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first world problems: mckenzie wark on boredom

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While reading Sven Lütticken’s new piece in the New Left Review, I was led to click through to a piece by McKenzie Wark called “#Celerity: A Critique of the Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics.” While I don’t want to go directly into the “accelerationism” issue here – those of you who’ve been reading me for awhile have a sense of where I stand on the matter – I would like to flag up one paragraph that speaks (despite itself?) to the big problem that I have with what we might call neo-Situationist thinking.

3.2 It’s a question of whether boredom with the commodity economy will work fast enough, as it spreads from the overdeveloped world to the underdeveloped, to open up a new path before metabolic rifts like the climate crisis forces the planet toward more violent, disorganizing, and frankly fascist ‘solutions’ to its problems. Already in China factory workers are starting to get restless. Beyond that, there’s only so much cheap labor left on the planet to exploit. Meanwhile, in the overdeveloped world, a rather novel regime of value extraction is finding ways to extract value from non-work. Search engines and social networking find ways to extract value from activity regardless of whether it is ‘work’ and without paying for it. It’s a kind of vulture industry, parasitic on frankly successful popular struggles to free vast tracts of information from the commodity form and circulate it freely. But having beaten back the old culture industries with this tactic, the social movement that was free culture finds itself recuperated at a higher level of abstraction by the vulture industries and their ‘gamification’ of every aspect of everyday life. So: any alter-modernity project has to bypass the expansion of the old commodification regimes across the planet, but also these curious new ones, dominant in the overdeveloped world, but tending now to transform information flows everywhere.

The “question” at play in the first sentences is whether “boredom” will spread fast enough from the overdeveloped world to the underdeveloped to best the onset of “metabolic rifts” like climate change. It’s a foolish – and yes, foolishly accelerationist question – and it’s one that provides space for a sloppy slippage in terms in the first few sentences.  “Already in China factory workers are starting to get restless.” Boredom has turned into “restlessness,” and restlessness is indeed something like boredom. But of course the factory workers in China aren’t restless because they’ve over-gorged in the fruits of “overdevelopment.” They are “restless” because they are being worked to death to provide the materials of this ostensible “overdevelopment.” (The more you think about it, in the context of this paragraph, “restless” is an absolutely horrifying word to use to describe the existential situation of those generic Chinese factory workers.) Wark’s slight of hand blurs the lines between the one and the other – casting Foxconn workers as in a sense “catching up” with our existential plight as they contemplate throwing themselves down staircases…

The perspectival problems continue in the next sentence – “Beyond that, there’s only so much cheap labor left on the planet to exploit.” Whether or not that’s true – I seriously doubt it – what are we to make of this statement in context? What will happen when the world “runs out” of cheap labour? Presumably there’s a possibility that global capitalism is in fact potentially about to solve the problems of uneven distribution of goods (and with the goods, “boredom.”) If it doesn’t – in the context of this paragraph – it doesn’t really matter anyway. We’ll all be toast.

In general, any argument that structurally equates (and I’m not even sure that’s not too generous a word for what’s afoot here) the exploitative tedium of Chinese factory work with our bored entrapment in the “gamification” of our tweeting or Facebooking is focalised from a perspective that so desperate to project hysterically one’s own (middle class, academic, first world) life-experience as the very model of the global drama of exploitation.

In short, this paragraph (and Wark’s argument as a whole) is grounded in a fantastical resolution of the real problems of worldwide inequality – a resolution necessary so that Wark’s hipster dilemma’s can take center-stage in the drama of global politics. Or to put it another way, whenever anyone founds their political argument on the concept of boredom, I reach not for my gun but for my World Atlas. Boredom may be a worry for “us” (us here in the “overdeveloped” world, even us trapped in the gears of a socio-economic system based on the festina lente temporality of precarity), but it’s not a pressing problem for the world, no matter what the spoiled youths of ’68 had to say about the subject. 


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July 3, 2014 at 12:03 pm

ads without an audience / an audience without ads

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From Choire Sicha’s review of Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future in the current Bookforum

Put most simply: “The primary business of digital networking has come to be the creation of ultrasecret mega-dossiers about what others are doing, and using this information to concentrate money and power.” There is, quite literally, no future in this for almost any of us. Apart from this sprawling system of digital vampirism, publishing in general (books and newspapers especially) has taken a major hit from technological change—as did, you know, the lives of people who made cars and worked in offices. (The number of people in the labor force in America has now returned to the levels of the late 1970s, also known as the heyday of postwar economic malaise.) Colleges may very well be next—Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen said earlier this year that “higher education is just on the edge of the crevasse.” So might various science industries, or home health care, or international shipping, or taxi drivers, or accountants, or who knows what. We can each in turn go to our deaths giving away our value for some other entity’s benefit while working in industries that are losing their value as well, all for someone else’s disruption game.

The “creation of ultrasecret mega-dossiers” which, of course, as of now are generally used to fuel logarithms in order to serve us up ads on the websites that we visit to see the very stuff that no one’s being paid to produce anymore. As Sicha notes, this process has or threatens to put us all out of work: the media, artists, writers, and next educators, scientists, health care workers, shippers, taxi drivers, accountant – the list heads off toward encompassing just about everyone employed in post-industrial first world society.  (Even the bankers and hedgefunders are turning into machine minders and point of sale contact assistants).

But of course, there’s a massive historical irony haunting this process – one that is both very old and utterly new. The value of these universal archives of marketing-friendly information declines as the general financial welfare of the population declines – it’s useless running ads for those without money to spend, and the system itself threatens to make us all into just that. The situation takes the shape of a national or global version of the Walmart that moves into a rural town, undercuts the local shops, destroys the livelihoods of those that live town, and eventually is left with no one to sell to and thus closes up shop.

The situation feels ripe for the emergence of some sort of new, post-modern Fordism, where it dawns on the information industries that they themselves need to maintain some sort of consumer base to sell to, just as Henry Ford realised that if his own workers couldn’t buy his cars, there wouldn’t be many customers left over to sell to. If not, it seems we’re tending towards the situation in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, where the ads somehow keep rolling, even though there’s barely anyone left to view them.


Relatedly, a strange situation is emerging at the intersection of internet technologies and television. See this post by Jessica Lessin, which I found via a David Carr article in the New York Times.

For more than a year, Apple has been seeking rights from cable companies and television networks for a service that would allow users to watch live and on-demand television over an Apple set-top box or TV.

Talks have been slow and proceeding in fits and starts, but things seem to be heating up.

In recent discussions, Apple told media executives it wants to offer a “premium” version of the service that would allow users to skip ads and would compensate television networks for the lost revenue, according to people briefed on the conversations.

Consumers, of course, are already accustomed to fast-forwarding through commercials on their DVRs, and how Apple’s technology differs is unclear.

It is a risky idea. Ad-skipping would disrupt the entrenched system of television ratings—the basis for buying TV ads. In fact, television broadcasters sued Dish Network when it introduced similar technology last year.

On the other hand, it is no secret that fewer and fewer people are watching commercials thanks to DVRs; networks may very well be eager to make, rather than lose, money off the practice.

It is a “risky idea,” for both parties, but what is interesting is that the added loops of the situation bring to the fore some of the strange effects that I’d like to label the “metaphysics of advertising.” (I’m following from Marx’s description of the commodity in the section of Capital on commodity fetishism – “A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” (italics mine).

At any rate, in the case of the television negotiations, the advertisement is there at once to bring to market the value of the customers’ eyeballs, but also as a sort of ransom-able distraction from the content itself. I.e. one side pays to put them in, the other side pays to have them taken away. In a sense, we’re drawing close to the situation I blogged about yesterday with what I called the “Sisyphusian capitalism” of Goldman Sachs’s entry into the commodity handling business, where they draw a rent simply by slowing an economic process down. Could one imagine a situation where the advertisements are included solely so that they might be destroyed? 

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July 30, 2013 at 9:58 am

“against the grain”: on critical perversity

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At the place where I teach, we still have the students do two courses (one at the beginning of their time with us, and one at the end) in “practical criticism.” We don’t call it that (we just call it “criticism”) but that’s what it is. If we were an American institution, we’d think of it descending out of what is termed “The New Criticism,” but because we are where we are, it’s seen as an import from Cambridge. As the folks to the north-north east describe it on their department website:

Practical criticism is, like the formal study of English literature itself, a relatively young discipline. It began in the 1920s with a series of experiments by the Cambridge critic I.A. Richards. He gave poems to students without any information about who wrote them or when they were written. In Practical Criticism of 1929 he reported on and analysed the results of his experiments. The objective of his work was to encourage students to concentrate on ‘the words on the page’, rather than relying on preconceived or received beliefs about a text. For Richards this form of close analysis of anonymous poems was ultimately intended to have psychological benefits for the students: by responding to all the currents of emotion and meaning in the poems and passages of prose which they read the students were to achieve what Richards called an ‘organised response’. This meant that they would clarify the various currents of thought in the poem and achieve a corresponding clarification of their own emotions.

If you’ve been a reader of this site for awhile, or are familiar with my work in “the real world,” you might think that’d I’d buck against this model of instruction. Any good materialist critic of course should. It approaches the literary work in isolation of its context – the work as an ahistorical entity that emerged autonomously and without the frictional influence of the writer who wrote it or the world that the writer wrote it in.

But on the other hand – and this is why I not only do not buck against it but actively enjoy teaching on this course, perhaps more than any other – it is an extremely valuable method for enabling students to develop “against the grain” critical insights about texts. In the absence of astute attention of the “practical criticism” variety, it’s very difficult for students (or, really, anyone) to develop convincingly novel interpretations of texts. The close attention to the words on the page, and the dynamics of their interaction, not only sets the stage for an appreciation of the “value added” that comes of distilling whatever contextual and personal issues inform the piece once the history is added back in, but, due to the multiplicity and idiosyncrasy  of possible interpretations, provides an opening for critical newness – for the saying of something provocatively different about the work.

So how do I teach “practical criticism”? In the seminar groups that I lead, I model and encourage the following “flow chart” of thought: Anticipate what other intelligent readers of this piece might say about it. Try to imagine the “conventional wisdom” about it that would emerge as if automatically in the minds of the relatively well-informed and intelligent. And then, but only then, figure out a perverse turn that you can make within the context of but against this conventional wisdom. “Of course that seems right, but on the other hand it fails to account for…” “On first glace, it would be easy and to a degree justifiable to conclude that…. But what if we reconsider this conclusion in the light of….”

Students tend to demonstrate resistance, early on, to this practice. For one thing, especially in the first year, they don’t really (and couldn’t possibly) have a fully developed sense of what the “conventional wisdom” is that their supposed to be augmenting, contradicting, perverting. At this early stage, the process requires them to make an uncomfortable Pascalian wager with themselves – to pretend as though they are confident in their apprehensions until the confidence itself arrives. But even if there’s a certain awkwardness in play, it does seem to exercise the right parts of the students’ critical and analytical faculties so that they (to continue the metaphor) develop a sort of “muscle memory” of the “right” way to do criticism. From what I can tell, encouraging them to develop an instinct of this sort early measurably improves their writing as they move through their degree.

But still (and here, finally, I’m getting to the point of this post) there’s a big problem with all of this. I warn the students of this very early on – generally the first time I run one of their criticism seminars. There’s a big unanswered question lurking behind this entire process. Why must we be perverse? What is the value of aiming always for provocative difference, novelty, rather than any other goal?  Of course, there’s a pragmatic answer: Because it will cause your writing to be better received. Because you will earn better marks by doing it this way rather than the other. Because you will develop a skill – one that can be shifted to other fields of endeavour – that will be recognised as what the world generally calls “intelligence.” But – in particular because none of this should simply be about the pragmatics of getting up the various ladders and depth charts of life – this simply isn’t a sufficient response, or at least is one that begs as many questions as it answers. What are, after all the politics of “novelty”? What are we to make of the structural similarity between what it takes to impress one’s markers and what it takes to make it “on the market,” whether as a human or inhuman commodity? What if – in the end – the answers to question that need (ethically, politically) answering are simple rather than complex, the obvious rather than the surprising?

In my own work, I’m starting to take this issue up. And I try to keep it – when it’s appropriate – at the centre of my teaching, even if that can be difficult. (And there’s the further matter that to advocate “simple” rather than “complex” answers to things is itself an “against the grain” argument, is itself incredibly perverse, at least within an academic setting. There’s a fruitful performative contradiction at play that, in short, makes my advocacy of non-perversity attractively perverse!)

I’ll talk more about what I’m arguing in this new work some other time, but for now, I’m after something else – something isomorphic with but only complexly related to the issues with “practical criticism” and the issues that it raises. It has to do with politics – in particular the politics of those of a “theoretical” or in particular “radically theoretical” mindset, and the arguments that they make and why they make them.

Take this article that appeared yesterday on The Guardian‘s “Comment is free” website. The title of the piece (which of course was probably not chosen by the author, but is sanctioned I think by where the piece ends up) is “What might a world without work look like?” and the tag under the title continues, “As ideas of employment become more obscure and desperate, 2013 is the perfect time to ask what it means to live without it.” While the first two-thirds of the article is simply a description of the poor state of the labour market, it is the end that gets to the “provocative” argument at play.

But against this backdrop – rising inflation, increasing job insecurity, geographically asymmetrical unemployment, attacks on the working and non-working populations, and cuts to benefits – a debate about what work is and what it means has been taking place. Some discussions at Occupy focused on what an anti-work (or post-work) politics might mean, and campaigns not only for a living wage but for a guaranteed, non-means-tested “citizen’s income” are gathering pace.

The chances of a scratchcard winning you a life without work are of course miniscule, but as what it means to work becomes both more obscure and increasingly desperate, 2013 might be the perfect time to ask what work is, what it means, and what it might mean to live without it. As Marx put it in his 1880 proposal for a workers’ inquiry: “We hope to meet … with the support of all workers in town and country who understand that they alone can describe with full knowledge the misfortunes from which they suffer and that only they, and not saviours sent by providence, can energetically apply the healing remedies for the social ills that they are prey to.”

In other words, the best place to start would be with those who have a relation to work as such – which is to say nearly everyone, employed or otherwise.

It may be a somewhat bad faith line to allege that “interesting perversity” rather than some well-founded and straightforward belief is at work behind an argument of this sort, but in the absence of any substantive suggestions of what the answers to these questions might be, or in fact why these are the right questions to ask at the moment, what else are we to assume? It is provocatively perverse to suggest, at a time of stagnant employment rate and when people are suffering due to the fact that they are out of work or locked in cycles or precarity, that we might do away with work altogether. It isn’t the standard line – but it’s a line that allows the author to avoid repeating the conventional wisdom about what a left response to such a crisis might be. This in turn affords an avenue to publication, as well as a place in the temporary mental canons of those who read it.

Unfortunately, of course, the Tories (and their ideological near-cousins in all of the other mainline parties) are also asking the same sort of questions about a world (or at least a nation) without work. How might one keep the tables turned toward what benefits employers? How might one keep wages (and relatedly, inflation) low but still spur “growth”? How might one manage this system of precarious non-work, at once depressing wages but keeping the employable populace alive and not building barricades. In short, the question of “What a world without work might look like” is a question that is just as pressing to the powers that we oppose as to people like the writer of this article.

We’ve seen other episodes of the same. During the student protests over tuition increases (among other things) I myself criticised (and had a bit of a comment box scrap over) the Really Free School and those who were busily advocating the destruction of the university system…. just as the government was doing its best to destroy the university system. That many of those making such “radical” arguments about university education were themselves beneficiaries of just such an education only made matters more contradictory, hypocritical, and frustrating.

In short, in countering some perceived conventional wisdom, in begging questions that seem to derive from a radical rather than a “reformist” perspective, the author (and others of her ilk) ends up embracing an argument that is not only unhelpfully utopian, but actually deeply compatible with the very situation that seems to provoke the advocacy of such a solution. I can’t help but sense that the same instinct towards perversity that makes for a good English paper – and, perhaps even more pressingly, a good work of  reputation-building “theory” – is what drives a writer to take a line like this one at a time like this. One might counter that I’m being a bit of a philistine – that I’m closing off avenues of speculative thought and analysis. I’m not. I’m just wondering what the point of writing all this up in a questi0n-begging article in a popular publication is, an article that does little more than raise unanswerable questions and then ends with what might as well be the banging of a Zen gong.


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January 4, 2013 at 2:11 pm

jobs for all

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Jameson in the NLR in 2004 on full employment and utopia:

Marx’s anti-humanism, then (to use another term for this position), or his structuralism, or even his constructivism, spells a great advance over More. But once we grasp utopianism in this way, we see that there are a variety of different ways to reinvent utopia—at least in this first sense of the elimination of this or that ‘root of all evil’, taken now as a structural rather than a psychological matter. These various possibilities can also be measured in practical-political ways. For example, if I ask myself what would today be the most radical demand to make on our own system—that demand which could not be fulfilled or satisfied without transforming the system beyond recognition, and which would at once usher in a society structurally distinct from this one in every conceivable way, from the psychological to the sociological, from the cultural to the political—it would be the demand for full employment, universal full employment around the globe. As the economic apologists for the system today have tirelessly instructed us, capitalism cannot flourish under full employment; it requires a reserve army of the unemployed in order to function and to avoid inflation. That first monkey-wrench of full employment would then be compounded by the universality of the requirement, inasmuch as capitalism also requires a frontier, and perpetual expansion, in order to sustain its inner dynamic. But at this point the utopianism of the demand becomes circular, for it is also clear, not only that the establishment of full employment would transform the system, but also that the system would have to be already transformed, in advance, in order for full employment to be established. I would not call this a vicious circle, exactly; but it certainly reveals the space of the utopian leap, the gap between our empirical present and the utopian arrangements of this imaginary future.

I can understand the anarchists’ resistance to the “jobs for all” demand in terms of their resistance to state-based solutions. I can’t, however, understand the casting of a demand like this one as “moderate,” “liberal,” or “Obama-ist.”

(And, yes, I understand that the OWS demand wouldn’t be “Jobs for All, Everywhere,” per Jameson’s paragraph.)

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October 23, 2011 at 12:40 pm

“imported from detroit”: superbowl ads

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I know this sort of thing has been done before… But what a conceptually tangled if viscerally stirring ad spin here. The usual American car marketing jingoism gets translated into a half-coherent riff about uneven internal development and productivist aesthetics. Check out, for instance, the strange pseudo-Ruskinism mixed with rust belt exoticism in “Because when it comes to luxury, it’s as much about where it’s from as who it’s for.” As well as, of course, the tag line of the ad as a whole, “Imported from Detroit.”

Most of the other ads from last night are banal crap. * But in ones like Chrysler’s, complete with the somnolent semi-logic of lines like the above, it is interesting to see what they dream that we are or could be dreaming.

On the other hand, quite funny that Chrysler is increasingly owned by Fiat, and so a more accurate ad would be about the politics and finance of one post-industrial city buying another via the mediation of the US government….

* All that I’ve found that was even mildly interesting is the Audi spot that seemed to position itself as the car of choice for slightly less twittish upperclass twits. And I suppose there’s something to be said about the Motorola ad, itself a winking sendup of Apple’s very famous 1984-themed ad that aired in 1984.

Of course there is an interesting difference between the two versions. If the stakes of corporate conflict translated into consumer choice once was registered in terms of the political thematics of Orwell’s novel (the subversion of IBM as the subversion of the totalitarian state), now buying a MotoPad vs. an iPad is allegorized through the minor key romantic plot of the novel. And even in doing so, diminished stakes again: instead of a righteous fuck in the woods, the best we can hope for is a Youtube video goofily edited into an electronic Valentine’s Day Card which leads this Julia not to drop her overalls but merely to take out her earbuds.

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February 7, 2011 at 9:21 am

classrooms without teachers

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From the NYT today.

Resolution: I will stop using the Sainsbury’s self-checkout machines, even if I finally have snooped the code that allows me to buy booze without waiting for “approval” from the employees. Here’s for maintaining the inefficiencies (and employment) involved in Actually Existing Human Presence!

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January 18, 2011 at 9:27 am

picket line

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Huh. Looks like I’m going to be going on strike next week. First time I’ve ever been involved in one of those. Luckily the union is (thus far) permitting us to run our exams… Was very worried about the idea of screwing up my students in service of the cause (exams aren’t easily rescheduled where I work… and they also make up just about all of my students’ marked profile… so it’s no trivial matter…)

I’m starting to have a feeling that things are about to get a wee bit pitched and contentious – even more they than already have been – in and around the UK higher education sector in the coming weeks before everyone goes home for summer break.

Was just talking tonight to my wife about how utterly disconnected I feel from politics. Not in the sense that my fundamental beliefs have changed or lightened – I’m still very much the same democratic socialist that I’ve always been. Just feel like I don’t have anything to say, any insight to contribute on that front – the front of politics writ large, politics played out on television and in the papers – anymore. Back in the early days of this blog (and the blog before that, in particular) I was constantly writing about the political churn, what was in the front sections of the papers, etc. Now, not so much.

But on the other hand… I’ve taken a small but significant step lately towards becoming more involved in my union, getting trained for further and grander participation in it. I am and have been haunted by the sense that people have me pegged out for university administration. I mean the upper bits – head of department, dean, whatever. I am the rare but true alpha male in a humanities department, one of those swaggering ex-athletes with a booming voice and an air of definitiveness about me when I speak in public. People like to be led by me, it seems. My dad was in management (erm, human resources) so there’s something about it all that makes sense.

But I’ll be damned before I go into it though – everyone knows that they carrot and stick you with a big salary and extracted promises to sort things out down on the farm, if you know what we mean. And I wouldn’t do that. But with the union – maybe there’s a place I can take all that half-oedipalized paternal training and put it to good use. And maybe in doing so, find for myself a place where my ever-more-humbled and generally-disenchanted political instinct can find somewhere new to set down roots. We’ll see…

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April 28, 2010 at 10:46 pm

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

alain de botton strikes back!

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I’m wondering what the beatdown that IT gave Alain de Botton has to do with this little piece of befuddlement, reported today by Robert McCrum in the Observer:

I hear that Alain de Botton is about to start work at Heathrow airport’s Terminal 5, for a new book, you understand. Apparently, the author of The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work will serve behind the check-in desk for a whole week and deliver an account of the ordeal to his publisher, Profile, in time for publication in September. In keeping with the elevated tone of de Botton’s literary endeavours, he will be known as “writer in residence”. Let’s hope he finds the encounter with the travelling masses less irritating than his well-publicised feud with the blogosphere.

Kind of hilarious to think about the scenario that engendered this project. AdB stalking the better bits of London, absolutely infuriated that fucking bloggers have impugned his ability to understand and thus to describe work just because he’s never had to do a day of paid labour in his life. I mean, doesn’t a childhood of interacting with the help count for anything anymore? Stomp, stomp, stomp. Fuck it…. I’ll show them. I’ll sign on for a whole week and then they’ll know that I. mean. business.

You know – they should be thinking bigger with this. How about a whole series in which, for instance, AdB gets poverty by spending half-an-hour at a welfare benefits office. Or becomes a woman by sitting in a gynaecologist’s waiting room. He could tell us what illiteracy is like by wearing an eyepatch and trying to read. Or what it’s like be have AIDS in Africa by going to Boots without his Boots Advantage Card. Really no end to the possibilities here: homeless by sitting out in his garden past 10 PM. Falsely imprisoned by having his housekeeper lock him in his conservatory for fifteen minutes with the lights turned off.

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August 17, 2009 at 12:03 am

hell 2: journaux intimes

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Don’t have it at hand, and it seems to be a bit out of sync with the French version at Gutenberg, so working from (potentially projective) memory… But what was published by New Directions as Baudelaire’s Intimate Journals seemed to be effectively split into two parts, thematically. The first section presents a series of aphorisms and meditations, ever more dark and cynical as CB goes along, about the economics of interpersonal, especially sexual, relationships. That is to say, the darkness derives from the fact that they are economic, endless variations of whoredom and keptness in which either the male or female party can play either part.

The affectual atmospherics of this section, we can imagine, we can smell, were born in CB’s propensity for drink and the way that he arranged his sex life. Hellish stuff, but it only gets worse, as the second section of the book shifts focus from sex to work. A stream of self-chastisements, imploring himself over and over simply to get down to work, tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.

One must work, if not from inclination, at least out of despair – since it proves, on close examination, that work is less boring than amusing oneself.

Despairing, neurotic work as the only thing better than the unholy finance of sex. To give this sort of thing space, to fill up pages of a notebook with nothing but promises that the work will be better tomorrow…. Do you see the strange math in the passage? The way that the “proof” works? I suppose one reading would be that close examination of work and amusement reveals that the former is more interesting. But I am feel sure that this is not at all what CB means. Rather, I think it’s the despair itself that settles the accounts – despair is less boring than amusement, in other words. In his rendition, and in the world that he describes, there’s only one general equivalent available, and it’s not money but pain.

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August 10, 2009 at 5:00 am

every not so often, helen, trust me

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Helen DeWitt seems to have been trying to defend Alain de Botton yesterday in a couple of posts on her blog. I’ll admit that it’s a little hard for me to see what she’s getting at – seems to me a lot of goalpost shifting going on there, whereas Caleb Crain’s initial review seems to me perfectly clear. DeWitt seems to want to fault Crain for not recognising that there are forms of work that aren’t compensated. I’m pretty sure he’d be on board with that, but it’s not what he’s getting at. He’s getting at the fact that AdB can’t stop condescending and generally sneering at the workers that he interviews / features in a book as they don’t live up to some sort of silkgloved idealisation that he arrives at by looking at work from a distance…. I see the problem, sure, with the first sentence, but that’s not really the point that’s up for grabs, is it? And her implicit argument that somehow Crain is more at fault for not naming Bourdieu (why Bourdieu in particular rather than any of the other many, many theorists of work?) than De Botton is baffling. Anyway, a bit hard to make sense of, all this. But on the other hand, this paragraph of DeWitt’s is easy to make sense of, and not only to make sense of, but to call it out as bullshit:

Every so often an academic reads several hundred examination scripts and is appalled by the ignorance, the tendentiousness, the lack of sophistication – and so tackles the problem by taking a paid sabbatical and writing a book showing what proper treatment of the subject looks like. What the academic does not do is show how the subject can properly be treated in a 4 45-minute 1000-word essays. Nor does the academic show how his mastery of the material is to be achieved by candidates who are holding down part-time jobs, who can’t buy books, who are kicked out of their halls of residence three times a year to make way for conferences. If one were to give all several hundred candidates a paid sabbatical, and if one were then to permit them to organize treatment of the subject on their own terms, at book length, a substantially higher number might be expected to achieve respectable results. If one simply locked each candidate up with a computer and gave him/her unlimited time to write to a specific word count, a substantially higher number might be expected to achieve respectable results. We don’t do that, so what we see is, unsurprisingly, that a small number of students can both learn under unfavourable conditions and display knowledge coherently under unfavourable conditions.

I understand that this is deployed as some sort of allegorical device, a parallel instance, but… WTF? Hard not to sense a bit of slippage from the footnoted academics mentioned and “the academic” as a generic breed. * But I know, we academics are sooo spoiled. Let me just assure you of a few things, readers:

a) the implied storyline here, despite the fact that DeWitt seems to know of an actual example of this sort of thing happening, is ridiculous. Just to be empirical about it, I’ll knock on my department head’s door today, tell her that I’m still feeling a bit frustrated about the exam scripts I marked a few weeks ago, and ask her if I can take next term off in order to write something that sets the little buggers right about a few things.

b) there are problems with academia, teaching, but the lack of compassion of instructors for students, lack of understanding for the busy lives they lead, is not one that stands out from the bunch. Believe me, we are in solidarity with the students on all of this – it only makes our lives and work harder when they are overworked, bookless, worried about administrative issues, empoverished, and lacking the appropriate amount of time it takes to finish their assignments properly.

c) “What the academic does not do is show how the subject can properly be treated in a 4 45-minute 1000-word essays.” Yes, I don’t spend tons of time writing about that because, in term, I spend oh about 10-15 hours of contact time actually doing that, face to face. And 10-15 hours contact time, as anyone in the business knows, comes along with 20-40 hours non-contact preparation time.

d) We don’t write our books out of frustration with our students. Sorry. I am not sure what was going on where and when DeWitt went to university, and I’m sure the assholery and general poshness runs a bit thicker at the Oxbridge places than elsewhere, but this is simply not the case anywhere I’ve ever been, and I’ve been a lot of places now, very posh and not so posh.

I’m not sure if DeWitt’s going for some sort of complicated performative endorsement of AdB’s blinders-on condescension here, but whatever it is it makes as little sense as either an element of her argument (if there is one… hard to know…) or as an “every so often” bit of jobsite portraiture.

* Where do we find the slippage in question? Note the present tense of the first sentence… and the fact that the two guys mentioned were teaching at the Oxford of yesteryear when they wrote their books, where sure there were poor kids, but probably not the basketcases in bulk needed to make the posh prof / pathetic student body scenario work in the way DeWitt needs it to….

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July 7, 2009 at 7:43 pm


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Hmmm…. they’ve never used the R word before. But they did tonight.

Uh oh.

Expatriation leaves one oddly, frighteningly exposed. Getting laid off, ordinarily, doesn’t mean a plane ticket for less than 2 weeks hence, your kids out of school, barely time to say goodbye to friends, and everything you do daily done no more. Getting laid off, ordinarily, is bad enough.

Obviously, any anxiety or actual outcome has nothing on this situation.

Must. Write. Book. Sad to be thinking that way, the “let them kill the other guy first” sort of way. Fucking world!

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June 22, 2009 at 10:34 pm

sontag glosses the girlfriend experience / nyc trustafarians

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From the journals, from the start of 1959:

The ugliness of New York. But I do like it here, even like Commentary. In NY sensuality completely turns into sexuality – no objects for the senses to respond to, no beautiful river, houses, people. Awful smells of the street, and dirt… Nothing except eating, if that, and the frenzy of the bed.

Except, of course, that TGE suggests that the last sentence should be reversed to read “Nothing except the frenzy of the bed, if that, and eating.” And I imagine she means real smells, the back-in-the-day real dirt, when the thing that stinks nowadays back in Gotham is something much more abstract. This sort of thing, for instance, the half-told story of the New New York and its Creative Industries.

Famed for its concentration of heavily subsidized 20-something residents — also nicknamed trust-funders or trustafarians — Williamsburg is showing signs of trouble. Parents whose money helped fuel one of the city’s most radical gentrifications in recent years have stopped buying their children new luxury condos, subsidizing rents and providing cash to spend at Bedford Avenue’s boutiques and coffee houses.

The concentration of people relying on family money in certain neighborhoods of New York – not just Williamsburg, though if you want to take a trip to see the ‘farians living in their native milieu, of course it is a good place to start – is extremely high. I don’t have figures, but there was a kind of standard deviation between job/salary and estimated cost of residence that make the state of play rather clear. When I sold my own apartment there, in 2005, I had four offers come in the first day it was shown. Three of the four were way, way over the asking price, and all three of those offers were formally made by family estates or by people who attached a very clarifying letter from their father’s broker in New Jersey.

It bears remembering that TGE incorporates a subtle and interesting reference to this situation. At one point, Chelsea explains that the reason she’s taken up the line of work that she has is because (and I paraphrase – don’t have time to find her exact words right now) she doesn’t or didn’t want to rely on her parents. The math’s not hard to do. Implicitly, the suggestion is that she could have relied on her parents, that they had the means to support her in the city. Her career as a high-end escort doesn’t originate in poverty, nor is it simply some sort of mindless / libidinalized cashgrab. Rather, if we’re all going to be on the anti-bburg-trust-fund bandwagon, and I’m sure we are and should be, Chelsea’s choice of a line of work represents a heroic refusal of exactly the sort of thing that the NYT article describes. Sure, she could have found something else to do, and lived elsewhere and otherwise… She’s like one of the “goodguys,” the recovering-fundees, who are meant to provide relief at the end of the trust fund article:

The culture of the area often mocks residents who depend on their families. Misha Calvert, 26, a writer who relied on her parents during her first year in the city, now has three roommates, works in freelance jobs and organizes parties to help keep her afloat while she writes plays and acts in films. There is a “giant stigma,” she said, for Williamsburg residents who are not financially independent.

“It takes the wind out of you if you’re not the independent, self-reliant artist you claim to be,” she said, “if you’re just daddy’s little girl.”

There’s a long, complicated, and in some senses counterintuitive story to be told about exactly what happened in New York from the mid-ninties onward. Giuliani (and his incredible good-fortune to be mayor during a prolonged bull market – nothing unbreaks the windows in NYC like a glut of finance sector bonuses), NYU, the coming of age of the progeny of a corporate managers of the post-Cold War surge of globalization and financialization, the inflation of a local real estate bubble that started well before the interest rates came down, and informalization of work in the wake of the rise of the unpaid internship, and the rise of what we might call hedged entrepreneurialism amongst the creative types. Lots more too, obviously…

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June 13, 2009 at 8:29 am

the girlfriend experience: “this number is the nadir of passion”

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I really liked The Girlfriend Experience, but this is perhaps attributable to the fact that I am ultra-invested in something that I am from now on going to call the infra-interesting. The infra-interesting, on the surface, looks a hell of a lot like the boring – and it can be very tricky indeed to make a distinction between the two or to develop an argument that relies on anything more than inference and intuition about why something is the former and not the latter.

I learned about the infra-interesting by reading novels. Flaubert is the once and ever champion of the form, spreading the banalities of an upside-down world so thick that the world itself turns right-side up, as if automagically…. or maybe it’s the other way around. But this particular quality has a long literary history. Some, like Lukacs at certain moments, seem to argue that the novel is nothing but a materialization of the infra-int… Or at least that’s what great novels do. And it’s a continuing story. Apparently, according to Claire Messud’s recent review in the NYRB (mostly behind paywall, sorry) suggests that Colm Toibin’s new Brooklyn belongs under this rubric too… I’ll let you know when my wife’s done with our copy and I can have a looksee.

The difference between infra-interesting and just plain boring pivots on an often-very-complex deployment of irony, which can turn a dessicated film, for instance, that deploys lots and lots of cliched speech, whose characters never quite achieve the exit-velocity of intriguing interiority, whose dramatic events aren’t quite dramatic enough and whose scenarios are rote, and whose settings are unostentatious, banal, and so on, from a boring one to a sublimely infra-interesting production. The problem, of course, is to describe the lever, the hitch, the catch that makes the boring into something else. How can we be sure, except inferentially, that Eyes Wide Shut isn’t simply an incredibly stupid film rather than a meta-reflexive work of perfectly adulterated satiric genius? And how can we be sure, when we listen to the delirious banalities spoken by the characters in Soderbergh’s new film, whether we’re listening to something conceived in the spirt of the pseudo-realist pander or the hardcore-realist bonfire of the vanities?

Meta-ness, of course, is one way to frame a film preemptively as infra- rather than uninteresting. And TGE is stocked to the ceiling with meta-ness. The frame gets broken several times, you know the story about the leading lady, and there’s lots of winking discourse all the way through to clue the audience in to what’s going on. Of course, this is the sort of thing that Flaubert did (along with lots of other cutting edge stylistic technology, to be sure). One of the better moments in this line, perhaps, comes when Chelsea is “reviewed” (that is to say fucked and then written about) by someone called “the Erotic Connoisseur,” the proprietor of a site that reviews escorts. We get the review itself in voiceover, just after the ostensible dramatic climax of the film:

With her smoky-eyes, dark straight hair, and perky little body, Chelsea would appear to have the potential to satisfy in the goth or girl-next-door modes. Alas, Chelsea seems intent on marketing herself as a “sophisticated escort.” With her flat affect, lack of culture, and her utter refusal to engage, Chelsea couldn’t even dazzle the likes of Forrest-Fucking-Gump. And that’s just where the problems begin. Just as her perky little tits seemed to literally shrink at my touch, so too did the connoisseur’s cock fail to launch at the clammy touch of her hand and the lukewarm and loose embrace of her mouth. To quote the great sage Jamie Gillis in Misty Beethoven, “this number is the nadir of passion.” A splendid time is absolutely not guaranteed for all.

The fact that the Connoisseur refers to his freebee sex with Chelsea as “review copy, as it were,” puts us on the right track. And further, of course, the fact that the review could hold valid not only for the character Chelsea, but probably for Sasha Gray herself (as IT puts it, she is known for “unnerving ability to look absent even (or especially) in the midst of some convoluted group penetration”) as well as for Soderbergh’s film, brings the meta in a thunderous way, is almost enough for the movie to achieve escape velocity into the Infra in a single talky bit.

But then again, meta-action is rarely enough anymore. Meta is all over the place – the shittiest film for the bored teenager market has that sort of thing in spades nowadays. Boring meta is still, or now, only just boring. It’s a base to touch, but it can’t make pseudo into hardcore all by itself nowadays, not without help.

So what is it then? Is it the fact that the film felt to me, as I watched it, like not only an illustration but even an expansion of Nina Power’s recent piece on  Nu-language (and Orwell), that does it? In the piece, she describes a recent “astonishing proliferation of coinages, buzzwords and neologisms. Rather than seeing a carefully controlled reduction in the number of officially sanctioned words, we are instead overwhelmed by wave upon wave of faddish expressions and tautologies – a kind of junk syntax in which there is no more reason for a word to be in one part of a phrase than another.” This language and its proliferation, according to Power, arrives via bureaucratic mandate – a mandate that is ultimately responsive only to the deeper mandate to seem productive despite the fact that no real production is taking place.

Sit in any meeting, whether at a company HQ or at a university, or be a participant in a focus group, and the discussion will invariably turn to questions of “benchmarking”, “quality assessment” and “blue-sky thinking” – as if one were sitting in sunny California rather than provincial England. People will “speak to” documents, forgetting that we generally speak to other human beings rather than to pieces of paper. “Clients”, whether they be students, consumers or voters, will be “consulted” as part of some “new initiative” or other. There will be “collaborations” and “partnerships” involving “stakeholders”. Participants will talk for hours and hours in an upbeat, aspirational way. And there will be coffee and biscuits, and people will congratulate one another at the end for such a “wonderfully productive session”. And yet nothing will really have been said. And certainly nothing will have been done – nothing good, at least. It’s not that we have to lie about production figures, as the Stalinist broadcasts by Orwell’s Big Brother did; rather that we have to compensate for the way we barely produce anything at all by becoming obsessed with “innovation”.

Nu-Language is, as she says, “an ominous word-cloud that drifts from one department to another, providing each of them with the illusion of activity and the false comforts of a discourse of dynamism that is incapable of recognising its own sterility.” But what’s really good about TGE, and why it both echoes Nina’s piece and provocatively focalises it into in a new and fruitful direction, is the fact that it demonstrates the spread of the “omninous world-cloud” beyond the meeting room, out into the realm of the officeless new economy of freelance worker. Becoming a yoga teacher, a magazine hack, or a high-end prostitute, it seems, doesn’t get you out of the mandate to repeat these sterilities – in fact, as we see again and again in the film, freelancing results in a deeper internalization of the same. No boss is looking because you are your own boss, but still your mouth moves and the same stuff trickled way, way down from CNBC and human resources consultants, Suze Ormand and the latest long-tailing, black-swanning pop business book.

Picture 6

But of course, this world of self-employment is in crisis – both in the film and the real world. (Serendipitously, the business section of the IHT on Saturday features a long piece about “The Self Employed Depression” – all those yoga teachers in Brooklyn faced with empty dojos and emptier wallets…) But on the other hand, the current economic downturn has only accentuated was was always already the case in the new economy of unteathered (that is, precarious, unbenefited, undercompensated) work. While the freelance prostitute has liberated herself from the protective tyranny of the pimp, freedom comes at the cost of the services of a reserve army of consultants and agents, web designers and moneyhandlers – who collectively take a piece of her or her earnings (in hourly fees and commissions) in order to hold off for as long as possible the inevitable loss of market share that she faces as she ages. Chelsea talks to her accountant about setting up her own retirement account, talks to consultants about diversifying her work into boutiquery as the clock is very much ticking down on her productive viability, and it’s hard to imagine that she has health insurance – though hers is a line of work where one would be well served to have a decent policy.

The precarity of work – especially when mixed with the tendency of that sort of work to fall under the rubrics of affective and/or communicative labor – is a particularly soil for the infra-interesting to grow. Stuck – as we all are in immaterial reaches of the economy, whether we have steady jobs or not – between the dual mandate to play things very safe and steady and constantly, incessant to rebrand and recast ourselves, to diversify our employable assets, and to handle rapid oscillations in market conditions and the tastes of the clients. And worst of all, because of the specific nature of this work, which depends upon in Chelsea’s case selling a fuck as desired, or engagement in yet another conversation about the market or the frigid wife at home as true – just as, for instance, the selling side of what I give my students is in the end based on the feeling of authentic engagement with which I endow my lectures or our conversations in my office – Chelsea, like all of us, ends up by market mandate going to work on herself, tweaking and retooling in order to summon up just one more drop of eau de presence for her customers to smell on her neck. If I were a prostitute (and I’m not sure, given what I’m saying, that I’m entirely not), I might have recourse to “personology” books as well… I too might consult a dice rolling system to trick myself into feeling just real enough about what has long since gone permanently flatline for the sake of keeping alive in my line of work.

But of course the problem is that the very strategies and discourse that we use to attempt to trick ourselves into creative / affectual productivity renders us incapable of the very productivity we seek to provoke. What comes of this, of course, is just the sort of tepid appeal, the enthusiastic benumbment, and mediocritized specialness that characterizes not only the film and the star of the film and the character that she plays, but further the culture at large from which it is drawn. The situation takes the shape of a vicious circle, a tragic trajectory. The infra-interesting, then, might best be characterized by the dramatic emplotment – almost always in tragic form – of the quest to render things interesting under conditions that would seem to prohibit such a development. Rather than simply watching a pornographic video and, you know, getting aroused, it is more like watching a video of someone watching a pornographic video and struggling, against all their boredom and jadedness and who knows, guilt, bad faith, psychophysical dysfuction, to get themselves aroused, to arouse themselves to the point of sexual functionality. It is perhaps a mark of our time that most of us know immediately, if darkly, which of the two options would be more, well, interesting to a contemporary audience of a certain demographic. Soderburgh himself certainly did way back in 1989 when he made his name on the back of another film preoccupied with vicious circles of impotence, desirelessness, frigidity, and talk.


Finally, the presentation of New York in the film underscores and echoes much of what I’ve said above. The film refuses to indulge in a single “landmark” centered shot from what I can remember, instead presenting a cascade of generic looking street scenes from what could be any of the various dining and drinking districts of the city. In particular, Soderburgh sets many of the sequences that take place in restaurants and bars – and there are a ton of these, flipping through the film quickly suggests that it’s made of almost nothing but sequences like these – with opening shots of the front of the restaurants in question like the one above or this one below.


I’ve been out of New York for almost four years now. I didn’t recognize any of these places in the film, and I wasn’t sure until I checked whether they were real places or fictional lookalikes. They are in fact real – or at least were, as one of the two pictured above is already out of business according to New York Magazine. But my non-recognition is probably in fact the point. A great deal of The Girlfriend Experience takes place in upper-middlebrow (upper middle-palate?) gastropubs and bistros – the film starts in one, and proceeds to fill itself with Chelsea’s appointments with clients, consultants, and friends that take place in a seemingly endless sequence of places just like these.

I’ve spent an enormous amount of time – even in London, even despite the fact that I barely get out anymore – in places just like these. In fact, there’s one that I think of as something like the platonic ideal of the form. The first time I walked into Canteen, the place tucked into the netherparts of the Royal Festival Hall facing Waterloo Station, I thought to myself that I should take a picture of the place, as this is what the world looked like for much of my adult life, but soon, perhaps, would look no more.

I am not sure I have the interior design knowledge to do the place justice, but this snippet from a review online might do the trick, and in more than one way:

In keeping with a traditional canteen, the tables and seating are low and simply styled. The seats covered in olive leather are punched Aertex style, menus and cutlery are stored in shelves edging the seating sections, a long bar lines one wall and the open plan kitchen complete with school canteen shelves for trays, the other. This is how you’d expect the executive dining room at IKEA HQ to be styled.

Anyway, why am I so fixated on these places, both in real life and in The Girlfriend Experience? They are collectively, I believe, not only one of the most characteristic spaces of the period we have just lived through, they are further (it follows) perfect spatial correlatives of the infra-interesting itself. The highend and dinnertime version of the would-be-freelancer’s seat at Starbucks, these thirdspaces fall ever deeper into derivativeness and genericness the harder they try to assert, ever so subtlely, their greyscale idiosyncrasy. Whereas the mid-to-highend world once only had low and high restaurants (the pizzeria and the french bisto) to choose from, now we can stumble along the long-since gentrified streets of our capital cities or even our suburban enclaves and find all manner of teak trimmed imitations of the “executive dining room at IKEA HQ” in which to exchange bureaubanalities with our coworkers, to overshare with our lovers and acquaintances, or to contemplate – though not all that long or hard – another bottle of Shiraz with which to drown out the idle Nu-talk that we can’t help but produce when cornered in a “seating section.” They are the scenes of our infra-interesting evenings, after a long days of typing or encouraging or fucking, where we break it all down into words that will leave no mark by the time we leave.

Try to think. What else is there to do but eat and drink at this late stage of the game? What was there to do at night, back as far as you can remember?

The Decline of New York is a popular meme at the moment, but Soderburgh was cannier than most when we painted this decline in the earth-and-Thai tones of the rise of gastropub. We order our groceries and books on-line, we steal our music and our movies. Sex we have wherever we can, but always in places appropriate to the task. But there is nothing left to buy on our better streets than brunch mimosas and glasses of overpriced (and probably supermarket bought) Rioja. But the restaurants are steadily closing. Even in the film, set before the election, they are emptier than they are full.

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June 7, 2009 at 10:34 pm

“my own lavatory and a daily copy of The Times”: larkin on work, bunnycide

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Ah, two weekdays mostly at home and suddenly the infarctional insanity of work is thrown into stark relief. This is so civilized, gawd. Wake up, walk my daughter to school (I’m usually on the bus an hour before she goes), sit at my kitchen table with newspapers and novels and coffee.

Anyway, here’s a nifty thing from the TLS about the earliest interviews with and articles about Philip Larkin to appear in the press….

I was particularly struck by Larkin’s loathing of work, including, I suspected, his job as a librarian, although he carefully did not specify this. We discussed his career and much of what he told me I included in my profile. He said that on going down from Oxford he could have taught or gone into the Civil Service. “I did not want to teach because I stammered and the Civil Service turned me down. I even considered journalism but I could not write to order.” I omitted, for obvious reasons, what he told me about his first job at Wellington in Shropshire. “I saw and applied for a job as librarian at Wellington”, he said.

“The last man had scrubbed the floor and stoked the boiler but I refused to do this. I was accepted nonetheless. This was a stupid choice that has determined the course of my life ever since but I didn’t have the courage to chuck it up. My two-and-three-quarter years at Wellington were the most unhappy of my life – and the most creative.”

(I did not know then that it was while he was at Wellington that he met and broke up with Ruth Bowman, the only woman to whom he was ever formally engaged.)

“I hate work. Libraries are a quite pleasant way of earning a living. Dismal prospects though! Jobs connected with books like publishing are not good for creative writing. That’s why libraries, all technical and administration, are so good.”

He added wistfully: “It’s too late to change now”, and, only half in jest:

“I’d like to have been a solid, uncomplicated, second-rate novelist producing a novel a year. And not ‘Crouch in the fo’c’sle, stubbly with goodness’. My only ambition now is to write more, to write better and to live without working, which is immensely distasteful to me. I’d like to earn enough to retire on from football pools, which I do every autumn.”

I asked him if that really was his only ambition. His answer was that, as he had spent most of his life in bedsitting rooms and was still in one (“the only life I have known”), he would also like to achieve his two private symbols of luxury, “my own lavatory and a daily copy of The Times”. Greatly daring, I asked him if he contemplated marriage (I knew nothing then of his tangled love life or of his difficulties with girls). He said he certainly intended to. “I’m not a confirmed bachelor but I rather enjoy the rattlesnake image.”

Ah, so you see? I’m starting to think, more and more each day, that these sort of stories are worth thinking about. Duh. OK – I’ll put it this way. Do you know when you teach lit (if you teach lit), we always end up starting out with some sort of capsule biographical description before heading on to the Heavy Work of close reading or whatever? Well, I’ve rejiggered my capsules to focus on this sort of story and not the other one. The story of “creativity” is the story of finding space, time, and market. It’s sort of a more materialist, matter-of-fact, less mystical-abyssal, Adornoism, btw btw btw, before anyone hits out at me for being, well, something about all of this.

Harumpf. Bonus poem time:


Caught in the center of a soundless field
While hot inexplicable hours go by
What trap is this? Where were its teeth concealed?
You seem to ask.
I make a sharp reply,
Then clean my stick. I’m glad I can’t explain
Just in what jaws you were to suppurate:
You may have thought things would come right again
If you could only keep quite still and wait.

Nice, geez. Have never read that one before. And am facinated by mixy bunnies, so there you have it. But it’s also a decent enough poem about work, if you squint at it, no?

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April 1, 2009 at 9:08 am