It’s very difficult for writers to get on television in America.
Due to the BBC, it’s relatively easy for writers to get on television in the UK.
Thesis: these facts, and the pressures and opportunities that come or don’t come with them, have a lot to do with the ‘shapes’ of intellectual culture in the two places. Whereas in the USA, culture seems for the most part divided between something that can be emblematised by the yipping commentary on a NASCAR race on the one hand and on the other a graduate seminar in the Rhetoric Department at Berkeley, the culture in the UK can start to feel like just a a drawn-out closing monologue, set in a rustic pub, after the presenter has taken us on a wellies-on walking tour of Hadrian’s Wall.
Appreciated this rendering, in the New York Times, of the narrative temporality of the Federal Reserve as a sort of pseudo-Beckettian inversion of the logic of drama outlined in Aristotle’s Poetics:
It’s almost as if the Fed were designed to confound explanation of it, precisely so the Rick Sterns of the world could never hope to influence it. Aristotle, in his ‘‘Poetics,’’ described a formula for emotionally engaging drama that screenwriters still consult to this day, with central characters and a plot that moves from a beginning through a climax to resolution. Presidential elections can be molded into this Aristotelian structure perfectly, as can many major news stories.
The Fed, by contrast, seems more like somebody sat down with a copy of ‘‘Poetics’’ and carefully constructed its opposite. There is no beginning to Fed action; it’s always there, always acting, even when its action is to not make any changes. There is no natural climax. It’s just an ongoing conference between a group of economists. And it is never resolved. There is no single moment when the Fed is done.
In this formulation, the Fed is essentially an anti-dramatic, or even anti-evental, organisation. It is an institution designed, in that sense, to keep narrative from happening.
From (what was chosen to be) the first page of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King:
Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the A.M. heat: shattercane, lamb’s-quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek. An arrow of starlings fired from the windbreak’s thatch. The glitter of dew that stays where it is and steams all day. A sunflower, four more, one bowed, and horses in the distance standing rigid and still as toys. All nodding. Electric sounds of insects at their business. Ale-colored sunshine and pale sky and whorls of cirrus so high they cast no shadow. Insects all business all the time. Quartz and chert and schist and chondrite iron scabs in granite. Very old land. Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.
“Insects all business all the time.” The line breaks – in its brilliance, but a brilliance that comes of its impersonation of a cliché – the lyrically chanting list of “stuff in a field.” (One can almost see an inspirational poster made of the phrase, the drone ants lifting improbably [if relatively] enormous items in their eternal effort to keep calm and carry it on. A horrific poster in an Amazon fulfilment centre?) It’s as if one part of realism (that Barthian effet de réel that comes of the mentioning of objects that serve no role in the plotward establishment of meaning) intersects with another notion of realism, the one mentioned in the post to which this one is an addendum – the deflationary mode, that which operates through the undercutting of lyricism, the bringing of things down to earth.
It’s an intersection like a minor car accident is an intersection, a comedic if jarring one. That’s what we sometimes forget about realism, perhaps, just how funny it is, is often meant to be. A higher form of comedy.
Lydia Davis in her foreword to the new collection of Lucia Berlin’s short stories:
A description can start out romantic – “the parroquia in Veracruz, palm trees, lanterns in the moonlight” – but the romanticism is cut, as in real life, by the realistic Flaubertian detail, so sharply observed by her: “dogs and cats among the dancers’ polished shoes.” A writer’s embrace of the world is all the more evident when she sees the ordinary along with the extraordinary, the commonplace or the ugly along with the beautiful.
Berlin’s animals seem to me to be more a matter of painterly than “Flaubertian” realism. Think of all the animals going about their animal-business at the feet of the humans involved in climactic events in Renaissance paintings.
But I do like Davis’s general notion as a starting place: realism is that which undercuts the romantic, the lyrical, the sensational. It’s the worry that you’ve left the kettle on during the climactic meeting, the crying child in the buggy during the hushed but pivotal marital conversation, the iPhone buzzing in the middle of fantastic sex.
I am in Amsterdam on a ‘working holiday,’ and specifically today I’m trying to finish a section about Karl Ove Knausgård. In particular, I am trying to say something more specific and definite about the uncanny power of his evocations of the everyday or the banal.
Other critics have struggled (productively!) to give a clear description of how it works. For instance, James Wood, in his review of the first volume of the series, describes ‘a simplicity, an openness, and an innocence in his relation to life, and thus in his relation to the reader.’ Wood finds himself working through descriptive contortionism in order to describe the strange effects of Knausgård’s prose and its ‘banality is so extreme that it turns into its opposite, and becomes distinctive, curious in its radical transparency.’ Similarly, Zadie Smith has written in the New York Review of Books that:
As a whole these volumes work not by synecdoche or metaphor, beauty or drama, or even storytelling. What’s notable is Karl Ove’s ability, rare these days, to be fully present in and mindful of his own existence. Every detail is put down without apparent vanity or decoration, as if the writing and the living are happening simultaneously. There shouldn’t be anything remarkable about any of it except for the fact that it immerses you totally. You live his life with him.
She seems to be drawing here on the vocabulary of the contemporary enthusiasm for quasi-Buddhist ‘mindfulness’ meditation… When you have to reach to the New Age section of your vocabulary to describe a literary effect, you know you’re in a bit of a strange spot.
Anyway, in the course of this work I decided to have another look in on Hegel’s statements about the ‘prose of life’ in his Aesthetics. It was quite something to be reminded, given where I’m sitting (the picture above is the view from my desk) of the body of artistic work that he is discussing when he uses the phrase:
Yet if we wish to bring to our notice the most marvellous thing that can be achieved in this connection, we must look at the genre painting of the later Dutch painters. What, in its general spirit, is the substantial basis out of which it issued, is a matter on which I touched above in the consideration of the Ideal as such. Satisfaction in present-day life, even in the commonest and smallest things, flows in the Dutch from the fact that what nature affords directly to other nations, they have had to acquire by hard struggles and bitter industry, and, circumscribed in their locality, they have become great in their care and esteem of the most insignificant things. On the other hand, they are a nation of fishermen, sailors, burghers, and peasants and therefore from the start they have attended to the value of what is necessary and useful in the greatest and smallest things, and this they can procure with the most assiduous industry. In religion the Dutch were Protestants, an important matter, and to Protestantism alone the important thing is to get a sure footing in the prose of life, to make it absolutely valid in itself independently of religious associations, and to let it develop in unrestricted freedom. To no other people, under its different circumstances, would it occur to make into the principal burden of its works of art subjects like those confronting us in Dutch painting. But in all their interests the Dutch have not lived at all in the distress and poverty of existence and oppression of spirit; on the contrary, they have reformed their Church themselves, conquered religious despotism as well as the Spanish temporal power and its grandeur, and through their activity, industry, bravery, and frugality they have attained, in their sense of a self-wrought freedom, a well-being, comfort, honesty, spirit, gaiety, and even a pride in a cheerful daily life. This is the justification for their choice of subjects to paint. (Knox translation, 597-8, italics mine).
Work was just about over for the day, and we’ve been trying to decide whether to go back to the Rijksmuseum or not. At least we know where Hegel stands on the matter.
Just to start: my father worked for a consumer products company, one that made biscuits and the like. Cookies, crackers, breakfast cereals, that sort of thing. And when I was a small boy, he used to say to me, in that cryptic way that dads often distribute nuggets of gnomic wisdom, things like: “See that cereal that you’re eating? Do you know that when mum pays for that, mostly what she’s paying for is the box.”
What he meant is that the cereal (or cookies or what have you) itself was incredibly inexpensive to manufacture. (Or, as his company always called it, to “bake.” They had bakeries, not factories.) Most of what it cost the company to bring their goods to market and to sell them on that market went into PR – the design of the packaging, the composition of the ad campaigns, and of course the price to place the advertisements where they appeared. When you buy the Corn Flakes, mostly you’re paying for the iconic rooster on the box, etc.
And so: today, from a Huck Magazine post, which seems to be inspired by Paul Mason’s new book, called “Five postcapitalist projects that offer a blueprint of a new world.”
When was the last time you saw an encyclopaedia? Upsetters Wikipedia have destroyed the old model of profiting from information by locking it away and charging people to access it. Wikipedia not only allows anyone to read for free, but its open editing has allowed it to grow faster than a commercial operation ever could and its advertising-free setup is believed to deprive the ad industry of $3 billion per year. See also: Wikileaks who are using open source principles to revolutionise access to information and hold governments to account.
There is something – and something I’ve long been preoccupied with on this blog – incredibly strange about one of the sentences in this paragraph. It is this one: Wikipedia not only allows anyone to read for free, but its open editing has allowed it to grow faster than a commercial operation ever could and its advertising-free setup is believed to deprive the ad industry of $3 billion per year.
If you want to see the face of the new, or not really that new but at least burgeoning drive to establish new enclosures of the commons, it is visible here. There’s an odd mysticism, or dark metaphysics, that is at play. Wikipedia, in providing content without advertisements, is actually stealing away or squandering income that might have been derived, in private hands, from advertisements or sales. Which, in a certain sense – a sense highly palpable if, say, you were the owner of the failing Encyclopaedia Britannica business – would seem pressingly true.
But of course it is not true, not in the least. No more than the fresh air that we breathe is stealing from the possible fresh air companies that might be formed to sell it to us, or the water we drink is stealing from corporations that, improbably, bottle the same stuff that comes out of our taps only to label it and sell it back to us for prices that are often higher than petrol. (Oh wait…)
But while (fortunately) the Britannica people didn’t, it seems, have the money to fight the market encroachment of the Wikipedians nor, perhaps, a leg to stand on argumentatively, this sort of attack on the state sector – in this case not as inefficient but as all too efficient – has become increasingly prevalent of late. The entire funding crisis at the BBC is grounded in attacks of this sort. There’s the kiss of death logic of the “If it’s popular, it’s beyond their remit to show it” argument. Strictly Come Dancing or Wimbledon could well be generating profits for Sky or someone else, and besides, they actually make people feel like the license fee isn’t such a bad deal after all.
But it’s not just the BBC that’s targeted by this “logic.” There’s a gathering storm regarding higher education “state monopolies” and the mystifying message that they’re blocking access to the “market” through their accreditation cartels. It’s further absolutely clear that the animus against the NHS that exists amongst many Tories is equally based on anti-welfare-state ideas and the sense that there is big money to be made, that’s currently not being made, in the business of medicine. I’m sure if the cost of housing wasn’t so absurdly and eye-wateringly high, we’d be hearing attacks on the few vestiges of social housing left here and in America for inciting “market distortion.” And there are undoubtedly loads of bureaucratically subterranean aspects of the state sector, here and abroad, that are suffering from the same sorts of sorties.
Cynical ploys all of them, and in that sense no more interesting than any of the other hypocritical, fallacious, or just plain cruel attacks on the state sector than any of the others that we’ve seen during our age of austerity. But there is one thing that’s perhaps a bit interesting, as it’s a bit complex, about them.
In addition to the pretext of this line of argument, that state entities suck up market share without generating profit from it, there is an important subtext as well. Namely, that advertising costs us nothing. That is, of course it costs the corporations that advertise, but for the end user of the content that is funded by advertising, it is free.
This, of course, is little discussed. Certainly the media men aren’t going to bring it up. When Murdoch and his lobbying minions and PR flacks say, for instance, that “the BBC is a publicly funded entity that partially destroys our ability to sell advertising,” they of course never continue on to say, “advertising, that given the price that is paid for it, obviously must extract a huge amount of capital out of those that would be watching our channels instead of the BBC.”
When you ride on public transportation, that the bus interior or the carriage of the train is festooned with advertisements, does it cost you money, beyond the fare, to do so? Does it cost you money to use gmail, given all of those little ads that you ignore (but, we can assume, someone’s not ignoring them) on the sidebar? How much more does your newspaper cost you, given all of the car and mobile phone and supermarket advertisements that you find inside of it? How much do you spend, beyond the satellite bill and / or license fee, on spending a night in in front of the television?
I’m absolutely positive that corporations sometimes waste money on advertising, and I’m pretty sure that I’ve never clicked through a “sponsored ad” on Google. But on the other hand – they simply can’t be dumping all of that money, can’t have been dumping, for ages, all of that money, if someone, somehow, isn’t making it back in profit. If Wikipedia is running content that otherwise could generate $3 billion per year, then presumably the attention captured by this content, if not in the hands of the Wikipedias, is worth at least $3 billion per year to the companies that would have been advertising on these sites.
It all, it seems to me, goes back to what my father used to tell me all those years ago. “Mostly the price of the Cornflakes is the box of the Cornflakes.” What I’d like to work on (although sometimes it seems to me to be potentially a project of Kapital-like demands on my brain-power and time, neither of which I have at this point) is a study of just this quasi-mystical value equation. What does the ad before the YouTube video cost us to watch? What would we “save” were the ad not there, were YouTube a public institution rather than an arm of a massive profit-seeking corporation?
I want to do this because I’ve long believed that the leap from Why not ads on the side of the bus to Let’s dismantle the remains of the welfare state is not only a short one, it’s one in which each step is informed by the selfsame logic. That is, it’s informed by a deep misapprehension about the value of the commons and the sort of life that is lived on them.
UPDATE: Armando Ianucci is on the case this morning in the Guardian:
“It’s Facebook and Google who came along and ate up all newspapers’ classified ads. Yet it’s the BBC, who run no ads, that gets the blame, while it’s Google and Facebook that get the helpful tax arrangements from HMRC.”
While on the other hand, in the same paper on the same day, we have Sturgeon and the SNP showing her/its true colours:
“One of the things the last 12 months has demonstrated is that the old model of public service broadcasting – important though I think it is – doesn’t work well enough. It no longer reflects the complex, varied and rich political and social realities of the UK.”