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Archive for August 2009

hell 8: david foster wallace in hell

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Via the Rumpus, Tim Martin on David Foster Wallace’s forthcoming posthumous novel:

There is also much unpublished work. For at least 10 years before his death, Wallace was working on a long novel that he called The Pale King. Set in a branch of the US Internal Revenue Service, it aimed to articulate the hard-won thesis of mindfulness that Wallace had come to after years of depression and treatment: “Bliss – a second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious – lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom.”

Wallace threw himself into the research. “He was taking accounting classes from 1998 onwards,” remembers Bonnie Nadell. “We found these syllabuses from accounting classes as well as books you can’t even imagine, books that if you were locked up and forced to read them you would die of boredom. You can’t imagine anyone writing a book about it that would be entertaining, but of course this is David, and it is wonderful.”

Michael Pietsch, who is piecing together the many drafts of The Pale King in collaboration with Nadell and Wallace’s widow, Karen Green, agrees. “The thrust of it,” he says, “is an attempt to look at the dark matter of tedium and boredom and repetition and familiarity that life is made of, and through that to find a path to joy and art and everything that matters. Wallace has set himself the task of making a moving and joyful book out of the matter of life that most writers veer away from as hard as they can. And what he left of it is heartbreakingly full and beautiful and deep. He was looking at how one survives.”

As I was saying before, there is a temporality that’s essential to the novel as a form and against which authors can only ever really tweak and vary. The sunniest it gets is purgatorial dullglow; generally, though, it reverts to the infernal on a low-setting. It is something to mark the historical progression of the form and its affectual expectations: we run from Emma Bovary’s (and her author’s) scandalous discovery that all of these heightened moments and blissful intervals advertised by novels were at the whim of repetitive, reiterative time’s erosive power all the way to this: a sense that after years and years of boredom one might, if one is lucky and DFW was not wrong or lying, find one’s way somehow to a narrow window of pleasure drip, measured in seconds, and grounded in nothing more tumultous than a sense that it is on-balance good to be alive.

Of course, this steady slide into bleakness – the reversal of the axes of happiness and the boredom that it costs – is driven in part by the internal logic of a form running its course, a sort of intrinsic tendency for the rate of profit from generic trope to fall as the genre is refined toward fulfilment. But it’s also hard not to take this intensification of the problem, as it runs from Flaubert to David Foster Wallace’s Flaubertianism, as a particularly bleak if also complex index of something that’s gone a bit wrong with the world and our collective and individual daydreams about it.

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August 14, 2009 at 11:11 am

hell 7: brutalism, waiting rooms, messianism, bombs

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I had the great misfortune today of visiting the one masterpiece of London Brutalism that Owen Hatherley will likely never see the inside of: the American Embassy building on Grosvenor Square, designed by Eero Saarinen. I had been planning to phonecam the entire experience for the blog, having been away from the Heimat long enough to forget that the Permanent New Normal has resulted in the prohibition of mobile phones inside pretty much every US governmental edifice.

What would have featured in my photoessay, had I been allowed to stay high-bandwidth, were pictures of the waiting room where I spent nearly three hours. It’s a classic High-DMV affair: lots of uncomfortable chairs, broken scoreboards that should be telling you who’s being called where but are out of service, a Coke machine that eats pound coins returning no bottles of beverage, stacks of magazines that no one in their right mind would ever willingly read (one was called something like Expatria – it’s lead article was on up-armoring BMW SUVs) and pamphlets that tell you little more than that you’re bound to be in this room for a long fucking time, and screaming babies, some of them mine.

Waiting rooms are fascinating; it’s an obvious thing to say but even a relatively short amount of time spent in one re-confirms that hell would be just like that. Nothing to read, nothing to do, but wait for a number to be called (but the PA is too crackly to hear what they’re saying!) that never seems to get called. Someone has something that you desperately need but they have it on the wrong side of the glass partition and they’ve forgotten about you, and now there’s no line to join to let them know that they’ve forgotten you and thus you’re stuck there, in a little eddy of civilisation, forever and more.

I have a terrible fear of bureaucracy. Many of my nightmares and almost all of my worst waking fantasies have to do with the confrontation with someone who couldn’t care less about something that I couldn’t care more about. This might mean that I’m a bad socialist, I’m not sure. It does mean, I will confess to you now, that from time to time I have paid my way out of lines, paid what it costs to deal with someone who wants my money rather than someone who is structurally obligated to blow me off. I have a clear idea the price that I might one day pay for such behavior.

I’m about to start writing a piece (for a fairly swish collection of essays populated by all the better-known London psychogeographers and, erm, me) that will center on waiting rooms, the sort of thinking and desiring and fearing that goes on in them. One of the things that I’ll talk a bit about is the section in Walter Benjamin’s notes toward his theses “On the Philosophy of History” in which he expands a bit upon messianic time as a critique of social democratic ameliorism:

In the idea of classless society, Marx secularized the idea of messianic time. And that was a good thing. It was only when the Social Democrats elevated this idea to an ‘ideal’ that the trouble began. The ideal was defined in Neo-Kantian doctrine as an ‘infinite [unendlich] task […] Once the classless society is defined as an infinite task, the empty and homogenous time was transformed into an anteroom, so to speak, in which one could wait for the emergence of the revolutionary situation with more or less equanimity.

Just to be clear, I’m no fan of messianism. But Benjamin’s description of the temporality of non-messianic politics is frightening, hellish even. Democratic socialism, in this formulation, is a sort of waiting room in which one is destined to wait forever, all while believing that one’s number is about to be called, will be called in the next round, just when the bureaucrat behind the glass window gets around to it, must be coming soon, we’ve been in here longer than anyone else at this point haven’t we?

Still as persuaded as I am by this, after today I am ready to offer a less-than-allegorial counter-allegory.

After about a half-an-hour of waiting, which proved to be a fifth of the way through the time we spent in the embassy, something disturbingly marvellous happened. I’d just run through the last of my coins on a packet of Oreos which we were going to share two each for the three of us, when the loudspeaker in the room started to pronounce suddenly and in a firm tone a phrase that I have never actually heard pronounced save for on television:


My fellow Americans seated in the waiting room were baffled, non-plussed, confused. Not a single person did a single thing except look towards the source of the words, the loudspeak, and wonder what was going on. Was it the kid who had touched the glass? Was it a false alarm?


Assuredly today wasn’t the day that someone rolls a truckbomb up against this basically undefensable redoubt of be-eagled Americanism! I noticed, however, that the embassy staff (who were behind a glass partion, like bank tellers) jumped immediately out of their seats and ran away from the places where they were standing or sitting. This, my friends, was unsettling and I began as swiftly as I could the process of moving my largish family away from the windows and toward the center of the building. And just as I did, ahead of anyone else on the civilian-side of the room, the other shoe dropped.


The truth of the matter is that even when the interruption comes, observation suggests that individuals will neither panic nor become resolute. Individuals, instead, will stand staring with a dreamy sort of awe. The impulse to fear ridicule from over-reaction will outride even the fear of death and disfigurement. Even if the messiah were to arrive, marked as such and announced by a thunderous voice, mostly people will stand an stare at the loudspeaker, trained to wait by the waiting room itself, fingering the ticket that they pulled from a machine and stuck in their pocket, numbly aware of just where they are and how things work where they are….

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August 13, 2009 at 12:24 am

Posted in hell, waiting

hell 6: morning rites

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My wife claims that she can tell my mood and general stance by what she finds me doing when she comes down to the kitchen in the morning. If I am reading the newspaper, that is one sort of thing. If I am typing into a blog window, that is another sort of thing.

The other day she said I miss you and the newspapers, you with all of the newspapers in the morning.

Was it Hobsbawm who claimed that the morning paper was the modern man’s version of daily prayer? When I am happy and invested in the world outside, my mornings are a full church-service of engaged attention in the human. Otherwise, it is something closer to a black mass of interactivity.

Hell definitely isn’t other people, but it probably has something to do with compulsive issueless work and nonsynchronous communication.

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August 12, 2009 at 6:00 am

Posted in blogs, hell

hell 5: starbucks

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Again outside for a cigarette, and this time there is a pigeon in the middle of Capper Street. A car turns off TCR; the pigeon hops to the side, narrowly avoiding a death possibly painful, possibly not depending upon the cleanness of the strike.

Fuck. Missing a foot. It hops around, clearly bewildered. Or is the “bewilderment” something that I project into it, an anthropomorphic idea of what it would be like to lose a limb just a block away from one of the great hospitals of the world and

A van pulls up, again narrowly missing the bird, whose now positioned on sidewalk. So insistently did the driver pull up towards the injured thing that for a second I think that it must be a SPCA vehicle. Amazingly, someone’s called – they’re going to do something about it.

But of course it’s not. The van’s purpose is marked on its side: Human Organ Transport. The driver dashes into my Starbucks and comes to the counter. Yeah, anything but that Fair Trade stuff. That Fair Trade stuff tastes like crap. Seriously can’t drink it. Yeah I’ll wait for a new pot, as lot as it’s not that Fair Trade stuff.

He is angry at the staff. I notice that the pigeon’s not missing a leg – there’s a bit of string, looks like fishing line, visible underneath, bowed around his invisible foot. And then he flies off across Tottenham Court Road to the west and likely to die.

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August 11, 2009 at 2:00 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

hell 4: discontents and its civilisation (the ruling classes)

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A distinction we don’t make enough, when we think about the ruling classes, is the vital distinction between those who have to work for their power and money and those who don’t. At a slightly earlier stage of historical development, this distinction would have been at the forefront of our minds, but certain changes have occurred to distract us from the central issue at play. And since these types, both types, have so much to do with the organisation of our world, it’s structures and excesses, its pains and pleasures, rewards and penalties, there would be lots of things less valuable than an understanding of how their various clocks tick.

We have neither our Dante nor our Machiavelli, neither our allegorized hell of the powerful nor our demonic realism of realpolitik and its discontents.

One might well start with the difference between the brand of despair that comes of the early realisation that one can have whatever one likes but one can never truly earn what one gets and, on the other hand, the despite that comes of the also early realisation that one must always keep working, never even take a sniff of the gotten gains, lest one lose the whole lot through a moment of apathetic withdrawal. Both are hellish; on margin, the second is undoubtedly worse, if easier to handle psychologically-speaking.

Of course, aristocratic nihilism and technocratic deferral often arrive together, in amalgamations mixed by the vicissitudes of class and the way classes manage their sons. I have been thinking lately that there is something to be written about Bush, about what it means to be a scion of the sort of family that he was a scion of, but nonetheless to do an MBA, which is a degree that scions of old families really don’t need to do. Remember, he wanted, at least at the start, to be known as the MBA president, which only partly means, I suppose, not my father nor Prescott either.

Our previous president, this aristocrat with an MBA would, I am sure, make a fine Chief Executive Officer of one of the middle levels of hell. The aristocratic mock-withdrawal from aristocracy itself, the staged drawl, the vulgar drunkenness, the assumption of a narrative line whose essential falsity indexes the meritocratic pseudoreality of our time – it seems ever clearer that it wasn’t all simply a cynical come-on. The evil trauma of hitting triple cherries with every pull, but having to pretend that somehow you’ve earned it – this is one of the dominant mythemes of our blighted time.

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August 11, 2009 at 8:00 am

Posted in hell

hell 3: some versions of hell

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When I was taught about hell at school, the most convincing rendition went as follows: When you are dead, and bound for hell, you arrive at the gates of heaven and much to your surprise, they open. This isn’t what was supposed to happen, you’re thinking, but what the hell, you step inside. And for an instant, you are swept up in unfuckingbelievable wonder and beauty of it all (you “see God’s face” – whatever that means- the Catholic Church has a way of screwing up the film right when it gets to the moneyshot, no houris for us, etc…) but then, snap, it’s just an instantaneous taste of the good stuff, and you’re back out the gates and down and down till you land back on the smouldering bedrock, there to dwell for eternity on the opportunity that you had but missed. Hell is regret, regret and the self-hatred that it engenders, and nothing more. Hell is, it seems, simply room to think.

It’s a good story, and one that is compatible with certain deeply held family mythologies chez nous that I wonder if dad and even grandad (though he was a protty) didn’t hear something like the same story when they were kids. But I’ve been thinking lately about another one, however, and that’s a bit more true to the way the world looks through my eyes. Let’s take it from the arrival at the gates, and let’s leave undetermined the matter of whether the soul in question feels as though they deserve eternal reward or not.

So there you are in heaven. The houri-less and hour-less wonder of it all and so on. You bask for a bit, and it’s so so nice. But even as you bask, not a minute or two into the thing, something starts to happen at the back of your mind that you try for a bit not to attend to, trying to attend rather to your thorough soak in the rays of his face, the burn-thorough of the infinite delightfulness. You know what you’re thinking – you’re starting to worry that, really, as nice as it is, and it is nice, eventually it’s going to get tiresome, it’s going to fail to live up to your grand expectations and tastes – expectations and tastes that literally reset the metric to point zero with each passing instant of pleasure. The love you feel will eventually feel tepid, a half-hearted affair, and even if there were houris, you’d quickly think they were bored with you – and why wouldn’t they be? Maybe, at the back of it all, you’re worrying a bit that this is really the prologue to hell that you heard about in school, that at any second the other shoe is going to drop, and the length of time that you’ve been allowed to stay (admittedly, this is quite long for an instant) is only an index of the even-greater malignity that you’ve provoked in your creator. He’s letting you marinate a bit, before throwing you even more swiftly and insistently in the fire.

This is how it goes for you, and it is awful. The chaining thoughts roll forward inexorably, picking up speed as they roll. This happens because you’re wired wrong, and you start to wonder what kind of heaven doesn’t come with a free wiring adjustment, a sorting out of the neuroses and misprisions that, Christ, earned you a spot in the Kingdom of God in the first place. In fact, it remains unclear, from start to finish (but there is no finish), whether you’ve landed in a place that’s actually hell which perversely looks like heaven or you have indeed made it to heaven, only you’re fucked up and there’s no one around to help you sort it out.

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August 10, 2009 at 1:00 pm

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hell 2: journaux intimes

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Don’t have it at hand, and it seems to be a bit out of sync with the French version at Gutenberg, so working from (potentially projective) memory… But what was published by New Directions as Baudelaire’s Intimate Journals seemed to be effectively split into two parts, thematically. The first section presents a series of aphorisms and meditations, ever more dark and cynical as CB goes along, about the economics of interpersonal, especially sexual, relationships. That is to say, the darkness derives from the fact that they are economic, endless variations of whoredom and keptness in which either the male or female party can play either part.

The affectual atmospherics of this section, we can imagine, we can smell, were born in CB’s propensity for drink and the way that he arranged his sex life. Hellish stuff, but it only gets worse, as the second section of the book shifts focus from sex to work. A stream of self-chastisements, imploring himself over and over simply to get down to work, tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.

One must work, if not from inclination, at least out of despair – since it proves, on close examination, that work is less boring than amusing oneself.

Despairing, neurotic work as the only thing better than the unholy finance of sex. To give this sort of thing space, to fill up pages of a notebook with nothing but promises that the work will be better tomorrow…. Do you see the strange math in the passage? The way that the “proof” works? I suppose one reading would be that close examination of work and amusement reveals that the former is more interesting. But I am feel sure that this is not at all what CB means. Rather, I think it’s the despair itself that settles the accounts – despair is less boring than amusement, in other words. In his rendition, and in the world that he describes, there’s only one general equivalent available, and it’s not money but pain.

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August 10, 2009 at 5:00 am

hell 1: the end of therapy

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Infamously, there’s no appropriate time to quit psychoanalysis. Like heaven, there’s no polite means of egress: you either just keep going with it or you fall out of it through an act of disobedience.

The crisis that brought you to it in the first place has subsided, in part due to the work on the couch and in part because time passes and the world and you move on, but there you are, sitting on the self-same couch with ever less to say. On the way there for your morning sessions, you read novels on the train, say Peter Handke’s On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House, and you get blissfully caught up in the idea of rewriting Madame Bovary, except through the eyes of Homais, which seems to be in some part what Handke’s doing. The small town pharmacist and his everyday life, this time in Austria instead of Normandy but that only makes it better. And now it’s the pharmacist, rather than the randy wife of his neighbour, who is addicted to obsolescent romances.

You think the phrase: Madame Bovary, c’est Homais, aujourdhui. And admire, as the Circle Line pulls into Baker Street Station, both Flaubert and Handke immensely. You have found a new friend in the latter, and that is something, that is rare.

But then, in the five minutes that you have to walk from the station to the flat where your analyst has his office, you have to come up with something to say, some fodder for the 50 minutes. This week has been going well so far sounds, within the therapeutic context, like a lie and an incredible waste of money at once. It sounds like a lie because, within the therapeutic context, as is well known, everything’s OK, OK enough is even more deeply redolent of dysfunctional repression than, say, admitting to sniffing your mother’s high heels or having recurrent disturbing dreams about wolves sitting on the tree outside your bedroom.

You wish that you could just stop at a coffee place and give yourself another hour with the Handke. Instead, you ring the bell with nothing prepared, sit on the couch, and begin: This week has been going well, by and large…

Now, and here’s why I’m thinking I’ll quit, therapy, perhaps the most unnatural thing in the world, shares one trait with its verdant antagonist: it, too, abhors a vacuum. And so you dither around for a bit, wandering around the woods of your week of OKness, searching for half-hints of the older problems, the tailhook of crisis and fear. And of course, of course, eventually you find it and there you are back again conversationally reanimating the affective power of something that you’ve spent time and money and unpleasant thought neutralising.

Psychoanalysis, in this sense, suffers from the same infernal logic as narrative prose itself. Handke’s novel stays stuck in housewandering routines of its pharmacist for a bravely long time…. But then something happens, a crash and then the arrival of the fantastic or the projective. It happens, according to the mandates of form – the mandate that time gets formed into instants and events laden with significance – just as my sessions dive away from the depredations of the quotidian and back to my childhood home, the evental break points of adolescence and afterward.

The memoir that therapy would coauthor will accommodate chaos in the present and of course the miserable, belated epiphanies of childhood. But it has no page space for the soft depredations of the static present, of thoughtless animal scavenge, of the softly catastrophic status-quo.

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August 9, 2009 at 7:26 pm

editorial note: sunday now lasts all week long!

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Slight format change. The up-to-4000 word Sunday posts will henceforth be broken into a “themed” series across the week. On the one hand, I have no interest in going back to columny quips about the day’s news. So I like the long-form, leitmotifed thing that I’ve been doing, wandering in and out of the personal etc. On the other hand, 4000 words is way too long for a blog post. So there you have it. My plan is to write most of what’s to come on Sunday, and then set it to autopost in chunks over the course of the week…. We’ll see…

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August 9, 2009 at 7:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized