notes on the aggregate 1: letraset mirror-stage
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.