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peripheral omniscience 1: ballardian moments

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Two sentences from Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station:

In the distance airliners made their way to Barajas, lights flashing slowly on the wing, the contrails vaguely pink until it was completely dark. I imagined the passengers could see me, imagined I was a passenger that could see me looking up at myself looking down.

I think of moments such as these as “Ballardian moments.” Certainly Ballard wasn’t the first to turn at the crossroads of subjective reflexivity and locational relativity like this, but it is a move highly emblematic of his work. For instance, perhaps the best example, from Chapter 11 of Crash:

Waiting for Catherine to leave for her flying lesson, I drove my car towards the motorway, and within a few minutes had trapped myself in a traffic jam. The lines of stalled vehicles reached to the horizon, where they joined the clogged causeways of the motor routes to the west and south of London. As I edged forward, my own apartment house came into sight. Above the rails of the sitting-room balcony I could actually see Catherine moving about on some complex errand, making two or three telephone calls and scribbling away on a pad. In an unexpected way she seemed to be playing at being myself – already I knew that I would be back in the apartment the moment she left, taking up my convalescent position on that exposed balcony. For the first time I realized that sitting there, halfway up that empty apartment face, I had been visible to tens of thousands of waiting motorists, many of whom must have speculated about the identity of this bandaged figure. In their eyes I must have appeared like some kind of nightmarish totem, a domestic idiot suffering from the irreversible brain damage of a motorway accident and now put out each morning to view the scene of his own cerebral death.

We’ve already stood with Crash‘s narrator-protagonist on his balcony overlooking the motorways approaching Heathrow many times, and we’ve overheard him speculating about all of the micro-narratives that are playing out, barely discernibly or only implicitly below. For instance, from Chapter 4.

I gazed down at this immense motion sculpture, whose traffic deck seemed almost higher than the balcony rail against which I leaned. I began to orientate myself again round its reassuring bulk, its familiar perspectives of speed, purpose and direction. The houses of our friends, the wine store where I bought our liquor, the small art-cinema where Catherine and I saw American avant-garde films and German sex-instruction movies, together realigned themselves around the palisades of the motorway. I realized that the human inhabitants of this technological landscape no longer provided its sharpest pointers, its keys to the borderzones of identity. The amiable saunter of Frances Waring, bored wife of my partner, through the turnstiles of the local supermarket, thedomestic wrangles of our well-to-do neighbours in our apartment house, all the hopes and fancies of this placid suburban enclave, drenched in a thousand infidelities, faltered before the solid reality of the motorway embankments, with their constant and unswerving geometry, and before the finite areas of the car-park aprons.

We have here – and at so many other places in Crash – an intimation, if a fleeting one, of another sort of novel – a novel whose action would be comprised of all of the micro-activity, the infra-events, that take place in a certain place at a certain time… in this case, the non-neighbourhood on the periphery of the airport run-up. This is interesting enough, but what’s even more interesting is when – in passages such as the one above from Chapter 11 or the sentences from Lerner’s novel – the micro-narratives of the denizens of the Westway or the passengers on the planes into Barajas are imagined in turn into micro-perspectives on the protagonist himself. From one, many; or, from many, one.

Tao Lin’s Taipei likewise has a similar preoccupation with such perspectival shifts, this time borrowed from the visual aesthetic of Google Maps and its gods-eye perspective. “He visualized the vibrating, squiggling, looping, arcing line representing the three-dimensional movement, plotted in a cubic grid, of the dot of himself, accounting for the different speed and direction of each vessel of which he was a passenger – taxi, Earth, solar system, Milky Way, etc.”

Of course, it’s always been possible to conceive of the novel in terms of movements on the map from on high. Franco Moretti’s work, for instance, has long embraced this aerial perpendicularity. But it goes back far further than that – as is visible, for instance, in Nabokov’s famous cartographical rendering of Ulysses. 


But it is something a bit different when the works themselves perform or at least hint at the possibility of arranging themselves in this way. Moments such as those above – with Ballard’s characteristically long before the technological media that has clearly been so suggestive to later writers – are intimations of the possibility of new configurations of the matrix of personality and perspective within novels that otherwise remain enfolded in relatively conventional models of narrative construction. But at the same time, these new configurations can also been seen as developments compatible with the foundational conceptions of modernist literary art. To slightly edit one of the touchstone statements from early in the development of modernist prose technique, in these moments we start to see literature lean towards a new maxim, though one not all that different from the old ones:

An author in his book must be like Google’s algorithms in their processors, or Instragram’s archives in the Cloud, present everywhere, and visible nowhere.



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May 8, 2014 at 11:11 am

“something tawdry about following the state in this way”

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Can’t believe that I’ve never posted a link to this essay by Coetzee. You should go read the whole thing if you have the time, but for now – and apropos of some of the issues that I and others have been discussing here and elsewhere – here’s my favorite bit:

Some years ago I wrote a novel, ”Waiting for the Barbarians,” about the impact of the torture chamber on the life of a man of conscience. Torture has exerted a dark fascination on many other South African writers. Why should this be so? There are, it seems to me, two reasons. The first is that relations in the torture room provide a metaphor, bare and extreme, for relations between authoritarianism and its victims. In the torture room, unlimited force is exerted upon the physical being of an individual in a twilight of legal illegality, with the purpose, if not of destroying him, then at least of destroying the kernel of resistance within him.

Let us be clear about the situation of the prisoner who falls under suspicion of a crime against the state. What happens in Vorster Square is nominally illegal. Articles of the law forbid the police from exercising violence upon the bodies of detainees except in self-defense. But other articles of the law, invoking reasons of state, place a protective ring around the activities of the security police. The rigmarole of due process, which requires the prisoner to accuse his torturers and produce witnesses, makes it futile to proceed against the police unless the latter have been exceptionally careless. What the prisoner knows, what the police know he knows, is that he is helpless against whatever they choose to do to him. The torture room thus becomes like the bedchamber of the pornographer’s fantasy where, insulated from moral or physical restraint, one human being is free to exercise his imagination to the limits in the performance of vileness upon the body of another.

The fact that the torture room is a site of extreme human experience, accessible to no one save the participants, is a second reason why the novelist in particular should be fascinated by it. Of the character of the novelist, John T. Irwin writes in ”Doubling and Incest/Repetition and Revenge: A Speculative Reading of Faulkner”: ”It is precisely because [ he ] stands outside the dark door, wanting to enter the dark room but unable to, that he is a novelist, that he must imagine what takes place beyond the door. Indeed, it is just that tension toward the dark room that he cannot enter that makes that room the source of all his imaginings – the womb of art.”

To Mr. Irwin (following Freud but also Henry James), the novelist is a person who, camped before a closed door, facing an insufferable ban, creates, in place of the scene he is forbidden to see, a representation of that scene and a story of the actors in it and how they come to be there. Therefore my question should not have been phrased, Why are writers in South Africa drawn to the torture room? The dark, forbidden chamber is the origin of novelistic fantasy per se; in creating an obscenity, in enveloping it in mystery, the state creates the preconditions for the novel to set about its work of representation.

Yet there is something tawdry about following the state in this way, making its vile mysteries the occasion of fantasy. For the writer the deeper problem is not to allow himself to be impaled on the dilemma proposed by the state, namely, either to ignore its obscenities or else to produce representations of them. The true challenge is how not to play the game by the rules of the state, how to establish one’s own authority, how to imagine torture and death on one’s own terms.

This is just right. The whole game for the novelist who would write “politically” is to figure out the very very ambiguous difference between critique and inadvertent PR work. Showing the worst can sometimes – with a deeply dark irony – be doing the very bidding of that which is opposed. On the other hand, as Coetzee has it here, avoiding representation altogether is unacceptable as well.

(There are a few tangential things to mention while on the topic of this essay. First of all, readers of Disgrace should be able to see the centrality of this image of the “torture room” and the “locked door” in that novel… Second – and here’s where things get really complicated – one of the strange facts about Coetzee’s career was that he was able to evade South African censorship when many of his fellow SA writers weren’t. Reportedly, this has to do with the formal and thematic complexity (opacity?) of his early work… a situation that begs important questions about the position taken in the essay above….)

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May 13, 2011 at 2:07 pm

don’t need a weatherman…

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Strange situation: not all that long ago, it seemed to me obvious that dystopian speculative fiction was one of the genres if not the genre best adapted to a left political stance. The drawing out of the inevitable ramifications of all this, the dramatic revelation of the crisis whose traces were already starting to streak the screen of things-as-they-are, the warning that the relatively bearable everyday was already pregnant with something much, much worse – these seemed to be close to the best one could do with narrative art today.

I even started writing some myself, a project that I’m constantly tempted to return to…. But honestly it’s feeling increasingly wrong-footed, if one would be even a mildly political narrative writer, to head in this direction given the way things are now.

Given that the fact is that the world over austerity measures, privatizations and rationalizations, and other efforts to starve out what vestiges of the welfare state remain are being sold to the public under the very brand of inevitable and interminable crisis. People sort of vaguely accept, I think, that things are bad and something needs to be done as it’s only going to get worse. 

Depicted catastrophes tend to blur together into a generalized air of imminent expectation of the worst. We’ve seen two phases of this already, lately. Roughly the first stage with its quiet but persistent stream of “untimely” bleak visions amidst the high water marks of post-Cold War affluence, globalization, and tech bubbling. The second, much less discrete, came amidst the televised events and wild market swings of the first decade of the 21st century. The generalization of this atmosphere of imminent catastrophe – through films and books, news reports and editorials, the web, whatever – has served as a distributed and as if automatic PR machine better than any the right could have paid for in service of its quest to cut away the remainders of soft socialism. Even depictions of dystopian situations born of capitalism itself play into, I think, the message that those who administer capitalism need to have distributed right now…

Not a hard and fast position I’m taking here – just an inference, an intuition, that I’m trying to think through a bit. Of course I’m painting with too broad a brush, even if I’m just speculating at this point…

(Perhaps worth mentioning that I’m going to write something soon about Evan Calder Williams’s new book soon, once I’ve finished it….)

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April 19, 2011 at 12:24 pm

Posted in aesthetics, crisis, dystopia

yeats and the imf, harry potter brutalism, apple store art museums: aesthetics via the wsj 19/11/10

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In addition to my IHT, I like a financial paper every day, as the “business section” is the only section where the actual news happens. I used to read the Financial Times until, at MSA 2008, I saw Frederic Jameson carrying around a copy to match mine (we’d probably both walked to the Borders down the road as there was nowhere else to buy such a thing in Nashville) and realized at that moment that this FT shit had, as they say, jumped the shark. So now I kick it old school with a subscription to the Wall Street Journal – European Edition, which is cheaper by miles anyway.

(a joke, btw – in case it’s not clear. maybe a joke. i dunno)

Anyway from yesterday’s WSJ, a strange melange of aesthetics / politics / commercialism that gives us the present state of play in snippets. First, from an article on Ireland’s debt crisis / IMF intervention:

It (an editorial in The Irish Times) went on: “There is the shame of it all. Having obtained our political independence from Britain to be the masters of our own affairs, we have now surrendered our sovereignty to the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund.” In Ireland’s parliament, a deputy recited the stanza of Yeats from which the editorial takes its title, an elegy for the dead of an earlier, failed, revolution.

Let a billion quasi-leftist grad seminar papers bloom. Folks have been – at times very cheaply and with a tinge of, dunno, residual and deeply perverse ethnocentrism – using Ireland and its literature as a way to be a “post-colonialist” without dealing with, you know, black people. This would seem to me to be the wet dream via Naomi Klein version of this…. The quotation in question, as another article in the WSJ indicates, was from ‘September 1913’:

Was it for this the wild geese spread

The grey wing upon every tide;

For this that all that blood was shed,

For this Edward Fitzgerald died,

And Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone,

All that delirium of the brave?

Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,

It’s with O’Leary in the grave.

Funny thing is that there are better bits from that poem to cite on this occasion, namely the first stanza (“What need you, being come to sense / But fumble in a greasy till / And add the halfpence to the pence” etc). If I were one of those erstwhile hibernian pocoists, that’s where I’d go with my deconstructively angled paper…  Alternately, if I were still attending “mass” on weekend evenings at the Boston Arms in Tufnell Park, I’d ask and receive, I’m sure, incredibly fascinating analyses of this poetry-cum-or-anti-economics issue from the (sometimes) friendly and strangely erudite pensioners who go there to receive liquified communion.

And then there’s this from an article about the CGI in the new Harry Potter film(s):

Leavesden (Studios) is also home to the fictional Ministry of Magic, which is supposed to sit beneath a real street in the London government district of Whitehall. To create the ministry, which first appeared in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” in 2007, Mr. Craig studied underground structures such as the London and Moscow subway stations.

For the new film, Mr. Craig added a towering monument to the ministry’s atrium. The Soviet-style sculpture shows wizards crushing cowering muggles—people without magic powers—and bears an engraving that says “Magic Is Might.” The totalitarian aesthetic, Mr. Craig says, highlights the theme of a world dominated by evil. He used seemingly long, winding corridors to give the ministry a Kafkaesque feel. As the characters explore the building, including an upstairs office and a basement courtroom, viewers soon feel as if they know their way around the place.

Leaving aside the sublation of the Red Menace into noseless (syphlitic?) baddy magicians, that final phrase is a bit bizarre: “viewers soon feel as if they know their way around the place.” Location, Location, Location real estate imaginineering meets Kafkaesque Unheimlichkeit in some sort of illogical and unholy union, no? Perhaps that, my friends, is the definition of the uncanniness of our times: bureaucratic befuddlement that somehow you feel cozy in, that you want to take out a variable-rate mortgage in order to buy-to-let, even though there are no mortgages to be had…

Finally, and winning today’s Rem-Koolhaas-Was-So-Right prize, is this on forthcoming renovation of the Mauritshuis Museum in the Hague:

“You can think of a cross between the Apple store in New York and the Louvre,” is how Mauritshuis Director Emilie Gordenker describes the museum’s hopes for the extension and renovation. “We’re going to open up the gates. Then you come in and you end up in a very large, spacious and light-filled foyer.”

And things finally head full-circle. The Apple Store aesthetic, stolen from what I can tell (or remember) out of certain now-lost Soho (NYC) sleek coffeehouses, which in turn had stolen their look out of the galleries that were just then on their way out, returns to garnish the place where they keep Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring.” What is the next turn of the screw to come in our frenetically static cultural world, the palpating infrastructure built atop an ever self-renewing base? Apple Stores shaped like Aeroflot terminals? Childish pre-sex fantasies (wtf?) cast in the light of Allende-ite democratic socialism? Ezra Pound cantos about usury and the Jews recited on the House floor?

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November 20, 2010 at 8:56 am

robson on mccarthy on (implicitly) mcewan and the aimlessness of innovation

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In his fine review of McCarthy’s C, Leo Robson refers to a review-cum-manifesto that McCarthy wrote recently in the LRB. I was absolutely sure that I’d written something on here about this, and in particular the very passage that Robson astutely cites, but as it turns out there’s nothing more than this, which isn’t very helpful. Probably there’s something frozen deep in drafts that never quite made it up. But at any rate the relevant passages from the LRB piece (a review of a couple of novels by Jean-Philippe Toussaint) are these:

What this aesthetic shares with its uncomic nouveau roman forebears is an anti-naturalist, anti-humanist bent: we’re being given access not to a fully rounded, self-sufficient character’s intimate thoughts and feelings as he travels through a naturalistic world, emoting, developing and so on – but rather to an encounter with structure. In a wonderful sequence in Camera, Toussaint sets up a scene of dialogue in a restaurant and, having placed a bowl of olives on the table (as a naturalist writer would do to provide background verisimilitude), suppresses the scene’s dialogue entirely, and describes exclusively the movement of hands as they reach towards the bowl, the trajectory of fruit from hand to mouth, the ergonomics of pit-transfers from mouth to tablecloth and, most striking of all, the regularly spaced imprints made by the back of a fork’s tines across the skin of the lone olive the narrator toys with before stabbing it. We don’t want plot, depth or content: we want angles, arcs and intervals; we want pattern. Structure is content, geometry is everything.

In The Bathroom, this logic frames the entire book, which – prefaced by Pythagoras’ rule about the square of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle being equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides – assumes a triangular form, its three sections entitled ‘Paris’, ‘Hypotenuse’, ‘Paris’. When the hero, in a willed narrative refusal to go out into the world and make something happen, takes to his bathroom and decides to stay there, he luxuriates in the tub’s parallel sides and in the patterns formed by the towel-rails, as though space itself was like the olive, embossed with evenly spread lines. Watching his lover move round their flat, he discerns the ‘curves and spirals’ described by her arms. We exist and assume subjectivity to the extent that we occupy a spot on or traverse the grid: an implicit assertion that’s part Descartes, part Deleuze. Geometry is not just an aesthetic: it is, to borrow a term from Deleuze, our ‘habitus’. When the narrator finally leaves the bathroom and the flat whose passages he’s ‘stalked’ (shoes intercepting shafts of light, half-open doors on each side providing symmetry and rhythm), he travels in the cube of a train compartment to a Venetian hotel, there to install himself in a new bathroom, to stalk new hallways, all of which he describes in careful detail. His lover, joining him, tries to entice him out to see Renaissance works of art, but he’s not interested. Pictures can’t be inhabited, unlike the neutral, unanimated surfaces and planes of corridors and door-frames.

OK. A few things about this:

1) Robson wonders the following about McCarthy’s pseudo-manifesto:

McCarthy, for his part, is fed up with “middlebrow aesthetics” and “liberal humanism”, especially as manifested in the kind of bourgeois novel that offers access to “a fully rounded, self-sufficient character’s intimate thoughts and feelings as he travels through a naturalistic world, emoting, developing and so on”. What has he been reading? If McCarthy thinks that is what most novels are like, it is little wonder he doesn’t enjoy them.

I think this is slightly unfair on Robson’s part. Sure there are exceptions, but by and large the norm that McCarthy names remains fairly hegemonic. For instance, I’ve reviewed a bunch of novels in the last few months – some I asked to do, some I was asked to do – and I can’t think of one that didn’t conform fairly solidly to McCarthy’s description. Some were better than others, but each indeed centered on “a fully rounded, self-sufficient character’s intimate thoughts and feelings as he travels through a naturalistic world, emoting, developing and so on.”

But there’s something else that’s operating behind McCarthy’s assumption I think, something a bit interesting and almost funny. I’d be willing to bet that what he’s ultimately referring to is what all of us are implicitly referring to when we make this sort of statement, and that’s Ian McEwan’s Saturday. Do you know what I mean? I used to joke at the beginning of my courses on modernism that I wished I could assign everyone the title The Utterly Conventional Novel – some sort of Platonic ideal of “straight nineteenth-century fiction” that we could all read and then use as a benchmark against which we could measure the changes that happen with modernism. Somehow Saturday seems to have come to serve as just that in our time, and in fact I’ll cop to teaching it frequently, despite the fact that I hate it, and putting it to just such a use. And further, it just now occurs to me that I’ve written and said more about Saturday this summer than any other work of fiction. Odd, and worthy of more reflection I think, its seemingly unspoken but universally acknowledged bad architypicality. (Just finished another piece the other day – and one that drew heavily on Marco Roth’s excellent piece on the neuronovel from n+1).

2) But there’s something even more important to say about McCarthy’s initial manifesto. It should be clear from my other posts that I definitely agree with him in his frustration about the novelistic norm, the stasis that it brings, the sclerosis that’s engendered. But what bothers me about his pronouncements here as elsewhere is that he never explains why we should make the turn that he is advocating. “We don’t want plot, depth or content: we want angles, arcs and intervals; we want pattern. Structure is content, geometry is everything.” OK, sure, a bit vague – actually really vague – but why do we want that? There seems to be an politics lingering behind these pronouncements, and to be clear no one’s asking for the novel of the future to maintain rigorous fidelity to some sort of vivid political rubric, but I still want to know what the use-value, however amorphous, of the changes that McCarthy proposes might be. In the work I’m doing on the aggregate – which of course is more than simply a critical or theoretical proposition on my part – it’s something that I’m struggling, successfully or not, to put into artistic practice – I am trying to be as clear as I can about the reasons why the changes I am sketching would be an improvement over the status quo.

At any rate, pseudo-avant garde propagandising without purpose simply doesn’t appeal to me. It comes to seem like a marketing tactic, a repetition of the worst bit of modernism: that ultimately economically mimetic utterance “Make it new!”, a translation into art theory of the barest and blindest logic of capitalism.

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August 17, 2010 at 1:05 pm

judt again on social democracy

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Tony Judt has a new and valuable piece on social democracy in today’s Guardian:

We need to rethink the state, and rearticulate the language of social democracy. Social democrats should cease to be defensive and apologetic. A social democratic vision of the good society entails from the outset a greater role for the state and the public sector. The welfare state is as popular as ever with its beneficiaries: nowhere in Europe is there a constituency for abolishing public health services, ending free or subsidised education or reducing public provision of transport and other essential services. We have long practised something resembling social democracy, but we have forgotten how to preach it.

Agreed. And I agree with just about all that Judt says in this piece… except one thing. When he casts around for an angle to take in preaching it, he (somewhat reluctantly) lands on morality as the fulcrum point of whatever case we might make moving forward:

If we remain grotesquely unequal, we shall lose all sense of fraternity: and fraternity, for all its fatuity as a political objective, turns out to be the necessary condition of politics itself. The inculcation of a sense of common purpose and mutual dependence has long been regarded as the linchpin of any community. Inequality is not just morally troubling: it is inefficient.

In post-religious societies such as our own, where most people find meaning and satisfaction in secular objectives, it is only by indulging what Adam Smith called our “benevolent instincts” and reversing our selfish desires that we can “produce among mankind that harmony of sentiments and passions in which consists their whole race and propriety”.

Morality is a lovely concept, but to my mind it’s better at filling Santa’s kettle outside Bloomingdales than forming an axiomatic basepoint for a political movement. I’ll have a lot more to say about this in the coming weeks and months, but I would substitute beauty for Judt’s morality, aesthetic instincts for Smith’s benevolent ones. The aesthetic marks a point of negotiation and often enough junction between the individual and the collective, and as such it bears within it the possibility of the suturing of self-interest and collective good in a more psychologically and socially realist form than morality or benevolence.

Anyway, this is something I’m going to be working on moving forward, so there’ll be more on here about it I’m sure – and on Judt, whose Ill Fares the Land dropped through the mailslot as I was reading the above article in the Guardian. I’m sending my first book off for peer review today or Monday, and so it’s time to open up new research. And I gave my blog-derived paper that might be the start of a new book on social democracy and aesthetics for a second time in two weeks last night – this time to a management / marketting department which was interesting and appropriate, as it’s exactly the wisdom of advertising that I’m trying to poach for our side.

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March 20, 2010 at 11:28 am

against apocalypticism

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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.

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November 29, 2009 at 10:12 pm

“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

porn, fast-forwarding, modernism, new aesthetics

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From a very smart Guardian piece by Jane Graham on the Saw series of ultrahorror films. In particular, this paragraph caught my eye:

When pushed, Burg cites the importance of context in justifying the extreme violence in his films – Jigsaw is punishing those he regards as immoral, thus the torture is not presented with the sadistic glee manifest in the likes of Hostel. What is questionable, though, is how much kids on YouTube care, or even think, about context. The prevalence of home-made YouTube montages simply comprising torture scenes from the Saw films on the site illustrates that, for some viewers, context is just an irritation to be got round, just like the establishing storyline in the Emmanuelle videos was for young boys in the 1980s. “Is it wierd [sic] that I just got an erection after watching that?” asks a fan posting on Facebook after viewing the brutal trailer for Saw VI. “I wish it could turn my stomach but some of the footage in the films are like stuff I do to my friends in my dreams!!!” confides another on Bebo.

Ah Bebo confessor, data-point in a reader-response theory just around the corner but somehow already staring us in the face! But more importantly, Emmanuelle!  Not just for young boys in the eighties, but the early nineties as well! The VHS tape dubbed off of Cinemax, and yes – the pacing of the films, always  a strange stroll through some baroque bienale of transnational decadent not fully post-colonial seventiesness… Like Duras in the ‘Nam but after the end of Bretton Woods…

Of course, Graham’s exactly right: my early-adolescent self didn’t actually watch any of that stuff, not if the FF button could do anything about it. Ahem. But the thing is, still to this day, when I’m teaching or writing about narrative and its rhythms (which is basically what I teach or write when I teach or write) the Emmanuelle movies are never far from my mind. The strange relationship between the heightened moments of revelation or affectual intensity and all of the stuff that moves the characters around the board, shows you the sites, establishes the patter of the everyday that goes on around the climactic bits. In a certain sense, I learned to read the way that I read by watching these soft-core films. And it was the very soft-coreness of them that was determinative on this score. If I’d grown up now, with the porn sites and their menus of contextless acts for the viewing, I’d read differently – or perhaps, who knows, I wouldn’t read at all.

Of course, I’m not alone in this sort of thing, even if the specific media involved have changed with time. Here’s Roland Barthes, for instance, in The Pleasure of the Text returning to his own favorite allegorical materialization of reading:

[W]e boldly skip (no one is watching) descriptions, explanations, analyses, conversations; doing so, we resemble a spectator in a nightclub who climbs on to the stage and speeds up the dancer’s striptease, tearing off her clothing, but in the same order, that is: on the one hand respecting and on the other hastening the episodes of the ritual.

The fascination of what Barthes is noticing about the reading of novels runs parallel to the question that today’s porn clips beg about the feature-length films of the past: why have the filler material at all? What is the point, besides evading the censors or fulfilling the aesthetic ambitions of the directors, of the plot and the setting, the conversations and the dramatic angling, when clearly everyone watching the film is watching it for only one thing? *

There are easy and hard answers to this question… I’m going to reserve offering my own ideas for a little bit. (Especially since I’m going to acquire a bunch of these movies with an eye toward writing something about them soon but later… On here of course but perhaps in fuller form too…) Just a hint for now: some sort of interesting and perhaps new definition of the aesthetic itself lurks within those scenes that bathe the porn actress, fully clothed if scantily, if scenery and conversations and transportation. If the models that we’re used to for the aesthetic, ranging from vehicle of pleasure and beauty to device for estrangement and on to statement of impossible autonomy, are worn out, these fill-scenes suggest (at least to me) other modalities of the aesthetic ranging from filter to alibi, dilutive solution to perverse advertisement, negative affectual space to the sort of thing where we take a little rest before doing it all again.

So more of that to come, one way or another. But it occurs to be that what the novelistic romance, or the romance that persists within all novels, was to those in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who were busy with the invention of modernism, I am starting to think porn is – or should be – for us today. It is that popular form, so circumscribed and rote, so unreflectively ideological, so bestial that we might resist, and in resisting discover that we can’t quite fully extricate ourselves from. Modernism attempts to purge literature of romance – but the problem is it simply can’t stop purging itself of romance, and thus the backwash of the young man carbuncular and the girl on the strand, the passante and the strange copulation of Clarissa and Septimus. We might think would it would mean to begin a similarly violent romance, the sort of maddeningly intense affair that refuses to name itself as such, with the legacy of the most popular, titanically popular, aesthetic form of our own time.

* Of course I understand that I’m deploying a reductive and perhaps rather masculinist notion of the way that porn is consumed / enjoyed. Of course I’m aware of the fem-porn industry, and some of the difference involved in that (often themselves organized by essentialised notions of female preference for the emotional over the physical, talkiness vs. dirtiness….) If anyone wants to provide an alternative version of any of the above, by all means the comment box is yours!

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October 23, 2009 at 11:18 pm

Posted in aesthetics, modernism, porn

ads without product placement

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Via One-Way Street, Bob McCrum on Alain de Botton’s new gig in the Guardian:

De Botton has taken quite a bit of flak for this assignment, and no doubt some of the abuse will be reheated and thrown at him all over again when his book comes out later this month, but what’s his crime ? Why shouldn’t he accept the BAA shilling? Sure, it’s not Proust or Happiness (two of the themes he has so successfully made his own), but it’s not pornography or racism, either, and – why the hell not? It will be interesting to see if he can rise to the challenge of a seemingly impossible task of writing about check-ins, fast bag drop and airport security. Dickens, no question, would have had a lot of fun with BAA.

Alain de Botton is not Dickens, but in taking this job, he is behaving like a very traditional literary animal. I’m sure there are many other examples of the resilience of literary life in the new world of cyber-publishing, but these three, coming together, do seem to make a trend

Just to be clear, and especially for the benefit of non-UK readers, BAA is a company that owns many of the privatized airports in Britain. It’s neither British Airways (itself privatized in 1987, under Thatcher) nor is it a public entity. It’s owned by the Spanish company Grupo Ferrovial, world-leaders in managing (mismanaging?) formerly public infrastructure. Even the BAA’s name is misleading. While it originally, while still public, stood for “British Airports Authority,” the company now claims that the letters don’t stand for anything at all. In other words, it pays to impersonate a public authority.

Notably BAA has of late been involved in a protracted PR / legal war with climate protestors (actually, the Climate Camp people) who’d rather BAA wasn’t permitted to build a third runway at Heathrow. It’s impossible not to see the De Botton book as the product of some PR firm’s mid-to-highbrow targetted re-branding campaign. Ah, BAA – patrons of the arts, patrons of the nice guy who writes about Proust. And in fact, if the whole thing calls to mind anything, it is a post-privatised version of this wondrous thing:

But of course, Auden and Britten were actually working for the GPO Film Unit when they made Night Mail, and of course again, this was long before the GPO was split into a million privatized and semi-privatized pieces by, yep, Thatcher.

This, of course, is mostly just politics talking, but in my ideal world, not only would Alain de Botton not be shilling CO2 for BAA, but there’d be no BAA Ltd., only the old, public BAA. There’s been a little spate of public organizations going into the publishing business lately, mainly as a sort of fund raising scheme. (I’ve not started reading, but will treasure for a long time, my Royal Parks boxed set of short stories, which I purchased at place I’ve been coming to, albeit far more frequently of late, since the mid-1980s, the restaurant at the end of the Serpentine in Hyde Park…) It’s very very red, but I’m not sure the general decline of prose fiction couldn’t be reversed if all prose was commissioned and paid for by entities like Transport for London and the NHS, the US Mail and, christ, the IRS. At some point (promissory, promissory – forgive me, for I am soooo tired), I’ll try to write about the aesthetic effect that such a development might possibly have.

On the other hand, what De Botton’s up to is just what it is – providing a profit hungry corporation with a bit of good PR, all dressed up as if it were simply a matter of one of the purest things on earth – infrastructural enthusiasm.

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September 1, 2009 at 11:34 pm

l’effet du réel

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In the backdraft of IT’s post about arses, how about this?

“Clésinger’s Woman Bitten by a Snake, a succes de scandale . . . ensured its creator’s notoriety at the Salon of 1847. The scandal surrounding the work was orchestrated by Theophile Gautier, who spread a rumour that the cast for the statue had been taken from life. The model was Apollonie Sabatier, called ‘camp-follower of the fauns’ by the Goncourt brothers, but by Baudelaire ‘the beautiful, the good, darling’, ‘a guardian angel, muse, Madonna’ and ‘girl who laughs too much’. This notorious work exerted a lasting influence. Sculptors began making the female body more curvaceous and languishing, but omitted the cellulite rippling above Mme Sabatier’s thighs that had lent credence to the live-casting rumour. ‘A daguerreotype in sculpture’, wrote Delacroix, in his journal for 7 May 1847. However, the tide of realism was arrested by subsequent titles for nudes. They were called Sleeping Hebe (Carrier-Belleuse) Eve after the Fall (Delaplanche) and Young Tarentine (Schoenewerk). Mathurin Moreau’s Bacchante continued this series late into the century.” — Pingeot, Musée d’Orsay, p. 45.

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August 27, 2009 at 6:22 am

Posted in aesthetics

notes on the aggregate 1: letraset mirror-stage

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1. Unexpectedly ended up spending the day in the hospital Wednesday – my wife needed some more surgery four weeks after all of this. She’s OK, or she will be eventually… But a frustrating way to spend a day for all involved, especially her. So it was a busy day, fraught with anxieties large and small – what do we do with the three-year-old while we’re there? What happens if the little one needs to be bottlefed? What will they find when they examine? How safe is general anaesthesia? Another day thick with dramatic tension following upon several years of the same sort of thing.

But hospitals have a strange effect upon the individual in the throes of the dramatic day. The hospital in question today had some 16 floors, some of which were populated by perhaps 30 patients, others more like 200 patients. A couple thousand cases of people (patients, loved ones, health workers) all in the middle of dramatic occurances – pain, morbidity, despair, elation, amputation, diagnosis, last rites. When in a large hospital in the middle of your busy day, the elevator cars becomes chapels of impersonalization. Your plight, your anxiety, is nothing compared to the people getting off on the eleventh floor – the young peoples in-patient area. Or wherever. There are several thousand of you. A hundred of you will experience mortality, tragedy. It doesn’t quite take the edge off, but it does put things in perspective, the aggregation of trauma.

2. The major moment of my involvement the day’s affairs came when (just like four weeks ago) I had to keep an unweaned and generally quite hungry baby girl asleep during the duration of the surgery lest she, as she of course would if she awoke, start screaming for a breast that ten floors down on an operating table. So I paced the room while holding her, back and forth, half of the time looking at the door of the room and the other half looking at this.

It’s a lovely view from up there. For those unfamiliar with Bloomsbury, that’s  the Wellcome Trust dead ahead, the Euston bus terminal and a smidgen of Euston station in the middle left, and in the distance the reddish one is the British Library. St. Pancras and Kings Cross Stations are a bit hard to see, but they’re there, smudgily. For someone more familiar with New York, it is somewhat astounding to think that you can get a more or less full panorma of the city from the thirteenth floor of a building more or less in the middle of the city. Here’s the other side, taken from an elevator bank, looking towards Tottenham Court Road right below, past Fitzroy Square in the middle on the left, and toward Marylebone and Paddington and everything else to the west.

I spend a good amount of my weekday life on the streets in the foreground of these two shots. In buildings and open spaces clearly visible from where I was pacing, I have purchased books, been interviewed for a job, received a phone call to say that I had a job, lectured students, tutored tutees, greeted long absent friends, drank in pubs alone and with friends and with students and with colleagues, eaten lunch, spent several nights in shitty hotel rooms because I’d been a drunken fool, attended communism conferences, gotten my hair cut, had heartfelt conversations late at night with my wife, had heartfelt conversations with others, purchased endless cafe lattes and copies of The Guardian, stumbled home drunk, received free of charge countless copies of the londonpaper, made angry and apolegetic phone calls while pacing in the parks, worked on articles and monographs and talks, picked someone up when they drunkenly fell on the pavement, taken books out of two libraries, wrote half of one novel and a third of another as well as countless poems, tried to find free internet access, smoked thousands of cigarettes, and lots else. Lots else both boring and sublime. I’ve had an impossibly busy year and a half in London. And almost everything down on the street, these things that I’ve done, felt so incredibly vivid. Often, the vividness of the events seemed to border on legibility or even scriptability – especially the obvious ones, you can pick them out of the list for yourself.

But from up here, thirteen floors up, everything seems different, doesn’t it? My wife and I watched window-washers scaling the building opposite, but aside from them, everyone else is antlike and thus a bit robotic-looking. People walk from work to the Underground. People carry objects from a store back to their office or towards home. Cars circle blocks – you can’t tell if it’s the same cab endlessly circling or different ones each time around. From up high, mankind goes about the motions, in aggregate. The follow scent trails from hive to food source and back again. There is no interiority, hideous or beatific, to deal with from up here. From up here, in short, the world is unnovelistic, and it’s an odd experience to look down panoptically at the places where your life is ordinarily lived and lived densely.

3. I am fascinated by, have long be taken with, the doubleness (the duplicity?) of modernism. When we talk about, say, modernist architecture, we generally mean planning and rationalisation, efficiency and redistribution. We mean the anti-aesthetic, the anti-ornamental, the flatly utopian. On the other hand, when we think about modernism in the sense that I am paid to think about it, that is to say in a literary sense, we generally mean something quite different. Modernist novels, famously, take up the issue of the interior regions, the unheard but somehow overheard subverbal chatter. Dalloway or Ulysses seem, at least on first and many subsequent glances, to herald a new, and newly intense, emphasis on psychology, the gears working in the individual as the individual navigates her or his everyday life.

My academic work tries to square the circle a bit, bridge the gap, and wonder what is frilless and impersonal about personality, what is objective and anti-individualistic about something like style indirect libre, and what is suggestively collectivist about dispersal, introspection, and hyperbolic selfhood.

4. I don’t have the books that I need at home with me, so the theoretical interlude might be a bit scattershot and from memory. But if I am right, and I might be, there is some major rethinking ahead of us on the question of the relationship between the bird’s eye view and the secret history. (Left-oriented) cultural, literary, and political theory has for decades and decades been incoherent on this point. We fantasize about post-individuality, yet we still privilege the literature of the flaneur. We sanctify dispersed, individualized resistance, and we withhold from ourselves the thought of the structure or state, even as we at the same moment would have no time for the neurotic, bumbling avatar of bourgeois modernity, the autonomous individual.

We take up, reflexively, the cause of Michel de Certeau’s tactical against the strategic. Just think of contemporary forms of protest and the response to protest and our responses to their responses. But we do this despite the fact that the entire tide of history has washed toward the man of the street and his whims as the only arbiters of truth and efficiency worth banking on, as it were. As with so many other left concepts and approaches, we meet the opposition on their own ground, not ours. We even might say we allow ourselves to get kettled – willingly jump into the pot that they have long since set to boil.

5. There is a much, much wider question about the relationship of literature and quasi-literary products and politics that we would do well to if not answer at least preoccupy ourselves with, keep very much open. It is at once a simple and extremely complex question, and it goes something like this. Do we take literary and quasi-literary representation to be first and foremost a critical approach to social representation, one that shows how things are so that we might know how things are and thus find ourselves activitated to change them? This is the standard approach to the problem, and has been for a long, long time. If one writes seriously about the atomized self, one inevitably (following the natural gradients of literary production) will end up displaying the perils of atomized selfhood. It is hard to find literature that is meant to celebrate that which it represents.

But despite the fact that we have long since been preoccupied with the critical use value of literary representation, there is another answer – a murky one that we’re all familiar with, one that will seem obvious and true as soon as I say it, even if we have a much harder time formally acknowledging it. That is, literary representation, at times or perhaps always, also serves as an advertisement – a positive advertisement – for certain ways of being, acting, seeing or thinking. Again, this is probably at once too simple and too complex to go into fully here, but it is clear that for all the critical energies brought to bear by, say, modernist literature on the plight of the prewritten self in all its abyssal reflexivity and determination, modernist literature also performed a sort of advocacy – we might say, hesitantly, aestheticisation – of the selfsame situation. Literature holds up for emulation just what it is in the process of tearing down. It shows the world to be changed, unbearably changed, and in doing so accustoms us to the same change that it is otherwise resisting. Such is the conservative modernism (modernism this time with a small m, or something with a large one) of the literary endeavor itself.

So it does two things, two contradictory things, at once. Sometimes it works in oscillating phases, other times an intensive simultaneity. But there is no possible movement forward on a rethinking of literary aesthetics that doesn’t come to grips with this question in all it’s complexity.

6. Narrative works have always, but especially since the advent of modernity, been preoccupied with the individual and her or his actions, reasons, feelings, and outcomes. There is a boy and he meets a girl, and they feel X about each other but Y about the world and then…. something happens. Of course, though, despite their dependency upon the story of the individual or individuals, novels and stories always stage their people playing out their lives against a backdrop, a backdrop which includes things and places but also people – large or small numbers of people sketched in great or less great detail.

Other forms – those privileged by the media and disciplines that tend toward the topographic rather than individual, the strategic rather than the tactical per Michel de Certeau – reverse these poles. The surroundings (things, places, groups) move to the fore, and the individual is left to be represented only abstractly, as a type – metaphorically or literally a cut-out.

We might even want to take up a somewhat complex (between it relies on a twist) chiastic analogy like this: the background welter of fiction is to the individual as the letraset figure is to the architectural plan.

Once letraset goes CAD, humans even grow pixelated shadows and depending on the processing power that generated them, even start to see their own reflections in the mirrored glass. (Image courtesy of IT).

We can anticipate – it has been anticipated, actually – that the letraset people will one day soon have little digitized minds of their own. They will head our into the planned cities in which they live to do all of things that we do in the cities where we live, all the things that I described above and more. They will shop for food and vintage clothes, they will conduct their love affairs in pubs and flats and streamlined hotels in city centres, they will make tough decisions about their jobs, birth children in hospitals and watch their loved ones die.

7. I am starting, but only just starting to be able to imagine a meeting point between the architectural plan and the psychological fiction, between the sentient letraset people and the background materials of the realist novel. This meeting point is something that I am getting used to calling aggregate fiction. It is important to note that it already exists, perhaps has existed right from the start, in half-forms and hybrids, false starts and imperfect versions. The trick would be to pull it forward and make it stand on its own.

In the next post in this series, I’ll discuss among other things, the difference between the mass and the aggregate, the complicated politics of this potential form, and start to build out (hesitantly) a literary genealogy of what I’m talking about and/or looking for.

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May 25, 2009 at 8:31 pm

nostalgie de la boue

with one comment

Notes for a future post or more:

From an article by Iain Sinclair on films set in the East End in today’s Guardian:

But these films are not just memory devices to fix a period, or an excuse for nostalgic revivals. They are an important element in forging a mythology of place. One of the significant local traditions is of the established outsider travelling east with missionary zeal, like a pioneer into the wilderness. Robert Hamer, most celebrated for Kind Hearts and Coronets, was certainly a film industry toff. (Less so than Anthony Asquith, son of a Liberal prime minister. More so than David Lean, who rose from the non-commissioned status of the cutting-room.) Hamer’s East End invasion of a place that was never quite there, for It Always Rains on Sunday, was a marker for much that followed.

Hamer garnished social realist material from a novel by Arthur La Bern (whose later work, Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square, became the vehicle for Hitchcock’s London return, Frenzy). The tone is relentlessly downbeat, morbid: without the incessant rain, necks would remain unwashed. Mean English streets are photographed by Douglas Slocombe with the melancholy lyricism of Marcel Carné or Renoir’s La Bête Humaine. Backlit smoke. A poetry you can smell: hot tar, bacon, cabbage, tobacco, wet dogs, armpits. Real places glorying in defiant entropy: rail yards, markets, mortuary pubs, tight backyards with Anderson shelters and rabbit hutches. Slocombe goes on, in terms of this London project, to work with Joseph Losey on The Servant: and thereby to connect with Dirk Bogarde (former bit-part delinquent) and Harold Pinter. Pinter attended the same school as Alexander Baron and Roland Camberton, those forgotten realists. Although his play The Caretaker was based on a glimpse into a Chiswick room, he returned, with director Clive Donner, to shoot the film version on his old turf: a house alongside the snow-covered Hackney Downs.

I’ve bolded the bit that I’m most interested in, and even more specifically, I’m really interested in the phrase defiant entropy.

It seems to me that there are a few options for how we play this defiant entropy, and not to give the game away (these are only notes), I’m not sure that any of them are truly convincing when thought into for more than a few minutes.

  1. The entropy is defiant because it marks a sort of decerteauvian resistance to municipal order, to instrumental rationalization, to gentrification. Street life vs. the redevelopment plan, the lived tactical vs. the cost-tested strategic. (But how do rail yards fit into this picture? And how do we know, for sure, the difference between defiance and abjection?)
  2. The entropy is defiant because it is ugly in a world that is supposed to be pretty. The world wants Costa Coffee and All Bar One, not mortuary pubs and markets. (But we certainly don’t think it’s really ugly, do we? Thus the article, thus our fascination and Sinclair’s… and the developers’…)
  3. The entropy is defiant because it is more real than other things. Blueglass flats being craned to life back behind Kings Cross are not real; urban squalor is real. (What slippery ground we are on when we play this game out, the game of the really real…)

There are other options, of course, and perhaps the three above are all one reason spread out and rephrased a bit, but let’s just leave it there for a second. In short, I worry a bit about the aesthetic fetishization of squalor. It has all the marks of a well-fed decadence, the likes of which we’ve seen before, we’ve seen recur at certain moments for a hundred years or more. I am wondering, in the end, whether we’re right about the defiance that we’ve attributed to urban entropy, squalor, and the like. Wouldn’t Sinclair’s sentence make as much sense if it read, say, Real places notable for their abject squalor. How, exactly, are they “glorying” – other than in Sinclair’s appropriative retransmission?

It’s a real question – and, of course, an old question – and I’d like to hear what you think. I love these things and places too, perhaps more than I should, and I just worry a bit about my love for them. Maybe, I think, everything should be bright glass boxes and intermodal transport links, maybe everyone should drink in a nice place and not a mortuary pub, if they want to anyway.

Sorry. Tired. Notes for Future Post, as I said….

Written by adswithoutproducts

April 24, 2009 at 10:59 pm

Posted in aesthetics, london

mosselprom on fifth avenue, and the afterlife of constructivism

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a new ad campaign from saks fifth avenue

a new ad campaign from saks fifth avenue

There’s a piece in the IHT today on constructivism. Ah, a specter’s haunting, you know, the ad men. But there are more serious / valuable paragraphs that come after the stuff about Saks.

Constructivism is also a critical influence on the creation of digital imagery. This is partly because of the intellectual link from the original Soviet Constructivists to contemporary software designers. The trajectory begins with Moholy-Nagy, who worked in the United States with his fellow Hungarian, Gyorgy Kepes, on early theories of the construction of mechanical images. Kepes shared their thinking with his students, including Bass, and later with colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, among them the pioneering technologists Muriel Cooper and Nicholas Negroponte. The digital artist John Maeda studied under them and then taught Ben Fry and Casey Reas, the inventors of Processing, the advanced software that produces visualization, arguably the most compelling new visual language of our time.

Visualization, or “viz” as it is nicknamed, crunches through complex data to create digital images that explain its meaning clearly. As dynamic digital media, visualizations can be constantly updated, enabling them to illustrate changing information and complicated concepts that are too elusive to be depicted accurately on traditional charts or graphs. Geopolitical developments, such as population shifts, and virtual phenomena, like the flow of Internet traffic, lend themselves to visualization, as do scientific and medical theories. Among the most ambitious applications is the Blue Brain Project in Lausanne, where a group of neuroscientists is trying to create a visualization of the human brain, in the hope that it can be used to help find cures for Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis and other neurological diseases.

The “viz” phenomenon owes more to Soviet Constructivism than its academic pedigree. When Rodchenko and Popova designed posters and pamphlets for the Soviet state, they were trying to help a confused and largely illiterate population to make sense of the dramatic changes in their daily lives. New laws. New institutions. New working practices. New expectations. New taboos. Their striking collages must have looked as exhilarating to 1920s workers as luscious digital visualizations do to us today, and shared the same aim of helping people to make sense of the complexity of modern life. That’s why there’s so much more to Constructivism than a style that shifts slouchy bags.

This is a story that I didn’t really know, but I’m glad to learn. I’ve begun work on a project on simplicity and modernism, and I must admit that I first became fixated on the term when I was reading John Maeda’s blog and looking at his book on the topic. But I had no idea that there was a traceable genealogy back to exactly the stuff that I’ll probably, long way around, start the project with…

Ah, sometimes, despite what I said and then redacted, it feels really good to be an academic and a blogger, and whatever else it is that I might be. If I could actually find room for all of this stuff in the book that I want to write, man….

Written by adswithoutproducts

February 9, 2009 at 10:01 pm

strange fits of passion: wordsworth, poetry, masturbation, whatever

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If it were a different age of criticism, back in the time of queering and general erotic teaseout, maybe I’d write a paper on masturbation and the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads.

Sex is, afterall, all over the text, even if it’s generally woven underneath the fold euphemistically. There’s of course the description of poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” as well as the location of the origin of the form in “emotion recollected in tranquility.” One goes out into the world to see things, one comes home a bit agitated, one recollects the moment of agitation and its source, and the “powerful feelings” overflow out onto the page. Further, there’s the moment where, despite Wordsworth’s argument that the poet isn’t different from other men in kind but rather only degree (whatever ordinary men are, he’s just that, only moreso), he additionally possesses

a disposition to be affected more than other men by absent things as if they were present; an ability of conjuring up in himself passions, which are indeed far from being the same as those produced by real events, yet (especially in those parts of the general sympathy which are pleasing and delightful) do more nearly resemble the passions produced by real events, than any thing which, from the motions of their own minds merely, other men are accustomed to feel in themselves; whence, and from practice, he has acquired a greater readiness and power in expressing what he thinks and feels, and especially those thoughts and feelings which, by his own choice, or from the structure of his own mind, arise in him without immediate external excitement.

Just to parse this quickly: what the poet comes up with isn’t quite the Real Thing, but it’s a lot more like the Real Thing than normal people are apt to come up with “without immediate external excitement.” Absent things as if present, right? Back at home, “in tranquility.” Got it.

But there’s something else to this, something almost fully manifest in that passage, but which comes out much more clearly later on. Sex is referenced directly only once, in the course of Wordsworth’s defense of his decision to write in meter rather than prose.

The only point that it is presented directly is this one, part of the defence of his decision to write in meter rather than prose that comes toward the end of the Preface. He’s talking here about the pleasure inheritent in metrically-arranged language.

If I had undertaken a systematic defence of the theory upon which these poems are written, it would have been my duty to develope the various causes upon which the pleasure received from metrical language depends. Among the chief of these causes is to be reckoned a principle which must be well known to those who have made any of the Arts the object of accurate reflection; I mean the pleasure which the mind derives from the perception of similitude in dissimilitude. This principle is the great spring of the activity of our minds, and their chief feeder. From this principle the direction of the sexual appetite, and all the passions connected with it take their origin: It is the life of our ordinary conversation; and upon the accuracy with which similitude in dissimilitude, and dissimilitude in similitude are perceived, depend our taste and our moral feelings. It would not have been a useless employment to have applied this principle to the consideration of metre, and to have shewn that metre is hence enabled to afford much pleasure, and to have pointed out in what manner that pleasure is produced. But my limits will not permit me to enter upon this subject, and I must content myself with a general summary.

So he’s not got time or space to go into it here…. But he’s speculating that meter has something to do with the play of similitude and dissimilitude that defines not only poetry but sexual desire… as well as the linguistic materialization of sociality, i.e. discourse, itself. Great little crackle of panic there at the end of the paragraph, dodging the conjunction he’s come up with here but doesn’t and/or won’t tease out, and it makes sense that he retreats from here back into the full enunciation of the emotion in tranquility / overflow of powerful feelings bit.

Now, I don’t have time either (not because I’m panicked, I don’t think, nor because I’m rushing off to masturbate or anything – it’s just time for bed, and I have to get up early) but if I were to write my paper on Wordsworth, the Preface, and Masturbation, I’d go long with the idea that what we have here is a negotiation, conducted simultaneously in aesthetic and tacticly sexual but also social terms about what this new form of lyrical poetry is going to be about, ultimately. Further, he doesn’t here specify how similarity and dissimilarity work for either poetic pleasure or sexual desire: does he mean, when it comes to the latter, that you like girls because they’re like boys only not… or is it something even more interesting, something like a phenotypical notion of attraction. You like her because she looks like others, only in her own way.

The object of poetry, if I had time, if I had time, might in the “Preface” end up related to something in between the generic images that you temporally make solely your own when you have sex by and with yourself and the everyone else that  you love in your particular beloved.

We’re treading toward the whatever here, in more than one sense. Sorry that you’re my notebook. But he’s up to something interesting here that’s not entirely unlike the sort of stuff that drew me to the book that gave this blog its name. More soon, as always!

Written by adswithoutproducts

January 14, 2009 at 2:17 am

Posted in aesthetics, poetry, sex, whatever