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the federal reserve vs. aristotle

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Dramatic-Arc_Diermyer

Appreciated this rendering, in the New York Times, of the narrative temporality of the Federal Reserve as a sort of pseudo-Beckettian inversion of the logic of drama outlined in Aristotle’s Poetics:

It’s almost as if the Fed were designed to confound explanation of it, precisely so the Rick Sterns of the world could never hope to influence it. Aristotle, in his ‘‘Poetics,’’ described a formula for emotionally engaging drama that screenwriters still consult to this day, with central characters and a plot that moves from a beginning through a climax to resolution. Presidential elections can be molded into this Aristotelian structure perfectly, as can many major news stories.

The Fed, by contrast, seems more like somebody sat down with a copy of ‘‘Poetics’’ and carefully constructed its opposite. There is no beginning to Fed action; it’s always there, always acting, even when its action is to not make any changes. There is no natural climax. It’s just an ongoing conference between a group of economists. And it is never resolved. There is no single moment when the Fed is done.

In this formulation, the Fed is essentially an anti-dramatic, or even anti-evental, organisation. It is an institution designed, in that sense, to keep narrative from happening.

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October 24, 2015 at 11:09 am

Posted in economics, narrative

notes on the novel, genre, woolwich

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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? 

will self and ballard’s moderate modernism

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Will Self has a piece in the Guardian about his relationship to modernism – and the fact that he intends to write in a more modernist, less reader-friendly form moving forward. Feels a bit like a deathbed baptism from a man to young to go in for such a thing, and we’ll wait to see what the output of Self as born-again avantgardist looks like. But in the course of this, Self says some highly interesting – and fascinatingly inconclusive – things about his relationship to J.G. Ballard and his works – things that speak volumes I think about the strange nature of Ballard’s influence on “innovative” British fiction in recent years.

First, Self describes finding  inspiration, a “sense of traction,” in the  course of rereading Ballard in the 1980s.

In the winter of the following year I was living – in slightly more congenial circumstances – a few miles away in Barnsbury, north London. The flat was better-heated, but the chill winds of modernism were still blowing through my mind. I was reading JG Ballard’s novels – or, rather, rereading them, because as an adolescent SF fan I had gobbled them up along with Asimov’s and Heinlein’s, never pausing to consider that Ballard’s psychic probe into what he termed “inner space” was an altogether more seriously artistic endeavour. But in 1987 I got it: reading especially The Atrocity Exhibition, and then Crash, I was gripped by an unaccustomed sense of traction – I could see a way to get on. It was an experience I hadn’t had since, on reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis for the first time, aged 16, I had this epiphany: that of all the arts, fiction is the most powerful, since, with no materials other than a pen and paper, a writer can convince a reader that a man has changed into a monstrous vermin.

Then – this is where it starts to get interesting – Self seems to acknowledge that Ballard’s not actually all that modernist. That is to say, that rather than formal experimentation, what we have in most Ballard (aside from The Atrocity Exhibition and a few other minor works) is outré content strung out along rather conventional narrative frameworks and constructions.

In his memoir Miracles of Life, Ballard writes about his own Josipovici- (or Self-)style modernist moment: a prolonged rubbing and itching induced by the old-style corsetry of English fiction in the 1950s. Ballard turned to science fiction – he said – because “what interested me were the next five minutes”, rather than a simple past to be evoked by the simple past tense. Ballard, who I knew personally, could be a little disingenuous about the extent of his own influences, preferring to be seen – in literary terms, at least – as entirely sui generis, but this is a forgivable foible in a powerfully original writer. Apart from the advanced experimentation of The Atrocity Exhibition, which exhibits elements of the “cut-up” and “fold-in” methods originated by the Dadaists and channelled into English by William Burroughs and Bryon Gysin, the great majority of Ballard’s fiction has altogether traditionally realist formal properties. Indeed, it’s the juxtaposition of these hokey characters and straightforward plot lines with the outlandish psychogeographic content of Ballard’s fictive inscape that makes the books so profoundly unsettling, and ensures that they have remained surfing the zeitgeist to this day.

Following on from this judicious doubling-back on Ballard’s ostensible modernism, Self shifts to discuss Ballard’s 1995 introduction to Crash. (Some of this document is available here.) He’s exactly right to do so: Ballard’s introduction to Crash, which was written in 1995, twenty years after the original book, is a fascinating and utterly modernist document, a vivid take on what’s wrong with the contemporary non-experimental novel, and how what’s wrong with the novel has something to do with changes in culture itself.  In fact, one might be tempted to think of the introduction (I certainly am) as a bizarrely anachronistic contract, drawn up two decades late, that the novel itself that it introduces almost entirely fails to fulfill.

Most of all it was Ballard’s introduction to the 1973 French edition of Crash that lit a path for me. In it he united his own modernist sensibilities with what he termed “the death of affect”, a wholesale loss of feeling occasioned by the impact of the atomic bombs that ended the second world war, and then irradiated through the emergent mass communications technologies of the postwar period – in particular TV. It was this, Ballard wrote, that made it impossible any more to suspend disbelief in those omniscient and invisible narrators of naturalistic fictions, whose tendency to play god with their characters had surely always been a function of their own status as personations of God. […] A year or so after my reimmersion in Ballard’s oeuvre, while I was commuting to work at a Southwark office from the flat I shared with my first wife in Shepherd’s Bush, I began to work seriously on what would become my first published book, the story cycle The Quantity Theory of Insanity.

So, is it suggested here that it wasn’t so much Ballard’s fictional works as this one introduction to Crash that spurred Self on to his own work? His own work, written in a way that he is, in this very piece, now renouncing? A few paragraphs later, Self parallels himself with Ballard yet again, but in a negative light: “Like Ballard, on the whole I have been content as a novelist and short-story writer to deploy difficult content in lieu of formal experimentation.” So, in this article about the origins of Self’s modernist impulses, Ballard features as a key figure who, in the end, doesn’t live up to what it says on his tin.

Quite interesting, isn’t it? Through Self’s article – and without Self quite saying it straightforwardly – we get a picture of Ballard as a writing whose work seems to gesture in the direction of the avant garde but doesn’t quite, an author who had important thoughts about the future of the novel but failed to follow through on them, a novelist incredibly influential to English writers who intended to disobey the normative mandates of fiction in this country but who, because they were following someone who didn’t live up to his own advice, perhaps have consistently failed to do so – in fact have one after another managed to write moderately modernist works that never quite get around to problematizing the fundamentals of fictional form (character, plot, description, etc) nor the ideologies that underwrite them.

I could give you a list of who these writers are, but that would be impolitic. Anyway, I’m writing something about this at the moment, something that uses Adorno’s concept of “moderate modernism” to think through the workings of Crash and a work by a contemporary author. So you’ll probably see more notes like this on here soon.

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August 6, 2012 at 1:16 pm

zadie smith goes elliptical, anti-evental

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Related to the conversation that spawned my previous post, someone told me that he thought Zadie Smith’s new story (paywall, sorry) in The New Yorker was the best thing that she’s done so far. I’ve just read it, and I agree.

It’s written in an elliptical form, as a series of short numbered paragraphs, and this, I think, is part of what permits Smith to sidestep some of the problems of her previous works. Smith discusses her use of this form, which she calls a “sectional form,” here:

Well, the story is an extract from a novel, and this sectional style only appears towards the end of the book. When I was writing the book I was trying to think about how we experience time. How it really feels to be in time. And the answer ended up being different depending on who or what I was dealing with. In Keisha’s case, she has this belief that life is a meaningful progression towards some ultimate goal—in her case, “success”—and this made the numbered sections the obvious choice.

To put what she’s getting at (I think) about “time” and “how it feels to be in time” into my own words: Whether the novelist wants to or not, conventional narration gives itself not just continuity but (somewhat but not really) paradoxically, the failure of continuity, the emergence of the ostensibly new. That is to say, narrative continuity provides itself in order to be broken, to serve as the staging grown for the discontinuous event. And then one day, something unforeseen happened…

The story plays from the start with the idea of events and eventfulness. The first lines read:

There had been an event. To speak of it required the pluperfect. Keisha Blake and Leah Hanwell, the protagonists in the event, were four-year-old children.

Now, discontinuous events of this sort – and in general –  and the changes that they inaugurate in the line of their stories, are often sites of ideological mystification disguised as romantic aesthetics. (If you want to read someone playing expertly with this, take a look at David Lurie’s speech to his academic bosses in Disgrace. “Eros entered. After that I was not the same.” The “event” is the alibi that is meant to explain away – or refuse to explain away – all else that has happened, the presence of motive, etc…)

And in the case of Smith’s story, the “sectional” form of the narrative opens it by the end (not going to give it away) to a fundamental revision – a revision both of the story, the nature of its central character, and the romantic ideology that is serving as a blind for the cold determinism running underneath. It as if the story says to its own protagonist:

You had the sense that you were living life in accordance with the patterns and principles of romantically-tinged romantic fictions, complete with those moments of coup de foudre in which one position as if magically, but at least spontaneously, gives way to another. That is to say, you believed that your live was structured by events: you randomly meet this person, that happens, you meet another person, and so on. This ideology is the elipsis that haunts even the most conventional of narratives. But it was not so: a logic – the logic of comparison that is at base the logic of capitalism – was running the show, your show, all along.

At any rate, I’m interested to see how this all works in the novel from which this story is extracted. As she says in the passage I quoted above, this form only comes in at the end of the book. What would it mean for a novel to evolve or devolve into this?

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July 31, 2012 at 12:44 pm

you you you: junot diaz, second person narration, etc…

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Just read Junot Diaz’s latest story (behind a paywall, unfortunately) in the New Yorker, called “The Cheater’s Guide to Love.” Not all that impressive is the long and short of it. Postures as a true story about fucking up a relationship by fucking lots and lots of other women, and then not getting over that all that well until the narrator realises that he can write about it all. OK.

But it did make me think about something interesting. As in other works, Diaz uses the second person here – the entire story is addressed to a “you.” Of course, there are infamous problems with the second person – above all, it forces an intimacy on the reader that the reader may not want to or be capable of sharing. As Emily Gould tweeted about the story and its mode of narration, quite rightly, “like, no, bro, I definitely didn’t treat a lot of women like shit or think it was ok in the end bc it turned out 2 be grist for the ol’ mill.”

I definitely don’t mean some sort of lapse into utter perversity, a sort of tutoyering Patrick Batemanism: “As you slide your hand into the cranial cavity, you feel the still unextinguished warmth of the head amidst the soft smoosh of the grey matter between your fingers.” (For now, I’ll refrain from giving you a bit of Fifty Shades in the second person…) You are a Nazi prison guard, you are a 19th-century courtesan, you are Laura Bush. Whatever. That’d just be dumbly obvious.

But it does seem to me that there is something to be done with this form. Rather than the obvious forms of alienation-in-proximity that I just described, I mean something more  indirect, uncanny, and at-one-remove.  Something akin to the forced identification that Flaubert pioneered with the style indirect libre. In Bovary, we read a novel whose discourse forces proximity on us: we can’t tell where the narrator stops and Emma’s subjectivity takes over control of the contents of the prose. But it’s not simply that we’re presumed to be exactly like Emma Bovary. Rather, we are related to her by implication: we are reading a romance novel, just as she is informed or even wholly composed of the same sort of genre fiction. We may not be adulteresses, but we are necessarily, like her, readers of novels about adultery.

I wonder how one might go about this. The best thought that I’ve had so far – and it definitely comes of reading the Diaz piece tonight, is something like an ur-New Yorker story written in address to the demographic that generally reads the New Yorker. But it’d have to be mighty clever to be good. I’m not talking about any obvious stuff like “As you sip your chardonnay at the Hamptons beach house, flipping through the latest from Malcolm Gladwell, a strange and unsettling thought enters your mind about Renata, the German au pair you just had coptered in for the weekend, and her firm body, so unlike that of your aging, yet still assuredly beautiful, wife…”

(Or what the hell – maybe that’d work just fine. Who knows…. Am I over-complicating? It wouldn’t be the first time…)

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July 20, 2012 at 12:54 pm

Posted in narrative

“with the thrill of a Tom Clancy novel”

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Makes me feel a little Deleuzian when I start thinking this way, and we’re all getting really tired of social media metaphorics, but there is something in the world that loves to pluck at webs until they become simply a set of separate strings, to boil down complex networks until they become linear romances of one sort or another. From the Guardian:

Producers Barry Josephson and Michelle Krumm, who have optioned The Most Dangerous Man in the World, say they are planning a “suspenseful drama” in the vein of All the President’s Men and with the thrill of a Tom Clancy novel. “As soon as I met Andrew and read a few chapters of his profound book, I knew that – with his incredibly extensive depth of knowledge – it would enable us to bring a thought-provoking thriller to the screen,” Krumm told Variety.

Makes me think (again, I know, enough with the social networking stuff) of a twitter feed vs. a police horse charge, the algorithm that runs YouTube vs. a battle scene in War and Peace. There must be other ways to tell such stories – wouldn’t it be great if we lived in a world in which they were told otherwise and better?

(BTW: quite funny, the results that come of Google image searching “the most dangerous man in the world.”)

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January 21, 2011 at 2:11 pm

Posted in movies, narrative

neologism / obsolescence

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Interesting phrasing in this from the NYT on the MTV adaptation of the UK show Skins:

“Skins” is a calculated risk by MTV which is eager to get into the scripted programming business.

I wonder what effect it would have if those who would write fiction tried instead to write “scripted programming.” The former seems – and this phrasing shows it – more and more anomalous and out of sync with the way things are.

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January 20, 2011 at 9:51 am

Posted in narrative

“misjudged utility”: addiction and narrative

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Christopher Caldwell writes about on-line video games this week in his column in the Saturday FT. The piece takes as its occassion the following harrowing story:

Kim Yoo-chul and Choi Mi-sun had been on the run for months – allegedly for doing something unspeakable – when they were arrested last week in Gyeonggi province in South Korea. Mr Kim, 41, and Ms Choi, 25, were ardent internet users. They met online. They had a baby. But becoming parents did not temper their computer habit. They grew fascinated with an online game called Prius, which allowed them to raise a virtual “child” called Anima. In the interests of their virtual child they neglected their real one. Last September they returned from a 12-hour session at an internet café to find their baby dead of starvation.

Caldwell procedes to consider the reasons why such games are so addictive by seeing them through the lens of developments in video gambling:

If we consider the matter neurologically, raising a virtual baby can in some ways be more “rewarding” than raising a real baby. You get points. You get to undo your mistakes. Like art, video games can seem better than life.

The problem is that, unlike art, video games are increasingly sophisticated and subtle. A lot of recent academic research has focused on how video gambling machines take advantage of the predictable vulnerabilities of problem gamblers. Many non-gambling games are built the same way. They are designed to trick the reward centres of the brain through a variety of techniques: “near misses”, delayed rewards, illusions of control. In other words, they induce the same sort of misjudgment of utility that leads a crack addict to neglect his job. Designing machines to be pleasurable or useful is one thing – designing them to be addictive is quite another.

The phenomenology and false economies of the crack addict, yes, but also of the reader caught in the rhythms and deliberate temporalities of narrative. I am definitely not the first to see, say, in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary a performative diagnosis (even a deconstruction) of the relationship between the logic of addiction and narrative organization. But Caldwell’s piece (and other recent thoughts about parallel forms) leads me to think that perhaps the right way to conceive of the recent history of narrative is in terms of a split, a fissuring of narrative elements into two sectors.

On the one hand, new(ish) forms such as pornography, advertising, video games, and gambling, have taken up the neurological tricks long resident in narrative and brought them right to the profit-generating center of the works produced. On the other hand, literary modernism and its aftermath seems in this light a movement in fiction centered on the disavowal of the technologies of narrative addictiveness: a resistance to the traditional rhythms of plot is combined with a diminishment of the sense of authorial (and thus vicarious readerly) control. The phrase “misjudgment of utility” maps crookedly though provocatively onto, say, Adorno’s discussions of modernism’s uselessly utopian attempts at autonomy. Modernist fiction is that fiction that does not tease you into thinking that you can win. Which is of course better than video slots, but also… perhaps politically pernicious in a deeper sense.

At any rate, I am thinking this morning that I’m starting to understand a bit more clearly a turn that I’m taking in my own work. I’ve finished (though not yet sold – Christ is the process slow) a book about modernism and the temporality of its plots. And I keep telling everyone that I’m done with literature for awhile – that the next thing is going to be about stuff like education and advertising and pornography and the like. “Oh, so you’re going into ‘cultural studies’?” they ask with an unavoidable sneer. I am never sure what to say about that – it certainly doesn’t feel like that’s what I’m doing. “Cultural studies” is not quite right – maybe what I’m interested in is the persistence of narrative in a culture whose best literary works have long since disavowed it, the fault lines that run between this disavowal and the profit-driven enhancement of narrative in other forms.

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March 14, 2010 at 10:45 am

impersonality and the individual

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ha!

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

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

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

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

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May 12, 2009 at 12:19 pm

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

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

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

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

1984

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by adswithoutproducts

May 10, 2009 at 10:34 pm

neurath into narrative

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Ah this is just amazing…

I haven’t yet had time to digest all of this, as I only just found it now, but what’s immediately fantastic about this is that the narrativized isotypes tell just the right kind of story – perfect form and content cohesion. *

The work, “The Book of the Ground,” is by an artist named Xu Bing whose webpage you can see here. What’s even more fantastic, perhaps, than the thing itself is the computer program that he’s devised in order to write in this language.

Book from the Ground is a novel written in a “language of icons” that I have been collecting and organizing over the last few years. Regardless of cultural background, one should be able understand the text as long as one is thoroughly entangled in modern life. We have also created a “font library” computer program to accompany the book. The user can type English sentences (we are still limited in this way, but the next step will include Chinese and other major languages) and the computer will instantaneously translate them into this language of icons. It can function as a “dictionary,” and in the future it will have practical applications.

Where can I download a copy of that? Feels like it should have come with my eee (yes I bought one, sorry pollian! you know how I get with these things – have seen it from the fucking iPaq and Clie on, no?)

From what I can tell, when the Book was exhibited at Moma, a computer was set up to allow chatting in the pictographic language:

Mmmm. Utopian, modernist, universalist chat.

Anyway, I’m still collecting my thoughts (and, really, myself) after finding all of this. There’s a lot more to say. Perhaps the first thing to consider are the stakes and ramifications of narrativizing a picto-linguistic form that was designed from the start in resistence to narrativization. And Xu Bing says a few questionable things about the relationship between his project and the universal reign of capital (“Capital has become the new global language of power, but it must still undergo large-scale unification before it can more effectively control commerce” – oh, is that what we’re up to then?) And there might be, just might be, a relationship between these two problems. More thought required! I certainly hope it isn’t a case of “The Book of the Ground” is to Neurath and Arntz as the Saks Sack is to Rodchenko!

But for now, I’m very happy to see all of this. Mmmm work-fodder is almost as good as utopian chat forms! God knows we need both!

* I’m more nervous about labelling the form / content cohesion “perfect” at the end of this post than I was at the beginning. More soon! I promise promise!

Written by adswithoutproducts

February 11, 2009 at 1:14 am

when i hear the word “narrative”…

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Some of the American whateverocracy caught on tape discussing Sarah Palin:

Peggy Noonan: The most qualified? No! I think they went for this — excuse me– political bullshit about narratives —

Chuck Todd: Yeah they went to a narrative.

Mike Murphy: I totally agree.

PN: Every time the Republicans do that, because that’s not where they live and it’s not what they’re good at, they blow it.

The rise to centrality of narrative as a term of electoral art this time around is interesting. (It’s been there before, but now it’s all over the place). What’s further interesting is that when these people say narrative, this year at least, they actually mean Bildungsroman. There are of course other forms of narrative that can be yoked to a political cause, but when it comes to Obama and Palin, we’re definitely talking about that form, according to Wilhelm Dilthey way back in 1906, in which a

regulated development within the life of the individual is observed, each of its stages has its own intrinsic value and is at the same time the basis for a higher stage. The dissonances and conflicts of life appear as the necessary growth points through which the individual must pass on his way to maturity and harmony.

I won’t rehearse the narratives in question, but both Palin and Obama’s enact one of the standard lines of passage – basically the unlikely beginnings to unlikely ends sort of story. America loves a good Bildungsroman – it’s sort of the founding national mythostructure, which is no wonder given the period when the country was born.

It was hilarious to hear Palin slap at Obama’s memorimania in her acceptance speech

We’ve all heard his dramatic speeches before devoted followers. And there is much to like and admire about our opponent. But listening to him speak, it’s easy to forget that this is a man who has authored two memoirs but not a single major law or reform – not even in the state senate.

– just after she delivered her own memoiristic self-framing as true Daughter of the Redneck Revolution.

At any rate, there’s a lot to say about the political unconscious of the form, but a few things stand out. First of all, it’s always been a form invested (whether consciously or unconsciously) in class legitimation. Whether focused on the emergence of a newly literate bourgeoisie out of the hovels of the artisans (think Great Expecations, Mr Pip learning his letters and the like) or informational workers from the ranks of the selfsame bourgeoisie or petty bourgies (oh, just about all of them – Portrait is a good example), it does the work of showing the work – the work of self-elevation, the rise from meagre roots whether financial or educational or what have you. And while it’s easy to say that every American election has been about class legitimation – or even that the American democratic political form is a form based on annual selling the populace on the virtues of being led by this particular set of betters – it’s clear that the current crisis in capitalism has forced the narrative of meritocratic legitimacy to the absolute foreground of the electoral stage.

Noonan is of course right about Republicans traditionally having a hard time with “narrative.” It’s easy to see why: the stories are generally fucked-up arcless little numbers, or if they have arc, it comes in spots and is hard to synthesize the “dissonances and conflicts” of these priviledged lives into a coherent story. (Once the Democrats realize that they are most certainly going to lose this election, they’ll hopefully go to work, Rove-style a la 2000, on the semi-narrative of McCain’s Vietnam capitivity, begging the question of what sort of longterm psychological effects trauma like this has on an individual, an individual with his finger on the red button and the like). But she’s undoubtedly wrong about Palin herself (who has been drawn from outside the usual lineup of Yale aristrocrats and Haliburton fixers) who will likely win the election for McCain, so long as they negotiate the tricky issue of fronting the VP candidate because the P candidate is so goddamned awful on stage.

At any rate, all of this is basically the superstructual echo of the basic point of this piece by Aziz Rana on n+1’s site about Obama, the election, and meritocracy.

Throughout our history there have always been multiple versions of the American dream. These accounts held in common the hope that hard work, discipline, and self-reliance would allow those recognized as citizens not only to improve their economic lot and achieve personal happiness, but to participate fully in political life. Today, however, only one version of the dream continues to make sense as a sustainable personal project. This is the dream exemplified by Barack and Michelle Obama—as well as by their former rivals Hillary and Bill Clinton—a dream of success through higher education and a life in professional work. It is a vision of social advancement that leaves little room for historically important narratives of blue-collar respectability.

Rana’s piece, when seen in the light of the “narratives” I’ve been discussing here, exposes a foundational contradiction in the American political system. Or, if not a contradiction, at least a fatal blindspot, an entrenched impossibility. In a system that’s weighted (perceptually if not practically, and perception leads the praxis here) toward the president as the embodiment of popular will, it’s very very difficult to imagine how a “narrative of blue-collar respectability” could ever make its way to the definitive foreground of American politics. Obama may be as close as we could ever get, what with the community organizing and the like. The system is attuned to, and has always predicted, rule by meritocracy, which we all know has never been and will never be based on equal-start merit. And even if it were, would it change matters all that much?

Think of all of those countless numbnuts Hollywood films about unlikely characters bumbling their way into Washington power – the donut eating prole, the dumb blonde, the black dude who didn’t go to Columbia… The tagline of the one pictured above: “In a country in which anybody can become president, anybody just did…” Their disneyfied absurdity, their thumb-sucking popcorn munch, is a register of the fact that none of us, down deep, believes that another narrative is possible here, not at least given the system that we have.

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September 6, 2008 at 11:18 pm