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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).


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


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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

reproductive presentism / notes written one sunday

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So what happened today? Was woken up at 7 AM to watch the older one while my wife and the younger one got some more sleep. I sleep now in the loft, by myself, and have done so for quite some time. “Our” bed is the bed where everyone else sleeps. This, I think, is a fairly common situation.

Made coffee and got the milk out of the freezer. Our refrigerator stopped working on Friday and no one could come to fix it until Monday. So frozen milk.

Played “animal doctor” with the older one. She picked up the idea for this game a few weeks ago when we visited the school she’ll be attending in the fall. The reception class has in one corner a sort of veterinary clinic, complete with lots of real and realish medical implements and lots of stuffed animals to operate on. We had a hard time dragging her out of the classroom when our visit was over. So now we play at home, mostly looking at non-ear parts (including, yes, the bummies) with the ear-examination device. Then we give shots. And then we feed them tea.

My wife and I have always had problems with weekend mornings. Anxiety sets in. While most people with kids and many without have no trouble sitting the weekend out, relaxing at home, and the like, we’ve always felt this soft desperation about making our weekend days good and full. Back before kids, it was often the negotiation between work and play. Now it’s generally about the sort of things we can manage with the kids, what’s realistic, what can be done without collapse or tantrum or more trouble than it’s worth. She is frustrated – she hasn’t been to central London, save for surgical appointments, in months. But it is too late and too hard to go to Hyde Park or the like.

We settle on swimming. Our area is renowned for its swimming provision – a large complex with an indoor pool and what they quaintly call a “lido” in the UK. After a bit of passive-aggression passed triangularly – father to mother to older daughter and back again – we pack our old D’Ag bag with swimming suits and towels, load the double stroller and make our way to the pool.

Despite what the website says, the pool is closed from 1-2. It is 12:45 when we arrive. My wife gives a bit of lip to the attendant; the attendant doesn’t respond. And so we have lunch at a “cafe” nearby. There’s something they call a “cafe” here that roughly corresponds with the New York diner in their ubiquity, the quality and variety of food on offer, and the cheapness of the fare.

I hold the younger one in my lap while we eat. The older one eats all of her ham and cheese sandwich – she is coming along a bit lately on the eating, on not needing to be begged to eat.

We decide to save the big pool for another day and instead head to our usual park, which has a wading pool for kids. It’s the one pictured at the top of this post, and it is lovely. No frills but well kept, full of stuff to do but nothing glamourous or noteworthy. Tennis, a playground, room for football (but no fields or goals), blacktop for bike riding or basketball, and a wading pool with a cafe.

American parks almost never have cafes. Almost every park in London has one. They are lovely. I am sure they are cost-intensive, but they make you feel a bit like you live in Europe, at least when you’re an American. Perhaps Americans know what I mean when I say this – the Europeaness of sitting at a council-run cafe in the middle of a neighborhood park.

Luckily for us, one of the girls my daughter goes to school with is in the pool when we get there. We hesitate about whether we should move over to join the other mother – perhaps she wants her time alone, why didn’t she come over here near us, what will we say when we get there? My daughter is just now hitting the age where she can reliably and steadily play with other kids, with friends, without constant parental intervention. They splash about in the pool for an hour or so before another one of their classmates shows up, and then there are three. My wife takes the baby over to talk to the other two moms; I look at my iPhone and watch my daughter.

Then there are errands. A trip to the photoshop to pick up some prints. A trip to the office supply store for a posterboard – I never asked my wife why she needs that, it occurs to me now. And then home, where I answer an e-mail from a student who has just now written me, all too late, about doing a PhD on Joyce. He seems to be a foreign student, though he’s studying right now in London, and wants to self-fund. We are under pressure to admit just about anyone who will self-fund at this point, as it’s one of the only ways we are able to raise revenue, and raise revenue we must.

It’s four o’clock by then, and by implicit pre-agreement I am to get some work time this afternoon. (The math is complicated – but the fact that I got up at 7 AM this morning has something to do with it). I have to write a feature for a magazine and I am two weeks late. So I head back downtown to write for an hour-and-a-half in the same Costa where I always write. I write 400 words, drink two medium lattes, and I tell myself that I will finish the rest tonight.

On the way home, I notice one an advertisement for this week’s edition of the neighborhood paper. Waitrose, apparently, is moving into our shuttered Woolworths in the centre of town. This makes us happy, as we have fond memories of the Waitrose on Finchley Road when we lived a bit west of here. But it will likely put some of the local butchers and fish-mongers and fruit sellers and probably the independent grocery next door out of business.

I put the Yankee game on my computer. It is a terrible game – the Yanks are beating the Mets 13-0. We debate ordering Thai or making the Chicken Kievs that are in the freezer, and decide on the latter. I defrost then defrost again then preheat and then insert and then put a pot of corn on and run out to get a cold bottle of Coke (as the fridge is broken). What I buy is no colder than the unopened bottle we already have. I read the Observer as things finish cooking; the younger daughter is asleep next to me in her little bouncy seat.

The older one is now asleep or getting there and my wife is feeding the baby. The Yankee game is still on but it’s not getting any more interesting. I noticed that we can watch movies on our computer via our Sky subscription – maybe I can talk my wife into watching sex, lies, and videotape tonight, which is on offer. And then I’ll finish the piece – 1300 more words – or I won’t and I’ll break my promise to start working on the book tomorrow. My wife will take the baby up to bed with her at 10 or 10:30. I will go to bed at midnight, 1 AM at the latest.

So why am I telling you all this? Is it meant to be interesting – and if so, in what way? Am I bragging about my well-accoutred North London life? Or am I braying about the busyness of all this – the fact that there is barely time to work or even breathe? You might think I’m admirable or cowardly, you might want my life or detest it. You might find me disgusting for taking up space with the description of this day, or it might strike you as totally apropos, apropos of something, who knows what or maybe you know.

It was not a particularly interesting day – perhaps not even infra-interesting, though that’s a trickier issue. I am spending a lot of time thinking about the everyday lately, and on more than one front – intellectually, personally, perhaps artistically and politically as well. It is both lucky and unlucky that I am about to spend so much time thinking and writing about it, as it is something that I have an extremely ambivalent relationship towards. Odi et amo, as someone once said of something else. There’s a part of me that belongs exactly nowhere but in a semi-suburban living room or the aisles of a supermarket, the same part of me that buys too many newspapers – all of the papers, sometimes – and wants things calm and orderly and basically like some sort of Ikea spread-vivant, a family barbeque in a social democratic country, in a park that you get to by train or bus, and with food purchased at a kiosk whose sign is written sans serifs. But then there’s another part of me that is nothing but chaos and dysrhythm, grandiloquent thought and speech, drink and brokenness and poor poetry, crispé comme un extravagant, back-alleyed and ill-tempered and too loud.

Henri Lefebvre, in the first volume of his Critique of Everyday Life, has a section called “Notes Written One Sunday in the French Countryside,” and in that section is the following passage:

And in life itself, in everyday life, ancient gestures, rituals as old as time itself, continue unchanged – except for the fact that this life has been stripped of its beauty. Only the dust of words remains, dead gestures. Because rituals and feelings, prayers and magic spells, blessings, curses, have been detached from life, they have become abstract and ‘inner’, to use the terminology of self-justification. Convictions have become weaker, sacrifices shallower, less intense. People cope – badly – with a smaller outlay. The only thing that has not diminished is the old disquiet, that feeling of weakness, that foreboding. But what was formerly a sense of disquiet has become worry, anguish. Religion, ethics, metaphysicas – these are merely the ‘spiritual’ and ‘inner’ festivals of human anguish, was of channelling the black waters of anxiety – and towards what abyss?

I am trying to place it, the everyday, trying to figure out the frame and the use. What to make of the generic universality of certain elements – for instance the way that taking care of a child puts you through certain nearly universal or maybe fully universal (careful, careful) movements and gestures and probably thoughts. And I am trying to make sense of the lingering disquiet that Lefebvre mentions above. What is both hope-inducing and intellectually-terrifying to me is the fact that the recent recession of the dystopian imaginary – the backing up of the threat of the flash and burn and all of the other catastrophes has taken away an ideological-aesthetic crutch that allowed shorthand-in where only full consideration will really do. As if by fiat, we are suddenly under a mandate to stop changing the subject when it comes to the everyday. No news event is going to save us from the question that we are faced with, that we’ve long or always been faced with.

Instead we are brought face to face with the rhythm, probably permanent, of recurrent mild to severe economic crisis coupled with mild to middling affectual, ethical and intellectual crises. Please believe me when I say that I am fully aware of the class understructure of the question that I am asking (or trying to find the words to ask) about my day. I just happen to believe that much of what has gone on, for at least the last half-century, in the world is staked on this sort of Sunday – its pleasures, which are very real, as well as its equally-real if more softly spoken anxieties. The long sunday is an ad with products. It’s just still to-be-determined what the products are, which ones we want, and what to do about it once (if) we figure all of this out.

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June 14, 2009 at 10:03 pm

going, going, gone

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Not really funny, more sad:

I have somehow lost, one by one and/or in clumps, almost every book having to do with my summer’s project, which happens to be the project that I’ve been working on since oh about spring 2001. I have lost (and repurchased) all of my Lefebvre. Now I notice that I’ve lost every book that I have that discusses Lefebvre’s work. I wouldn’t have posted this until I just now remembered that a few months ago I was asked to review another monograph on roughly the same topic as my own, told the editor not to bother sending the book as I had it, had read it, it was right here…. And then I had to write her back asking her to send me the fucking review copy in the mail. None of these are in my stack at home and none of these are in my office.

Maybe there’s a hole in my bag, a hole perfectly proportioned to allow only the relevant, pertitent, and manditory to fall out.

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June 12, 2009 at 1:07 pm

impersonality and the individual

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“Of the vaporization and centralization of the Ego. Everything depends upon that.” (Baudelaire, “My Heart Laid Bare”)

Henri Lefebvre toward the end of the first volume of Critique of Everyday Life, in the course of arguing on behalf of American literature and against the French stuff of the period:

Petty-bourgeois individualism has reached the extreme limit of exhaustion, and that goes for the intellectual as well as the writer. In the ‘human sand’, each grain, which is so dreadfully similar to all the others (unless we look at it through a psychological microscope) thinks it is frightfully original, even unique! Individualism ends up as the impersonality of the individual. It is the dialectical result of the ‘private’ consciousness and of its internal contradiction: the separation of the human being from the human. Nothing is easier to express than that abstract ‘psychology’ of this individuality, devoid of any content which might be difficult to express. Only a little knowledge of grammar is necessary. And there is plenty of that around! But unfortunately the tone of all these confidences and all these descriptions happens to be that of impersonality; therefore of boredom. The accusation that the Marxist dialectician levels at modern French literature as a whole is not that it expresses individuality, but rather that it expresses only false individuality, a facade of individuality, and abstraction. Nor is it by working in an element of ‘anguish’ that a young writer can give his descriptions or his story the direct, visual, physical, moving style, so much more individualized and varied, that one finds in Faulkner’s characters and novels. (237)

Yes. Not so worried about the Faulkner issue right now. But what’s interesting about this is the way that it maps on to the complicated issue of literary impersonality, which is significantly different from the impersonality (actual individual impersonality, that is lack of a personality, an interesting one) that Lefebvre’s discussing right here. That is to say, literary impersonality, which is generally understood to mean the distancing or problematization of the notions and ideas of the author (you knew what Dickens wanted to tell you but with Joyce it’s much harder) is a formal stance, not a psychological status or condition.

Maybe you know Eliot’s exquisite joke about this…. He really was funny sometimes in his essays. This is from “Traditional and the Individual Talent”:

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.


But here’s the thing. Literary impersonality, which in its narrative manifestations generally takes the shape of some variety of free indirect style, tends as it happens to be a priviledged means of exposing just the sort of impersonality that Lefebvre’s describing above. The free indirect form penetrates the interiority of the character, but only in such a way that we seem to remain outside of the character. We are not probing it, like a headshrinker, nor is the poor guy or girl spilling his or her guts – it’s just there on the surface of the prose for us to see. As a form, free indirect discourse depends upon the exteriorization of the interior. Or – and I should show my math, but just bear with me for the moment – it depends upon the exteriorability of the interior, even the pre-exteriority of the interior. It doesn’t take too much in the way of mental gymnastics to see that for what goes on inside to come out in a shape that (sometimes, often, in the best cases) is intelligible, fairly coherent, and not really all that out of step with conventional narration (in step enough that you have to teach people to see this fact, right?) might well have been, well, conventional, available for this sort of presentation right from the start.

It’s no wonder that Flaubert pushes the form to the fore in the work that he does – in a way, a romance novel about a woman who reads romance novels is a straight shot…. One even starts to wonder whether the theme that he chose didn’t invent the form rather than the other way around.

We’re coming pretty close to what I would call the tacit, implicit, or unconscious formal politics of modernist prose. Lefebvre believes we learn something important when we, having passed through the moment of the Cogito, come to a further step along the path toward self-understanding – the step which takes the alienated, flimsy self for a marker of both alienation and the possibilities that might come of the social forms that generate it. The recognition that we are not simply ourselves turns from a tragic consequence of modernity into the announcement itself of the imminence of another sort of world, a better sociality and sociability.

(There – I’m going to count that as having worked on the m’script today…. That’s clearer than usual and I’ll work with it….)

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May 12, 2009 at 12:19 pm

more on “genre” and why i can’t read it

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A few lead-in infobits and then a continuation of an argument:

1) Bought Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones today after hearing yet another respected litblog voice vouch that he couldn’t put it down, would rush home from work to read it, hadn’t showered since he started etc. I have to say: I started reading it today (while watching Arsenal get clubbed by Chelsea – look at norf london me, oy!) and I have a feeling everyone is right. You can tell a murderer from his fancy prose style, but bureaucratic murderers are masters of understatement and that’s what we refreshingly get here. I’ll report as I go, but so far so good.

2) Very much relatedly, found Journey Planet via Ken MacLeod’s site, and within the former I found something truly excellent. Not sure the ethics of cutting and pasting this here, but what the hell. It’s a cover design for 1984 by someone named Kris Stewart according to the caption in the zine.


Absolutely perfect… funny how one can defamiliarize something that everyone knows so well by refamiliarizing it.

3) OK now for the (again, related) argument. We all had quite a skuffle in the comments box a few posts back about genre fiction and what I was calling (sort of reluctantly) or what was being called the bourgeois novel. Some these skuffles have continued off-line. I’ve been thinking more about it, and I think I’m ready to explain a bit more about why “genre fiction” doesn’t really do it for me.

First, though, the fine print. 1) I don’t hate genre fiction. In fact I read or try to read quite a lot of it. I very much like the idea of it! I was being a bit too stark and polemical for my own good. 2) Christ, I don’t hate J.G. Ballard. I will say that I am continually disappointed by Ballard’s work – whenever I read it I feel that it could be so much better than it actually is. But there’s probably even a bit of anxiety of influence type psycho-dynamic going on when I talk about him, and as I keep promising, I’m going to try to say something bigger and better soon. But just to prove that I don’t dismiss him: I’m teaching a graduate seminar on him next year, by choice! 3) Issues of taste are really complicated! How can they be discussed without the weird slant logic of what I like is admittedly only what I like but on the other hand I have to make a claim for universal value or else why the fuck are we talking about this? Kantian or something? I think so…. But it’s complicated talking about things in this way and strangely, strangely, we’re not used to doing it anymore – maybe because we don’t really understand (or understand all too well) the bit I just put into italics.

End of small print. On to the argument, stated very succinctly but ripe for expansion:

I believe that narrative fiction’s principle interest, what it does best and is basically meant to do, is to rehearse a rhythm of banality and eventfulness, ordinariness and emergence, everyday life and the shocking turn, the crisis. It goes on at length about nothing really happening, things being ordinary, and then something else happens.

The problem for me with most genre fiction is that it skews from the start and by structural mandate the relationship between the familiar and the unfamiliar that is the very baseline of fiction, in my opinion and according to my tastes. I think this is easy to see. When the generic presupposition is in the distance future, when everything is utterly different and new, something happens or whatever, I get lost, I doesn’t sound like music but rather only noise.

Of course there are “genre” writers who are invested in boredom and ordinariness. And of course this is complicated by the fact that there are many “conventional” or “bourgeois” novelists who start with a defamiliarizing gesture. But I also think you can see what I mean. And from what I understand (which is not much) this is an active line of debate and discussion in “genre” circles themselves. And it’s not that I simply can’t read past this stuff as wallpaper, because of course I can. The problem isn’t that – the problem is that the mandate to start from the unfamiliar skews the writers’ relationship to the form itself, generally seems to make them misunderstand the first and primary thing that the form does well.

I also happen to think – and much of my work is staked on this claim, so christ I hope I’m right – that one of the main things that modernist narrative was invested in was the exposure of this dialectic, or in particular the shadowy part of this cycle, the everyday side. I’d even go so far as to say that most of the works that we think of as major milestones in the development of modernist prose were in fact invested in an experiment in prose narrative without the fateful turn, the illuminating exposure, the shocking revelation. Perhaps – consciously or unconsciously, or somewhere between the two – they were trying to teach us something about the nature of fiction, trying to get us to think about this dialectic and the phase of it that we’d often generally rather forget.

I further think that there is a politics implicit in this arrangement, a politics of uneventfulness, an implicit practice that works against the event. And I’m going to try to say this, at length and in depth, as I rewrite the goddamned manuscript yet again but for the first time really, this summer.

But just to circle back for a moment: most of the genre or quasi-genre stuff that I like is stuff that fulfills this contract, the contract of the narrative form. Lots of utopian and dystopian fiction is in touch with this issue – lots of it even hyperbolizes the point, making it more visible that it generally is with other thematic frames. But when we start in a spaceship, or with a bodice that’s always already ripped, or with a seamonster who is god or the devil or both, or with vampires, or anything else that skews the realism, that is to say the tedium, of the work, I am lost and I cannot read, not willingly anyway.

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May 10, 2009 at 10:34 pm

“thanks to its own powers of persuasion….”

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Henri Lefebvre in his foreword to Critique of Everyday Life, Vol. I:

We ask ourselves: ‘What is socialism exactly? How does it intervene in everyday life? What does it change?’ And the answer is unclear. The elimination of the bourgeoisie and class antagonisms? The suppression of capitalist relations of property and production? These are only negative definitions. We find the picture of a bourgeois society without a bourgeoisie neither reassuring nor satisfying. We think that there is, or will be, something else. But what? Accepting one’s work, making it – willingly if possible – one’s first priority, working harder, willing productivity to increase rather than merely putting up with it? These ideas are fine as far as they go. Admittedly they are probably all essential, very important for the social relations of production, and perhaps they would go some way towards defining a mode of production economically. But as a definition of a culture, a civilization, a humanity, they are inadequate. Nor can they define a worthwhile way of living which could come into being thanks to its own powers of persuasion. *

Ah, that last line is a killer. Perfect! And here’s what he says in the footnote attached to the end of that passage:

* Unfortunately materialism is presented in far too many publications as the most depressing of platitudes, In fact it appears to reach the heights of platitude (so to speak). If it were a completed system, or simply a weapon for the working-class struggle, why indeed would it have to be interesting? After all, when philosophy lost metaphysics, it might also be said to have lost its picturesqueness!….

Exciting to be re-reading Lefebvre. I had forgotten, in the way that one does, the fact that every line of thought that I follow on just about any topic that matters very clearly started nowhere and nowhen else than with my first reading of this book.

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April 8, 2009 at 11:22 am

daily lunch order

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I’ll take one everyday but you can hold the Heideggerian inauthenticity, the pastoralist/primitivist fallacy, and the surrealist merveilleux. Plain, yeah, that’s how I want it.

So hard to find a place that knows how to make a good one, know what I mean? Basically, there’s nowhere – even Chef Lefebvre spends half his career saucing salading it in fantasies about organic agro-villages and the good old days. Further, this is why it’s really important to read Raymond Williams’s The Country and the City if you want to work on the everyday… or really work on anything at all.

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April 1, 2009 at 10:56 am

Posted in everyday

simple modernism

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Tell yourself the story of Oedipus Rex. Take a few seconds to do it, a few minutes. If you want the particulars, look them up.

So, it’s a bit more complicated than this due to the preserved unities (and more on this complexity in a minute), but you’ve got the prophesy, the slaying of the father and the marrying of the mother, with the riddle of the Sphinx in between.  Then (now we’re in the real time of Sophocles’s play), we have the arrival of Tiresias, the revelation of the true nature of Oedipus’s crimes, the suicide of Jocasta, Oedipus’s eyes out with the brooch, and then his self-exile.

Now, imagine alternate ways the story might have been told or might have happened. We could have followed blind, dripping Oedipus along his way to Colonus, but left off before we got there or just as he made it to the gates? What if we had narrowly focused in on a day featuring nothing but particularly good sex with Jocasta, or another in which Oedipus spent 9-5 working on land distribution in Thebes or hearing court cases?

Better yet, what if Oedipus had never found out about his crimes, and instead had died of old age? Or what if he had never committed the crimes in the first place, but rather stayed on with Polybus and Merope, eventually reigning unspectacularly in Corinth for a decade or two, before his own son took his place on the throne?

What if he did kill his father and marry his mother but such practices were so widespread at the time that it wasn’t really much of a big deal – he kills Tiresias, shrugs, and heads back to bed with his mother?

What sort of play would Oedipus Rex be if it didn’t locate itself right at the crucial moment, the moment of anagnorisis and peripeteia, retroactive revelation and reversal of circumstances? What if bad things happened, but nothing changed. Or no one knew (or allowed themselves to know) that the bad things had happened. What if the bad things – at least these bad things – had never taken place, either because they didn’t happen or for one reason or another they were not “bad.”

Aristotle, in the Poetics, discusses plot in a way that seems to hold room open for both Sophocles’s play and my own versions of it.

Some plots are simple, others complex, since the actions of which the plots are imitations are themselves also of these two kinds. By a simple action I mean one which is, in the sense defined, continuous and unified, and in which the change of fortune comes about without reversal and recognition. By complex, I mean one in which the change of fortune involves reversal or recognition or both. These must arise from the actual structure of the plot, so that they come about as a result of what has happened before, out of necessity or in accordance with probability. There is an important difference between a set of events happening because of certain other events and after certain other events.

The simple plot with a simple action “in which the change of fortune comes about without reversal and recognition.” We have two words for that sort of action when we’re made to watch it on stage, the movie screen, or the television news; those words are boring and fucked-up. Nothing happens, or something fails to happen, or something happens but no one pays a price, no one even notices, catharsis fails to come, retribution is not ours or theirs. In some sense, what Aristotle describes there with the notion of the simple plot is at once a formula an unstageable play and the logic of history, its brutality, most of the time.

It’s also the formula, I would argue, that best defines the diffuse field of texts that we label today modernist narrative. Imagine these possibilities:

  • Insanely brutal events happen in the Belgian Congo, but it is hard to figure out what or why. One agent of the company in charge is sent to find out the status of another. The latter dies unspectacularly, and the first agent heads back to Europe to talk to the deceased’s girlfriend.
  • A writer writing during and just after the First World War writes a work of epical scope that seems to be bent on the full capture of the realities of life during modernity. But despite the war raging all around him as he writes, he sets the work in the second city (if that!) of the British empire, a backwater full of semi-employed wanderers, and most unnervingly, he sets it exactly ten years before the beginning of the war that would define the early part of the century. *
  • A shell-shocked war veteran kills himself by leaping from his doctor’s window and landing on the area fence. Nonetheless, a woman hosts a lavish party. Not long before this 500,000 Armenians are massacred, and no one really notices.
  • A man comes to a door that has been erected only for him. He does not pass through the door. Nearby, a man is summonded to a trial of the gravest importance that never happens. In the same general area, a family goes back to work after the death of the eldest son, who had been turned into…

When I claim that preoccupation with the everyday is one of the defining characteristics of modernist narrative, I mean the everyday that takes place in lieu of or in resistance to the event. Or even better, the everyday is what takes the place where we would normally expect to find the event – the historical event, yes, but more specifically – technically – the action that turns and in turning provokes reflection that is the most fundamentally characteristic gesture of narrative itself. It would be utterly easy, in certain sense, and utterly literary, in a specific sense, to organize narratives that deal directly with the events of the period: colonial brutality, the advent of total war, bureaucratization verging on dehumanizing totalitarianism. War and sex, violence and news all give themselves to retelling in fiction – but for some reason, the most memorable texts of the most memorable period of fictional production during the past century and a half refuse to take the bait.

Just as water flows downhill, fictional impetus flows into Aristotle’s complex plot forms. Modernist authors did not so much reverse the flow, but rather, however fluid their discursive forms might be, resisted the notion of flow and change altogether.

* See my next post…

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January 11, 2009 at 9:58 pm

apocalpyse, dystopia, and the end of histoire

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Benjamin Kunkel has a very fine piece in that most pro-dystopian of little mags, Dissent, on the warehouseload of apocalyptic and dystopian fictions that have appeared over the past ten or so years. (Henry, at Crooked Timber, objects to the piece rather harshly given the counterevidence that he’s mustered contra…) He does a terrific job on the politics (often bad faith) of the books, and what sort of relationship they have to the context out of which they emerged.

There’s just one thing that I’d like to say – I think it’s more additive to than critical of Kunkel. And it has to do with the very smart stuff that he has to say about the blurring of literary fiction and the dystopian/apocalyptic genres and what it has to do with literary character. Here’s a bit of it:

[S]elf-awareness is in short supply in contemporary apocalyptic novels. There self-awareness in general gives way to a savage imperative of survival, and any struggles taking place within people are superseded by the struggles taking place between them. One effect of this approach, noted above, is that the neoliberal apocalypse abandons the field of competing legitimate claims that is the terrain of politics for a stark flat choice between good and evil or else a reign of uniform cruelty. Still, if we can’t take these books seriously from a political standpoint, and their only real theme is love, do they at least succeed as romances? In a way it has always been a virtue of historical romance that its facelessly beautiful or handsome characters are also morally uncomplicated to the point of vacancy. The same is true of the heroes and heroines of our apocalyptic romances; they possess the sentimental virtue of moral perfection in a world otherwise evil, and the biological virtue of attractiveness in a world otherwise ugly. Their unreality as characters makes them ideal objects of fantasy—with only the effect of disqualifying them as objects of love or items of literature. This leaves the neoliberal apocalypse with its constitutive contradiction: exalting the sphere of private life—in modern times the arena for the fullest elaboration of individual personality—it promotes a basically zoological idea of humanity, where mating and survival are all that matter, and these efforts are pursued with an absence of reflection tantamount to instinct. Self-preservation and moral life become identical, and differences of character fade into insignificance: at this level we are all clones.

The main formal consequence, then, of a withered moral imagination has to do not with subject matter (love, crime, the future) but with character. Fictional character derives from moral choices made, contemplated, postponed, or ignored—morality is the page on which the stamp of character appears—and the signal formal trait of genre fiction is nothing so much as its lack of complex characters. This deficit entangles even an acknowledged generic triumph like Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968, and the basis of the 1982 movie Blade Runner) in a certain incoherence. The ironic burden of Dick’s novel is to stick up for the warm-blooded humanity of androids (read: clones), and in this way imply the cold-bloodedness of any society that denies fully human status to some category of person. The rub, of course, is that such sci-fi humanism is quickly overcome with another irony, this one unintentional, since it is the hallmark of genre fiction to treat characters instrumentally, putting them through the paces of the plot according to their function as the embodiment of some general psychological or social category and failing or refusing to endow them with the individuality to be found among the livelier inhabitants of the traditional realist novel and, for that matter, the real world.

THIS IS the highly compromised “individualism” promoted by our collection of futuristic novels: individuality here means escape from the bad collective (cannibals, the corporate state) but does not entail real individuation. Our literary sci-fi novels are bereft of strongly individual characters—the apocalyptic ones even more depopulated than they know, the clone narratives at least bespeaking the anxiety that their characters are redundant—and the ongoing merger of genre fiction (where the reader is accustomed to finding no complex characters) with literature (which no one would think to accuse of being indifferent to individuality) has allowed the liquidation of character to pass virtually unnoticed. And this, it seems, is likely to be among the most accurately futuristic features of the “literary” genre novels: they will have been the harbingers of a literary sea change in which complex characters are rejected by critics and ordinary readers alike as morally unattractive (compared to generic heros), hopelessly self-involved (because capable of introspection), and annoyingly irresolute (because subject to deliberation). These prejudices are already articulate and operative whenever fiction is discussed, thanks in large part to the incomplete literature-genre fiction merger, and the prestige such prejudices acquire through that merger allows them to be expressed without the taint of philistinism.

In sum, when the contemporary novelist contemplates the future—including, it seems, the future of the novel—he or she often forfeits the ability to imagine unique and irreplaceable characters, can no longer depict love credibly, and responds to political problems by rejecting politics for personal life, albeit one made meaningless by interchangeable characters and a zoological conception of family and love. The result is political novels without politics, social novels without society, and romances free of love, amounting, in the end, to “literature” that isn’t.

Now, I happen to think that Kunkel’s absolutely right about the recession of the characterness of character once the stars of literature and genre align. I may have something a bit different to say about what it means and how we should take this recession – there’s a wee bit of Tel Quel Maoism on me that might lead me to applaud such a literary development. But that will have to happen another time. For now, I to perform an odd exchange with Kunkel. He’s a novelist writing a fairly scholarly piece of quasi Marxist literary crit here (which is what I do at my day job when I do it), so I’m going be the literary scholar that approaches the issue not via historical context and ideological analysis but rather in terms of the writerly situation at hand and what this shift has to do with it.

Now, I’ll cop to the fact that I’ve been trying to write novels for a long, long time. I don’t – as a rule, so far anyway – send them out because I’m never really satisfied with them. (Or maybe it’s because my parents didn’t congratulate me the day the acceptance letter came from Yale. Who knows…) I do try awfully hard, hard enough to drive me a bit off-kilter, but I’ll probably work it out one day soon once the academic work recedes (ha!) a tad. Anyhow, I’ve basically followed the trajectory in my own halting work from the literary frame (that is to say, heavily interiorized stuff having to do, in Kunkel’s phrase, with the “moral imagination,” etc) toward dystopian or catastropic stuff. (One last time, there’s an abortive start to something I worked on this summer here…)

And there are lots of reasons that this shift in my work has happened. Partly, it’s the fact that I’ve always been invested in this stuff (first two works of literature I owned were 1984 and Purgatorio… the latter, a weird but understandable pick for a Catholic kid) but now, suddenly, it’s become acceptably non-genre to write it, per Kunkel’s description. A desire to write politically engaged fiction also factors; it’s easier at least to seem like that’s what you’re up to even if, as again Kunkel describes, lots of time this stuff goes south when it comes to good faith political response.

But there is something else, beyond or beneath all these other reasons, that I think forms the basis of the ultimate impetus for me to turn to the genre-literary hybrid.

Aside from all the ideological and meta-ideological reasons, aside from the contemporary relevance and the attention grabbing cover art possibilities, one huge reason why the dystopian and apocalyptic registers have traipsed to the center of literary literary production is because, christ almighty, they give you the opportunity to write a proper novel with multiple characters (albeit, sure, you can or structurally must do flat ones, as Kunkel suggests) and a plot, dramatic tension, crises and outcomes. Actual events happen, there are dramatic sequences and meaningful interactions of the protagonist(s) with other people. Or to put it another way – yes, these genres, happily, even gloriously, are incompatible with interiority – especially excessive, neurotic interiority! The characters are actually too busy to think, to have actual thoughts. It’s hard to be depressed or anxious or frustratedly horny when the canibals are trying to cook your son. And if you’re otherwise occupied dashing through Falluja-on-the-North-Sea, one tends to forget about the battle with drink or the middle life crisis, the traumas of high school and the sexual rejection that happened during the ice storm. Whatever.

If you write, and write in the wide and persistent wake of modernism – if you cut your readerly teeth on Woolf and Joyce – you know what your problem is. You want to do interior work; you do it really well, at least better than other things. But when you give your novel-start to a friend to read, they respond, nervously: “You know, the extended section about midnight-masturbation while looking at internet porn is, um, thorough and I’m sure it gets to the bottom of the subject – as does the long bit where the young wife has a silent nervous breakdown about her career prospects, the wrong turn that she made when she chose to major in Fine Arts instead of Chemistry, but… I’ve read your other stuff and I like the bit where, you know, things happen and people talk to each other. You should, you know, have some of that here… It’s all a bit, um, claustrophobic….”

They’re right – you lack for plot… and anything else that’s properly in a novel except the angsty interior work. And for good reason, really. This is where someone comes in and screams that of course there are plots out there, you just have to cast your eyes a yard or two beyond your whitebread world of pocket inteligensia in order to see that shit is happening all the time. Remember this bit in Adaptation:

Sir, what if a writer is attempting to create a story where nothing much happens, where people don’t change, they don’t have any epiphanies. They struggle and are frustrated and nothing is resolved. More a reflection of the real world –

The real world?

Yes, sir.

The real fucking world? First of all, if you write a screenplay without conflict or crisis, you’ll bore your audience to tears. Secondly: Nothing happens in the world? Are you out of your fucking mind? People are murdered every day! There’s genocide, war, corruption! Every fucking day somewhere in the world somebody sacrifices his life to save somebody else! Every fucking day someone somewhere takes a conscious decision to destroy someone else! People find love! People lose it, for Christ’s sake! A child watches her mother beaten to death on the steps of a church! Someone goes hungry! Somebody else betrays his best friend for a woman! If you can’t find that stuff in life, then you, my friend, don’t know crap about life! And why the fuck are you wasting my two precious hours with your movie? I don’t have any use for it! I don’t have any bloody use for it!


Okay, thanks.

Mckee is, of course, right. But also definitely not. While the better part of me would love to write the great novel of the Bhopal Disaster or of the rise and fall of Allende, I’m not up to it. Neither do I have the knowledge, nor the time to acquire it, nor really (honestly) the inclination. And if we turn back to the standard fare for novelistic deployment in America, we find that many of the old strands and tropes are looking a little depleted. There are only so many discovery of sex cum end of American innocence novels that can be written, and generally speaking they really do need to be set in the 1950s, which most of us don’t remember as we were born in the 60s or 70s (or, urp, 80s). The frontier – even the final one – has long since been closed. Adultery only seems unboring when you spice it with a new, newer, the newest low: a student, a younger student, his brother, all of his brothers at once, all of his frat brothers, old people, really old people. Boring… Lolita preemptively probably took care of entire line right back at the start, everything else is tired variation on a theme. And the Bildungsroman suffers in an era when at the same time meritocratic progression becomes so tedious rote and actual class-shift becomes unlikely if not impossible, that no one but Jonathan Safran Foer knows what to write anymore.

But it’s more than the simple expenditure of motifs. There was something about the 1990s that resisted fictionalization, the way that a high pressure system resists cloud formation. Periods that resist emplotment – both fictional emplotment and wider, socio-cultural sense of directionality and end-orientation – are psychologically tricky for everyone but maybe even trickier for novelists. (This is the point where I refer you to my published work on The Time Machine, a work that complicates Kunkel’s genealogies of the two forms he’s dealing with, as they’re both there at once – it’s knot in the lines that run from gothic to dystopia and from romance to apocalypse…. But oops, I’m a pseudonom-blogger so I can’t link to it… But the 1890s and 1900s, despite the memorable work that we retrospectively recognize now, were perhaps another such period…) The End of History meets the end of the histoire – the two ends are anything but unrelated. They called it decadence at the end of the 19th-century, a word which meant something a bit different then than it does today.

I’d rather not delve into strange causality, paranoid historicist envelope scribbling, but there is something in society that does not love empty time. Don’t ask me what it does about it. I definitely, definitely don’t want to suggest that it handles it by downing its own towers and collapsing its own markets. But that is, however, what its fiction writers start to do. Novelists who not long ago were invested in existentialist thrillers set along the Rio Grande turn to the flash and rumble to get a story started in its aftermath, just as filmakers who were busy with  naughty threesomes turn to the extinction of the race and rise of biopolitically-minded fascism.

The apocalyptic and dystopian, in other words, bring plot and event during periods in which plot and event seem to have slipped down the drain of the tub where the boats are busy rising or not rising. In turning the everyday inside out, they expose the implicit, imminent sound of the other shoe dropping, the storyline that must be nestled amidst all this affluent absurdity. And if you need more proof, think about just how invested these works are that Kunkel describes in playing out emergence of the climactic event out of the banally everyday… or even, most hauntingly, the persistence of that everyday despite the start of the endgame, the plot to end all plots. Remember the first scene of Children of Men, where our period’s mostly characteristically ordinary action – fetching coffee on the way to work – gives way to the terrorist bomb blast and the walking wounded missing limbs.

As if bound to gesture towards the unfertile ground from which they grew, the works cycle back, time and again, the the issuelessness of the present that is interrupted by the advent of the catastrophe or the revelation of the inhuman face of power once the veil of liberal democratic upwardness has dropped to the floor. None of this is out of sync, I believe, with Kunkel’s argument – it just points to the way that these fictional developments are determined at the same time by contextual issues and immanent problems of narrative form. And in fact, one more turn of the screw brings us to the realization – one that we have to take care with, not be cheap about – that the contextual issues are themselves in part symptoms of a society-wide crisis in self-narration, an inability to get the story of the present and how it meets a future, or even has a future, straight.

I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering whether the tendency toward dystopian and apocalyptic hybridization of literary fiction and what Kunkel calls B+ movies will continue as the world and its artists confront the very real crises that surely await us all in next few years. It seems improbable that the jobless will want to read fantasies of dramatic joblessness, or the cashless will fantasize about a world without cash. But I’m even more interested, and alternative hopeful and skeptical, to see whether society itself as a whole will begin again to compose its own plots about the path from here to there, its own sequence of events that lead through crisis to development. Still, it’s far from given that these storylines, if they do emerge, are stories that we will want to read, much less take our place as characters in, whether we maintain our interest as individuals, as characters, or not.

Written by adswithoutproducts

December 16, 2008 at 11:33 pm