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Archive for the ‘simplenarrative’ Category

north carolina: the blind date

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America does, however, brim with raw material. Not so much material raw material or even the processed stuff anymore, but the story stuff that they we endlessly generate. Hard to work on one’s own when surrounded by such stuff. Barnes and Noble right now, and mistaken for “Ethan” while waiting in the coffee line. “Ethan” turns out to be her blind date, some sort of eHarmony generated pick. But no, “Ethan,” I’m not.

She looks softly disappointed when he actually shows. But as it turns out the Harmony that’s been e’ed is the fact that they are both into “spirituality.” Hard to discern exactly what brand – as my American readers know, but perhaps not the Brits, we’re not talking Xtianity here. Or rather, we’re talking about what happens to Xtianity when god gets sublimated (what a thing to sublimate, huh?) into amorphous mojo or golden sunbeams or whatever, normative ethics into conventional methods of “self-actualization,” and so on.

Can’t help but listen. She picked the table next to mine as if she wanted to, as if she wanted me to listen. Perhaps she knows that I’m a spiritualist too of a very particular, and particularly self-annoying and not all that redemptive sort. Sometimes I wish I had some sort of press badge that entitled me to record stuff like this. “Would you mind if I just left this tape deck to run here on your table. Here, let me move your soy latte. Yes, here’s my pass from the International Union of Barnes and Noble Flaneurs.”

She is discussing a “presentation on vibes” that she just attended, and the “tarot group” that she was at last night. He is dying here – he’s faking the new age-ness that seems to have been requisite for this meet. He has nothing to say save for the list of schools that he attended, the boring job that he does doing “video work,” and the fact that he’s not really interested (or so he says) in watching the finals of the World Cup this afternoon.

Though he’d like to be a therapist, as he majored in psychology, he’s still “assessing his situation” he guesses. She attempts to circle the conversation back to some place. He plunges deep and backward, to a summer spent in France during high school, the friends that he left behind there. She is ia lawyer, with a prosperous job – just lonely here having moved at the wrong time.

Education, employment (over / under), travel, where one chooses to live in the nearly identical sprawl sprouts around here, the other places – themselves basically identical to this one, with only slight variations in weather and political climate – where one lived before and might well live again. You can see the structural void that amorphous esoteric “spirituality” fits in, the roles that it serves in these negotiations – those both with oneself and with others.

So the tale of the tape: under-narrativization on his part vs. over-narrativization on hers. The coffee machine rumbles at key points as if to underscore, behind all of this, something indeterminate. She checks the time on her phone, “can’t be late for my thing,” and then they start the final push toward failure and separation: the discussion of the virtues and faults of various mobile phone companies, AT&T vs. Verizon….

UPDATE: I am clearly being cruised by a guy sitting a few tables over, cattycorner. I look up from the laptop, his eyes lift to meet mine. Over and again, automatically. The coffeehouses of Barnes and Noble are clearly one of the most interesting and interestingly emblematic places in America. I’ve long thought about writing something about them – one of those publisher friendly books (bet I can think of just the publisher, at least if they did anything other than publish out of print classics in third-choice translation!) where, in the midst of personal crisis and looking to get back to my (suburban, part-autodidactical) intellectual and social roots I rent a car and spend an evening typing / reading / talking at each and every in-store coffee outlet in America. It’s a place that one goes when one wants more than what’s otherwise around place like this, but where one is unlikely to find much more than lattes and computer magazines and the company of the more interesting variety of lonely types, the lonely types just like you…. Ah, but it’s a bit too Alain de Botton to pass my rigorous muster, isn’t it?

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July 11, 2010 at 5:06 pm

handke: “the impression of fiction”

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From Spurious:

Reflecting on his earlier fiction, Handke says:

These narratives and novels have no story. They are only daily occurrences brought into a new order. What is ‘story’ or ‘fiction’ is really always only the point of intersection between individual daily events. This is what produces the impression of fiction. And because of this I believe they are not traditional, but that the most unarranged daily occurrences are only brought into a new order, where they suddenly look like fiction. I never want to do anything else.

And he says this:

The more I immerse myself in an object, the more it approaches a written sign.

Handke has published 4 volumes of his journals, which he began to keep in the mid 70s. Was this amidst the general crisis to which he alludes at the beginning of My Year in No-Man’s Bay?

There was one time in my life when I experienced metamorphosis. Up to that point, it had only been a word to me….

Very early on, while at the famous Group 47 meeting, he says:

Above all, it seems to me that the progress of literature consists of the gradual removal of all fictions.

Just ordered a stack of Handke, whom I’ve never read. There’s potentially productive semi-contradiction, I think, between the first quote of the series (in which fictionality seems to have been relocated from the work itself to the eye and mind of the reader – thus the impression of fiction) and the last one. Which fictions, exactly, is he out to remove?

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June 26, 2009 at 8:43 pm

reproductive presentism / notes written one sunday

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So what happened today? Was woken up at 7 AM to watch the older one while my wife and the younger one got some more sleep. I sleep now in the loft, by myself, and have done so for quite some time. “Our” bed is the bed where everyone else sleeps. This, I think, is a fairly common situation.

Made coffee and got the milk out of the freezer. Our refrigerator stopped working on Friday and no one could come to fix it until Monday. So frozen milk.

Played “animal doctor” with the older one. She picked up the idea for this game a few weeks ago when we visited the school she’ll be attending in the fall. The reception class has in one corner a sort of veterinary clinic, complete with lots of real and realish medical implements and lots of stuffed animals to operate on. We had a hard time dragging her out of the classroom when our visit was over. So now we play at home, mostly looking at non-ear parts (including, yes, the bummies) with the ear-examination device. Then we give shots. And then we feed them tea.

My wife and I have always had problems with weekend mornings. Anxiety sets in. While most people with kids and many without have no trouble sitting the weekend out, relaxing at home, and the like, we’ve always felt this soft desperation about making our weekend days good and full. Back before kids, it was often the negotiation between work and play. Now it’s generally about the sort of things we can manage with the kids, what’s realistic, what can be done without collapse or tantrum or more trouble than it’s worth. She is frustrated – she hasn’t been to central London, save for surgical appointments, in months. But it is too late and too hard to go to Hyde Park or the like.

We settle on swimming. Our area is renowned for its swimming provision – a large complex with an indoor pool and what they quaintly call a “lido” in the UK. After a bit of passive-aggression passed triangularly – father to mother to older daughter and back again – we pack our old D’Ag bag with swimming suits and towels, load the double stroller and make our way to the pool.

Despite what the website says, the pool is closed from 1-2. It is 12:45 when we arrive. My wife gives a bit of lip to the attendant; the attendant doesn’t respond. And so we have lunch at a “cafe” nearby. There’s something they call a “cafe” here that roughly corresponds with the New York diner in their ubiquity, the quality and variety of food on offer, and the cheapness of the fare.

I hold the younger one in my lap while we eat. The older one eats all of her ham and cheese sandwich – she is coming along a bit lately on the eating, on not needing to be begged to eat.

We decide to save the big pool for another day and instead head to our usual park, which has a wading pool for kids. It’s the one pictured at the top of this post, and it is lovely. No frills but well kept, full of stuff to do but nothing glamourous or noteworthy. Tennis, a playground, room for football (but no fields or goals), blacktop for bike riding or basketball, and a wading pool with a cafe.

American parks almost never have cafes. Almost every park in London has one. They are lovely. I am sure they are cost-intensive, but they make you feel a bit like you live in Europe, at least when you’re an American. Perhaps Americans know what I mean when I say this – the Europeaness of sitting at a council-run cafe in the middle of a neighborhood park.

Luckily for us, one of the girls my daughter goes to school with is in the pool when we get there. We hesitate about whether we should move over to join the other mother – perhaps she wants her time alone, why didn’t she come over here near us, what will we say when we get there? My daughter is just now hitting the age where she can reliably and steadily play with other kids, with friends, without constant parental intervention. They splash about in the pool for an hour or so before another one of their classmates shows up, and then there are three. My wife takes the baby over to talk to the other two moms; I look at my iPhone and watch my daughter.

Then there are errands. A trip to the photoshop to pick up some prints. A trip to the office supply store for a posterboard – I never asked my wife why she needs that, it occurs to me now. And then home, where I answer an e-mail from a student who has just now written me, all too late, about doing a PhD on Joyce. He seems to be a foreign student, though he’s studying right now in London, and wants to self-fund. We are under pressure to admit just about anyone who will self-fund at this point, as it’s one of the only ways we are able to raise revenue, and raise revenue we must.

It’s four o’clock by then, and by implicit pre-agreement I am to get some work time this afternoon. (The math is complicated – but the fact that I got up at 7 AM this morning has something to do with it). I have to write a feature for a magazine and I am two weeks late. So I head back downtown to write for an hour-and-a-half in the same Costa where I always write. I write 400 words, drink two medium lattes, and I tell myself that I will finish the rest tonight.

On the way home, I notice one an advertisement for this week’s edition of the neighborhood paper. Waitrose, apparently, is moving into our shuttered Woolworths in the centre of town. This makes us happy, as we have fond memories of the Waitrose on Finchley Road when we lived a bit west of here. But it will likely put some of the local butchers and fish-mongers and fruit sellers and probably the independent grocery next door out of business.

I put the Yankee game on my computer. It is a terrible game – the Yanks are beating the Mets 13-0. We debate ordering Thai or making the Chicken Kievs that are in the freezer, and decide on the latter. I defrost then defrost again then preheat and then insert and then put a pot of corn on and run out to get a cold bottle of Coke (as the fridge is broken). What I buy is no colder than the unopened bottle we already have. I read the Observer as things finish cooking; the younger daughter is asleep next to me in her little bouncy seat.

The older one is now asleep or getting there and my wife is feeding the baby. The Yankee game is still on but it’s not getting any more interesting. I noticed that we can watch movies on our computer via our Sky subscription – maybe I can talk my wife into watching sex, lies, and videotape tonight, which is on offer. And then I’ll finish the piece – 1300 more words – or I won’t and I’ll break my promise to start working on the book tomorrow. My wife will take the baby up to bed with her at 10 or 10:30. I will go to bed at midnight, 1 AM at the latest.

So why am I telling you all this? Is it meant to be interesting – and if so, in what way? Am I bragging about my well-accoutred North London life? Or am I braying about the busyness of all this – the fact that there is barely time to work or even breathe? You might think I’m admirable or cowardly, you might want my life or detest it. You might find me disgusting for taking up space with the description of this day, or it might strike you as totally apropos, apropos of something, who knows what or maybe you know.

It was not a particularly interesting day – perhaps not even infra-interesting, though that’s a trickier issue. I am spending a lot of time thinking about the everyday lately, and on more than one front – intellectually, personally, perhaps artistically and politically as well. It is both lucky and unlucky that I am about to spend so much time thinking and writing about it, as it is something that I have an extremely ambivalent relationship towards. Odi et amo, as someone once said of something else. There’s a part of me that belongs exactly nowhere but in a semi-suburban living room or the aisles of a supermarket, the same part of me that buys too many newspapers – all of the papers, sometimes – and wants things calm and orderly and basically like some sort of Ikea spread-vivant, a family barbeque in a social democratic country, in a park that you get to by train or bus, and with food purchased at a kiosk whose sign is written sans serifs. But then there’s another part of me that is nothing but chaos and dysrhythm, grandiloquent thought and speech, drink and brokenness and poor poetry, crispé comme un extravagant, back-alleyed and ill-tempered and too loud.

Henri Lefebvre, in the first volume of his Critique of Everyday Life, has a section called “Notes Written One Sunday in the French Countryside,” and in that section is the following passage:

And in life itself, in everyday life, ancient gestures, rituals as old as time itself, continue unchanged – except for the fact that this life has been stripped of its beauty. Only the dust of words remains, dead gestures. Because rituals and feelings, prayers and magic spells, blessings, curses, have been detached from life, they have become abstract and ‘inner’, to use the terminology of self-justification. Convictions have become weaker, sacrifices shallower, less intense. People cope – badly – with a smaller outlay. The only thing that has not diminished is the old disquiet, that feeling of weakness, that foreboding. But what was formerly a sense of disquiet has become worry, anguish. Religion, ethics, metaphysicas – these are merely the ‘spiritual’ and ‘inner’ festivals of human anguish, was of channelling the black waters of anxiety – and towards what abyss?

I am trying to place it, the everyday, trying to figure out the frame and the use. What to make of the generic universality of certain elements – for instance the way that taking care of a child puts you through certain nearly universal or maybe fully universal (careful, careful) movements and gestures and probably thoughts. And I am trying to make sense of the lingering disquiet that Lefebvre mentions above. What is both hope-inducing and intellectually-terrifying to me is the fact that the recent recession of the dystopian imaginary – the backing up of the threat of the flash and burn and all of the other catastrophes has taken away an ideological-aesthetic crutch that allowed shorthand-in where only full consideration will really do. As if by fiat, we are suddenly under a mandate to stop changing the subject when it comes to the everyday. No news event is going to save us from the question that we are faced with, that we’ve long or always been faced with.

Instead we are brought face to face with the rhythm, probably permanent, of recurrent mild to severe economic crisis coupled with mild to middling affectual, ethical and intellectual crises. Please believe me when I say that I am fully aware of the class understructure of the question that I am asking (or trying to find the words to ask) about my day. I just happen to believe that much of what has gone on, for at least the last half-century, in the world is staked on this sort of Sunday – its pleasures, which are very real, as well as its equally-real if more softly spoken anxieties. The long sunday is an ad with products. It’s just still to-be-determined what the products are, which ones we want, and what to do about it once (if) we figure all of this out.

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June 14, 2009 at 10:03 pm

notes on the aggregate 1: letraset mirror-stage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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May 25, 2009 at 8:31 pm

lorem ipsumism: ballard and ads

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Rick McGrath is very good today at Ballardian on JGB and advertising. I especially like the bits about the lorem ipsumy dummy text. Here’s Ballard as quoted by McGrath:

The pages from the ‘Project For A New Novel’ were made at a time when I was working on a chemical society journal in London, and the lettering was taken from the US magazine Chemical and Engineering News — I liked the stylish typography. I also like the scientific content, and used stories from Chem. Eng. News to provide the text of my novel. Curiously enough, far from being meaningless, the science news stories somehow become fictionalized by the headings around them.

Dummy text – full-dummy or semi-dummy – is such a tantalizing concept and resource. Bouvard and Pécuchet’s copybook, automatic writing, collage, madmen cutting up letters to send to the coppers, flarf, the porn novels that come out of the machines that Julia works in 1984, even in a sense FID when taken to some sort of logical extreme all partake of the vertiginous promise of the lorem ipsum. It’s something like Barthes’s reality effect, that barometer (“Flaubert’s barometer, Michelet’s little door finally say nothing but this: we are the real; it is the category of ‘the real’ [and not its contingent contents] which is then signified”) sublated to the level of text itself, while at the same time resisting this sublation as it never feels banally real in the manner of the fictional detail.

As Rick McGrath says elsewhere in his piece:

Designed to be viewed from moving cars (Ballardian in itself), billboards offer the advertiser the benefits of a very large message, but the disadvantage of greatly reduced viewing time. Three to five seconds is the average length of time an individual has to scan a billboard, and this feat has to be accomplished in moving traffic. In order to compensate, successful billboard ads rely on strong, simple visuals and to-the-point messages. No one is going to drive around the block for a second view. It immediately becomes apparent that ‘Project For A New Novel’ breaks these rules by its sheer volume of words and complex, unbalanced layout — as well as the fact it seems to make no sense, offers no brand, no benefits, and no indication of how to respond. But that may be the point, as ‘Project’ is a quasi-surreal piece vaguely reminiscent of the ‘cut-up’ technique used by W.S. Burroughs. This same technical problem was identified by Ballard’s friend and Ambit editor, Dr. Martin Bax, ‘Most of the text you can’t read because when you see things on billboards you don’t read the small print, so the text is deliberately blurred — you can only read the headlines and some remarks.’

But of course that’s cheating, making it too small to be read at speed. It’s cheating because it makes the text into a mere image. The true lorem ipsumist aim is to actually get someone to read the stuff, to convince ourselves to read it, not out of sadism or masochism, but because one has a sense that something’s there if you could just figure out the right way to read it. And we’re not talking divination here. We’re talking in fact the exact opposite of divination.

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May 4, 2009 at 9:36 pm

simple modernism

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Tell yourself the story of Oedipus Rex. Take a few seconds to do it, a few minutes. If you want the particulars, look them up.

So, it’s a bit more complicated than this due to the preserved unities (and more on this complexity in a minute), but you’ve got the prophesy, the slaying of the father and the marrying of the mother, with the riddle of the Sphinx in between.  Then (now we’re in the real time of Sophocles’s play), we have the arrival of Tiresias, the revelation of the true nature of Oedipus’s crimes, the suicide of Jocasta, Oedipus’s eyes out with the brooch, and then his self-exile.

Now, imagine alternate ways the story might have been told or might have happened. We could have followed blind, dripping Oedipus along his way to Colonus, but left off before we got there or just as he made it to the gates? What if we had narrowly focused in on a day featuring nothing but particularly good sex with Jocasta, or another in which Oedipus spent 9-5 working on land distribution in Thebes or hearing court cases?

Better yet, what if Oedipus had never found out about his crimes, and instead had died of old age? Or what if he had never committed the crimes in the first place, but rather stayed on with Polybus and Merope, eventually reigning unspectacularly in Corinth for a decade or two, before his own son took his place on the throne?

What if he did kill his father and marry his mother but such practices were so widespread at the time that it wasn’t really much of a big deal – he kills Tiresias, shrugs, and heads back to bed with his mother?

What sort of play would Oedipus Rex be if it didn’t locate itself right at the crucial moment, the moment of anagnorisis and peripeteia, retroactive revelation and reversal of circumstances? What if bad things happened, but nothing changed. Or no one knew (or allowed themselves to know) that the bad things had happened. What if the bad things – at least these bad things – had never taken place, either because they didn’t happen or for one reason or another they were not “bad.”

Aristotle, in the Poetics, discusses plot in a way that seems to hold room open for both Sophocles’s play and my own versions of it.

Some plots are simple, others complex, since the actions of which the plots are imitations are themselves also of these two kinds. By a simple action I mean one which is, in the sense defined, continuous and unified, and in which the change of fortune comes about without reversal and recognition. By complex, I mean one in which the change of fortune involves reversal or recognition or both. These must arise from the actual structure of the plot, so that they come about as a result of what has happened before, out of necessity or in accordance with probability. There is an important difference between a set of events happening because of certain other events and after certain other events.

The simple plot with a simple action “in which the change of fortune comes about without reversal and recognition.” We have two words for that sort of action when we’re made to watch it on stage, the movie screen, or the television news; those words are boring and fucked-up. Nothing happens, or something fails to happen, or something happens but no one pays a price, no one even notices, catharsis fails to come, retribution is not ours or theirs. In some sense, what Aristotle describes there with the notion of the simple plot is at once a formula an unstageable play and the logic of history, its brutality, most of the time.

It’s also the formula, I would argue, that best defines the diffuse field of texts that we label today modernist narrative. Imagine these possibilities:

  • Insanely brutal events happen in the Belgian Congo, but it is hard to figure out what or why. One agent of the company in charge is sent to find out the status of another. The latter dies unspectacularly, and the first agent heads back to Europe to talk to the deceased’s girlfriend.
  • A writer writing during and just after the First World War writes a work of epical scope that seems to be bent on the full capture of the realities of life during modernity. But despite the war raging all around him as he writes, he sets the work in the second city (if that!) of the British empire, a backwater full of semi-employed wanderers, and most unnervingly, he sets it exactly ten years before the beginning of the war that would define the early part of the century. *
  • A shell-shocked war veteran kills himself by leaping from his doctor’s window and landing on the area fence. Nonetheless, a woman hosts a lavish party. Not long before this 500,000 Armenians are massacred, and no one really notices.
  • A man comes to a door that has been erected only for him. He does not pass through the door. Nearby, a man is summonded to a trial of the gravest importance that never happens. In the same general area, a family goes back to work after the death of the eldest son, who had been turned into…

When I claim that preoccupation with the everyday is one of the defining characteristics of modernist narrative, I mean the everyday that takes place in lieu of or in resistance to the event. Or even better, the everyday is what takes the place where we would normally expect to find the event – the historical event, yes, but more specifically – technically – the action that turns and in turning provokes reflection that is the most fundamentally characteristic gesture of narrative itself. It would be utterly easy, in certain sense, and utterly literary, in a specific sense, to organize narratives that deal directly with the events of the period: colonial brutality, the advent of total war, bureaucratization verging on dehumanizing totalitarianism. War and sex, violence and news all give themselves to retelling in fiction – but for some reason, the most memorable texts of the most memorable period of fictional production during the past century and a half refuse to take the bait.

Just as water flows downhill, fictional impetus flows into Aristotle’s complex plot forms. Modernist authors did not so much reverse the flow, but rather, however fluid their discursive forms might be, resisted the notion of flow and change altogether.

* See my next post…

Written by adswithoutproducts

January 11, 2009 at 9:58 pm

gas station microtragedy / possession, repossession, dispossession

with one comment

When I’m around my father, I end up landing in sicker and stupider regions of the television map than I’m used to. He has poor taste, and flips channels quite a lot. Network drama to NHL hockey to, yes, pro wrestling and “ultimate fighting” and the like. There’s now a show – a fake reality show - that deals exclusively with the repossession of peoples’ vehicles. Cars, SUVs, construction equipment, motor cycles, boats, the whole gamut.

I’m not sure whether it matters or not that the show isn’t really a reality show. It’s purportedly a series of “recreations” of actual repossessions, according to a disclaimer that runs at the front of the show. I’m sure that most viewers distractedly take it as real. If that is the case, I’m further sure that this show is as sick and sad but also complex as other programs in the genre. What is the appeal? Schadenfreude, sure, but more than that perhaps. The crime-and-punishment based reality shows have always been a complicated compost of affectual registers. This is for another post.

But one of the interesting things about this show that I was watching is the fact that almost every time the repossession company pulls up (of course, in this case, with cameramen in tow) and the actor playing the owner of the vehicle to be towed away suddenly realizes what is happening and confronts the repossessors, the owner makes a great show of not believing that this is happening. There must be some mistake, I’ve paid my bills, I could show you, yes, but the cancelled checks are at my work, I’m calling the cops – you’re stealing my car! Now, half the time it is meant to be clear that the deliquent owners are lying – these are the less interesting cases. The more interesting cases are those where the scene is written and acted as though, despite the fact that they said to be four, six, twelve months behind on their payments, the actors in question play the scene as if they really do believe that they aren’t. Despite the fact that they obviously on some level know that they are broke, that this day was soon to arrive, at the moment when the tow-truck is pulling their car away, they are clearly one-hundred percent convinced that the note is paid in full, that a huge mistake has been made, and that everything is as it should be – save for the fact that a heavily tattooed thug is driving away with their vehicle. It’s hard to describe how we know this as we watch the show – some particular mixture of anger and confusion, some reality effect that can’t be faked in the grain of the voice – but know it we do. This arc is the primary dramatic arrangement of the show – the rational if swarthy agents of collection are confronted time and again by deluded, nearly hallucinatory, exemplars of the American consumer, absolutely baffled by the fact that the other shoe has just dropped, the bill has finally come due, that it’s too late to ask for an extension and that they now will have to find another way of getting to the office park in the exurbs tomorrow for work.

Operation Repo is a realist show. It’s presuppositions about the way people are and how they act are meant to be our presuppositions about the way people are and how they act….

Today I stopped at a gas station next door to my hotel for water and cigs, and overheard something fascinating while waiting to pay for my stuff. A middle-aged white guy was standing at the counter, taking quite a long time with his transaction. The customer in question looked middle-class, maybe verging on upper middle-class. Decently attired, probably out of the, um, Kohls collection but still. The way that it works at gas stations in the US (almost all self-serve by now) is that you either dip your credit card at the pump or you pay cash in advance inside the station itself. But this guy was inside, having the clerk run and rerun his credit card. It hadn’t worked at the pump, and wasn’t working inside either. He had the clerk run it again to preauthorize only $5 this time instead of $20 as before – still refused. But it became clear, from the conversation, that this is something that he had done yesterday, the day before – something that he’s been doing everyday at the same gas station. He said, “Yeah I can’t understand what it is – this credit card is good. It’s just convenient for me to get gas here. I live around the block. I can’t understand why it isn’t working. Do you have a number for the company to call or something? Man, I just don’t get it.” The exchange with the clerk was polite, perhaps exceedingly so if the story was what he wanted it to be. He had the clerk run the card again, for $5 again. Refused. He took the number of the credit card company and promised to go home and call and get it all sorted out. He did not, as might be expected, present another card so that he could at least get some gas while he was here. Neither did he pay in cash. He left without filling his car. An unfinished sentence streamed through my mind: but if he’s back here, three days in a row, obviously he’s not getting gas elsewhere, it is not the case that the card is working at other gas stations, so… All polite, all everyday and normal. But it’s clear that this is a life that’s quietly come unstrung. He is not stealing, he was not playing a confidence game on anyone other than himself.

One wonders how much gas he has left in his tank, how much longer he will be able to make it to the station for his daily his of self-deceiving self-distraction. I’ll have to call the company, just as soon as I get home. I wonder why….

Written by adswithoutproducts

December 31, 2008 at 5:53 am

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