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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

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