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march of the headless women / fictionality, character identification, and whateverness

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Interesting synchronictiy. The other day I was in a Waterstones and was stunned yet again at the fact that the “headless women” book covers are still proliferating. What are the “headless women” book covers? Well, take a look here or here or here. Or take a look at this one, which happened to be on display on the 3-for-2 rack at the Waterstones in question, and which was written by an author I’ve met a few times.

It’s pretty obvious what’s interesting / discomforting / grating about the proliferation of covers of this sort. Implicit in their ubiquity is a sense on publishers’ parts that female readers, when choosing a novel, want to be able to project themselves into the work, to occupy the place of the female protagonist. If the person pictured on the cover of the book were to possess a head, and in particular a face, this would somehow block the ability for them to do so: But I don’t have red hair! But my eyes aren’t that colour! My cheekbones aren’t at all like that! It’s notable that works aimed at male audiences don’t take the same tack – often foregoing the depiction of people on the cover altogether.

Pretty condescending, isn’t it? Unfortunately one has a sense that the publishers know what works, and wouldn’t be doing this if it didn’t work to some degree. I’ve seen an argument on twitter – now lost to us, as it was months ago – in which a PR person for a publisher responded to criticism of the practice with something like “I know, I know – it’s awful. But what do you want us to do about it? The books won’t move off the shelves if we don’t.”

Depressing. But here’s the interesting part. It just so happens that I had assigned – and had to prepare to teach early this week – a fantastic essay by Catherine Gallagher called “The Rise of Fictionality,” which was published in Franco Moretti’s magisterial anthology on the novel. (Luckily for you – and for me as I rushed to get the students a copy of it – PUP has the essay on-line here.) The essay is a vivid and succinct historicization of the emergence of fiction as a category in eighteenth-century Britain, a category born out of divergence both from “factual” writing and (and here’s where the brilliance of the piece truly lies) “fantastical” writing as well.

I won’t go into all the nuances of the argument here – do yourself a favour and read the piece. But here’s a few paragraphs that seem especially relevant to the acephalous women of Waterstones:

That apparent paradox—that readers attach themselves to characters be­cause of, not despite, their fictionality—was acknowledged and discussed by eighteenth-century writers. As I have already mentioned, they noticed that the fictional framework established a protected affective enclosure that en­couraged risk-free emotional investment. Fictional characters, moreover, were thought to be easier to sympathize or identify with than most real peo­ple. Although readers were often called to be privileged and superior wit­nesses of protagonists’ follies, they were also expected to imagine themselves as the characters. “All joy or sorrow for the happiness or calamities of oth­ers,” Samuel Johnson explained, “is produced by an act of the imagination, that realizes the event however fictitious . . . by placing us, for a time, in the condition of him whose fortune we contemplate” (Johnson 1750). What seemed to make novelistic “others” outstanding candidates for such realiza­tions was the fact that, especially in contradistinction to the figures who pointedly referred to actual individuals, they were enticingly unoccupied. Because they were haunted by no shadow of another person who might take priority over the reader as a “real” referent, anyone might appropriate them. No reader would have to grapple with the knowledge of some real-world double or contract an accidental feeling about any actual person by making the temporary identification. Moreover, unlike the personae of tragedy or legend, novelistic characters tended to be commoners, who would fall be­neath the notice of history proper, and so they tended to carry little extratex­tual baggage. As we have noticed, they did carry the burden of the type, what Henry Fielding called the “species,” which he thought was a turntable for aiming reference back at the reader; a fictional “he” or “she” should re­ally be taken to mean “you.” But in the case of many novel characters, even the “type” was generally minimized by the requirement that the character escape from the categorical in the process of individuation. The fact that “le personnage . . . n’est personne” was thought to be precisely what made him or her magnetic.

Some recent critics are reviving this understanding and venturing to propose that we, like our eighteenth-century predecessors, feel things for characters not despite our awareness of their fictionality but because of it. Consequently, we cannot be dissuaded from identifying with them by re­minders of their nonexistence. We have plenty of those, and they configure our emotional responses in ways unique to fiction, but they do not diminish our feeling. We already know, moreover, that all of our fictional emotions are by their nature excessive because they are emotions about nobody, and yet the knowledge does not reform us. Our imagination of characters is, in this sense, absurd and (perhaps) legitimately embarrassing, but it is also constitutive of the genre, and it requires more explanation than the eighteenth-century commentators were able to provide.

That is to say, the “headlessness” of the fictional character, their availability to us because they are unblocked by connection to a “real person” and thus readily available for readerly identification, may be “absurd and (perhaps) legitimately embarrassing,” as are the images on the covers in the bookshop, but it is also one of the things that makes fiction what it is, and is what accounts for the special mental and emotional states that we experience as we read them.But to take this a step further (and here I am drawing out some of Gallagher’s arguments and taking them in a slightly different direction) it’s possible that reflections of Gallagher’s sort (and even the instinct catered to by the contemporary covers) point us to different sensibility about the ideology of fiction.

In short, we are made anxious about the protagonism of fiction, the structural mandate that it forces or soothes us into identification with the autonomous or semi-autonomous individual as such, that it serves as an advertisement for intricate interiority and in so doing may urge us away from the consideration of the exterior. But if it is the case that the fictionality of the fictional character is grounded on a certain availability, a certain openness, even a certain whateverness, we might be licensed to think that the ideological underpinnings of fiction are far more complex than conventional (literary Marxist) wisdom suggests. Rather than a cult of personality, fiction, at base, might start to seem a space for the emergence of impersonality – and rather than simply markers of readerly solipsism and commercial cynicism, the book covers above might suggest a nascently radical instinct lurking just below the surface of the Waterstones transaction.

Written by adswithoutproducts

January 10, 2013 at 12:49 pm

Posted in agamben, fiction, novel, whatever

phrase making

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It would seem best to take the list of things, the bullet points, that the editor wrote and address them one by one and cross them off as he goes. That way, he would know where he is, what is left to be done, and most importantly, will know that he’s done when he’s done.

Listening to music helped in the past. As only half of whales’ brains fall asleep, since the sea is not a bed, so is it better for only half of his brain to be awake, because this work is not more easily done while entirely awake.

It would seem best to make of a list of things to do each day, including (especially!) the banal things that he always seems to forget to do. It would start with a time to wake, some early exercise (a run and then some sit-ups seems a good way to start), shower, breakfast and a certain number of newspapers (not all of them – only the essential ones) and then dressing and heading into his office. It would detail the work to be done each day and the time periods during which he would do each element of it, as well as time for reading. He wouldn’t list times to smoke, though that might help too, but he would list lunch and where to obtain it. It would end with writing a list for the next day, checking the list for the time that he is to wake the next day, setting the alarm on his phone for the time that he is to wake the next day, and then going to sleep.

New forms of semi-synchronous communication are invented and then adopted only to make things worse.

Teach the child to follow rules that are suspended on a promise of reward and punishment, I mean teach him to really follow those rules, and the child will likely grow into a man who still follows rules despite the fact that the structures of reward and punishment have changed but then, if something happens, and the structures of reward and punishment recede or disappear entirely, the child, now long since a man, will lose the track of the rules and reward and punishment and only be able to simulate vaguely the motions of obedience, self-protection, and self-promotion. Like the proverbial chicken less her head, like the robot that’s been dismembered in the movie, the unemployed pater familias who nonetheless besuitedly drives down the driveway each morning on his way to nowhere – his limbs twitch reflexively but the concertedness is not there. The cohesion of forward, purposeful movement is missing.

It’s nothing like the intimate, infinite negotiations with god during puberty. This is something else entirely.

A basic absence of a certain creative or at least chaotic element in his make up that might be necessary in order to fulfill certain aspirations, like the creation of artistic works or falling in love. His own dawning sense (when?) of the basic absence of those elements or faculties. Dumb notions that they can be externally triggered. The possibility that the desire to fulfill those aspirations (that is to say, the fact that they are aspirations at all) is perversely though not-unsurprisingly given what we know fueled by his very sense of the impossibility of fulfilling them due to the fact that his is missing certain faculties. Above all, the haunting sense that those faculties are possessed by no one anywhere and that they are just a comforting / explicatory myth that people have repeated and in repeating endorsed over the many years of human existence.

A dull cough. Sputum. A buzzing numbness all over that he used to feel was anxiety but now worries is a blood sugar level issue but on the other hand he is continually unsure of whether he hasn’t always in fact felt this buzzing numbness and just attributed it to something else. Things like hypocritical rage at his situation, other people, etc.

Phrases occur. “Like a football player with amazing straight-ahead speed but who lumbers laterally…” A pleasure in phrase making coupled with a disappointment at himself as these aren’t the phrases that he is supposed to be making. But pleasure enough to keep making them, especially when they stack like the dummy text, the pig latin, that lines the boxes where you put the corrected copy.

And then of course there is history. The drama of subjectivation (historical, personal). The sons burning the father to the ground again and again and again and the totem pole too but only this time getting it right in the aftermath. Learning to divide the sisters and mothers up logically, in accordance with sort preternaturally sophisticated system of eugenics that some now call attraction. Also book learning and savings accounts. Ships that leave the port and actually return again, a few years later, filled with different things. The sons draw up a train schedule, build a garden suburb, play in a local adult basketball league.

Once a month the sons go to the pub and – only in jest, never for serious or keeps – hit on the girls and mothers that are left, the ones they forgot to divide or held out just for the sake of keeping the old rituals alive.

Written by adswithoutproducts

August 7, 2012 at 3:20 pm

Posted in whatever

vampirising the vampires, or trolling the trolls (i could never figure out the difference)

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Nice when a review can help out. Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism never uses the phrase “pseudo-marketization” or any variant thereupon. You can go amazon and search it this way and that and you’ll never find it. Neither will you find reference to “simulation” in this regard in his book. But these phrases have become touchstones, really the centerpieces, of interviews and talks in the wake of its release. It’s even more prominent in the talk I just linked to, but here’s some copyable print:

But the phrase ‘pseudo-marketisation’ is crucial — what we have in public services is an absurd simulation of market mechanisms rather the market as such, a kind of worst of all worlds scenario in which a simulated market goes alongside continuing surveillance and monitoring from state bodies.

Well, here’s me on the book, from the day of its official release back in December:

It’s not even the standard story about privatization that Mark is ultimately telling here, though it’s a related story. Rather, Capitalist Realism is ultimately focused on something else – the ways that public institutions that haven’t and likely won’t be privatized have been forced (have been forced to) to participate in simulated markets, where a rigorous regime of testing on a set of metrics replaces the invisible hand of the market. It’s a governmental gambit driven at once by a desire to reduce funding across the board and to convince voters that they are taking the efficacy of public institutions very seriously. Since it couldn’t / can’t actually expose some public institutions to market forces through opening competition or privatization, New Labour established (and continues to establish) pseudo-markets, fake market-like games, for public institutions to compete in in order to obtain funding.

Glad to be of help, I suppose. But perhaps in exchange for providing usefully clarifying language, he could agree to drop the gray vampire / troll stuff from now until the end of time? Because when he says that…

Grey Vampires don’t feed on energy directly, they feed on obstructing projects. The problem is that, often, they don’t know that they are doing this. (That’s one difference between them and a troll – trolls usually aren’t under any illusions about themselves, they just find spurious justifications for their activities.) There is very definitely a type of person who is a Grey Vampire – I’ve encountered a few, and, once their shield of sociability and charm falls away, they become revealed as horribly, tragically cursed, existentially blighted. But the Grey Vampire is also a subject position that (any)one can be lured into if you enter certain structures. Part of the reason I can’t hack it as an academic is that, in a university environment, I invariably find myself pincered between the troll and Grey Vampire positions. That’s why I sincerely admire anyone who can pursue a project in the academy.

… but then proceeds to co-opt the selfsame (ugh) vampire’s contribution without reference, it all starts to look a bit nervous and shifty, no?

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February 14, 2010 at 4:38 am

junkbooks

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Jack Womack, whose novels I really really like though I am hard to please when it comes to that genre, is guest-blogging at William Gibson’s site. Basically, he’s just posting images of books from his intimidatingly interesting library of sub-literary detritus. Go look!

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March 23, 2009 at 9:48 am

Posted in whatever

strange fits of passion: wordsworth, poetry, masturbation, whatever

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If it were a different age of criticism, back in the time of queering and general erotic teaseout, maybe I’d write a paper on masturbation and the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads.

Sex is, afterall, all over the text, even if it’s generally woven underneath the fold euphemistically. There’s of course the description of poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” as well as the location of the origin of the form in “emotion recollected in tranquility.” One goes out into the world to see things, one comes home a bit agitated, one recollects the moment of agitation and its source, and the “powerful feelings” overflow out onto the page. Further, there’s the moment where, despite Wordsworth’s argument that the poet isn’t different from other men in kind but rather only degree (whatever ordinary men are, he’s just that, only moreso), he additionally possesses

a disposition to be affected more than other men by absent things as if they were present; an ability of conjuring up in himself passions, which are indeed far from being the same as those produced by real events, yet (especially in those parts of the general sympathy which are pleasing and delightful) do more nearly resemble the passions produced by real events, than any thing which, from the motions of their own minds merely, other men are accustomed to feel in themselves; whence, and from practice, he has acquired a greater readiness and power in expressing what he thinks and feels, and especially those thoughts and feelings which, by his own choice, or from the structure of his own mind, arise in him without immediate external excitement.

Just to parse this quickly: what the poet comes up with isn’t quite the Real Thing, but it’s a lot more like the Real Thing than normal people are apt to come up with “without immediate external excitement.” Absent things as if present, right? Back at home, “in tranquility.” Got it.

But there’s something else to this, something almost fully manifest in that passage, but which comes out much more clearly later on. Sex is referenced directly only once, in the course of Wordsworth’s defense of his decision to write in meter rather than prose.

The only point that it is presented directly is this one, part of the defence of his decision to write in meter rather than prose that comes toward the end of the Preface. He’s talking here about the pleasure inheritent in metrically-arranged language.

If I had undertaken a systematic defence of the theory upon which these poems are written, it would have been my duty to develope the various causes upon which the pleasure received from metrical language depends. Among the chief of these causes is to be reckoned a principle which must be well known to those who have made any of the Arts the object of accurate reflection; I mean the pleasure which the mind derives from the perception of similitude in dissimilitude. This principle is the great spring of the activity of our minds, and their chief feeder. From this principle the direction of the sexual appetite, and all the passions connected with it take their origin: It is the life of our ordinary conversation; and upon the accuracy with which similitude in dissimilitude, and dissimilitude in similitude are perceived, depend our taste and our moral feelings. It would not have been a useless employment to have applied this principle to the consideration of metre, and to have shewn that metre is hence enabled to afford much pleasure, and to have pointed out in what manner that pleasure is produced. But my limits will not permit me to enter upon this subject, and I must content myself with a general summary.

So he’s not got time or space to go into it here…. But he’s speculating that meter has something to do with the play of similitude and dissimilitude that defines not only poetry but sexual desire… as well as the linguistic materialization of sociality, i.e. discourse, itself. Great little crackle of panic there at the end of the paragraph, dodging the conjunction he’s come up with here but doesn’t and/or won’t tease out, and it makes sense that he retreats from here back into the full enunciation of the emotion in tranquility / overflow of powerful feelings bit.

Now, I don’t have time either (not because I’m panicked, I don’t think, nor because I’m rushing off to masturbate or anything – it’s just time for bed, and I have to get up early) but if I were to write my paper on Wordsworth, the Preface, and Masturbation, I’d go long with the idea that what we have here is a negotiation, conducted simultaneously in aesthetic and tacticly sexual but also social terms about what this new form of lyrical poetry is going to be about, ultimately. Further, he doesn’t here specify how similarity and dissimilarity work for either poetic pleasure or sexual desire: does he mean, when it comes to the latter, that you like girls because they’re like boys only not… or is it something even more interesting, something like a phenotypical notion of attraction. You like her because she looks like others, only in her own way.

The object of poetry, if I had time, if I had time, might in the “Preface” end up related to something in between the generic images that you temporally make solely your own when you have sex by and with yourself and the everyone else that  you love in your particular beloved.

We’re treading toward the whatever here, in more than one sense. Sorry that you’re my notebook. But he’s up to something interesting here that’s not entirely unlike the sort of stuff that drew me to the book that gave this blog its name. More soon, as always!

Written by adswithoutproducts

January 14, 2009 at 2:17 am

Posted in aesthetics, poetry, sex, whatever