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choose your own adventure: middlebrow mad libs

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Originalml

I went through a period as a boy when I was obsessed with Mad Libs. Were they a UK thing too – or was there something similar? Basically, the player is given a set of prompts for parts of speech, various types of words, and the like. These are then plugged into a prewritten story, and of course much non-sequiturism and absurd hilarity (if you’re 8 or 9 years old) occurs. It’s sort of a poorman’s Oulipo, a vulgar literary surrealism for kids.

Anyway, tomorrow is the first day of summer, so the blurbs and related PR materials for all the middle-to-higher middlebrow fiction is starting to flow through the social media sieves. And as I skim this stuff, it’s impossible for me not to get a sense that the writers / agents / publishers responsible for its positioning on the airport news agents’ shelves and the tables at Waterstones or Barnes and Noble marked with the cardboard palm tree aren’t playing their own version of literary Mad Libs.

A young (doctor/student/yoga instructor) has suffered through (a divorce/ a bereavement / a layoff / pancreatic cancer) and decides to visit (Nepal / Laos / Peru / inner city Detroit). There she meets a (Buddhist school teacher / flamengo instructor / holistic gynaecologist / homeless savant) who teaches her to enjoy (food / dance / sex / her “curves” / abstract art) and, thus, life again. Upon returning to (London / New York / the family manse) she meets a (stock brocker / surgeon / idealistic social worker) and almost loses love… but ultimately, in the end, finds it.

Of course, one could compose similar rubrics for the various subgenres of this sort of stuff (the post-English Patient war romance, the self-discovery memoir, raunchy post-chick-lit chick lit, etc). (And hey, if you care to, post your own versions in the comments!) And further, of course, the fact that you can do this part of what makes genres genres – you could do the same for science fiction, the nineteenth-century realist novel, mid-century American “outsider” fiction, whatever.

But still, there’s something infinitely depressing about the implicit psychological profiling of the potential reader that seems to be running behind the construction of these blurs and the books that they stand for.  Commercial publishers know their readers, I guess. Or at least they know the (ever fewer?) readers who are already buying their books. And these readers, it seems, at least according to the evidence available in the products on offer, stand at the book tables (or their html equivalents) going through a not very complex dance of identification and aspiration as they decide which book to purchase for their carry-on luggage or beach bag. Ah, that’s like me. That’s like me too. That’s not like me but I wish it were. Ooh, wouldn’t it be nice if it turned out like that… 

(I’ve written about this process of identification in relation to the cover art of such novels before.)

Eat,_Pray,_Love_–_Elizabeth_Gilbert,_2007

Take for instance the work that can stand as an avatar of the middle range of the middlebrow stuff just as Ian McEwan’s Saturday can stand for the upper reaches of the form: Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. It’s a memoir, but it fits the rubric above so perfectly that it’s almost the platonic ideal of the genre – and undoubtedly has become a model that the book business looks to replicate over and over. Here’s a description of the work from wikipedia:

At 32 years old, Elizabeth Gilbert was educated, had a home, a husband, and a successful career as a writer. She was, however, unhappy in her marriage and initiated a divorce. She then embarked on a rebound relationship that did not work out, leaving her devastated and alone. After finalizing her difficult divorce, she spent the next year traveling the world.

She spent four months in Italy, eating and enjoying life (“Eat”). She spent three months in India, finding her spirituality (“Pray”). She ended the year in Bali, Indonesia, looking for “balance” of the two and found love (“Love”) in the form of a Brazilian businessman.

In this description, we can almost read the handwriting of the invisible hand that drives the publishing and marketing of such books: Our readers are almost all women, and what we all know about women is that women like to eat (even though they sometimes have to be coaxed into really going at it) and they like feelings and deepness and softcore “spirituality.” It’s even better if that leads (coaxes them into?) love and sex. It’s like a perfect dating experience – a dinner, followed by some deep conversation, and then, and only then, some sex –  extended into a self-discovery memoir! 

At any rate, what’s less interesting about all of this is to discover the venal cynicism of publishers and the vapid selection principles of some readers. It’s an old story, and not a particularly interesting – and perhaps not even entirely true – one. What’s more interesting, I think, is to consider, as I’m starting to do here, what we can make out of all that goes into the production of such products – especially at the spots where form intersects with baser motivations. That is, what I’m interested in is the semi-allegorical posture of the narratives to presumed customers lives, the socio-ideological substrate of the relations between the writing and the market, and what we might call, after Fredric Jameson, the nature of the political unconscious that somnolently calculates “Bali, Indonesia” as the reconciling synthesis of Italy and and India.

 

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June 20, 2014 at 11:40 am

peripheral omniscience 1: ballardian moments

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Westway_at_Paddington

Two sentences from Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station:

In the distance airliners made their way to Barajas, lights flashing slowly on the wing, the contrails vaguely pink until it was completely dark. I imagined the passengers could see me, imagined I was a passenger that could see me looking up at myself looking down.

I think of moments such as these as “Ballardian moments.” Certainly Ballard wasn’t the first to turn at the crossroads of subjective reflexivity and locational relativity like this, but it is a move highly emblematic of his work. For instance, perhaps the best example, from Chapter 11 of Crash:

Waiting for Catherine to leave for her flying lesson, I drove my car towards the motorway, and within a few minutes had trapped myself in a traffic jam. The lines of stalled vehicles reached to the horizon, where they joined the clogged causeways of the motor routes to the west and south of London. As I edged forward, my own apartment house came into sight. Above the rails of the sitting-room balcony I could actually see Catherine moving about on some complex errand, making two or three telephone calls and scribbling away on a pad. In an unexpected way she seemed to be playing at being myself – already I knew that I would be back in the apartment the moment she left, taking up my convalescent position on that exposed balcony. For the first time I realized that sitting there, halfway up that empty apartment face, I had been visible to tens of thousands of waiting motorists, many of whom must have speculated about the identity of this bandaged figure. In their eyes I must have appeared like some kind of nightmarish totem, a domestic idiot suffering from the irreversible brain damage of a motorway accident and now put out each morning to view the scene of his own cerebral death.

We’ve already stood with Crash‘s narrator-protagonist on his balcony overlooking the motorways approaching Heathrow many times, and we’ve overheard him speculating about all of the micro-narratives that are playing out, barely discernibly or only implicitly below. For instance, from Chapter 4.

I gazed down at this immense motion sculpture, whose traffic deck seemed almost higher than the balcony rail against which I leaned. I began to orientate myself again round its reassuring bulk, its familiar perspectives of speed, purpose and direction. The houses of our friends, the wine store where I bought our liquor, the small art-cinema where Catherine and I saw American avant-garde films and German sex-instruction movies, together realigned themselves around the palisades of the motorway. I realized that the human inhabitants of this technological landscape no longer provided its sharpest pointers, its keys to the borderzones of identity. The amiable saunter of Frances Waring, bored wife of my partner, through the turnstiles of the local supermarket, thedomestic wrangles of our well-to-do neighbours in our apartment house, all the hopes and fancies of this placid suburban enclave, drenched in a thousand infidelities, faltered before the solid reality of the motorway embankments, with their constant and unswerving geometry, and before the finite areas of the car-park aprons.

We have here – and at so many other places in Crash – an intimation, if a fleeting one, of another sort of novel – a novel whose action would be comprised of all of the micro-activity, the infra-events, that take place in a certain place at a certain time… in this case, the non-neighbourhood on the periphery of the airport run-up. This is interesting enough, but what’s even more interesting is when – in passages such as the one above from Chapter 11 or the sentences from Lerner’s novel – the micro-narratives of the denizens of the Westway or the passengers on the planes into Barajas are imagined in turn into micro-perspectives on the protagonist himself. From one, many; or, from many, one.

Tao Lin’s Taipei likewise has a similar preoccupation with such perspectival shifts, this time borrowed from the visual aesthetic of Google Maps and its gods-eye perspective. “He visualized the vibrating, squiggling, looping, arcing line representing the three-dimensional movement, plotted in a cubic grid, of the dot of himself, accounting for the different speed and direction of each vessel of which he was a passenger – taxi, Earth, solar system, Milky Way, etc.”

Of course, it’s always been possible to conceive of the novel in terms of movements on the map from on high. Franco Moretti’s work, for instance, has long embraced this aerial perpendicularity. But it goes back far further than that – as is visible, for instance, in Nabokov’s famous cartographical rendering of Ulysses. 

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But it is something a bit different when the works themselves perform or at least hint at the possibility of arranging themselves in this way. Moments such as those above – with Ballard’s characteristically long before the technological media that has clearly been so suggestive to later writers – are intimations of the possibility of new configurations of the matrix of personality and perspective within novels that otherwise remain enfolded in relatively conventional models of narrative construction. But at the same time, these new configurations can also been seen as developments compatible with the foundational conceptions of modernist literary art. To slightly edit one of the touchstone statements from early in the development of modernist prose technique, in these moments we start to see literature lean towards a new maxim, though one not all that different from the old ones:

An author in his book must be like Google’s algorithms in their processors, or Instragram’s archives in the Cloud, present everywhere, and visible nowhere.

 

 

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May 8, 2014 at 11:11 am

on molly crabapple’s latest piece for vice

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Can we have done with Molly Crabapple at some point soon? The self-appointed house artist of Occupy Wall Street (who cashed in even faster on the left-hip quotient of her radical turn than the most pessimistic of observers of the movement would have guessed for the most cynical of its fellow-travellers) keeps writing these articles about the Photoshopping of models and other female celebrities as some sort of neo-feminist form of détournage. She now writes for – among other things – Vice. I imagine that I don’t need to go into the politics of that. But here’s the latest example of what I’m talking about. Here we go:

To these feminists, Photoshop is to blame to unrealistic body standards, poor self-esteem, and anorexia in teenage girls. The campaign against Photoshop is the perfect cause for white, middle-class women whose primary problem is feeling their bodies do not match an increasingly surreal media ideal.

Ah, right. It’s the fat, lumpy bourgeois ladies that are angry about this – presumably not the ones who used to be topless models. But there’s something that we’re missing about Photoshop, and it’s something to do with out failure to understand Ahhht… Crabapple continues:  

Photoshop, the belief goes, takes a true record of a moment and turns it into an oppressive lie.

But fuck Photoshop. Photos are already lies.

I’m a former model and current artist. I’ve learned this every second I’ve stared into the camera’s insect eye.

As we learn in the course of her piece, all photos are lies, therefore participation in the increasing deceptiveness of the form is actually a form of liberation for women, for young girls. The ability to tweak your Instagrams (leaving aside whether it’s a great idea to build up an endless collection of tweaked selfies, pragamatically or self-confidence-wise) is cast as a guerrilla action on the part of young women, canny as they are (clearly, according to Crabapple, as canny as her) in the arts of ironically-distanced self-presentation.

Retouching is post-hoc glamor. Pixels shellac images like makeup on a face. From Photoshop to Instagram, each tech iteration has made retouching more democratic—and more despised. The self-facing phone cam is a master class in how posing affects perception. Media concern-trolls Photoshop’s effect on teen girls. Meanwhile, teen girls use iPhone retouching apps to construct media of themselves.

A teen girl knows the lies behind photography best. When she takes selfies, she’s teaching herself what were once trade secrets. Now she’s the one who angles, crops, and blurs.

Just in case the argument isn’t clear, and you’re not sure which side you’re on, Crabapple drops the bomb – as it were – near the end of her piece.

To get a “true” photo, you need to remove artifice. This means removing art. Art’s opposite is bulk surveillance. Drones, CCTV, ultra-fast-ultra-high-res DSLR, our fingers stroking our iPhones or tapping at Google Glass.

Ok then… So if Photoshop = Art and Art is the opposite of surveillance, to deny the magazines the right to crop women into hourglass magnificence is, what? To advocate the bombing of family get-togethers in Pakistan? Or, at the minimum, to back the imposition of some sort of Airstrip One style CCTV regime?

That is to say, if I’m a little worried that my now eight-year-old daughter is going to start to feel chubby, and thus unselfconfident, and thus worthless, and thus not even in line to become – for instance – an NYC downtown art celebrity due to her incessant bombardment with women as unrealistically rendered as those in the magazines on the supermarket shelves, I’ve supported some sort of Drone War on women – or in fact, implicitly, the Drone War itself. Or is the point that, when she’s inevitably confronted by these insecurities, I should just have her download Photoshop Express onto her iPad and inflate and deflate as needed, until she has the sort of body that buys her a place at the marketplace of culture commerce today?

At any rate, in Crabapple’s rendering of it, the camouflaging of flab, or small boobs, or a pasty face, seems to be tantamount to the secreting of the children away from the Hellfire missiles that drop from the sky in parts far distant from the lower Manhattan where she lives. I guess that’s the sort of conjunction that one has to make to get on with one’s hypocritical existence as the former artist-of-Occupy, on the “entrepreneurial” side of the movement of course, peddling on with the Vice pieces, the bogus art, and, most of all, the position as yet another of our new radical class of post-feminist confidence women.

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May 7, 2014 at 8:35 pm

Posted in magazines, occupations

the end of ‘net neutrality’

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One might be tempted to think that the end of “net neutrality” might well be counterbalanced by the tendency of all things of the electronic sort to grow and thus outpace the attempts to enclose them. That is, what would a fast-lane really mean in a world in which all lanes are getting faster all the time?

But we’ve learned this lesson again and again in capitalist modernity, during the slow but steady war on all things held in common and distributed equally. The very minute a top-up option is added – and added, as it always is, as simply more good on top of a very good thing – the forces of neglect, disinterest, and deliberate sabotage begin to go to work eroding the old, non-topped up forms. Education, health care, old-age pensions, civil services of every type – it always works the same way. And now, from the looks of it, the internet as well.

Once the mega-corporations (which are getting more mega all the time) who man the pipes can sell special sections of the pipes to the mega-corporations that provide the expensive content, watch to see how long the older, slow-lane sections of the “information superhighway” are under-maintained, full of pot holes and lined with crab grass, despite the toll booth newly erected every few miles.

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April 24, 2014 at 9:40 am

finance vs. academia

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According to The Financial Times today:

In 1975, more than a decade before the Big Bang that deregulated the City, the average London financial services worker was paid about £3,800 a year, a salary that was outstripped by a sizeable proportion of other professionals. Academics were paid about £5,000, around a third more, while natural scientists and engineers received roughly 10 per cent more than finance workers.

Now the average London financial services salary is about £102,000 including bonuses while academics are paid about £48,000, natural scientists average about £42,000 and mechanical engineers £46,000.

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February 15, 2014 at 8:30 pm

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eliot / auerbach

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Very strange, and not at all sure what to do with this yet. Might just be a false echo… But as I’ve indicated on here before, I’ve long been fascinated by the final paragraph of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis. Namely…

Beneath the conflicts, an economic and cultural levelling process is taking place. It is still a long way to a common life of mankind on earth, but the goal begins to be visible. And it is most concretely visible now in the unprejudiced, precise, interior and exterior representation of the random moment in the lives of different people. So the complicated process of dissolution which led to fragmentation of the exterior action, to reflection of consciousness, and to stratification of time seems to be tending toward a very simple solution. Perhaps it will be too simple to please those who, despite all its dangers and catastrophes, admire and love our epoch for the sake of its abundance of life and the incomparable historical vantage point which it affords. But they are few in number, and probably they will not live to see much more than the first forewarnings of the approaching unification and simplification.

I discuss it, for instance, in a (strange, wandering) post here. At any rate, I’ve been getting ready to give a lecture today on T.S. Eliot’s essays, and found the following in his 1921 piece The Metaphysical Poets. 

We can only say that it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.

The play of simplicity vs. difficulty (and the gap of a few very important decades) does make me wonder whether there’s a responsive echo going on in Auerbach. Something to look into… (If only there was a good Auerbach biography in English!) What makes it more interesting, perhaps, is that arch-small-c-conservative Eliot is in the midst of laying out his theory of the “dissociation of sensibility” that somehow happened after the seventeenth century (hmmm) while – if very obliquely – Auerbach seems to be suggesting a sort of “re-association of sensibility” in the aftermath of modernism…

More soon if I can find a way / get a chance to look into this further…

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February 9, 2014 at 1:53 pm

porn and democracy

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From Hannah Dawson’s review (paywalled) of Margret Grebowicz’s Why Internet Porn Matters in the current issue of the TLS

Grebowicz […] argues that despite its theoretical potential, internet pornography tends to oppress rather than emancipate. The “free speech” that it embodies still belongs in large part to men, objectifying and subjugating other human beings. The many testimonies of self-empowerment from the “victims” of the industry are matched by first-person reports of misogyny, degradation, rape and incarceration. Rather than opening up an egalitarian space for self-construction, the file-sharing, file-ranking chatrooming online realm is creating communities all the more powerfully by normalizing discourses that preclude our saying anything new or real. “Internet pornography”, writes Grebowicz, “emerges as the perfect manifestation of the babbling political body, the speechless mass, in which every subject is interchangeable for every other, exercising its rights and expressing, more and more, telling us what we already know, climaxing, climaxing, always recognizable and predictable.”

The final sentence of the paragraph rings a bit oddly against what precedes it. While “speechless” sounds ominous, the “babbling” of the “political body” sounds like an only slight pejorative rendition of democracy. Interchangeability is ambiguous too, as it is both the result of capitalism’s reduction of us labourers to replaceable parts and, again, a quality of democratic equality. The exercise of rights, in particular the right to expression, too is of course a staple of the democratic diet. But the point of the paragraph seems to be that porn is underwritten by and a source of profitable reenforcement to the powers that be, in particular, men.

So there’s complexity at play here: internet pornography presents an ambiguous vision of freedom that is subtended by a business apparatus that depends upon the very opposite of freedom. In this, it stands (like so many other cultural products, but  more intensely and viscerally) as an uncannily accurate aesthetic mirror – a reflection more than a representation – of the political and economic conditions that obtain today in the world. On the aggregation sites, it seems, everyone has a voice, the cascading streams of thumbnails suggest a world in which all are represented, all represent themselves, and all are of course taking great pleasure in this rhythm of representing and being represented. And the consumer in turn sifts her or his pleasure out of this capacious pot of pleasure-taking and freedom-having. Everyone is equal, ostensibly, in their interchangeability – one’s acts are as free and pleasurable as those of the next. It can start to sound almost utopian, when described this way. But, of course, in the end and as in the world itself, almost all of this performance is stage-managed by those who profit from the exploitation of others. *

Given all this, a few questions to start. First, a quiet aesthetic question posed by internet pornography, perhaps, is what we do with its banality – the fact that it is constantly “telling us what we want to know” – in view that we incessantly come back to taste the banality again. There further is another quiet question, this time politico-aesthetic, about what this banality has to do with the conditions of its production and the means of its distribution.

But beyond these two, there’s an age old matter of ethics – and the ethics of the aesthetic – at play, one that queries the relationship between exploitation and representation, empathy and what we might call “forced performance” which has troubled the better sort of critic and writer since the very beginnings of literature itself, and which manifests itself at certain vividly aporetic moments as history moves forward. (One relatively recent example – Ruskin’s implication that the gothic cathedral is actually more beautiful than the pyramids because of the freedom of the workers who made them. But can that be right? Does free trade coffee actually taste better than that which is more exploitatively sourced?)

How much relieved sexual dissatisfaction is the suffering of a single human being worth? What am I to make of my enjoyment of the fruits of other’s struggles? Does it matter whether I am aware of the mechanics of production of that which I enjoy? How are we to understand the nexus of volition and exploitation, of willed self-exploitation and exploited wilfulness, that underwrites not only pornography but the increasingly illiberal world-space of “liberal capitalism”?

I have a sense that this perpetually recoded algorithm of suffering and enjoyment, repression and representation, is one of the matters that it has always been and still is essentially worthwhile for us to take up. Further, it is a question that has everything to do with the issues at play in the article by J.M. Coetzee that I discuss in this post. But more on that, I promise, soon…. A continuation of this is already in the works…

* Please note that I am – for the sake of starting up a line of thought – side-stepping for the moment several very important issues here. They include the very non-representative nature of porn (obviously not anything like “everyone” is represented there, no matter how many hundreds of thousands of videos exist to be viewed) as well as the extremely complex issues of exploitation and agency in the production of porn. These need to be addressed… but for now, let me just juggle a bit with the terms of the argument and description of the situation as presented in the review I have started from…

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January 6, 2014 at 1:30 pm

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