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Archive for June 2009

flaubert vs. socialism

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A passage from one of Flaubert’s letters written during the composition of Madame Bovary, transcribed in Francis Steegmuller’s (quite wonderful, if a bit wacky) Flaubert and Madame Bovary: A Double Portrait:

I am turning toward a kind of aesthetic mysticism…. When there is no encouragement to be derived from one’s fellows, when the exterior world is disgusting, enervating, corruptive, and brutalizing, honest and sensitive people are forced to seek somewhere within themselves a more suitable place to live. If society continues on its present path I believe we shall see the return of such mystics as have existed in all the dark ages of the world. The soul, unable to overflow, will be concentrated in itself. The time is not far off when we shall see the return of world-sicknesses – beliefs in the Last Day, expectation of a Messiah, etc. But all this enthusiasm will be ignorant of its own nature, and, the age being what it is, can have no theological foundation: what will be its basis? Some will seek it in the flesh, others in the ancient religions, others in art; humanity, like the Jewish tribes in the desert, will adore all kinds of idols. We were born a little too early: in twenty-five years the points of intersection of these quests will provide superb subjects for masters. Then prose (prose especially, the youngest form) will be able to play a magnificent humanitarian symphony. Books like the Satyricon and the Golden Ass will be written once more, containing on the intellectual plane all the lush excesses which those books have on the sensual. That is what all the socialists in the world have not been willing to see, with their eternal materialistic preachings. They have denied pain, they have blasphemed three-quarters of modern poetry, the blood of Christ that quickens within us. If the feeling of human insufficiency, of the nothingness of life, were to perish (the logical consequence of their hypothesis), we should be more stupid than the birds… Perhaps beauty will become a feeling useless to humanity, and art something half-way between algebra and music.

Steegmuller doesn’t indicate (part of the wackiness of the book…), but I think this is from 1852 or so. Since part of the subtext (and, really, it will remain only subtext, samizdat) of my book is to transform Flaubert into the father of a (subtextually – my my I’m careful!) socialist literary modernism in a slightly roundabout but perhaps longrun fruitful way, passages like these are, um, problematic to say the least.

But despite Flaubert’s anti-humanism, that is to say real misanthropy (he’s not kidding with the stuff at the top of the quote), there’s a way that this passage from a letter self-deconstructs in the long run and in view of the novel that he was writing at the same time. No one is more preoccupied and convinced by the already present stupidity that comes of modernity than Flaubert. And the Satyricon and Golden Ass‘s intellectualization of sensual pleasure is just what he’s in the process of purging in his narrative work, work that is getting him over the hubristic collapse of Saint Antoine. And most importantly the algebraicifcation of art is something that other letters from the period suggest he believes that he himself is up to: “When literature achieves the accuracy of an exact science, that’s something!”

This isn’t the heart of my argument; this is only the dressing. The heart of the argument perhaps goes something like this: that modernism (and proto-modernism such as Flaubert’s) attempted to write (or even just think) a literature that wasn’t dependent upon the event, and that in attempting to write or to think such a thing, these modernists  (inadvertently, unconsciously, or not…) implicitly criticized the revolutionary event as itself a construct fully consummate with the temporality of life under capitalism. Even more complicated than how this happen is why this happened, and that is what I am tapping away, coffeehouse by coffeehouse, at now.

Ooooof. Poor W. Benjamin, caught in the messianically-inflected anxiety of influence trap vis a vis Flaubert. (Check the indicies… There’s the plagiarized passage from Lukács in “The Storyteller,” but look out for other references in the Collected Works. But do you really think he wasn’t worried about Flaubert, given his other interests?)

I may, in the course of everything else to do and under the influence of fast-typers, queue up a quick thing on Flaubert and socialism in the next few weeks. Unfortunately, you’ll none of you see that if I do. Fucking pseudoblog!

(Special to Pollian: did you see the bit about “half-way between algebra and music”? That’s not bad for you and your thing, eh? There’s a lot for you in Flaubert’s letters, I think. Was praising somewhat enviously your thing, btw, to a friend today….)

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June 23, 2009 at 10:35 pm

Posted in benjamin, flaubert


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Hmmm…. they’ve never used the R word before. But they did tonight.

Uh oh.

Expatriation leaves one oddly, frighteningly exposed. Getting laid off, ordinarily, doesn’t mean a plane ticket for less than 2 weeks hence, your kids out of school, barely time to say goodbye to friends, and everything you do daily done no more. Getting laid off, ordinarily, is bad enough.

Obviously, any anxiety or actual outcome has nothing on this situation.

Must. Write. Book. Sad to be thinking that way, the “let them kill the other guy first” sort of way. Fucking world!

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June 22, 2009 at 10:34 pm

dear readers in london…

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… ah I bet you thought I was gonna ask you all out for a drink! Maybe soon. But for now: does anyone have a USB DVD reader that I could borrow for a day? I want to put the Mac OS on my currently-Linux eee, and it seems to be best and easiest done via DVD. It’s a sellout move, I know, and anti-utopian, but my research is currently dependent upon rapid window-flicking around four Mac-only programs: DevonThink, Circus Ponies Notebook, MacJournal, and (ugh) MS Word. I know I could just buy one, but this would be a single use affair, so it seems silly to drop lots of cash on it.

I would pick up and drop off promptly, unless your work / pleasure makes you pass through central London which would make a handover easy. In compensation / as a token of gratitude, I offer two or more beverages of your choice  or admission to the MA course on modernism that I teach on. It’s your call!

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June 22, 2009 at 7:05 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

more on kpunk

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Look, I understand that some people’s projects are so scaldingly pertinent that they are as it were under a sort of quasi-divine mandate to break the rules of, well, rational discourse, conversation, critique and response…

But everyone who’s been blogging for a bit knows what sort of bullshit it is to respond to someone’s post without attribution – without a link or even an unlinked mention of the post or blogger that you’re responding to. Not only is it disrespectful, but it leaves the responded to party in a weird position of not knowing what to respond to or whether to respond in the first place. It’s the internet equivalent of the sucker punch in a crowd, and it’s the sort of thing people do when they want to lash out but they’re scared of the consequences of doing so.

(Before anyone responds that not linking to your interlocutors is some sort of exercise in performative “facelessness,” let’s be clear that Mark is happy to link to those who agree with them… Facelessness simply isn’t the point.)

Anyway, so Mark wrote a response… to something. Whether to me or someone else or some paranoid fantasy of a generic group of antagonists, we’ll never know unless he tells us. We can only guess. He’s already done this once, in a post who’s addressee was obvious even to the uninitiated. Again, it’s an uncourageous tactic from a guy who likes to lecture his interlocutors on what is and isn’t acceptably punk in these conversations. And this from someone who’s constantly lecturing all of us about our failures to exhibit a set of refutable claims for which we can be held accountable!

I’m not even sure whether this bears addressing at this point, and for a few reasons. First of all, Mark’s just now said that he’s not really interested in hearing critiques of his argument, er, project. For the record, I can’t distinguish at this point between the Troll and the Grey Vampire, so I’m lumping them both together. My suspicion is that both simply mean “haters,” “those who disagree with Mark.”

I would agree that [Trolls] pose a threat to themselves, but in some ways they are more toxic to those with projects than the trolls. It’s quite easy to identify and distance oneself from a troll: once you’ve established they are a troll, sever all contact with them and – this is imperative – don’t read anything they write. This requires a little discipline, but not much, and after a while you’ll completely forget the upset they caused. For what is usually a very short period, trolls cause a great deal of incendiary, fruitless antagonism, but it seldom leaves much of a lasting trace. The final victory over them is achieved by simply persisting in the pursuit of a project, refusing to allow yourself to be ensnared in the self-doubts and impotent autocritique that disables them and which they seek to transmit to you.

Hmmm…. Again, I understand that we’re supposed to sign on against rational conversation, but doesn’t this seem like the sort of thing you would say when you’re not so much resolute in your ideas, single-mindedly committed to your project, but rather scared shitless that someone’s found a hole or holes, someone is asking questions that you simply don’t have the guts or brains or honesty to answer? I mean, if you’re commitment is as solid and vivid as Mark claims his is, surely you can allow yourself to read the responses of others without suffering some sort of debilitating panic attack….

Here he is, again, on the Grey Vampire:

The debilitating effects of the Grey Vampire are often much harder to identify and combat. They are ‘friendly’, they seem to be positive, they make their points respectfully – what’s to dislike? Ultimately, though, their stance is precisely the same as the Troll – they are profoundly suspicious of commitments and projects, except that their anti-productivity comes out as sunny scepticism instead of outright aggression. One of their favourite tactics is the devil’s advocate appeal to what someone else, not them, might think. Might not things be seen in another way? (This would be completely different if they were making a point that they were prepared to subjectively identify with: then we could get somewhere, then there would be an actual difference of positions, instead of one position confronting an infinite series of movable obstacles and promissory notes.) Another tactic – particularly effective at wasting time and energy this one – is the claim that all they want is a few clarifications, as if they are just on the brink of being persuaded, when in fact the real aim is to lure you into the swamp of sceptical inertia and mild depression in which they languish.

Grey Vampires are not a standing reserve because – this is the awful tragedy, the terrible revelation that eventually strikes you about them – they will never be mobilised. Like the Troll, their alibi – to themselves as much as to others (and to the big Other) – is that they are always about to do something major – their scepticism, equivocation and vacillation is just a temporary phase, soon to be set aside. But the Grey Vampire never has much of a sense of urgency. That’s partly because they don’t feel that they have to justify themselves to the world (sometimes there is a class dimension here – the GVs tend to have an implacable core of inner confidence which is the birthright of the dominant classes). They worry about their vacillating drift, but not too much. They have doubts, but – sadly in many ways – those doubts will never harden into a breakdown, any kind of subjective destitution.

The fact of the matter is that there are no conversational slots to fit into other than fawning agreement apparently. Respectful criticism is in fact disrespectful passive-aggressiveness, but disrespectful criticism won’t even be countenanced. Just as with the anti-humanism he’s taken up, it seems to me to be a case of someone who’s read a bit of philosophy and theory but simply doesn’t understand the subtlety of the claims advanced therein – or has allowed himself to get carried away by them such that they shut down thought rather than advancing it. “Anti-humanism” isn’t a fantasy of the annihilation of the human, just as materially-minded discourse critique isn’t aimed at the terminal disruption of discourse altogether. The analysis of social structures and their deformative effect upon discourse isn’t meant to be employed as a sort of defensive wall, an affirmative action programme for the bad ideas of the (self-positioned) abject. Anyone who disagrees with Mark disagrees because they are the over-confident agents of power and class. Sorry, though. Whatever the social dynamics at play, it could be that your ideas are simply wrong.

It’s all very strange. Mark and his friends take a rather ungrounded poke at Badiou, and when others respond, he writes a series of posts against people taking pokes at Great Thinkers like himself. He claims that academics are always locked up in the meta and passive-aggressive contentless argument, yet he responds to critique with a maddeningly complex meta-argument about discursive circumstances, never getting anywhere near the point at hand. He attacks the failure of nerve on the part of his critics, yet can’t even muster the chutzpah to throw a punch at any actual person. He positions himself as oppressed by class characterizations, but can’t respond with anything but vague ad hominems about the upbringing and confidence of his interlocutors. He seems to be caught in a trap of terminal performative contradiction. Above all else, he accuses everyone else of convictionless slickness – when it looks, with each post, more and more unlikely that there’s anything other than polish and PR behind the stuff he’s peddling…. If it’s not true, well, it’d be a good thing to stop with the brand defense and claims of unfair treatment and just explain what he’s talking about.

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June 20, 2009 at 11:46 am

Posted in Uncategorized


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Ah, all it takes, it seems, to make me start hating academia again is an evening of reading writing samples and letters of reference. What glib motherfuckers we become when we become something in this business! And how disjointed and wrong-footed writing about literature by the newer generation (that is to say, my generation) has become.

My god, I write good letters for my students. I will not stop doing this, even though the bar has just been dramatically lowered.

Advice to future job seekers: it is ostensibly “unethical,” but if you at all can, get someone with the key to the cabinet to check your dossier letters for you before they’re sent out. Jesus. I wish I could go on about this, but I really can’t. To be perfectly honest, someone – a very kind woman who was especially kind to me  – did this for me at some point early on. No problems with mine, but people can be dicks. Seriously. The business is hard enough without a unjustly toxic letter in your file.

I’ll reply to the new k-punk / poetix stuff once I get a second. I’ll even link to those that I talk about – how about that for class!  Looks unlikely, though, that it’ll be tomorrow as I’m booked all day (see above) and I’ve got friends in town tomorrow night. Sociality comes to Ads’s house! The wonders never cease! You have no idea how bad I feel that I’ve not got the weedwacker out to shave our 10X10 patch of grass.

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June 18, 2009 at 11:13 pm

Posted in academia

quick query and bonus best search term ever

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1) Who said the bit about the emergence of a new verse form always occassioning a revolution in consciousness? Can’t seem to remember, or gfind, trying to help someone out, etc…. I’m sure someone here knows….

2) Just found in my stats the best search term ever:

sopranos, using fuck as a conjunctive

Wha? Trying to imagine how… but… wha? Whoever’s looking for this, I like the way you think in a bunch of ways. Come and do a PhD with me!

I’m very glad google sent someone looking for that here!

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June 18, 2009 at 6:18 am

Posted in Uncategorized

dysphoric about dysphoria

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Very grateful for the articulate explanation of militant dysphoria at Poetix today. I hope Dominic doesn’t mind if I post the pièce de non-jouissance, the final paragraph, here:

“Militant dysphoria”, or “politicised unpleasure”, is a name for the shift from experiencing dysphoria as a personal pathology (depression, anhedonia, guilt) to recognizing that the syntheses of experience that bind together all but the most rudimentary pleasures are part of a larger cybernetic network: personal “dysfunction” must be understood in the context of this system and its (naturalised) functions. The aim is not to reform the world so that one will at last be comfortable in it (what suits me wouldn’t suit you, just as what suits you doesn’t suit me), but to be able to suspend the verdict of pleasure where it serves reactionary political ends.

I’ll admit that there’s a sort of knuckleheaded temptation to answer this provocative arguments with just what it expects to be answered by… diagnosis, pathologization, and the like. After all, to be fair about this temptation, there are lots of people with major or minor, manic or minimal, physiological / psychological / social issues and pathologies that can in fact be treated and via all sorts of approaches. It is clear that some forms of therapeutic intervention are certainly aimed at simply taping up the broken worker and getting her or him back out on the the neoliberal, precarious, dehumanizing shopfloor. CBT, which is by far the dominant practice in the UK, aims at just that. (Though I will say that I’ve seen some serious and undeniable success stories with CBT and CBTesque therapy, and often practice a bit of auto-CBT on myself, as do we all, I’m sure… Still…)

But even if the embrace of one’s own dysphoria, let alone becoming militant about it, leaves me worried from the start for the above reasons, let’s not head down this line for now. And anyway, if much of the point is to see the social (or “cybernetic,” in Dominic’s term) matrix that informs one’s own individual negotiation with happiness and unhappiness, then I’m all for that. One of the weakest points of psychoanalysis (even in its softer versions – which happens to be my preferred therapetic approach) is its unstinting structural avoidance of the social and political. It’s written right into the basic models at play. Everything goes back to when you were a little kid, dealing with the dad and mum that made you and their treatment of you after they did, and the thing about families is that class differential really doesn’t exist in the family home, or only does on rare occassions. Things change when Billy leaves the house, and later becomes CEO of the company that employed Dad as a janitor, but during the first act, you are your parents’ class. When dealing with later issues, if they’re always belated, adult manifestations of the child’s problems, class / work / financial matters can only be deplaced meta-effects of the pre-social triangle of mommy/daddy/me. If you’re dissatisfied with your work, it’s because you had a tyrannous father who told you would fail etc.

So whatever qualms I have about Dominic’s description as far as the first move – toward the comprehension of the generic nature of personal dysphoria – goes, I am definitely willing to shelve my concerns and keep listening. Where I become much less patient, however, is when we get a bit further down the road. First of all, while I am clearly no expert on Goth culture, and that seems to be an important thing to understand in order to understand, let alone buy into, Dominic’s claims, I would assert that I was a paid-up and duly dunked member of the original Gothic clan, that is to say, the Roman Catholic Church. Funny costumes – we got those. Fetishization of gore and all sorts of visualized morbidity – check. But above all else, militant dysphoria shares with Christianity the embrace of the refusal of “natural” pleasures, the prolongation under the banner of virtue of unhappiness, the investiment of unhappiness in the bank of uncertain and ill-defined futures. When I was told not to masturbate or mess around with girls, it wasn’t couched in the promise of more and better pleasure in the future. It was dysphoria for dysphoria’s sake – and as far as Dominic’s post takes the matter, that is what I see as the logic of his argument as well.

I’d even be so glib as to say that the conceptualization of militant dysphoria would only be possible in a place that’s long since left Christianity behind, where enough generations have come and gone since belief and all that comes of it was real that it is possible to forget how all of this worked. Or perhaps its just poor memory at play. For what Dominic is refounding (rather than simply founding) is a pseudo-Christianity dressed in the garb of a left politics without the political, that is to say without a pragmatics of possible change and resolution of the problems that the concept is meant to address. Sure, Christians are meant to get to heaven by embracing (or actively creating and then embracing) their refusal of pleasure. But heaven is as vague a place as the outcome of MD – both Christianity and militiant dysphoria are far more invested in the pathologization of pleasure in the present than the arrival of some sort of misty reward after the redemption.

I don’t want to belabor the point, but there’s a way that this endorsement and prolongation of the dysphoric resembles the temporal (il)logic of what has long been called the Protestant Work Ethic as well. Isn’t the trick of the PWE, too, the trick of deferral within a system that will systematically deprive you of the opportunity to reap what you’ve sowed? This brings me to my second, and perhaps more important, problem with the description. As Dominic says, “The aim is not to reform the world so that one will at last be comfortable in it (what suits me wouldn’t suit you, just as what suits you doesn’t suit me), but to be able to suspend the verdict of pleasure where it serves reactionary political ends.” This I really don’t understand. Perhaps there’s more to be said, but I’m just working with what’s in front of me.  But where does this dysphoria end? If the aim is not reform, such that the gothic disavowal can finally put an end to itself, and everyone can be just a littel bit or a lot happy – whether they want sex, whether they want to come, or not – then I’m not sure I see the point. Does reform, despite what Dominic says, slip in the backdoor at some stage in this process? Or do things end up in a dysphoric utopia? If the point of the deferral, perhaps infinite, of the partaking of pleasures is to bring about radical political change, presumably unto the betterment of the world, then at what point to the capes and sullen looks get beaten into jouissance, or even plain-old plaisir, of any sort?

If we’re killing the category of pleasure off altogether, then I’m not sure what game were ultimately playing. In fact, if that’s the game we’re in, perhaps there would be nothing better than to simply embrace the present, call for exactly more of the same dysphoria that we’ve allegedly already got. I’m sure it will get worse, all by itself and without our attention. Perhaps this is the point. But if this is what we’re after, then I’m not sure there’s any point in writing about it. It will happen whether we’re awake at the switch or fast asleep, either way. And either way, I’m afraid you can count me out of all of this.

One last thing – perhaps a bit guardianistal, but so what. I’d be really very nervous, if I were Dominic, about trotting this idea out in front of people whose dysphorias are less cerebral than material. If anhedonia is the baseline, sure. But I’d venture to guess that for 95 percent of the world’s population, and even a healthy minority of Britons, the idea of giving up the struggle to make things better, the idea of actively embracing a perverse and amorphous psychological blankness, would be, to say the least, something of a non-starter. This is politics for the relatively affluent only – and come on, we’re all relatively affluent – we eat, we don’t get rained on, here we even get free medical treatment and cheap or free education. Let your imagination roam free, and imagine what happens when you pitch this stuff to anyone who’d not a well-fed information worker….

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June 16, 2009 at 11:18 pm