ads without products

Archive for January 2009

simple modernism

with 8 comments

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

not even a force quit will save me now

with 3 comments

Because I’m a Very Important Person, I now have a Very Minor Admistrative Role where I work.

It sucks. You can tell it does because I have to work with spreadsheets.

The only thing that makes working with spreadsheets a tiny bit better is being able to work with them using OpenOffice, because it serves a miniscule slice of anarchotechnist utopianism into the tedious number crunching.

But…. I just worked on a sheet for an hour and a half only to have the fucking thing lock up, and lock up like nothing ever ever does on my Mac. Lock up such that I can’t even force quit it, such that it bungs up other running programs, such that I have to restart the computer. So using open source software, in this case, feels just like it used to feel to work on a Windows machine. So I redid the damn thing in MS Excel, another hour and a half.

Please source us open source stuff that works, please! We want to use it and feel pure and happy, fair tradey and politically potent as we tap away at rosters and registers!

Written by adswithoutproducts

January 9, 2009 at 1:41 pm

Posted in open

too weak to stand up

with 5 comments

From an op-ed by Rashid Khalidi Wednesday in the NYT:

This war on the people of Gaza isn’t really about rockets. Nor is it about “restoring Israel’s deterrence,” as the Israeli press might have you believe. Far more revealing are the words of Moshe Yaalon, then the Israeli Defense Forces chief of staff, in 2002: “The Palestinians must be made to understand in the deepest recesses of their consciousness that they are a defeated people.”

From the WSJ today:

Aid workers used a second, three-hour humanitarian cease-fire Thursday to reach neighborhoods that have seen some of the heaviest fighting. Health officials in Gaza said 50 bodies were recovered Thursday from rubble.

The International Committee for the Red Cross said it found four small children, too weak to stand up, lying next to their dead mother and 11 other corpses in a house that had come under heavy Israeli shelling.

Should go to the demonstration tomorrow. Went to basically all of them in NYC before my daughter was born, as uncomfortable as they make me, but I haven’t been since. When we were in Memphis we took her to the Lorraine Motel, and now she’s obsessed with MLK, the marches, his time in prison, and his death. (MLK might well be her introduction to the very concept of death…. There was at first a lot of “and then what did he do” after the point in the story when he dies…) And people with “black skin” and what this means and has meant in a place like Memphis… Or really anywhere we’ve ever been. Classical liberal parenting, whatever whatever. Maybe if my parents had taken me to this sort of thing (just the thought!) I’d be a bit better person in some ways than I am today. Or maybe not. Who knows, who knows….

Written by adswithoutproducts

January 9, 2009 at 11:51 am

Posted in war

backwards from the end

with 8 comments

Not sure whether it is a five paragraph essay, depends how you count the first line, but this from Jane is brilliant and brilliantly concise.

(I’d like to quote it, but it would have to be in full, which isn’t good blog form, so go look and maybe come back…)

Now, I haven’t much to add except this: the trick of course is to figure out what to do with the symmetry. What does it matter that poetry imitates price or price poetry or that there’s an inadvertent or atmospherically determined correlation between the two. I ask because this is exactly the sort of thing that I am trying to clarify in my own stuff right now. And in fact, a clarification of this would be a clarification perhaps of the point of the study of literature today (as broadly or narrowly as you’d like to think “today”). And perhaps further (and more importantly) it might also be a clarification of the point of literary creation when aimed toward any end other than airballing polemical delivery or obsolescent content provision. Hmmm…. Art as social heiroglyphic where we can read what can’t be read (or can it) elsewhere, but if we can read it elsewhere, why bother with the detour? Or form appears in the art more clearly than elsewhere – because everywhere else the seamstitches are hidden and the statues seem to be balanced, free-standing?

I’d love to hear what Jane thinks, but it’s perhaps not a conversation that one has in a comment box.

I think if I could figure this out, or at least feel as though I’m on my way to figuring something out about this, I could work again as I used to…

Written by adswithoutproducts

January 8, 2009 at 2:08 pm

Posted in aesthetics, economics, form

to eee or not to eee

with 11 comments

From a constructivist manifesto by Mayakovsky cited in Barrett Watten’s The Constructivist Moment:

What are the fundamental requirements for beginning poetic labor?

[…]

Fourth: Equipment. The business equipment and tools of the trade  Pen, pencil, typewriter, telephone, a suit for visits to the doss-house, a bicycle for riding to editorial offices, a well-arranged table.

I am trying to decide whether or not to buy an eee tomorrow. (Adam Kotsko went through the same ordeal a few days ago…)  I’ve tried out IT’s when she’s not looking, and I do like the damn thing, even though, sure, they keys are tiny and my fingers are very very long. But first of all I have an ancient (but apparently still value-retaining) gift card for an electronics store that may or may not survive the first month of the new year… I’m not sure how much is on it, but it should at least be enough to knock a fifth or a third off of the price. I want the barest-bones model they carry…. Aside from the light weight and narrow dimensions of the thing (it takes up the same amount of space, reportedly, as the hardcover copy of Harry Potter and the Ivory Tower of Self-Denial that I carry around with me everywhere I go) it’s the open-source minimalism that makes me crave owning one. I tried to install Linux on one of my own old machines (a superlight Dell with a crapped out battery) but gave up once I realized how complicated the drivers would be to acquire and orient.  But using the eee would, I’m sure, feel like I was using a computer from the minimalist, rationalized future, like a  govt. issued intellectual sidearm stocked with freeware and political-correctness. And if it didn’t, I would make it feel so by sheer force of delusional will.

But on the other hand, the very program (Macjournal) that I’m writing this post in – and which I know use for all sorts of notetaking and record-keeping and personal journaling and blogging – obviously I won’t have on the new machine. And it won’t effortlessly sync with my other machines via (the incredibly expensive) .mac thing. I write my lectures and do my course prep and keep research notes in Circus Ponies Notebook, and I’m thinking about using Scrivener for book type projects. Not to mention iTunes, and the difficulty of marking papers the way I like to in OpenOffice.Argghh! Mac lock-in! Proprietary formats! It really is a problem, though. The deal breaker, maybe.

I’ve always, since I was a kid, been a materials and means fetishist. I suspect that many of us in this business one way or another are the same way, had the same start. The four color pens, the trapper-keeper inserts, later filofax things, pdas, and now my iPhone and potentially the eee. If this is the case, it’s actually a cheering thought – the idea that we write because we like to play with the tools, that the tools exists therefore we should use them with enthusiasm to make something good… We’re all of us constructivists from the start. Figuring out what it should mean that this is the case, aside from buying a new computer with a utopian (if locked down) operating system, is another matter but worth considering….

This isn’t a start at that consideration, but it is worth noting: at various times when I’ve considered giving up blogging, one of the leading thoughts contra is the consideration of what then my computer will be good for if it’s scaled back to simple email reception and word processing and light surfing. The Macbook would, in other, feel broken, out of work, if I didn’t blog. See? The tool forces the tool-use when the tool is owned by someone like me.

Another post entirely should be devoted to the other major purchase I am planning for my last days in the land of the free: gonna buy a pair of jeans, my first in oh several decades. Hmmmm….. It feels like such a bad idea now that I put it in html. I haven’t worn jeans in approximately, well, since I was a young boy. Another post, another post. Who knew I’d veer into a bizarre form of (self-referential) fashion blogging.

Written by adswithoutproducts

January 2, 2009 at 7:14 am

Posted in me, open, simplicity

found memoir (part iii)

with 4 comments

From Susan Sontag’s Journals:

5/26/49

With my new eyes I re-survey the life around me. Most particularly I become frightened to realize how close I came to letting myself slide into the academic life. It would have been effortless… just keep on making good grades – (I probably would have stayed in English – I just don’t have the math ability for Philosophy) – stayed on for a master’s and a teaching assistantship, wrote a couple of papers on obscure subjects that nobody cares about, and, at the age of sixty, be ugly and respected and a full professor. Why, I was looking through the English Dept. publications in the library today – long (hundreds of pages )monographs on such subjects as: The Use of “Tu” and “Vous” in Voltaire; The Social Criticism of Fenimore Cooper; A Biography of the Writings of Bret Harte in the Magazines + Newspapers of California (1859-1891)…

Jesus Christ! What did I almost submit to?!?

****

10/21/49

… These last few weeks have been vitally revealing in the same way as my summer employment of a year ago. I learned then that I cannot endure white collar work, + that I could not count on being able to get along after college, reading, writing, etc., and with any job to give me enough money to live. (I had naively supposed that it was better to do something meaningless than something pseudo-intellectual, i.e., teaching – I did not realize how apathetic, drained one becomes by the activity of most of one’s working hours.) That eliminated one-half of my aspirations toward proletarian living, + my present manner of physical existence has stripped off the other half of my illusion!

Happy 2009! Let’s hope it’s a good one, without any fear. My resolution is to try to come to terms with that “Jesus Christ!” bit at the end of the May 1949 entry by the end of the year…

Written by adswithoutproducts

January 1, 2009 at 6:12 am

Posted in foundmemoir