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Archive for the ‘literature’ Category

what before what: theory or literature

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I’m working on presumably the final revision of the book and I’ve done something a bit strange, something that feels to me both a) just what I want to do and b) bound to cause problems. Basically, if nearly every literary monograph with any interest in theory or theoretical questions starts with the definition of key terms via philosophy and then turns to the literature, I’m running things in reverse. I’ll develop working definitions of the key terms via little tour of literary history (broadstroke longview, more narrowing with the period in question) and then turn to the philosophical heritage in order to compare and contrast. At any rate, I just put in the following footnote. What do you think – too much?

If we have grown well accustomed to analyses that apply theory to literary texts – in order to understand or critique them, in order to shed light on their inner workings or the world that they represent – in my choice of trajectory here I propose to do something different. This work attempts to expose the theorizations of time implicit in the literary works themselves and explore these theorizations in (generally contrasting) comparison with what we might slightly reductively call the philosophical “conventional wisdom” on the subject. While any attempt to “forget theory” in writing about literature would either be naïve or haunted by invisible philosophical or ideological presuppositions, it on the other hand seems to be a disciplinary bad habit reflexively to consult philosophy in order to define our terms and only then to turn these terms to literary application.

In general, I simply don’t accept the reflexive necessity of consulting philosophy first. I don’t think of theory as a little machine that one builds in grad school, like a woodchipper or a blender, that one takes texts and runs them through, or at least that’s not how I think one should think of theory. I think that literature has as much to tell us – if differently – about so-called “philosophical” issues as philosophy itself. And I further believe that tons of theory is grounded in strange if not bad readings of literature… or even, more importantly, a kind of unconscious or unacknowledged “literariness” that haunts the answers developed.

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August 23, 2011 at 8:15 pm

Posted in literature, theory


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Full disclosure: I used to play softball with one of the authors of the book I’m about to discuss. And, further, I don’t have it on hand yet – it’s supposed to be delivered today or at least soon so I hope to read it on the plane to LA (for the MLA, that is the naughty-sounding LAMLA) tomorrow. But here’s a paragraph from David Brooks’s recent column focused on Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly’s new book, All Things Shining.

Spiritually unmoored, many people nonetheless experience intense elevation during the magical moments that sport often affords. Dreyfus and Kelly mention the mood that swept through the crowd at Yankee Stadium when Lou Gehrig delivered his “Luckiest Man Alive” speech, or the mood that swept through Wimbledon as Roger Federer completed one of his greatest matches.

The most real things in life, they write, well up and take us over. They call this experience “whooshing up.” We get whooshed up at a sports arena, at a political rally or even at magical moments while woodworking or walking through nature.

Dreyfus and Kelly say that we should have the courage not to look for some unitary, totalistic explanation for the universe. Instead, we should live perceptively at the surface, receptive to the moments of transcendent whooshes that we can feel in, say, a concert crowd, or while engaging in a meaningful activity, like making a perfect cup of coffee with a well-crafted pot and cup.

We should not expect these experiences to cohere into a single “meaning of life.” Transcendent experiences are plural and incompatible. We should instead cultivate a spirit of gratitude and wonder for the many excellent things the world supplies.

It’s probably not all that fair to blame them for it, but it is a bit worrisome to write a (semi-)scholarly book that David Brooks finds “marvelous and important.” But there’s something more interesting to say about it than that (and again – I haven’t read it yet, will do so soon, so take all of this with more than a margarita glass-lip of salt….) So… it sounds a bit, at least in Brooks summary, that Dreyfus and Kelly have written a book in the Alain de Botton mold – a popularizing work of philosophy cum literary reference. Nothing wrong with that, nothing wrong with trying to reach a wider audience.

But one of the major modernist (sort of small m modernist, perhaps slightly larger than completely lower case – know what I mean?) reflexes in literary studies, a deep brain reflex that all of us who work on novels and poetry possess no matter what we work on, is a reflex that resists transcendence, heart-flutter, escape from the everyday. From Flaubert and Baudelaire forward, and especially through the generation of the 1920s, we have been trained to be suspicious of the epiphanic. Or at least we resist valorizing it as a moment of authenticity. Philosophers, on the other hand, from the one on the airport bookshop shelf to Alain Badiou, can’t quite get away from the reiterative valorization of this sort of “transcendent whoosh,” even if the terms that they use to describe it are altogether different. We smell, as did our literary forebearers, bad poetics at play and with them – often enough – bad politics. Or at least I do. And so to my mind it’s no wonder that a pseudo-literary, pseudo-philosophical “thinking man’s conservative” hack like David Brooks would pick up on All Things Shining as his high-brow guidebook to our age, even if he does at least register later in his column the deeply worrying thing about this sort of narrativization of meaning:

I’m not sure this way of living will ever prove satisfying to most readers. Most people have a powerful sense that there is a Supreme Being over us, attached to eternal truths. Though they try, Dreyfus and Kelly don’t give us a satisfying basis upon which to distinguish the whooshing some people felt at civil rights rallies from the whooshing others felt at Nazi rallies.

Yep – that’s the sort of complication that we literary types have a hard time moving past with a shrug. Anyone who has spent time, say, in the old Yankee Stadium bleachers can easily understand both the heartpounding excitement of the experience… as well as the fact that it feels not a horribly long stroll away from the Nuremberg rally.

Anyway, I’ll try to read the book on the plane today if my copy arrives and say more – I admit it’s unfair to critique the book through Brooks rendition of it…

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January 5, 2011 at 3:03 pm

“this sort of life”

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Kafka to Brod via Josipovici’s new What Ever Happened to Modernism:

During last night’s insomnia, as these thoughts came and went between my aching temples, I realised once again, what I had almost forgotten in this recent period of relative calm, that I tread a terribly tenuous, indeed almost non-existent soil spread over a pit full of shadows, whence the powers of darkness emerge at will to destroy my life… Literature helps me to live, but wouldn’t it be truer to say that it furthers this sort of life? Which of course doesn’t imply that my life is any better when I don’t write. On the contrary, then it’s much worse, quite unbearable, and with no possible remedy other than madness.

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August 7, 2010 at 7:24 am

on the aisle

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Crowded bus on the way home last night and ended up sitting next to a young guy reading a proper novel. That is to say a yellowed Penguin paperback, something that’s been around for a bit. I have no doubt that “50p” was written in pencil on the inside front cover of the thing. Beautiful in its way.

One of the nice things about North London is that this sort of thing happens quite a bit. But whenever it does, last night included, I have a strange feeling. I try to glance over to the page, see if I can tell the text from the small sample available to me in the next seat. A character name, a recognized scene – even a sense that I recognize the style. And as I do, there’s that strange feeling again.

The closest that I can come to a clear description is that it is a proprietorial sense that I am having. This guy is, unknown to him, in my shop. I spend my entire life with these yellowing Penguins – marking exams, writing essays and lectures, working on my own stuff.

My father worked for a food company when I was growing up and whenever he and I were in the appropriate aisle of the supermarket, we’d stop and watch the customers as they negotiated the cookie and cracker aisle, see what they chose, what their kids wanted, what they lifted and put back and what they bought two of. Thankfully, this wasn’t some sort of marketing exercise – he wasn’t gathering intelligence. Rather, from what I can tell, he was enjoying watching people enjoy the fruits of his own labor – indirect labor, nearly as indirect as mine when it comes to the kid reading the paperback on the bus. The circuits that ran from his office work to the baked and packaged box of cookies on the shelf were nearly as complex as those that run from my teaching and newspaper writing to the novel purchased at the charity shop and read intently on the upper deck of the W3 in Finsbury Park.

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May 22, 2010 at 2:58 am

Posted in literature, london

literary celebrity

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How do you know when you are one? You start rolling a cigarette while sitting in the pub with the academics who have paid you (£250!) to come talk to their students. When your handler asks you if you want to go outside to have a cigarette, you are able to reply for all to hear “No actually I just want to go, period.” And then you do. No excuses offered, even though there are likely good ones available.

But there’s a sadder truth to this sort of gig, and it is related to the cash figure I named in the previous paragraph. Twenty minutes later, you return, because you’d forgotten your package of rolling tobacco (£2.75) on the pub table. You retrieve it, make a politically incorrect joke about it, and then leave again.

UPDATE: My wife just accused me of being mean in this post. Really wasn’t my intent. It is a bit funny I think, but mostly this is an anecdotal exercise in the sociology of literature at present day. In what other field, nowadays, would you find such a conjunction of events?

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May 7, 2010 at 7:16 am

Posted in academia, literature, london

inventing the pain of others: david foster wallace’s kenyon college commencement speech

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I was recently led back to David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College by Alex Abramovich’s post at the LRB blog. What a strange piece of writing it is. And how strange, in a way, that it’s been repackaged as a sort of fully giftable edition, appropriate to amazon off to any graduating senior that you know and love. The other day, at the end of my last tutorial with a student in her final year, I emailed her the link above only to realize immediately afterward that I was more than slightly uncomfortable with what I had just done, even if I wasn’t quite sure why this was. I’ve been trying to figure it out over the past few days, so here goes…

In order to understand what I’m going to try to say about the address’s weirdness you should probably just go read it yourself before continuing, but just in case you can’t be bothered, I’ll lay the terms of the piece out quickly. (Correction – actually I’ve quoted a ton of the piece below… Forgive me for the long, citey post… You still might want to go read it first anway…) DFW’s first major move is to welcome the graduates to the adult world of  “boredom, routine and petty frustration,” and illustrates his introduction with a vivid little set-piece about going to the supermarket after work:

By way of example, let’s say it’s an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home. You haven’t had time to shop this week because of your challenging job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping. And the store is hideously lit and infused with soul-killing muzak or corporate pop and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be but you can’t just get in and quickly out; you have to wander all over the huge, over-lit store’s confusing aisles to find the stuff you want and you have to manoeuvre your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts (et cetera, et cetera, cutting stuff out because this is a long ceremony) and eventually you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough check-out lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day rush. So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can’t take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.

But anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and you pay for your food, and you get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death. Then you have to take your creepy, flimsy, plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, all the way out through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic, et cetera et cetera.

There’s lots to say about this echt-pomo vision of hellish banality, but let’s leave it be for now. What’s more interesting to me, and where the strangeness comes into the piece, is in DFW’s proposed response to such situations or to our situation in general as bored, tired inhabitants of the late capitalist wonderland of shit. Despite the fact that adult life is full to the brim of such situations and “many more dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines besides,”

that is not the point. The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.

So boredom and solipsism become two faces of the same coin. Fair enough. But it’s the proposed solution (if that’s the word) to this issue that Wallace proposes that seems to me at once problematic and revelatory in a subtly devastating way. The answer, as it turns out, is a fundamentally literary answer, even a novelistic one.

The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.

I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.

Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it’s hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat out won’t want to.

But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

So the answer to the soft brutal boredom and disgust that comes of the alignment of individual solipsism and consumerist alienation is the deployment of a kind of continuous fantasy that the individuals you encounter are immersed in all sorts of worst-case scenarios and household devastations. Everyone’s just been diagnosed with terminal cancer or been left by their wife, every car is full of the injured and diseased rushing for care that will come too late if at all, every whining child has just lost a sibling or a parent, every impatient adult is impatient due to economic or psychological collapse.

Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. As Wallace admits, the operation that he proposing requires something more than suspension of disbelief – something that I think more resembles a particularly perverse and perversely secular sort of Pascalian Wager. The world is unbearable if other people simply are this hideous without cause, so one places a bet, choosing to fantasize tragedy everywhere instead, which at least renders the hideousness comprehensible and therefore somehow more bearable. The final line of the talk – “I wish you way more than luck” – is in the light of the strange probabilistic casuistry of the piece an appropriate place to end.

It should be clear by now what’s strange and disturbing about the speech, and why it makes a less than appropriate gift for your favorite graduating niece or nephew. Though it’s tempting, I’ll avoid writing here about the clearly infernal logic of his argument and how it comes to seem itself like a last-ditch attempt to maintain operational sanity when one’s coordination is off and systems are failing generally. But in addition to all of this, it points us back to one of the central problems of the relationship between literary representation and ethics or politics.

One of the basic ethico-political use-values of literature has ostensibly been that it allows us access into the lives and minds of others -  that we learn empathy and understanding through these experiments in otherness. Well and good. But there is something troubling about this basic value that comes across in Wallace’s address. No matter how hard it tries, literature kicks against the representation of others in their average everydayness, in their quotidian normality. It loves to take its quarry on the worst day of its life, the days of dramatic action and traumatic suffering. It definitely not that it’s impossible to write otherwise, but that’s the way the gradient runs and resistance to the affectual mandates implicit in the form leaves the work haunted by what’s not there. Is this normal day actually the worst day? (Think for instance of Mrs. Dalloway, which plays out this haunting quite literally…) Like the depressive logic of Wallace’s after-work drive to the supermarket, even the seemingly ordinary is luridly tinged by what we might call literature’s all-encompassing tendency to crisis.

Whatever the life-logic advocated in the commencement speech, Wallace’s wider work of course displays a disturbingly deep awareness of this very problem. While it may be overly-broad and somewhat self-indulgent to think so, what the speech nonetheless communicates is a basic incompatibility (or is it an over-compatibility?) of the literary perspective and a healthily coherent personal perspective on life.

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March 27, 2010 at 8:22 pm

the literary and misery

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Pierre Bourdieu, in the opening section of his The Rules of Art that deals with Flaubert and Baudelaire, argues that the very category of the literary is born of the tormented working through of a true contradiction by certain artists . The contradiction arrives in the attempt to reach classless autonomy via a bourgeois, instrumentalized form – to create works that escape the mediocritizing determination of the market within the market itself.

We can extrapolate that the ineluctability of the contradiction is what leads to the privileging of failure as a literary motif during and after modernism. The very structure of the situation determines the fact that there is no winning this game. Le mot juste and all of the other juste things that were strived after in order to escape the banalizing forcefield of the market are of course nothing more than impossible, self-deconstructing chimera.

Let me put it another way. Pierre Bourdieu, in the opening section of his The Rules of Art that deals with Flaubert and Baudelaire, determines the very definition of the literary to be misery. Contradiction, double bind, antinomy were always already the devalued currency of this dysphoric realm.

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November 27, 2009 at 8:22 pm

Posted in literature, modernism

raban on empson: slow reading

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Jonathan Raban on, among other things, learning to read via an early encounter with William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity:

The first lesson Empson taught was to slow down drastically; to read at the level of the word, the phrase, the line; to listen, question, ponder, think. This was easy because his own writing enforced it. A single paragraph in Seven Types of Ambiguity was like a street closely punctuated with traffic-calming sleeping policemen: you had to study the relationship between one sentence and the next – and often one clause and the next – to see the logic that connected them, and if I tried to read them in my usual skimming style, I instantly lost the thread.

The second, more general lesson required one to greatly enlarge one’s understanding of what writing is and does (all writing, not just poetry; Empson illustrated his arguments with sentences from novels, book titles, newspaper headlines that had caught his eye and so on). On this, Empson was inexplicit except by inference, but as a fisherman, I saw it in angling terms. Every piece of writing was like a pond, sunlit, overhung by willows, with clustering water lilies, and, perhaps, the rippling circle made by a fish rising to snatch a dying fly. This much could be seen and appreciated by any passing hiker. But the true life of the pond lay below the surface, in deep water where only the attentive and experienced eye would detect the suspended cloud of midge larvae, the submarine shadow of the cruising pike, the exploding shoal of bug-eyed small fry. It was with the subaquatic life of literature that Empson – a scientist by early inclination, whose interest in science is a recurrent feature of his writing – was concerned.

Since I was brought up by latter-day Empsonians (Christ! No! Not my parents! My first instructors at university!), this is a fairly accurate precis of how I was taught to read, how I try to read, and how I try to teach my students to read. Go look at the piece – Raban has interesting things to say about the value of doing so…..

I’d like to say more about this soon. Recently had a young teacher sit in on a few of my classes – she’s French, but teaching over here, and she wanted to see how Anglo-Americans do the close reading thing in the classroom. Good intuition on her part, to sense that there’s a difference. For as much as we anglos tried to approximate, over the decades when most under the spell of the French, Gallic modes of explication du texte and the like, there’s a way that it’s never quite worked out for us, I think. I kept apologizing to her in advance, saying that I wasn’t sure she was going to find what she was looking for in my classrooms, that she was welcome to come along but that I was making no representations as to the usefulness of what she’d see, etc etc. Anyway, what I do, when I’m at my best, is something like what’s described above – just not with Empson’s idiosyncratic and precocious brilliance.

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November 5, 2009 at 10:58 am

Posted in literature

there have always been crises

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October 12, 2008 at 9:22 pm

Posted in crisis, literature

misuse of literature

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We don’t grow beasts like Hitchens in the US. Filled to the brim with satanic figures we surely are, but they rarely have reams of poetry by heart. Ours slick and equivocate, but not with the likes of Yeats and Shakespeare on their forked tongues.

Here he is with his latest and perhaps worst piece to date:

I was having an oppressively normal morning a few months ago, flicking through the banality of quotidian e-mail traffic, when I idly clicked on a message from a friend headed “Seen This?” The attached item turned out to be a very well-written story by
Teresa Watanabe of the Los Angeles Times. It described thedeath, in Mosul, Iraq, of a young soldier from Irvine, California, named Mark Jennings Daily, and the unusual degree of emotion that his community was undergoing as a consequence. The emotion derived from a very moving statement that the boy had left behind, stating his reasons for having become a volunteer and bravely facing the prospect that his
words might have to be read posthumously. In a way, the story was almost too perfect: this handsome lad had been born on the Fourth ofJuly, was a registered Democrat and self-described agnostic, a U.C.L.A. honors graduate, and during his college days had fairly decided reservations about the war in Iraq. I read on, and actually printed the story out, and was turning a page when I saw the following:

“Somewhere along the way, he changed his mind. His family says there
was no epiphany. Writings by author and columnist Christopher Hitchens
on the moral case for war deeply influenced him … “

Did you notice that the moments of ethical adding up that happen in the piece, the places where Hitchens “solves” the problem of his own complicity with this horrible thing (the war, the death of this kid), involve the deployment of literature. Literature that serves here as a cloud of easy equivalence, as permission to say mistily what you couldn’t possibly say without the screen of metaphor and allusion.

For the piece relies upon the equation: Hitchens is to Iraq what Yeats is to the Easter Rising and Orwell is to Barcelona. But of course Iraq is not the Easter Rising, nor is it Barcelona, unless perhaps you’re seeing it from the other side of the lines.

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October 5, 2007 at 9:46 am

Posted in distraction, literature, war

battle of the titans…

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…the titans of my own personal canon. Here, in an excellent review of new works from Kundera, Coetzee, Sontag, and Mario Vargas Llosa, Jonathan Rée has one of my favorites going after another.

But Coetzee does not confine his attention to novelists, and an outstanding essay on Walt Whitman allows him to explore a conception of democracy that he himself would evidently endorse: democratic politics, he suggests, is “not one of the superficial inventions of human reason but an aspect of the ever-developing human spirit, rooted in eros.” Those who make a fetish out of politics, he implies, are in danger of foreclosing on democracy. Take Walter Benjamin, for example. Coetzee, refusing to treat him with the awed indulgence that has become customary, contends that when Benjamin decided to become a good communist, it was not through an imaginative appraisal of political options, but was simply “an act of choosing sides, morally and historically, against the bourgeoisie and his own bourgeois origins.” And if there was something silly and unconvincing about Benjamin’s Marxism—”something forced about it, something merely reactive”—it could perhaps be attributed to a certain literary narcissism. “As a writer, Benjamin had no gift for evoking other people,” Coetzee says; he had “no talent as a storyteller,” and no capacity for the kind of compassionate intelligence implicit in the art of the novel. In a perverse attempt to opt for political realism rather than literary imagination, Benjamin managed to cut himself off from both.

This is interesting stuff, isn’t it? Coetzee has morphed into a writer who, when set to write fiction turns up with an essay in hand, just as when the situation calls for an essay, he throws fiction. But here, he accuses Benjamin of being neither fish nor fowl: his engagement was only ever forced and Oedipal, and on the other hand when he turns in the other direction he only discovers his own talentlessness.

Despite being a reflexive defender of Coetzee, I actually think he gets it very wrong here in the end. I actually think – and have written and may one day publish – that it is exactly when WB got most literary (in a certain specific way that there’s not really time to explain here, but the “messianic” threads are where I’m headed) that his work skewed toward a sort of portentous uselessness and maybe even something like bad faith.

More to say about this, of course, but then I’d be traipsing into my own real world work, which simply is not done, chez adswithoutproducts. But a few other things from Rée’s essay. Discussing Sontag’s At the Same Time, he notes that Sontag’s

fury at the condition of the US—she speaks of a “culture of shamelessness,” marked by an “increasing acceptance of brutality” in which politics has been obliterated and “replaced by psychotherapy”—seems to have made her forget her own better self.

…which is, I think, exactly the conclusion, in basically exactly the same terms, that the soon-to-be-departed Sopranos has been building to, no?

And finally, what to make of Vargas Llosa’s redeployment of the “democratic” and “pluralistic” ethos of the novel into service (both metaphorical and, according to him, material, historical) of the neoliberal project?

Vargas Llosa’s prose is sometimes slow-paced, but it speeds up when he reflects on the “collectivist ideology” of nationality. “There are no nations,” he says, at least not in a way that could “define individuals through their belonging to a human conglomerate marked out as different from others by certain characteristics such as race, language and religion.” For Vargas Llosa, nationalism is always “a lie,” but its rebuttal is to be found not so much in high-toned internationalist universalism as in the dissociative particularities of literature, and especially in a well-narrated novel. The novel, he thinks, articulates a basic human desire—the desire to be “many people, as many as it would take to assuage the burning desires that possess us.” Alternatively, it stands for a basic human right—the right not to be the same as oneself, let alone the same as other people. And the defiant history of democracy began not in politics but in literature, when Cervantes first tackled “the problem of the narrator,” or the question of who gets to tell the story. No doubt about it: Don Quixote is “a 21st-century novel.”

Another horribly quick answer: I think he might well be right about this. I also think that this is exactly, if indirectly, one of the issues that writers we term “modernist” had with the form from the start of the period / movement. Right from Bovary forward, where Vargas Llosa’s “basic human desire” to identification gets twisted into a very strange knot indeed…

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June 6, 2007 at 10:11 am

the other modernism

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So you end up broken in half, as a student of modernism, by the split in the period and in its emblematic works. On the one hand, the hyper-psychologized dystopias of individual complexity and political ineffability. On the other, the union of form and function under a banner of progress (even real progress). The former is the reflexive stance of the modernist literary text; the later, of modernist architecture and design. Think Joyce vs. Corbusier. Woolf vs. Niemeyer, Kafka vs. Tiege. You find the architectural / progressive motif more attractive – more potentially useful today – as a seed for revivification. But, on the other hand, you work with literature – this is what you do for a living.

It is tough to mine the latter from the former, the simple from the complex, the beautiful utility from the gratingly indifferent. It is tough to find, in short, the other modernism in literary texts. After all, literature doesn’t love hopeful contentment, and work (vs. dark dreamlife) toward that end – and most of all, it does not love utopia, whether actual or anticipated, whether exuberant or fadedly just OK.

Or maybe it’s just you, er, that is, me, as Owen Hatherley has found it hiding in plain sight in a J.G. Ballard’s Vermilion Sands.

[T]here is only one instance of a speculative community approaching a Ballardian ideal – a site where we definitively leave the Anglo-Saxon tradition of the cautionary, anti-Modernist dystopia – and that is in Vermilion Sands. This is a 1971 collection of stories spanning his first published story, ‘Prima Belladonna’ (1956) to 1970, all set in the same community: a dead or dying desert resort, populated entirely by the elegantly, wanly idle, most of whom are involved in strangely calm psychodramas. Vermilion Sands is a synthetic and synaesthetic landscape of psychotropic houses that respond to their inhabitants’ desires and fears, singing sculptures, and a place where everything in sight seems to glitter, to take on the qualities of crystal, a flickering chromaticism suffusing everything from stairways to hair colour and eye pigments. It is, as Ballard writes in the 1971 introduction, a picture of an ideal he wanted and expected to see realised. The dystopian tradition is refuted in this introduction: ‘very few attempts (in SF) have been made to visualise a unique and self-contained future that contains no warnings to us. Perhaps because of this cautionary tone, so many of science fiction’s notional futures are zones of unrelieved grimness.’ So could there be here a sort of affirmative retort to the insistence that all Modernist or utopian communities inevitably end up in dystopia?

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Written by adswithoutproducts

May 9, 2007 at 12:14 am

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An insanely good thread over at The Kugelmass Episodes dealing with, among other things, radical politics, academia, the aesthetic, post-scarcity economies, consciousness, socialism, theory, and everything else… Everything.

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Written by adswithoutproducts

May 5, 2007 at 1:04 am


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The New York Observer is to the realm of print journalism what Cops is to television programing. Both are born of utter rot. Both primarily feed and water the worst impulses in their audiences. But interestingly, both, because of their malignant rottenness, are venues for the near-exclusive exposure of the truth of American cultural life and its decay today.

I’ll leave you to troll through youtube looking for Cops examples, but here’s one from the Observer.

Dana Vachon, the 28-year-old banker turned blogger turned novelist about town, was not wearing socks. Just loafers. A buttery brown leather pair that may or may not have been Gucci and cocooned his feet to reveal just the manliest hint of hair-sprinkled skin. Set against an outfit of cobalt blue jeans, gold-coin cufflinks, and a gold-buttoned blazer, they perfected the look of a fresh Welton Academy grad who had just arrived for cocktails at the club.

As it happened, Mr. Vachon wasn’t sipping cocktails but herbal tea, and he was reclining at a table at the 1990’s trend-spot Balthazar—a restaurant that is, in theory at least, not a private club. It was an intriguing choice for a young scribbler whose first novel, Mergers and Acquisitions, is being promoted as the spiritual and stylistic heir to Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney’s coke-powered chronicle of early New York yuppiedom.


He began by freelancing for magazines like The American Conservative, which led, at the suggestion of his B.B.F. (best blogger friend) Elizabeth Spiers, to a blog about the “life and adventures of a 26-year-old investment banker,” which led to his discovery by power-agent David Kuhn, which led, in the spring of 2005, to a deal with Riverhead Books. A big deal. Mr. Vachon would get $650,000 to produce two novels for the imprint. That he was a first-time author who sealed the deal on spec, with just a 70-page taste of his novel-to-be, made him irresistible to lit gossips.


“I wanted to set down a portrait of this generation. Period,” he continued. “What’s the great Flaubertian quote? ‘All it takes for a member of the bourgeoisie to be happy is good health, selfishness, and stupidity, but the first two will get you nowhere if you don’t have the third’?” he said, slightly misquoting the author. “I love that.”

Seriously. Please. Stay. Away. From. The. Flaubert. You. Are. Going. To. Hurt. Yourself.

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Written by adswithoutproducts

April 6, 2007 at 2:42 am


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From a nifty piece on the Czechoslovak Month of Books:

The Month of Books event was designed to demonstrate the harnessing of the written word in the service of Communist doctrine. The Month of Books was targeted above all at select population groups where “ideological growth” could be expected. The youth, peasants, and workmen were to be remoulded and remade into politically mature comrades devoted to the Socialist regime. By establishing the post of literary adviser, the state apparatus secured access to workplaces. Factories, foundries, schools, and other institutions became venues for exhibitions, literary discussions, and other cultural events. Milos Vantuch, former head of the central library at the Klement Gottwald New Foundry, gives a detailed account of one such discussion:

The book, The Basics of the Coking Industry, authored by Kozina and Pisa, two excellent experts, has become available on the market. It is written in a very readable form so that almost all employees of the coke plant will be able to study it thoroughly. These are the reasons we chose this book for the discussion. How did we organise the discussion? The operational library of the coke plant provided us with the names of all those who had borrowed the book and we visited them personally in their workplaces. We discussed the book with them and asked their opinion. They also agreed to present their views as contributions to the discussion. We explained to them the significance and importance of the fact that they themselves would present their contributions. [...] The discussion was very interesting. Its course was as follows: [...] comrade Cejka opened the discussion and asked engineer Splichal to host it. The first person to enter the discussion was comrade Kormanec, blast-furnace foreman. In his opinion, the book lacks information on the water consumption per tonne of coke when quenching in the coke-quenching tower. He also mentioned the difficulties of switching from coke gas to blast-furnace gas. [...] At the end of the talk, professor Kozina took the floor and, speaking on behalf of his co-author, said that they were very content with the results of the discussion and warmly thanked the organizers. The talk began at 14:40 and ended at 17:10. 65 comrades, both men and women, took part; there were 22 contributions to the discussion.”

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Written by adswithoutproducts

April 6, 2007 at 1:55 am

Posted in literature, socialism


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