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peripheral omniscience 1: ballardian moments

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Westway_at_Paddington

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. 

tumblr_lms4adv4e61qkkcodo1_1280

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

baudelaire vs. anarchism (of detail)

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From Baudelaire’s essay “The Painter of Modern Life”:

In this way a struggle is launched between the will to see all and forget nothing and the faculty of memory, which has formed the habit of a lively absorption of general colour and silhouette, the arabesque of contour. An artist with a perfect sense of form but one accustomed to relying above all on his memory and his imagination will find himself at the mercy of a riot of details all clamouring for justice with the fury of a mob in love with absolute equality. All justice is trampled underfoot; all harmony sacrificed and destroyed; many a trifle assumes vast proportions; many a triviality usurps the attention. The more our artist turns an impartial eye on detail, the greater is the state of anarchy. Whether he be long-sighted or short-sighted, all hierarchy and all subordination vanishes.

I wonder what Walter Benjamin made of this passage. Hard not to think of his description of a “perception whose ‘sense of the universal equality of things’ has increased to such a degree that it extracts it even from a unique object by means of reproduction,” although, of course CB is warning against the arrival of such a mode of perception while WB is (with due ambivalence) welcoming its arrival.

Obviously the relationship between literary form and political form is complex – incredibly complex. But it’s nonetheless there, and there more than simply as metaphorical. I’m going to leave this as I’m busy with nothing more than a potential suggestive stub which I’ll hopefully return to soon: linguistic / discursive / narrative forms come and go, and with them ways of seeing or thinking. Avant garde literature at times tries to bring new forms into existence or even into currency.

(One other stub: I might be wrong, but it strikes me that we have only paintings of crowd scenes from Paris 1848-1851 not photographs. We only get unmanned barricades in the latter, as the photographic process at the time demanded long exposures. This to me seems interesting, and almost undoubtedly relative – if tacitly – to what I’m trying to suggest about the quotation above from Baudelaire… See here… And correct me if I’m wrong…)

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April 3, 2012 at 2:29 pm

the alibi of fiction: james wood on teju cole

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I’ve not finished reading Teju Cole’s new Open City as I’ve been interrupted by review work and the like. So obviously I’ll withhold judgment on the novel itself. But for now it does seem to me worth noting that James Wood’s review of the book in The New Yorker is as clear a manifestation of what we might call the political unconscious of “liberal” fiction as is possible. Probably best to read the whole thing to contextualize what I’m about to quote, which comes at the end of the piece:

[The protagonist] is engaged but disengaged. He is curious about the lives of others, but that curiosity is perhaps purchased at the expense of commonality. (This contradiction is even more strongly felt in the work of V. S. Naipaul, whose influence is apparent in Cole’s book.) The city is “open,” but perhaps only in a negative way: full of people bumping their hard solitude off one another. One’s own small hardships—such as forgetting one’s A.T.M. card number, as Julius does, and being consumed by anxiety about it—may dominate a life as completely as someone else’s much larger hardships, because life is brutally one’s own, and not someone else’s, and is, alas, brutally banal. In a sad and eloquent passage, Julius suggests that perhaps it is sane to be solipsistic:

Each person must, on some level, take himself as the calibration point for normalcy, must assume that the room of his own mind is not, cannot be, entirely opaque to him. Perhaps this is what we mean by sanity: that, whatever our self-admitted eccentricities might be, we are not the villains of our own stories. In fact, it is quite the contrary: we play, and only play, the hero, and in the swirl of other people’s stories, insofar as these stories concern us at all, we are never less than heroic. 

This is a brave admission about the limits of sympathy, coming as it does near the end of a book full of other people’s richly recorded stories. Julius is not heroic, but he is still the (mild) hero of his book. He is central to himself, in ways that are sane, forgivable, and familiar. And this selfish normality, this ordinary solipsism, this lucky, privileged equilibrium of the soul is an obstacle to understanding other people, even as it enables liberal journeys of comprehension. Julius sets out only to put people’s lives down on paper, and not to change them, as Farouq, his secret sharer and alter ego, would want to do. But then it is because Julius set out not to change Farouq’s life but to put it down on paper that we know Farouq so well.

In other words, Cole’s novel – whose protagonist is a half-Nigerian, half-German resident in psychiatry in New York – shows us, by the very act of looking at others, that our solipsism is nonetheless somehow not only terminal and excusable but also heroic. We look at others, others who are sometimes oppressed or angry or both, and in the very act of looking we learn that we can never truly see let alone try and connect but that that, in the end, is OK and probably even for the best. All this seeing is an alibi for itself. In short, the abbreviated version of Wood’s review would go something like this:

Valued New Yorker subscriber: read this elegant new novel by a young novelist, originally from Nigeria but now over here, and you too can move around your multicultural but gentrified neighborhood and all of those semi-interactions that you have with multi-hued cab drivers and shop keepers, utility workers and homeless people not only will become more vivid, they will further testify to the vivid youness of you, the heroism of your liberal quietude, the saintliness of your merely seeing. Even that which you see on the tv news – all those uncountable masses of often suffering others – will affirm in their difference and distance that you, sir or madam, are the hero of your own life, a self-contained monadic innocent amidst all that whatever and whomever out there in the fascinating world.

Again, I’d like to finish the book for myself, but this does make Cole’s novel sound like a candidate to replace McEwan’s Saturday as my permanent reference when it comes to what Ballard called conventional fiction’s “consular characters” and the ideological work that they do, despite the best of intentions. 

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August 31, 2011 at 11:23 am

Posted in aggregate, fiction

the chart and the poignant

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Storm Jameson (as cited in one of my PhD student’s drafts):

The conditions for the growth of a socialist literature scarcely exist. We have to create them. We need documents, not as the Naturalists needed them, to make their drab tuppenny-ha’penny dramas but as charts, as timber for the fire some writer will light tomorrow morning…Perhaps the nearest equivalent to what is wanted exists already in the documentary film. As the photographer does, so must the writer keep himself out of the picture while working ceaselessly to present the fact from the striking (poignant, ironic, penetrating, significant) angle.

Interesting how naturalism is rejected as melodrama in favor of “charts,” but the melodrama (or something like it) seems to return in the “impersonal,” “photographic” writing via that list of affectual slants. The relation between the chart and the poignant does seem to me to be the appropriate place to find the fault line, though….

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July 14, 2011 at 2:28 pm

aggregation, nudely

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Just found, via the excellent Antonio Marcos Pereira’s FB page, this DeLillo story from 2009 which I’d somehow never before seen. Pleasing to see this story because it works to confirm two things that I’ve been thinking lately:

1) Whatever word, if he even has a word, he uses to describe it to himself, DeLillo’s work continues to be haunted by the spectre of what I call the aggregate…

2) …and, true to my construction above (“haunted by the… aggregate”), the aggregate isn’t so much a fictional technique as something that at once tempts and haunts fiction writers, just as it has done as long as “realism” has been the order of the day – basically since the rise of the novel in Europe.

Fiction confronts the aggregate, attempts to incorporate it, but in the end turns away into character and especially characters, the dyad or triad, the romance.

In the case of the DeLillo story here, it turns on a dime, tires screeching, barreling off Eleventh Avenue and on to the sidewalk, the dark alleyway, for an standing-up non-anonymous fuck between a husband and a wife, momentarily re-consularized as discrete subjects after all the rest.

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June 11, 2011 at 12:55 pm

Posted in aggregate, delillo, fiction

aristotle on aggregation

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From Aristotle’s Poetics: 

It is, moreover, evident from what has been said, that it is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen – what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. The work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a species of history, with meter no less than without it. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular. By the universal I mean how a person of a certain type on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity; and it is this universality at which poetry aims in the names she attaches to the personages.

Implicit in the construction of the fictional character is the notion of probability, estimation, aggregation. This becomes explicit, or at least more explicit, at certain moments of literary history, for instance the 18th-century when the novel as a form veers away from both factual reportage on “real people” (even if they’re fake) and fantasy. Characters at that point (as with Aristotle) become particular instantiations or condensation of a presumed group….

I’ve been reading Catherine Gallagher’s fantastic “The Rise of Fictionality” in Franco Moretti’s compilation The Novel – pretty much everything I’m saying here comes from that save, I guess, for the word “aggregation.” The essay is on the emergence of fictionality as a concept during the 18th Century, and the way that it takes a more complex shape than we generally have thought. (In short, rather than simply distinguishing itself from factuality, it further has to distinguish itself from fantasy as well… In doing so, it relies upon / informs the development of a new model of truth, one that moves toward verisimilitude and probability rather than the simple and literal. And the entire operation hinges on a different notion of character. As Gallagher writes, “novels are about nobody in particular. That is, proper names do not take specific individuals as their referents, and hence none of the specific assertions made about them can be verified or falsified.”

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May 5, 2011 at 1:44 pm

Posted in aggregate, fiction

demophobia (and aggregation)

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One more thing, for now, from the Perry Anderson article about Brazil:

The ferocity of the ensuing campaigns against Lula could not have been sustained, however, without a sympathetic audience. That lay in the country’s traditional middle classes, principally but not exclusively based in the big cities, above all São Paulo. The reason for the hostility within this stratum was not loss of power, which it had never possessed, but of status. Not only was the president now an uneducated ex-worker whose poor grammar was legend, but under his rule maids and guards and handymen, riff-raff of any kind, were acquiring consumer goods hitherto the preserve of the educated, and getting above themselves in daily life. To a good many in the middle class, all this grated acutely: the rise of trade unionists and servants meant they were coming down in the world. The result has been an acute outbreak of ‘demophobia’, as the columnist Elio Gaspari, a spirited critic, has dubbed it. Together, the blending of political chagrin among owners and editors with social resentment among readers made for an often bizarrely vitriolic brew of anti-Lulismo, at odds with any objective sense of class interest. (italics mine…)

Demophobia might well be one word for what this aggregate fiction idea that I keep banging on about might take up, address, attempt to moderate, etc…. I am guessing what the critic mentioned above is talking about is specifically the fear of masses of the poor. But one wonders if there isn’t a fear of number in general, an anxiety addressed by the conventional form of the novel (and its off-shoots) by what I am starting to call protagonism, the focalization of the novel through a single character, the engagement with background groups and masses but only in a restrained, self-immunizing sort of way…

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March 29, 2011 at 10:56 am

Posted in aggregate, americas, anxiety

china, chips, seeds, scale, scales

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1. According to Bloomsberg Businessweek, “In 2010, the U.S. added 937,000 jobs; Foxconn, the Taiwan-based maker of nearly every consumer product you wanted this year, added 300,000.” But on the other hand, from another article in the same magazine,

Ah Wei has an explanation for Foxconn Technology Group Chairman Terry Gou as to why some of his workers are committing suicide at the company’s factory near the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen.

“Life is meaningless,” said Ah Wei, his fingernails stained black with the dust from the hundreds of mobile phones he has burnished over the course of a 12-hour overnight shift. “Everyday, I repeat the same thing I did yesterday. We get yelled at all the time. It’s very tough around here.”

Among other things, Foxconn manufactures the iPhone and the iPad for Apple.

Further, China moved at the end of 2010 to limit its exports of the “rare earth metals” whose supply it almost entirely controls and which are necessary for the production of most electronic devices so as, it seems, to protect its share of the manufacturing market as its workforce begins to expect ever higher wages. In other words, if there’s fancy strange rocks hiding in the engine room of your Device, they’re likely going to have to be made in China for the foreseeable future.

2. On the other hand, the guy who made the art installation pictured above – which seems to me about the most sublimely appropriate artistic representation of the global economy imaginable – had his studio demolished in Shanghai last week.

Chinese demolition workers have torn down the Shanghai studio of the artist Ai Weiwei – a move he says is linked to his political activism.

Mr Ai said the demolition crews arrived without warning on Tuesday and flattened the building within a day.

He originally had permission to build the studio, but later officials ordered it to be destroyed, saying he had failed to follow planning procedures.

Mr Ai has been increasingly vocal in his criticism of China’s leaders.

The work pictured above is “Sunflower Seeds,” which was recently on display in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern. Here’s the description from the Tate’s website:

Sunflower Seeds is made up of millions of small works, each apparently identical, but actually unique. However realistic they may seem, these life-sized sunflower seed husks are in fact intricately hand-crafted in porcelain.

Each seed has been individually sculpted and painted by specialists working in small-scale workshops in the Chinese city of Jingdezhen. Far from being industrially produced, they are the effort of hundreds of skilled hands. Poured into the interior of the Turbine Hall’s vast industrial space, the 100 million seeds form a seemingly infinite landscape.

Porcelain is almost synonymous with China and, to make this work, Ai Weiwei has manipulated traditional methods of crafting what has historically been one of China’s most prized exports. Sunflower Seeds invites us to look more closely at the ‘Made in China’ phenomenon and the geo-politics of cultural and economic exchange today.

Without getting all Pater-before-La-Gioconda on you, I hope that you can even vaguely imagine the overwhelming power – at once critical and, well, crushingly aesthetic in some sort of very old fashioned sort of sense – of seeing this work. When the visual titanicness of the display meets your recognition that each of the 100,000,000 seeds was painstakingly handpainted by human beings working for a wage, one comes as close as one can – as I ever have – to a painfully concrete yet at the same time marvellously abstract sense of the absurd scales, absurdly tipped scales, that orchestrate our world today.

3. Francis Fukuyama, Sisyphusianly obligated to revise forever his early call of time at the pub of history (how’s that for a mixed metaphor?), has recently written a piece for the FT titled “US democracy has little to teach China.” Here’s an extract:

The most important strength of the Chinese political system is its ability to make large, complex decisions quickly, and to make them relatively well, at least in economic policy. This is most evident in the area of infrastructure, where China has put into place airports, dams, high-speed rail, water and electricity systems to feed its growing industrial base. Contrast this with India, where every new investment is subject to blockage by trade unions, lobby groups, peasant associations and courts. India is a law-governed democracy, in which ordinary people can object to government plans; China’s rulers can move more than a million people out of the Three Gorges Dam flood plain with little recourse on their part.

Nonetheless, the quality of Chinese government is higher than in Russia, Iran, or the other authoritarian regimes with which it is often lumped – precisely because Chinese rulers feel some degree of accountability towards their population. That accountability is not, of course, procedural; the authority of the Chinese Communist party is limited neither by a rule of law nor by democratic elections. But while its leaders limit public criticism, they do try to stay on top of popular discontents, and shift policy in response. They are most attentive to the urban middle class and powerful business interests that generate employment, but they respond to outrage over egregious cases of corruption or incompetence among lower-level party cadres too.

Fukuyama focuses, as he would, on autocratic China’s ability to force infrastructral development and to please it’s new and growing – yet still demographically insignificant – urban middle classes. The infrastructure is important sure, and the middle classes may well be happy with the fruits of upward mobility, but we all know that the real competitive advantage – and human cost – of China’s “democracy deficit” is the fact that it is able to manipulate its internal labour market and keep its currency artificially weak, thus keeping standards of living artificially depressed.

Despite the fact that Fukuyama stages his piece as a question begging affair –

During the 1989 Tiananmen protests, student demonstrators erected a model of the Statue of Liberty to symbolise their aspirations. Whether anyone in China would do the same at some future date will depend on how Americans address their problems in the present.

– the title gives the game away. Fukuyama hasn’t really described a question so much as yet another equipoised situation, a roadmap of the configuration that, whatever the grumbling of our leaders, is basically the baserock foundation of our current and miserable status quo.

4. What causes Foxconn workers to kill themselves is that which permits Foxconn alone to add a third of the number of jobs as the entire US economy in 2010 is that which depresses wages around the world, and is that which renders Ai Weiwei obnoxious to the PRC, and is that which sanctions the race to the bottom that we’re all suffering through, the rise in in what the BBC was chirping away this morning about as the “misery index.”

We are suffering separately, and somewhat differently now. The ebb tide of the economic cycle is rapidly lowering all of our boats – our separate little skiffs that float on the sea of production. Would that we could figure out how to suffer, and thus perhaps to alleviate the suffering, together.

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January 19, 2011 at 1:56 pm

defoe’s novel of the future and the aggregate

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1. Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year as a (pseudo, semi, proto) novel composed almost entirely of such moments. Unplotted (almost) protagonism. He walks, he sees, he walks some more. He survives, but there is no drama to it. The narrative arc a natural (historical, social, biological) event happening in the background. The dramatic turns are local, discrete, episodic, anonymous. In fact, aggregate.

2. The opening of the Journal and the initial confrontation with those “weekly bills of mortality”:

This increase of the bills stood thus: the usual number of burials in
a week, in the parishes of St Giles-in-the-Fields and St Andrew's,
Holborn, were from twelve to seventeen or nineteen each, few more
or less; but from the time that the plague first began in St Giles's
parish, it was observed that the ordinary burials increased in number
considerably. For example:--

     From December 27 to January 3  { St Giles's      16
     "                              { St Andrew's     17

     "     January 3  "    "    10  { St Giles's      12
     "                              { St Andrew's     25

     "     January 10 "    "    17  { St Giles's      18
     "                              { St Andrew's     28

     "     January 17 "    "    24  { St Giles's      23
     "                              { St Andrew's     16

     "     January 24 "    "    31  { St Giles's      24
     "                              { St Andrew's     15

     "     January 30 " February 7  { St Giles's      21
     "                              { St Andrew's     23

     "     February 7 "     "   14  { St Giles's      24

Whereof one of the plague.

On the one hand, the “novel” turns from this initial confrontation toward narrativization, making the numbers come to life as individuals through the reportage of its protagonist / narrator. On the other hand, reverse-angled, we might say that the work never escapes the gravitational (computational?) force of this primal scene – that unlike its “realist” descendants, it can never quite attain escape velocity to become properly focalized upon the persistent developmental arc of an individual or small set of individuals.

3. His visit to the Aldgate plague pit as a climactic re-confrontation with the numbers, the lists, at the beginning of the work:

This was a mournful scene indeed, and affected me almost as much as the
rest; but the other was awful and full of terror. The cart had in it
sixteen or seventeen bodies; some were wrapt up in linen sheets, some in
rags, some little other than naked, or so loose that what covering they
had fell from them in the shooting out of the cart, and they fell
quite naked among the rest; but the matter was not much to them, or the
indecency much to any one else, seeing they were all dead, and were to
be huddled together into the common grave of mankind, as we may call it,
for here was no difference made, but poor and rich went together; there
was no other way of burials, neither was it possible there should, for
coffins were not to be had for the prodigious numbers that fell in such
a calamity as this.

Here, the aggregate turning horribly back into the mass. The difference between the mass or crowd or undifferentiated group and the aggregate, which is vital and promiscuous if also sporadic, distracted, and brief.

4. From religion to politics and back again. Aggregation then almost algebraically  an inversion of the pit’s memento mori, a reminder that we live?

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August 17, 2010 at 11:01 am

Posted in aggregate, defoe

at the gates

with 13 comments

Even those of them who were believers are still surprised upon landing in the queue. After all, one of the main things about hell is that everyone who gets there is surprised that it has happened. If any one of them had been absolutely confident that this fate awaited them after their deaths, they (obviously) would have acted differently, lived more prudently, treated those around them and themselves better. Hell, for the hell-bound, is a story that they each believed only in the way that we all “believe” in fairy-tales or novels, whose morals and messages are true in many senses but never, to our minds, true in the literal sense.

But here it is, there they are, and this is what it feels like for them once they are there. For each of them it is, of course, a bit different. But in other important senses every moment is, for each of them, exactly the same.

Of course it is overwhelming. Just a moment ago many of them were dying in a hospital, while others were driving their cars or sleeping in bed. A stray subset were taking aim at the enemy or drunkenly walking home along a busy road or robbing a small grocery store or strapped into an electric chair. Earthquakes swell the lines, as do campaigns of aerial bombardment and well-coordinated terrorist attacks. And now they are here.

One might think that their first reaction to their arrival would be to doubt the reality of the situation – to attempt to press what is now their only and final situation into a effervescence of a dream, the passing mental tangle of a bad night’s somnolent screenplay. But somehow, none do. The ordinary and binding logic of everyday earthly phenomenology is non-binding in hell, and somehow those perceptions and experiences that on earth we can distance through doubt they quite simply cannot. Whether the mechanism in question that makes this so is biochemical or architectural, electronic or what we might here on earth call magical, makes no difference. There simply is no relief to be had via the usual human means of self-relief through distancing and dissociation. None of that “Wow – this is just like a bad science-fiction movie” or “Fucking christ, this can’t be happening” works down there, here, below.

So what does it look like, this place where they abruptly find themselves? Through the ages, the décor has changed, and in fact for most of history there had to be several separate entrances for the damned of different places and stations in life: the hellmouth of a French king during the early eighteenth century had by course to differ from that provisioned to a particularly sadistic Balinese chieftain from the same time, just so that it would be properly understood to be what it was. If Dante had actually had an experience of hell before he wrote about it, rather than simply fantasized it in service of the young girl he lusted after, he would likely have been granted access only to the portal available to the Florentine nobility and their immediate subordinates, rather than the universal passo che non lasciò mai persona viva that he writes about in the Inferno.

My guess is, given who Dante was and what he was up to, he found this out for himself soon enough.

But latterly, due to the increasing and unprecedented standardization of human experience, efficiencies have become possible. As you might expect, as you’ve been told in countless of the more sophisticated novels and movies and even gnomic if modern everyday metaphors centered on the topic, the current design is most reminiscent of the bureaucratically-organized space, closest perhaps to a particularly grim airport jetway at a provincial airport well past-due for renovation.

Those who were philanderers on earth still can’t help themselves but search the line in front of them for likely targets and possible acquisitions, just as the enviable and covetous alike still can’t help themselves but size up the probable wealth and success of those around them as registered in the way that they are dressed or act or just generally hold themselves as they slowly pace toward their punishment to come.

When the moment arrives when they are stripped of their garments, which is about three-quarters of their way down the passageway, and each is revealed in their infernal corporeal reality – flesh pustulantly swollen in the places where its not sagging, desiccated and patchy hair, a skeletal thinness holding it all together, oozing sores where pores once invisibly dotted the skin – they, each of them, still can’t help but furtively and then less furtively stare at the sexual parts, the real nakedness, of those standing nearest them in the queue. In death as they would have been as children, the sight of the normally unseen, that which is revealed only on special occasions and has often meant love, greets them with a double beat of the heart, a second and then a third look, as horrible as what they’re actually seeing is. They even think, most if not all of them, of which of their hellfellows they might have seduced and those who would have attempted to seduce them in turn. They evaluate, and almost to a one they imagine themselves to be – that they would have been – at the top of the sexual pecking order, were they otherwise and elsewhere than in the giant line that leads to damnation.

And so it goes, for those invested in other forms of earthly pride – and most in this queue are invested in more than one. Despite the viscerally disgusting nakedness around them, and the fact that the game, all the games, seem to be up once and for all and they have finally lost, the wealthy search for signs of relative poverty, the intelligent for stupidity, the violent for weakness, the once-popular for signs of awkward unsociability, and so on.

A minority of the damned who are very literate – though there are more of these than you might have thought – think of Kafka’s parable “Before the Law.” Some percentage of those that do even recall, word for word, the doorkeeper’s final utterance in that text: “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.” Of course, they don’t all remember it in English but in the language in which they read it, generally their own language. Others of the same group think the phrase non serviam over and over again, like a mantra, but with in each case deep ambivalence, ambiguous effect.

Almost all of them, literate or not, wonder at various points whether this line is in fact hell – whether there really is an end at all. Cleverly, cynically, they try to guess at the joke in store for them, the joke that is hell. A large percentage actually have the phrase “I’ve seen this movie before!” run through their minds. An infinity spent standing in line amongst moldering bodies and their reek, a queue that never quite ends, how appropriate this would be! The perfect hell for a hellish modern world!

But they are wrong, all of these, almost all of those who are in the line. Eventually, after hours or months – the time goes by differently here – they turn yet another of the jetway-style turns and discover, in fact, that they can see the end. It is a dark yawning mouth, and you cannot see what happens to those who pass through it but the sense that you have is that people are falling off into some sort of abyss. There are signs of struggle that can be seen from far away, as far as the final turn. It seems, from what they can tell, that people resist at the end – grabbing on to the walls and the edges of the mouth, and even those around them, but the forward momentum of the line pushes all of them, however much they struggle, over the edge and into the dark place. Panic rises up in those that turn the corner and see what lies ahead of them, a panic only slightly undercut by the relieved curiosity that comes of realizing that the line does in fact end.

But first, before they find out, there is something to read. A few steps past that final corner, there is a small podium positioned on the right hand side of the corridor. On this podium rest printed sheets of paper. Obviously everyone takes one – there’s been nothing like this anywhere along the way. And obviously, as distracting as the sight of what seems to be the hellmouth proper is, everyone takes a minute to try to read what is on the flier that they’ve just taken.

It starts like this:

Welome to hell. The universe into which you were born favors the meek and the stupid, the ugly and the unambitious, the sexless and the boring. You are none or at least not many of these things. You were astute, given all indications, to doubt the existence of this place. Unfortunately, though, it exists and you are here. And though it is deeply understandable that you would, ultimately you were wrong to believe in the just indifference of the world, in the idea that because there was no escaping your genetic and/or socially conditioned destiny you could not be punished for being who who were or doing what you did. There simply was no escaping this fate, not for you. I could explain all this at length, but I don’t have to and won’t, because I am…

None make it further than this in their reading, because all by this point have fully started to grab at whatever can keep them, even for a second or two, from what lies ahead. The document goes on for pages, though none of them get to read it. And as the neurotic panic that has taken the place of cynical resistance gives way to the raw animal fear – just that of the animal in the abattoir at the moment they know that this blissful or horrible, whatever, bovine or porcine life is about the end and end violently – they slip over the edge and fall into a space that is distinctly not the stuff of joke, or Borsch-belt witticism or Catholic school bathroom scrawl. They fall, that is, into the lake of fire, a fire that burns so hot and hard that there literally is not a moment off from pain to formulate a second thought.

Written by adswithoutproducts

June 14, 2010 at 2:17 am

Posted in aggregate, fiction, hell

mass arousal on the tgv: aggregate, anticipatory fiction

with 9 comments

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…

Written by adswithoutproducts

April 10, 2010 at 2:28 pm

Posted in aggregate, fiction

handke / letraset

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Handke does advert-people a few times in TWoftheW:

Walking across the city. In the gaps left open by the masses of cars there are still a few isolated individuals, ashen pale or flushed, in incompatible states, and these people have subjected themselves to politics or world history, and amid the technological din they go around posing (like the figures shown in architectural drawings) at the foot of gigantic buildings, which are the essential while they are mere incidentals; moving through this catastrophe as through an underground hangar, I try to breathe everything in through my eyes, to preserve within me the forlorness of these people.

Here’s another:

Advertisements for houses in artificial villages (“domaines“). The accompanying sketches show the latest conception of paradise: a father beaming from ear to ear as he strolls down a garden path with a child on his shoulders; slanting beach umbrellas; outside the house, slim young men arrange chairs for a party: “Here you will live from year’s end to year’s end as if you were on vacation” (none of the figures in these sketches has both feet on the ground – they are much too happy for that)

Brilliant, that last parenthetical bit. Hard to say just where the interest in these figures comes from, though I’ve tried before. One shouldn’t talk about fiction in general trying to do things, i.e. awarding the genre itself with desires and aspirations, but I do believe / pretend that it has been trying to enact a nearly impossible foreground / background reversal for quite awhile now. These ad-people

Written by adswithoutproducts

January 12, 2010 at 1:20 pm

Posted in ads, aggregate, fiction, handke

the frictional fiction of small differences

with 4 comments

Don DeLillo has a story in the current, or at least a recent, New Yorker. He’s been experimenting forever, but more and more as time goes on, with plural forms of one sort or another – the depiction of crowds or aggregates, etc. (I’m sure I’ve posted something about this, right? Actually, looks like not. I’m probably going to write something mid to largish about it after Xmas… I’m sure some of it will dribble through on to here…) In this new story, something a bit different. Narration in large part in the first-person plural, a rhythmic alternation between first-person plural and singular. This technique allows DeLillo to dramatise something like the internal differentiation and self-disagreement that drives narration (or even thought in general) but which also threatens narration (or thought) with fissuring collapse. You’ll see what I mean, maybe, if you read the story. Here’s a bit of it up front:

I tried to invent an etymology for the word “parka” but couldn’t think fast enough. Todd was on another subject—the freight train, laws of motion, effects of force, sneaking in a question about the number of boxcars that trailed the locomotive. We hadn’t stated in advance that a tally would be taken, but each of us had known that the other would be counting, even as we spoke about other things. When I told him now what my number was, he did not respond, and I knew what this meant. It meant that he’d arrived at the same number. This was not supposed to happen—it unsettled us, it made the world flat—and we walked for a time in chagrined silence. Even in matters of pure physical reality, we depended on a friction between our basic faculties of sensation, his and mine, and we understood now that the rest of the afternoon would be spent in the marking of differences.

Now, why does this matter? A very long story, and one that makes up a large part of the posts of fiction that I’ve lately promised. But for the moment: if one of the problems that we face as writers, critics, or readers of narrative fiction is that it is bound by formal convention always to tell stories grounded or promotional of the autonomy and importance of the individual self, the emergence of techniques that strain against this mandate holds the possibility of renewal and ideological repurposing. More soon….

Written by adswithoutproducts

November 28, 2009 at 9:19 pm

Posted in aggregate, delillo, fiction

family romance in aggregate

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Odd to think that one gets back to the time of Jesus, the climax of the Roman empire, via only 100 generations of ancestors or so. Am tonight imagining a book that would imagine into, at 5 pages a throw,  each one of them, likely the male ones for simplicity’s sake (ugh) in turn. Would require huge amounts of both research and guesswork, probably more of the latter than the former. I also imagine that much of the first 450 pp would be filled with something like the “gardening” sequence in The Life and Times of Michael K, except in the northern hemisphere rather than the southern. And then (from what I guess – I don’t really know who they were) a rapid shuffle from France to Soho to Quebec to Ontario, resting there for a bit until the last 15 pages, when we visit London (captaining a Lancaster bomber for the RAF) only to return to rustbelt Ontario, a veer (via a football scholarship) to Halifax, then New Jersey, and finally after circling around the northeast for a bit a jump back over the seas to London to… do what? Solve the problematique familiale once and for all? Drink in those Soho bars where the forefathers briefly worked or didn’t? Write this book in the Starbucks on Tavistock Square, a few blocks from the British Library?

Perhaps after this, that, and the other thing, on to something like this. Would take probably a decade, no? But would have nicely epical scope. Strange to think that no one’s ever done it, really. Or has someone?

Anyway, feel free to write me at the email address at the upper right-hand side of the page with offers of massive advances so I can quit my job and do this in less than a decade.

Written by adswithoutproducts

October 3, 2009 at 9:18 pm

Posted in aggregate, novel

joan

with 2 comments

Anne Boyer, who writes odali$qued, has a novel coming out soon. It’s called Joan, and I will most certainly purchase it and read it with excitement, especially because she describes it in the following manner:

Joan is a novel of everybody but mostly of a woman named Joan. It is the story of a private life made out of public language. It is probably a female epic, though Joan often knows she is a man.

I started it in Iowa in February of 2006, and I finished it in Kansas in January of 2009. I wanted it to be like Moll Flanders or Robinson Crusoe or Roxanna. I also wanted it to be like Kathy Acker.

[snip]

Once in a comment box Jasper Bernes wrote something about the new epic:

“I’m imagining something that takes the life of the collective as its protagonist, something lateral, relentlessly exteriorizing and objectifying, global, perhaps a bit didactic, documentary perhaps, something that does not assume character or even narrative as the sine qua non of the form”
I think Joan is like that, maybe, except that it is very much a narrative in a pure and ancient sense of narrative in that it begins with birth and ends with death and has life and many ordinary human activities like war, birth, love, and work in between.

Ha! Jasper said that in my comment box, which makes me ridiculously happy in an unusually uncomplicated way. Long live the blogform! Long live the comment box! Let the new infra-interesting aggregate epic come, in verse or prose or both, whoever it is that writes it!

Written by adswithoutproducts

July 20, 2009 at 10:47 pm

Posted in aggregate