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Archive for April 2010

why i’m not posting

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Paradox of blogging. When I justify – generally to myself but sometimes to others – the fact that I write this blog, generally my argument takes this shape: that the blog is helpful because it takes inchoate ideas, random reflections garnered in reading this or that, and forces me to follow through to a claim about them. In other words, the temptation to make a post of a thought moves distracted thinking through to un-distracted concentration. Time and again, I’ve found an argumentative line where there was nothing more than a passing fancy.

But here’s the paradox. I’m garnering a little more writing work lately, which of course makes more writing work easier to garner, as you can parade around your CV bonafides like a journalism membership card. But what happens when this happens is a sort of doubling-over of, or doubling-down on, the logic described above. Random thought turns into incipient blogpost, but then incipient blogpost becomes potential article for pay and in print.

This happened today, early this morning. I was working on a long post based on this article, when I realized that the thing I was doing had the reasonable potential to be a properly publishable piece. And so I stopped short, post nearly done, and wrote instead an pitch for the world-leading art magazine (as my department’s impact statement has it – and they’re not wrong!) that I sometimes write for. We’ll see what happens – I’d be thrilled to write this up for them. But it does fuck the blog a bit. Increasingly, when I think I’m onto something good, I keep it off of here. For instance, there’s this great idea I have for a piece about DFW, totally blogable, but…. It’ll never see the html.

My plan is to drop the pseudonymity at least by January 2011, right after my probation hearing – in which case, generally speaking, I’ll be able to link to published work and then all will be good and I won’t feel guilty about selling out my readers and being in general a bad blogger of the old and pure school. (There are funny stories to tell about the pseudonymity too – like the one about how I’d do my department good, again on the “impact” side of the REF, if I’d cop to having a blog… But… It’s a bit more complicated than that, isn’t it?)

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April 16, 2010 at 4:07 pm

headless in london

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Exciting stuff, and an advertisement for blogging. The headless one will land in 3 hrs 30 min at Heathrow and then is (I hope, if we can work out the US mobile-phoneless-comms) staying at mine. I’ve even washed the sheets on the guest room bed and cleaned out the cats’ litterbox! Scott is probably my oldest blog friend, and one whom I haven’t seen (if memory serves) since 2007 at the Philadelphia MLA (right? I’ve been to so many Philly MLAs that I’ve lost track) when I sat at a blog-meetup dinner next to Holbo and Bitch Ph.D.

I’ve been doing this for a long, long time.

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April 10, 2010 at 2:43 pm

Posted in blogs

mass arousal on the tgv: aggregate, anticipatory fiction

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Just read a story, if that’s the word, called “This is for you” by Emmanuel Carrère in the new issue of Granta. It’s not online, and likely never to be… So unfortunately if you want to read it you’re going to have to shell out the (outrageous! though maybe they’re actually paying their authors, who knows) £12.99 / $18.99 for issue 110. (Shhh… If you ask nicely maybe I’ll play about with the new departmental pdf-capable photocopier on Monday and see what I can do…*) I’m trying to look into this story a bit which was originally published in French and in a newspaper, having some trouble finding anything out, so I’m a bit vague on some of the details, but let me try to describe it to you very very briefly.

Basically, the “story” takes the shape of a sort of public letter to Carrère’s lover “Sophie.” Apparently the story first appeared in a summer fiction supplement in Le Monde, and, according to what’s written here, Carrère arranged for it to be published on a specific day when Sophie would be traveling by train to visit him on the Ile de Ré in the west of France. The new issue of Le Monde will have just appeared as she’s about to board the train and he anticipates that she’ll buy it and turn to the supplement to see what he’s written. But what the letter consists of are a series of basically masturbational instructions for Sophie to follow, think about this, touch that, and so on. The kink is that, due to  Carrère’s precise planning of the whole affair, there would likely be a large number of people on the same train reading the same “story” as she read it… Toward the end he has her go to the cafe car, the trick being that anyone who was on the train and who got the timing right might well show up looking for this ostensibly sexually aroused woman following a publically published set of erotic instructions… And then who knows what happens after that…

It’s a bit parlor-trickish, isn’t it, and a kind of banal version of the sort of thing that you might expect from a biographer of Philip K. Dick. But there’s also something interesting about it, even if it’s not what Carrère thinks is interesting about it. He thinks that the story is about the performative function of language:

I like literature to be effective; ideally, I want it to be performative, in the sense in which linguists define a performative statement, the classic example being the sentence ‘I declare war’, which instantly means war has been declared. One might argue that of all literary genres, pornography is the one that most closely approaches that ideal: reading “You’re getting wet”, makes you get wet.

But of course he’s wrong about this, or not quite right. “I declare war” or “By the powers granted to me by the great state of New Jersey, I now pronounce you man and wife” are of a different nature than what he’s up to here. The problem is this: imperatives (“get wet”) or wishful descriptions (“bet you’re getting wet now”) are not phrases that are actions, they implore or anticipate action without of course necessarily having the power to provoke the action itself. That’s because the performative is about power – I just said “I declare war on South London” out loud in my kitchen, but as far as I can tell no bombs are falling on or around Clapham Common.

So he’s wrong. But actually he’s on to something interesting, even if he misunderstands what it is in part because he lacks the language that he needs to understand it. I’ve been working on and off for a year now on a theorization of something that I am calling aggregate fiction – here are some of the posts in that line. As Carrère’s story (and, if it works, Sophie) gets to the café car, it leaves behind the close attention to her subjective response to work with a broader character set. But look at how he establishes the shift:

In real life, a writer might sometimes see a stranger reading his book in a public place, but that doesn’t happen often; it’s not something you can count on. Quite a few passengers on this train certainly do read Le Monde, however. Let’s do the maths. France has 60 million inhabitants; Le Monde‘s print run is 600,000 copies; it’s readers thus represent 1 per cent of the population. The proportion of readers on the Paris-La Rochelle high-speed train on a Saturday afternoon in July must be much higher, and I’d be tempted to jump it up to 10 per cent. So we get roughly 10 per cent of the passengers, most of whom – because today have the time – will at least take a look at the short-story supplement, just to see. I don’t want to seem immodest, but the chances of these just-taking-a-look passengers reading all the way to the end hover in my opinion around 100 per cent, for the simple reason that when there’s ass involved, people read to the end; that’s how it is. So about 10 per cent of your fellow passengers are reading, have read, or will read these instructions during the three hours you will all spend on the train. […] There’s a one-in-ten chance – I’m probably exaggerating but not by much – that the person beside you is at this moment reading the same thing you are. And if not the person next to you, someone close by.

This is the sort of thing that I’m interested in. A shift of fictional attention from the deeply explored single (or coupled) subjectivities to the informed but ultimately intuitive anticipation of  statistically-aggregated subjectivities. The odds are that… It’s a way of changing the number of fiction without simply backing off into a panoptic wide-angled mass image. Neither simply the teeming crowd and its patterns, nor the classical bourgeois interiority, but an aggregation of anticipatory selves – educatedly guessed though never quite circumscribed. The scene that Carrère imagines at the conclusion of his piece – a group of random yet predictable Le Monde readers, assembled in the café car of the TGV to La Rochelle attempting to figure out which one was Sophie, then drifting off to masturbate singly yet also in the company (across closed toilet doors) of others who know the game that’s on – seems to me to be an anticipation of an alternative frame for fiction, one that does the math and then sketches out the probabilities. It’s not the performative so much as the probable, it forethinks assemblies of individuals rather than presumes the centrality of this or that self. Its characters are ghostly, futural beings, like the CAD people in real estate advertisements, there because they’re bound to be rather than simply because we suspend disbelief and learn to indulge ourselves in ourselves by solipsistic proxy.

The problem with aggregate fiction, this thing that I’ve been trying to describe for a year now, is that the actually existing examples are wonderful pieces of prose. Carrère’s story is tacky, a bit creepy, and generally bound to put people off rather than turn them on. Still, I’m going to keep cataloging what I find, in the hopes that I might be able to

* Some question in my mind why I shouldn’t simply scan the story in and freely distribute it to you – it’d be to every party’s benefit I’m sure. I could talk about it without extensive redescription, you could of course read it, but most importantly (from the legal-economic perspective) several hundred readers, probably none of whom I’m guessing (just as Carrère does with Le Monde) subscribe to Granta, would be introduced to the magazine as a possible source of interesting stuff to think about. The temporality of blog reading suggests that any sales the magazine accrues will come on future issues, not my readers sprinting to their local bookshop to buy the thing to read with my post now… Hmmm…. We’ll see what happens Monday… Granta editors feel free to permission me, if you see this, in the meantime…

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April 10, 2010 at 2:28 pm

Posted in aggregate, fiction

late hegemonic fantasy: the pacific

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Just watched the first two episodes of The Pacific on Sky Movies. Stirring and scary yes, but also can’t help but feel that what I’m watching is a some sort of desperate projection of American nostalgic fantasy about the last time that we were outgunned, undermanned, underfed, often injured and generally in dire straits but we won. (It’s no wonder that the Battle of Khe Sahn during the Vietnam War plays a similarly iconic role in the American [filmic] subconscious). The colonel in charge of the unit we’re following even at one point, in the face of throwing what’s barely left of his Marine division against the entire Japanese army, reiterates an order from above: if this goes badly, you’ll retreat to the jungle and fight as guerrillas. To which all involved respond, fuck no, sir. We’re almost guerrillas, we might well have become guerrillas, but we’re never in the end guerrillas. And we watch as the desperate Marines manning the machine guns, constantly low on ammo, mow down hundreds upon hundreds of Japanese infantrymen. (At one point, in an act of medal-winning bravery, someone has to go clear a pile of bodies from the breach in the barbed wire fence in order to create a free-fire zone…) Sometimes, after the battles, the more thoughtful of the Americans go and look at the family pictures that the Japs carry in their bags. Once, one of them even finds a child’s doll in the satchel of the dead. But in another case, when these undermanned Americans send a medic out to help a terminally injured Jap, the latter pulls the pin on a grenade to blow the aiding hands and bodies to pieces. Bastards.

So why is this necessary right now? Well, there’s this sort of thing, which I really recommend you watch, and which I found via Chained to the Cinematheque:

I keep wondering (see below) whether videos like this one, which seem to represent in their depiction of the distractedly distanced killing perpetrated by US troops (which of course continues – or in fact intensifies into the primary US tactic for dealing with international insurgencies) some sort of semi-omnipotent Playstation-style control of the battlefield, actually augur something else, a sort of existential or mass-psychological or even material over-reach. That, if I could guess, is exactly the anxiety that constitutes the political unconscious of the Tom Hanks’s HBO production that I watched tonight. But this may or may not be wishful thinking. Understandable, I suppose, for me to construct fantasies about the failure of national projects that involve severely injuring children in the back of a van that their father’s driven to pick up a dying Reuters employee and deliver him to a hospital and then denying said children proper medical treatment.

Anyway, in case you’re new to the blog, here’s a previous (and more interesting) post on a parallel topic. And actually another one here, originally written for n+1’s website but they couldn’t sort out the coding issues with the embedded videos. I’m actually currently attempting to finish a small bit of fiction on this subject that I’ve been working on forever… We’ll see – maybe the awful video above has given me the spur that I need.

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April 6, 2010 at 12:42 am

Posted in distraction, Television, war

l’effet de placement: “we are the deal”

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From AdAge:

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) — Apple may not have paid for its new and much-ballyhooed iPad device to be woven into a main storyline in last night’s showing of “Modern Family” on ABC, but everyone is acting as if they did. You can see why, especially when you consider how much ABC might have gotten if it had charged for all the iPad play.

Apple has been telling other media outlets it paid nothing for “Family’s” bumbling Phil Dunphy character to spend the better part of the program yearning for a new Apple iPad (due out this Saturday) and even stroking the machine wistfully at show’s end. And two people familiar with the situation reiterate that notion, telling us Apple and the studio that produces “Modern Family” — News Corp’s 20th Century Fox — collaborated on its hard-to-miss cameo. Also worth noting: On Twitter, actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who plays Mitchell on the show, said “I will say that no ‘Product’ has been ‘Placed’ in my itchy little palm. I am excited about the iPad & will probably break down and buy one!”

Whether or not it is true, I guess that marks the end of another branding strategy. It’s a strange situation though foreseeable situation when consumer products that seem not to have been placed for pay into sitcom scripts nonetheless acquire the anti-aura of having been worked into the plot because of a marketing deal. We might as well revise the key paragraph of Barthes’s essay “The Reality Effect” on the realistic detail into accordance with current conditions, mostly by substituting the word deal for the word real. First the original paragraph:

This is what we might call the referential illusion. The truth of this illusion is this: eliminated from the realist speech-act as a signified of denotation, the ‘real’ returns to it as a signified of connotation; for just when these details are reputed to denote the real directly, all that they do – without saying so – is signify it; Flaubert’s barometer, Michelet’s little door finally say nothing but this: we are the real; it is the category of ‘the real’ (and not its contingent contents) which is then signified; in other words, the very absence of the signified, to the advantage of the referent alone, becomes the very signifier of realism: the reality effect is produced, the basis of that unavowed verisimilitude which forms the aesthetic of all the standard works of modernity.

Now the revision, with changes to the original text in italics:

This is what we might call the market-deferential illusion. The truth of this illusion is this: eliminated from the realist speech-act as a signified of denotation, the ‘deal’ returns to it as a signified of connotation; for just when these details are reputed to denote the deal directly, all that they do – without saying so – is signify it; Modern Family’s iPad finally says nothing but this: I am the deal; it is the category of ‘the deal’ (and not its contingent contents) which is then signified; in other words, the very absence of the signified, to the advantage of the referent alone, becomes the very signifier of branding: the branding effect is produced, the basis of that unavowed verisimilitude which forms the aesthetic of all the standard works of modernity.

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April 4, 2010 at 3:18 pm

Posted in ads, barthes, realism

modernism’s manifest destiny

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From the description of Gabriel Josipovici’s forthcoming What Ever Happened to Modernism at the Yale University Press site:

Modernism, Josipovici suggests, is only superficially a reaction to industrialization or a revolution in diction and form; essentially, it is art coming to consciousness of its own limits and responsibilities. And its origins are to be sought not in 1850 or 1800, but in the early 1500s, with the crisis of society and perception that also led to the rise of Protestantism. With sophistication and persuasiveness, Josipovici charts some of Modernism’s key stages, from Dürer, Rabelais, and Cervantes to the present, bringing together a rich array of artists, musicians, and writers both familiar and unexpected—including Beckett, Borges, Friedrich, Cézanne, Stevens, Robbe-Grillet, Beethoven, and Wordsworth.

Very much in agreement with this approach, I must say, and genuinely excited by the prospect of this book. But it also bears noting that this sort of move, the everything good was always already modernist play, when committed by younger scholars of modernism (say, at a job interview) can land one in a world of hurt – or at least deliver unto you frantic and belligerent questioners. On the other hand, every modernist who has spent some time delivering her or his work to mixed audience is familiar with the argumentum ex Shandy, in which agitated 18th-centuryists, Rennaissancers, medievalists or even ballsy classicists impatiently explain that there was nothing new under the early 20th-century sun…

Even more interesting stuff comes at the end of the paragraph that I just cited:

He concludes with a stinging attack on the current literary scene in Britain and America, which raises questions not only about national taste, but contemporary culture itself.

Wait! What’s that? A work of literary criticism released by an academic publisher that dares to approach the question of What is to be done? here and now – that takes literary production itself as a going, if troubled, concern? What is the world coming to? Nothing to lose but our utterly indifferent irrelevance, I guess…

Hurrah for Josipovici then. Will have more to say about him soon, as I’m currently reading some of his stuff….

(via the perpetually excellent This Space)

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April 4, 2010 at 2:33 pm

our daily bread: quotidian / epiousios

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From Jon Meacham’s review of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch in today’s NYTBR:

[I]n a wonderfully revealing insight of MacCulloch’s, that the “daily bread” for which countless Christians ask in the Lord’s Prayer is not what most people think it is, a humble plea for sustenance. “Daily” is the common translation of the Greek word epiousios, which in fact means “of extra substance” or “for the morrow.” As MacCulloch explains, epiousios “may point to the new time of the coming kingdom: there must be a new provision when God’s people are hungry in this new time — yet the provision for the morrow must come now, because the kingdom is about to arrive.” We are a long way from bedtime prayers here.

Wonderfully reminiscent of the strange dialectical temporalities at play in, say, Benjamin’s theses “On the Philosophy of History,” that. The ur-symbol of the quotidian is actually, when the translation engine is run in reverse, revealed to be shot through with a kind of post-redemptive future anteriority. Because of the imminence of redemption, we must start asking now for what we’ll need after the redemption. And we ask in terms derived from the needs that will be abolished with the redemption, because they are the only terms (and needs) that we know. Because of this, we modify these present terms with a single word that means at once of different substance and not now but very soon. Wonderful….

And more wonderful still: the fact that implicit in the entire complicated structure is the fact that with the arrival of the redemption comes not the abolition of needs but rather their metamorphosis and augmentation – perhaps even their drastic intensification…

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April 4, 2010 at 8:48 am

Posted in benjamin, temporality