Archive for the ‘form’ Category
I sometimes wonder whether we’re not all getting Knausgaard wrong. It’s not the non-impersonality of it that matters, perhaps. It’s the essayism. The fact that he feels free to slip from narrative into essayistic prose more or less at will. Many of the parts that we tend to remember most vividly are from the essayistic portions. Or, to put it another way, imagine what the texts would be like if they left the essayistic material out – if they were straight “memoir.”
But the second question, then, is what the difference is between this “essayism” that I’m describing and “old fashioned” nineteenth-century narration, the sort that we find in Dickens and Eliot for example. If this were the case, then we’ve just slid backwards, back past the innovations of Flaubert and his progeny, into a space of the wisdom-imparting storyteller, and into a realm where the narrative characters simply play out a morality tale as a backdrop to the droning play-by-play of the authorial announcer.
I’ve just, however, come across an interesting reframing of the issue in Milan Kundera’s 1983 interview with the Paris Review. In the course of discussing the polyphonic nature of Hermann Broch’s writing, the interview asks about an “essay” that is inserted into Broch’s The Sleepwalker.
You have doubts about the way it is incorporated into the novel. Broch relinquishes none of his scientific language, he expresses his views in a straightforward way without hiding behind one of his characters—the way Mann or Musil would do. Isn’t that Broch’s real contribution, his new challenge?
That is true, and he was well aware of his own courage. But there is also a risk: his essay can be read and understood as the ideological key to the novel, as its “Truth,” and that could transform the rest of the novel into a mere illustration of a thought. Then the novel’s equilibrium is upset; the truth of the essay becomes too heavy and the novel’s subtle architecture is in danger of collapsing. A novel that had no intention of expounding a philosophical thesis (Broch loathed that type of novel!) may wind up being read in exactly that way. How does one incorporate an essay into the novel? It is important to have one basic fact in mind: the very essence of reflection changes the minute it is included in the body of a novel. Outside of the novel, one is in the realm of assertions: everyone’s philosopher, politician, concierge—is sure of what he says. The novel, however, is a territory where one does not make assertions; it is a territory of play and of hypotheses. Reflection within the novel is hypothetical by its very essence.
This might be a place to start for an answer about the specific difference of Knausgaard’s writing – and the sort of writing that I am most interested in reading now. Essayistic, in parts, to be sure. But essayistic in a sense that the essay itself turns “fictional” – isn’t the “ideological key” of the novel but rather an utterance on the same level of “truth” as the narration in which it is submerged.
What else does the novel, by the very nature of its elemental form, teach us than that there is some relation, or at least should be, between our internal subjective states and the world in which we move. Foreground / background. Protagonist / context. Romance / history. The family / the city. Wires run between the one to the other, from the outside in and back again. Almost every name of a novelistic subgenre or period movement (realism, naturalism, modernism, postmodernism, to name just a few of the recent ones) names a different mode of wiring. Shifts in genre represent new ideas about how to write the machine. How tangled or untangled it is, how many wires run hither and how many yon, what buttons there are to push to control the voltage and wattage of the link up, how much bandwidth in total is carried.
Has there ever been a “terrorist attack” as uncanny as the one that happened yesterday in Woolwich? And uncanny is the right word – utterly familiar (tropes of beheading, tropes of “bringing the fight back to the oppressor,” the visibility of violence) yet at the same time utterly not (the refusal of both escape or self-immolative martyrdom, the implicit invocation of the laws of war when it comes to “innocent bystanders,” the further refusal to “let the event speak for itself,” or be spoken for by leadership organisations far away and ex post facto, or through pre-recorded statements aired after the event, and the immediate extinguishing of the fear of further attacks, at least by the same actors, as per Boston). With this one, we seem to slip from the genre called “terrorism” to something else: a gruesome morality play about the calculus of war, the algebra of carnage. Street theatre allegory that trades the fake blood for the real.
So was it the “genre shift” that explains the strange reactions of the bystanders who observed the attack and its aftermath? Women reportedly ran over, in the course of the attack itself, to attempt to help the dying or dead soldier, thinking that the three actors in this play were rehearsing an all-too-common everyday scene we call “a car accident.” Who was it, and why was it, that someone stayed to film a man whose arms were drenched in blood, who carried a knife and a cleaver in his left hand, while he delivered his final soliloquy? What to make of these recorded conversations between the killers and their audience?
Is there a better answer than that a genre had been disrupted or reinvented, and thus the rules that normal apply (murders try to escape, bystanders flee, etc) were unavailable for consultation?
Genre is also another name for myth. While it sometimes postures as science, it has far more in common with superstition. Throw salt over your shoulder, and lucky will occur. One character says something, the other, naturally, touches wood. We now, in our pharmacologically-lexiconed period, are far more likely to call superstitious practices the symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. One has to check, and check again, that the water’s not running in the bathroom before one leaves the flat. Push hard three times on the front door to make sure it’s locked… or else another storyline will ensue, the one that has an evening return to a gaping door, the laptop gone, the bedroom drawers dumped. This is literally it – some sort of chemical depletion or superfluity occurs, some traumatic event takes place, and then an almost mystical belief in certain irrational storylines takes over. To disobey the mandates of genre is to open oneself to an unhappy ending.
Last night: this news-story. On television and especially on the web. Fraught conversations about the arithmetic of death. And then a phone call. Bad news of the sort that late night phone calls usually bring. The trope of the middle-aged son and the ailing parent. The novel teaches us to think of the one thing as related, if complex, to the other. At least metaphorically, or even just formally. What is happening out there of course is a prelude to what is about to happen right in here, in the space of the family home and especially the skulls (and bodies) of those that inhabit it.
Think of the script. The call in the night in the movie. The early middle-aged son who ignores the call momentarily, caught up as he is in an argument about the gruesome news on television. The politics of violence, the physics of the world system. The cigarette whose space allows a second thought, a second glance at the mobile phone. Ominous – we can imagine what will happen next. The film that will play out from its start in a graphic sequence of news images morphs into a dark family drama. How does one cope when the worst comes home to roost?
A fallacy (a word quite close to “myth” and “superstition”) that doesn’t have a name, one that is hardwired into the DNA of the novel as a form. I’ve tried to name it in things that I’ve written, in seminars that I’ve led. Sometimes it seems to have more to do with temporality. What happens after what, or at the same times as each other. We could call it presumptive fallacy. Retro-prospective fallacy. The fallacy of coincidence. Sometimes it’s simply about the structural mandate that the foreground be read in the light of the background and vice versa. Contextual fallacy? Flaubert, disrupter through over-fulfilment of so many genre mandates, so early in the game, was aware of the problem. Think of Frédéric waiting for Madame Arnoux while the revolution kicks off a few blocks away in L’Éducation sentimentale. The New Critics liked to label fallacies on the part of the reader. I am more interested in the fallacies inherent in artistic forms themselves, even though obviously these can turn into the former and often do through the sort of training that novels provide.
But of course, myths are also true in a very serious sense. I don’t simply mean that what we believe we are. What we think is the only thing there is. Although that may well be true. In this case, it is also useful to think of myth or superstition or even fallacy as a customary practice, a mode of operation, running orders against confusion. The world, as we know, lives out the demands of its many operative genres every single day. Perhaps now as much as ever. A myth is habitus, generated by practice, an operating manual written and re-written each time we act.
The novel makes us stupid in one sense, solipsistic, tends to make us look for our angle on things, what does this mean to us? What were the attackers yesterday, in both his words and deeds, and deeds both during and after the attack, trying to say to me? Or at least us? There is a counter-instinct, for those disciplined a certain way, to try to climb up the ladder of transcendent wisdom, to disavow the inwrought narcissism of our conditioned response. To gasp and yell when the news commentators reduce a global to a local question, an a serious question to a matter of insanity or unanchored spite. They might think what they want, but they have no right to act it out here. To force us into these stringent attempts to adjust the genre back to something we’re comfortable with.
But the attempt to climb out of the fray of self-interest, however complex, however Wallace-ianly convoluted and self-reflexive, is of course a trope in yet another sort of story, another sort of myth, one that – we need to remind ourselves – has the deepest affinities with an imperial mindset, one that takes the world panoptically, one for whom impersonality is a transferable skill.
What retards political development – and really contemporary thought as a whole – more right now than an inability to come to terms with the relationship between the self, located wherever it might be, and the world-system as a whole? At least here where we are? What are we, sequestered in the posh uptowns and suburbs of the global system, meant to think or say when we are in the wrong jurisdiction? We know not to fall into the ethical mode, charity is of no use, but there may be an exitless cloverleaf, a highway cul de sac, ahead if
Despite all the complicities of the novel, these generic demands and the demands of its sub-genres, the promise remains that the bad faith strictures themselves make space for revelatory manipulation, clarifying detournage. They even, potentially, lead us toward the formulation of simpler questions, question more pressing in their semi-solipsistic simplicity. Like this one, that with the little revision, some shifts in seemingly inevitable consequence, the script I outlined above could be made to ask:
Who has to die in the prime of life, and who is afforded the luxury of death that comes at an actuarially appropriate stage?
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.
(I’d like to quote it, but it would have to be in full, which isn’t good blog form, so go look and maybe come back…)
Now, I haven’t much to add except this: the trick of course is to figure out what to do with the symmetry. What does it matter that poetry imitates price or price poetry or that there’s an inadvertent or atmospherically determined correlation between the two. I ask because this is exactly the sort of thing that I am trying to clarify in my own stuff right now. And in fact, a clarification of this would be a clarification perhaps of the point of the study of literature today (as broadly or narrowly as you’d like to think “today”). And perhaps further (and more importantly) it might also be a clarification of the point of literary creation when aimed toward any end other than airballing polemical delivery or obsolescent content provision. Hmmm…. Art as social heiroglyphic where we can read what can’t be read (or can it) elsewhere, but if we can read it elsewhere, why bother with the detour? Or form appears in the art more clearly than elsewhere – because everywhere else the seamstitches are hidden and the statues seem to be balanced, free-standing?
I’d love to hear what Jane thinks, but it’s perhaps not a conversation that one has in a comment box.
I think if I could figure this out, or at least feel as though I’m on my way to figuring something out about this, I could work again as I used to…
Fénéon’s three-line news items, considered as a single work,
represent a crucial if hitherto overlooked milestone in the history of
modernism. Even as the entries are obsessively handcrafted, the work is
in a sense the first readymade. It heralds the age of mass media, via a
sensibility formed by the cadences and symmetries of classical prose;
forecasts a century of statistics, while foregrounding individual
quotidian detail; invites speed of consumption, while manifesting
time-consuming labor of execution. It recognizes its own transience but
does not concede to it. It savors the ironies of chance without
fabricating a moral agency to explain them, but never shies from
properly attributing the consequences of power, greed, and stupidity.
Like the work of certain photographers it is dispassionate sometimes to
the point of cruelty, but by the same token, respecting its readers, it
does not package a facile response for them. It is a dry bundle of
small slivers of occurrence that lie beneath history, but it represents
the whole world, with all of its contradictions.
The relationship between the form of these three-liners and the political-historical context that Sante evokes is worth thinking more about.
(Also worth looking at in the current NYRB: John Gross’s piece on William Empson’s letters – unfortunately not free like the one above. Somehow, the story of his rather long, well, dalliance isn’t the right word for it – advocacy of Mao and his China are a story that we missed when I studied him as a student…)
The word “trope” is one of those little dialectic-at-a-standstill words that we literary types love: it means both what it means and the opposite of what it means at once. Etymologically, it is a “turn,” a change of direction. But we use it to indicate something static, sclerotic – something rigidified into a cliché, a token for thoughtless circulation. Combined, we get an all-too-expected dynamism, a movement that follows the path of expectation such that we wonder whether “movement” was the right word from the start. This is why we love to use the word to describe the narrative form bad movies – a trope of the horror genre etc. Something happens, but it is the same thing that always happens…
On CNBC’s main page, there are three columns: from the left, we have “Top Stories” (which looks like an RSS feed, with the top story blurb previewed, then we have a column of stock indexes and their red or green arrows, and finally a column (that you ignore) of ads for upcoming tv shows and links to video content.
I am interested, right now in the first column, the News one, and in particular the little snippet preview of the top story, which during US business hours is almost always about the performance of the market right now. I’ve kept a little text document on my desktop where I clip the previews in as I read them. Here’s a few that I’ve compiled over the past few days:
Stocks turned lower again after rallying on the Fed’s move to add more money to the banking system. “You had a psychological bounce off of 13,000 (in the Dow),” said Patrick Fay of DA Davidson. “Personally I think its being overdone and every talking head is talking about the end of the world but the reality is that it’s not.”
Stocks remained lower in the final hour of trading but were well off their worst levels of the day. “Ultimately the system is strong and the ECB and Fed are there to support the market if need be,” said Jason Trennert of Strategas Research Partners.
Stocks fell to the lowest levels of the day amid anxiety about the credit markets and a weak earnings outlook from Wal-Mart. “We’re seeing a mini-panic, which is symptomatic of a market that is finding a bottom,” said Michael Metz of Oppenheimer.
Stocks seesawed as declines in basic materials shares offset gains in financials as the Federal Reserve added more funds to the banking system. “I think we might have a little bit more on the downside but we might be close (to a bottom),” said Steve Massocca, co-chief executive officer at Pacific Growth Equities. “I think it’s a good time to put money to work.”
It is as if they are written by a computer, compiled by an algorithm like the one that organizes the Google News page. Bleak data followed by semi-optimistic quote from a trader or analyst. It is just a trivial thing, a stylebook efficiency that keeps the jobber who generates the news bubbles in-line, but it is also the enactment – and perpetual reenactment of a tiny little story line, where the cold winds of the impersonal figures (who stand in for the place that “nature” used to play in the story we tell ourselves) are met and matched, are faced, by the solitary and heroic human being, his ability to see behind and above and around the numbers – and, above all, his own narrative sensibility, his sense of how stories like this one, the storyline we sometimes call “creative destruction,” go. Sundown, sunup – after bloodletting, regrowth. Of course it is just an effect of the sort of market cheerleading that is the raison d’être of CNBC – which spends far more time selling its viewers the market to its viewers than reporting on what the market is actually doing. But it is also an example of the tiny storylines, the little gnomic tropes, that run the world now, or at least try to. We find them everywhere – in the political sphere, the employment market, and of course in the realm of the geopolitical (“they only understand one thing, force” and the like…)
As we all know, however, form becomes most meaningful in its breakdown. This is a lesson that the modernists didn’t invent, but which they intensified, brought to the center of our understanding of how art works and how it means.
Look back at the capture I’ve inserted above. Apparently, today, the guy who writes the blurbs wasn’t able to find a sunny human on the trading floor to complete his preformatted narrative arc.. Look at the blank space there in the image, the empty spot where the rest of the story is supposed to be… A full four or five lines of text missing…
Stock indexes are sharply lower following worse than expected housing data, more troubles for Countrywide Financial and as traders have accelerated unwinding yen carry trades.