling of doom, not the fear of something happening, but the knowledge that nothing will. For doom is not felt but known. It is what the characters in Sartre’s No Exit feel when they realize that they aren’t waiting to go to Hell, they’re already there. It’s George Orwell when he says “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.” It’s 54 percent of Americans thinking – knowing - their children will live more miserably than they do.

You should go read the whole piece for the context, which has to do with “our” inability to conceive of change, but I hope that you can see the problem. Made me laugh out loud the first time I hit that last line… An America in which 54 percent think – or even know in italics- that things will be to some degree worse for their kids (harder to find work? harder to attend university? harder to afford a house?) is a worried country, but it ain’t exactly Sartre’s Hell or Orwell’s Airstrip One. Obviously, if you give yourself over to ridiculous hyperbole, if you apocalypticize what is a bad but certainly a long way from interminably and unalterably fucked, you’re going to find it hard to conceive of paths forward politically.

Why this reflex then, the overselling? It smells of grad seminar overreach, trying to render the significant but mostly mundane ills of society in gaudy technicolor out of fear that the reader – or more probably the writer himself – would get to bored dealing with the world as it really is. One more quote from the piece:

American politicians toy dramatically with apocalypse, a government shutdown or a reached debt ceiling threatens the end but is always narrowly averted.

Apocalypse, huh? Well, perhaps the writer wasn’t yet politically conscious back then, but we’ve made it through that sort of thing before. Led to some nasty political results, but a long, long way from the end of the world.

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May 5, 2011 at 10:31 am

Posted in catastrophe

against apocalypticism

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Why is it that capitalist culture has always been so well provisioned with visions of its own end? Whether in the catastrophic or entropic tense, it has always been easy to predict and represent an end of the world that arrives via the developments of capitalism. The crisis of overproduction (and the concomitant emergence of “unemployment” as a concept) during the Great Depression of 1873-1895 informed the mindless dystopia of Wells’s The Time Machine. The high pressure system that settled in after the two great wars of the early twentieth centuries postered its bedrooms with images of an all-too-achievable Mutually Assured Destruction. Our own fin  de la siècle (and start of another) can’t seem to stop showing itself its own imagined death scenes – by plague or alien invasion, loose nukes or technology gone sentient or, of course, environmental catastrophe.

So the first thing that it’s important to know about capitalist apocalypticism is that it’s persistent. These visions just keep appearing, always impersonating their predecessors while at the same time adapting these predecessors to new local dynamics. If one wants it to mark the arrival of an actual crisis, one has to admit that this crisis is nothing new, but rather a persistent feature of capitalism itself.

It’s understandible, to an extent, why many on the left find hope in representations of apocalypse. Slavoj Zizek has famously said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. During a period in which it in fact became close to impossible to imagine either capitalism’s end or a potential replacement for it, many of us decided to take the end of the world as sort of allegorical stand in for the end of the current economic regime. If we couldn’t have the latter, we’d settle for the former and rebrand its anxieties as a strange sort of hope. Many of us, therefore, watched both the filmic representations of catastrophe and the increasingly ominous news about the state of the economy with at least some degree of perversely optimistic anticipation.

But if the “arrival” and playout of the current (and long-awaited) economic catastrophe signals anything at all, it is not the imminence of climactic collapse but its opposite – the very power of capitalism (together with the co-opted state) to avert crisis. The specter of collapse, the possibility of the arrival of the end of the hegemonic economic form, is deferred, as it has been and will forever be deferred, by means of a massive transfer of wealth from the state into private hands. “Too big to fail” was from the start an apocalyptic claim, an apocalyptic fiction, mobilized by the banks themselves in order to trigger the response that was bound to be triggered.

The cynical narrativization of the crisis by the banks and their helpers in government speaks to a larger issue  – the issue of the native temporality, or temporalities, of capitalism. While capitalism advertises itself as affiliated sudden change, unexpected novelty, and revolutionary change, in actual fact it works always and everywhere to flatten whatever forms of time that it can. It attempts, at every turn, to transform qualititative change into quantitative accumuation, differential turbulence into a concretized status-quo. In fact, recent economic developments point toward the secret trajectory (and capitalist use-value) of neo-liberalism. While for many years it was possible to think of the emergence of the liberal center-left as a hybirdization of social democratic politics in service of a cynical (and cynically capitalized) power grab against the strong right of the Thatcher and Reagan era, the last year or so has shown what the relatively strong state of the the third way was actually for – collusion with and the buttressing of corporations, the nullifcation of risk.  Along with risk, of course, disappears the temporality of risk – that is to say time itself, in any form more open than inevitable progression of the same. Catastrophe itself is ransomed off by state funds.

It is very important for us to be clear about agency and intention and reception when we discuss cultural works and ideology. “Capital” does not make films and other cultural works, though films take capital to make. While films of course are influenced directly and indirectly by those who would use them to distribute propaganda, this still, in our current culture, is not the driving force behind the composition of films. Further, while capitalist culture may make certain messages difficult or even impossible to distribute widely, it generally does not directly prohibit or promote certain forms of content to political ends. (Again, there are of course exceptions). The current bubble of apocalyptically-themed films should not be interpreted as propaganda. The rise of the genre, according to all indications, should be attributed to its mass-appeal.

But mass appeal is not necessarily equivalent to usefulness in the cause of mass politics. To be sure, the ultimate goal of any left-oriented cutural politics must necessarily be to appeal to the masses, but not blindly, without full consideration of the source and potential ends of the appeal. While the most obvious answer in this case might be the libidinal pleasure that comes of watching things be destroyed, often on an incredible scale, there are many genres and plot-types that can afford opportunity for the delivery of this sort of thrill. While the destructive violence is the affective content, there has to be something about the form in which it is contained that concretizes the special interest in this form now and before.

Capitalism has always fought a halting and ambivalent fight to separate itself from older social forms and cultural manifestations that have lingered on past its arrival, persistently obsolescent. The fight is ambivalent because at times it makes peace with one or more of the old forms in order to do better battle with others. Religion, the family, value-in-land, the strong state in certain incarnations, racial and sexual difference, the organic community – the trendlines run against all of these, though all of these causes have been taken up by states, parties, and factions in service of the progress of capitalism and capitalist reaction – as well as of course retrograde reaction against capitalism.

The appeal of the apocalyptic cultural product, beyond the libidinal magnetism of destruction, seems to me to take the shape of another one of those concepts lingering on past the point of its own obsolescence. That concept is, of course, eschatological itself – anticipated endings, summations, terminal crises. Like religion or racism, natural hierarchy or sexual difference, it is a concept that functions to abridge that which is difficult to contemplate and live with.

When I was a Catholic school boy, I used to wonder about the purpose of Judgment Day, the biblical Apocalypse. If most everyone – all but a tiny fraction still living when the world ends – have already been judged and sentenced at the hour of their death, why design a system in which everyone is resummoned from hell or heaven, or has their purgatorial sentence commuted, only to judge them all again, redelivering a verdict that almost all of the souls have long since known and lived (after-lived?) with? The only good answer that I can come up with now is that the Apocalypse is one of those contradictory temporal abstractions that softens the cognitive blow that comes of the contemplation of sublime temporalities – the time of incessance is reified down into a concluding punctum. It is mystification by shorthand, a perspectival trick.

Nothing ever ends, and certainly nothing ends like that. There’s a picture of a queen on the notes in my wallet. And my children attend a school where there are crayon-drawn illustrations of scenes from the Bible on the walls. Not all that different from Emma Bovary’s ravenous desire to experience an event like those that she’s read about in her aristocratically-originated romances, we today still long for the cognitive and psychological benefit that comes of abbreviation and culmination. It is pleasing to have what troubles us – whether the corrupt inhumanity of our economic system or the slow-motion collapse of our enviroment – narrowed to two hours, wrapped up before the closing credits, fully contained within a dramatic movement.

Whatever happens, and whatever the news and the entertainment providers tell us, nothing will ever come to an end, at least not at once, and definitely not climactically. This is simply not the way the world works, nor has it ever, nor will it ever. Change comes sometimes in fits and starts, othertimes at a glacial pace, but whatever the change is, it never brings anything fully to an end and always bears within it the contradictions that it would have us believe it had eliminated. The terrors that await us – economic or environmental – will never finally arrive, but rather will take the pattern of crisis and resolution, new crisis and new resolution, that we’re quickly becoming accustomed to in our still relatively new century. Most important of all, if we would use art to provoke improvement, we would do well to accustom our audience both to the real paceless pace of capitalism as well as the rhythm of life in a better world, which would be anything but apocalyptically accented.

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November 29, 2009 at 10:12 pm

catastrophe, in syndication

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Funny thing. Not so long ago, it looked like the future when this sort of stuff was shown on TV. Now, just a few years later, it has the look of a made-for-tv period movie, set circa 2003.

The age of media-anticipated catastophe, of the mass-marketed dystopia, seems to have come and gone. Would be interesting to think ever so carefully about it, it’s relationship to where we are now. “Carefully” meaning without the backpocket mysticism of Jameson’s lesser advisees, mining the cover of Underworld for far more than it was worth.

Unfortunately, can’t do that tonight as I’ve gotta read a book for an overdue review, and it’ll really piss someone off if this looks like it took more than five or six minutes.

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April 26, 2009 at 9:05 pm

“we just saw the ground, you know what’s goin on?”

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Was just now talking to a student about inverted, negative ways of making meaning. Actually two students in a row – Victorian nonsense verse, Woolf’s Jacob’s Room. And now I’m listening to the ATC communications from the flight that crashed near Buffalo. Technical chatter, formalized language of the professional and the breaking of form. That’s not a sentence, I know. The ghoulishness of proximity – how are we hearing this already?

Another guy, pinned against the wall of the “reception center” that they set up for the “relatives of the victims,” narrates in front of cameras and reporters with notebooks what it was like to call his mother in Florida and tell her that his sister and her daughter was likely dead. “To tell you the truth I heard my mother make a noise on the phone that I have never heard before.” It is a convention of the genre, to say it like this, but we also know what he means and we believe him. The tag on the video, woven into an article on CNN.com, reads: “Watch victim’s brother discuss delivering the tragic news to his mother.” The imperative verb at the start, which is just stylebook stuff, how they make the links, nonetheless disturbs, grates. Feels pimpish, toutish. Watch a woman with no arms tie her corset with her teeth! Watch the epic battle of an Egyptian crocodile and a Russian Black Bear! Watch these scenes of tragedy and pathos, all in one act!

It feels a bit belated now to watch an airplane crash and think about the presentation of it, the language and images. Feels obsoletely pomo, mid-DeLillo, past due. Especially since we’ve apparently outlived the period of jolting catastrophe and have moved on to ecological pacings, the slow impact, the incremental collapse. We are back in a period of slowly sinking ships rather than the slip and burst; our thoughts and dreams are scored in the slow time of the lifeboat without food and fresh water rather than the uncanny break of the tailwing speared into the suburban backyard. But still, apparently, the planes will keep crashing, whatever our hopes and nightmares have to say about it.

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February 13, 2009 at 12:42 pm

Posted in catastrophe, teevee, uncanny

apocalpyse, dystopia, and the end of histoire

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Benjamin Kunkel has a very fine piece in that most pro-dystopian of little mags, Dissent, on the warehouseload of apocalyptic and dystopian fictions that have appeared over the past ten or so years. (Henry, at Crooked Timber, objects to the piece rather harshly given the counterevidence that he’s mustered contra…) He does a terrific job on the politics (often bad faith) of the books, and what sort of relationship they have to the context out of which they emerged.

There’s just one thing that I’d like to say – I think it’s more additive to than critical of Kunkel. And it has to do with the very smart stuff that he has to say about the blurring of literary fiction and the dystopian/apocalyptic genres and what it has to do with literary character. Here’s a bit of it:

[S]elf-awareness is in short supply in contemporary apocalyptic novels. There self-awareness in general gives way to a savage imperative of survival, and any struggles taking place within people are superseded by the struggles taking place between them. One effect of this approach, noted above, is that the neoliberal apocalypse abandons the field of competing legitimate claims that is the terrain of politics for a stark flat choice between good and evil or else a reign of uniform cruelty. Still, if we can’t take these books seriously from a political standpoint, and their only real theme is love, do they at least succeed as romances? In a way it has always been a virtue of historical romance that its facelessly beautiful or handsome characters are also morally uncomplicated to the point of vacancy. The same is true of the heroes and heroines of our apocalyptic romances; they possess the sentimental virtue of moral perfection in a world otherwise evil, and the biological virtue of attractiveness in a world otherwise ugly. Their unreality as characters makes them ideal objects of fantasy—with only the effect of disqualifying them as objects of love or items of literature. This leaves the neoliberal apocalypse with its constitutive contradiction: exalting the sphere of private life—in modern times the arena for the fullest elaboration of individual personality—it promotes a basically zoological idea of humanity, where mating and survival are all that matter, and these efforts are pursued with an absence of reflection tantamount to instinct. Self-preservation and moral life become identical, and differences of character fade into insignificance: at this level we are all clones.

The main formal consequence, then, of a withered moral imagination has to do not with subject matter (love, crime, the future) but with character. Fictional character derives from moral choices made, contemplated, postponed, or ignored—morality is the page on which the stamp of character appears—and the signal formal trait of genre fiction is nothing so much as its lack of complex characters. This deficit entangles even an acknowledged generic triumph like Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968, and the basis of the 1982 movie Blade Runner) in a certain incoherence. The ironic burden of Dick’s novel is to stick up for the warm-blooded humanity of androids (read: clones), and in this way imply the cold-bloodedness of any society that denies fully human status to some category of person. The rub, of course, is that such sci-fi humanism is quickly overcome with another irony, this one unintentional, since it is the hallmark of genre fiction to treat characters instrumentally, putting them through the paces of the plot according to their function as the embodiment of some general psychological or social category and failing or refusing to endow them with the individuality to be found among the livelier inhabitants of the traditional realist novel and, for that matter, the real world.

THIS IS the highly compromised “individualism” promoted by our collection of futuristic novels: individuality here means escape from the bad collective (cannibals, the corporate state) but does not entail real individuation. Our literary sci-fi novels are bereft of strongly individual characters—the apocalyptic ones even more depopulated than they know, the clone narratives at least bespeaking the anxiety that their characters are redundant—and the ongoing merger of genre fiction (where the reader is accustomed to finding no complex characters) with literature (which no one would think to accuse of being indifferent to individuality) has allowed the liquidation of character to pass virtually unnoticed. And this, it seems, is likely to be among the most accurately futuristic features of the “literary” genre novels: they will have been the harbingers of a literary sea change in which complex characters are rejected by critics and ordinary readers alike as morally unattractive (compared to generic heros), hopelessly self-involved (because capable of introspection), and annoyingly irresolute (because subject to deliberation). These prejudices are already articulate and operative whenever fiction is discussed, thanks in large part to the incomplete literature-genre fiction merger, and the prestige such prejudices acquire through that merger allows them to be expressed without the taint of philistinism.

In sum, when the contemporary novelist contemplates the future—including, it seems, the future of the novel—he or she often forfeits the ability to imagine unique and irreplaceable characters, can no longer depict love credibly, and responds to political problems by rejecting politics for personal life, albeit one made meaningless by interchangeable characters and a zoological conception of family and love. The result is political novels without politics, social novels without society, and romances free of love, amounting, in the end, to “literature” that isn’t.

Now, I happen to think that Kunkel’s absolutely right about the recession of the characterness of character once the stars of literature and genre align. I may have something a bit different to say about what it means and how we should take this recession – there’s a wee bit of Tel Quel Maoism on me that might lead me to applaud such a literary development. But that will have to happen another time. For now, I to perform an odd exchange with Kunkel. He’s a novelist writing a fairly scholarly piece of quasi Marxist literary crit here (which is what I do at my day job when I do it), so I’m going be the literary scholar that approaches the issue not via historical context and ideological analysis but rather in terms of the writerly situation at hand and what this shift has to do with it.

Now, I’ll cop to the fact that I’ve been trying to write novels for a long, long time. I don’t – as a rule, so far anyway – send them out because I’m never really satisfied with them. (Or maybe it’s because my parents didn’t congratulate me the day the acceptance letter came from Yale. Who knows…) I do try awfully hard, hard enough to drive me a bit off-kilter, but I’ll probably work it out one day soon once the academic work recedes (ha!) a tad. Anyhow, I’ve basically followed the trajectory in my own halting work from the literary frame (that is to say, heavily interiorized stuff having to do, in Kunkel’s phrase, with the “moral imagination,” etc) toward dystopian or catastropic stuff. (One last time, there’s an abortive start to something I worked on this summer here…)

And there are lots of reasons that this shift in my work has happened. Partly, it’s the fact that I’ve always been invested in this stuff (first two works of literature I owned were 1984 and Purgatorio… the latter, a weird but understandable pick for a Catholic kid) but now, suddenly, it’s become acceptably non-genre to write it, per Kunkel’s description. A desire to write politically engaged fiction also factors; it’s easier at least to seem like that’s what you’re up to even if, as again Kunkel describes, lots of time this stuff goes south when it comes to good faith political response.

But there is something else, beyond or beneath all these other reasons, that I think forms the basis of the ultimate impetus for me to turn to the genre-literary hybrid.

Aside from all the ideological and meta-ideological reasons, aside from the contemporary relevance and the attention grabbing cover art possibilities, one huge reason why the dystopian and apocalyptic registers have traipsed to the center of literary literary production is because, christ almighty, they give you the opportunity to write a proper novel with multiple characters (albeit, sure, you can or structurally must do flat ones, as Kunkel suggests) and a plot, dramatic tension, crises and outcomes. Actual events happen, there are dramatic sequences and meaningful interactions of the protagonist(s) with other people. Or to put it another way – yes, these genres, happily, even gloriously, are incompatible with interiority – especially excessive, neurotic interiority! The characters are actually too busy to think, to have actual thoughts. It’s hard to be depressed or anxious or frustratedly horny when the canibals are trying to cook your son. And if you’re otherwise occupied dashing through Falluja-on-the-North-Sea, one tends to forget about the battle with drink or the middle life crisis, the traumas of high school and the sexual rejection that happened during the ice storm. Whatever.

If you write, and write in the wide and persistent wake of modernism – if you cut your readerly teeth on Woolf and Joyce – you know what your problem is. You want to do interior work; you do it really well, at least better than other things. But when you give your novel-start to a friend to read, they respond, nervously: “You know, the extended section about midnight-masturbation while looking at internet porn is, um, thorough and I’m sure it gets to the bottom of the subject – as does the long bit where the young wife has a silent nervous breakdown about her career prospects, the wrong turn that she made when she chose to major in Fine Arts instead of Chemistry, but… I’ve read your other stuff and I like the bit where, you know, things happen and people talk to each other. You should, you know, have some of that here… It’s all a bit, um, claustrophobic….”

They’re right – you lack for plot… and anything else that’s properly in a novel except the angsty interior work. And for good reason, really. This is where someone comes in and screams that of course there are plots out there, you just have to cast your eyes a yard or two beyond your whitebread world of pocket inteligensia in order to see that shit is happening all the time. Remember this bit in Adaptation:

KAUFMAN
Sir, what if a writer is attempting to create a story where nothing much happens, where people don’t change, they don’t have any epiphanies. They struggle and are frustrated and nothing is resolved. More a reflection of the real world –

MCKEE
The real world?

KAUFMAN
Yes, sir.

MCKEE
The real fucking world? First of all, if you write a screenplay without conflict or crisis, you’ll bore your audience to tears. Secondly: Nothing happens in the world? Are you out of your fucking mind? People are murdered every day! There’s genocide, war, corruption! Every fucking day somewhere in the world somebody sacrifices his life to save somebody else! Every fucking day someone somewhere takes a conscious decision to destroy someone else! People find love! People lose it, for Christ’s sake! A child watches her mother beaten to death on the steps of a church! Someone goes hungry! Somebody else betrays his best friend for a woman! If you can’t find that stuff in life, then you, my friend, don’t know crap about life! And why the fuck are you wasting my two precious hours with your movie? I don’t have any use for it! I don’t have any bloody use for it!

KAUFMAN

Okay, thanks.

Mckee is, of course, right. But also definitely not. While the better part of me would love to write the great novel of the Bhopal Disaster or of the rise and fall of Allende, I’m not up to it. Neither do I have the knowledge, nor the time to acquire it, nor really (honestly) the inclination. And if we turn back to the standard fare for novelistic deployment in America, we find that many of the old strands and tropes are looking a little depleted. There are only so many discovery of sex cum end of American innocence novels that can be written, and generally speaking they really do need to be set in the 1950s, which most of us don’t remember as we were born in the 60s or 70s (or, urp, 80s). The frontier – even the final one – has long since been closed. Adultery only seems unboring when you spice it with a new, newer, the newest low: a student, a younger student, his brother, all of his brothers at once, all of his frat brothers, old people, really old people. Boring… Lolita preemptively probably took care of entire line right back at the start, everything else is tired variation on a theme. And the Bildungsroman suffers in an era when at the same time meritocratic progression becomes so tedious rote and actual class-shift becomes unlikely if not impossible, that no one but Jonathan Safran Foer knows what to write anymore.

But it’s more than the simple expenditure of motifs. There was something about the 1990s that resisted fictionalization, the way that a high pressure system resists cloud formation. Periods that resist emplotment – both fictional emplotment and wider, socio-cultural sense of directionality and end-orientation – are psychologically tricky for everyone but maybe even trickier for novelists. (This is the point where I refer you to my published work on The Time Machine, a work that complicates Kunkel’s genealogies of the two forms he’s dealing with, as they’re both there at once – it’s knot in the lines that run from gothic to dystopia and from romance to apocalypse…. But oops, I’m a pseudonom-blogger so I can’t link to it… But the 1890s and 1900s, despite the memorable work that we retrospectively recognize now, were perhaps another such period…) The End of History meets the end of the histoire – the two ends are anything but unrelated. They called it decadence at the end of the 19th-century, a word which meant something a bit different then than it does today.

I’d rather not delve into strange causality, paranoid historicist envelope scribbling, but there is something in society that does not love empty time. Don’t ask me what it does about it. I definitely, definitely don’t want to suggest that it handles it by downing its own towers and collapsing its own markets. But that is, however, what its fiction writers start to do. Novelists who not long ago were invested in existentialist thrillers set along the Rio Grande turn to the flash and rumble to get a story started in its aftermath, just as filmakers who were busy with  naughty threesomes turn to the extinction of the race and rise of biopolitically-minded fascism.

The apocalyptic and dystopian, in other words, bring plot and event during periods in which plot and event seem to have slipped down the drain of the tub where the boats are busy rising or not rising. In turning the everyday inside out, they expose the implicit, imminent sound of the other shoe dropping, the storyline that must be nestled amidst all this affluent absurdity. And if you need more proof, think about just how invested these works are that Kunkel describes in playing out emergence of the climactic event out of the banally everyday… or even, most hauntingly, the persistence of that everyday despite the start of the endgame, the plot to end all plots. Remember the first scene of Children of Men, where our period’s mostly characteristically ordinary action – fetching coffee on the way to work – gives way to the terrorist bomb blast and the walking wounded missing limbs.

As if bound to gesture towards the unfertile ground from which they grew, the works cycle back, time and again, the the issuelessness of the present that is interrupted by the advent of the catastrophe or the revelation of the inhuman face of power once the veil of liberal democratic upwardness has dropped to the floor. None of this is out of sync, I believe, with Kunkel’s argument – it just points to the way that these fictional developments are determined at the same time by contextual issues and immanent problems of narrative form. And in fact, one more turn of the screw brings us to the realization – one that we have to take care with, not be cheap about – that the contextual issues are themselves in part symptoms of a society-wide crisis in self-narration, an inability to get the story of the present and how it meets a future, or even has a future, straight.

I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering whether the tendency toward dystopian and apocalyptic hybridization of literary fiction and what Kunkel calls B+ movies will continue as the world and its artists confront the very real crises that surely await us all in next few years. It seems improbable that the jobless will want to read fantasies of dramatic joblessness, or the cashless will fantasize about a world without cash. But I’m even more interested, and alternative hopeful and skeptical, to see whether society itself as a whole will begin again to compose its own plots about the path from here to there, its own sequence of events that lead through crisis to development. Still, it’s far from given that these storylines, if they do emerge, are stories that we will want to read, much less take our place as characters in, whether we maintain our interest as individuals, as characters, or not.

Written by adswithoutproducts

December 16, 2008 at 11:33 pm

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