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‘the prose of life’ / a hint from hegel

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I am in Amsterdam on a ‘working holiday,’ and specifically today I’m trying to finish a section about Karl Ove Knausgård. In particular, I am trying to say something more specific and definite about the uncanny power of his evocations of the everyday or the banal.

Other critics have struggled (productively!) to give a clear description of how it works. For instance, James Wood, in his review of the first volume of the series, describes ‘a simplicity, an openness, and an innocence in his relation to life, and thus in his relation to the reader.’ Wood finds himself working through descriptive contortionism in order to describe the strange effects of Knausgård’s prose and its ‘banality is so extreme that it turns into its opposite, and becomes distinctive, curious in its radical transparency.’ Similarly, Zadie Smith has written in the New York Review of Books that:

 As a whole these volumes work not by synecdoche or metaphor, beauty or drama, or even storytelling. What’s notable is Karl Ove’s ability, rare these days, to be fully present in and mindful of his own existence. Every detail is put down without apparent vanity or decoration, as if the writing and the living are happening simultaneously. There shouldn’t be anything remarkable about any of it except for the fact that it immerses you totally. You live his life with him.

She seems to be drawing here on the vocabulary of the contemporary enthusiasm for quasi-Buddhist ‘mindfulness’ meditation… When you have to reach to the New Age section of your vocabulary to describe a literary effect, you know you’re in a bit of a strange spot.

Anyway, in the course of this work I decided to have another look in on Hegel’s statements about the ‘prose of life’ in his Aesthetics. It was quite something to be reminded, given where I’m sitting (the picture above is the view from my desk) of the body of artistic work that he is discussing when he uses the phrase:

Yet if we wish to bring to our notice the most marvellous thing that can be achieved in this connection, we must look at the genre painting of the later Dutch painters. What, in its general spirit, is the substantial basis out of which it issued, is a matter on which I touched above in the consideration of the Ideal as such. Satisfaction in present-day life, even in the commonest and smallest things, flows in the Dutch from the fact that what nature affords directly to other nations, they have had to acquire by hard struggles and bitter industry, and, circumscribed in their locality, they have become great in their care and esteem of the most insignificant things. On the other hand, they are a nation of fishermen, sailors, burghers, and peasants and therefore from the start they have attended to the value of what is necessary and useful in the greatest and smallest things, and this they can procure with the most assiduous industry. In religion the Dutch were Protestants, an important matter, and to Protestantism alone the important thing is to get a sure footing in the prose of life, to make it absolutely valid in itself independently of religious associations, and to let it develop in unrestricted freedom. To no other people, under its different circumstances, would it occur to make into the principal burden of its works of art subjects like those confronting us in Dutch painting. But in all their interests the Dutch have not lived at all in the distress and poverty of existence and oppression of spirit; on the contrary, they have reformed their Church themselves, conquered religious despotism as well as the Spanish temporal power and its grandeur, and through their activity, industry, bravery, and frugality they have attained, in their sense of a self-wrought freedom, a well-being, comfort, honesty, spirit, gaiety, and even a pride in a cheerful daily life. This is the justification for their choice of subjects to paint. (Knox translation, 597-8, italics mine).

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Work was just about over for the day, and we’ve been trying to decide whether to go back to the Rijksmuseum or not. At least we know where Hegel stands on the matter.

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September 14, 2015 at 12:21 pm

Posted in Art, everyday, knausgård

badiou as symptom rather than cure

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Philosophy in the twentieth century has been deeply preoccupied by – if not structured around – the question of novelty. How do (or more pessimistically, how might) new things, events, happen? Badiou, coming at the end of the chain, abandons all the previous modes of causal explanation, last but not least Deleuzian vitalism, and espouses instead a strictly non-causal explanation of change. Long story short, the event simply happens when someone decides that it has. It is not simply that he doesn’t explain how this decision might happen – his position is staked on the argument that we can’t explain how it happens, as if it were explicable it wouldn’t ever have been the new, an event, in the first place.

To me, Badiou’s conception of the event is far more symptomatic than useful. It’s symptomatic of the failure of a line of inquiry – the entire interrogation of novelty that is modern philosophy. When you have to be Pascalian about an issue, when you have to privilege the blind and (purportedly) inexplicable conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus, it means the game is over.

After all, what’s even the point of explaining any of this – if an event is going to happen, it’s going to happen whether Badiou writes these books and we read them or not, as there’s no preparing for an event, no knowledge of the shape of the event that we need in order to be ready for it.

In all, my recent reading of Badiou – and the sense of his well-informed but desperate attempt to make some room for unentangled novelty – makes me even more convinced that the question of the new, of the event, was the wrong question to ask from the start. There’s another way, I think, to look at things, and it’s my gambit that certain modernist texts show the way.

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September 8, 2011 at 11:56 am

Posted in badiou, everyday

interminable revision / how literature means (or doesn’t)

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As always, the big question at play with this massive thing that I am forever revising is a question about the argument and its reach. In the last draft, I kept the “wider claims” very quiet, almost inaudible. I notice something – something quite important – about a certain set of texts, label it as important, but don’t quite say why. * I am commended by my reader for noticing this something, but urged to articulate more fully what exactly I think it means. Which is what I am trying to do right now… but without tilting into the perilously tempting stance of massively overstating the case, making my finding mean something politically or even philosophically that it can’t (possibly / quite) mean. And so a seemingly endless practice of revising my revision, trying to get the line of the claims just and square.

Literature is really funny in the way that it means. You can’t quite argue “Well, this really does give us a whiff of something, but it’s hard to say just what…” But that, to my mind, is basically what it does. But it can’t simply be something like that as the argument of an academic monograph.

* I constantly tell my students, when I basically take them back through the principles that I learned as a half-time teaching of composition as I was finishing my PhD, that I am absolutely not being condescending to them when I reexplain concepts like motive, argument, structure, and the like. I always tell them that the selfsame issues are what at stake in my own work, and that I am constantly failing to fulfill these basic rhetorical rules and premises. I’m not sure they always believe me, but it is absolutely positively true. These things are what bring meaning to work, given the fact that meaning is difficult, they are what make writing of this sort (any sort?) difficult.

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April 27, 2011 at 1:15 pm

Posted in academia, everyday

financial districts and everyday life: a fragment

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Had to look up a place on Google Maps a few days ago, and came across this “user review”:

Went weeks before to sample canapes, some served on the night were not the std. we tried – Arancini tasted like absolutely nothing. Specified music we’d like the DJ to play weeks before as well; on the night he played few songs people wanted, when we went up to ask for 80s he said he wasn’t allowed to play it (although we said we’d like some when we first met Laura, the manager/operator)!? After repeated attempts to get the music changed he just said that what we were asking wasn’t really his speciality! It was agreed security would tick people off the list and hand out the drink tokens on arrival but on the night the security guy refused to do both so we had to have someone handing out the tokens while he found names (and he still took an age). One bartender had some serious attitude – asked if my drink was a double, to which he replied, “who’s the bartender, me or you?”(!!!). At the end of the night there were two security staff (or one and his mate), at the front door but weren’t opening it to let people out as they left, just talking to eachother and texting. Venue itself is funky, however wouldn’t book it for a work do again, maybe just go there for an afterwork drink?

Not sure why, but I find it hilarious and fascinating. When we were in grad school, the fad for cultural studies cum textual materialism was starting, and we spent lots of time looking at printed near-detritus from the 18th Century. By trade, I’m a canonical modernist – one who works on the big obvious novels – but there is a part of me tempted to start forging some sort of real-time Arcades Project out of fragments like the above. Feels like the electronic version of something scrawled on the outer wall of a taberna in Pompeii…

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February 22, 2011 at 6:14 pm

whoosh!

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Full disclosure: I used to play softball with one of the authors of the book I’m about to discuss. And, further, I don’t have it on hand yet – it’s supposed to be delivered today or at least soon so I hope to read it on the plane to LA (for the MLA, that is the naughty-sounding LAMLA) tomorrow. But here’s a paragraph from David Brooks’s recent column focused on Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly’s new book, All Things Shining.

Spiritually unmoored, many people nonetheless experience intense elevation during the magical moments that sport often affords. Dreyfus and Kelly mention the mood that swept through the crowd at Yankee Stadium when Lou Gehrig delivered his “Luckiest Man Alive” speech, or the mood that swept through Wimbledon as Roger Federer completed one of his greatest matches.

The most real things in life, they write, well up and take us over. They call this experience “whooshing up.” We get whooshed up at a sports arena, at a political rally or even at magical moments while woodworking or walking through nature.

Dreyfus and Kelly say that we should have the courage not to look for some unitary, totalistic explanation for the universe. Instead, we should live perceptively at the surface, receptive to the moments of transcendent whooshes that we can feel in, say, a concert crowd, or while engaging in a meaningful activity, like making a perfect cup of coffee with a well-crafted pot and cup.

We should not expect these experiences to cohere into a single “meaning of life.” Transcendent experiences are plural and incompatible. We should instead cultivate a spirit of gratitude and wonder for the many excellent things the world supplies.

It’s probably not all that fair to blame them for it, but it is a bit worrisome to write a (semi-)scholarly book that David Brooks finds “marvelous and important.” But there’s something more interesting to say about it than that (and again – I haven’t read it yet, will do so soon, so take all of this with more than a margarita glass-lip of salt….) So… it sounds a bit, at least in Brooks summary, that Dreyfus and Kelly have written a book in the Alain de Botton mold – a popularizing work of philosophy cum literary reference. Nothing wrong with that, nothing wrong with trying to reach a wider audience.

But one of the major modernist (sort of small m modernist, perhaps slightly larger than completely lower case – know what I mean?) reflexes in literary studies, a deep brain reflex that all of us who work on novels and poetry possess no matter what we work on, is a reflex that resists transcendence, heart-flutter, escape from the everyday. From Flaubert and Baudelaire forward, and especially through the generation of the 1920s, we have been trained to be suspicious of the epiphanic. Or at least we resist valorizing it as a moment of authenticity. Philosophers, on the other hand, from the one on the airport bookshop shelf to Alain Badiou, can’t quite get away from the reiterative valorization of this sort of “transcendent whoosh,” even if the terms that they use to describe it are altogether different. We smell, as did our literary forebearers, bad poetics at play and with them – often enough – bad politics. Or at least I do. And so to my mind it’s no wonder that a pseudo-literary, pseudo-philosophical “thinking man’s conservative” hack like David Brooks would pick up on All Things Shining as his high-brow guidebook to our age, even if he does at least register later in his column the deeply worrying thing about this sort of narrativization of meaning:

I’m not sure this way of living will ever prove satisfying to most readers. Most people have a powerful sense that there is a Supreme Being over us, attached to eternal truths. Though they try, Dreyfus and Kelly don’t give us a satisfying basis upon which to distinguish the whooshing some people felt at civil rights rallies from the whooshing others felt at Nazi rallies.

Yep – that’s the sort of complication that we literary types have a hard time moving past with a shrug. Anyone who has spent time, say, in the old Yankee Stadium bleachers can easily understand both the heartpounding excitement of the experience… as well as the fact that it feels not a horribly long stroll away from the Nuremberg rally.

Anyway, I’ll try to read the book on the plane today if my copy arrives and say more – I admit it’s unfair to critique the book through Brooks rendition of it…

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January 5, 2011 at 3:03 pm

sunday in “the spiritual home of britain’s left-wing intelligentsia”

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I’m not sure exactly why I’m driven to record my familal jaunts, my Sundays, in bland photoessays on here. The one I wrote two weeks ago worked out pretty well, so whatever, I’ll keep doing it and see what happens.

We had no plans when we woke up this morning. Today is my sleep-late day and I actually made it to 9 AM, which is rare. I’m headed into old man territory, very suddenly, with my sleep patterns. For my entire adult life, I’ve gone to bed only begrudgingly before 2 AM, and while work often mandated an early rise, if permitted I’d sleep fairly late. All of a sudden, in the last few months, I’m down before midnight and up before the alarm rings, generally no later than 7 AM.

We had no plans. It suddenly strikes me that Sunday afternoons, and what you do with them, might be read in the same way that one reads a dream. Left to one’s own devices, without the pressures of work (even if the mandate to mind children remains) one’s leisure choices form patterns that sometimes are only discernable after the fact, and sometime not really discernable at all.

I don’t really know why I woke with a strong desire to go to Islington, to Upper Street to be exact. We’d passed through on the bus a few months ago, and it’s not all that far from our house. And we’ve been around Angel for various reasons (me for Kinofist what seems like a long, long time ago and both of us together to buy couches when we moved into our place). But never to Upper Street. It’d take changing buses at Finsbury Park to get there, but buses are easier than the Underground, as we are always a large and heavily encumbered party-of-four at this point.

At the busstop near my house, we couldn’t take the first bus that came by, as there were already two strollers onboard. Another nine minutes. So I walked away to have a cigarette. When I returned my wife was having “the smoking talk” with my oldest. Ah me. Bet you my remaining days of nicotene-tint are few and getting fewer all the time. It’s just what happens, isn’t it… I suppose it’s for the best.

Ah there we are. Upper Street. There’s a farmers market on Sundays behind Islington Town Hall, but we didn’t want to keep the produce all day in the heat, so we bought nothing but pastries. The place was loaded with Americans – another woman with her own set of two kids was dropping her purchases into a Trader Joe’s bag, which made us chuckle – fucking Californians! Our own bag comes from a co-op in the rust-belt city where we lived before all this – and almost certainly marks us as academics in the Expat staring contests that occur constantly in neighborhood like this one.

A few minutes later my wife and the kids ducked into a children’s store and I had a cigarette out on the street, and took the photo that appears above. A second later, I turned to the right, and saw….. this:

Mexican food! In London! I’ve had it exactly once in the more than 1.5 years I’ve been here. It simply doesn’t exist as a food category here – there’s like a total of eight places in the entire city, and generally if you look one up and head there you find that it’s closed for one reason or another. I bounded back to the wife, who was coming out of the shop, wildly pointing toward, yes, that! And yelling, yes, yes I will, yes we will eat there! Yes! But she reminded me, though, that it was only 10:45 AM, so a little early for burritos. And plus, “tex-mex” is an ill-omen, and doubleplus (or doubleminus), good Mexican restaurants don’t ever serve tapas too. (Look closely at the sign). WTF? Yeah, Mexico is not in Spain, hmmm… I conceded she had a point, at least about the tapas part, and so we moved on.

But here’s the kicker. This Desperados, object of my gleeful pleading, is located on the site of the former Granita Restaurant, where the “Granita Pact” between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown was supposedly sealed in 1994. According to wikipedia:

According to several authors, Gordon Brown agreed not to stand in the Labour Party leadership election, effectively giving Blair a clear run, and letting him lead the Labour Party in the 1997 general election. In return, Brown would be allowed wide powers over domestic policy. This was apparently confirmed by a copy of a note published in The Guardian in June 2003. The note mentions Blair’s commitment to a “fairness agenda” consisting of “social justice, employment opportunities and skills” under a Labour government.

Further, according to the Guardian, if we had gone in, we might have gotten to sit at the very table, preserved as it was, where this deal that in the long-run seems to have wrecked the Labour Party, perhaps permanently, was hashed out. I hope, when (if!) my wife reads this post, she realizes that my world-historical radar is very much in operation, even if it is oddly connected with my melted cheese radar system, and that she should always listen and willingly concede to my choices in lunchtime restaurantage!

(Hmmm… now I’m wondering if any world-historical events took place at the site of the Fuddruckers on Rt.1 right by the turnoff for the NJ Turnpike… I used to make my wife take me there for birthday dinners during grad school, because of the melted cheese machine. They should dig for Jimmy Hoffa in the parking lot!)

There is a Waterstones bookshop in Islington. I have to admit, I like going to a decent Waterstones better than the crappy little store in my neighborhood. On the front table, we saw this:

My wife made the same mistake that I did when I first saw this one. We had a long and lovely talk last night about aggregate fiction, and she lifted it from the table thinking…. But nope, no. If it were Twenty People, Two Years we’d be in business. But as it is, no not aggregate – just sentimental romantic trope. Pooh. I bought the first volume of Ballard’s Complete Short Stories and Ian Sinclair’s London Orbital.

I won’t have time to read either anytime soon, but I buy books when I am happy. And I was happy today. We ate lunch at Pizza Express. Soon, I will have eaten at all 400 or so PE outlets. During lunch, I goofed with my older daughter and discussed with my wife the strange fact that in London, people eat at chain restaurants all the time, while in NYC it would be considered quite gauche to eat at chain places. That is to say, there exists here a whole category of middle to upper-middle level restaurants that basically dominate the sub-really-fancy spectrum of eating, while in America it’s hard not to think TGIFridays when you see the same place in more than a single neighborhood. My pet theory about this divergence is that hip American cities have been populated with refugees from the suburbs (comme moi) who grew up eating and lower-middle to upper-middle tier chains on the side of highways. (For the record, Fuddruckers is distinctly sub-lower-middle, just in case you’re tempted to try….) and thus run away from them en-masse when they acquire the West Elm accoutred urban pad of their dreams. I imagine that labour issues are significant too – these fucking chains are rather merciless over here, and there’s not the endless supply of undocumented Latin Americans to shuffle the plates and make the salads.

Weird. There’s a mall in Islington. I like its name: The N1 Mall. Maybe everything should be named after its postcode – far more generic, rational, clean. (Big huge post coming soon, in the hopper, on city names, station names, predicated by an act of barbarity back in Brooklyn.) My youngest decided to poop voluminously, voluminously enough to make it through the clothes. Back with the first one, wouldn’t we have panicked… But we’re veteran parents now and so we just pulled over and took care of business right there in the stroller. Much, much nicer the second time around, I have to say. But malls never look right in the UK – or really anywhere but America. Why is this? Ah, because it’s nicer over here and they simply don’t belong.

How much nicer? This much nicer….

From what I can tell, it’s a co-op-ized former estate built on the site of a V-1 bomb attack during WWII. Islington took quite a lot of bomb damage during the war, and this is the reason why Caledonian Road, for instance, is basically a several mile long block of public or ex-public housing estates. This one (I think it’s now known as the Half Moon Crescent Co-op, though I’m not exactly sure…) is bucolic and lovely, and I sort of wish that I lived there…. But BoBos like us settle where the schools are good, where the Ofsted ratings top 90… And so we are where we are. Which is good, which is fine…

You can see the very top of my wife’s head in the picture, by the way….

We had two sleeping children by the time we boarded the bus on Caledonian Road for the trip back home. We stopped somewhere and looked at a copy of the Times whle they slept, especially the cover article about Michael Jackson’s nanny:

She confided: “When Paris had her birthday this April, I wanted to buy balloons, things, to make a happy birthday. There was no money in the house. I had to put everything on my personal credit card. I brought people to clean the house. The room of the kids needed to be cleaned. But they weren’t paid.”

Revealed within her account of their love-hate relationship was Jackson’s everyday life as a father and drug addict. Grace told me of pumping out his stomach after he took too many drugs and of how dirty and unkempt he became towards the end. Her stories of his attitude to the children shocked me.

Hard to know what to say to all that, and so we went home. It’s taken me over three hours to write this post, as my wife’s been upstairs working on a book proposal and I’ve been downstairs with the kids. One watched Cinderella for a bit, the other would sleep for 15 minute bursts only after 20 minutes of carrying her about.

I’m starting to think that I’d like to write a book someday, perhaps even someday soon, about Sundays. I certainly seem to have a lot to say about them. (Interesting to note that back at the founding of LS I was very against Long Sunday as a title – I favoured Por Ahora – maybe I’m slowing out of radicalism or something as I age, or slowing into another sort of radicalism, who knows…)

In his Politics of Time, Peter Osborne at one point quotes Benjamin’s One-Way Street:

In Nadja, Breton and Nadja are the lovers who convert everything that we have experienced on mournful railway journeys… on Godforsaken Sunday afternoons in the proletarian quarters of the great cities, in the first glance through the rain-blurred windows of a new apartment, into revolutionary experience, if not action. They bring the immense force of ‘atmosphere’ concealed in these things to the point of explosion.

I think it might just be my favorite snippet of critical prose that I’ve ever come across, even if I can’t decide for the life of me whether I agree with Benjamin here, with even the basic principles behind what he is saying. I go back and forth, and in a sense this oscillation, is an index of the rhythm of my entire intellectual life in all of its dimensions. And not just my intellectual life, but the whole burrito really.

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June 28, 2009 at 7:21 pm

Posted in everyday, london, sunday

handke: “the impression of fiction”

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From Spurious:

Reflecting on his earlier fiction, Handke says:

These narratives and novels have no story. They are only daily occurrences brought into a new order. What is ‘story’ or ‘fiction’ is really always only the point of intersection between individual daily events. This is what produces the impression of fiction. And because of this I believe they are not traditional, but that the most unarranged daily occurrences are only brought into a new order, where they suddenly look like fiction. I never want to do anything else.

And he says this:

The more I immerse myself in an object, the more it approaches a written sign.

Handke has published 4 volumes of his journals, which he began to keep in the mid 70s. Was this amidst the general crisis to which he alludes at the beginning of My Year in No-Man’s Bay?

There was one time in my life when I experienced metamorphosis. Up to that point, it had only been a word to me….

Very early on, while at the famous Group 47 meeting, he says:

Above all, it seems to me that the progress of literature consists of the gradual removal of all fictions.

Just ordered a stack of Handke, whom I’ve never read. There’s potentially productive semi-contradiction, I think, between the first quote of the series (in which fictionality seems to have been relocated from the work itself to the eye and mind of the reader – thus the impression of fiction) and the last one. Which fictions, exactly, is he out to remove?

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June 26, 2009 at 8:43 pm