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ben lerner’s scapegoat

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At one point, quite late in Ben Lerner’s new novel 10:04, the narrator/protagonist has a meeting with one of his graduate poetry students. The conversation soon reveals that the student, Calvin, has become psychologically unhinged.

“Well, you said once that we shouldn’t worry about our literary careers, should worry about being underwater.” I must have been joking around in class— half joking. “And in any new civilization you need those who have a sense of usable history and can reconstruct at least the basic concepts from science. Also there is the literalization of all literature because the sky is falling, if you know what I mean— that’s no longer just a phrase. A lot of people can’t handle it, how everything becomes hieroglyphic. I lost my girlfriend over that. Body without organs, for instance. I can swallow but there is a cost to swallowing in the sense that I don’t have the same kind of throat. That’s a metaphor but it has real effects, which is what she couldn’t understand. What’s tricky is you want to test it, take poison or whatever to show how you can absorb it, but you don’t know in that instance if it will be symbolic or spider out.”

The college did not have good psychiatric services. He was twenty- six; no one could force him to get help or even legally contact his parents, whoever they were.

“Nobody thinks we’ve been told the truth about Fukushima. Think about the milk you’re buying from a bodega, the hot particles there, I mean in addition to the hormones and what those do. There are rabbits being born there with three ears. The seas are poisoned. Look at this”— here he pulled his hair back, maybe to indicate his widow’s peak; I wasn’t sure— “that wasn’t there when I lived in Colorado. And I know that some of the bone mass in my jaw has thinned, can feel that when it clicks, but I can’t afford insurance. And now there is this storm, but who selects its name? You have a committee of like five guys in a situation room generating the names before they form. The World Meteorological Organization’s Regional Association IV Hurricane Committee— I looked it up. And ever since I looked it up I can’t get service on my phone. Every call is just dropped.”

“I agree it’s a crazy time,” I said. “But I think in times like these we have to try to stay connected to people. And we have to try to make our own days, despite all the chaos. We have to focus on feeling comfortable in our own skin, and we need to be open to getting help with that.” I was desperately trying to channel my parents.

It’s a fairly convincing portrait of a graduate student, hopped up on Deleuze and Guattari and god knows what else, who has lost his bearings – and in particular, has lost his grasp on the relationship between personal events and global events. Calvin’s paranoia takes a particular shape: he is reading the matters of his own life as if they are directly related to their historical context, the apocalyptically-tinged context of our times. His difficulty swallowing has something to do with a failure of meaning that in turn has something to do with ‘being underwater’ – metaphorically as a cash-strapped student or literally given the climate change atmospherics of this work that runs from one New York City hurricane to another. Other illnesses have to do with radiation poisoning, with Fukushima, with international presumably-capitalist conspiracies. Hypochondria connects up with a political persecution complex; bad phone service becomes a symptom of living at the end of history.

Calvin more or less disappears from the novel after his cameo appearance; the narrator tries to check up on him a couple of times and later wonders if he should use some of his book advance to bankroll a run of therapy for him. 10:04 isn’t the sort of lock-plotted novel that forces readers to question a fleeting appearance or digressive encounter – there’s enough wandering and intermittency that Calvin’s scene doesn’t seem too discrepant in the general scheme of things.

But still, I think there’s something to be read in Calvin’s quick appearance in and subsequent removal from the novel. In a sense, isn’t Calvin’s psychopathology very similar to that of the novel as a form – and in a sense, of Ben Lerner’s two novels in particular. In his first, Leaving the Atocha Station, we follow the inconclusive experiences of a young poet-cum-pothead as he messes with girls and doesn’t do his fellowship work, all leading up to… the terrorist bombing of the main train station in Madrid, an event totally out of proportion and sync with the foreground pseudo-plot. In 10:04, the same sort of situation obtains: framed by the two hurricanes that struck New York City in recent years, the novel itself traces out relatively banal plotlines drawn from the everyday life of literary Brooklyn. Will the narrator impregnate his friend? And what will become of his incipient romance with another woman as he tries to? Will the physiological deformity discovered in the early pages become symptomatic? What will he write his novel about?

While both Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04 are carefully self-aware about the non-correlation between the banal foreground action and the cataclysmic backdrops, the simple fact of the juxatpositoning of the two elements in each case still begs a question about the relation between plot and context. Of course, this is what novels do – what they have always done. A doctor and his wife have a hard time in the rural France of the Second Empire. A woman is planning a party in London in the wake of the First World War. Two men wander Dublin as the world lurches toward the war and the empire toward its dissolution. Foreground and background, character and setting, everyday life and the workings of history – the novel as a form forces us to consider the relations between these elements.

Lerner, as I’ve said, is very self-aware about these issues – the text never forces the conjunctions, even seems ironically knowing about the forced nature of such line of thought that could read, for instance, the reproductive decision-making dilemmas of gentrifiers as somehow tantamount to the the specter of climate change. But that doesn’t prevent Lerner from bringing this minor character, this trouble graduate student, on stage as a sort of scapegoat – loaded with the sins or at least symptoms of the novel in which he is contained, or perhaps even the novel as a form in general – only to shuffle him off again almost immediately. Lerner’s conjunction of the personal and the macro-political belongs on the bookshelf, while Calvin’s belongs in a mental institution, or so the novel implicitly tells us.

After the exchange that I quoted above, Calvin reacts wildly in response to the narrator’s suggestion that he might seek some psychological help.

“Okay, wow. Wow. You want to pathologize me, too. I guess that’s your job. You represent the institution. The institution speaks through you. But let me ask you something”— I sized Calvin up physically; he was taller than I was, nearly as tall as the protester, but thin, almost lanky; I involuntarily visualized punching him in the throat if he attacked me— “can you look at me and say you think this,” and here he swept the air with his arm in a way that made “this” indicate something very large, “is going to continue? You deny there’s poison coming at us from a million points? Do you want to tell me these storms aren’t man- made, even if they’re now out of the government’s control? You don’t think the FBI is fucking with our phones? The language is just becoming marks, drawings of words, not words— you should know that as well as anybody. Or are you on drugs? Are you letting them regulate you?” He stood up so suddenly I flinched, then felt bad for flinching. “Sorry for wasting your time,” he said, maybe holding back tears, and stormed out of my office, forgetting his legal pad.

In a sense, isn’t the ‘institution’ speaking through the narrator and the story that he tells us as much that of the ‘literary novel’ as a form as any that Calvin might be thinking of. A regulatory message, a message that keeps an ‘appropriate’ perspective on things – one that gets on with vivid interest in the conventional workings of conventional lives, even if as it solemnly acknowledges that the shit may in fact be about to hit the fan. I generally think Lerner’s a smart enough novelist to sidestep this ethically and politically perilous position. But then again, the reactions of some of his readers provide evidence more in line with Calvin’s response. For instance, at the end of her gushing review in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Maggie Nelson writes that upon reading Lerner’s new novel,

Far from despair, I felt flooded with the sense that everything mattered, from meticulous descriptions of individual works of art to kissing the forehead of a passed-out intern to analyzing our political language to documenting the sensual details of our daily lives to bagging dried mangoes to the creation of the book I was holding in my hand to my deciding to spend some time writing a review of it.

In other words, despite the apocalyptic overlay, 10:04 more than anything else gave Nelson a revivified vision of her own demographically-appropriate and seemingly already-quite-comfortable daily life.

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October 1, 2014 at 4:13 pm

choose your own adventure: middlebrow mad libs

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Originalml

I went through a period as a boy when I was obsessed with Mad Libs. Were they a UK thing too – or was there something similar? Basically, the player is given a set of prompts for parts of speech, various types of words, and the like. These are then plugged into a prewritten story, and of course much non-sequiturism and absurd hilarity (if you’re 8 or 9 years old) occurs. It’s sort of a poorman’s Oulipo, a vulgar literary surrealism for kids.

Anyway, tomorrow is the first day of summer, so the blurbs and related PR materials for all the middle-to-higher middlebrow fiction is starting to flow through the social media sieves. And as I skim this stuff, it’s impossible for me not to get a sense that the writers / agents / publishers responsible for its positioning on the airport news agents’ shelves and the tables at Waterstones or Barnes and Noble marked with the cardboard palm tree aren’t playing their own version of literary Mad Libs.

A young (doctor/student/yoga instructor) has suffered through (a divorce/ a bereavement / a layoff / pancreatic cancer) and decides to visit (Nepal / Laos / Peru / inner city Detroit). There she meets a (Buddhist school teacher / flamengo instructor / holistic gynaecologist / homeless savant) who teaches her to enjoy (food / dance / sex / her “curves” / abstract art) and, thus, life again. Upon returning to (London / New York / the family manse) she meets a (stock brocker / surgeon / idealistic social worker) and almost loses love… but ultimately, in the end, finds it.

Of course, one could compose similar rubrics for the various subgenres of this sort of stuff (the post-English Patient war romance, the self-discovery memoir, raunchy post-chick-lit chick lit, etc). (And hey, if you care to, post your own versions in the comments!) And further, of course, the fact that you can do this part of what makes genres genres – you could do the same for science fiction, the nineteenth-century realist novel, mid-century American “outsider” fiction, whatever.

But still, there’s something infinitely depressing about the implicit psychological profiling of the potential reader that seems to be running behind the construction of these blurs and the books that they stand for.  Commercial publishers know their readers, I guess. Or at least they know the (ever fewer?) readers who are already buying their books. And these readers, it seems, at least according to the evidence available in the products on offer, stand at the book tables (or their html equivalents) going through a not very complex dance of identification and aspiration as they decide which book to purchase for their carry-on luggage or beach bag. Ah, that’s like me. That’s like me too. That’s not like me but I wish it were. Ooh, wouldn’t it be nice if it turned out like that… 

(I’ve written about this process of identification in relation to the cover art of such novels before.)

Eat,_Pray,_Love_–_Elizabeth_Gilbert,_2007

Take for instance the work that can stand as an avatar of the middle range of the middlebrow stuff just as Ian McEwan’s Saturday can stand for the upper reaches of the form: Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. It’s a memoir, but it fits the rubric above so perfectly that it’s almost the platonic ideal of the genre – and undoubtedly has become a model that the book business looks to replicate over and over. Here’s a description of the work from wikipedia:

At 32 years old, Elizabeth Gilbert was educated, had a home, a husband, and a successful career as a writer. She was, however, unhappy in her marriage and initiated a divorce. She then embarked on a rebound relationship that did not work out, leaving her devastated and alone. After finalizing her difficult divorce, she spent the next year traveling the world.

She spent four months in Italy, eating and enjoying life (“Eat”). She spent three months in India, finding her spirituality (“Pray”). She ended the year in Bali, Indonesia, looking for “balance” of the two and found love (“Love”) in the form of a Brazilian businessman.

In this description, we can almost read the handwriting of the invisible hand that drives the publishing and marketing of such books: Our readers are almost all women, and what we all know about women is that women like to eat (even though they sometimes have to be coaxed into really going at it) and they like feelings and deepness and softcore “spirituality.” It’s even better if that leads (coaxes them into?) love and sex. It’s like a perfect dating experience – a dinner, followed by some deep conversation, and then, and only then, some sex –  extended into a self-discovery memoir! 

At any rate, what’s less interesting about all of this is to discover the venal cynicism of publishers and the vapid selection principles of some readers. It’s an old story, and not a particularly interesting – and perhaps not even entirely true – one. What’s more interesting, I think, is to consider, as I’m starting to do here, what we can make out of all that goes into the production of such products – especially at the spots where form intersects with baser motivations. That is, what I’m interested in is the semi-allegorical posture of the narratives to presumed customers lives, the socio-ideological substrate of the relations between the writing and the market, and what we might call, after Fredric Jameson, the nature of the political unconscious that somnolently calculates “Bali, Indonesia” as the reconciling synthesis of Italy and and India.

 

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June 20, 2014 at 11:40 am

porn and democracy

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From Hannah Dawson’s review (paywalled) of Margret Grebowicz’s Why Internet Porn Matters in the current issue of the TLS

Grebowicz […] argues that despite its theoretical potential, internet pornography tends to oppress rather than emancipate. The “free speech” that it embodies still belongs in large part to men, objectifying and subjugating other human beings. The many testimonies of self-empowerment from the “victims” of the industry are matched by first-person reports of misogyny, degradation, rape and incarceration. Rather than opening up an egalitarian space for self-construction, the file-sharing, file-ranking chatrooming online realm is creating communities all the more powerfully by normalizing discourses that preclude our saying anything new or real. “Internet pornography”, writes Grebowicz, “emerges as the perfect manifestation of the babbling political body, the speechless mass, in which every subject is interchangeable for every other, exercising its rights and expressing, more and more, telling us what we already know, climaxing, climaxing, always recognizable and predictable.”

The final sentence of the paragraph rings a bit oddly against what precedes it. While “speechless” sounds ominous, the “babbling” of the “political body” sounds like an only slight pejorative rendition of democracy. Interchangeability is ambiguous too, as it is both the result of capitalism’s reduction of us labourers to replaceable parts and, again, a quality of democratic equality. The exercise of rights, in particular the right to expression, too is of course a staple of the democratic diet. But the point of the paragraph seems to be that porn is underwritten by and a source of profitable reenforcement to the powers that be, in particular, men.

So there’s complexity at play here: internet pornography presents an ambiguous vision of freedom that is subtended by a business apparatus that depends upon the very opposite of freedom. In this, it stands (like so many other cultural products, but  more intensely and viscerally) as an uncannily accurate aesthetic mirror – a reflection more than a representation – of the political and economic conditions that obtain today in the world. On the aggregation sites, it seems, everyone has a voice, the cascading streams of thumbnails suggest a world in which all are represented, all represent themselves, and all are of course taking great pleasure in this rhythm of representing and being represented. And the consumer in turn sifts her or his pleasure out of this capacious pot of pleasure-taking and freedom-having. Everyone is equal, ostensibly, in their interchangeability – one’s acts are as free and pleasurable as those of the next. It can start to sound almost utopian, when described this way. But, of course, in the end and as in the world itself, almost all of this performance is stage-managed by those who profit from the exploitation of others. *

Given all this, a few questions to start. First, a quiet aesthetic question posed by internet pornography, perhaps, is what we do with its banality – the fact that it is constantly “telling us what we want to know” – in view that we incessantly come back to taste the banality again. There further is another quiet question, this time politico-aesthetic, about what this banality has to do with the conditions of its production and the means of its distribution.

But beyond these two, there’s an age old matter of ethics – and the ethics of the aesthetic – at play, one that queries the relationship between exploitation and representation, empathy and what we might call “forced performance” which has troubled the better sort of critic and writer since the very beginnings of literature itself, and which manifests itself at certain vividly aporetic moments as history moves forward. (One relatively recent example – Ruskin’s implication that the gothic cathedral is actually more beautiful than the pyramids because of the freedom of the workers who made them. But can that be right? Does free trade coffee actually taste better than that which is more exploitatively sourced?)

How much relieved sexual dissatisfaction is the suffering of a single human being worth? What am I to make of my enjoyment of the fruits of other’s struggles? Does it matter whether I am aware of the mechanics of production of that which I enjoy? How are we to understand the nexus of volition and exploitation, of willed self-exploitation and exploited wilfulness, that underwrites not only pornography but the increasingly illiberal world-space of “liberal capitalism”?

I have a sense that this perpetually recoded algorithm of suffering and enjoyment, repression and representation, is one of the matters that it has always been and still is essentially worthwhile for us to take up. Further, it is a question that has everything to do with the issues at play in the article by J.M. Coetzee that I discuss in this post. But more on that, I promise, soon…. A continuation of this is already in the works…

* Please note that I am – for the sake of starting up a line of thought – side-stepping for the moment several very important issues here. They include the very non-representative nature of porn (obviously not anything like “everyone” is represented there, no matter how many hundreds of thousands of videos exist to be viewed) as well as the extremely complex issues of exploitation and agency in the production of porn. These need to be addressed… but for now, let me just juggle a bit with the terms of the argument and description of the situation as presented in the review I have started from…

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January 6, 2014 at 1:30 pm

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? 

“something tawdry about following the state in this way”

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Can’t believe that I’ve never posted a link to this essay by Coetzee. You should go read the whole thing if you have the time, but for now – and apropos of some of the issues that I and others have been discussing here and elsewhere – here’s my favorite bit:

Some years ago I wrote a novel, ”Waiting for the Barbarians,” about the impact of the torture chamber on the life of a man of conscience. Torture has exerted a dark fascination on many other South African writers. Why should this be so? There are, it seems to me, two reasons. The first is that relations in the torture room provide a metaphor, bare and extreme, for relations between authoritarianism and its victims. In the torture room, unlimited force is exerted upon the physical being of an individual in a twilight of legal illegality, with the purpose, if not of destroying him, then at least of destroying the kernel of resistance within him.

Let us be clear about the situation of the prisoner who falls under suspicion of a crime against the state. What happens in Vorster Square is nominally illegal. Articles of the law forbid the police from exercising violence upon the bodies of detainees except in self-defense. But other articles of the law, invoking reasons of state, place a protective ring around the activities of the security police. The rigmarole of due process, which requires the prisoner to accuse his torturers and produce witnesses, makes it futile to proceed against the police unless the latter have been exceptionally careless. What the prisoner knows, what the police know he knows, is that he is helpless against whatever they choose to do to him. The torture room thus becomes like the bedchamber of the pornographer’s fantasy where, insulated from moral or physical restraint, one human being is free to exercise his imagination to the limits in the performance of vileness upon the body of another.

The fact that the torture room is a site of extreme human experience, accessible to no one save the participants, is a second reason why the novelist in particular should be fascinated by it. Of the character of the novelist, John T. Irwin writes in ”Doubling and Incest/Repetition and Revenge: A Speculative Reading of Faulkner”: ”It is precisely because [ he ] stands outside the dark door, wanting to enter the dark room but unable to, that he is a novelist, that he must imagine what takes place beyond the door. Indeed, it is just that tension toward the dark room that he cannot enter that makes that room the source of all his imaginings – the womb of art.”

To Mr. Irwin (following Freud but also Henry James), the novelist is a person who, camped before a closed door, facing an insufferable ban, creates, in place of the scene he is forbidden to see, a representation of that scene and a story of the actors in it and how they come to be there. Therefore my question should not have been phrased, Why are writers in South Africa drawn to the torture room? The dark, forbidden chamber is the origin of novelistic fantasy per se; in creating an obscenity, in enveloping it in mystery, the state creates the preconditions for the novel to set about its work of representation.

Yet there is something tawdry about following the state in this way, making its vile mysteries the occasion of fantasy. For the writer the deeper problem is not to allow himself to be impaled on the dilemma proposed by the state, namely, either to ignore its obscenities or else to produce representations of them. The true challenge is how not to play the game by the rules of the state, how to establish one’s own authority, how to imagine torture and death on one’s own terms.

This is just right. The whole game for the novelist who would write “politically” is to figure out the very very ambiguous difference between critique and inadvertent PR work. Showing the worst can sometimes – with a deeply dark irony – be doing the very bidding of that which is opposed. On the other hand, as Coetzee has it here, avoiding representation altogether is unacceptable as well.

(There are a few tangential things to mention while on the topic of this essay. First of all, readers of Disgrace should be able to see the centrality of this image of the “torture room” and the “locked door” in that novel… Second – and here’s where things get really complicated – one of the strange facts about Coetzee’s career was that he was able to evade South African censorship when many of his fellow SA writers weren’t. Reportedly, this has to do with the formal and thematic complexity (opacity?) of his early work… a situation that begs important questions about the position taken in the essay above….)

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May 13, 2011 at 2:07 pm

second person – stub post

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In my (contractually limited) fictional endeavors, I find myself falling as if automatically into the second person. The damned you. We all know that this is a more than problematic form, as presumptuous as it is claustrophobic… Wish I could kick the habit.

But on the other hand… And I’m not saying that I’m exactly getting this all the way through at the moment… Another way to look at the second person voice is that it it is a potentially destabilizing, dislocating intensification of the basic presumptions of normative bourgeois fiction, which despite the fact that it’s generally written in the third or, increasingly, the first person, always inevitably involves a sense that you, you normative but cosmopolitan bourgie reader, are right here along for the ride, an acceptable overseer of these sorts of occurrences, situations, affairs. You belong in Ian McEwan’s sitting room or bedroom, or, in a touristical mode, wherever else that the humanitarian aid-working forces of fiction might bring you.

The second-person voice has the potential to render all of this rather uncomfortably close. This is what we might call the political unconscious of agents’ and editors’ resistance to the form. It’s less salable because less readable because it presents itself, self-consciously, as the locked box of bourgie subjectivity that fiction is meant to permit us to inhabit but only ever without letting us see the walls of the cage that we, as we scroll through in our hardbacks or Kindle versions, are currently in.

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January 15, 2011 at 3:31 pm