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Archive for the ‘impersonality’ Category

performative reviewery: coetzee on (corngold’s) goethe

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Two things about Coetzee’s recent review of Stanley Corngold’s new translation of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther in the NYRB:

1) The extended first section of the review, which deals with the play of truth and fiction in Goethe’s novel, seems like it might be relevant to – that is, it might be an oblique commentary on – Coetzee’s own recent (and incessant, from Lives of the Animals forward) entangling of the truth and fiction. For instance:

The image of Werther as a twin or brother who has died or been killed and returns to haunt him recurs in a poem entitled “To Werther,” written when Goethe was near the end of his life. Between Goethe and his Werther self there was a complex, lifelong relationship that swung back and forth. In some accounts, Werther is the self he had to split off and abandon in order to live (Goethe spoke of the “pathological state” out of which the book emerged); in others, Werther is the passionate side of himself that he sacrificed, to his own cost. He was haunted not only by Werther but by the story of Werther he had put out into the world, which called out to be rewritten or more fully told. He spoke at various times of writing another Werther and of writing a prequel to Werther; but it would seem he could not find his way back into Werther’s world. Even the revisions he did to the book in 1787, masterly though they are, were done from the outside, and are not at one with the original inspiration.

Difficult not to read this in relation to Coetzee’s ostensibly late-life depictions of “himself” – or depictions of fictional depictions of himself – in Summertime and elsewhere. Yet another reframing – is his portrayal of himself (or, again, portrayal of portrayals of himself) as emotionally desiccated a kind of yin to Goethe’s yang, something he had to “split off in order to live,” or do something else than live. Anyway, bears some thinking through, this.

2) Corngold and his translation are mentioned only twice in the course of this long essay. The first time is to criticise the fact that the translator does not retranslate a long excerpt that Werther recites from The Works of Ossian but rather inserts Macpherson’s original. The second mention is simply to introduce some consideration of another broad question:

Corngold’s scholarly concern about anachronism raises a wider issue: With works from the past, how should the language of the translation relate to the language of the original? Should a twenty-first-century translation into English of a novel from the 1770s read like a twenty-first-century English novel or like an English novel from the era of the original?

A great question, but one that leads off from rather than back into Corngold’s own translation. So, after these two slight incursions into the edition at hand – incursions that mostly offer Coetzee to offer brilliant riffs of his own on the topics which and implicitly leave Corngold looking a bit under-rigorous in these spots – Coetzee makes a jarringly abrupt turn into the final paragraph of the review:

The Sorrows/Suffering of Young Werther has not lacked for translators. Among first-rate modern versions are those by Burton Pike, Michael Hulse, and Victor Lange. Corngold’s new translation is of the very highest quality, punctiliously faithful to Goethe’s German and sensitive to gradations of style in this extraordinary, trail-blazing first novel.

Wait, what? Sounds like the first paragraph of a more conventional review, the 800 word pieces you see in other magazines and newspapers. After all this, just “very highest quality, punctiliously faithful… sensitive to gradations of style”? After all of these complex and provocative analyses that Coetzee has offered – only some of them provoked by anything specific to the translation ostensibly under consideration?

In other words, it seems as though Coetzee here has written something like a pastiche of the style of the “long-form” reviews that we’re accustomed to find in the LRB and NYRB, where the expectation is that the reviewer does her or his own routine about the topic and then, only late, turns back to the book at hand. Which is what he does here too, but comically starkly, as if to make yet another point – this one performative – about the issue of writerly personality and its vicissitudes.

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April 27, 2012 at 10:54 am

the chart and the poignant

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Storm Jameson (as cited in one of my PhD student’s drafts):

The conditions for the growth of a socialist literature scarcely exist. We have to create them. We need documents, not as the Naturalists needed them, to make their drab tuppenny-ha’penny dramas but as charts, as timber for the fire some writer will light tomorrow morning…Perhaps the nearest equivalent to what is wanted exists already in the documentary film. As the photographer does, so must the writer keep himself out of the picture while working ceaselessly to present the fact from the striking (poignant, ironic, penetrating, significant) angle.

Interesting how naturalism is rejected as melodrama in favor of “charts,” but the melodrama (or something like it) seems to return in the “impersonal,” “photographic” writing via that list of affectual slants. The relation between the chart and the poignant does seem to me to be the appropriate place to find the fault line, though….

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July 14, 2011 at 2:28 pm

carte / territoire, italics / normal text

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Wonky, this, but spent an enjoyable bit of time this morning playing with this website which allows you to examine and compare various drafts and manuscripts of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary… Makes me feel I should start leaving the laptop home and write on paper instead.

The reason I looked the page above up was to check that Lydia Davis’s decision to put her translation of the words felicité, passion, and ivresse into quotation marks rather than italics, as is the convention with the words that Flaubert underlines in his manuscript, really is as strange as it seems. The novel is absolutely full of italicizations, which he used to pound on particularly cliché language…. And it’s a strange gesture on Flaubert’s part, given his infamous “impersonality” – the presumption would be that the idées reçues should stand up on their own, or at least invite readerly entanglement and complicity in their very “naturalness.”

Another way to think about it: the italics say to the reader these words are typed, even though they are thought. They are typed already and even still in the moment of the character’s thinking them. But then again, it would seem to me that just about every word in the novel is meant to say that, so you see the interesting conundrum here.

Relatedly, check this out: from Adrian Tahourdin’s review of Houllebecq’s La Carte et le Territoire in the TLS (not online):

The publication of a novel by Houellebecq is rarely free from controversy. On this occassion, while the book received high praise, the website accused the author of plagiarizing Wikipedia. He brushed off the accusations – “If these people really think that, they haven’t got the first notion of what literature is…. This is part of my method… muddling real documents and fiction. The resulting precision can be strangely compelling: as Jed waits at Charles de Gaulle airport for his flight to Shannon, we learn that “Le Sushi Warehouse de Roissy 2E proposait un choix exceptionnel d’eaux minérales norvégiennes. Jed se décida pour la Husqvarna, plutôt une eay du centre de la Norvège, qui pétillait avec discrétion.The prose is a pleasure to read (apart from the over-liberal use of italics) and there are some good jokes, but the book feels underpowered. (italics, erm, mine – Ads)

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November 13, 2010 at 1:00 pm

how many faces can you fit on the face of a single coin?

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Ah! Now I remember what made them laugh during the lecture yesterday. I was teaching in the Anatomy Building (we don’t have that sort of lecture space in the department, so we end up borrowing from the sciences…) and, in addition to pattering on about the vicissitudes of doing English,  I was at one point telling them about paragraphs, how they should recuperate what came in the paragraph before and move things a step forward at the same time. I drew a little picture of Janus on the board as an illustration. And then labelled it, for the benefit of the anatomists who’d be using the room after me, Accurate rendering of the human head, courtesy of your friends in the English department. Defund us now.

Relatedly, and for a variety of reasons, I’ve been thinking a bit about personae, not Pound’s but ours. Specifically, how many of them we can have and how many of them we should have. By persona I suppose I mean nothing more than a fictional version of ourselves that we live up to, disappointingly underperform, sync with in spots, or trade for another as the case may be.

But here’s the real question: When one grows tired of donning the mask that comes along with a particularly arduous role – and how many persona parts are truly easy to play, in the end? – one can either look around for another to wear or one can imagine, or even anticipate, quitting the mask-and-part show altogether. The latter seems preferable, less Sisyphusian, but is hard to manage without subtler, more translucent, but nevertheless just as determinant personae slipping in the back door. So… tired, say, of the oscillation between roguish rambler and upright alpha, one wants to abandon the game altogether, one decides “no more.” But then all the souless robots and assembly-line labourers of art and autistic and desensitized angels start swimming up from below.

In short, to have two or more is hard. One might even be harder. Zero is a beautiful thought but probably impossible. Especially once you’ve gotten even a wee bit meta about the whole issue.

It’s interesting to think that modernism, in its negotiations with the concept of impersonality, grappled with this question all the time. Often, impersonality meant the serial adoption of personae, the preparing of faces to meet the faces that you meet. Impersonality as impersonation, in other words. The Flaubertian fantasy takes a turn at Robert Browning, as the dramatic monologue becomes a holding pen where you can keep the romantic impulse and stay unmucked yourself. But always in the corner of the period’s vision there is another, more profound impersonality, the degree zero of unmasked empty subjectivity, Mrs Ramsay’s wedge-shaped core of darkness.

This core of darkness could go anywhere, for no one saw it. They could not stop it, she thought, exulting. There was freedom, there was peace, there was, most welcome of all, a summoning together, a resting on a platform of stability. Not as oneself did one find rest ever, in her experience (she accomplished here something dexterous with her needles) but as a wedge of darkness. Losing personality, one lost the fret, the hurry, the stir; and there rose to her lips always some exclamation of triumph over life when things came together in this peace, this rest, this eternity…

She gets there, of course, but she only gets there in the way that we all do in the end.

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October 13, 2009 at 7:45 am

“you all have the same terrifying and tedious depths”

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JPS getting Flaubert profoundly right in an interview in the New Left Review from 1969:

Yet one cannot say that Flaubert did not have, at the very height of his activity, a comprehension of the most obscure origins of his own history. He once wrote a remarkable sentence: ‘You are doubtless like myself, you all have the same terrifying and tedious depths’—les mêmes profondeurs terribles et ennuyeuses. What could be a better formula for the whole world of psychoanalysis, in which one makes terrifying discoveries, yet which always tediously come to the same thing? His awareness of these depths was not an intellectual one. He later wrote that he often had fulgurating intuitions, akin to a dazzling bolt of lightning in which one simultaneously sees nothing and sees everything. Each time they went out, he tried to retrace the paths revealed to him by this blinding light, stumbling and falling in the subsequent darkness.

Beautiful, this. We all know, have long heard, that the literary novel is bent (historically, commercially, formally) upon encouraging us toward the cultivation of a full technicolor self, a vivid autonomous owness that, of course, is infinitely susceptable to the comeons of international capitalism as it tries to clear its inventories of various consumer products of all stripes. So the literary novel is bad, bad, bad. We know.

But on the other hand, and really this is honestly the only thing that interests me about the form, but it’s a big enough thing as to make for a piechunk of lifeswork, just as soon as the literary novel self-constitutes as a genre, round about 1850, it starts this grand game of diving ever deeper in only to expose the ineluctable externality of what it finds in all the grey knotted stuff. Just per Sartre’s description.

Of course this process can end up as simply a more complex version of the same crisis of bourgeois interiority that it would seem to have set out to resist.  I am flat, I am a cardboard character, there is nothing unique about me, but perhaps, given the arrival of cash or literary work or a pretty woman who truly loves me, then, only then, might I escape the fatal trap of the déjà lu and the déjà veçu etc etc. The panic that comes of a glimpse of the whateverness of the self, the fact that the ownmost is just a particularly tight inflection point of the generalized Gerede that goes around is after all, a yawp that we are long familiar with and that we know leads nowhere. See, for instance, DeLillo’s White Noise or sure anythign by Ian McEwan. But facing up to this danger might also be a risk that one has to take if one would puncture the bubble or illuminate the potentialities of the one-day open city of the self.

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July 20, 2009 at 10:16 pm

notes on the aggregate 1: letraset mirror-stage

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1. Unexpectedly ended up spending the day in the hospital Wednesday – my wife needed some more surgery four weeks after all of this. She’s OK, or she will be eventually… But a frustrating way to spend a day for all involved, especially her. So it was a busy day, fraught with anxieties large and small – what do we do with the three-year-old while we’re there? What happens if the little one needs to be bottlefed? What will they find when they examine? How safe is general anaesthesia? Another day thick with dramatic tension following upon several years of the same sort of thing.

But hospitals have a strange effect upon the individual in the throes of the dramatic day. The hospital in question today had some 16 floors, some of which were populated by perhaps 30 patients, others more like 200 patients. A couple thousand cases of people (patients, loved ones, health workers) all in the middle of dramatic occurances – pain, morbidity, despair, elation, amputation, diagnosis, last rites. When in a large hospital in the middle of your busy day, the elevator cars becomes chapels of impersonalization. Your plight, your anxiety, is nothing compared to the people getting off on the eleventh floor – the young peoples in-patient area. Or wherever. There are several thousand of you. A hundred of you will experience mortality, tragedy. It doesn’t quite take the edge off, but it does put things in perspective, the aggregation of trauma.

2. The major moment of my involvement the day’s affairs came when (just like four weeks ago) I had to keep an unweaned and generally quite hungry baby girl asleep during the duration of the surgery lest she, as she of course would if she awoke, start screaming for a breast that ten floors down on an operating table. So I paced the room while holding her, back and forth, half of the time looking at the door of the room and the other half looking at this.

It’s a lovely view from up there. For those unfamiliar with Bloomsbury, that’s  the Wellcome Trust dead ahead, the Euston bus terminal and a smidgen of Euston station in the middle left, and in the distance the reddish one is the British Library. St. Pancras and Kings Cross Stations are a bit hard to see, but they’re there, smudgily. For someone more familiar with New York, it is somewhat astounding to think that you can get a more or less full panorma of the city from the thirteenth floor of a building more or less in the middle of the city. Here’s the other side, taken from an elevator bank, looking towards Tottenham Court Road right below, past Fitzroy Square in the middle on the left, and toward Marylebone and Paddington and everything else to the west.

I spend a good amount of my weekday life on the streets in the foreground of these two shots. In buildings and open spaces clearly visible from where I was pacing, I have purchased books, been interviewed for a job, received a phone call to say that I had a job, lectured students, tutored tutees, greeted long absent friends, drank in pubs alone and with friends and with students and with colleagues, eaten lunch, spent several nights in shitty hotel rooms because I’d been a drunken fool, attended communism conferences, gotten my hair cut, had heartfelt conversations late at night with my wife, had heartfelt conversations with others, purchased endless cafe lattes and copies of The Guardian, stumbled home drunk, received free of charge countless copies of the londonpaper, made angry and apolegetic phone calls while pacing in the parks, worked on articles and monographs and talks, picked someone up when they drunkenly fell on the pavement, taken books out of two libraries, wrote half of one novel and a third of another as well as countless poems, tried to find free internet access, smoked thousands of cigarettes, and lots else. Lots else both boring and sublime. I’ve had an impossibly busy year and a half in London. And almost everything down on the street, these things that I’ve done, felt so incredibly vivid. Often, the vividness of the events seemed to border on legibility or even scriptability – especially the obvious ones, you can pick them out of the list for yourself.

But from up here, thirteen floors up, everything seems different, doesn’t it? My wife and I watched window-washers scaling the building opposite, but aside from them, everyone else is antlike and thus a bit robotic-looking. People walk from work to the Underground. People carry objects from a store back to their office or towards home. Cars circle blocks – you can’t tell if it’s the same cab endlessly circling or different ones each time around. From up high, mankind goes about the motions, in aggregate. The follow scent trails from hive to food source and back again. There is no interiority, hideous or beatific, to deal with from up here. From up here, in short, the world is unnovelistic, and it’s an odd experience to look down panoptically at the places where your life is ordinarily lived and lived densely.

3. I am fascinated by, have long be taken with, the doubleness (the duplicity?) of modernism. When we talk about, say, modernist architecture, we generally mean planning and rationalisation, efficiency and redistribution. We mean the anti-aesthetic, the anti-ornamental, the flatly utopian. On the other hand, when we think about modernism in the sense that I am paid to think about it, that is to say in a literary sense, we generally mean something quite different. Modernist novels, famously, take up the issue of the interior regions, the unheard but somehow overheard subverbal chatter. Dalloway or Ulysses seem, at least on first and many subsequent glances, to herald a new, and newly intense, emphasis on psychology, the gears working in the individual as the individual navigates her or his everyday life.

My academic work tries to square the circle a bit, bridge the gap, and wonder what is frilless and impersonal about personality, what is objective and anti-individualistic about something like style indirect libre, and what is suggestively collectivist about dispersal, introspection, and hyperbolic selfhood.

4. I don’t have the books that I need at home with me, so the theoretical interlude might be a bit scattershot and from memory. But if I am right, and I might be, there is some major rethinking ahead of us on the question of the relationship between the bird’s eye view and the secret history. (Left-oriented) cultural, literary, and political theory has for decades and decades been incoherent on this point. We fantasize about post-individuality, yet we still privilege the literature of the flaneur. We sanctify dispersed, individualized resistance, and we withhold from ourselves the thought of the structure or state, even as we at the same moment would have no time for the neurotic, bumbling avatar of bourgeois modernity, the autonomous individual.

We take up, reflexively, the cause of Michel de Certeau’s tactical against the strategic. Just think of contemporary forms of protest and the response to protest and our responses to their responses. But we do this despite the fact that the entire tide of history has washed toward the man of the street and his whims as the only arbiters of truth and efficiency worth banking on, as it were. As with so many other left concepts and approaches, we meet the opposition on their own ground, not ours. We even might say we allow ourselves to get kettled – willingly jump into the pot that they have long since set to boil.

5. There is a much, much wider question about the relationship of literature and quasi-literary products and politics that we would do well to if not answer at least preoccupy ourselves with, keep very much open. It is at once a simple and extremely complex question, and it goes something like this. Do we take literary and quasi-literary representation to be first and foremost a critical approach to social representation, one that shows how things are so that we might know how things are and thus find ourselves activitated to change them? This is the standard approach to the problem, and has been for a long, long time. If one writes seriously about the atomized self, one inevitably (following the natural gradients of literary production) will end up displaying the perils of atomized selfhood. It is hard to find literature that is meant to celebrate that which it represents.

But despite the fact that we have long since been preoccupied with the critical use value of literary representation, there is another answer – a murky one that we’re all familiar with, one that will seem obvious and true as soon as I say it, even if we have a much harder time formally acknowledging it. That is, literary representation, at times or perhaps always, also serves as an advertisement – a positive advertisement – for certain ways of being, acting, seeing or thinking. Again, this is probably at once too simple and too complex to go into fully here, but it is clear that for all the critical energies brought to bear by, say, modernist literature on the plight of the prewritten self in all its abyssal reflexivity and determination, modernist literature also performed a sort of advocacy – we might say, hesitantly, aestheticisation – of the selfsame situation. Literature holds up for emulation just what it is in the process of tearing down. It shows the world to be changed, unbearably changed, and in doing so accustoms us to the same change that it is otherwise resisting. Such is the conservative modernism (modernism this time with a small m, or something with a large one) of the literary endeavor itself.

So it does two things, two contradictory things, at once. Sometimes it works in oscillating phases, other times an intensive simultaneity. But there is no possible movement forward on a rethinking of literary aesthetics that doesn’t come to grips with this question in all it’s complexity.

6. Narrative works have always, but especially since the advent of modernity, been preoccupied with the individual and her or his actions, reasons, feelings, and outcomes. There is a boy and he meets a girl, and they feel X about each other but Y about the world and then…. something happens. Of course, though, despite their dependency upon the story of the individual or individuals, novels and stories always stage their people playing out their lives against a backdrop, a backdrop which includes things and places but also people – large or small numbers of people sketched in great or less great detail.

Other forms – those privileged by the media and disciplines that tend toward the topographic rather than individual, the strategic rather than the tactical per Michel de Certeau – reverse these poles. The surroundings (things, places, groups) move to the fore, and the individual is left to be represented only abstractly, as a type – metaphorically or literally a cut-out.

We might even want to take up a somewhat complex (between it relies on a twist) chiastic analogy like this: the background welter of fiction is to the individual as the letraset figure is to the architectural plan.

Once letraset goes CAD, humans even grow pixelated shadows and depending on the processing power that generated them, even start to see their own reflections in the mirrored glass. (Image courtesy of IT).

We can anticipate – it has been anticipated, actually – that the letraset people will one day soon have little digitized minds of their own. They will head our into the planned cities in which they live to do all of things that we do in the cities where we live, all the things that I described above and more. They will shop for food and vintage clothes, they will conduct their love affairs in pubs and flats and streamlined hotels in city centres, they will make tough decisions about their jobs, birth children in hospitals and watch their loved ones die.

7. I am starting, but only just starting to be able to imagine a meeting point between the architectural plan and the psychological fiction, between the sentient letraset people and the background materials of the realist novel. This meeting point is something that I am getting used to calling aggregate fiction. It is important to note that it already exists, perhaps has existed right from the start, in half-forms and hybrids, false starts and imperfect versions. The trick would be to pull it forward and make it stand on its own.

In the next post in this series, I’ll discuss among other things, the difference between the mass and the aggregate, the complicated politics of this potential form, and start to build out (hesitantly) a literary genealogy of what I’m talking about and/or looking for.

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May 25, 2009 at 8:31 pm

impersonality and the individual

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“Of the vaporization and centralization of the Ego. Everything depends upon that.” (Baudelaire, “My Heart Laid Bare”)

Henri Lefebvre toward the end of the first volume of Critique of Everyday Life, in the course of arguing on behalf of American literature and against the French stuff of the period:

Petty-bourgeois individualism has reached the extreme limit of exhaustion, and that goes for the intellectual as well as the writer. In the ‘human sand’, each grain, which is so dreadfully similar to all the others (unless we look at it through a psychological microscope) thinks it is frightfully original, even unique! Individualism ends up as the impersonality of the individual. It is the dialectical result of the ‘private’ consciousness and of its internal contradiction: the separation of the human being from the human. Nothing is easier to express than that abstract ‘psychology’ of this individuality, devoid of any content which might be difficult to express. Only a little knowledge of grammar is necessary. And there is plenty of that around! But unfortunately the tone of all these confidences and all these descriptions happens to be that of impersonality; therefore of boredom. The accusation that the Marxist dialectician levels at modern French literature as a whole is not that it expresses individuality, but rather that it expresses only false individuality, a facade of individuality, and abstraction. Nor is it by working in an element of ‘anguish’ that a young writer can give his descriptions or his story the direct, visual, physical, moving style, so much more individualized and varied, that one finds in Faulkner’s characters and novels. (237)

Yes. Not so worried about the Faulkner issue right now. But what’s interesting about this is the way that it maps on to the complicated issue of literary impersonality, which is significantly different from the impersonality (actual individual impersonality, that is lack of a personality, an interesting one) that Lefebvre’s discussing right here. That is to say, literary impersonality, which is generally understood to mean the distancing or problematization of the notions and ideas of the author (you knew what Dickens wanted to tell you but with Joyce it’s much harder) is a formal stance, not a psychological status or condition.

Maybe you know Eliot’s exquisite joke about this…. He really was funny sometimes in his essays. This is from “Traditional and the Individual Talent”:

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.


But here’s the thing. Literary impersonality, which in its narrative manifestations generally takes the shape of some variety of free indirect style, tends as it happens to be a priviledged means of exposing just the sort of impersonality that Lefebvre’s describing above. The free indirect form penetrates the interiority of the character, but only in such a way that we seem to remain outside of the character. We are not probing it, like a headshrinker, nor is the poor guy or girl spilling his or her guts – it’s just there on the surface of the prose for us to see. As a form, free indirect discourse depends upon the exteriorization of the interior. Or – and I should show my math, but just bear with me for the moment – it depends upon the exteriorability of the interior, even the pre-exteriority of the interior. It doesn’t take too much in the way of mental gymnastics to see that for what goes on inside to come out in a shape that (sometimes, often, in the best cases) is intelligible, fairly coherent, and not really all that out of step with conventional narration (in step enough that you have to teach people to see this fact, right?) might well have been, well, conventional, available for this sort of presentation right from the start.

It’s no wonder that Flaubert pushes the form to the fore in the work that he does – in a way, a romance novel about a woman who reads romance novels is a straight shot…. One even starts to wonder whether the theme that he chose didn’t invent the form rather than the other way around.

We’re coming pretty close to what I would call the tacit, implicit, or unconscious formal politics of modernist prose. Lefebvre believes we learn something important when we, having passed through the moment of the Cogito, come to a further step along the path toward self-understanding – the step which takes the alienated, flimsy self for a marker of both alienation and the possibilities that might come of the social forms that generate it. The recognition that we are not simply ourselves turns from a tragic consequence of modernity into the announcement itself of the imminence of another sort of world, a better sociality and sociability.

(There – I’m going to count that as having worked on the m’script today…. That’s clearer than usual and I’ll work with it….)

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May 12, 2009 at 12:19 pm

kid’s stuff

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[Redacted. I shouldn't write on Sundays. God gets mad.]

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February 8, 2009 at 12:36 pm

Posted in blogs, impersonality

“an American-like personal quality”

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Not really a big fan of the Onion, or really of any of the many permutations of fake news to emerge in the last few years. But this piece is very well done – close to perfect, actually.

CHAPEL HILL, NC—A field study released Monday by the University of North Carolina School of Public Health suggests that Iraqi citizens experience sadness and a sense of loss when relatives, spouses, and even friends perish, emotions that have until recently been identified almost exclusively with Westerners..


Iraqis have often been observed weeping and wailing in apparent
anguish, but the study offers evidence indicating this may not be
exclusively an outward expression of anger or a desire for revenge. It
also provocatively suggests that this grief can possess an
American-like personal quality, and is not simply a tribal lamentation

I honestly do believe that many (most?) Americans do have a bit of trouble picturing people from other nations, especially non-English speaking nations, as human in the full sense of the word. Not trying to be silly or mean in saying this – I believe it’s a strange sort of cultural dysfunction. Partly it has to do with the isolation / insularity of the place. It’s hard to get anywhere from most of the country where another language is dominant (Mexico for some along the southern border, and Quebec for us in the northeast.) Only about 25% of Americans even have a passport – I’d love to find the number of us who die never having left the US. (When my wife’s grandfather was driving her to college, they stopped at Niagara Falls. He was in his 70s – and would die two years later – and had never visited another country. Faced with the very easy prospect of driving or walking across the Rainbow Bridge to the Canadian side of the Falls, he decided not to. A bit too scary and strange to leave – why bother now, at this point, etc…)

It’s no excuse, really, none at all, for condoning what has been condoned. But it is a factor…

(via Ghost in the Wire)

Read the rest of this entry »

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July 25, 2007 at 9:50 pm

“see what you mean”

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A famous passage from Joyce’s Portrait:

The dramatic form is reached when the vitality which has flowed and eddied round each person fills every person with such vital force that he or she assumes a proper intangible esthetic life. The personality of the artist, at first a cry or cadence or a mood and then a fluid and lambent narrative, finally refines itself out of existence, impersonalises itself, so to speak. The esthetic image in the dramatic form is purified in and reprojected from the human imagination. The mystery of esthetic like that of material creation is accomplished. The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.

The ambiguity of literary modernism’s dream of “impersonal” art is brilliantly captured in the stringing together of “invisible” and “refined out of existence.” Can’t, of course, be both at the same time: either the artist is there but hidden or has actually been wrung out of the work. The oscillation between egotistical artistic supremacy and the “death of the author” is one of the rhythms that define the progression of this period’s work.

I tend to be more interested in the “no artist” side of the issue than the other, because I think a good bit of what utopian / progressivist tendencies or even side effects there are to be found in the works of such figures as Joyce and Beckett, Woolf and Proust are to be found there. And I’m also very interested in the legacy of this preoccupation on the part of the “high modernists.”

One place that we find its development, of course, are in all of the strategies of opening works to contingency and randomness practiced by fellow modernists and figures that are usually affiliated with later schools / periods. Automatic writing, from Yeats through the surrealists and onward. Burroughs’s cut-ups. All sorts of “found art” tactics. Often enough, these techniques are staked either on the “unconscious” as the black box that generates the disorder or the disorder as the means that gives access to the truths of the unconscious.

But there is another way to think about impersonality – or maybe even to do impersonal art. And while I’m sure there is precedent for this sort of idea (commenters?) – a few things I’ve been seeing around the internet and on tv have got me thinking in a different direction.

The first is this tv commercial:

It’s fairly difficult to discern what exactly this ad is meant to sell. The Dassault website is only somewhat helpful…

Sophisticated technologies tend to be the preserve of experts. Today, Dassault Systèmes wants to break with this tradition and establish 3D technology as a new universal language with applications in every walk of life. But that’s not all. At Dassault Systèmes, we also strongly believe that the more advanced and complex technology becomes, the easier it should be to use.

To express this groundbreaking vision – and the major advances we have driven in 3D technology in terms of capability, flexibility and ease of use – French advertising agency devarrieuxvillaret has created a new tagline for Dassault Systèmes:

See What You Mean.

OK… “Universal language,” eh? (Of course, Dassault is best known for making warplanes…. and for owning Le Figaro…)

At any rate, the ad is a mashup of SimCity (the bit where the building flashes red because it’s not connected up to the underground utility conduits is the deadest giveaway) and letraset type peopleoids (not sure if that’s the appropriate term for the little guys pictured below or not…)

That’s all well and good. It’s likely the sort of ad that presents a image of something not yet possible, but which, by triggering a mass-fantasy, will urge that impossible thing into existence… Not unlike the fancy computer interface in Minority Report….

But what interests me in particular about this ad is the way that it proposes a new form of fiction, not yet possible, but dreamed of, perhaps, for at least the last 150 years. (The Joyce quote is, of course, only a plagiarized version of a few passages from Flaubert’s letters). What would it be like to use a technology like the one shown in the commercial as a technology for the creation of fiction? A fiction in which the “characters” were left to roam “on their own” a preconstructed section of “reality” forged by the artist, following the imperatives wired into their advanced AI? The little people stuck in the traffic jam in the ad, the pedestrians yelling at the cars – what would it be like if we could follow them closely, “hear” what they are thinking, establish ever more complex situations to drop them into? Fiction as experiment in a sense truer than any that has ever before been attempted. Fiction, at last, opened to the contingency and unpredictability that it has crept towards, largely unsuccessfullly, during the entirely of the period that we label the “modern.”

I am not talking about machinima, not the way it is practiced now, anyway. I am not talking about “user-controlled” “characters”….

Anyway, so that’s the first trigger. Second is this, which handles things a bit differently.

“Anthroptic” is an edition of 80 hand-made artist books that represents the collaboration between new media artist Ethan Ham and writer Benjamin Rosenbaum. The book contains 8 folios that pair one image with one “chapter” of the story. The images were taken from Ethan’s online project “Self-Portraits” in which he trained a facial recognition program to his face before unleashing it onto the internet photo service Flickr. While searching the millions of photos on Flickr for its creator, the computer program sometimes made mistakes, identifying inanimate objects as Ethan. These mistake images became the starting point for Benjamin’s short short story. Benjamin weaves these images into an exquisitely interconnected tale that can be read in any order.

Scripted recognitions, epiphanies. Algorithmic revelations. That sort of thing. Robotic portraiture. You start to see where I am going here with this…

The final example came through today, via we make money not art.

(re)collector is a public art installation that approaches Cambridge as a ‘museum of the mind’, using cameras to acquire memorable images that can then be reorganised into ideas. The Greek concept of ut pictura poesis claims that poetry is more ‘imageful’ than prose. In this project, the cameras do not document Cambridge using a simple, straightforward archive of events, but rather seek to record a collection of dramatic moments. The city becomes a tableau for pictura poesis, with events amplified through combinations of framing, movement, and silence, becoming more memorable and cohesive as a result.

This interesting enough at this point, the idea of constructing “ideas” or narratives out of CCTV footage. But where things get truly fascinating comes in the next paragraph:

The gothic character of the Bridge of Sighs, King’s College Chapel and various city centre side streets present backdrops for extracting cinematic moments from peoples’ everyday activities. Surveillance cameras installed around the city, will be programmed to recognise and capture public activities including farewell scenes, meetings, escape scenes, chases, love scenes, etc. Each day over the festival, the results will be edited to produce a daily feature film, complete with premise, protagonists, locations, plot, to be viewed at a public screening in Cambridge during the festival programme. The movie’s audience is composed of many of the same people that feature in it; the project seeks to renegotiate our relationship with where we live by showing us the latent narratives embedded in our everyday lives that we cannot see.

I’d love to know exactly how the cameras are programmed to decide what a moment of fictional significance, of narrative crisis, looks like. (I certainly don’t doubt that it can be done as it is already being done). And what if instead of humans getting involved with the editing of the clips into a coherent narrative, the machine performed that task as well. Surely, the recognition of a “love scene” is more complicated than sticking the scenes together in some sort of coherent order.

I’m going to have to write a follow-up post, unfortunately, detailing the aesthetic and political ramifications I think might come of such endeavors when focused properly, as I’m too beat to continue tonight. A few of the words and phrases, though, that are hovering about in my mind include “fiction as experiment,” “(repurposed) automatic behavioral detection,” “automation for automation’s sake,” “interchangeable parts,” “autonomy vs. advertisement” and…. “(truly) socialist realism.”

More soon… Sorry to defer the punchline…

(NB: I should say that I do know that some parallel work is being done on this sort of thing by the media/body people, by, for instance. But it nevertheless seems to me that I am aiming in a slightly to very different direction than much of that very helpful work…)

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Written by adswithoutproducts

April 18, 2007 at 12:02 am

first person (plural) shooter

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(Xposted to Long Sunday)

I’m sure soldiers, ever since there have been soldiers, have hooted adolescently in the throes of combat. What would we expect, that they’d go about their work gravely, constantly reminding themselves of the seriousness – the mortal seriousness – of the things that they do, the weapons that they discharge? That is undoubtedly too much to expect. The stupid talk and yells undoubtedly represent a release from the psychosis inspiring and inspired actions that they are committing.

It is not new, it is not groundbreaking, to think: “They sound like the subset of students that you see hooting and unawarely spewing stuff they heard in a movie somewhere. They always talk like this, yell like this. They likely feel most themselves when they most completely give themselves over to the canned material they have been served, night after night, for their entire lives.”

What we hear is not the organic, the militaristically gnomic, the earthy – it is the sitcomedic. MTV trashtalk, some Full Metal Jacketisms (Kubrick would have loved this, at least in a way) thrown in.

And, because you too have seen the same movies, at least a lot of them, you are able to try to reconstruct any possible reason, any scenario at all, in which the cars that speed in, crash, disgorge their occupants, who then are blown away by the Americans. The sniper was in a car? The insurgents, after a lengthy pause, get into their little cars and attempt, as an act of insane bravery perhaps, to speed past the marines’ position? Why?

Unlike the talk, no, the actions of the “insurgents” don’t fit into any plausible script, especially not the one posted at the end of the video.

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Written by adswithoutproducts

March 27, 2007 at 10:30 pm

Posted in impersonality, movies, war

“a fair share for all of us”

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Another brilliant post at Sit down man, you’re a bloody tragedy one that happens to be indirectly apropos of so much that I’ve been saying on here. Go read it. Here’s the start:

Perhaps the most irksome element of ideology as currently practised is the belief that in the face of climate change the individual can make a difference. Hence the moronic plaint of various charities in sundry adverts that by not overfilling the kettle, or by not leaving your telly on standby, you can help avert the holocaust that rising temperatures will cause in the global south. What this serves to occlude is that the only measure that could really avert this is massive cutbacks in private cars, Rationing and some form of Central Planning: by curbing the individual, in other words.

(This lovely poster I’ve brought over… Interesting to think about the way that the relationship between the photo-hands and the abstract infographic image actually enacts the relationship between the individual and the state under planning….)

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March 27, 2007 at 11:30 am

closed ending

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So, I’m getting ready to do something with the Club Silencio scene in Mulholland Drive, which might just be my favorite moment in film, and I’m looking around to see what’s been said about the scene… And I find this:

Without reference in the screenplay, the surrealistic Silencio sequence was shot in late 1999 as a finale to the original TV-Pilot. The idea around Club Silencio is a results of a deal between Disney’s Touchstone Television and David Lynch. The company contributed 2,5 million dollar more to the Pilot project (to a total budget of 7 million) with the proviso – which Lynch grudgingly accepted – that he shoot extra footage to be used as a “Closed ending.” Disney’s Buena Vista International intended to recoup the company’s money by releasing the longer version as a film in Europe.

That there is one hell of a confluence of the demands of the market and artistic genius… And one hell of a “closed ending.” I wonder what the Disney folks thought?

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January 16, 2007 at 11:39 pm

Remember Time Warner?

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I’m guessing that just about everyone is getting a full dose of this new brand of spam designed to slip through the nets – random prose plus a hot penny stock tip in the form of an image…

Annoying, yes. Very, of course. And rumor has it that there’ll be no way to stop it, it’ll just get worse and worse until we abandon email altogether and start penning letters to each other again, the old fashioned way.

But I have to admit, I’m starting to get interested in the dummy text that they clip / is auto-clipped into the messages. Fragments shored against the ruin of our banally benighted period, they perform the Really Short Signification (RSS) that informs, perhaps, our collective trajectory.

The rate of employment growth is slowing as business confidence appears to be undermined by rising oil prices.

Oil prices have been on a roll this year.
Having excess cash is a good problem for companies to have: It can lead to higher dividends, larger share buybacks, and accretive acquisitions.
The Mad Cow disease scare, obesity issues, and management health have drawn attention instead. The ability and investing style of the portfolio manager are at least just as important as fees. However, these investors typically seek to own mutual funds within a single family such as Fidelity Investments for purposes of administrative ease.
Investing in the Best No Load Index Mutual Funds. What does this mean for biotech investors? ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY YARD CARE – three easy things you can do this year to take care of your yard in a responsible and eco-friendly way during the fall and winter.
What Oracle and Siebel do with their cash remains to be seen.
Whether you prefer to index or take an active approach to managing your investments, ensuring that your mutual fund is putting your interests first is good investing practice. Past performance is not a guarantee for future results.
The rate of employment growth is slowing as business confidence appears to be undermined by rising oil prices.
Remember Time Warner?
AlphaProfit Investments, LLC disclaims any liability for any direct or incidental loss incurred by applying any of the information in this report. Valuation metrics now are less attractive than they were in prior months. Then it was the unrest in Venezuela and Nigeria.
The Mad Cow disease scare, obesity issues, and management health have drawn attention instead.
The Root Cause: Transportation Relies on Foreign Oil. How are these grades determined? Mutual funds get kudos if their independent directors invest in the mutual funds.

Unfortunately, I already chucked it out of my inbox, but a great one came the other day with a subject line that went something like “But the new spam is sent as an image and computer security experts are struggling to cope with it,” which suggests, but does not prove, that there is a certain degree of non-mechanical authorship going on here…

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December 20, 2006 at 12:03 pm

autotelic automatons

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You find the strangest stuff when googling around. I needed a definition of “autotelic,” which comes up all the time in the Kant that I’m reading now. And I found this, a paper from the Sony Computer Research Lab. Here’s the abstract:

The dominant motivational paradigm in embodied AI so far is based on the classical behaviorist approach of reward and punishment. The paper introduces a new principle based on ’flow theory’. This new, ‘autotelic’, principle proposes that agents can become self-motivated if their target is to balance challenges and skills. The paper presents an operational version of this principle and argues that it enables a developing robot to self-regulate his development.

I haven’t read the paper yet, and who knows if I ever will, but it sounds like an application of modern “human resource” management techniques to inanimate, yet incipiently thinking, things. Why offer a reward when the work is a reward in and of itself? Why “manage” when they can be taught – can be expected – to manage themselves?

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June 27, 2006 at 2:22 am


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