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Archive for November 2009

the joy of stress

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1. Strange. I seem to have, through canniness and sheer force of will, sorted out some major problems in the last week, short term ones and long term ones. I am somewhat remarkable in a crisis. What will! What energy! What absolute drive to solve problems and not stop until they are solved. That’s not what’s strange. I knew about that already. (In a sense, this is why I have been successful on the job market. The job market, remember, is just one big crisis.) What’s strange is that sorting it out has left me a little bit – OK a lot bit – depressed. Almost as if I miss the stress, the joy of stress. Almost as if, despite the misery I’ve been through over the last ten days, there’s a part of me – OK a lot of me – that actually loves to live that way. Lives to live that way.

2. Mrs. Ads says to me, Yes, but we need to learn to enjoy life a bit. But we she means me. She procedes to cry rather interestingly and perhaps symptomatically through the terminal and real split-up scenes in the climactic episode of Mad Men Season 3. Telling the kids and all that. Keep in mind, and spoiler warning, it is of course Mrs. Draper who is driving this split. At least locally. On the show I mean. Hmmm… Don’t jump to conclusions – it’s way more complicated than that, as marriage always is, especially once kids and jobs are involved.

3. Art follows life. The climactic episode of Mad Men Season 3 is all about precarity, omifuckinggod precarity, and then turning it around on the bosses just before they fire you. They consolidate to save labor expenses, you heroically rise up to fuck them over by bravado and skill. Our fantasies, ourselves. For those who do not understand Americans and how they respond to things (I’ve encountered at least a few recently, as you might be able to tell) this episode would be a very good primer. Especially the temporality involved. Literally the second that shit starts to go wrong, they get down to business, chosing conspirators, stealing files, organizing a coup.

4. Someone today read the first chapter post-introduction and described it  as “very sexy.” That’s a nice way to put it. Phew. Someone else (OK – Mrs. Ads) just said that there is so much of me in this book, really a ridiculous amount for an academic book. Not a single mention of me, of course. ** I think this has something to do with why it was so hard to finish. It is the most impersonal memoir imaginable, but memoir it in fact is. People say this sort of shit all the time, but it’s rarely all that true. In this case it’s true.  Others have understood in a sense without reading the book: Why did you write about X, when X is the thing that is absolutely impossible for you to handle, even for a minute. As they knew, they’d already answered their own question.

5. Part of the reason that it’s a memoir, but only part, is that about 75 percent of me is made of But what do we make, really, of the style indirect libre? Sounds bleak. Part of me wishes that meant I was dry and academic, boring and office-hugging. Unfortunately it means exactly the opposite of that. These questions are hard, and running from them can take you along way in life.

6. Now that Mad Men is over till next August (oh jesus) we have to find something new to watch. I glanced at the HBO website to see what we’ve been missing and found this. It’s a precis of a series called Bored to Death:

Jonathan Ames, a young Brooklyn writer, is feeling lost. He’s just gone through a painful break-up, thanks in part to his drinking, can’t write his second novel, and carouses too much with his magazine editor. Rather than face reality, Jonathan turns instead to his fantasies — moonlighting as a private detective — because he wants to be a hero and a man of action.

The offbeat comedy series ‘Bored to Death,’ created by Jonathan Ames (author of several books, including the acclaimed graphic novel ‘The Alcoholic’), follows the misadventures of a fictional Jonathan Ames as he pursues his quixotic dream of emulating his heroes from classic private detective novels.

[post edited because I was being a dick and was rightly called out for it by someone, well after the fact… I apologize… Half of point 6 is now gone, as is point 7…]

8. Someone suggested that I ask anyone, you know, like your father, to copy-edit my manuscript. Hahahahahaahaha! What sort of world ended I up in? I told him there were only three books in our house when I was growing up, aside from the World Book Encyclopedias I begged them to buy me and buy me they did. The first, and oldest, was Jonathan Livingston Seagull, I assume a wedding present. The second was what some have called “the best business book ever,” Barbarians at the Gate which (from a highly us-centric angle) chronicled the first brush with precarity that I can remember (my dad is an extra in it, not named), and The Joy of Stress, which may or may not have been a gag gift at some point.

9. So my dad can’t copy-edit my book, no. In fact, I sent him an email to look over yesterday before I sent it, a highly important one. It took him an unreasonable amount of time to read it – like 20 minutes for a 500 word message. I sat on the phone while he did so I know. But he did, I must say, copy-edit it just the right way, taking out one line, changing a certain word. Because, readers, I won today with that message. Just wish that I could, you know, enjoy winning. But really it only makes me miss the game itself.

By winning, let me me clear, I mean that things seem to have returned simply to relatively frantic normalcy. Nothing more exciting than that.

Both the ability to win and the inability to take winning to heart, both of these things are mine because I am the conscientious only-son of an interesting man whose definining traits are his insatiable need to be anxious and his incredible ability to look calm and charismatic in a crisis.

** In fact, in the previous iteration there was a tiny, 5 pp segment on how I came up with the project before and after 9/11, and how 9/11 inflected the development of the book. Wasn’t cheesy, trust me – and involved a rather smart archive-driven history of the emergence of the phrase “the new normal.” (I should actually go back and cut that out and expand it and publish it… hmmm…) This was mentioned in a reader’s report, and made the editor flip out, rather unreasonably I think. So I’ve eradicated every drop of “I” in the new version.

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November 17, 2009 at 1:11 am

Posted in me

book. done. done?

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OK. So technically done with the book, as of just now. Sort of. Nine straight days of writing, 9 am to 10 pm. Why do these things never end? I’ll probably want to readjust the conclusion, which I really should expand into a proper epilogue, and I have some notes on changes to the beginning. And then there’s the copy-editting (thanks again tireless Mrs Ads!) and comments from a colleague to metabolize.

You have no idea what a fucking exorcism it would be to get this thing under contract. I’ve barely tried to sell it, have only sent it to a tiny selection of places most of which, I’ve since learned, aren’t in the practice of publishing “first books.” But now I basically have to sell it. Have been working on it since 2001, although there’s material in there, even still, that was written as early as 1999. And many of the things that I write about I started writing about circa 1997 or so. It concludes with a chapter centered on a text that my wife copied for me from special collections (ah, life pre-Amazon) for my twentieth birthday. So before you give me a hard time about tardiness – well first of all get in line. Secondly remember that since I started this book I have moved house six times, I’ve lived in four different places (2 US states and 1 different country), I’ve had three academic appointments at three very different universities (one elite US school, one decent state school in the US, one elite UK school), I’ve had two children and at least two nervous breakdowns. At least.

The current thinking is that whatever the nervous breakdowns were ostensibly about, they were ultimately and truly about this book.

World might end, soonish, but I am too tired to care. Good night and good luck, readers. Save up to buy my book – it’ll cost, if it works, 20 times more than IT’s or Owen’s, and sell 20 times fewer copies. If I’m lucky. It’s certainly 20 times more boring, but on the other hand it contains, what, fifteen years or so of work within it. Ah academia! You are what you are! You cost what you cost and pay what you pay!

Pray for everything to go smoothly, because I am so definitely looking at a pre-40 heart attack that it’s not funny…. Partly my own fault, but only partly…. Will be in at work tomorrow, again, all day – marking papers, answering email, prepping a lecture on the whole of fiction post 1945 (they wrote some? who? maybe I’ll just talk about DFW for an hour – the kids wouldnt’t be disappointed….), and reading a PhD whose defense I get to play along with telephonically on Monday. At night, because someone else on the panel doesn’t as a rule get up before noon. Geezus. Gay guys have all the luck…. and sleep!

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November 15, 2009 at 2:01 am

Posted in academia

chance encounters

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Think I just, whilst having my 30th cigarette of the day down below my office *, broke the back of the last and hardest part of my book-in-revision. In mind if not yet on paper. It’s an analysis of one of my favorite scenes in literature, and just happens to be a scene about masturbation.  What’s there is based on an ancient piece I wrote, my first good publication, and I just now, ten years later and in an instant figured out how to make it fit properly.

Making it fit properly, by the way, involves an interesting expansion upon the text that gave this blog its name. **

How about a little help, though, to get me rolling. Scenes from modern literature – preferably say 1850 – 1940 – that feature signficant chance encounters. Baudelaire’s “A une passante,” Bouvard and Pécuchet on their parkbench, Leonard Bast and his umbrella and the Schlegel girls in Howards End, Peter Walsh seeing Septimus and Rezia on the parkbench in Regent’s Park (ah Regent’s Park) in Dalloway.

Now your turn, go on….

* I’ve been working too much (12 hour days, eight days in a row, in my office) and smoking too much while I do. Yesterday, a colleague knocked to chat, entered, and said in a knowing tone: ADS! You’ve been smoking in your office during reading week! I responded that it was just my disgustingly nicotine-inundated jacket hanging on the door. Embarrassing. Today I wore the only other light jacket I own, a sporty Adidas windbreaker, that just looks wrong in an academic setting and has been drawing wtf? stares from everyone all day. But I can’t worry about these things! I have a book to finish!

** UPDATE: Ha! I’d forgotten that I sneak my blogname into this chapter. Just came across this:

In the section of The Coming Community entitled “Without Classes,” Georgio Agamben, compares the life of “single planetary bourgeoisie,” who have inherited the world in the wake of the rise of capitalist modernity and the arrival of secular nihilism, to an ad without products. With the dissolution of diversity, social identity, and meaning, they are brought face to face with the “phantasmagorical vacuousness” of inauthenticity without end:

[T]he absurdity of individual existence, inherited from the subbase of nihilism, has become in the meantime so senseless that it has lost all pathos and been transformed, brought out into the open, into an everyday exhibition: Nothing resembles the life of this new humanity more than advertising footage from which every trace of the advertised product has been wiped out. The contradiction of the petty bourgeois, however, is obstinately trying, against all odds, to make their own an identity that has become in reality absolutely improper and insignificant to them. Shame and arrogance, conformity and marginality remain thus the poles of all their emotional registers. (62-3)

Just as Agamben’s post-historical actors go through the motion of acting out the ad, whistfully staring at the car in the garage (except there’s no car), ravenously devouring the entrée (except there’s no food on the plate), going to see the latest Hollywood blockbuster (except there’s nothing on the screen)…

…and then back to the lit text at hand. How tricky am I!

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November 13, 2009 at 8:43 pm

Posted in fiction, joyce, modernism

matrimonial bliss, amongst the ruins

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Special shoutout to Mrs Ads, who has been providing me with every comfort, material and immaterial, during the Crisis. We have gotten through tough times together, right from the start, but this is perhaps the toughest. And she’s there. The point is not lost on Mr. Ads.

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November 10, 2009 at 12:20 am

Posted in academia

sunday post: in my jesus year as of yesterday

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Oh my. What violent oscillations in attitude. I have no idea what’s going on and I’m trying as hard as I can not to think about it. My father called today and suggested that I could go to law school if it came to that. When I told him that I had absolutely no interest in that, he responded by suggesting an MBA.

Dear readers, I think I shall sort things out by raw force of will. I am quite something when I get focused, when all the chaff and static subsides. Watch as I double down, turn piss into lemonade, make some Jetzzeit in a selben Augenblick. Just in time delivery, with transcedence attached.

As on Friday and Saturday, I spent 14 hours in my office today. Yesterday was my birthday. Today I wrote 6000 words – that’s 20 double-spaced pages to you Americans. Mind you, 20 pages on things like Barthes’s “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative,” Badiou, Osborne on Badiou, and Franco Moretti’s “Serious Century” from the first volume of his anthology on the novel. And 20 pages that absolutely have to work. So this was some day.

You should really read “Serious Century.” Sorry Jameson, but Moretti is the top dog of our bleak time, and the only one doing interesting work. I’m pretty sure Moretti’s 20 pp. are worth more than my 300 or so.

I am growing a beard. I think I may not shave for awhile. It makes me look serious and French but also adolescent, so fuck it. It’s also going to turn into an act of passive-aggression once the department returns after the weekend. Why is he growing that weird spotty beard? He’s having a nervous breakdown, isn’t he. He might be! So I refuse to shave.

My wife reminds me that I work best under deep threat, when the pressure is highest. It was a nice thing to say and she’s basically right. Neurosis and ambient anxiety recedes. The needle on the concentration meter shoots upward. And I work. I make things turn out OK. I take decades off of my life, but it’s OK. It’s what I like to do… Love to do.

Of course, this is an adaptation to the environment that we call capitalism. Both nature / nurture originated at once, I’m sure. Massive class change doesn’t come without pain and dysfunction, but neither does it arrive without… What? An adaptation to shitty modes of life, a love of them? A visceral fucking absolute adoration of modes of life that are ultimately deeply alienating? That steal the grape from the vine? That bring the crop to harvest before its time? That sort of thing?

The best piece I’ve ever written – and you’ve seen some fragments of it on here recently – was written with a kid on the way, no other prospects than to get this or that job. The piece of course was about precarity and X.

Pieces of my soul are on the pavement outside my office. Drop off as I smoke 2 cigarettes with each smoke break, along with the bits of my lungs that I cough up. I can see them from my office window – the soul bits, the lung bits. I smoke 50 cigarettes today. Ho hum.

I become almost unconscious when I am writing well. The thought almost stops – I don’t hear its steps as it clambers up the stairs of my mind and out through the fingers to the screen. Automatonic. One of the things that I understand and in understanding appreciate about modernism is the fact that it was in favor of this sort of development, the stop of conscious thought, and generally was in favor of it for the right reasons. Those reasons being that it, consciousness, is the most ambiguous gift of modernity.

It helps to listen to music while I write. I was wishing all day that BBC Radio 3 would stop with the Remembrace Day stuff, and modernist music makes me change the station. I hate Remembrance Day – it’s English draped in more mawkish kitsch than even usual. Fucking poppies! (Don’t tell her I told you this – but last year round this time IT got a little upset when I made fun of Remembrance Day! I kid you not – she told me that I don’t understand. Poppies! And ridiculous Anglican services through the afternoon on BBC Radio 3! And people standing up in pubs with their hands over their hearts because the queen is on tv! Queens! Poppies!)

I switched to some WNYC classical channel. The music wasn’t as good, but there was ni Dieu, ni nation on there. Go figure – when America does soft left liberalism, it damn well does it right! It made me afterall!

When I was a kid and still believed in a punishing god, I walked around concerned that I was going to go to hell. I was never sure – I certainly wasn’t perfect, but neither was I all that bad. Just somewhere in between. I wonder if part of what’s gone into the recent RC de-emphasising of purgatory doesn’t have something to do with this. Given the goals of the church, keeping the flock persistently uncertain about where they’re headed (no one’s a saint, not even the saints – but no one, not even the damned, is sure of the other bit either) is useful. When you think about it, purgatory would catch almost everyone.

Precarity is like that too. Somehow.

Back to work tomorrow. 14 hours again, I’m sure of it. My nightly beer ration has been increased, and I had a nice hotdog tonight at Finsbury Park on the way home, so it’s no big thing….

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November 9, 2009 at 1:09 am

still prefer not to

with 2 comments

Obviously I had to take that last post down, but thanks for your comments. I’ll sort things out, one way or another. But really: it is a shitty line of work.

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November 6, 2009 at 12:24 pm

Posted in academia

“must be kept in one channel only lest no one gets anything and i am completely undone”

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Taught Conrad to the grad students yesterday. When I say taught, I mean it. I’m a little worried that my seminars turn into lectures, each and every time. Not because I’m reading from a stack of pages or anything. I basically go in and freform for two hours, a semi-conversation, not unlike what Marlow’s doing on the decks of the Nellie himself.


Anyway, they seem to like it. Or did last year on the evaluation forms, so I’ll not change. They scribbled and nodded often and insistently today as I ranted, so I’ll take that as a thumbs-up. Mostly, with HoD, we look at paragraphs like this one:

I went to work the next day, turning, so to speak, my back on that station. In that way only it seemed to me I could keep my hold on the redeeming facts of life. Still, one must look about sometimes; and then I saw this station, these men strolling aimlessly about in the sunshine of the yard. I asked myself sometimes what it all meant. They wandered here and there with their absurd long staves in their hands, like a lot of faithless pilgrims bewitched inside a rotten fence. The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it. A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse.

The rhythm of Marlow’s discourse is keyed to frantic oscillations just like this one. Back to work, back to work, no more thinking about my mad colleagues, no more thinking or seeing in general. (Remember from the start: “What saves us is efficiency – the devotion to efficiency.” Indeed – but saves us from what?) Then, then: the still. Do you see the pivot. “One must look about sometimes.” Uh oh. “I asked myself sometimes what it all meant” – no don’t do that! And from there it plummets into frantic pilgrims and corpse stink, a Wellsian space-invasion and a avant-Lawrentian apocalypse as Marlow’s eyes and mouth run away with him.

The whole novel works like that. As Jameson argues in The Political Unconscious, Conrad’s stuff is often about the obsolescence of vision, thought, subjectivity, and interiority in a world in which those things seem to have been just now invented. Modernist subjectivism is born under the sign of its own unsuitability, is born to the sound of a whispered wish that it would simply go away.

Anywho. I get quite ramped up when I teach stuff like this. Hard to keep quiet. Especially when there are things like this to talk about, from a letter from Conrad to William Blackwood, the editor at the magazine that had commissioned HoD in the first place:

And this is all I can say unless I were to unfold for the nth time the miserable tale of my inefficiency. I trust however that in Jany I’ll be able to send you about 30000 words or perhaps a little less, towards the Vol: of short stories. Apart from my interest it is such a pleasure for me to appear in the Maga that you may well believe it is not laziness that keeps me back. It is, alas, something – I don’t know what – not so easy to overcome. With an immense effort a thin trickle of MS is produced – and that, just now, must be kept in one channel only lest no one gets anything and I am completely undone.

Can you spot the HoD keywords lurking in the letter? I’ve given you one clue already. The last sentence is chocked with them, tho. Remember the “thin trickle of ivory” that comes out of the jungle in exchange for all the manufactured trinkets and other garbage they send up river? And the “one channel” is just slightly interesting, right, given the fact that he’s writing novel about a guy headed on a little boat up an increasingly narrow river?

The much-discussed politics of the novel are to be found in this sort of thing, I think… and have argued this much in print. If you want the rest, you’ll either have to use your google-fu until you find the paper or sign up for our MA programme. Preferably the latter, and especially if you’re from elsewhere, as we need the loose change.

It’s definitely the perversest possible point to take away from HoD, but I too am trying to keep myself and my energies in “one channel” lately, trying not to “look about,” not even “sometimes.” I am fantasizing this morning about a life lived clockworkwise – get up, read the paper and eat breakfast, play with kids, off to the bus same time every morning. Instantly to desk and computer on and typing with the time I have. No mooning about – no thinking about. Then home, then relaxation, then reading, then bed. If there was an operation, preferably non-painful and I guess reversable, that could extract the self-distracting, meaning-seeking part of the brain and put it in a beaker for a bit, I’d be the first on-line, if a bit reluctantly, just at the moment.

At any rate, I started working last night – as a stupid sort of hobby – on a short and sloppy little  book – one written in semi-blog style and which proposes some suggestions toward  a new prosaics. It’ll follow the rubric suggested by Aristotle in his Poetics – “Every tragedy, therefore, must have six parts, which parts determine its quality – namely, plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle, song.” I’m going to take up each of those aspects, translated into novelistic application of course. I’ll post things here as I write them – I have no idea what I’d do with this little book if I actually finish it. And just so you know which future posts are attached to this project, I’ll title them like this: prosaics x.x, indicating the chapter at hand and (roughly) where it might fit in that chapter. So:

0 = Introduction

1 = Plot

2 = Character

3 = Diction

4 = Thought

5 = Spectacle

6 = Song

7 = Conclusion

Let’s see what happens. Going to try to do a page a night, whenever possible. Might be interesting, this – and perhaps a slightly more pragmatic (and pragmatically programmatic) use of the time that give to blogwriting than disparate random stuff. As far as I can imagine it, the point of the book will be to look again at the lessons of modernist innovations, identify their persistence in the present, and then propose alternative ways forward.

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November 5, 2009 at 11:12 am