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From a nifty piece on the Czechoslovak Month of Books:

The Month of Books event was designed to demonstrate the harnessing of the written word in the service of Communist doctrine. The Month of Books was targeted above all at select population groups where “ideological growth” could be expected. The youth, peasants, and workmen were to be remoulded and remade into politically mature comrades devoted to the Socialist regime. By establishing the post of literary adviser, the state apparatus secured access to workplaces. Factories, foundries, schools, and other institutions became venues for exhibitions, literary discussions, and other cultural events. Milos Vantuch, former head of the central library at the Klement Gottwald New Foundry, gives a detailed account of one such discussion:

The book, The Basics of the Coking Industry, authored by Kozina and Pisa, two excellent experts, has become available on the market. It is written in a very readable form so that almost all employees of the coke plant will be able to study it thoroughly. These are the reasons we chose this book for the discussion. How did we organise the discussion? The operational library of the coke plant provided us with the names of all those who had borrowed the book and we visited them personally in their workplaces. We discussed the book with them and asked their opinion. They also agreed to present their views as contributions to the discussion. We explained to them the significance and importance of the fact that they themselves would present their contributions. […] The discussion was very interesting. Its course was as follows: […] comrade Cejka opened the discussion and asked engineer Splichal to host it. The first person to enter the discussion was comrade Kormanec, blast-furnace foreman. In his opinion, the book lacks information on the water consumption per tonne of coke when quenching in the coke-quenching tower. He also mentioned the difficulties of switching from coke gas to blast-furnace gas. […] At the end of the talk, professor Kozina took the floor and, speaking on behalf of his co-author, said that they were very content with the results of the discussion and warmly thanked the organizers. The talk began at 14:40 and ended at 17:10. 65 comrades, both men and women, took part; there were 22 contributions to the discussion.”

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Written by adswithoutproducts

April 6, 2007 at 1:55 am

Posted in literature, socialism

decadent, inhuman…

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Wow. A roundtable on the “Condition of the Novel” from a 1965 issue of NLR. I’ve only read the Robbe-Grillet contribution so far. He’s getting, here, a bit testy with the commies:

The comparison which has been made during this conference between the novelist and the airline pilot is no more than a joke. The novel is not a means of transport, it is not even a means of expression—by which I mean that it knows in advance the truths or the questions which it sets out to express. The novel, for us, means search which does not even know what it is searching. The pilot of course must know where his passengers are bound, and the shortest route; The writer by definition does not know where he is going. And so, if I had absolutely to answer the question of why I write, I would simply say: ‘I write to try to understand why I feel the desire to write.’

But what seems most scandalous to us, is to find the socialist camp sharing the illusions of the bourgeois world, about the political power of art, sharing the same cult of obsolete artistic forms, the same language in which to couch its criticism, and in the end the same values.

‘Decadent’ you say? In relation to what? ‘Inhuman’? Isn’t it rather your conception of man which needs revivifying? It is understandable that bourgeois critics in the West persist (although more timidly than you) in defending literary forms which embody for them the golden age of the novel and of the propertied class. But what we find bizarre is that you are fighting the same cause, and that you can talk about innocent and natural writing when Gustave Flaubert began to have doubts about this in 1848.

You accuse us of ‘formalism’, but it is the literary form that expresses a work’s true meaning; and we know precisely that the forms which you advocate are representative of a world which you are supposed to be fighting.

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Written by adswithoutproducts

December 14, 2006 at 8:25 am

serving size

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From an interesting interview with Geoff Manaugh, the guy behind BLDGBLOG, at Ballardian.

Ballard’s book don’t sell well in the U.S., but that’s entirely a top-down problem. I think the American publishing industry is in a state of free-fall, marketing all the wrong books in all the wrong ways. Trying to market Ballard would never occur to them. They want to sell people John Updike novels in hardcover — despite the fact that no one wants John Updike novels, and hardcover books are completely obsolete as a format. So they ‘experiment’ by publishing 900-page hardcover epics about farm life in 1920s Nebraska — and then still seem surprised that no one’s reading fiction in this country.

Short, good, fairly priced, intellectually progressive paperback books — that’s all you need.

Just so. If, seriously, I can’t bring myself to read those monsters – and I’m a professional for god’s sake, who exactly do they think will?

Xmas presents, xmas presents, and stuff for pretentious college-aged New Yorker readers… But not for immediate and actual consumption…

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Written by adswithoutproducts

November 12, 2006 at 11:38 pm

Posted in literature, marketing

extension du domaine de la lutte

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(Crossposted from Long Sunday, where I’m taking part in a symposium on democracy

I’m a bit daunted, now, by the passage that I breezily told Angela I’d deal with for this symposium. It’s from E.M. Forster’s Howards End (1910), and it deals with a central character of the work – or, better, a character whose centrality to the work is very much the question, the issue, at play.

Leonard Bast is 21 when the novel opens, something of a would-be social and intellectual climber, an auto-didact, who has somehow pinned himself on to the Schlegel sisters, who fascinate him as avatars of cultural capital and unearned income. (The “umbrella” in the passage below refers to an embarrassing incident, fraught with class-anxiety, that occurs when Leonard first meets the sisters…)

The boy, Leonard Bast, stood at the extreme verge of gentility. He was not in the abyss, but he could see it, and at times people whom he knew had dropped in, and counted no more. He knew that he was poor, and would admit it: he would have died sooner than confess any inferiority to the rich. This may be splendid of him. But he was inferior to most rich people, there is not the least doubt of it. He was not as courteous as the average rich man, nor as intelligent, nor as healthy, nor as lovable. His mind and his body had been alike underfed, because he was poor, and because he was modern they were always craving better food. Had he lived some centuries ago, in the brightly coloured civilizations of the past, he would have had a definite status, his rank and his income would have corresponded. But in his day the angel of Democracy had arisen, enshadowing the classes with leathern wings, and proclaiming, “All men are equal–all men, that is to say, who possess umbrellas,” and so he was obliged to assert gentility, lest he slipped into the abyss where nothing counts, and the statements of Democracy are inaudible.

It’s an interesting passage, very tough to pin down the narrator’s tone here, the degree of affiliation or remove from Bast’s own sense of things. Our first response might be that Forster says Democracy when he really means Capitalism. This anxiety that haunts Bast, the necessity of constantly scrambling, constantly reinforcing the foundations of the self, lest he slip into the “abyss” is not, of course, a matter of political self-representation or governmental organization, but rather a matter of market forces, economic liberalism, and individual gumption. Or, if were more politically charitable to Forster, then he means us to hear the euphemistic usage of the word Democracy as euphemistic. And then there is the reactionarily nostalgia, ironized or not, for “the brightly coloured civilizations of the past.” It is true, even if it doesn’t mean all that much, that were Leonard born under pre-democratic / capitalistic feudalism, he at least wouldn’t have suffered from this anxiety about the abyss – either in it or not, but no nervousness about climbing and falling. And, it follows, why leathern wings, exactly? The angel of democracy, as it grants the ability to fly, also turns the classes satanic, naturally unnatural?

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Written by adswithoutproducts

July 20, 2006 at 12:55 am

Posted in literature

discipline

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An article that gets written all the time, a sentiment that never stops circulating, sifted out of always-on archives of cliché and delivered over for your perusal here.

Digest version: becoming a professional Englisher alienates you from the things that brought you to the business in the first place.

We’ve heard.

Benton polls his undergrads, most grad school bound, on why they love the lit:

They were all considering graduate school, but their answers had little to do with what I knew they would need to write in their application essays. Sitting in a circle in the grass, backed by purple hydrangeas, they offered the following motives:

Formative experiences with reading as a child: being read to by beloved parents and siblings, discovering the world of books and solitude at a young age.

Feelings of alienation from one’s peers in adolescence, turning to books as a form of escapism and as a search for a sympathetic connection to other people in other places and times.

A love for books themselves, and libraries, as sites of memory and comfort.

A “geeky” attraction to intricate alternate worlds such as those created by Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and George Lucas.

Contact with inspirational teachers who recognized and affirmed one’s special gifts in reading and writing, often combined with negative experiences in other subjects like math and chemistry.

A transference of spiritual longings — perhaps cultivated in a strict religious upbringing — toward more secular literary forms that inspired “transcendence.”

A fascination with history or science that is not grounded in a desire for rigorous data collection or strict interpretive methodologies.

A desire for freedom and independence from authority figures; a love for the free play of ideas. English includes everything, and all approaches are welcome, they believe.

A recognition of mortality combined with a desire to live fully, to have multiple lives through the mediation of literary works.

A desire to express oneself through language and, in so doing, to make a bid for immortality.

A love for the beauty of words and ideas, often expressed in a desire to read out loud and perform the text.

An attraction to the cultural aura of being a creative artist, sometimes linked to aristocratic and bohemian notions of the good life.

A desire for wisdom, an understanding of the big picture rather than the details that obsess specialists.


But of course, this won’t do. We live, apparently, under the Reign of Theory, which prohibits enjoyment, engagement, anything other than earnest critique in service of the revolution. Benton’s students will learn, the hard way, that life just ain’t all momma reading to you at bedtime, Kerouacian coffeehouse, a precocious Middlemarch devouring under the covers, flashlight.

It makes me sad to think how little those motives will be acknowledged if they go on to graduate school. They will probably go for the wrong reasons: to continue their experience as undergraduates. They are romantics who must suddenly become realpolitikers. Maybe that’s why most drop out before they complete their doctorates. Those who stay have political commitments (and probably come from undergraduate programs where those commitments are encouraged early), or they develop them as graduate students, or they feign or exaggerate them to get through.

Here’s the thing. I’m not sure I understand the equation between theory and dour-faced analysis, politburo-distributed graph-paper writing. Seems to me, theory gets blamed on both ends – it produces irrational exuberant poesy-as-criticism and staid, bureaucratic boilerplate at the same time. As everyone already knows, but for some reason can’t bring themselves to say, is that if Benton’s students reach grad school and find themselves bored and frustrated and manufacturing work that fails to live up to their initial literary aspirations, it won’t be because of theory but rather the new archival / historicist turn in literary studies, that silent but mass counter-revolution that has settled on the accumulation of fact and the castration of purpose to produce inelegant works that sift through the dusty corners of the library, producing nothing new but lots and lots of old.

Whatever. My advice for Benton is the following. When your students bring up these feelings, why not help them to develop them into workable projects that move from idle announcement of interest toward self-aware analysis of it. No, no one wants to hear about your momma’s lap, but examinations of relation between the aesthetic and the commodified alienation of literary works would be valuable. Point them towards the question of the aesthetic, a question that partakes of all of the positions that they have here espoused, and suggest that work through the what and why and to what end of it.

Mooning on about how lovely was the novel they read when they were a kid, no, isn’t going to work. But working toward an understanding of how this strange magic trick – so out of step with an irrationally rational world, so out of touch with the normative economism that fills our lungs with every breath – of a bunch of words that creates a feeling (happiness, warmth, togetherness, isolation, discomfort, desire, disinterested interest, egotistic fire, full wallet of cult capital, whatever) works is something that not only needs to be undertaken, but will find acceptance if artfully done.

(A quick example: “A “geeky” attraction to intricate alternate worlds such as those created by Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and George Lucas’ might yield something like this, and probably even better, were the student encouraged properly, rather than told at every turn that the question is an either/or, literary interest / abstract politicizing.)

For the field of literature, after theory and during the rise of this new empiricist reaction – a field which currently buys the solid ground but forever fails to build – could use some new blood, self-aware, and ready to take poems and novels as something other than an archive of social data, an archive they were forced to use, when so many other, better archives exist, because they made the mistake of getting into English.

As always, and like never before, we today face the question of the value of literature – and of the aesthetic more generally. We need to know why it is that we return to these textual objects, and what sort of energies might be borrowed from them, what sort of doors they have closed and which they might open. And, in particular, why we are so unwilling to do without them.

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Written by adswithoutproducts

July 17, 2006 at 1:24 pm

pêcheur

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deep-drop-fishing-2lg.jpg

Marx claimed that with the accomplishment of socialism, a typical day might consists of fishing in the morning, tending sheep in the afternoon, and writing literary criticism at night. But we are left to wonder: what sort of literature would such a world produce for criticism to attend to? On what terms would such a criticism proceed? Surely, the years of refining bourgeois recidivism out of the novel would have long ended by this time… Surely it is easier to purge bourgeois recidivism from the novel than to overthrow the division of labor in real life?

Speaking of Marx, Francis Wheen (unfortunately a Eustonite) had a rather nice piece in the Guardian this weekend on Marx and literature, Marx as modernist.

Like Frenhofer, Marx was a modernist avant la lettre. His famous account of dislocation in the Communist Manifesto – “all that is solid melts into air” – prefigures the hollow men and the unreal city depicted by TS Eliot, or Yeats’s “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”. By the time he wrote Das Kapital, he was pushing out beyond conventional prose into radical literary collage – juxtaposing voices and quotations from mythology and literature, from factory inspectors’ reports and fairy tales, in the manner of Ezra Pound’s Cantos or Eliot’s The Waste Land. Das Kapital is as discordant as Schoenberg, as nightmarish as Kafka.

Marx saw himself as a creative artist, a poet of dialectic. “Now, regarding my work, I will tell you the plain truth about it,” he wrote to Engels in July 1865. “Whatever shortcomings they may have, the advantage of my writings is that they are an artistic whole.” It was to poets and novelists, far more than to philosophers or political essayists, that he looked for insights into people’s material motives and interests: in a letter of December 1868 he copied out a passage from another work by Balzac, The Village Priest, and asked if Engels could confirm the picture from his own knowledge of practical economics. Had he wished to write a conventional economic treatise he would have done so, but his ambition was far more audacious. Berman describes the author of Das Kapital as “one of the great tormented giants of the 19th century – alongside Beethoven, Goya, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Ibsen, Nietzsche, Van Gogh – who drive us crazy, as they drove themselves, but whose agony generated so much of the spiritual capital on which we still live”.

Yet how many people would think of including Marx in a list of great writers and artists? Even in our postmodern era, the fractured narrative and radical discontinuity of Das Kapital are mistaken by many readers for formlessness and incomprehensibility. Anyone willing to grapple with Beethoven, Goya or Tolstoy should be able to “learn something new” from a reading of Das Kapital – not least because its subject still governs our lives. As Berman asks: how can Das Kapital end while capital lives on? It is fitting that Marx never finished his masterpiece. The first volume was the only one to appear in his lifetime, and the subsequent volumes were assembled by others after his death, based on notes and drafts found in his study. Marx’s work is as open-ended – and thus as resilient – as the capitalist system itself.

Although Das Kapital is usually categorised as a work of economics, Marx turned to the study of political economy only after many years of spadework in philosophy and literature. It is these intellectual foundations that underpin the project, and it is his personal experience of alienation that gives such intensity to the analysis of an economic system which estranges people from one another and from the world they inhabit – a world in which humans are enslaved by the monstrous power of capital and commodities.

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Written by adswithoutproducts

July 11, 2006 at 10:30 am

spurious

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Spurious today, on Blanchot, literature, and community or communism.

What happens when Blanchot’s writings are refracted through the prism of what he calls community? They shift slightly, or shimmer in a different way.

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Written by adswithoutproducts

June 28, 2006 at 9:43 am