Archive for the ‘performativity (bad)’ Category
It’s hard for me to understand how anybody reads this sort of thing as anything other than a strange form of ad copy, a surreptitious pro-bono for the forces of gentrification themselves:
But after the cameras have gone, as the recession grinds on and the Eurozone spirals further into meltdown how will the Lea Valley look in 2013? 2013 is Year Zero, it signifies the beginning of new spaces opening up, of new possibilities emerging from riots and abandoned construction sites. The Masterplan will be eroded by the persistence of nature and the desire of the young to take back territory from the overarching boredom of the Westfield aesthetic . . . I imagine stalled housing projects, empty flats in yuppiedromes across the capital reactivated. I envisage stadia and velodromes covered in ivy, occupied and surrounded by transient and nomadic architecture, like Constant’s New Babylon, moving cities, interlinking, nomadic structures. I think this new ‘park’, the result of a corporate land grab, will, after the two weeks of televized spectacle, return to the physical reality of the wilderness.
It’s the same effect as Ballard – although I rather think that Ballard was far more fully aware of the dialectical perversity of his work than Ford is. A block of posh condos, a new megamall of the periphery, the traffic-locked Westway – all of these things become more interesting when someone encourages us to imagine them as anteriorly or futuraly haunted by outbursts of primal sex, violent agitation, or eroticised Michael Bay-type fireballs. Did you think Ballard was critiquing these things, given how appealing you find them in their gory transfigured forms? No more than marketing firms are critiquing the products they shill. Cars are more interesting – and thus more salable – when their utilitarian functionality receives, via the ad campaign, some Bukkake shots of sex and death, when they’re rolling you around the end of the world scenes of late capitalism.
Think about it: what if Ballard wrote a novel about what really goes on in the up-market high rise? And what if those who are selling the condos and buy-to-lets couldn’t rely on the residual grime as both an edgy selling point, a marker of victorious progress, and a feigned tell that the punter is going to get a very good deal indeed. The logic of the paragraph above is the very logic of gentrification – the edgy is valued as authentic but also as a good investment. The fact that the Lea Valley was first encountered by the artist “through the rave scene of the early 90s” is a consumer testimonial, might as well be a part of a branding operation.
In truth, the reality will be, I imagine, much more boring than in the quotation above. Flats will fill Stratford, the mall will continue to expand, the fringe areas nearby will be swallowed, until school catchments and distance from the transport hubs put a cap on the encroachment. There won’t be squatters – no more than there are in Canary Wharf. But in our flats – after all, ”we” are the demographic who are meant to occupy these things, right? – paintings of the previous inhabitants, wasted ravers, decorative drunks at a shitty bar, post-coital squatters in dirty bedrooms, empty bottles and over-flowing ashtrays, will hang on each and every reception room wall.
OK class. The text for today’s session is this amazing piece of journalistic commentary, “The 40-Year-Old Reversion” by Amy Sohn. Let’s do a play by play – might want to open the article in another window and follow along as I point out the highlights.
1. It’s a good idea to start something like this by blithely referring to a knowing/unknowing joke about some unfortunate caste or category of people to set the tone for the piece. This permits the readers to understand where they are, socio-demographically speaking, and where they most certainly aren’t.
Once a month I get together with half a dozen moms from Park Slope and Carroll Gardens. We call ourselves Hookers, Sluts and Drug Addicts.
Also note that the delivery of such a joke is a matter of touch. Sohn gets it just right here: Hookers, Sluts, and Drug Addicts are abstract and “funny” enough to keep things edgy yet chill. Adding “Teenage Pornstars with AIDS” or “Project Girls who Give Head for Crack” to the list would potentially bum readers out.
2. Following from that, head directly into a mildly dirty anecdote – something to give the piece a general air of… how to describe it… women staring at each other’s tits.
Sally and I hit it off right away. She had short hair and heavy lids. It turned out we had met ten years ago at the pool room in the back of the Brooklyn Inn, bantering and competing for boys.
Sally went to the bathroom and I waited in front of the door for her to finish. When she came out, I said, “Lemme see your tits.”
“I heard you got a reduction.”
She lifted her shirt and bra and flashed me. “They look good,” I said. “What did the old ones look like?”
They were too big for my little body. They were an F. After I weaned, I would roll over onto one of them in my sleep and it would wake me up and then I would realize it was part of my own body. Now I’m a D. I love them.” Then she started stroking them. A cook stuck his head out of the kitchen.
Notice, here, the way that Sohn doubles down in the final paragraph of the anecdote, moving from women looking at each others tits to a woman and a cook watching another woman massaging her own tits. Note too, at this point, that Sohn widely sidesteps the temptation to move into fullbore sucking, lapping, or licking.
3. Once you’ve cleared ironical slurring and salacious suggestion, you can permit yourself a little vanity-mirror moment, just to register for the readers that you are in fact still desirable enough that any of the rest won’t be gross in the “ugly-old-people-having-sex” sort of way.
Later we decided to go to a bar in Boerum Hill. The restaurant owner, Dave, said he would drive us. He turned out to be a divorced dad. We all crammed into his SUV. There were car seats in the back seat and he threw one of them behind us. The other wouldn’t move so a small mom sat in it, scrunched.
As we were crossing the Gowanus Canal, Dave said, “I just want you to know that I would have sex with any one of you ladies tonight. Even the pregnant one.”
“Thank you,” we said.
3.1 But it would probably be best to tie the “guy-who-says-you’re-still-hot” digression off with a knowing, self-reflexive wink – but a wink that nonetheless you are definitely still potentially somewhat up for it and not the kind of bitch who gets tetchy about stuff like harassing comments made by restaurant owners:
The difference between twenty-five and thirty-eight is that, at thirty-eight, when a strange man says he wants to have sex with you, you feel grateful.
4. Now it’s time to disentangle yourself from digressive anecdotery about Sluts and Tits and Cougarism in order to roll out the actual pitch of the piece. And by pitch I mean just that: this is where you copy and paste the email that you sent to the editor of the web-only publication that you’re writing in now. In the course of doing so, probably best to hat-tip the massively-overexposed and over-analysed bit of pop culture flotsam gave you the idea for the piece in the first place. Nobody, after all, gets tired of pieces along the lines of Lena Dunham – c’est moi. C’est nous tous!
When “Girls” hit this spring, I was shocked by how true the show rang to my life—not my old life as a post-collegiate single girl but my new one, as a married, monogamous, home-owning mother. My generation of moms isn’t getting shocking HPV news (we’re so old we’ve cleared it), or having anal sex with near-strangers, or smoking crack in Bushwick. But we’re masturbating excessively, cheating on good people, doing coke in newly price-inflated townhouses, and sexting compulsively—though rarely with our partners. Our children now school-aged, our marriages entering their second decade, we are avoiding the big questions—Should I quit my job? Have another child? Divorce?—by behaving like a bunch of crazy twentysomething hipsters.
4a. Above all else, it is absolutely vital to end the pitch-repeating “thesis” paragraph with a reduction of any (if any – let’s hope not) complexity you’ve generated so far into a single word brandname for what you’re describing. If you don’t do this, how will Newsweek what to put on their cover the week that you’re the star – they sure as hell won’t go with the title of the novel that you’re flogging by doing all of this in the first place.
Call us the Regressives.
Without a capitalized Name like this, how the hell would anyone know what you’re talking about? What sort of twitter hashtag would they use when arguing about whether you’re a shitter mother than the Tiger Mom or not? Most important of all, they might just start to get the sense that you’re extrapolating wildly (and hyperbolically) from a sample set that includes People who Live on My Block of Union Street, the One between Court and Clark.
5. OK – you’re just about ready to drop the name of your novel into the piece at this point. Careful – this part takes a deft touch.
My new novel, Motherland, is about five New York City parents who act out mid-life through adultery, marijuana or Grindr. The characters are inspired by my neighbors, who seek liberation not through consciousness-raising and EST the way their mothers did, but through Fifty Shades of Greyand body shots. They arrive home from girls’ nights at three a.m. on a weeknight and then complain about hangovers at school dropoff.
In another lesson, we’ll spend more time on the principles of novelistic construction that are on display in this dazzling set piece. For now: note the elegant to-and-fro of contradiction and confirmation of preconceptions are work here: moms are moms but also not because they fuck and drink, these people are made up but actually real, things have changed but really haven’t but really have, and this will have porny fucking in it, just like 50 Shades. All this in the course of a couple of sentences.
5a. This is slightly annoying, given the patently obvious universality of Sohn’s novel and this piece (and, presumably, yours as well), but it’s a good idea to underscore that universality for the haterzz by patiently explaining that the phenomenon in question is definitely not simply an insanely local case / unanchored particularity / simply evidence of the hothouse-reeking-of-egotistical-bullshit that is Brownstone Brooklyn but is in fact a global phenomenon.
(And this regression is not confined to upscale neighborhoods in New York City—I hear similar stories from friends in Los Feliz, Montclair and Rye.)
You can be forgiven if you don’t know where these desperately provincial backwaters are that Sohn mentions – why would you? I mean, the fact that they are only slightly more suburban versions of Brownstone Brooklyn, one in LA the other two just outside NYC, and are filled by exactly the same sort of people, only with bigger houses and maybe the shot at sending their kids to public school instead of having gram and gramps pay for St Anne’s, doesn’t contradict the fact that this stuff is probably happening in Omaha and rural Bangladesh. Or isn’t, as the whole piece is staked on the fact that Brownstone Brooklyn is so insane hip that…
You know what, forget it. Let’s move on.
5b. …we’ll move on save for one more thing. It will probably happen that some redneck will call you up on this Montclair or Rye thing. If so, answer with an eye-roll and the response “Oh, so I guess we don’t do irony, do we, where you’re from?”
6. Right. That’s it for the mandatory stuff. Now it’s time for the body of the piece, which needn’t be much more than a series of anecdotes about the phenomenon in question. Whether they actually add up to making a case for the existence of this phenomenon isn’t the point. Rather, the point is to deploy what you have – basically a series of mildly titillating / gross / silly things that have happened or you have “heard about” while sidestepping the fact that they may not in fact be real. One way around the later problem is to write in the present tense (“They arrive home from girls’ nights at three a.m. on a weeknight and then complain about hangovers at school dropoff”) or, even better, avoid using verbs beyond strange “it is” constructions at all:
The childbearing is over, the breastfeeding in the past, the sling donated to Housing Works. It’s the moment when a mom dresses as a Harajuku girl for Halloween, or there’s a full bar at a four-year-old’s birthday party, or two ladies step out of book group to smoke on the stoop. It’s blowjob gestures at cocktail parties followed by a-little-too hysterical laughter. It’s the mother who says, “Mommy needs an Advil because she stayed up too late last night.” It’s fortieth birthday parties at karaoke bars.
See that: through the “it’s, it’s, it’s” formulation, you’re not actually asserting that any of these things actually have taken place. Rather this is the sort of thing that would happen if this Regression thing was happening, and since you’ve said it’s happening, then they have happened too. Perfect – you’ve learned the secret of tautological spin.
7. It might be a good time, lest the reader starts to lose interest or attention, to reaffirm that this is just like the stuff that happens on her/his favorite cable tv shows.
The same Facebook moms who use kid photos as their profile pics post galleries of their binge drinking. Is the behavior really amoral? No. Does it cross a line? Rarely. But there is a wild, life-craving, narcissistic, oblivious madness to it that reminds me of Don Draper and pals in the mid-sixties. These women are the men their mothers divorced.
8. Now that you’ve done the amorphous “things that might be the case but who really knows” non-story story thing, the remainder of the piece can consist of a stream of consciousness list of mundane things that vaguely reinforce the Big Idea of the piece. Have no fear if these mundane things are really mundane and utterly disjointed, one to the next. What follows is an exhaustive list of what actually happens in the remainder of Sohn’s piece – exhaustive so that you can you can be reassured that having nothing really to talk about shouldn’t at all put you off writing a piece of this sort:
- Once, a woman in Fort Greene had non-intercourse sex once with a coworker.
- Once, a married woman with kids used coitus interruptus as her birth control method.
- Once, a man bought XL condoms from the Park Slope Co-Op
- Once, two men took Xanax while drinking.
- Once, a dad gave the author some marijuana.
- Once, the author took the subway to Park Slope once because there were no cabs on Smith Street.
- Once, people went back from drinks to someone’s place to do a line of coke.
- Once, someone said to the author that her Asian boyfriend had a large penis.
- Once, people at a party attended by the author smoked pot on the front stoop.
9. As you can see, the takeaway point is this: the initial “tits out and self-fondled” story is the alpha and the omega of this piece, and clears room for everything else. That along with a catchy tagword like “Regressives” will allow you to transform, as if (or, probably, in fact) effortlessly, some silly shit that happens at boring kids’ birthday parties in at the Center of the Literary Universe (i.e. Brooklyn) into a piece that not only captures the World Zeitgeist, but further even becomes a talking point during the dead-air times on CNN.
Did you catch a guy peeing against your garbage cans? Then exhibitionism in the new hip thing amongst the BoBos of Park Slope. Did you bump your head during sex with your husband? Watch out, EL James: it’s married BDSM that’s the new rage in Red Hook. Did a friend of a friend let one rip during a cocktail party? Then – as you can easily imagine – farting is the new flirting in Boerum Hill.
Not that one should really go in for such things, but I just saw a Gawker post that makes a point pertinent to other things that I’ve been thinking about lately. Only going to name one name here, as it’s a name attached to a current piece, but I’m starting to notice a bit of a trend or a trope that is persistently appearing in a certain, well, caste of writing:
1) one writes an article / piece / novel that is a bit or a lot tone deaf when it comes to the social positionality of the dramas, humorousness, or both invoked
2) perhaps one thus delights / edifies / entertains those readers / viewers how happen to share the social position involved but then
3) one is criticised for the naive / un-reflexive / bizarre / grating (attempts at) drama or humor, perhaps by those who don’t share the same social position, and so
4) one explains / argues that said piece was meant in jest / as satire.
The trick - and this runs parallel to what the Harvard kids in the video on Gawker don’t get either – is that the ultimate purpose of one’s piece, the final message, may well undercut any semi-satiric posturing that comes in the middle. That is to say, if in the New Inquiry piece, in the words of the author,
the ‘woe is columbia’ attitude was intended to be self-mocking (um, i guess i failed?) and the main point i was trying to make is that going to fancy liberal arts college actually makes you less competent for the kinds of jobs you get right after college…
it’d probably be better for the penultimate (or is it ultimate?) point not to be that the problem with humanities degrees is that just about anyone – not just the tenderly cultivated products of international schools who end up at Columbia – can get one. As she says in the initial essay linked above:
The reason for the bachelor’s degree’s impending obsolescence has a lot to do with the high costs, and now publicly-recognized flaws of American four-year colleges. It is also an inevitable consequence of just how available higher education has become. With limitless student loans and free-for-all admissions to for-profit colleges, education is no longer a surefire indicator of class or race—a valuable function for the reproduction of both hierarchies—or even intelligence or ability—the supposed backbone of the information economy.
Anyway, it is one example of many, this… But you see how it works, right? Someone calls you on your snobbery or silliness, and you in turn call them, implicitly or explicitly, on their stupidity for not getting the in-joke, the ironic jargon of the quad, the argot of the ivied.
1) Rewatching the first season of the Sopranos (can it really have been a decade since?) and amongst all of the wonderful (and wonderfully woven) thematic threads is one that I’d forgotten. In S01E09, which is best remembered for the Uncle Junior “South of the Border” sequences, Tony and the boys decide to punish their daughter’s soccer coach when it’s discovered that he was sleeping with one of his charges. What follows is a sequence in which the males are frustrated in their plans through the reasonable intervention of several women, especially Artie Bucco’s wife (who identifies the egotism inherent in the planned action – the fact that the coach would die more than anything else for the collective satisfaction of the mobster fathers) and Jennifer Melfi, Tony’s shrink, who asks the critical question: Why is it that Tony feels that it’s his job to exact justice in every case?
2) The stage is set for the anti-climactic ending by playing the potential climax out in advance, only in small scale and in a banal setting. Artie Bucco and Tony are out for dinner, and they see a young guy wearing a baseball cap in this relatively swish restaurant. After a conversation-that-aging-white-guys-like-to-have about declining social standards and the like, Tony gets up from the table, walks over to the becapped diner, and tells him to take off the fucking hat. The kid does so, embarrassing himself in front of his girlfriend in the process.
3) I’ll admit, I have a little bit of a problem with this sort of thing myself. It’s important, I think, to draw an immediate distinction between calls-to-action that really are yours (your wife / your daughter / your son / your husband is in trouble and its up to you, and only you, to respond) and this other category of events that the Sopranos episode is highlighting.
I’ve ended up in problem after problem in life by throwing myself into frays that were not mine – always, always, on the side of “justice,” or at least what seemed just to me at the moment – it ways that might seem absolutely baffling to someone wired otherwise. They would ask me, just as I am now asking myself, “Why is it your business, business that you actually have to bring to some sort of conclusion, if for instance some young kid hits on a girl in a bar over-aggressively? Why is that your fight to fight?”
4) I don’t like spitting on the street. The other day I was walking down the road when the kid in front of me hocked up a huge one and sprayed in on the pavement. I was just about to tap him on the shoulder to ask why the fuck London seemed like him the right place to blow his brown sputum around when I realized it was one of my tutorial students from last year, one of my favorite ones. I ducked away without him seeing that I was behind him.
5) What exactly is my problem with protest? I’ve been trying to sort it out this week, obviously in the wake of the big demonstration in London on Wednesday. I hate going to them, though often have. Obviously they have to happen, but for some reason (just being honest here – perhaps in the tradition of Orwell on the sense that he could never quite overcome that poor people smelled – and hopefully in service of some larger claim) I can’t help but walk around incredibly fucked off at everyone around me. Whether self-satisfied later-day liberals or kids who don’t seem to know what they’re actually protesting, whether anarcho-thugs bent on violence for its own sake or annoying academics taking a break from skimming the New Left Review – I am an equal opportunity hater, even if – as is generally the case – I am fully on-board with the cause in question.
6) When I was in grad school, I attended one of the anti-WTO protests in New York. After I proudly reported this fact to one of my smarter and more pragmatic friends, he asked me – quite simply – what it was exactly I was protesting. I could not coherently answer.
For whatever reason of bearing or position, people don’t often ask me questions like that, questions based on an assumption that I simply am too ignorant to answer. It was an awkward 30 second exchange whose import I’ve never quite shaken.
7) I was in my office meeting with students during the early stages of the protest this Wednesday. I’d check the BBC News video feed on my computer and as things heated up at the Millbank Centre I decided that I really wanted to go down there. I mean like viscerally.
8 You really learn what it means to live in a country without a revolutionary tradition when you watch the news media – and even various student representatives – go into an absolute fucking flutter over the destruction of a rather incidental amount of property. America gets panicked about a lot of things, but christ, I can’t imagine the response to some equivalent act of group vandalism taking quite this tone and intensity. Sure, the building housing the Conservative Party HQ isn’t some random Starbucks or Gap outlet, but still….
9) The left response to the seizure of the building has been incredibly incoherent, incoherent in the guise of semi-reasonableness but really wearing the hairshirt of fear and irresolution. For instance:
Why couldn’t Solomon explain her actions? One assumes that she and the other who participated in this event actually did have reasons for doing what they did. One further assumes that she here on Newsnight she wanted to avoid falling into a trap that she presumed Paxman (and the British media in general) was laying for her, but ended up blundering into a far worse situation in the end. In refusing to answer directly, what ends up filling the gap where the reason should be is not the presumption of violent intent. It’s the presumption of stupidity, collective stupidity.
Even worse, some sort of on-message conspiratorial stupidity – which becomes the global effect when one considers many of the articles and documents written in support of the occupation. Again and again, the occupation is explained as an effect of amorphous “student frustration” – which only again begs the question of what, exactly, this act would do to assuage or ameliorate this frustration. It doesn’t get much better in things like the now infamous “Goldsmiths Lecturers Letter” (full text here):
We also wish to condemn and distance ourselves from the divisive and, in our view, counterproductive statements issued by the UCU and NUS leadership concerning the occupation of the Conservative Party HQ. The real violence in this situation relates not to a smashed window but to the destructive impact of the cuts and privatisation that will follow if tuition fees are increased and if massive reductions in HE funding are implemented.
Well OK. That’s pretty carefully worded, but ultimately says not much more than “look over there not here!,” which doesn’t really amount to a serious appraisal of the actual event that the letter is ostensibly focused on but which it ultimately skirts. As such, it opens itself even more flagrantly to the exact sort of co-optation that it ultimately and quickly suffered from. Co-optation without side-effect, as there was nothing in the statement to poison with reason those who would use it irrationally.
Again, assuredly there were reasons, even if uncomfortable ones, for entering the building. It’s my hunch that they would in fact play better than this sort of thing that we’re seeing from the left on television, in the papers, and in a series of petitions and collective letters. If occupations and the like are going to be conducted, if windows are, yes, going to break (as Solomon vaguely promises during the programme), mightn’t it be a good thing to be able to describe why in fact they are happening? The collapse of the London Eye is nothing compared to the wholesale destruction of Higher Education in the UK. The collapse of the London Eye is a deeply-felt expression of student frustration. I don’t want to talk about the collapse of the London Eye, even though I planted the charges. I want to talk about student fees. I’m afraid it didn’t play well this time, and will play even worse next time.
10) At the end of the Sopranos episode that I mentioned above, Tony actually bows to the reasonable arguments advanced and decides to call off the hit. He ends up rolling on the floor of his house, in a drink-n-valium fueled stupor, only able to say to his wife “I didn’t hurt nobody.” He’s restrained his impulses for once, thought something through for once, let the “system work” for once, and ends up an incoherently frustrated mess, basically a very large child in a semi-coherent state.
While most of us are able to step back comfortably from an endorsement of mafia-style vigilante violence of the sort dealt with there, I still think that the episode serves as a very vivid and ambiguously wired political or ethical allegory. That is to say, the crossing of ethical demand and psychological need, the complex relationship between instantaneity and process, and in particular the very complex question of impersonal involvement, even violent involvement, in the pursuit of justice of one stripe or another, are persistent ones, insoluble but worth seeing (I hope, I hope) presented vividly.
11) Why did I want so badly to go down to Millbank? Was it simply because there was the possibility of violence? Why didn’t I go down to Millbank? Well that, my friends, is a longer story than I can possibly tell here.
It’s bad form in even a vulgarly dialectical essay like this one, but I hope that you can see the aporia that’s looming over this piece.
12) Of course some of the impulse to violence in the service of justice is hardwired, written into our basic codes and structures. Interesting to think so, though. Seems an animalian holdover, something quite primitive, but on the other hand: do animals commit vigilante violence?
I suppose the question of vigilantism comes down to an issues of numbers, sets. Family – herd – neighborhood – any random victim on the street.
13) Of course it’s hardwired, but it’s also an impulse I clearly learned from my father. Such vivid memories from my childhood – the time at the baseball game when teenagers were carrying on behind us, using foul language and generally being loud, and my father…. turned around on them. A scene that I’ve been repeating my entire life, along with many others of the same, my entire life: in thought and dream and often enough action. When one is a child, a boy child enamored with his father, these scenes seemed like living allegories of bravery and abstract justice, arbitrary interventions on behalf of justice for its own sake.
Now, while some of the sheen of those moments has been retained, I increasingly want to ask – him, the him in myself – the very question that Melfi asks Tony: Why was this sort of thing his job? Why is it our job?
14) Under-interrogated psycho-social issue: What is the effect of having a father who went to war when you yourself did not? A grandfather who did while your father did not? I suppose I could ask some of my friends whose fathers served in Vietnam…. Mine was Canadian so (fortunately) missed the show. I suppose I could ask some of these friends, but would risk wandering them into the high traumas of parental alcoholism and violence that I know understand were going on behind the scenes, at night when I generally wasn’t there.
15) The numbered, thetical form that these personal-cum-political blogessays that I write often take allows for a certain halting stream of consciousness, not unlike that which is supposed to obtain during psychoanalysis, to take place. Just write what comes next, from whichever frame of reference it comes.
Of course, this tactic (tactic?) inevitably results in a document useful only as a clearing house for further thought – it is not thought itself. It is a smooth, empty concrete floor where one spills out all of the contents in the hopes that once out one might put them back together again with coherent form.
16) The hidden non-sequitur incoherence of Benjamin’s “Work of Art” essay… The madness of the ending – as an ending to that piece – despite the brilliance of the observations arriving at cinematic pace throughout…
“Fiat ars – pereat mundus”, says Fascism, and, as Marinetti admits, expects war to supply the artistic gratification of a sense perception that has been changed by technology. This is evidently the consummation of “l’art pour l’art.” Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.
17) Theory and what it excuses: if I were to put myself back in the frame of mind that I once briefly held – during the coursework time, I suppose, of my PhD – I could allow myself to wrap this up in a theoretical aporia, a full-empty question or request for further thought that allows me to step away without solving anything out. We must interrogate the complex entanglements of personal desire and public good, personal perversity and rational action, that informs each and every act of political violence, in this context potentially liberatory political violence. I could glibly ignore the performative contradictions inherent in my piece, expecting that mystified readers would leave off the contradiction inherent in everything that they exuberantly label performativity.
Identifying knots of over-determination but doing so in a tone that seems to indicate that you are announcing a political program is something like treading water while selling slickly-packaged books to the passing tourist boats.
For years and years, from the beginning, the nightly prayer (even after God) finally to work properly tomorrow. The schedule, the set of texts. At one point, it was the Norton Anthology of World Literature and a teach-yourself guide to Spanish, then Latin, then Homeric Greek, Italian, and finally Chinese. Earlier than that it was all the books listed in the back of Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon. Of late, there isn’t even a set of books to read – the list has turned into a toppling and random stack. It was also always certain amount of writing, either in the morning or at night (my nights are unworkable now – I am too old). But in conflict with this, a steadily developing doubt in volition and will. We are waifs amid forces, we do what we will do. You can make a list but you cannot make yourself keep to the list. But still one says the prayer, even after God, for the work to come and for everything, finally, to be in its right place.
One of the only good things to happen to me over the last ten days was to happen upon a discarded review copy of David Shields’s forthcoming Reality Hunger near the office recycling bin. I want to review it myself, and will try to sort that out in the next few days, so I’m not going to say everything I have to say on here and right now. I can’t understand the breathless blurbage it’s received. I know what blurbs are and aren’t, believe me believe me, but still. I should have a chance to ask one of the Major Blurbbers what he was thinking at an Xmas party in a couple of hours. We’ll see.
Just for now: one of the things that Shields does in this book is copy other people’s stuff seamlessly into the book without attribution. Well, almost without attribution. There’s an appendix that starts as follows:
This book contains hundreds of quotations that go unacknowledged in the body of the text. I’m trying to regain a freedom that writers from Montaigne to Burroughs took for granted and that we have lost. Your uncertainty about whose words you’ve just read is not a bug but a feature.
A major focus of Reality Hunger is appropriation and plagiarism and what these terms mean. I can hardly treat the topic deeply without engaging in it. That would be like writing a book about lying and not being permitted to lie in it. Or writing a book about destroying capitalism but being told it can’t be published because it might harm thee publishing industry.
However, Random House lawyers determined that it was necessary for me to provide a complete list of citations; the list follows (except, of course, for any sources I couldn’t find or forgot along the way).
If you would like to restore this book to the form in which I intended it to be read, simply grab a sharp pair of scissors or a razor blade or box cutter and remove pages xxx-xxx by cutting along the dotted line.
Who owns the words? Who owns the music and the rest of our culture? We do – all of us – though not all of us know it yet. Reality cannot be copyrighted.
Stop; don’t read any farther.
Lovely – lots of us agree in principle with all of that. But if reality cannot be copyrighted, Reality Hunger still can be… and is. Right at the front of the book, there it is: Copyright © David Shields, 2010. In this day and age when all sorts of alternative models like creative commons and copyleft are in practice along with alternative means of distribution, it does seem like Shields’s offering is skewed from the start by this rather glaring performative contradiction. Technically, even in copying the above into my post, I am breaking the injunction at the front of the review copy not to “reproduce before publication of the finished book” any of its contents. I’m slightly tempted to start a blog where I post the book as a whole, one of its numbered entries a day. Hmmm…. I’m going to wait by the phone for those Random House lawyers to call.
When you walk around with a sense that you are literary, and further that what literary means in this case is not quite perverse but perhaps something like dialectical in a rather unanchored way, you are of course rendered unfit for political position-taking, you tend toward the overreading of documents, the endless deferral of signature writing, awkward conversations with those who know better.
“But wasn’t that always the point of the dialectic? It’s unanchoredness?” you ask yourself just before you ask yourself the next question, which is whether you believe that there is such a thing as bad faith. And there you are back again, right in the middle of the not-quite-perversity that might or might not be the hallmark of the dialectic, the unanchored one.
Of course, the answer is no. You don’t believe that there is such a thing as bad faith. This is a problem. But even with a gun to your head, even if you in extremis answered that you did believe in bad faith, even if people would die because of your lie, “Yes, yes, god. Of course there is. Of course there is such a thing as bad faith! Obviously, god, of course!,” it still wouldn’t be bad faith, not in your opinion. It would only be the gun at the back of your head and a completely comprehensible human response.
Of course people save themselves. Of course they distractedly save themselves first, block off the thought of the others who will perish. You can hear the very thoughts in their heads as they do so, because they are not unfamiliar thoughts. (Not unfamiliar to anyone you want to add but stop yourself). And if others die because of it, because of the lie or the solipcism, it is not their fault, but the fault of the structures and systems that are unforgiving of lies or solipcism, that render them more deadly than they ever should be.
What sort of answer is this and to what? It’s getting humid in here so you decide for a change to think about yourself.
When one’s habits of thought, the only instrument that works in one’s trusty toolbox is a sort of vulgar Derrideanism that both survived the end of Derrideanism with a capital-D and one’s own unwillingness to get on board with Derrida to begin with, in the first place, back when that was the sort of decision one was asked to make, one is clearly left in an awkward place.
You wonder if it was Derrida at all. How could it have been? How much of his work did you actually read? You read Grammatology, Writing and Difference, the one about Hegel, the big one with paintings, the one with Blanchot in it (did you?), some of Specters, other things. What is the one with the essays? Which one has the interviews? Christ now you can’t even remember the name of the one with the signature, and whether that’s the one with Austin in it. You did meet him once, you introduced yourself. But whatever had happened had happened long before that. That was the end of the story, when whatever it was was already set in the stone of your method, your calcified method. This is only dawning on you now.
When you got your first job you should have remembered, you should have stopped and considered (this coming only now, amazingly, just now four years later) that what you call “vulgar Derrideanism” is actually and simply only quite refined but basic liberal-arts college English technique. It is what you learn to do when someone takes the time to mark your work well but ambiguously, and when you have the time and the need for approval that you ponder the ambiguities, discuss them endlessly during walks with your one-day wife. What did he mean by that? Why did he draw the question mark in the margin? What was wrong with that passage? It is what you learn to do when you are there to learn and you are taught by conscientious vulgar Wittgensteinians who haven’t read much or any Wittgenstein. They don’t need to – there are decades worth of essay prompts for them to draw on. Why bother with the foundational materials at this point when what works truly works.
Describe the process of taking a book out of Frost Library.
Describe what it’s like to hit a tennis ball.
Describe what it’s like when you read this poem.
You were rewarded when you learned to balance paradoxes, to pull the string of ambiguity without snapping it, to keep the little plastic ball bobbing just above the straw that extended upwards from your lips toward the sky. But another way to put it is that you learned perversity, sinistrality, to coin a word. Always let the left hand remodel what the right hand is doing.
Despite some reservations, they allowed you to continue working in the field. This happened again and again until you are just where you are. You do what people used to be able to do but can’t anymore. And what is that, exactly? And can you imagine hearing something like that and feeling a spurt of unreflective pride. I do what people used to be able to do but can’t anymore.
It is a relief when, as you correct your manscript, when the readers have pointed you to a passage that could use more analysis. There is nothing easier for you than more analysis. You will get to the part about the major, and absent claims of the work later.
In the afternoons, you work for an hour (two during summer) on fiction. It is no wonder why. And it is unlikely that you will ever publish a single word of it. It is no wonder why.
Today you taught. You teach very well. At least they smile when they leave. They say nice things about you, very very nice things about you, when you’re not around to hear. You get a raft of Ph.D. students, here like the last place. When you teach, someone, always a female when it happens, almost always stops to thank you for your enthusiasm. No one, none of them, are enthusiastic. You are so enthusiastic. It’s such a breath of fresh air, your enthusiasm. You are enthusiastic, it is true. You are intense – everyone tells you you are intense. You took the first paragraph of the 1802 Preface to the Lyrical Ballads and showed them at least three extremely convincing but mutally contradictory ways to make Wordsworth into a parodoxicalist, an ironist, a dupe of haunting ambient ironies, or perverse. You love the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads because almost every paragraph of it contradicts itself in its own distinct way. The science of pleasure, the real but made, metrical but natural, poetry but prose but poetry but prose. The social and historical determination of art and thought, but mere idiosyncratic intensification of the timelessly common.
Paul de Man. He was one of those people who did the sort of thing that people no longer do, but you can do. Paul de Man. You wonder if you have it in you to be Paul de Man. You wonder if they’ll let you write for the papers too.
Or…. you are Private Joker in an alternate (and perhaps more interesting, perhaps) version of Full Metal Jacket, in which after he learns to disassemble and reassemble his rifle so very well, takes all too strongly to the running joke about the eroticization of his weapon, in the climactic scene, instead of blowing away his teacher and sticking the barrel up his mouth, he instead is himself made a drill instructor on Parris Island. And in fact, rather than shifting the scene to Vietnam (that is to say London, really…), we watch as now Master Sgt. Joker brings his own sets of inductees into fully and effectively the Corps, despite the fact that the war, after Tet, isn’t going all that well. Best of all, he is cool and methodical where the first drill-instructor was bluster and joke. He is better, cooler, cleaner than his teacher.
So you acquired technique, a proficiency. But there will be no program to reskill workers with obsolescent skill sets, no federal program to subsidize engineering’s transformation into massage therapy, telecom marketing into environmentally sensitive agricultural work, financial (and other forms of) speculation into deaconry or even church sweeping. There will be no subsidy to beat croquet mallets into shovels, tuning forks into spoons that feed knives to hungry children. It is unlikely that you can do these things, unfortunately, on your own, with out a bailout.
No, you will be left with your toolbox and single tool to make do as one can despite the closure of the factory, the bakery, the plant. Piecework, odd jobs, putting out, freelancery. All while holding down your sinecure – the unemployment is elsewhere, has little to do with your job.
When all this is the case, one is likely to do no harm, but one is also almost certain to do harm in doing no good. Whether more harm than others, it’s hard to say.
All of this is so much as to say, in what can only be called (dishonestly, really, or is this too a lie) an extreme case and performance of bad faith, I should have signed the fucking letter. What the fuck is wrong with me, really?
Like David Lurie at the end of Coetzee’s Disgrace, they should put me in the backyard with a banjo with broken strings and a three-legged dog and an operata about Byron’s abandoned mistress to write. They should, but it’s too late, as I’m so already there.
Frank Rich, as he often does in his best Sunday pieces for the NYT, gets into the seam to shout the obvious that the rest of the press cynically or idiotically ignores – in this case the fact that, for all the attention that’s been paid to Obama’s hawkish selections for State and Defense, his economic team is cut from the selfsame mold. In short, with both the imperial wars and the economic crisis, the very people who were involved in creating the problem are now going to be the ones appointed to pull us out…
This is what Rich is so good at, the emperor-has-no-clothes column, and this is what we’ve loved him for. But it is a love tinged with serious frustration as well, with this column no less than all the brilliant and brave ones he’s written about the war and terror over the past near-decade. We are frustrated because while he’s courageous at sniffing out the problem, he seems to stop just short, perpetually, of naming the real reasons for the disorder he describes.
Rich’s thesis today is that the economic team Obama’s assembled resembles the cabinet put together by Kennedy – JFK’s team of boy-wonders that somehow, despite their brilliance tumbled us into Vietnam. The payoff paragraph argues that it is an issue of personal defects, individual hubris, that makes these people make poor choices in crucial situations.
No, it’s the economic team that evokes trace memories of our dark best-and-brightest past. Lawrence Summers, the new top economic adviser, was the youngest tenured professor in Harvard’s history and is famous for never letting anyone forget his brilliance. It was his highhanded disregard for his own colleagues, not his impolitic remarks about gender and science, that forced him out of Harvard’s presidency in four years. Timothy Geithner, the nominee for Treasury secretary, is the boy wonder president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. He comes with none of Summers’s personal baggage, but his sparkling résumé is missing one crucial asset: experience outside academe and government, in the real world of business and finance. Postgraduate finishing school at Kissinger & Associates doesn’t count.
Summers and Geithner are both protégés of another master of the universe, Robert Rubin. His appearance in the photo op for Obama-transition economic advisers three days after the election was, to put it mildly, disconcerting. Ever since his acclaimed service as Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration, Rubin has labored as a senior adviser and director at Citigroup, now being bailed out by taxpayers to the potential tune of some $300 billion. Somehow the all-seeing Rubin didn’t notice the toxic mortgage-derivatives on Citi’s books until it was too late. The Citi may never sleep, but he snored.
Geithner was no less tardy in discovering the reckless, wholesale gambling that went on in Wall Street’s big casinos, all of which cratered while at least nominally under his regulatory watch. That a Hydra-headed banking monster like Citigroup came to be in the first place was a direct byproduct of deregulation championed by Rubin and Summers in Clinton’s Treasury Department (where Geithner also served). The New Deal reform they helped repeal, the Glass-Steagall Act, had been enacted in 1933 in part because Citigroup’s ancestor, National City Bank, had imploded after repackaging bad loans as toxic securities in the go-go 1920s.
Post-Iraq, we’re unlikely to rush into a new Vietnam. But we ignore the past’s lessons at our peril. In his 20th-anniversary reflections, Halberstam wrote that his favorite passage in his book was the one where Johnson, after his first Kennedy cabinet meeting, raved to his mentor, the speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn, about all the president’s brilliant men. “You may be right, and they may be every bit as intelligent as you say,” Rayburn responded, “but I’d feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.”
Halberstam loved that story because it underlined the weakness of the Kennedy team: “the difference between intelligence and wisdom, between the abstract quickness and verbal facility which the team exuded, and true wisdom, which is the product of hard-won, often bitter experience.” That difference was clearly delineated in Vietnam, where American soldiers, officials and reporters could see that the war was going badly even as McNamara brusquely wielded charts and crunched numbers to enforce his conviction that victory was assured.
But of course, lots of people are a bit too smart for their own good – probably everyone and anyone who’s likely to be appointed to run Harvard or the US economy falls into the same camp. I would be willing to bet that the hubris Rich is naming is a constant in the managerial ranks of any society. No, the deflection that Rich performs here psychologizes or even theatricalizes that which is attributable to bad ideas. It transmutes a corrupt and corrupting ideology into a personal failure, an idiosyncratic flaw.
I hate to sound reflexive, to sound like I’m parrotting the party line, but the problem with Rich’s work – now and throughout the decade – is that as brave as he is in naming what is hiding in plain sight, he systematically refuses to lay blame where blame is due. In this case, neoliberal economics – the self-suspending rope ladder of financialization. We are to blame Rubin and Summers personally, just his earlier columns urged us to blame Bush and Rumsfeld and Rice personally. Rich has all the makings of a brilliant social analyst, a wide-angle reader of the American situation. But when he brings right to the heart of the darkness that he describes, we find not systems and ideas but always a soul in crisis, a man on the verge of sin or deep in sin and trying to scrabble his way out of it. We “blame Bush” – and, as is clear even from Rich’s column today, it is becoming ever more clear that the removal of the stumbling villain from the stage might not be the cathartic crisis point that augurs the end of the horrible piece we’ve been watching.
Still, I need to take care. Rich is brave, but not brave enough. My own argument here has become a performative repetition of the very problem I’m trying to diagnose in the column. I have ended up blaming Rich for casting personal blame when broader, structural claims are required….