Archive for November 2009
This piece made me want to vomit. Quite seriously – kitchen started spinning about around me as I read it. Not the writer’s fault, he / she (she, right? I had to read it skippingly due to the vomit provocation) is all to the good. But lord almighty, what sort of world do we live in?
Quick! A corrective from Josipovici via this space:
Of course one can go on playing the game of who ‘really’ is in the Modernist tradition and who isn’t. I myself, like Everett, would make Auden rather than Bunting central. But that, as I understand it, is not the main thrust of Kenner’s argument. In this country, today, ‘ambitious’ tends to mean ‘long’; ‘wildly imaginative’ tends to mean ‘working in the minor mode of fantasy’; ‘sensitive’ and ‘compassionate’ to mean ‘this author still writes like Hardy.’ Instead of the ambition of an Eliot, a Kafka, or Beckett, to speak the truth at whatever cost in terms of popularity, we have variants on Hemingway’s absurd boast that he could take Tolstoy to 15 rounds, or the even more debased ambition to win a major prize. What I find absent from the bulk of contemporary English fiction and poetry, clever and witty as much of it is, is precisely that sense of the voice of a person subject to his or her own experience, which Everett finds in Larkin. ‘Defeated, the poet starts to sound like a person: unique,’ she writes. I think she is right, and not just about Larkin: there is a profound conjunction between the acknowledgment of defeat – as a writer, as well as as a person – and the quality of art. But the implications of that have not, it seems to me, ever really been taken on board in England. I don’t think American letters have all that much to boast about at present, but unfortunately more of Kenner’s critique of English writing holds than Everett is prepared to accept.
Phew. OK. Let’s stick with that for awhile rather than the other thing! I was planning to read Handke tonight instead of this bit from Salon. Serious mistake!
Why is it that capitalist culture has always been so well provisioned with visions of its own end? Whether in the catastrophic or entropic tense, it has always been easy to predict and represent an end of the world that arrives via the developments of capitalism. The crisis of overproduction (and the concomitant emergence of “unemployment” as a concept) during the Great Depression of 1873-1895 informed the mindless dystopia of Wells’s The Time Machine. The high pressure system that settled in after the two great wars of the early twentieth centuries postered its bedrooms with images of an all-too-achievable Mutually Assured Destruction. Our own fin de la siècle (and start of another) can’t seem to stop showing itself its own imagined death scenes – by plague or alien invasion, loose nukes or technology gone sentient or, of course, environmental catastrophe.
So the first thing that it’s important to know about capitalist apocalypticism is that it’s persistent. These visions just keep appearing, always impersonating their predecessors while at the same time adapting these predecessors to new local dynamics. If one wants it to mark the arrival of an actual crisis, one has to admit that this crisis is nothing new, but rather a persistent feature of capitalism itself.
It’s understandible, to an extent, why many on the left find hope in representations of apocalypse. Slavoj Zizek has famously said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. During a period in which it in fact became close to impossible to imagine either capitalism’s end or a potential replacement for it, many of us decided to take the end of the world as sort of allegorical stand in for the end of the current economic regime. If we couldn’t have the latter, we’d settle for the former and rebrand its anxieties as a strange sort of hope. Many of us, therefore, watched both the filmic representations of catastrophe and the increasingly ominous news about the state of the economy with at least some degree of perversely optimistic anticipation.
But if the “arrival” and playout of the current (and long-awaited) economic catastrophe signals anything at all, it is not the imminence of climactic collapse but its opposite – the very power of capitalism (together with the co-opted state) to avert crisis. The specter of collapse, the possibility of the arrival of the end of the hegemonic economic form, is deferred, as it has been and will forever be deferred, by means of a massive transfer of wealth from the state into private hands. “Too big to fail” was from the start an apocalyptic claim, an apocalyptic fiction, mobilized by the banks themselves in order to trigger the response that was bound to be triggered.
The cynical narrativization of the crisis by the banks and their helpers in government speaks to a larger issue – the issue of the native temporality, or temporalities, of capitalism. While capitalism advertises itself as affiliated sudden change, unexpected novelty, and revolutionary change, in actual fact it works always and everywhere to flatten whatever forms of time that it can. It attempts, at every turn, to transform qualititative change into quantitative accumuation, differential turbulence into a concretized status-quo. In fact, recent economic developments point toward the secret trajectory (and capitalist use-value) of neo-liberalism. While for many years it was possible to think of the emergence of the liberal center-left as a hybirdization of social democratic politics in service of a cynical (and cynically capitalized) power grab against the strong right of the Thatcher and Reagan era, the last year or so has shown what the relatively strong state of the the third way was actually for – collusion with and the buttressing of corporations, the nullifcation of risk. Along with risk, of course, disappears the temporality of risk – that is to say time itself, in any form more open than inevitable progression of the same. Catastrophe itself is ransomed off by state funds.
It is very important for us to be clear about agency and intention and reception when we discuss cultural works and ideology. “Capital” does not make films and other cultural works, though films take capital to make. While films of course are influenced directly and indirectly by those who would use them to distribute propaganda, this still, in our current culture, is not the driving force behind the composition of films. Further, while capitalist culture may make certain messages difficult or even impossible to distribute widely, it generally does not directly prohibit or promote certain forms of content to political ends. (Again, there are of course exceptions). The current bubble of apocalyptically-themed films should not be interpreted as propaganda. The rise of the genre, according to all indications, should be attributed to its mass-appeal.
But mass appeal is not necessarily equivalent to usefulness in the cause of mass politics. To be sure, the ultimate goal of any left-oriented cutural politics must necessarily be to appeal to the masses, but not blindly, without full consideration of the source and potential ends of the appeal. While the most obvious answer in this case might be the libidinal pleasure that comes of watching things be destroyed, often on an incredible scale, there are many genres and plot-types that can afford opportunity for the delivery of this sort of thrill. While the destructive violence is the affective content, there has to be something about the form in which it is contained that concretizes the special interest in this form now and before.
Capitalism has always fought a halting and ambivalent fight to separate itself from older social forms and cultural manifestations that have lingered on past its arrival, persistently obsolescent. The fight is ambivalent because at times it makes peace with one or more of the old forms in order to do better battle with others. Religion, the family, value-in-land, the strong state in certain incarnations, racial and sexual difference, the organic community – the trendlines run against all of these, though all of these causes have been taken up by states, parties, and factions in service of the progress of capitalism and capitalist reaction – as well as of course retrograde reaction against capitalism.
The appeal of the apocalyptic cultural product, beyond the libidinal magnetism of destruction, seems to me to take the shape of another one of those concepts lingering on past the point of its own obsolescence. That concept is, of course, eschatological itself – anticipated endings, summations, terminal crises. Like religion or racism, natural hierarchy or sexual difference, it is a concept that functions to abridge that which is difficult to contemplate and live with.
When I was a Catholic school boy, I used to wonder about the purpose of Judgment Day, the biblical Apocalypse. If most everyone – all but a tiny fraction still living when the world ends – have already been judged and sentenced at the hour of their death, why design a system in which everyone is resummoned from hell or heaven, or has their purgatorial sentence commuted, only to judge them all again, redelivering a verdict that almost all of the souls have long since known and lived (after-lived?) with? The only good answer that I can come up with now is that the Apocalypse is one of those contradictory temporal abstractions that softens the cognitive blow that comes of the contemplation of sublime temporalities – the time of incessance is reified down into a concluding punctum. It is mystification by shorthand, a perspectival trick.
Nothing ever ends, and certainly nothing ends like that. There’s a picture of a queen on the notes in my wallet. And my children attend a school where there are crayon-drawn illustrations of scenes from the Bible on the walls. Not all that different from Emma Bovary’s ravenous desire to experience an event like those that she’s read about in her aristocratically-originated romances, we today still long for the cognitive and psychological benefit that comes of abbreviation and culmination. It is pleasing to have what troubles us – whether the corrupt inhumanity of our economic system or the slow-motion collapse of our enviroment – narrowed to two hours, wrapped up before the closing credits, fully contained within a dramatic movement.
Whatever happens, and whatever the news and the entertainment providers tell us, nothing will ever come to an end, at least not at once, and definitely not climactically. This is simply not the way the world works, nor has it ever, nor will it ever. Change comes sometimes in fits and starts, othertimes at a glacial pace, but whatever the change is, it never brings anything fully to an end and always bears within it the contradictions that it would have us believe it had eliminated. The terrors that await us – economic or environmental – will never finally arrive, but rather will take the pattern of crisis and resolution, new crisis and new resolution, that we’re quickly becoming accustomed to in our still relatively new century. Most important of all, if we would use art to provoke improvement, we would do well to accustom our audience both to the real paceless pace of capitalism as well as the rhythm of life in a better world, which would be anything but apocalyptically accented.
Don DeLillo has a story in the current, or at least a recent, New Yorker. He’s been experimenting forever, but more and more as time goes on, with plural forms of one sort or another – the depiction of crowds or aggregates, etc. (I’m sure I’ve posted something about this, right? Actually, looks like not. I’m probably going to write something mid to largish about it after Xmas… I’m sure some of it will dribble through on to here…) In this new story, something a bit different. Narration in large part in the first-person plural, a rhythmic alternation between first-person plural and singular. This technique allows DeLillo to dramatise something like the internal differentiation and self-disagreement that drives narration (or even thought in general) but which also threatens narration (or thought) with fissuring collapse. You’ll see what I mean, maybe, if you read the story. Here’s a bit of it up front:
I tried to invent an etymology for the word “parka” but couldn’t think fast enough. Todd was on another subject—the freight train, laws of motion, effects of force, sneaking in a question about the number of boxcars that trailed the locomotive. We hadn’t stated in advance that a tally would be taken, but each of us had known that the other would be counting, even as we spoke about other things. When I told him now what my number was, he did not respond, and I knew what this meant. It meant that he’d arrived at the same number. This was not supposed to happen—it unsettled us, it made the world flat—and we walked for a time in chagrined silence. Even in matters of pure physical reality, we depended on a friction between our basic faculties of sensation, his and mine, and we understood now that the rest of the afternoon would be spent in the marking of differences.
Now, why does this matter? A very long story, and one that makes up a large part of the posts of fiction that I’ve lately promised. But for the moment: if one of the problems that we face as writers, critics, or readers of narrative fiction is that it is bound by formal convention always to tell stories grounded or promotional of the autonomy and importance of the individual self, the emergence of techniques that strain against this mandate holds the possibility of renewal and ideological repurposing. More soon….
Pierre Bourdieu, in the opening section of his The Rules of Art that deals with Flaubert and Baudelaire, argues that the very category of the literary is born of the tormented working through of a true contradiction by certain artists . The contradiction arrives in the attempt to reach classless autonomy via a bourgeois, instrumentalized form – to create works that escape the mediocritizing determination of the market within the market itself.
We can extrapolate that the ineluctability of the contradiction is what leads to the privileging of failure as a literary motif during and after modernism. The very structure of the situation determines the fact that there is no winning this game. Le mot juste and all of the other juste things that were strived after in order to escape the banalizing forcefield of the market are of course nothing more than impossible, self-deconstructing chimera.
Let me put it another way. Pierre Bourdieu, in the opening section of his The Rules of Art that deals with Flaubert and Baudelaire, determines the very definition of the literary to be misery. Contradiction, double bind, antinomy were always already the devalued currency of this dysphoric realm.
Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher might just be the best film about teaching that I’ve ever seen. In particular, high-end teaching – the instruction of students potentially good enough to better their teacher. In the film, Erika Kohut (played by Isabelle Huppert) is a professor of piano at the Vienna Conservatory. She once had hopes, it seems, of being a big-time pianiste herself – hopes which are still held by her tyrannical mother, who warns her daughter in an early scene “If you want your students to have a career instead of you… No one must surpass you, my girl… Ne sois pas maladroite.” But of course her mother’s words speak to (or around) the insurmountable problem, even paradox, at the center of high-end teaching. One teaches because one can’t quite do, but can nevertheless do well enough to instruct others – others with a hope (that’s why they’re there!) of doing better, even doing well enough not to have to teach. Erika, as it turns out, obeys her mother’s orders with shocking fidelity.
She’s an extremely demanding teacher, but what she teaches is a demanding topic – interpretation. We hear her again and again criticize her students for faulty comprehension of the composer’s directions as to tempo or dynamics, or in the case of music accompanied by song, their understanding of the relationship between the notes that they play and the words that go with them. At one point, she berates one of her charges for missing the fact that “here, the mood switches to irony” as well as the “obstinacy of the complacent middle-class” expressed in one of the songs. In the scene that I’ve clipped in here, it’s the question of what Schubert’s instructions mean – “Schubert’s dynamics run from scream to whisper not loud to soft.”
She is an extremely good teacher, it seems – but her aptitude only heighens the contradiction that I described above. In fact, it heightens it so much that the film has to shift registers, translating what had been an issue of interpretitive education into one of sexuality. Erika’s affair with Walter Klemmer starts where the piano instruction left off. He is desperate for her attention, and she responds by giving orders, and eventually composing an entire textbook of sexual interpretation for Walter to follow. The results are disastrous (and unfortunately, not English subtitled on Youtube….)
It is worth remembering at this point that Erika’s sexuality has been figured all along as not only masochistic but spectatorial. She doesn’t seem to get off, but what fun she has in this department arrives via the observation of the fun of others. She spies on people fucking in their cars at a drive-in movie theater, and retrieves the cum-rags in a porn shop video-cell in order to sniff them. Those who cannot do… But at the point in the film captured in the video above, Walter rejects her instructions as insane – in fact, insanely overly-instructional. She reacts desperately, but despite her desperation, anything beyond written instructions, anything beyond teaching, is too much for her. (In the next scene, as she apologizes to him and begs him to stay with her, she frantically offers him oral sex – but vomits when he ejaculates in her mouth….) Thus begins her plummeting fall from the position of the teacherly mastery at the hands (and cock) of a student who will both follow her instructions all too literally (showing up at her apartment that night to beat the shit out of her, breaking her nose, ignoring her pleas for him to stop – all per her previous written instructions) and at the same time asserting his own right to make up some rules of his own.
As he says just after breaking her nose, “You know, I do realise that all this isn’t very nice of me. But if you’re honest, you’ll admit you’re partly responsible. I mean, it’s true… Yes or no?” She answers in the affirmative. He repeats, “Am I right?” And she responds “Yes, Walter.” And as he rapes her, he utterances take on an uncannily pedagogical tone, a series of imperatives and scolding prohibitions: “You have to give a bit… You can’t leave me now… You can’t humiliate a man that way and… It’s not possible.”
Stringent instructions on musical interpretation have given on to sexual orders, but this time Erika’s student at once fulfils and outsteps the paths that she has outlined in her teacherly instructions. It is the ostensibly blissful moment of the student’s supercession of the master, what we teachers all would say that we hope for, that we teach for, but which in fact – whether we know it or not – constitutes an act of fatal violence upon ourselves and the very authority upon which our instructorial authority is based. All of which significantly clarifies the stakes of the final scene.
Back during Walter’s initial admission interview, Erika had argued that he was too old to have a shot at a career as a professional pianist. But if he is too old, what does that make her? Her belated turn toward sexual adventurism in lieu of the intensities of work was always already a registration of her failures as an artist – in a sense, it was implicit in her taking up of a position, right from the start. She will never get her shot, it’s way too late – she can only give instruction and live on with he ambivalent hopes and fears that someone learns to obey them so thoroughly that they come to disobey them. That is to say, to learn to love her with all the sexualized violence and hatred that she displays toward her own mother. But unlike the the pathetic old woman with whom she shares a bed, she is enough of a professional to do herself in (if that is what she has done) just at the moment when the outcome – of all of it – is clear and she has finally lost and her student has in his own way won. But even this act, as you can see in the clip above, hovers undecidibly between stonecold hari-kari and some sort of apotheosis of childish passive-aggression. Whatever she has done in this scene, and whatever the outcome, she has missed the heart yet again.
Provoked it seems by the imminent release of David Shields’s Reality Hunger, a forthcoming book I’ve grumbled about before, Zadie Smith has another one of her big state-of-the-novel via the state-of-Zadie-Smith’s-writing-block pieces in the Guardian today. (You might remember her previous stab at this sort of thing in the course of reviewing Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Tom McCarthy’s The Remainder in the NYRB). Here’s a bit:
[…] Shields argues passionately for the superiority of the messy real – of what we might call “truthiness” – over the careful creations of novelists, and other artists, who work with artificial and imagined narratives. For Shields it is exactly what is tentative, unmade and unpolished in the essay form that is important. He finds the crafted novel, with its neat design and completist attitude, to be a dull and generic thing, too artificial to deal effectively with what is already an “unbearably artificial world”. He recommends instead that artists break “ever larger chunks of ‘reality’ into their work”, via quotation, appropriation, prose poems, the collage novel . . . in short, the revenge of the real, by any means necessary. And conventional structure be damned. To make the point, Reality Hunger is itself without obvious authorial structure, piecing its arguments together by way of scattered aphorisms and quotation, an engaging form of bricolage. It’s a tribute to Shields’s skill that we remain unsure whether the entire manifesto is not in effect “built” rather than written, the sum of many broken pieces of the real simply shored up and left to vibrate against each other in significant arrangement. The result is thrilling to read, even if you disagree with much of it, as I do.
A deliberate polemic, it sets what one could be forgiven for thinking were two perfectly companionable instincts – the fictional and non-fictional – at war with each other. Shields likes to say such things as “Story seems to say everything happens for a reason, and I want to say No, it doesn’t”; to which I want to say, “Bad story does that, yes, but surely good story exists, too”. Anyway, there’s a pleasure to be had reading and internally fighting with Shields’s provocations, especially if you happen to be a novelist who writes essays (or a reader who enjoys both). The pages are filled with anti-fiction fighting talk: “The creators of characters, in the traditional sense, no longer manage to offer us anything more than puppets in which they themselves have ceased to believe.” And: “All the best stories are true.” And: “The world exists. Why recreate it?” It’s tempting to chalk this up to one author’s personal disappointments with the novel as a form (Shields hasn’t written a novel since the early 90s), but in expressing his novel-nausea so frankly he hopes to show that he is not alone in having such feelings – and my sense is that he’s right.
Ultimately, though, Smith wants to stage a defense of the novel as a form. Problem is, she can’t quite get beyond two moves that don’t add up to all that much. On the one hand, she lists a bunch of good novels without quite establishing why they are good let alone if they have anything at all in common – Bathroom and Television by Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli, and so on. On the other, she argues against Shields’s claims about the over-conformity of the genre that the history of the novel is a history of nonconformity. Fair enough. Beyond these two claims, all we get is a single sentence of praise for Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (oy) for providing “‘a convincing imitation of multiple consciousnesses’, otherwise known as ‘other people.’)”
Disappointing, I must say. I was excited enough when I saw – but did not have time to read – the piece this morning as I was ferrying children to a kids’ play that I actually stopped and bought her new collection of essays on my way. While the death of the novel is the sort of news that stays news – when are we not hearing about the failure of this form, its readership, its profit model, its quality, etc – I’ll admit I’ve been thinking dark thoughts about the genre of late. I’ve got as much of myself as anyone invested in the form – I have just finished a book on the novel, I spend my days teaching very talented students about it, and I tap away at my own when the welter of academic work of all sorts momentarily recedes. But the academic humanties are in even more chaos than academia in general; the discipline of English has lost its path in the wake of theory; and to be honest I’ve not read anything new and good in 2009 save for Summertime by Coetzee, and as Smith explains in her piece, Summertime is an fin de la genre sort of novel down to its core. And let’s not even talk about dollars and pounds, bookshop placement, and failing publishing houses.
People say this sort of thing all of the time, and probably it’s just the rough time I’ve been going through lately that makes it stick, but Philip Roth’s recent prediction that within 25 years the novel would be a “cultic” niche-market object (presumably, even more so than it is today) has been echoing around in my head the last few days. At any rate, adswithoutproducts will devote itself, primarily if not exclusively, to trying to provide some sort of answer to the question of the future of the novel. In particular, I’m going to consider both the value of the form and a few possibilities for its renewal. Another way to look at this turn, perhaps more of a relief than anything else to some, is that I will try to stop live-blogging my protacted early-mid-life crisis and do this instead. Many have suggested, perhaps with good reason, that work issues underlie a lot of the meta-mess that I get up to. So let’s see if I can’t figure out a few things to say. I’ll start very soon with a long overdue gloss on the title of my blog.
But for now: was joking with a couple of friends, apropos of I can’t tell you what, that ZS probably wouldn’t share the disdain for us academics that many in the writerly circuits do. The reason being, we speculated, that she in fact wants to be one of us. In part anyway – she probably isn’t fantasizing about board of studies meetings and the like. I don’t mean this in either a snarky or (certainly) a conceited way, and it’s something that definitely something that suggests something very promising about her, a sort of aspiration to gravitas that’s almost entirely missing from the scene nowadays. But of course the problem is that unlike us, and let’s extrapolate and say also unlike the best living practitioners of analysis of and speculation on the novel, she refuses to let actually enunciated politics muddle these essays up. For, and here’s a bit of a leap that I hope I’ll be able to land as I move through what I’ll say next, the central problematic of the novel has always been aligned with the problematic of politics, even left politics. That is to say, what novels have always tested and probed is the question of what’s in it for me and me and me to get onboard with an immersion in the they. This is the reason why the style indirect libre has long since stepped to the center as the definitive formal innovation (and question) of literary fiction, as it’s a form that negotiates between the atomised solipsistical I and the chattering, vulgar they. But I’m getting way ahead of myself. More to come, soon….
Dammit. Am writing a lecture and would like to look at what I remember as a Benjamin Kunkel review of a new history of the literature MFA in America, Flannery O’Connor at Iowa and the like. Cannot find it anywhere! Can anyone remember the name of the book? Came out, or at least was reviewed, in the early summer.
Really hate it when all of the many search devices (google, spotlight, etc) at once act like it’s my job or failing that your job to remember stuff. Jesus.