Archive for the ‘woolf’ Category
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.
What we love in Woolf, for instance, is the infolding out of the parts of the social map that aren’t supposed to touch so that they do. Remember when Peter Walsh walks past Septimus and Rezia losing their shit in Regent’s Park (he’s talking to a dead man; she’s married to a guy who talks to dead men) and gets the whole thing so very wrong and so very right at the same time?
And that is being young, Peter Walsh thought as he passed them. To be having an awful scene—the poor girl looked absolutely desperate—in the middle of the morning. But what was it about, he wondered, what had the young man in the overcoat been saying to her to make her look like that; what awful fix had they got themselves into, both to look so desperate as that on a fine summer morning? The amusing thing about coming back to England, after five years, was the way it made, anyhow the first days, things stand out as if one had never seen them before; lovers squabbling under a tree; the domestic family life of the parks. Never had he seen London look so enchanting—the softness of the distances; the richness; the greenness; the civilisation, after India, he thought, strolling across the grass.
Those five years—1918 to 1923—had been, he suspected, somehow very important. People looked different. Newspapers seemed different. Now for instance there was a man writing quite openly in one of the respectable weeklies about water-closets. That you couldn’t have done ten years ago—written quite openly about water-closets in a respectable weekly. And then this taking out a stick of rouge, or a powder-puff and making up in public. On board ship coming home there were lots of young men and girls—Betty and Bertie he remembered in particular—carrying on quite openly; the old mother sitting and watching them with her knitting, cool as a cucumber. The girl would stand still and powder her nose in front of every one. And they weren’t engaged; just having a good time; no feelings hurt on either side. As hard as nails she was—Betty What’shername—; but a thorough good sort. She would make a very good wife at thirty—she would marry when it suited her to marry; marry some rich man and live in a large house near Manchester.
That sort of thing – the violent intersection, the missed opportunity to see what is hiding in plain sight there on the park bench all while he actually does see it. The bringing together of things already together but also not – things that should be brought together but from another perspective shouldn’t ever be brought together, not in a million years. Hard not to think of that sort of thing, anyway, when you read something like this in the NYT today:
The Army plans to require that all 1.1 million of its soldiers take intensive training in emotional resiliency, military officials say.
The training, the first of its kind in the military, is meant to improve performance in combat and head off the mental health problems, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide, that plague about one-fifth of troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.
Active-duty soldiers, reservists and members of the National Guard will receive the training, which will also be available to their family members and to civilian employees.
The new program is to be introduced at two bases in October and phased in gradually throughout the service, starting in basic training. It is modeled on techniques that have been tested mainly in middle schools.
Usually taught in weekly 90-minute classes, the methods seek to defuse or expose common habits of thinking and flawed beliefs that can lead to anger and frustration — for example, the tendency to assume the worst. (“My wife didn’t answer the phone; she must be with someone else.”)
What a juxtaposition! Training these poor fuckers to handle, say, exposure to (or even perpetration of) the mass severing of limbs, the reduction of human beings to mist, the serial death of friends and children, intersections of metal and glass and human flesh so baroquely gruesome that Ballard would have been strained to imagine them, all via the confrontation of the most banal of domestic paranoid fantasies, the very stuff of soapy quotidianity: she isn’t picking up the phone because she’s busy being fucked by another man.
Perhaps it will work, who knows. We are strange, strange creatures and we do even stranger things to one another. At any rate, I’ve just added the Times bit into my book, the opening pages of it…
Usually when we think about the literature of the single day (think of high modernist texts like Ulysses or Mrs Dalloway) we tend to think of the formal gesture at play as one that materializes, at base, the progressive and secularizing side of modernism. At least I usually think about it this way. Framing a text around a single day in the life of relatively ordinary people seems to represent a secularization of literary time, a turn away from the theologically-inspired teleologies and rhythms that normally structure (or had normally structured) literary works. Whereas the novel that follows its characters over long durations is the stuff of dynastic succession or in its more modern guise family inheritane, the work focused on a single day pulls us back to the everyday life of the man or woman on the street. There’s less room for parents or pedigree, more room for the common experiences and practices of modern life.
I’m not alone in thinking this way. Remember the conclusion of Erich Auerbach’s chapter on Woolf in Mimesis? Now, the chapter focuses on To the Lighthouse not Dalloway, and the former isn’t a one day novel but a two-day-plus-a-longer-weirder-stretch-in-the-middle novel, but I think the point that he makes here is appropriate:
Beneath the conflicts, an economic and cultural leveling 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.
There’s a lot to unpack here, of course, but I think you see why the quote interests me here. The “representation of the random moment in the lives of different people” seems to augur a coming “leveling,” the emergence of some sort of “common life of mankind on earth.” The equation seems to run, at least here, for Auerbach, that the focus on ordinary, random time (like the mostly random time of Joyce and Woolf’s novels) suggests a turn to a politics of ordinary commonality.
Again, this is how I usually see these things, talk and write about them, and teach them. And I teach them all the time…
But, on the other hand, I’ve been listening to a lot of Radiohead (hahaha) recently and tons of Lou Reed (forever). And of late, two songs – one from each – have crystallized into a little mutually reinforcing dyad in my mind. They somehow came together on a playlist that I made, and everyone knows that random playlist juxtapositioning represents one of the key dark arts of advanced literary criticism and analysis. So… Here are the songs.
I realize that these two songs focus not so much on an “ordinary day” but a “perfect day.” Reed’s seems pretty pointedly ordinary though, but, no, we have no idea what constitutes the day that TY references. (Given the songs that precede it on In Rainbows, it’s hard not to come up with better-than-usual adulterous sex, but really, who knows… I guess the more likely and much tamer reading is that somebody’s about to kick the bucket… But I like mine better…)
Anyway, why so melancholy, Lou and Thom? Why has thinking about time in terms of the “single day” become so menacingly depressive or depressively menacing? Or was it always this way, right from the start?
Look, I know that this is, well, quite a literary historical leap that I’m trying to make, tracing a dynamic from a point marked Woolf and Joyce in the 1920s to Relatively Recent Music for Perpetually-Adolescent Depressives. I’m playing fast and loose, but I still think there’s something here. I could get all Benjaminian on you and take you down the Erlebnis / Erfahrung path. You know, the one that goes like this in the Baudelaire essay that’s in Illuminations:
The greater the shock factor in particular impressions, the more vigilant consciousness has to be in screening stimuli; the more efficiently it does so, the less these impressions enter long experience [Erfahrung] and the more they correspond to the concept of isolated experience [Erlebnis]. Perhaps the special achievement of shock defense is the way it assigns an incident a precise point in time in consciousness, at the cost of the integrity of the incident’s contents. This would be a peak achievement of the intellect; it would turn the incident into an isolated experience.
This stuff, by the way, goes perfectly with one of the general thematic concerns of Radiohead’s In Rainbows, which this very interesting post labels “data melancholy.” (Short version: the pathos in “Videotape” is as much a matter of storing the experience on a degradable and obsolete medium like a VHS tape as it is about, you know, leaving this perfect day behind. The act of preserving the single day (whether in a song or on tape or in a song about tape) reechoes the data loss that occurs due to the shock defense and its characteristic temporality in the first place.)
All that’s there, but I think there’s something else – something that definitely runs in parallel with this issue – that’s at once easier and harder to get at.What the songs underscore, both in their own way, is that the very act of framing time in terms of the single “perfect” day is itself a stress reaction, one that exposes not so much perfection of the day in question as the disastrous or even dystopian nature of the other days that surround it. While Benjamin is getting at the stress or shock on the level of perception or epistemology; Reed and Radiohead broaden the scope out to history, personal (explicitly) and extrapersonal (implicitly). How else to explain the apocalyptic overtone that sneaks back into both songs: the biblical sowing and reaping in Reed and portentous vagueness of “No matter what happens now” in “Videotape.” (Again, if you listen to the rest of the stuff on In Rainbows and the supplementary materials the band released with it, like for instance this, which itself is a song preoccupied with the relationship between time and disaster, you get a few ideas about just what might be happening now in the context of the song…)
The literary historical conclusion that we can get to out of all of this is a little pedestrian, but still worth saying. If the modernist single day texts are vaguely utopian in terms of their very temporality, these utopian temporalities themselves bear the marks of being stress reactions to a string of epistemological, existential, and historical crises that provoked them. This seems a bit obvious, and it is, but not to everyone. (I once got in a fight with a dickheaded senior prof in my old department about a question that I asked in a PhD exam about the role that the first world war plays in Ulysses. He argued that it, of course, plays no role because the work is set in 1904, and thus my question was unfair and illegitimate. I was on my way out of the department, so it was really tempting to explain to him what a fucking idiot he was, but I generally save my anger for my blog, so I didn’t…) With Woolf, it is relatively easy to see how the ordinariness of Clarissa’s single day concretizes itself against the impinging historico-political exterior, trying unsuccessfully to hold it away as it threatens her party etc. With Joyce, this is a bit tougher to see, but it starts to shed light on the relationship between the temporal cut of the book and Franco Moretti’s brilliant reading in Signs Taken For Wonders that Ulysses is a strange sort of science fiction dystopia, strange in the sense that it is a science fiction dystopia set twenty years since…
But there remains an even more interesting point that that. (I hope). The songs bring to the fore a more profound melancholy, a haunting disturbance of the everyday. There is something wrong with our everyday, with our every day. We second-guess, we cannot help but second-guess, ourselves as we attempt to shave small spaces out of this world where we can be happy, or where we can even simply be. There are many reasons why we second-guess ourselves when we do this. Many of them are political or economic. Maybe some of them aren’t. (Is that even possible?) What sort of single day novel would you write if you were to write one today? If I did one, it would be tremulous, afraid of its own shadow and the shadow of its chosen/assigned form. It would be empty – too empty even to register Septimus, to stage an event like the one that happens in Cyclops. I would feel like a hypocrite were I to attempt to allow the outside in. I wish I could put it more concretely than this. There’s been an erosion of the clifftop we call time. All of it has something to do with the necessary movement past Benjamin’s formulation – we now long for the shock factor, even. We’d take Erlebnis. Our Auerbachian “random moment in the lives of different people” has become laughable, commodified, the stuff of ad campaigns, the stuff of the media forms of civic reinforcement. It’s tricky to name, this thing. The everyday has become something that we reach for when we’re at our worse, when the clammy hands of bureaucracy have finally touched our hearts and we try to be gentle, try to fit in.
Christ, I’m not going to (be able to?) name it in a blogpost, am I?
The fragment appears in “Solid Objects” as the figure of the material metonym whose metonymic function has been arrested–the unconsummated metonym, as it were. The unconsummated metonym is the figure, or the conceptual image, that Woolf offers us to think the object/thing dialectic, to think the world anew. John collects broken parts that are not really parts of anything determinable: “it was impossible to say whether it had been bottle, tumbler, or window-pane; it was nothing but glass.” His materialism, where parts are related not to wholes but to other parts, enacts a kind of redemption that refuses the (Heideggerian) temporality of recuperation.
Sounds a bit like an ad without products, this fragment, this “unconsummated metonym.” It certainly, according to Brown, points toward the same temporality of redemption.
You should read both the story and the essay if you have a chance…
There’s got to be something to say about this. I’m going to save it away for future use, but it’s certainly a symptom of something, no?
What needs to be thought through, perhaps, is not so much the idea of some sort of collective consciousness, some sort of transindividual noosphere, as they have it, which surely exists on some level interesting or utterly banal, but what is at stake in materializing it? Why do we need it to exist “out there,” “in the air,” measurable at times of affect and panic like 9/11. What is it that we don’t or can’t believe about ourselves that he need nodes collecting data, mining out the possibility that we are all in it together?
In the worst case, perhaps it comes out like this:
The car had gone, but it had left a slight ripple which flowed through glove shops and hat shops and tailors’ shops on both sides of Bond Street. For thirty seconds all heads were inclined the same way–to the window. Choosing a pair of gloves–should they be to the elbow or above it, lemon or pale grey?–ladies stopped; when the sentence was finished something had happened. Something so trifling in single instances that no mathematical instrument, though capable of transmitting shocks in China, could register the vibration; yet in its fulness rather formidable and in its common appeal emotional; for in all the hat shops and tailors’ shops strangers looked at each other and thought of the dead; of the flag; of Empire. In a public house in a back street a Colonial insulted the House of Windsor which led to words, broken beer glasses, and a general shindy, which echoed strangely across the way in the ears of girls buying white underlinen threaded with pure white ribbon for their weddings. For the surface agitation of the passing car as it sunk grazed something very profound.
The GCP people have a page on the “Poetic History” of their project (links funny – go look around. Or don’t.) And they totally miss all the good (complicating?) stuff like this…
Von Neumann bottleneck
The separation between the CPU and memory leads to what is known as the von Neumann bottleneck. The throughput (data transfer rate) between the CPU and memory is very small in comparison with the amount of memory. In modern machines, throughput is very small in comparison with the rate at which the CPU itself can work. Under some circumstances (when the CPU is required to perform minimal processing on large amounts of data), this gives rise to a serious limitation in overall effective processing speed. The CPU is continuously forced to wait for vital data to be transferred to or from memory. As CPU speed and memory size have increased much faster than the throughput between the two, the bottleneck has become more and more of a problem.
The term “von Neumann bottleneck” was coined by John Backus in his 1977 ACM Turing award lecture. According to Backus:
“Surely there must be a less primitive way of making big changes in the store than by pushing vast numbers of words back and forth through the von Neumann bottleneck. Not only is this tube a literal bottleneck for the data traffic of a problem, but, more importantly, it is an intellectual bottleneck that has kept us tied to word-at-a-time thinking instead of encouraging us to think in terms of the larger conceptual units of the task at hand. Thus programming is basically planning and detailing the enormous traffic of words through the von Neumann bottleneck, and much of that traffic concerns not significant data itself, but where to find it.”
And now Woolf in To the Lighthouse:
How then did it work out, all this? How did one judge people, think of them? How did one add up this and that and conclude that it was liking one felt or disliking? And to those words, what meaning attached, after all? Standing now, apparently transfixed, by the pear tree, impressions poured in upon her of those two men, and to follow her thought was like following a voice which speaks too quickly to be taken down by one’s pencil, and the voice was her own voice saying without prompting undeniable, everlasting, contradictory things, so that even the fissures and humps on the bark of the pear tree were irrevocably fixed there for eternity.
Thinking about literary modernism – “stream of consciousness” narration and the like – as a problem of bandwidth or “data transfer rate,” just as, in a sense, consciousness itself is during this period, for Freud and Bergson and others, an issue that boils down to how many sense impressions / repressed memories can fit through the very narrow pipe. Woolf struggles in To the Lighthouse to get it all down, chokes the text with data, so that across (despite) all the abundance of detail we feel all that is being left out, all that can’t make it into the text.
(I’m not going to bring it all into this post, but searching for the word “word” in the text is, well, very revealing…)
And something else – thinking about this bit from the quote above:
Not only is this tube a literal bottleneck for the data traffic of a problem, but, more importantly, it is an intellectual bottleneck that has kept us tied to word-at-a-time thinking instead of encouraging us to think in terms of the larger conceptual units of the task at hand.
And this, from Lukács:
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.
The novel – or really, literature in general – now as the materialization of the human inability to think/say/write more than one word at a time. Only now, with machines that promise/threaten/already do “think” or “process” everything all at once, once and for all, can we see the secret pathos that lives within the form.
As of now, the computer retains its romanesque form, its all too human handicap (from Wikipedia again):
Cache between CPU and main memory helps to alleviate some of the performance issues of the von Neumann bottleneck. Additionally, the developement of branch prediction algorithms has helped to mitigate this problem. It is less clear whether the intellectual bottleneck that Backus criticized has changed much since 1977. Backus’s proposed solution has not had a major influence. Modern functional programming and object-oriented programming are much less geared towards pushing vast numbers of words back and forth than earlier languages like Fortran, but internally, that is still what computers spend much of their time doing.
Teaching Mrs. Dalloway today, had a harrowing experience. I don’t really like to blog about what happens in my classroom, but I’m a little more troubled about this than usual. And so I will.
So today I’m working through the oscillation between the Dalloway/Ramsay side of the story and the Septimus plot line. The way the novel develops into a profound performance of the conjunctions and disjunctions of people in modern society – all working toward the amazingly strange climax of the novel, where Septimus kills himself and Clarissa D. vicariously “experiences” his death. The way that I read the text, it is in large part about what fills novels and what has to be left out (usually) for novels to function properly and cleanly. It is, in a sense, a hysterical text, one that, like Septimus himself, can’t stop thinking and talking about what it shouldn’t, what is socially unacceptable to fix on.
As Septimus’s wife, Lucrezia, thinks at one point,
But such things happen to every one. Every one has friends who were killed in the War. Every one gives up something when they marry. She had given up her home. She had come to live here, in this awful city. But Septimus let himself think about horrible things, as she could too, if she tried.
Woolf’s novel likewise lets itself think about horrible things. So far so good.
But then we come to my favorite passage of all.
He was already halfway to the House of Commons, to his Armenians, his Albanians, having settled her on the sofa, looking at his roses. And people would say, “Clarissa Dalloway is spoilt.” She cared much more for her roses than for the Armenians. Hunted out of existence, maimed, frozen, the victims of cruelty and injustice (she had heard Richard say so over and over again)–no, she could feel nothing for the Albanians, or was it the Armenians? but she loved her roses (didn’t that help the Armenians?)–the only flowers she could bear to see cut.
This seems to me a good thing to talk about, a surprising reversal for the students to metabolize. It is an enormously complex passage, with another turn of the ethical wheel every time you think you’ve come to a rest. And the fact of the matter is that it is Clarissa who’s thinking this, right, thinking about not thinking about the Armenians (the Armenian genocide, of course, is what we’re talking about here…) I thought I could take for granted that the students would distance themselves from Clarissa at this moment – just as she is distancing herself from herself here – and at least agree that, no, the roses don’t help the Armenians, not one bit. The interesting discussion is supposed to start from this given – what do we make of a novel that features a scene like this one? What do we make of our position as novel reader, students of aesthetic objects, in the wake of this? How is everyday life – ours and hers – formed in resistance to horrors happening off stage, across the Channel or across the world? We can turn no poetry after Auschwitz into no roses after Armenia and work from there.
But the problem is, my students, en masse, started defending Clarissa’s logic here, her alibi. Her roses do, in a way, help the Armenians, as they increase the total sum of beauty in the world. One voice, two, three – a bunch in accord on this. OK, so I get a bit mean, and say, your favorite song on your iPod, that helps a victim of ethnic cleansing in the Sudan? Yes, sort of, comes the response. Living well here in the US helps a tsunami victim, a kid who’s lost both of her parents? Sure, in a way, it does, because somebody needs to live well. I’m not shitting you – this is how the conversation went. I began to catch a bit of Woolf’s hysteria myself. When we nuke Iran, like, being happy here in the US, that balances it out? They hadn’t heard about Iran… but thought yes, in a small way, the scale is balanced.
Some jokster – I really hope he was joking, it wasn’t entirely clear – contributed the fact that the death of 1,000,000 Armenians is really only a drop in the bucket of the total world population. I hope he was joking. When I asked him if he would say that about the Holocaust, everyone got very quiet all of a sudden. They know they’re not supposed to trivialize that. But then someone else said that the dead are truly dead – they’re not around to care about Clarissa’s roses. I nearly lost it, had recourse to humor, stupidly. Couldn’t handle what i was hearing.
I don’t want to be mean. They’re very smart kids, my students. Eventually, one of them spoke up against the roses. But I am a bit worried about this conversation, their intransigence on this point. I wasn’t trying to convince, initially; I didn’t think they’d need to be. But if they won’t back down, even in the face of their instructor’s obvious disbelief and dismay, in their belief that a good job here somehow balances out a bit of carnage over there, having a good sex life makes up for disease and destruction somewhere else, feeling in general happy and good and enjoying the little things, say, in itself works against the flash of light, the mushroom cloud, the searing of skin, the blindness and shrapnel piercing human flesh at the speed of sound, the tumor footprint spreading wider as the population ages, I’m afraid, well, we’re past the point of no return. These are kids.
(BTW – ideological reprogramming, were that my style, and it’s definitely not, wouldn’t work here. They’re hyper-canny about preaching. The word “bias” has infected nearly half of their papers, a word I had never seen in an English paper until the last year or so…)
I’m not sure what to think about all of this…. Except that, well, when I read this tonight, it seemed even more true and plausible than it might have yesterday… (a big clip from the piece under the fold – but why don’t you just go and read it at its home…. It’s a fantastic piece…)