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the thick now of modernity

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Modernity is the name that a culture gives to itself (its period as a metonym for itself as a whole) when it experiences the present thickly. It names itself in terms of an infinitely expandable, yet blank, present periodicity rather than any non-abstract referent.

Just how thick modernity is is captured elegantly by the appearance of phrases such as “post-modernity” or “late modernity,” which suggest a now so thick that it has phases or even outlives its own end. If something ended in order to give on to postmodernity, it is something not much more than the now that precedes our present even thicker now.

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March 28, 2011 at 12:29 pm

Posted in temporality

“the world is leaking”: a new temporality of disaster for a new decade

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True to his word, Giovanni Tiso has written an excellent post on the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Definitely go take a look…

I’m fascinated by the oil spill cam too, and like Giovanni said in my comments, there’s something mesmerizing about it, hypnotic. The Icelandic volcano seemed bent on introducing us to a new temporality of disaster for a new decade, replacing the shock and awe of telegenic terror attacks and rapidly escalating infection rates and (again telegenic) bombing raids, the tsunamis and earthquakes and hurricanes, that characterized the aughts with the awful banality of destructive persistence. But the gusher in the Gulf adjusts this new apocalyptic rhythm to the right physical scale.

Rather than the top of a mountain blowing off and then, surprisingly, causing real problems when it simply continues to smolder, we have a relatively small pipe at the bottom of the sea per-houring and per-minuting the Gulf toward total environmental collapse – and who knows what else.

I’m pretty immune to prophetic anthropomorphism, reading the palm lines of the image, and pathetic fallacy in general. I seriously mistrust Jamesonian acolytes for their tendency to just this sort of thing. (And that’s not the only faulty move I’m making in this post… Who gives a shit about “decades,” right?) There’s no Spielburgian divinity or Weltgeist storyboarding these things out to tell us something that we should already know… (Thankfully, really – we’ve got enough real problems to deal with without waking up to find a burning bush in the back garden etc) Being in England is only encouraging any I refute it thus-ism that was latently present in my makeup.

But on the other hand, it’s really, really hard not to read the whole world into and out of this one, hard not to take it as a sign of some sort that times have changed, and in particular not to anticipate lots more bad plumbing in the years to come….

(I should note – and not just here, but in an email to someone that I’m way overdue on – that Jonathan Lethem’s still newish Chronic City does a pretty good job of capturing this “new” temporality of disaster in narrative form…. I’ll try to say more about this when I’ve got more time, which has to happen sooner or later, right?)

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June 1, 2010 at 12:49 am

our daily bread: quotidian / epiousios

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From Jon Meacham’s review of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch in today’s NYTBR:

[I]n a wonderfully revealing insight of MacCulloch’s, that the “daily bread” for which countless Christians ask in the Lord’s Prayer is not what most people think it is, a humble plea for sustenance. “Daily” is the common translation of the Greek word epiousios, which in fact means “of extra substance” or “for the morrow.” As MacCulloch explains, epiousios “may point to the new time of the coming kingdom: there must be a new provision when God’s people are hungry in this new time — yet the provision for the morrow must come now, because the kingdom is about to arrive.” We are a long way from bedtime prayers here.

Wonderfully reminiscent of the strange dialectical temporalities at play in, say, Benjamin’s theses “On the Philosophy of History,” that. The ur-symbol of the quotidian is actually, when the translation engine is run in reverse, revealed to be shot through with a kind of post-redemptive future anteriority. Because of the imminence of redemption, we must start asking now for what we’ll need after the redemption. And we ask in terms derived from the needs that will be abolished with the redemption, because they are the only terms (and needs) that we know. Because of this, we modify these present terms with a single word that means at once of different substance and not now but very soon. Wonderful….

And more wonderful still: the fact that implicit in the entire complicated structure is the fact that with the arrival of the redemption comes not the abolition of needs but rather their metamorphosis and augmentation – perhaps even their drastic intensification…

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April 4, 2010 at 8:48 am

Posted in benjamin, temporality

“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

la jetée in starbucks, lukács on durée

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Lukács in The Theory of the Novel:

The greatest discrepancy between idea and reality [in the novel of romantic disillusionment] is time: the process of time as duration. The most profound and most humiliating impotence of subjectivity consists not so much in its hopeless struggle against the lack of idea in social forms and their human representatives, as in the fact that it cannot resist the sluggish, yet constant process of time; that it must slip down, slowly yet inexorably, from the peaks it has laboriously scaled; that time – that ungraspable, invisibly moving substance – gradually robs subjectivity of all its possessions and imperceptibly forces alien contents into it. That is why only the novel, the literary form of the transcendent homelessness of the idea, includes real time – Bergson’s durée – among its constitutive principles.

In Starbucks again, just about the same time as yesterday when I posted. There are American kids sitting across from me, Americans on their collegiate trip to Europe. He is trying to repair his rolling suitcase; the handle has come off and he’s bought some electrical tape.

The approximation of manhood, of male adulthood, that is taping a handle back to the place where it belongs, weaving the tape in and out into a silver X on a black bag, around and around and then giving it a strong tug to see if it will hold…. this is familiar. On our first trip to Europe, 1996, the key broke off in my luggage lock. We were staying in a shitty hotel on Rue Monsieur Le Prince, and I couldn’t think of the French word for hammer. Un mallet madame? Il faut que je utilise un mallet pour ouvrir le…. mon sac. She ignored us; I found a large stone in the Jardin du Luxembourg the next day and bashed the fucker open.

On our last trip to Europe before we had children, was it 2003, the wheel broke off my rolling bag as we made our way to the Earls Court Tube on our way to a flight to Ireland. My wife was to give a paper at a conference on television; I was to stalk around the city for several days and I did! But first, I had to purchase a new and incredibly expensive bag at the Left Luggage stall at Waterloo Station, a Left Luggage stall that I now see all the time while I stand around under the clock, waiting for my nights out to start.

What Lukács means to say, ultimately, maybe, is that you start by breaking your bag and then fixing it in Europe and you end by taking pictures of American kids whose bags are broken and then fixed. That’s just the sort of electrical tape that holds the thing together as a form. It’s bourgeois and subsumed with the melancholy of that class, its temporal dysfunction. And as such, like all bourgeois forms, especially the melancholic ones, it potentially repurposeable but only with great care and difficulty.

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July 30, 2009 at 11:55 am

Posted in novel, temporality

the politics of time

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I didn’t realize that Peter Osborne’s The Politics of Time is available on-line and in full. Shows how the world’s changed in only a few years. I heard about this book just as I was finishing my PhD not too many years ago, and checked it out of my university’s library. It was astoundingly good and helpful… The stuff on Heidegger and Benjamin, in particular, left a real mark on me and has influence my work significantly. But the problem was, back then as I was finishing up, that there was only one copy in our library and as soon as I would get my hands on it, it would get recalled. I hemmed and hawed because it was out of print, and the only copies on Amazon were selling for more than $100. Eventually, that’s just what I paid for it – and probably had it back in my hands too late to use it the way I needed to.

At my previous job, I insisted that my graduate seminar of 20+ students read it… Even if it was unlikely that all or any of them would be able to get their hands on copies. (I reproduced the last chapter for them…) Anyway, all of this would have been moot if it had been on-line as it is now. So, you know, obviously – go read! It’s free!

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July 9, 2009 at 2:28 pm

Posted in temporality, theory

the slowness of birth

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Like every other “life event,” giving birth has an odder temporality than one is led to expect by ambient cultural models, fiction and movies, and the like. Some of my favorite moments in fiction take up this issue – Emma Bovary’s death, which seems to go on for ever and ever, the slow starvation of Michael K. in Coetzee’s novel.

We’re used to laughing at Emma’s question: Et Emma cherchait à savoir ce que l’on entendait au juste dans la vie par les mots de félicité, de passion, et d’ivresse, qui lui avaient paru si beaux dans les livres. But then again, what words and abstract concepts mean in life is exactly what good novels, like the novel in which she lives, show. And what they show, again and again, is that above all else these things mean a particular way that time passes, generally more slowly than one would expect.

I spend my working life thinking ever more deeply into the following passage from Lukács Theory of the Novel:

The greatest discrepancy between idea and reality [in the novel of romantic disillusionment] is time: the process of time as duration. The most profound and most humiliating impotence of subjectivity consists not so much in its hopeless struggle against the lack of idea in social forms and their human representatives, as in the fact that it cannot resist the sluggish, yet constant process of time; that it must slip down, slowly yet inexorably, from the peaks it has laboriously scaled; that time – that ungraspable, invisibly moving substance – gradually robs subjectivity of all its possessions and imperceptibly forces alien contents into it. That is why only the novel, the literary form of the transcendent homelessness of the idea, includes real time – Bergson’s durée – among its constitutive principles.

I suppose what I should start saying when I say that I don’t believe in the event is that I do in fact believe in events, I just think that those events take time, sometimes astoundingly long periods of time. When I resist the im selben Augenblick temporality of certain strands of the analysis of the modern, this, at base, is what I’m talking about. I am not sure whether I learned to be this way from reading novels, or if I found in the novel a materialization of what I had always been thinking about, looking to think about.

And so here we are. The water (or as they say here, waters) broke last night, and we drove through the deserted streets of North London down to the hospital – a hospital that happens to be located exactly across the street from my place of work. The midwife checked – yes, the waters have broken. Everyone is healthy but no real contractions have started, and so we are sent home. We will return today if they start. Or, if not, we will return tomorrow morning to “be induced.” There was a little bed in the room, pictured above, waiting to catch what came.

This sort of thing happened the last time around too – “giving birth” spread into a two day process. But it still takes one by surprise, when it happens this way. I guess I’ll read the book that I am supposed to review today. If we’re not moving forward tonight, perhaps we’ll check into a hotel downtown, a hotel I pass every day on the way to the Underground, and wait through another night of slowly giving birth.

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April 20, 2009 at 10:45 am

Posted in novel, temporality