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eliot / auerbach

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Very strange, and not at all sure what to do with this yet. Might just be a false echo… But as I’ve indicated on here before, I’ve long been fascinated by the final paragraph of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis. Namely…

Beneath the conflicts, an economic and cultural levelling process is taking place. It is still a long way to a common life of mankind on earth, but the goal begins to be visible. And it is most concretely visible now in the unprejudiced, precise, interior and exterior representation of the random moment in the lives of different people. So the complicated process of dissolution which led to fragmentation of the exterior action, to reflection of consciousness, and to stratification of time seems to be tending toward a very simple solution. Perhaps it will be too simple to please those who, despite all its dangers and catastrophes, admire and love our epoch for the sake of its abundance of life and the incomparable historical vantage point which it affords. But they are few in number, and probably they will not live to see much more than the first forewarnings of the approaching unification and simplification.

I discuss it, for instance, in a (strange, wandering) post here. At any rate, I’ve been getting ready to give a lecture today on T.S. Eliot’s essays, and found the following in his 1921 piece The Metaphysical Poets. 

We can only say that it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.

The play of simplicity vs. difficulty (and the gap of a few very important decades) does make me wonder whether there’s a responsive echo going on in Auerbach. Something to look into… (If only there was a good Auerbach biography in English!) What makes it more interesting, perhaps, is that arch-small-c-conservative Eliot is in the midst of laying out his theory of the “dissociation of sensibility” that somehow happened after the seventeenth century (hmmm) while – if very obliquely – Auerbach seems to be suggesting a sort of “re-association of sensibility” in the aftermath of modernism…

More soon if I can find a way / get a chance to look into this further…

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February 9, 2014 at 1:53 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? 

what is difficult

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Flaubert to Colet, 28 June 1853:

it’s so easy to chatter on about the beautiful but to say in good style “close the door” or “he wanted to sleep” requires more genius than giving all the literature courses in the world.

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March 21, 2011 at 1:59 am

Posted in flaubert, simplicity

how many faces can you fit on the face of a single coin?

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Ah! Now I remember what made them laugh during the lecture yesterday. I was teaching in the Anatomy Building (we don’t have that sort of lecture space in the department, so we end up borrowing from the sciences…) and, in addition to pattering on about the vicissitudes of doing English,  I was at one point telling them about paragraphs, how they should recuperate what came in the paragraph before and move things a step forward at the same time. I drew a little picture of Janus on the board as an illustration. And then labelled it, for the benefit of the anatomists who’d be using the room after me, Accurate rendering of the human head, courtesy of your friends in the English department. Defund us now.

Relatedly, and for a variety of reasons, I’ve been thinking a bit about personae, not Pound’s but ours. Specifically, how many of them we can have and how many of them we should have. By persona I suppose I mean nothing more than a fictional version of ourselves that we live up to, disappointingly underperform, sync with in spots, or trade for another as the case may be.

But here’s the real question: When one grows tired of donning the mask that comes along with a particularly arduous role – and how many persona parts are truly easy to play, in the end? – one can either look around for another to wear or one can imagine, or even anticipate, quitting the mask-and-part show altogether. The latter seems preferable, less Sisyphusian, but is hard to manage without subtler, more translucent, but nevertheless just as determinant personae slipping in the back door. So… tired, say, of the oscillation between roguish rambler and upright alpha, one wants to abandon the game altogether, one decides “no more.” But then all the souless robots and assembly-line labourers of art and autistic and desensitized angels start swimming up from below.

In short, to have two or more is hard. One might even be harder. Zero is a beautiful thought but probably impossible. Especially once you’ve gotten even a wee bit meta about the whole issue.

It’s interesting to think that modernism, in its negotiations with the concept of impersonality, grappled with this question all the time. Often, impersonality meant the serial adoption of personae, the preparing of faces to meet the faces that you meet. Impersonality as impersonation, in other words. The Flaubertian fantasy takes a turn at Robert Browning, as the dramatic monologue becomes a holding pen where you can keep the romantic impulse and stay unmucked yourself. But always in the corner of the period’s vision there is another, more profound impersonality, the degree zero of unmasked empty subjectivity, Mrs Ramsay’s wedge-shaped core of darkness.

This core of darkness could go anywhere, for no one saw it. They could not stop it, she thought, exulting. There was freedom, there was peace, there was, most welcome of all, a summoning together, a resting on a platform of stability. Not as oneself did one find rest ever, in her experience (she accomplished here something dexterous with her needles) but as a wedge of darkness. Losing personality, one lost the fret, the hurry, the stir; and there rose to her lips always some exclamation of triumph over life when things came together in this peace, this rest, this eternity…

She gets there, of course, but she only gets there in the way that we all do in the end.

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October 13, 2009 at 7:45 am

the opposite of branded, didactic by accident, impersonal bread

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Print Magazine has a short feature on the Aldi supermarket chain, which it refers to at one point as a “Modernist 99-cent store.” Unfortunately, I can’t find it online, but I’ll type a bit of it up. The person talking in the quotes is “Susan Sellers, partner at the design firm 2X4.”

But once inside the sliding glass doors, we are surrounded by piles – literally piles – of food. Unbranded, unrecognizable, stacked on shipping pallets and in cardboard boxes. No yellow wall of Cheerios, just “toasted oats” on brown boxes: one size, one brand, for almost half the price. No freezers of Ben & Jerry’s, just giant tubs of chocolate and vanilla.

We feel lost.

“Maybe [they] don’t understand that here in the U.S., generic packaging – Helvetica, white, that sort of thing – has this association with the opposite of branded,” Sellers says.

She takes a loaf of bread, swaddled in cellophane, off an eight-crate-high rack. “This is efficient, but it isn’t simple enough to convey freedom from chaos.”

[…]

“Trader Joe’s is about cheap stuff too, but they cultivate a personality. The aesthetic is folksy – like Southwest Airlines – friendly. They wear those Hawaiian shirts. The food is messily displayed. You go there on a Saturday; it’s a madhouse. That’s the Trader Joe’s lifestyle: ideosyncractic, organic.”

Aldi, however, operates with choice-free efficiency. “That’s their biggest gesture: eliminating choice,” Sellers says, ringing up her hot dog buns, veggie chips, pretzels, sugar, and bananas, to the tune of $14.15. “But they’re not in command of the message. It’s didactic by accident.”

I love the bit where the unmarked loaf of bread isn’t “simple” enough, that it doesn’t convey a message (the semi-Orwellian “freedom from chaos” is great too). And I also love the use of the word “personality,” and the implication that Aldi lacks one.

Of course it’s just a marketting come on / business plan, but that doesn’t mean that better things can’t shine through it! Where do you think the productive contradictions are and will be produced, if not in supermarket business plans and customers, well, voting with their feet and the eyes attached! I think we let the Aldi people run the Mosselprom Mini-Markets after the worst is over and better has started up.

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July 18, 2009 at 11:55 pm

Posted in ads, simplicity

auden’s back passage

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I’ve probably quoted enough of David Collard’s piece in the TLS in the post above, but one other thing worth mentioning. Collard quotes Harry Watt description of Auden working at the GPO:

Auden sat down to write his verse . . . . He got a bare table at the end of a dark, smelly corridor. We were now bursting at the seams, and the last corner available was in what was inevitably called “the back passage”. It ran parallel with the theatre, where films were constantly being shown. At one end, a bunch of messenger boys played darts, wrestled, and brewed tea.

At the other end, Auden, serene and uncomplaining, turned out some of the finest verse he has ever written. As it was a commentary, it had, of course, to fit the picture, so he would bring sections to us as he wrote them. When it did not fit, we just said so, and it was crumpled up and thrown into the waste-paper basket! Some beautiful lines and stanzas went into oblivion in this casual, ruthless way. Auden just shrugged, and wrote more.

I’m going to pin this passage somewhere prominent as I get started on my summer work over the next week or so, once the exams and papers are finally marked. I’ve had it with my tempermentalism, my sensitivity to work environments both material and psychological. I can’t work when X happens, I can only work in situation Y, and unless A, B, or C are positioned on my desk / available for consumption / aligned just the right way, then it’s useless even to start.  I’ve gotten into some deeply bad habits with work, you have no idea.

On the other hand, quite a lot of this neurotic tempermentalism is attributable to a general failure of belief. No, not in myself – don’t be silly. But in the disciplines and genres and media in which I do this work. So I’ll have to either sort that out too or simply remember to stop caring and do it anyway.

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May 21, 2009 at 10:33 pm

Posted in auden, me, simplicity

i am a crisis of capitalism, i am the epic fail, i will keep my mbp

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still life with macbook pro, gerhard richter should clip and paint this, especially since I tastefully removed the K-1664 can before I took the shot

This is meant to be, I guess, dialectically related to the previous post. I would have slammed them together, but the thetical numbers didn’t look good with all of the pictures in the way:

The aura of my Macbook Pro has changed since the start of the economic crisis. The machine used to look like the latest iteration of an unceasing chain of ever-better machines, proceding from the ancient IBM Thinkpad I took with me to college (didn’t even have an ethernet slot, so I was off the internet just when the fun was starting) through some junky and less junky Dell desktops and laptops purchased through my grad school’s arrangement with the company, toward my first Powerbook and a MacBook force-gifted to my wife when I decided I needed more umpf, to this baby that I’m typing on right now and then beyond, to the thinner, better battery-life devices that I’d have next, that I’d be buying right about now. The general plan had been to keep them until there’s a year or so left on the extended warranty, buy a new fancy new cutting edge device, and then sell the old one carrying the remaining cover on eBay. But I’d sometimes even jump the gun on that plan, if the getting was good.

Gradually, over the last several months, something has slipped. I’ve started viewing my MBP not as an evolutionary space-holder, simply waiting for it’s faster, better descendent to come along and take it’s place on my kitchen table, but rather as a long-term tool, something that I’ll keep around until it dies. I’ll last past the end of the warranty; I’ll pay to have it fixed. It’s hard drive is maxed out and I spent a large section of the night deleting old duplicate photographs to make more room. (We loved you Mr. Pepys, 2003-2004 RIP, but twenty pictures of you licking your sister and hiding in an empty cereal box and gurgling at birds through the window in Brooklyn are probably all that we can carry with us into the future, given the fact I’ve only got 400 MB of space left!) Obviously it won’t be my computer for life, these things are engineered to be that, but it feels that way for now – which is a new and historically symptomatic way for me to feel, all things considered.

Of course, this reaction is entirely knee-jerk and over-ambient. I haven’t lost money in this thing (well, my TIAA-CREF account has been shredded, but there were only like $8000 in there anyway. My only investment strategy was to bet against my better instincts…. It’s like putting money down against your hometown team in the Superbowl – either way you win, sorta…. I’ll just work until I die, I suppose….) and I could still afford to keep up my stupid mac-loyalty and pre-obsolescent replacement plan if I really wanted to. *

So the question of the previous post remains: what would it take to turn my silly performance of austerity, emblematic of the behavior patterns that are leading the Italian restaurants to ply you with free booze, into something that could actually reap left-benefit. I watch myself in these things because I am normal enough, in some important ways, to work as my own canary in the c.m.

* I know. I bought the eee. But the eee is not a computer, it is a secondary device. And it cost one-sixth of what I’d pay if I were to upgrade the MBP. The point holds, I think. Unless it doesn’t.

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February 24, 2009 at 12:05 am

Posted in me, simplicity