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at the gates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It starts like this:

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

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

Written by adswithoutproducts

June 14, 2010 at 2:17 am

Posted in aggregate, fiction, hell

sunday post: po-faced

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1. His shrink warned him once: in almost every case, the net result of perfectionism is not the creation of perfect things but rather mediocrity. One can’t quite face the work or the release of the work, the work becomes literally unbearable, thought drifts toward the meta-consideration of why the work isn’t right rather than what the work actually needs to be, one tries too hard or gives up and tries not hard enough. Whatever – the net result is generally the same.

2. He thinks about the deep compatibility of the internet with such attitudes and patterns of behavior. He thinks of the way it services a need to work that cannot face the work itself. He thinks of the outlet that a blog provides for the logorrhea that does indeed require outlet, but only ever in a space of effort without consequence, no possibility of reward or the failure to attain a reward.

3. They are sitting outside Medcalf in Exmouth Market.

Brooklyn-vibe, sunny. The hipsters are the next table who kept asking them for a light have given up on asking, just come and wordlessly do their business with the lighter on the table and then return to their own places.

A pause, and then the conversation resumes.

The agent says: “I would, if I were you, try to make it funny.”

“Funny, yes. Well, it’s not not funny. It’s funny, in a dry sort of way. I think it’s funny.”

“You just wouldn’t want to be po-faced about it. Given the subject matter, given what it’s about.”

From the bar across the pedestrianized street, a roar of expectation and then a roar of disappointment. South Africa v. Mexico. He puts his hand on his bag in the seat beside him. Expensive ultralight laptop, Macbook Air.

He says to the agent, “I suppose I know what you mean. But if it is funny, it is funny in the way that Coetzee’s Disgrace is funny.”

Disgrace doesn’t strike me as a particularly funny novel.”

“No, actually I can name at least three, no four, no five funny things in it. The bit about the prostitute in the beginning, what does he say, ‘a moderate, moderated bliss….’ Funny.”

“Right, OK….”

“The bit about Emma Bovary, Lurie’s fantasy of Emma Bovary coming out with him in Cape Town.”


“And of course the ending, the three-legged dog.”

“I guess that’s funny. I don’t know, maybe I’d call it…”

“The three-legged dog! Listen do you want another drink? I want another one. What is that, what sort of white?”


Minutes pass. South Africa  – Mexico has come to an end, a draw. And the he returns, drinks in hands.

4. Later that night, he is drunk and discusses the matter in depth, sort of, with his wife.

5. The next morning, he checks his Current Fictional Projects for signs of humor. He is not sure. But when is he ever funny? When do people laugh at him? His students laugh, and people laugh at his lectures. But he decides that he is funniest when, in the murky confidence of a pub or a party, he is vicious about other people, says the worst things in the world about a mutual acquaintance. A Catholic school skill, a survival technique for smart kids, lexically inclined – you caption the weak lest ye be captioned yourself and become, then, the weak. Could he do this in fiction? Construct devastating little à clefs about people that he knows in the real world?

6. Later that morning, while the kids are still asleep, he sifts the piles of unsorted, unopened mail, a week’s worth, on his kitchen table. Ah! The New Yorker‘s “20 under 40” fiction issue. Just the thing to cheer him up! He puts it aside.

He spends the rest of the morning writing emails to invoice magazines and get back to publicity editors and responses to his pitches, which makes him feel slightly better but not in a lasting way. He writes n+1 to tell them that one of his pieces seems to have disappeared from the new website.

A bit better but not much better. It doesn’t last.

7. He has the thought that if he simply could stop thinking about writing and simply do more of it… Well, sure…

8. He can only remember one occasion when he laughed aloud a something in a piece of fiction. Surely there were other times, but if there were he can’t remember them now. It was a scene in the middle of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Television when the protagonist / narrator is futzing away some grant-funded time in Berlin, during which he’s supposed to write an academic book. Futzing around, he comes to a large park in which it’s permissible to sunbathe in the nude, even if no one’s actually doing it where he is at the moment in question. He decides to take off all of his clothes anyway, and is walking along in the nude when he happens to run into the members of the board who offered him the grant. He ends up having a conversation with his bosses / benefactors, middle of the day and CABNM (clothed academic board naked male to put it into a porn category that doesn’t exist but perhaps should) about the progress of his work and the like.

It made him laugh, anyway. Who knows…

9. On the toilet in the early afternoon he finally opens the issue of The New Yorker and reads Rivka Galchen’s story “The Entire Northern Side Was Covered With Fire.” Here’s the beginning.

People say no one reads anymore, but I find that’s not the case. Prisoners read. I guess they’re not given much access to computers. A felicitous injustice for me. The nicest reader letters I’ve received—also the only reader letters I’ve received—have come from prisoners. Maybe we’re all prisoners? In our lives, our habits, our relationships? That’s not nice, my saying that. Maybe it’s even evil, to co-opt the misery of others.

I want to mention that, when I sold the movie, my husband had just left me. I came home one day and a bunch of stuff was gone. I thought we’d been robbed. Then I found a note: “I can’t live here anymore.” He had taken quite a lot with him. For example, we had a particularly nice Parmesan grater and he had taken that. But he had left behind his winter coat. Also a child. We had a child together, sort of. I was carrying it—girl or boy, I hadn’t wanted to find out—inside me.

I searched online for a replacement for that Parmesan grater, because I had really liked that Parmesan grater. It was the kind that works like a mill, not the kind you just scrape against; it had a handle that was fun to turn. There were a number of similar graters available, but with unappealing “comfort” grips. Finally, I found the same model. Was it premature to repurchase? Two days passed basically like that. Then, on Wednesday, my brother called. I gave him the update on my life.

Ah, now there it is! The Parmesan grater! Is that the funny that he is meant to do? The quirkily revelatory detail, the absurdity of everyday life, of kitchenware? Our essential triviality, our accoutrements, our tick-work preoccupations! And then rendered in voice, a voice that knows that it’s being listened to but still doesn’t get it – doesn’t hear quite what we hear… which is the funny! The author pretends to be the sort of person who says things for effect that doesn’t know they are saying things for effect. Fucking brilliant!

It made him laugh, anyway. Who knows…

10. At night, after the World Cup game, which his wife spends reading The New Yorker, she makes a joke about their ages, the fact that they still have time etc. He asks her, completely seriously, po-facedly even, how old he is – whether he is 33 or 34. He is sure it is the latter, but as it turns out he’s wrong. 33, still the interminable Jesus Year, a year in which he has laughed, he is sure, less than in any other year of his life.

Written by adswithoutproducts

June 12, 2010 at 11:57 pm

Posted in fiction, sunday

mass arousal on the tgv: aggregate, anticipatory fiction

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Just read a story, if that’s the word, called “This is for you” by Emmanuel Carrère in the new issue of Granta. It’s not online, and likely never to be… So unfortunately if you want to read it you’re going to have to shell out the (outrageous! though maybe they’re actually paying their authors, who knows) £12.99 / $18.99 for issue 110. (Shhh… If you ask nicely maybe I’ll play about with the new departmental pdf-capable photocopier on Monday and see what I can do…*) I’m trying to look into this story a bit which was originally published in French and in a newspaper, having some trouble finding anything out, so I’m a bit vague on some of the details, but let me try to describe it to you very very briefly.

Basically, the “story” takes the shape of a sort of public letter to Carrère’s lover “Sophie.” Apparently the story first appeared in a summer fiction supplement in Le Monde, and, according to what’s written here, Carrère arranged for it to be published on a specific day when Sophie would be traveling by train to visit him on the Ile de Ré in the west of France. The new issue of Le Monde will have just appeared as she’s about to board the train and he anticipates that she’ll buy it and turn to the supplement to see what he’s written. But what the letter consists of are a series of basically masturbational instructions for Sophie to follow, think about this, touch that, and so on. The kink is that, due to  Carrère’s precise planning of the whole affair, there would likely be a large number of people on the same train reading the same “story” as she read it… Toward the end he has her go to the cafe car, the trick being that anyone who was on the train and who got the timing right might well show up looking for this ostensibly sexually aroused woman following a publically published set of erotic instructions… And then who knows what happens after that…

It’s a bit parlor-trickish, isn’t it, and a kind of banal version of the sort of thing that you might expect from a biographer of Philip K. Dick. But there’s also something interesting about it, even if it’s not what Carrère thinks is interesting about it. He thinks that the story is about the performative function of language:

I like literature to be effective; ideally, I want it to be performative, in the sense in which linguists define a performative statement, the classic example being the sentence ‘I declare war’, which instantly means war has been declared. One might argue that of all literary genres, pornography is the one that most closely approaches that ideal: reading “You’re getting wet”, makes you get wet.

But of course he’s wrong about this, or not quite right. “I declare war” or “By the powers granted to me by the great state of New Jersey, I now pronounce you man and wife” are of a different nature than what he’s up to here. The problem is this: imperatives (“get wet”) or wishful descriptions (“bet you’re getting wet now”) are not phrases that are actions, they implore or anticipate action without of course necessarily having the power to provoke the action itself. That’s because the performative is about power – I just said “I declare war on South London” out loud in my kitchen, but as far as I can tell no bombs are falling on or around Clapham Common.

So he’s wrong. But actually he’s on to something interesting, even if he misunderstands what it is in part because he lacks the language that he needs to understand it. I’ve been working on and off for a year now on a theorization of something that I am calling aggregate fiction – here are some of the posts in that line. As Carrère’s story (and, if it works, Sophie) gets to the café car, it leaves behind the close attention to her subjective response to work with a broader character set. But look at how he establishes the shift:

In real life, a writer might sometimes see a stranger reading his book in a public place, but that doesn’t happen often; it’s not something you can count on. Quite a few passengers on this train certainly do read Le Monde, however. Let’s do the maths. France has 60 million inhabitants; Le Monde‘s print run is 600,000 copies; it’s readers thus represent 1 per cent of the population. The proportion of readers on the Paris-La Rochelle high-speed train on a Saturday afternoon in July must be much higher, and I’d be tempted to jump it up to 10 per cent. So we get roughly 10 per cent of the passengers, most of whom – because today have the time – will at least take a look at the short-story supplement, just to see. I don’t want to seem immodest, but the chances of these just-taking-a-look passengers reading all the way to the end hover in my opinion around 100 per cent, for the simple reason that when there’s ass involved, people read to the end; that’s how it is. So about 10 per cent of your fellow passengers are reading, have read, or will read these instructions during the three hours you will all spend on the train. […] There’s a one-in-ten chance – I’m probably exaggerating but not by much – that the person beside you is at this moment reading the same thing you are. And if not the person next to you, someone close by.

This is the sort of thing that I’m interested in. A shift of fictional attention from the deeply explored single (or coupled) subjectivities to the informed but ultimately intuitive anticipation of  statistically-aggregated subjectivities. The odds are that… It’s a way of changing the number of fiction without simply backing off into a panoptic wide-angled mass image. Neither simply the teeming crowd and its patterns, nor the classical bourgeois interiority, but an aggregation of anticipatory selves – educatedly guessed though never quite circumscribed. The scene that Carrère imagines at the conclusion of his piece – a group of random yet predictable Le Monde readers, assembled in the café car of the TGV to La Rochelle attempting to figure out which one was Sophie, then drifting off to masturbate singly yet also in the company (across closed toilet doors) of others who know the game that’s on – seems to me to be an anticipation of an alternative frame for fiction, one that does the math and then sketches out the probabilities. It’s not the performative so much as the probable, it forethinks assemblies of individuals rather than presumes the centrality of this or that self. Its characters are ghostly, futural beings, like the CAD people in real estate advertisements, there because they’re bound to be rather than simply because we suspend disbelief and learn to indulge ourselves in ourselves by solipsistic proxy.

The problem with aggregate fiction, this thing that I’ve been trying to describe for a year now, is that the actually existing examples are wonderful pieces of prose. Carrère’s story is tacky, a bit creepy, and generally bound to put people off rather than turn them on. Still, I’m going to keep cataloging what I find, in the hopes that I might be able to

* Some question in my mind why I shouldn’t simply scan the story in and freely distribute it to you – it’d be to every party’s benefit I’m sure. I could talk about it without extensive redescription, you could of course read it, but most importantly (from the legal-economic perspective) several hundred readers, probably none of whom I’m guessing (just as Carrère does with Le Monde) subscribe to Granta, would be introduced to the magazine as a possible source of interesting stuff to think about. The temporality of blog reading suggests that any sales the magazine accrues will come on future issues, not my readers sprinting to their local bookshop to buy the thing to read with my post now… Hmmm…. We’ll see what happens Monday… Granta editors feel free to permission me, if you see this, in the meantime…

Written by adswithoutproducts

April 10, 2010 at 2:28 pm

Posted in aggregate, fiction

handke / letraset

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Handke does advert-people a few times in TWoftheW:

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

Here’s another:

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

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

Written by adswithoutproducts

January 12, 2010 at 1:20 pm

Posted in ads, aggregate, fiction, handke

the frictional fiction of small differences

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

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

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

Written by adswithoutproducts

November 28, 2009 at 9:19 pm

Posted in aggregate, delillo, fiction

chance encounters

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Think I just, whilst having my 30th cigarette of the day down below my office *, broke the back of the last and hardest part of my book-in-revision. In mind if not yet on paper. It’s an analysis of one of my favorite scenes in literature, and just happens to be a scene about masturbation.  What’s there is based on an ancient piece I wrote, my first good publication, and I just now, ten years later and in an instant figured out how to make it fit properly.

Making it fit properly, by the way, involves an interesting expansion upon the text that gave this blog its name. **

How about a little help, though, to get me rolling. Scenes from modern literature – preferably say 1850 – 1940 – that feature signficant chance encounters. Baudelaire’s “A une passante,” Bouvard and Pécuchet on their parkbench, Leonard Bast and his umbrella and the Schlegel girls in Howards End, Peter Walsh seeing Septimus and Rezia on the parkbench in Regent’s Park (ah Regent’s Park) in Dalloway.

Now your turn, go on….

* I’ve been working too much (12 hour days, eight days in a row, in my office) and smoking too much while I do. Yesterday, a colleague knocked to chat, entered, and said in a knowing tone: ADS! You’ve been smoking in your office during reading week! I responded that it was just my disgustingly nicotine-inundated jacket hanging on the door. Embarrassing. Today I wore the only other light jacket I own, a sporty Adidas windbreaker, that just looks wrong in an academic setting and has been drawing wtf? stares from everyone all day. But I can’t worry about these things! I have a book to finish!

** UPDATE: Ha! I’d forgotten that I sneak my blogname into this chapter. Just came across this:

In the section of The Coming Community entitled “Without Classes,” Georgio Agamben, compares the life of “single planetary bourgeoisie,” who have inherited the world in the wake of the rise of capitalist modernity and the arrival of secular nihilism, to an ad without products. With the dissolution of diversity, social identity, and meaning, they are brought face to face with the “phantasmagorical vacuousness” of inauthenticity without end:

[T]he absurdity of individual existence, inherited from the subbase of nihilism, has become in the meantime so senseless that it has lost all pathos and been transformed, brought out into the open, into an everyday exhibition: Nothing resembles the life of this new humanity more than advertising footage from which every trace of the advertised product has been wiped out. The contradiction of the petty bourgeois, however, is obstinately trying, against all odds, to make their own an identity that has become in reality absolutely improper and insignificant to them. Shame and arrogance, conformity and marginality remain thus the poles of all their emotional registers. (62-3)

Just as Agamben’s post-historical actors go through the motion of acting out the ad, whistfully staring at the car in the garage (except there’s no car), ravenously devouring the entrée (except there’s no food on the plate), going to see the latest Hollywood blockbuster (except there’s nothing on the screen)…

…and then back to the lit text at hand. How tricky am I!

Written by adswithoutproducts

November 13, 2009 at 8:43 pm

Posted in fiction, joyce, modernism

hell 1: the end of therapy

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Infamously, there’s no appropriate time to quit psychoanalysis. Like heaven, there’s no polite means of egress: you either just keep going with it or you fall out of it through an act of disobedience.

The crisis that brought you to it in the first place has subsided, in part due to the work on the couch and in part because time passes and the world and you move on, but there you are, sitting on the self-same couch with ever less to say. On the way there for your morning sessions, you read novels on the train, say Peter Handke’s On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House, and you get blissfully caught up in the idea of rewriting Madame Bovary, except through the eyes of Homais, which seems to be in some part what Handke’s doing. The small town pharmacist and his everyday life, this time in Austria instead of Normandy but that only makes it better. And now it’s the pharmacist, rather than the randy wife of his neighbour, who is addicted to obsolescent romances.

You think the phrase: Madame Bovary, c’est Homais, aujourdhui. And admire, as the Circle Line pulls into Baker Street Station, both Flaubert and Handke immensely. You have found a new friend in the latter, and that is something, that is rare.

But then, in the five minutes that you have to walk from the station to the flat where your analyst has his office, you have to come up with something to say, some fodder for the 50 minutes. This week has been going well so far sounds, within the therapeutic context, like a lie and an incredible waste of money at once. It sounds like a lie because, within the therapeutic context, as is well known, everything’s OK, OK enough is even more deeply redolent of dysfunctional repression than, say, admitting to sniffing your mother’s high heels or having recurrent disturbing dreams about wolves sitting on the tree outside your bedroom.

You wish that you could just stop at a coffee place and give yourself another hour with the Handke. Instead, you ring the bell with nothing prepared, sit on the couch, and begin: This week has been going well, by and large…

Now, and here’s why I’m thinking I’ll quit, therapy, perhaps the most unnatural thing in the world, shares one trait with its verdant antagonist: it, too, abhors a vacuum. And so you dither around for a bit, wandering around the woods of your week of OKness, searching for half-hints of the older problems, the tailhook of crisis and fear. And of course, of course, eventually you find it and there you are back again conversationally reanimating the affective power of something that you’ve spent time and money and unpleasant thought neutralising.

Psychoanalysis, in this sense, suffers from the same infernal logic as narrative prose itself. Handke’s novel stays stuck in housewandering routines of its pharmacist for a bravely long time…. But then something happens, a crash and then the arrival of the fantastic or the projective. It happens, according to the mandates of form – the mandate that time gets formed into instants and events laden with significance – just as my sessions dive away from the depredations of the quotidian and back to my childhood home, the evental break points of adolescence and afterward.

The memoir that therapy would coauthor will accommodate chaos in the present and of course the miserable, belated epiphanies of childhood. But it has no page space for the soft depredations of the static present, of thoughtless animal scavenge, of the softly catastrophic status-quo.

Written by adswithoutproducts

August 9, 2009 at 7:26 pm

games for two played by one

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I confess that when I was a kid I was into Dungeons and Dragons. * Actually, really, the whole TSR line of games, and even some extra-TSR sets. Twilight 2000 was my last and longest and greatest love in this line.

In fact, I was something of a preternaturally precocious D&D expert, dragging my mother to the local bookshop to buy me a rulebook or module a week when I was, ahem, in the first and second grade. I actually remember one time the bookshop guy telling my mother that there was no way that I could want these things at my age, and half-refusing to sell them to me and her. I can’t remember how she responded, but I’m sure I got my book.

Anyway, problem was there was no one to play these things with. I was a bit early with them, so my friends were out of the question. (Seriously, this is not a story about my titanic genius. I was way smarter as a kid than I am as an adult. That’s what years of sports related concussions and long-term substance abuse – all of the legal varieties! – will do for you! Sad really! So that is absolutely not the point – you’ll see….) Plus, due to a sick mother and the fact that I was an only-child in the deracinated NJ suburbs, I spent lots and lots of time entertaining myself in my bedroom.

And so… I learned to play the games by myself. Which is, of course, if you know anything about RPGs, impossible. The basic setup, for the uninitiated, goes like this. Let’s presume that there are four players. Three of the players will be characters, and the other one will be what is called the dungeon master, or DM for short. The DM controls the scenario, she or he sets the backdrop, the scenarios that are encountered by the characters. You are in a small room with doors on three sides. Through the door on the left, you hear a low cackling. There is a box of tinder on the floor. The players who are characters make decisions about what to do within the scenarios devised by the DM. I choose to take the tinderbox and open the door on the right. There is a third element, that adds contingency to the whole show – the dice. Both the dungeon master and the characters, at different times, roll. The former does it to add an element of chance to the story that he or she is telling (if I roll five or higher, an ogre will bound from the door on the left….), and the latter use the dice to determine the outcome of chancy actions, such as fighting. (I need to roll a four or better to kill the goblin with my mace…)

I hope it’s apparent why it’s impossible to play these things by yourself – the person who is responsible for the suspenseful story is also, at the same time, the characters who are at the whim of suspense. You know what’s behind the door on the left while at the same time, for the game to work, you can’t know what’s behind the door at the left. It’s hard for me to remember how much I actually played these games, rather than simply reading through the modules (premade scenarios) and developing and equipping characters…. Probably not all that much. But the amazing thing is that whole swaths of my young life were given over to such fruitless and seemingly unfun endeavors.

That said…. What a strange but perfectly appropriate preparation for a life of reading, writing about, and writing for myself a bit of fiction. What better materialization of the strange psychological state that one has to enter into in order to write narratives – knowing, but not knowing, what’s behind the door, what awaits the character if she does A, B, or C. I am just now starting to think that everything I am interested in, deeply interested in, about fiction probably had its start with these games for two or more played by only one back in my bedroom. The intense mandate to generate the unexpected, combined with the sheer impossibility of actually making something happen that really is unexpected, as well as the bizarre god-like stature of the author, who, during the modern period, would do anything, would commit to any sophism about impersonality, in order for the game to go on the way it was intended – both of these things are vividly analogous to what I was doing when I was filling out character-sheets and rolling twenty-sided dice on a card table while sitting on my boyhood bed.

One does wonder, however, whether another path toward some other sort of fiction isn’t hidden behind the branches of my childhood loneliness. A collaborative sort of fiction, that puts the emphasis not on the dice, that old standby of the lazy avant-garde, but on the presence at the table of other people, people who are able and permitted to make their own decisions about what happens next. Both of the people that I am reading at the moment – Flaubert and Ballard – in their ways describe the writing of fiction as a sort of experiment, as a process bent on testing hypotheses and presuppositions. Perhaps a new type of fiction, a fiction aggregate not only thematically but also at the site of production, would benefit from the lessons that I learned back there, trying to make myself believe that I didn’t know what I knew right from the start, because I had read the book cover to cover before we even started to write it.

* Since there is a natural line on continuity and causality between D&D play and gothic dress, I just thought I might mention: had a conversation last week in which I asserted, as was confirmed in my assertion, that the most unthinkable thought in the world is the thought that pictures me as a goth. It is not, in fact, that I don’t like goths or ex-goths. It is simply an unthinkable thought. Probably has a lot to do with the fact that I was during my formative years a catholic school jock, though a reflective or even overly-reflective one, hellbent on getting off the field to smoke pot and write poetry (and escape my father’s menacingly disappointed gaze). I will, perhaps, say more about this in a later post.

Written by adswithoutproducts

June 30, 2009 at 12:09 am

Posted in aggregate, fiction

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

notes on the aggregate 1: letraset mirror-stage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by adswithoutproducts

May 25, 2009 at 8:31 pm


with 2 comments

If I could just figure out how to turn the computers and projectors on in my classrooms, I could have a lot of fun with this streetview stuff:

What’s strange is that I’ve walked past this house lots and lots of times. In fact, it’s a special street, a street that stands out from the rest around it for mysterious and non-mysterious reasons (the non-mysterious: because it runs right into Hampstead Heath, a particularly gorgeous part of it, the foot of Parliament Hill… I’ve shown you pictures before…)

Did I ever mention this to you? It’s rather nicely done. I wonder, though, what sorts of fun (but serious fun) of this sort one could have now that streetview’s come to London….

Written by adswithoutproducts

March 23, 2009 at 12:20 pm

Posted in fiction

fallen women and aggregate fiction

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John Bowen in the TLS on a new book about Urania College, a “refuge for fallen women” that Charles Dickens established in Shepherd’s Bush in the 1840s:

Hartley is fascinated by the lost “Casebook” in which Dickens recorded the stories of all the Urania women. They were obliged to tell him everything and, even if they sometimes lied or omitted things, it would still be an extraordinary document to read, for Dickens, we know, gained people’s confidence readily and was a deft and accurate reporter. Hartley has hunted widely, but the book probably went up in smoke in the great bonfire of his papers that Dickens lit one afternoon in the garden of Gad’s Hill. I think she overstates the case when she describes it as Dickens’s “ur-text, the book behind his other books” or posits that in filling it in he was writing “his sixteenth novel, but one he knew he could never publish”. She is on surer ground when she draws parallels between Dickens’s work at Urania Cottage and his own secret autobiographical writing. For, as he first imagined and then created the home for these young victims of bad parents or bad luck, he was also quietly exploring his own escape from childhood poverty and the street-life of nineteenth-century London. However different the successful and prosperous middle-aged novelist was from fifteen-year-old Emma Spencer, already a veteran of the Clerkenwell Workhouse and the Field Lane Ragged School when she arrived in Shepherd’s Bush, he also strongly identified with her and her kind. “A sloppy education”, he wryly confided to Miss Coutts, “is a kind of bringing up, that I think I can thoroughly understand.”

This is most clear in the dual obligation – storytelling, followed by silence – that marked the new beginning. Urania women were obliged to tell their story to Dickens but, once they had done so, were forbidden ever to refer to it again, either to each other, the staff at the home, or in their future lives. The parallel with the ways that Dickens handled his own family’s shameful secrets is striking. After John Dickens was freed from prison and the twelve-year-old Charles was released from Warren’s Blacking Warehouse, the Dickens family never spoke about the events again. His parents, Dickens wrote, were “stricken dumb upon it. I have never heard the least allusion to it, however far off and remote, from either of them”. He, by contrast, did tell the story but, like the Urania women, only to a single ear, that of his friend John Forster, who revealed nothing until after Dickens’s death. Telling the story once, then silence and a new start: for the Urania women, as for Dickens himself, a unique, taboo-breaking act of narration would act as a bridge to a new life.

All very thrilling, the proto-psychotherapeutic approach cum content-collection thing, the male author with notebook amid teenage fallen women (that he’s saving, that he’s transporting) thing.

But more pertinently, this semi-novelistic “Casebook” also would seem to provide one sort of model for the aggregate fiction (should I call it “aggregated realism”?) that I’ve been on about lately, no?

If I lived like Alain de Botton, I might might be tempted to throw myself into rewriting the Casebook as a historical novel at once accurate and blissfully anachronistic. It’s a fantastic idea, and if you have tons of free time, there – it’s yours. Credit me where the credits go. But given my lack of time (all that Dickens to teach, among many other things, all that other stuff to research), would be tempting in the shape of an updated and/or even dystopian model, that is if the dystopian genre hasn’t fizzled under the candlecap of the dystopia now were about to live through…

Written by adswithoutproducts

February 21, 2009 at 12:03 am

macroeconomic microfictions

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From a piece in the IHT about the effects of the crisis to Dubai:

With Dubai’s economy in free fall, newspapers have reported that more than 3,000 cars sit abandoned in the parking lot at the Dubai Airport, left by fleeing, debt-ridden foreigners (who could in fact be imprisoned if they failed to pay their bills). Some are said to have maxed-out credit cards inside and notes of apology taped to the windshield.

I’ve done a bit of digging around, and it looks like that number may be a wee bit high. (The total capacity of the lots at the airport is only 6,000 cars so, um, IHT wtf with the reporting?) Still, cars are being abandoned, and probably for the reasons mentioned in the article.

I’m wondering tonight why stories like this are so appealling to me. My attention is captured by events and circumstances that render macroeconomic events, trends, and circumstances visible. The cars serve as self-organizing isotypes, with the airport parking lot as a sort of living Gesellschafts- und Wirtschafts-Museum.

But there’s more to it than just that. The other thing that I love about articles like this one in the IHT has to do with the relationship between the aggregated image of the abandoned cars and the little journalistically-mandatory emblematic story about an individual caught up in the gears in her own generic but personal way. Here’s the start of the article I’ve linked to:

Sofia, a 34-year-old Frenchwoman, moved here a year ago to take a job in advertising, so confident about Dubai’s fast-growing economy that she bought an apartment for almost $300,000 with a 15-year mortgage.

Now, like many of the foreign workers who make up 90 percent of the population here, she has been laid off and faces the prospect of being forced to leave this Gulf city — or worse.

“I’m really scared of what could happen, because I bought property here,” said Sofia, who asked that her last name be withheld because she is still hunting for a new job. “If I can’t pay it off, I was told I could end up in debtors’ prison.”

Now, the gut stirring (not saying in an emotional sense, god, in a literarily appreciative sense, dare I even say secularly epiphanic sense) thing that happens is the wafting sense of there being a Sofia-story, almost the same, just a tiny bit different in each case, behind every one of these 3,000 (or however many, really) abandoned cars.

Someone told me recently that I shouldn’t write fiction about myself, people like myself, or even project myself in to characters based on people similar enough to me, like my father or my grandfather. They are right, totally right. What I want to do instead is to write something that approximates the macro / micro crosscut that I’ve just described. You might well want to say, “Sure Ads, that’s just realism!” But it’s not really. Realism, classically conceived and actualized, does no such thing, as it’s too wedded to the character, her/his individuality, and later his/her interiority to really achieve the effect I am talking about.

Perhaps I’ll make a post soon that talks about a few attempts at aggregated fiction. If you have suggestions for me to read, I’d love to hear them obviously.

I love / hate it when there’s a word that I want that doesn’t quite exist. (For instance, was thinking the other day that I want a word for “possession” or “possessiveness” from which the economic register has been surgically excised… But there is no such word…) I’d like a word that stands for something like the uncanny, except instead of the stuck dialectic of the familiar and the unfamiliar, my new word handle the stuck dialectic of the single and the aggregate. (Agamben’s whatever doesn’t quite cut it, though it’s close… Maybe it’s better in Italian, but in English it has that stupid Valley shrug and eyeroll to it… And that’s not the only problem…)

But basically the effect that I’d like to get to would be a smooth and subtle version of something like this: I’d like to tell the story of Sofia’s last day in Dubai, packing her suitcase and stuffing it into the back of her 3 series Beemer, dropping the keys to her overly-expensive flat in the mail slot of the building’s superintendent, driving to the airport and abandonning her car in the parking lot but then, through the magic of form, somehow push the story though some sort of calculator that converts it all to TIMES 3000, NOT QUITE BUT MORE OR LESS THE SAME.

In other words, and sure, in a continuation of many modernist narrative projects with which I am intimately, oh so intimately familiar, I’d like to work out a subtle, non-ostentatious form for the embodied generic, the lived aggregatation, the soft-spread typical.

Think after critical project X and critical project Y, and any actual fiction in between, the next one will be on just this.

Written by adswithoutproducts

February 13, 2009 at 11:48 pm

economists and bad fiction

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Why are economists into such bad fiction? Why do they so enthusiastically announce that they are? Is Stross to the soft neoliberals what Rand was to Greenspan and the like?

Do you know what’s funny to reconsider in exactly this light? Marx’s thing for Dickens. Shhhh. No I love Dickens. But you know, there’s a way to my jadedly modernist eyes that maybe, if you pull the covers around on the bed just the right way, there’s a commonality there.

In order for this to be about something other than being mean and elitistly snarky about bookjackets, I have to say something about the fiction itself, don’t I? What I would say would have something to do with the basic anticipation / fulfillment / frustration model of narrative form that I somewhat idiosyncratically have been carrying around ever since I was a wee litscholar.

Anyway, more, perhaps, to come, when less worked right to the brink of adieu.

Written by adswithoutproducts

January 24, 2009 at 4:45 am

Posted in economics, fiction

simple modernism

with 8 comments

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