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“history without life”: fernando pessoa’s book of disquiet and awp

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Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet is one of those books that has lingered at the front of the to-be-read pile for years and year. I dip in for twenty pages in a stolen moment, and then… it drifts back to the shelf waiting for another start.

I am delighted by Pessoa, but even more than delight it is probably recognition – the recognition of an orientation parallel to mine, of a project similar enough to one of my own projects (namely, the one that you are reading right now) – that informs this slow-motion compulsive pattern of starting and then leaving off, again and again, for probably something like a decade now. Take a look, for instance, at this passage which comes close to the start of the work:

I envy the people – well, I don’t know if I actually envy them – whose biographies are written or who write their own. In these disconnected impressions, which I deliberately leave disconnected, I shall narrate my autobiography in an indifferent sort of way, without facts; my history without life. These are my Confessions, and if I don’t say anything in them, it’s because I really have nothing to say.

What does it matter that someone confesses his worthiness or that he serves some useful purpose? What happens to us either happens to everyone or only to us: in the first instance, it’s banal; in the second it’s incomprehensible. By writing what I feel, I can cool this febrile sensitivity of mine. What I confess is unimportant, because nothing is important. I compose landscapes out of what I feel. I compose carnivals of sensations. I completely understand women who embroider out of grief or knit because life exists. My old aunt used to play solitaire during the course of infinite family gatherings. These confessions of feeling are my solitaires. I don’t read them, the way people read cards to know the future. I don’t put a stethoscope to them, because in solitaire the cards don’t really have any value. I unravel like a multicolored skein, or I make yarn figures out of myself that are like the ones braided by tense hands and passed from one child to another. I just take care that my thumb doesn’t miss making the final knot. Later I turn my hand over and the image changes. And I start over.

Comes very close – perhaps all too close, per what I said above – to the implicit, generally unconscious operating principle in place behind much of what I do here on this blog. ads without products started out, years ago, as a standard-issue editorializing site, commenting on the news, connecting the news with what I was reading, obliquely discussing my work, etc. But over the years, and I suppose because I’ve lived through what the shrinks call a transition crisis, the blog changed. As I went from grad student to assistant professor to lecturer, moved from America to Britain and before that from New York to somewhere else, and above all else fell abruptly from the prolonged adolescence of urban irresponsibility to the previously unimaginable heavy duties of parenthood, things changed and the blog became (for the most part – some of the old style stuff still trickles through) something else, something like my own book of disquiet.

Some very nice people have written me suggesting that there is a book scattered throughout these Sunday posts and the like. It’s a tempting thought, and incredibly heartening that they say so. (I’m well aware that there are others, if they’ve not long since gone away, who’d like nothing more than for me just to get back to the old stuff and think I’ve gone made with solipsism and the like). I’m working on a novel right now, a relatively conventional thing with a plot and characters and a setting, something that’s meant to be sold as literary fiction and sold to a publisher that publishes that sort of thing. There’s an incredibly optimistic thought at the back of my mind, a problematic thought whose optimism isn’t the worst of its problems. The thought is this: that if I were successful at publishing this novel, and maybe another like it, then I would free myself to work in unconventional forms, forms ranging from the sort of thing that I was up to here or some sort of Weight of the World style compendium of semi-fictionalized everyday life.

But of course I’m not stupid enough to think, down deep, that that plan really makes sense. No one, nowadays, earns themselves out of responsibility to the satisfaction of market demands, and the trajectory of most writers now suggests quite the opposite – with each work ever more vivid evidence of their fealty to the satisfaction of convention. This isn’t a personal failing on their part – it’s a structural attribute of the market and atmosphere in which we live. (The academic parallel is tenure, which of course is supposed to liberate American professors unto their own idiosyncrasies, but that’s is rarely the case. Having run the full race-track, 99 percent either collapse into mediocre unproductiveness or keep churning out more of the same stuff they’ve been pavlovianly stickn’carroted into doing to earn tenure).

So if I were smarter (I’m not sure whether “and braver” should be here or not), I’d just skip ahead to the formally challenging, market-resisting stuff that I’d like to do down the road, because neither success or failure the other way is particularly likely to open that door in the future. So what to do?

I’m not going to abandon the thing I’m working on because a) I keep doing that, three or four times with nearly complete manuscripts, and that’s starting to get really annoying if not super-deeply symptomatic and b) I like it OK, somedays and c) I’m 21,000 words in, which is quite a lot when you think about it. But I am also, this week, going to work on something semi-fictional and bloggic and with interesting images interspersed for another opportunity, one as exciting to me as anything else.

(For the record, this has not been a Sunday post, despite the fact that it is in fact Sunday morning, the traditional time of their composition. This was housekeeping, and like all housekeeping meta in the wrong way, meta with the wrong sort of banality….)

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June 27, 2010 at 8:46 am


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If you have access, through school or subscription, to the New Left Review, go take a look at this from John Berger in 1974. It’s a selection from The Seventh Man – an extraordinary book…

Or there’s Owen’s brilliant piece on Moscow from Archinet (William Gibson likes it – I think you will too…)

Joshua Clover gives us an excellent read on war in recent movies in his new Film Quarterly column. Here’s the final bit, compact and perfect, on Children of Men.

What is there to see, then? Formalism, one supposes— remembering that form itself is no more able to stand apart from history than the eye can stand apart from what it re- gards. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006) has an annoying plot, with dud intriguing and an empty messianism. But its look, its way of looking, repay such annoyances and then some: the gray and permanent state of emergency; the acts of terror demoted to the background, quotidian and near- banal; the sensation of quarantine that extends, unnamed, in all directions.

The war of all against all has perhaps never been better filmed than in the prolonged escape through the warrens and streets of Bexhill camp, redolent of Guantanamo and Long Kesh, of Abu Ghraib reenactments. There’s no order because there’s no cause, just as there’s no cause offered for the biological crisis; it’s all simply become a way-things-are, some endgame of imperial decline. The camera, red smear on lens, shifting subtly between over-the-shoulder and POV, doesn’t know where to look. Everyone’s shooting at everyone. It moved me, to paraphrase the poet Robert Creeley about Bresson, that life was after all like that. You are in war. You race through the town, with blood on your eye, burdened. The story is true.

Chabert’s had some good ones lately. “Consider the use of cartoons, photographs, and anonymous letters which will have the effect of ridiculing the New Left. Ridicule is one of the most potent weapons which we can use against it”: 

On the other hand, Matthew Yglesias has been seemingly bent on becoming a one-guy example of the young Thatcherite pundit class growing up all around us on-line:

With the proviso that I don’t know much about UK economic history, it’s clearly the case that despite the personal and ideological linkages between Thatcher and Reagan they were operating from very different baselines. It can easily both be the case that the UK in the late 1970s was too far left on the main issues being debated at that time and that the United States in the late 2000s is too far right on the main issues being debated at the moment. After all, even after Thatcher Britain has a health care system that’s so statist virtually nobody on the American left will defend it.

Hmmm… Let’s try another post.

Related to the inequality post below, one thing that bugs me about the way liberals often approach these issues is a tendency to get bogged down into picayune controversies about exactly why inequality has exploded. Was it the skill-biased technological change? Were CEOs underpaid in the past? Can we blame globalization? In truth, while these are all interesting questions, in terms of politics and policy they take a back seat to debates over remedies which often lack a tight relationship to the debates over causes.

Oftentimes, though, liberals act as if the thing that needs to be done is to prove somehow that inequality has exploded because people are in some sense “cheating” — so you get these long stories about corporate governance and corrupt compensation committees, etc

Or… this tendency on the part of liberals might just have something to do with the fact that ninety percent of American cars feature a bumper-sticker on the rear bumper of their SUV that reads “You can pry my neoclassical economic assumptions out of my cold dead fingers. Unemployment, poverty, and sinking wages are not and have never been a structural effect of a gamed economic system. Rather, in the land of free and the home of the brave, the only thing that changes is the laziness of the poor (generally increasing, despite the cattle prods) and the superiority of the meritocrats (earned, not made…)”

Too bad Yglesias didn’t go MD instead of Doctor of Centrist Chatter. All that aspirin for mysterious swellings, blood in the stools, could have saved a lot of people a lot of money. Why waste time with diagnosis when there are over-the-counter remedies to dispense?

You want more? How about this truly provocative piece from Lauren Berlant – so provocative, in fact, that CI has made it free to all comers. I’m going to have more to say about this, I hope, soon enough.

Finally, how about this story from Tim Burke.

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October 12, 2007 at 11:29 pm

Posted in housekeeping

neither ads nor products

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Sorry that I’ve been off my pace lately here. More is coming, I promise. But it might not be immediately. I have a very large and time-sensitive writing project that I need to bring to some sort of a firm stop by Wednesday or so. And there’s – of course – all the end of semester wrapping-up to do. And then I’ll be on vacation for two weeks. Which takes us to the beginning of June. If I can get access and time, I’ll likely throw some stuff up while I’m away…

Just don’t give up on me – I’ll be back.

For now, you can go visit the little conflagration I’ve started over on LS….

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May 14, 2007 at 12:38 am

Posted in housekeeping

tell me about it

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Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 146:

Like desk-bound white-collar workers whose ancestors were artists of an inferior level of form, their unconscious whispers in their ears that the utmost is not possible for the little men that they are; yet the utmost is nevertheless the law of form of what they undertook to do.

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January 8, 2007 at 12:41 pm

Posted in housekeeping

not the best newyearseve

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OK. So I’m going through one of those nights when I feel like academia as a whole is a ridiculous, bullshit enterprise. Like why the fuck does one bother? Of course the answer is that there’s no way to do any of this any other way and still, you know, keep yourself in coffee and cigarettes. Or at least there’s no way to press pause, try doing all of this some other way, and then resume playback when it’s not panned out.

Actually, I have something of a tic – sure I’m not alone in this – that when I receive news that suggests that the academic career is going well, I throw myself into my academic work. When the opposite happens, I open up the file that contains my “novel,” and at least think about what it would be like to type away at it.

Tonight, I’m betwixt and between. Not sure whether to throw myself into Barthes’s lecture on the Neutral or stare at the blinking cursor in the novel doc.

It’s awful and petulant to complain. It really is. Things aren’t so bad. I have a graduate seminar to start teaching in a few weeks. It’s my second graduate seminar in as many years. That means things are good, right? On an entirely different level: I eat, I am sheltered, my child eats, we have tons and tons of shit to keep us occupied. But but but but but petulantly, crazily: I miss Brooklyn. This is horrible, stupid.

Perhaps I should become a Major Confessional Blogger or something. I met one this week, sat next to her as she ate dinner, went outside with her to have a cigarette… She was quite excellent, I must say. Absolutely lovely, she was. How many would go and how many would stay if I made this, in its entirety, about my quest to return to Brooklyn or thereabouts rather than, you know, snarky half-coherent comments about youtube videos and the like, I wonder….

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January 1, 2007 at 12:38 am

Posted in housekeeping

in my place…

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..put there. I deserve it, and actually really need it. Healthy for this sort of thing to happen. Really. It is. No, seriously, I can take it.

So I just now received an email from one of my undergrads, an exchange student, which I skimmed rather quickly, sniffing out the part where she says that one of my former students “told [her] that [my] class is really wonderful,” and that’s why she enrolled.

Hmmpf. But of course. You know, I try. Glad that they’re paying attention, glad that it registers, my enthusiasm and, well, wonderfulitude.

A minute or so later, I get another email from said exchange student. Apparently, the previous message was meant for one of my colleagues. No problem – we all make mistakes. I should have read it more closely. But on further inspection, sifting down to search out mention of my wonderfulness, I find, in the equivalent position in the new message, the fact that my former student “told [her] that [my] class is not that hard.”

Hmmpf. Err. OK. Yes, I try. I try very hard… not to be hard. Glad that it, um, registers…

Thanks, former student.

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September 4, 2006 at 12:41 am

Posted in housekeeping

oh, to be in england…

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…at the Huggies ® Big Scream showing of Atomised.

(via Infinite Thought)

Actually, there are days and nights when I’d give, well, a lot for just a day+night long vacation back in the realm of deracinated empty consumption society so dystopianized by Houellebecq. You know, soulless wanderings around expensive-land, jaded participation in the evermore banal pursuits of young professional types, creatives, in the sterile and homogenized big city. Today is one of those days. Teething, low-grade fever, an overheated birthday party, too hot to go for a proper walk, stuck in the house, nothing to do outside anyway.

Or, in other words, I’ll betcha those britmoms and britdads were exercising a bit of Certeavian differentially productive consumption at the Huggies screening, poaching on the unbearable emptiness of their yesterdays.

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July 29, 2006 at 10:11 pm


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Someone over on Long Sunday claims that I’m against frivolity. He might be right, or have been, but just to prove him wrong in the present, here’s the adswithoutproducts travel section for this week…


1) Radisson Hotel Admiral Toronto-Harbourfront


Did the job. Staying down on the waterfront might be a little lame, but not so much with a 1 year old, when tons of semi-interesting, but not overwhelming stuff within a few blocks is very helpful. The pool, we tried it twice – the little one loves to swim – but it was too damn cold, both the water and especially the air-temperature, to last for long.

I think both my wife and I had for the first time the unlovely experience of feeling middle aged and out of shape when confronted by a pile of 22 year old girls, bikinied, sunning by the pool. Before the baby, somehow we still felt, well, youngish. Not so much any more. Mid-life crises to ensue shortly.

Best thing about this place for us: the bathrooms were huge enough to stow the encribbed baby at night in there. Now, look. If you don’t have kids, that’s going to sound a bit horrible, I know. But otherwise, lovely vacation hotel night comes with a 7:05 bedtime for everyone. Which is, well, only eight hours early for me.

2) Pages Bookstore, 256 Queen Street West


Absolutely perfect. God. I have terrible luck in the places that I live with bookstores. Brooklyn was atrocious, and New York City in general is pretty much crap considering that it’s like a moderately important city. This Pages store in Toronto is very close to my idea of the perfect bookstore. Fantastic magazine selection, fantastic display tables – one marked “Cultural Theory,” if memory serves. Smart staff – chatted with one not only about the kid’s book I’d bought, but also City of God – the original novel – which just came out in Canada, but isn’t due in the US until the end of September.

So I bought:

Paulo Lins, City of God

Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life (also not yet available in the US)

David Harvey, Paris: Capital of Modernity

and of course:

Whybrow and Scheffler, The Tickle Book

3. Art Gallery of Ontario

…was friggin confusing. I mean the layout. Hard to find any art galleried there. They were both, um, rebuilding the place and between exhibitions. And it was free. But still.

And can someone explain why I can’t carry a tote bag into the museum while checking my stroller, but I am fully permitted to put the same bag into the stroller and push it through the museum? There must be a logic to this.

There was a cool exhibit that kids could play with…

To be continued, maybe…

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July 2, 2006 at 11:22 pm

Posted in housekeeping