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“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

MOOCs and my discontents

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Massively mixed feelings about the rise of “MOOCs,” as featured this weekend in articles in both the New York Times and the Washington PostWhat are MOOCs? As the Post describes:

“Massive open online courses,” or MOOCs, have caught fire in academia. They offer, at no charge to anyone with Internet access, what was until now exclusive to those who earn college admission and pay tuition. Thirty-three prominent schools, including the universities of Virginia and Maryland, have enlisted to provide classes via Coursera.

For his seven-week course — which covers advanced math and statistics in the context of public health and biomedical sciences — [Brian Cafo, who teaches public-health at Johns Hopkins] posts video lectures, gives quizzes and homework, and monitors a student discussion forum. On the first day, the forum lit up with greetings from around the world. Heady stuff for a 39-year-old associate professor who is accomplished in his field but hardly a global academic celebrity.

In other words, these systems allow universities to create web-based versions of the courses that they teach their paying students. In general, these MOOCs has thus far been free to take: a sort of public-service cum branding operation for the universities (largely elite) who participate.

Ignoring for a minute all of the limitations on what’s happening (especially in terms of credential-distribution and also the probability that the companies that run these systems will eventually start extracting profit from them), these MOOCs seem to be a version of  exactly what we want: the (albeit incremental, limited) expansion of access to educational facilities to anyone who would like to use them.

It’d be, at least from one angle, massively hypocritical for someone to gleefully feel that the ability to suck down so much of what I want from the internet, even or especially in evasion of the copyright rules in play, represents a sort of technologically-inevitable communization of media and information, but on the other hand to hold that that the communization of the commodities that I distribute should somehow be exempt from such liberation.

So of course there are reasons to be pleased by the development of these courses and systems. It is a cheering thought that some kid without access to great teaching is sitting in her bedroom doing MIT engineering courses in her spare time. And why shouldn’t anyone be able, if only virtually, wander into my lecture hall and hear what I have to say about this novel or that movement? There’s no way that I or anyone else should be able to dismiss that possibility with a shrug.

But on the other hand: as often is the case when capitalist enterprises (or non-capitalist enterprises stuck within a surrounding capitalist system, like publicly-funded or not-for-profit private universities) take up utopian and even pseudo-communist aspirations, we should know by know to check that our wallets are still in our pockets.

First of all, there’s the issue of academic labor. It’s not as if these institutions, under the guidances of the consultants who swarm their corridors, haven’t been at work on a decades-long experiment in reducing staffing costs. As of yet, that experiment has focused on the casualization of academic labour: the replacement of tenure-track and tenured staff with contingent lecturers and cheap graduate students. It’s hard not to imagine that the development of MOOCs isn’t a sort of sandbox in which universities play with the possibility of even further reductions in staffing. If you could, for instance, record my lectures and then somehow throw me off the payroll (or, as is more likely, simply not hire another me now that I can literally appear in more than one lecture room at the same time), while simultaneously sticking far more students in my now-virtual lecture hall, well, what’s to stop that?

If you think I’m being paranoid, check out the attention to the issue of marking in both articles. According to the one in the Times:

Assignments that can’t be scored by an automated grader are pushing MOOC providers to get creative, especially in courses that involve writing and analysis. Coursera uses peer grading: submit an assignment and five people grade it; in turn, you grade five assignments.

But what if someone is a horrible grader? Coursera studied the peer grading of 2,500 student submissions for a Princeton sociology MOOC by having them graded a second time by Princeton instructors — yes, the professors hand-graded all 2,500 assignments — and found comparable results. Still, Coursera is developing software to flag those who assign very inaccurate grades to give their assessment less weight.

Ah – just as the airlines have passed the work of checking yourself into your flight and getting your bags on the conveyor belt to the consumer (in order to find themselves massive savings on payroll), now students will mark themselves, thus saving universities the cost of employing actual human beings to do such things. Never mind that marking and commenting on students work is actually what I consider the aspect of my job that requires the most expertise (anyone can read a lecture aloud, while knowing how to fix problems with students’ writing is an art) – the students in aggregate can achieve enough accuracy in clicking the “like” button or not underneath their peers essays that people like me with the red pen in hand late at night are no longer necessary!

(By the way, those of you that think of the credentialing aspect of universities as merely some sort of half-and-half mixture of a tyrannical ISA and a class confirmation machine, should remember that the less grades have to do with things the more other metrics will take over. “Everyone gets an A” in the US system, sure, but that simply means that out of all those students with the same marks, the ones who went to the most elite schools or have the most hookup are those that get to proceed to the next level. In other words, strict meritocracy is deeply suspect, but it is also better than its utter absence…  While of course I understand the very obvious problems with it, marking fairly and accurately still seems to me an essential part of higher education and my place within it. Sure, eliminate marks, degree classifications and the like – it will only make it all the more likely than it already is, and it’s already plenty likely, that the kid whose parents go to the right cocktail parties will get the opportunities that should have gone to a more deserving candidate…)

Secondly, beyond the issue of academic labor, and very much true to the direction that higher education is rapidly moving in the UK due to the recent and massive government cuts, these MOOCs seem like a precursor step towards the further “consolidation” of the higher education sector. Notice who, for the most part, is involved in these schemes: elite universities. If they could find a way to credential the students who take them, who’s to say that a free or cheap “Harvard Extension Degree” for those who never once pass through the gates of the campus wouldn’t be seen as “better value for money” that a regular (and state-funded) degree at UMASS-Boston down the road? Why even bother continuing to fund the non-elite universities, where there’s a perfectly good and exquisitely branded degree available at low-cost and in a radically scalable way right there on everyone’s home computer or mobile device?

Finally, from inside the whale, there is something ominous about how these developments are being pushed on us from within the university, the rhetoric that’s used to push it, that sets off very clear alarms. Someone came in to one of our recent department meetings to preach to us the virtues of the recording of lectures and their eventual mass distribution. He let us know that this is on it’s way and we had better get used to it. When I asked, given that I might disagree with his list of virtues, or at least formulate my own list of non-virtues, why I “had better get used to it,” why we “had” to do it, he informed me that it was because it was “already happening elsewhere,” and that if we didn’t do it, we would be “left behind by other universities.” Right. If there’s one way not to go about convincing me to do something, this is the way to do it. After all, from austerity outward, this is the mode of collective and mindless non-decision making that basically rules and systematically fucks up our world on a day-to-day but ever intensifying basis. Just as “if we don’t impose austerity measures the same or deeper than nation X, the banks will destroy us” is basically the trumping argument at play in the wider world, the deployment of the argument “Harvard is doing this, and if we don’t follow suit, whatever the possible consequences” is to me a sign that we are probably about to set sail into the lowering tide that sinks all boats.The way things have generally been going, it’s hard for me to imagine that it doesn’t end somewhere the looks more like the following than the system that we have now. (Go to 3:48 on the video).

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November 4, 2012 at 3:02 pm

neo-liberalism as american martyrdom

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Meme-expansion alert:

There’s long been a line of argument against the USA adopting a “socialized” medical system that goes something like this. “Sure, Canada and the Europeans have their cheap and equal systems. But the only way they can have those systems is because they freeload on the back of us, the unequal Americans. For instance, because we don’t have a single-payer system that forces the prices of newly developed prescription drugs down, the pharmaceutical companies have real incentives to develop new drugs. The NHSes of the world then purchase those drugs at a cut rate while Americans pay the true cost of their development.”

In other words, according to this line of thinking, Americans are actually the self-less martyrs of the medical world, paying ridiculous sums for treatment so that Brits and Canadians and Scandinavians can ride free. Were we to develop a single-payer system, the pharmaceutical industry would simply stop trying so hard to develop life-changing and life-saving drugs.

I’ve just found evidence in Ross Douthat’s column today in the New York Times that this meme is expanding its borders, moving from medical services to the global economy as a whole. Here’s the relevant passage:

The European model of social democracy has its virtues, but it has always depended on the wealth created by American laissez-faire. As a recent economic paper entitled “Can’t We All Be More Like Scandinavians?” points out, it’s easier for smaller countries to afford a more “cuddly” form of capitalism if big countries like the United States are driving global economic growth. And the price of a permanently larger government — in growth lost, private-sector jobs left uncreated, breakthroughs forgone — is much higher for a country of our size and influence than it is for a Sweden or a France.

Beyond the truthfulness and accuracy of the claims – which I’m sure is a mixed and complex matter – I am taken with what a strange argument it is when it comes, as Douthat is implicitly doing here, to using it to try to influence policy decisions / voting choices. Basically, it suggests that Americans, living inside a rapacious economic and political system fuelled by greed and inequality, are in effect trapped in a perverse and permanent mode of self-sacrifice, forced to accept their unhappy system so that (or almost “so that”) others might live better lives.

It’s neo-liberalism rebranded as a form of martyrdom, a bounded match of “survival of the fittest” that serves the corpses of the victims as free barbecue to the bystanders at the end of the game. Or, from another angle, it is the most passive-aggressive version of “combined and uneven development” imaginable. Strange.

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November 4, 2012 at 12:51 pm

“in california, one has only a first name”

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I’m sure most of you are already familiar with this, but thought I’d pass along my favourite paragraph from Marjorie Perloff’s indignant response to Mary Beard in the LRB just after 9/11.

I have been a subscriber to LRB since the journal’s inception some twenty-five years ago. But I hereby cancel my subscription and shall urge my Stanford students and colleagues to boycott the journal. Let me end, however, on an upbeat note that speaks to Beard’s ‘of course’. The man who takes care of our garden in Pacific Palisades, Ruben Vargas, was here the other day. A Latino who came to California from Mexico not all that long ago, Vargas has a daughter who is a freshman at UCLA. Some of us like to think that such upward mobility is what makes the US unique. I asked Ruben what he thought of the attack. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘at least now we’re all in it together.’ I responded: ‘But Ruben, many of my friends think it’s all America’s fault.’ He smiled and said: ‘Excuse me, Marjorie’ – yes, in California, one has only a first name – ‘but isn’t that a minuscule part of the population?’ Of course!

LOLZ. God bless America, a land where we hardly ever beat our gardeners for addressing us by the first name! You can find both the Beard and the whole Perloff here. What is interesting to me now, looking back at this piece after so many years, is the way that Perloff, in constructing her trumping concluding paragraph, so perfectly takes up the Clintonian * trope that goes something like “I met an ordinary woman in Tulsa, Oklahoma, she shared her story with me, I hugged her, and I felt her pain.” You know, the old argumentum ex I know ordinary folks, this sort of thing (wish I had time to find a better example). These are sorts of performative utterances: they signify by being said or being able to be said as much as by what they actually say. It’s funny that Perloff, in the heights of anger, decided to construct her argument according to this extremely liberal “I might not be of the people, but I’ve met some of them… especially those in my employ” structure.

Anyway, was quite a moment. If I recall correctly, both Beard and Perloff had visiting appointments at Princeton in 2002 – people were anxious / excited at the prospect of seeing them take it off the letters pages and onto the quad.

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September 11, 2012 at 4:02 pm

Posted in america

“new possibilities emerging from riots and abandoned construction sites”

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It’s hard for me to understand how anybody reads this sort of thing as anything other than a strange form of ad copy, a surreptitious pro-bono for the forces of gentrification themselves:

But after the cameras have gone, as the recession grinds on and the Eurozone spirals further into meltdown how will the Lea Valley look in 2013? 2013 is Year Zero, it signifies the beginning of new spaces opening up, of new possibilities emerging from riots and abandoned construction sites. The Masterplan will be eroded by the persistence of nature and the desire of the young to take back territory from the overarching boredom of the Westfield aesthetic . . . I imagine stalled housing projects, empty flats in yuppiedromes across the capital reactivated. I envisage stadia and velodromes covered in ivy, occupied and surrounded by transient and nomadic architecture, like Constant’s New Babylon, moving cities, interlinking, nomadic structures. I think this new ‘park’, the result of a corporate land grab, will, after the two weeks of televized spectacle, return to the physical reality of the wilderness.

It’s the same effect as Ballard – although I rather think that Ballard was far more fully aware of the dialectical perversity of his work than Ford is. A block of posh condos, a new megamall of the periphery, the traffic-locked Westway – all of these things become more interesting when someone encourages us to imagine them as anteriorly or futuraly haunted by outbursts of primal sex, violent agitation, or eroticised Michael Bay-type fireballs. Did you think Ballard was critiquing these things, given how appealing you find them in their gory transfigured forms? No more than marketing firms are critiquing the products they shill. Cars are more interesting – and thus more salable – when their utilitarian functionality receives, via the ad campaign, some Bukkake shots of sex and death, when they’re rolling you around the end of the world scenes of late capitalism.

Think about it: what if Ballard wrote a novel about what really goes on in the up-market high rise? And what if those who are selling the condos and buy-to-lets couldn’t rely on the residual grime as both an edgy selling point, a marker of victorious progress, and a feigned tell that the punter is going to get a very good deal indeed. The logic of the paragraph above is the very logic of gentrification – the edgy is valued as authentic but also as a good investment. The fact that the Lea Valley was first encountered by the artist “through the rave scene of the early 90s” is a consumer testimonial, might as well be a part of a branding operation.

In truth, the reality will be, I imagine, much more boring than in the quotation above. Flats will fill Stratford, the mall will continue to expand, the fringe areas nearby will be swallowed, until school catchments and distance from the transport hubs put a cap on the encroachment. There won’t be squatters – no more than there are in Canary Wharf. But in our flats – after all, “we” are the demographic who are meant to occupy these things, right? – paintings of the previous inhabitants, wasted ravers, decorative drunks at a shitty bar, post-coital squatters in dirty bedrooms, empty bottles and over-flowing ashtrays, will hang on each and every reception room wall.

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August 17, 2012 at 2:19 pm

phrase making

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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August 7, 2012 at 3:20 pm

Posted in whatever

will self and ballard’s moderate modernism

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Will Self has a piece in the Guardian about his relationship to modernism – and the fact that he intends to write in a more modernist, less reader-friendly form moving forward. Feels a bit like a deathbed baptism from a man to young to go in for such a thing, and we’ll wait to see what the output of Self as born-again avantgardist looks like. But in the course of this, Self says some highly interesting – and fascinatingly inconclusive – things about his relationship to J.G. Ballard and his works – things that speak volumes I think about the strange nature of Ballard’s influence on “innovative” British fiction in recent years.

First, Self describes finding  inspiration, a “sense of traction,” in the  course of rereading Ballard in the 1980s.

In the winter of the following year I was living – in slightly more congenial circumstances – a few miles away in Barnsbury, north London. The flat was better-heated, but the chill winds of modernism were still blowing through my mind. I was reading JG Ballard’s novels – or, rather, rereading them, because as an adolescent SF fan I had gobbled them up along with Asimov’s and Heinlein’s, never pausing to consider that Ballard’s psychic probe into what he termed “inner space” was an altogether more seriously artistic endeavour. But in 1987 I got it: reading especially The Atrocity Exhibition, and then Crash, I was gripped by an unaccustomed sense of traction – I could see a way to get on. It was an experience I hadn’t had since, on reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis for the first time, aged 16, I had this epiphany: that of all the arts, fiction is the most powerful, since, with no materials other than a pen and paper, a writer can convince a reader that a man has changed into a monstrous vermin.

Then – this is where it starts to get interesting – Self seems to acknowledge that Ballard’s not actually all that modernist. That is to say, that rather than formal experimentation, what we have in most Ballard (aside from The Atrocity Exhibition and a few other minor works) is outré content strung out along rather conventional narrative frameworks and constructions.

In his memoir Miracles of Life, Ballard writes about his own Josipovici- (or Self-)style modernist moment: a prolonged rubbing and itching induced by the old-style corsetry of English fiction in the 1950s. Ballard turned to science fiction – he said – because “what interested me were the next five minutes”, rather than a simple past to be evoked by the simple past tense. Ballard, who I knew personally, could be a little disingenuous about the extent of his own influences, preferring to be seen – in literary terms, at least – as entirely sui generis, but this is a forgivable foible in a powerfully original writer. Apart from the advanced experimentation of The Atrocity Exhibition, which exhibits elements of the “cut-up” and “fold-in” methods originated by the Dadaists and channelled into English by William Burroughs and Bryon Gysin, the great majority of Ballard’s fiction has altogether traditionally realist formal properties. Indeed, it’s the juxtaposition of these hokey characters and straightforward plot lines with the outlandish psychogeographic content of Ballard’s fictive inscape that makes the books so profoundly unsettling, and ensures that they have remained surfing the zeitgeist to this day.

Following on from this judicious doubling-back on Ballard’s ostensible modernism, Self shifts to discuss Ballard’s 1995 introduction to Crash. (Some of this document is available here.) He’s exactly right to do so: Ballard’s introduction to Crash, which was written in 1995, twenty years after the original book, is a fascinating and utterly modernist document, a vivid take on what’s wrong with the contemporary non-experimental novel, and how what’s wrong with the novel has something to do with changes in culture itself.  In fact, one might be tempted to think of the introduction (I certainly am) as a bizarrely anachronistic contract, drawn up two decades late, that the novel itself that it introduces almost entirely fails to fulfill.

Most of all it was Ballard’s introduction to the 1973 French edition of Crash that lit a path for me. In it he united his own modernist sensibilities with what he termed “the death of affect”, a wholesale loss of feeling occasioned by the impact of the atomic bombs that ended the second world war, and then irradiated through the emergent mass communications technologies of the postwar period – in particular TV. It was this, Ballard wrote, that made it impossible any more to suspend disbelief in those omniscient and invisible narrators of naturalistic fictions, whose tendency to play god with their characters had surely always been a function of their own status as personations of God. […] A year or so after my reimmersion in Ballard’s oeuvre, while I was commuting to work at a Southwark office from the flat I shared with my first wife in Shepherd’s Bush, I began to work seriously on what would become my first published book, the story cycle The Quantity Theory of Insanity.

So, is it suggested here that it wasn’t so much Ballard’s fictional works as this one introduction to Crash that spurred Self on to his own work? His own work, written in a way that he is, in this very piece, now renouncing? A few paragraphs later, Self parallels himself with Ballard yet again, but in a negative light: “Like Ballard, on the whole I have been content as a novelist and short-story writer to deploy difficult content in lieu of formal experimentation.” So, in this article about the origins of Self’s modernist impulses, Ballard features as a key figure who, in the end, doesn’t live up to what it says on his tin.

Quite interesting, isn’t it? Through Self’s article – and without Self quite saying it straightforwardly – we get a picture of Ballard as a writing whose work seems to gesture in the direction of the avant garde but doesn’t quite, an author who had important thoughts about the future of the novel but failed to follow through on them, a novelist incredibly influential to English writers who intended to disobey the normative mandates of fiction in this country but who, because they were following someone who didn’t live up to his own advice, perhaps have consistently failed to do so – in fact have one after another managed to write moderately modernist works that never quite get around to problematizing the fundamentals of fictional form (character, plot, description, etc) nor the ideologies that underwrite them.

I could give you a list of who these writers are, but that would be impolitic. Anyway, I’m writing something about this at the moment, something that uses Adorno’s concept of “moderate modernism” to think through the workings of Crash and a work by a contemporary author. So you’ll probably see more notes like this on here soon.

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August 6, 2012 at 1:16 pm

zadie smith goes elliptical, anti-evental

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Related to the conversation that spawned my previous post, someone told me that he thought Zadie Smith’s new story (paywall, sorry) in The New Yorker was the best thing that she’s done so far. I’ve just read it, and I agree.

It’s written in an elliptical form, as a series of short numbered paragraphs, and this, I think, is part of what permits Smith to sidestep some of the problems of her previous works. Smith discusses her use of this form, which she calls a “sectional form,” here:

Well, the story is an extract from a novel, and this sectional style only appears towards the end of the book. When I was writing the book I was trying to think about how we experience time. How it really feels to be in time. And the answer ended up being different depending on who or what I was dealing with. In Keisha’s case, she has this belief that life is a meaningful progression towards some ultimate goal—in her case, “success”—and this made the numbered sections the obvious choice.

To put what she’s getting at (I think) about “time” and “how it feels to be in time” into my own words: Whether the novelist wants to or not, conventional narration gives itself not just continuity but (somewhat but not really) paradoxically, the failure of continuity, the emergence of the ostensibly new. That is to say, narrative continuity provides itself in order to be broken, to serve as the staging grown for the discontinuous event. And then one day, something unforeseen happened…

The story plays from the start with the idea of events and eventfulness. The first lines read:

There had been an event. To speak of it required the pluperfect. Keisha Blake and Leah Hanwell, the protagonists in the event, were four-year-old children.

Now, discontinuous events of this sort – and in general –  and the changes that they inaugurate in the line of their stories, are often sites of ideological mystification disguised as romantic aesthetics. (If you want to read someone playing expertly with this, take a look at David Lurie’s speech to his academic bosses in Disgrace. “Eros entered. After that I was not the same.” The “event” is the alibi that is meant to explain away – or refuse to explain away – all else that has happened, the presence of motive, etc…)

And in the case of Smith’s story, the “sectional” form of the narrative opens it by the end (not going to give it away) to a fundamental revision – a revision both of the story, the nature of its central character, and the romantic ideology that is serving as a blind for the cold determinism running underneath. It as if the story says to its own protagonist:

You had the sense that you were living life in accordance with the patterns and principles of romantically-tinged romantic fictions, complete with those moments of coup de foudre in which one position as if magically, but at least spontaneously, gives way to another. That is to say, you believed that your live was structured by events: you randomly meet this person, that happens, you meet another person, and so on. This ideology is the elipsis that haunts even the most conventional of narratives. But it was not so: a logic – the logic of comparison that is at base the logic of capitalism – was running the show, your show, all along.

At any rate, I’m interested to see how this all works in the novel from which this story is extracted. As she says in the passage I quoted above, this form only comes in at the end of the book. What would it mean for a novel to evolve or devolve into this?

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July 31, 2012 at 12:44 pm

female writers, writing, etc

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Following up from the post above about Amy Sohn’s piece: had a discussion last night about why it had been difficult for me to find novels written by females for a specific (but not all that specific) syllabus that I taught from last year – and why it might be the case that that was so. (More specifically, this conversation last night was provoked by the fact that students who took this seminar have taken it upon themselves to run their own seminar / reading group during the summer focused on female authors of the same period as the mostly male authors that we handled in mine… According to reports they’re not unhappy with me, understand why I assigned what I did, we’ve talked about it at length, but still they want to do more – and I’m glad they are.) Some of it may be that the specific aesthetic itself that we were dealing with in the seminar is gendered (and that it was a gender-driven choice on my part to centre on it in the class). This is worthy of discussion – and discuss it we did.

But something else came up that’s interesting too: the institutional, structural reasons why female writers’ careers tend (NB – by tend I mean tend – there are lots of exceptions!) to follow certain paths and not others. There are both active and passive, or positive and negative reasons why women don’t tend to write a certain sort of novel. On the one hand, there are of course roadblocks and prohibitions: old boys clubs – or even young boys clubs, preconceptions about who is suitable to write what, and of course all the psychological baggage that comes of growing up and being educated and everything else as a female rather than a male.

But on the other hand – I think this is just as interesting – female writers careers are shaped (in the context of this discussion, misshaped) as significantly by the carrot as by the stick. In other words – and if you’ve spent any time with a female freelance writer trying to make it on the American scene, you’ll know what I’m talking about – there are paths that young female writers are encouraged to follow by everything from article pitch acceptances to book contracts. The form that this encouragement takes is shaped by a nexus of ideology, taste, readership, but most importantly money and markets. And no one forces female writers to follow these paths – but they often are the paths of least resistance, and in a hard world, sometimes frictionless movement forward is undeniably appealing.

To put it another way. No one, in general, wants a tell-all / roman à clef about a guy’s sex life – let alone to write the sort of Carrie Bradshaw style column that leads to one of those. With a few notable exceptions, there’s not much demand for the “my life as a dad” style book either, where as mommy-centric stuff seems to be one of the true perennials of the book trade. I could be wrong – and in fact I have the slightest bit of evidence that I might be – but I have a feeling that a male version of Rachel Cusk’s Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation wouldn’t work – or at least receive the PR explosion that it did when it came out over here – if written by a man.

Or to put it again yet another way: take two would-be freelancers in their 20s living in Brooklyn during the 2000s, one male and one female. Perhaps both want to write highbrow pieces about international affairs, the state of American culture, domestic politics, whatever. Both of them receive rejection after rejection when they try to do so. Of course they do – they are too green, there’s lots of established experts in those fields, they haven’t yet built up the CVs and the contacts, whatever. But the female of the pair discovers that yes, there is a market for a piece comparing her life to Carrie Bradshaw’s. It’s a throwaway, but it builds her publication list, so she takes the shot. There’s not really an equivalent slot for the guy to fill, so he turns instead to a PhD, writing a long, recondite literary novel, whatever. Meanwhile, for the female, one thing starts to lead to another – the article to an appearance on television to discuss SATC, the television appearance to a series of other related articles, and one day, after being coaxed into writing a particularly spicy piece by a magazine contact, a book contract about, well, some sort of equivalent of the Sohn thing I discussed in the previous post. The guy on the other hand likely gets nowhere, or becomes an academic, or perhaps, if he’s both good and very very lucky, releases his monstrous tome and ends up a rising light of the “literary fiction” scene.

Super-reductive, all of this, I know. But in practice – with countless variations – I’ve seen it turn out this sort of way lots and lots of time. There are highbrow versions of the same phenomenon: the smart woman who writes smart stuff for the right places, but smart stuff that always requires her to insert herself into the piece in some sort of slapsticky manner, the point of what she’s after constantly receding behind a wall of Cuteness and Funniness. And so on – but for another day.

Please don’t misunderstand. There are both good and bad reasons why these “paths” develop for women, but what I am trying to get at is the way that they can in many cases be formative – shunt talented people into some success, but success that in the long run settles on a plateau of mediocrity or even obnoxiousness. In Cusk’s case for instance – and despite the fact that I liked the bits that I read of Aftermath – one really does wonder if a writer of her talents isn’t wasting her time doing this sort of thing. Making a bit of money, yes, but wasting her time when she could be doing better work. Maybe she will next – or maybe she’ll write a follow-up to this book that got her a full-spread in the culture section of every Saturday paper in Britain a few months ago.

At any rate, and for now, let this stand as my attempt to explain part of what I was trying to get at yesterday – the way that one can feel the interpolative (and ultimately mediocritizing) forces at work shaping a piece of writing like that…. And of course, there are so many things here that need more attention: what I mean by “better” work, the ways that strong female authors game with the expectations I’m describing, what happens to female authors who, to borrow a term, “opt out” of this structure, and the somewhat translucent parallel expectations that exist for men….

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July 31, 2012 at 10:19 am

Posted in gender, writing

how to write like a brooklynite, part 1: amy sohn

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OK class. The text for today’s session is this amazing piece of journalistic commentary, “The 40-Year-Old Reversion” by Amy Sohn. Let’s do a play by play – might want to open the article in another window and follow along as I point out the highlights.

1. It’s a good idea to start something like this by blithely referring to a knowing/unknowing joke about some unfortunate caste or category of people to set  the tone for the piece. This permits the readers to understand where they are, socio-demographically speaking, and where they most certainly aren’t.

Once a month I get together with half a dozen moms from Park Slope and Carroll Gardens. We call ourselves Hookers, Sluts and Drug Addicts.

Also note that the delivery of such a joke is a matter of touch. Sohn gets it just right here: Hookers, Sluts, and Drug Addicts are abstract and “funny” enough to keep things edgy yet chill. Adding “Teenage Pornstars with AIDS” or “Project Girls who Give Head for Crack” to the list would potentially bum readers out.

2. Following from that, head directly into a mildly dirty anecdote – something to give the piece a general air of… how to describe it… women staring at each other’s tits.

Sally and I hit it off right away. She had short hair and heavy lids. It turned out we had met ten years ago at the pool room in the back of the Brooklyn Inn, bantering and competing for boys.

Sally went to the bathroom and I waited in front of the door for her to finish. When she came out, I said, “Lemme see your tits.”


“I heard you got a reduction.”

She lifted her shirt and bra and flashed me. “They look good,” I said. “What did the old ones look like?”

They were too big for my little body. They were an F. After I weaned, I would roll over onto one of them in my sleep and it would wake me up and then I would realize it was part of my own body. Now I’m a D. I love them.” Then she started stroking them. A cook stuck his head out of the kitchen.

Notice, here, the way that Sohn doubles down in the final paragraph of the anecdote, moving from women looking at each others tits to a woman and a cook watching another woman massaging her own tits. Note too, at this point, that Sohn  widely sidesteps the temptation to move into fullbore sucking, lapping, or licking.

3. Once you’ve cleared ironical slurring and salacious suggestion, you can permit yourself a little vanity-mirror moment, just to register for the readers that you are in fact still desirable enough that any of the rest won’t be gross in the “ugly-old-people-having-sex” sort of way.

Later we decided to go to a bar in Boerum Hill. The restaurant owner, Dave, said he would drive us. He turned out to be a divorced dad. We all crammed into his SUV. There were car seats in the back seat and he threw one of them behind us. The other wouldn’t move so a small mom sat in it, scrunched.

As we were crossing the Gowanus Canal, Dave said, “I just want you to know that I would have sex with any one of you ladies tonight. Even the pregnant one.”

“Thank you,” we said.

3.1 But it would probably be best to tie the “guy-who-says-you’re-still-hot” digression off with a knowing, self-reflexive wink – but a wink that nonetheless you are definitely still potentially somewhat up for it and not the kind of bitch who gets tetchy about stuff like harassing comments made by restaurant owners:

The difference between twenty-five and thirty-eight is that, at thirty-eight, when a strange man says he wants to have sex with you, you feel grateful.

4. Now it’s time to disentangle yourself from digressive anecdotery about Sluts and Tits and Cougarism in order to roll out the actual pitch of the piece. And by pitch I mean just that: this is where you copy and paste the email that you sent to the editor of the web-only publication that you’re writing in now. In the course of doing so, probably best to hat-tip the massively-overexposed and over-analysed bit of pop culture flotsam gave you the idea for the piece in the first place. Nobody, after all, gets tired of pieces along the lines of Lena Dunham – c’est moi. C’est nous tous! 

When “Girls” hit this spring, I was shocked by how true the show rang to my life—not my old life as a post-collegiate single girl but my new one, as a married, monogamous, home-owning mother. My generation of moms isn’t getting shocking HPV news (we’re so old we’ve cleared it), or having anal sex with near-strangers, or smoking crack in Bushwick. But we’re masturbating excessively, cheating on good people, doing coke in newly price-inflated townhouses, and sexting compulsively—though rarely with our partners. Our children now school-aged, our marriages entering their second decade, we are avoiding the big questions—Should I quit my job? Have another child? Divorce?—by behaving like a bunch of crazy twentysomething hipsters.

4a. Above all else, it is absolutely vital to end the pitch-repeating “thesis” paragraph with a reduction of any (if any – let’s hope not) complexity you’ve generated so far into a single word brandname for what you’re describing. If you don’t do this, how will Newsweek what to put on their cover the week that you’re the star – they sure as hell won’t go with the title of the novel that you’re flogging by doing all of this in the first place.

Call us the Regressives.

Without a capitalized Name like this, how the hell would anyone know what you’re talking about? What sort of twitter hashtag would they use when arguing about whether you’re a shitter mother than the Tiger Mom or not? Most important of all, they might just start to get the sense that you’re extrapolating wildly (and hyperbolically) from a sample set that includes People who Live on My Block of Union Street, the One between Court and Clark.

5. OK – you’re just about ready to drop the name of your novel into the piece at this point. Careful – this part takes a deft touch.

My new novel, Motherland, is about five New York City parents who act out mid-life through adultery, marijuana or Grindr. The characters are inspired by my neighbors, who seek liberation not through consciousness-raising and EST the way their mothers did, but through Fifty Shades of Greyand body shots. They arrive home from girls’ nights at three a.m. on a weeknight and then complain about hangovers at school dropoff.

In another lesson, we’ll spend more time on the principles of novelistic construction that are on display in this dazzling set piece. For now: note the elegant to-and-fro of contradiction and confirmation of preconceptions are work here: moms are moms but also not because they fuck and drink, these people are made up but actually real, things have changed but really haven’t but really have, and this will have porny fucking in it, just like 50 Shades. All this in the course of a couple of sentences.

5a. This is slightly annoying, given the patently obvious universality of Sohn’s novel and this piece (and, presumably, yours as well), but it’s a good idea to underscore that universality for the haterzz by patiently explaining that the phenomenon in question is definitely not simply an insanely local case / unanchored particularity / simply evidence of the hothouse-reeking-of-egotistical-bullshit that is Brownstone Brooklyn but is in fact a global phenomenon.

(And this regression is not confined to upscale neighborhoods in New York City—I hear similar stories from friends in Los Feliz, Montclair and Rye.)

You can be forgiven if you don’t know where these desperately provincial backwaters are that Sohn mentions – why would you? I mean, the fact that they are only slightly more suburban versions of Brownstone Brooklyn, one in LA the other two just outside NYC, and are filled by exactly the same sort of people, only with bigger houses and maybe the shot at sending their kids to public school instead of having gram and gramps pay for St Anne’s, doesn’t contradict the fact that this stuff is probably happening in Omaha and rural Bangladesh. Or isn’t, as the whole piece is staked on the fact that Brownstone Brooklyn is so insane hip that…

You know what, forget it. Let’s move on.

5b. …we’ll move on save for one more thing. It will probably happen that some redneck will call you up on this Montclair or Rye thing. If so, answer with an eye-roll and the response “Oh, so I guess we don’t do irony, do we, where you’re from?”

6. Right. That’s it for the mandatory stuff. Now it’s time for the body of the piece, which needn’t be much more than a series of anecdotes about the phenomenon in question. Whether they actually add up to making a case for the existence of this phenomenon isn’t the point. Rather, the point is to deploy what you have – basically a series of mildly titillating / gross / silly things that have happened or you have “heard about” while sidestepping the fact that they may not in fact be real. One way around the later problem is to write in the present tense (“They arrive home from girls’ nights at three a.m. on a weeknight and then complain about hangovers at school dropoff”) or, even better, avoid using verbs beyond strange “it is” constructions at all:

The childbearing is over, the breastfeeding in the past, the sling donated to Housing Works. It’s the moment when a mom dresses as a Harajuku girl for Halloween, or there’s a full bar at a four-year-old’s birthday party, or two ladies step out of book group to smoke on the stoop. It’s blowjob gestures at cocktail parties followed by a-little-too hysterical laughter. It’s the mother who says, “Mommy needs an Advil because she stayed up too late last night.” It’s fortieth birthday parties at karaoke bars.

See that: through the “it’s, it’s, it’s” formulation, you’re not actually asserting that any of these things actually have taken place. Rather this is the sort of thing that would happen if this Regression thing was happening, and since you’ve said it’s happening, then they have happened too. Perfect – you’ve learned the secret of tautological spin.

7. It might be a good time, lest the reader starts to lose interest or attention, to reaffirm that this is just like the stuff that happens on her/his favorite cable tv shows.

The same Facebook moms who use kid photos as their profile pics post galleries of their binge drinking. Is the behavior really amoral? No. Does it cross a line? Rarely. But there is a wild, life-craving, narcissistic, oblivious madness to it that reminds me of Don Draper and pals in the mid-sixties. These women are the men their mothers divorced.

8. Now that you’ve done the amorphous “things that might be the case but who really knows” non-story story thing, the remainder of the piece can consist of a stream of consciousness list of mundane things that vaguely reinforce the Big Idea of the piece. Have no fear if these mundane things are really mundane and utterly disjointed, one to the next. What follows is an exhaustive list of what actually happens in the remainder of Sohn’s piece – exhaustive so that you can you can be reassured that having nothing really to talk about shouldn’t at all put you off writing a piece of this sort:

  1. Once, a woman in Fort Greene had non-intercourse sex once with a coworker.
  2. Once, a married woman with kids used coitus interruptus as her birth control method.
  3. Once, a man bought XL condoms from the Park Slope Co-Op
  4. Once, two men took Xanax while drinking.
  5. Once, a dad gave the author some marijuana.
  6. Once, the author took the subway to Park Slope once because there were no cabs on Smith Street.
  7. Once, people went back from drinks to someone’s place to do a line of coke.
  8. Once, someone said to the author that her Asian boyfriend had a large penis.
  9. Once, people at a party attended by the author smoked pot on the front stoop.

9. As you can see, the takeaway point is this: the initial “tits out and self-fondled” story is the alpha and the omega of this piece, and clears room for everything else. That along with a catchy tagword like “Regressives” will allow you to transform, as if (or, probably, in fact) effortlessly, some silly shit that happens at boring kids’ birthday parties in at the Center of the Literary Universe (i.e. Brooklyn) into a piece that not only captures the World Zeitgeist, but further even becomes a talking point during the dead-air times on CNN.

Did you catch a guy peeing against your garbage cans? Then exhibitionism in the new hip thing amongst the BoBos of Park Slope. Did you bump your head during sex with your husband? Watch out, EL James: it’s married BDSM that’s the new rage in Red Hook. Did a friend of a friend let one rip during a cocktail party? Then – as you can easily imagine – farting is the new flirting in Boerum Hill.

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July 30, 2012 at 3:00 pm

noted without comment: il più grande fabbro

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From the new edition of Stephen Spender’s journals:

To be totally honest now, I should ask whether Auden was not a bit envious of me because I had a large penis. He was certainly affected by this and mentioned it mockingly on many occasions. He explained my attraction for certain women as due to this. ‘How could they possibly know?’ I asked once. He looked down his nose with his sly boyish expression and said ‘They do.’

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July 23, 2012 at 10:09 am

Posted in bros

you you you: junot diaz, second person narration, etc…

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Just read Junot Diaz’s latest story (behind a paywall, unfortunately) in the New Yorker, called “The Cheater’s Guide to Love.” Not all that impressive is the long and short of it. Postures as a true story about fucking up a relationship by fucking lots and lots of other women, and then not getting over that all that well until the narrator realises that he can write about it all. OK.

But it did make me think about something interesting. As in other works, Diaz uses the second person here – the entire story is addressed to a “you.” Of course, there are infamous problems with the second person – above all, it forces an intimacy on the reader that the reader may not want to or be capable of sharing. As Emily Gould tweeted about the story and its mode of narration, quite rightly, “like, no, bro, I definitely didn’t treat a lot of women like shit or think it was ok in the end bc it turned out 2 be grist for the ol’ mill.”

I definitely don’t mean some sort of lapse into utter perversity, a sort of tutoyering Patrick Batemanism: “As you slide your hand into the cranial cavity, you feel the still unextinguished warmth of the head amidst the soft smoosh of the grey matter between your fingers.” (For now, I’ll refrain from giving you a bit of Fifty Shades in the second person…) You are a Nazi prison guard, you are a 19th-century courtesan, you are Laura Bush. Whatever. That’d just be dumbly obvious.

But it does seem to me that there is something to be done with this form. Rather than the obvious forms of alienation-in-proximity that I just described, I mean something more  indirect, uncanny, and at-one-remove.  Something akin to the forced identification that Flaubert pioneered with the style indirect libre. In Bovary, we read a novel whose discourse forces proximity on us: we can’t tell where the narrator stops and Emma’s subjectivity takes over control of the contents of the prose. But it’s not simply that we’re presumed to be exactly like Emma Bovary. Rather, we are related to her by implication: we are reading a romance novel, just as she is informed or even wholly composed of the same sort of genre fiction. We may not be adulteresses, but we are necessarily, like her, readers of novels about adultery.

I wonder how one might go about this. The best thought that I’ve had so far – and it definitely comes of reading the Diaz piece tonight, is something like an ur-New Yorker story written in address to the demographic that generally reads the New Yorker. But it’d have to be mighty clever to be good. I’m not talking about any obvious stuff like “As you sip your chardonnay at the Hamptons beach house, flipping through the latest from Malcolm Gladwell, a strange and unsettling thought enters your mind about Renata, the German au pair you just had coptered in for the weekend, and her firm body, so unlike that of your aging, yet still assuredly beautiful, wife…”

(Or what the hell – maybe that’d work just fine. Who knows…. Am I over-complicating? It wouldn’t be the first time…)

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July 20, 2012 at 12:54 pm

Posted in narrative

et in acadia ego

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There was a time, not long ago, when transit systems – those urban knots of intermodal connection – held great fascination. In particular, the places where the connections were made were of special interest. From taxi cab (two bags in tow, his and hers) to Heathrow Express – and in the middle, the newspapers and the bottle of mineral water, the ham and cheese croissant, the cigarette taken sneakily in the gap where inside vaguely becomes outside at Paddington Station. Later, having arrived at the airport and having negotiated the ticketing and security procedures, there are souvenir stands and more newspapers. One purchases what one wouldn’t normally when a long-haul flight is imminent. One purchases these things without guilt or worry at the airport, as it is a special zone, an exceptional place where spending is permitted – as the purveyors of Duty Free know all too well.

The first WH Smith was at Euston Station, and wasn’t just the first WH Smith but the first train station newsstand on earth. I can remember the thrill of visiting one, and seeing the stacks of the many British and international newspapers, though that thrill is long-since gone.

There are Relais newsstands in America now, at airports, although there they are called Relay.

The only thing worse than not being able to smoke outside of a bar (because it’s in an airport terminal) is the lack of natural light in them. Windows seem to be reserved for the executive clubs.

The iPad has relieved one of the need to purchase news in newsstands. A bittersweet development, like all of the others. But that is not the only reason why the newsstand – and the transit hub in general – holds less fascination than it used to.

A trick is played upon boarding. Having been offered a window seat in trade for his middle, so that two can sit together, the canny American businessman takes the aisle instead. When he meets with resistance, he blusters through, saying that he needs to be “nearer his family.” Within five minutes, and through some rapid Blackberry exchanges, he subsequently swaps his new aisle for an aisle elsewhere and isn’t heard from again.

On the smaller jet to Halifax, the bathroom door swings open during take-off and it is promptly slammed shut. This seems to break the lock – incapacitating the only toilet on the plane – until the flight attendant comes to the door and shifts the little metal sign that reads “lavatory” which reveals a tiny button which when pressed overrides the lock. One of the smaller mysteries of passenger aviation revealed.

The rental car is upgraded for free from a “small SUV” to a “large SUV.” Which means a Chevy Suburban with three rows of seats plus a trunk.

A stop for burgers in Wolfville, the home of Acadia University. Some wondering while he steers through the town and stops at the crosswalks about what life would be, quiet and 60 miles from Halifax.

Ten years ago, Nan sold her teetering shoreside house and purchased half of her sisters plot of land to build a prefab but lovely house. From the second floor deck, one can make out scraps of blue water in the bay. The view of the surrounding hills is better.

The old house is still there, but will one day soon, probably due to the vestiges of some hurricane or nor’easter or other, fall into the sea. A family from Boston has it now for a vacation house. Likely it is filled with lawn toys and drying shells, just as it was during summer visits twenty years ago.

An awareness of mortality has entered into these trips. In fact, one of the driving reasons for the trip is this awareness of mortality. Great grandmothers do not live forever. Thankfully, she is of earthy stock and this is more a subject of humorous banter than the bilious flow about death, its mercies, and the reticence of grandchildren about it all that would come from his other set of relatives, the post-Quebecois Catholics.

He decides, over the course of several conversations, that he will keep the house when it is his. He will go there during the summers to write and relax. Perhaps, if he can, he will rent it out for ten months a year for the sake of upkeep during the harsh winters.

There is a second-hand bookshop in town – actually a nice one – called Crooked Timber Books. The proprietor of the shop owns the website When asked if he is aware of the website, he claims ignorance, but then asks if it is run by philosophers.

There are real delights in limitation. The internet is borrowed from a neighbour and intermittent, which is good. There is nowhere to shop but souvenir shops and a Canadian Tire and a Walmart, as well as two supermarkets. Each morning he picks up the Globe and Mail and a box of doughnuts for the family breakfast.

At night, after the kids are asleep, Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. A perfect choice. The cosmopolitanism of the rural, the fact that Norfolk was once the western side of the mouth of the Rhine.

What to do with imperial history when explaining it to children? All that is left out from the dioramas and posters. The English defeated the French, yes, and sent them on their trek to Louisiana, yes, which made Cajuns of Acadians but what of the others, whose descendants are ensconced on First Nation reservations. Why the reservations, at this point?

A Mi’kmak necklace, made of porcupine quills, is purchased for $60.

Nan’s maiden surname is Denton. According to a popular genealogy website, the Dentons left their farm in Jamaica, Queens, New York in 1776 to move to Digby Neck, NS. Loyalists, Tories, and above all, bad businessmen.

Fort Anne, in Annapolis Royal, looks like a port and Port Royal looks like a fort. This confuses nearly as much now as it did twenty years ago. The former is constructed according to Vauban’s earthwork principles, which you can read about in Sebald’s Austerlitz.

Port Royal was a short-lived French fur trading settlement, established by Champlain amongst others.

In Lunenburg, there is a fine museum of fishery complete with docked trawlers you can explore at your leisure. Belowdecks and above. The borders of the UNESCO World Heritage district are indicated with dotted-lines on the maps of the town. Across the small bay, a giant golf course spreads in voluptuous green.

Most of the map-marked towns in rural Nova Scotia possess nothing more than a convenience store: pop, cigarettes, gasoline perhaps, hockey cards. Some lack even that – an old church, not yet nor probably ever converted into condominiums.

Brooklyn is a maritime place. You can still hear the horns of the boats and sometimes the air carries a sniff of salt. Brooklyn was once loveable for that reason, and others, but as with the newsstand and transport hubs, it no longer solicits the affection that it once did.

Lobsters: before and after.

Someone who hid from travel through photography. Trips were for the generation of photoessays to be posted to a blog. It is hard to shake the sense that cameras are a sort of prophylactic against contamination by the places one visits and the people one visits the places with.

To stage one’s disappearance not into the diffusion of the style indirect libre but elsewhere and otherwise. Into an accumulation of blank noticings, into reading whether of printed texts or not.

Sebald on Lowestoft:

The last time I had been in Lowestoft was perhaps fifteen years ago, on a June days that I spent on the beach with two children, and I thought I remembered a town that had become something of a backwater but was nonetheless very pleasant; so now, as I walked into Lowestoft, it seemed incomprehensible to me that in such a relatively short period of time the place could have become so run down. Of course I was aware that this decline had been irreversible ever since the economic crises and depressions of the Thirties; but around 1975, when they were constructing the rigs for the North Sea, there were hopes that things might change for the better, hopes that were steadily inflated during the hardline capitalist years of Baroness Thatcher, till in due course they collapsed in a fever of speculation. The damage spread slowly at first, smouldering underground, and then caught like wildfire. The wharves and the factories closed down one after the other, until all that might be said for Lowestoft was that it occupied the easternmost point in the British Isles. Nowadays, in some of the streets almost every other house is up for sale; factory owners, shopkeepers, and private individuals are sliding ever deeper into debt; week in, week out, some bankrupt or unemployed person hands himself; nearly a quarter of the population is now practically illiterate; and there is no sign of an end to the encroaching misery. Although I knew all of this, I was unprepared for the feeling of wretchedness that instantly seized hold of me in Lowestoft, for it is one thing to read about unemployment blackspots in the newspapers and quite another to walk, on a cheerless evening, past rows of run-down houses with mean little front gardens; and, having reached the town centre, to find nothing but amusement arcades, bingo halls, betting shops, video stores, pubs that emit a sour reek of beet from their dark doorways, cheap markets, and seedy bed-and-breakfast establishments with names like Ocean Dawn, Beachcomber, Balmoral, or Layla Lorraine.

The one sea-side bar in Digby is, during the middle of the summer, so overrun by mosquitos as to make sitting outside undesirable, almost as undesirable as sitting inside.

The lobsters, apparently, are caught and then penned for later use. In the pen, they are inserted into a plastic tube and chilled to the point where they go dormant – they hibernate. And then one afternoon, they are awoken.

Amazon, the Kindle app, all of those books on-line. Occasional but relatively frequent trips to London and thus the British Library and New York and thus the NYPL. In Buffalo, not even as small as this, an instantaneous sense that this is the place where real work could be done, a magnum opus.

Of course also a fantasy that develops as if instantly and without due permission. A wine bar and art gallery, with a bookshop attached. Something that would serve as a magnet. Gentrification, studies have shown, often helps the natives – at least those in a position to help themselves. The family of course are natives; Richard wants to buy the empty pier and set up a steakhouse amidst all of the seafood restaurants. So it is said, and then quickly forgotten as impracticable if not wrong – and wrong for more than one reason.

Whale-watching and the uncanniness of these mammals float along the surface, sucking fish. Fishing and the murk of the water off the wharf, under the wharf. Someone spots a young seal on a rock. Someone says the mackerel linger near the other end of floating docks.

Addiction is perverse allergy. Many people from small towns, it can easily be imagined, spin on a line of bored desperation, desperate boredom, when they finally reach the centre of the world.

Young as she is, she is not accustomed to the radio. To the fact that you take what you get from it and that there is a pleasure in that.

German tour buses roll slowly past the statue of the WWI Infantryman at the centre of town. The buses stop, as they must, to allow pedestrians to clear the crosswalks.

A hospital visit for someone’s separated shoulder. Clothes washed to avoid spreading MRSA amongst the very old and the very young.

Thoughts, nearly aspirations, of a better sort of life. A subsequent thought that the ennui (some would call it depression) isn’t permanent, essential, but contingent, locational.

A narrowly focused accounting of detail, especially that which fails or even refuses to shout out its need to be noticed. (The strange opening section of The Pale King – there but unsustained as if an object lesson, a performance, of what the book wants but cannot allow itself to have). The ditch that has opened (when? this year? a thousand years ago?) between igneous and sedimentary rocks at Point Prim, the pink Queen Anne’s Lace which is either the same species only younger or a different one altogether. The churn of the currents off the point as the Gut meets the Bay, which I point out to my daughter when she asks if we could swim.

The small salvation that comes of that, the unobtrusive detail retained, for me and for her and, if not all of us, then

Written by adswithoutproducts

July 20, 2012 at 2:35 am

Posted in canada, sebald, travel

performative reviewery: coetzee on (corngold’s) goethe

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Two things about Coetzee’s recent review of Stanley Corngold’s new translation of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther in the NYRB:

1) The extended first section of the review, which deals with the play of truth and fiction in Goethe’s novel, seems like it might be relevant to – that is, it might be an oblique commentary on – Coetzee’s own recent (and incessant, from Lives of the Animals forward) entangling of the truth and fiction. For instance:

The image of Werther as a twin or brother who has died or been killed and returns to haunt him recurs in a poem entitled “To Werther,” written when Goethe was near the end of his life. Between Goethe and his Werther self there was a complex, lifelong relationship that swung back and forth. In some accounts, Werther is the self he had to split off and abandon in order to live (Goethe spoke of the “pathological state” out of which the book emerged); in others, Werther is the passionate side of himself that he sacrificed, to his own cost. He was haunted not only by Werther but by the story of Werther he had put out into the world, which called out to be rewritten or more fully told. He spoke at various times of writing another Werther and of writing a prequel to Werther; but it would seem he could not find his way back into Werther’s world. Even the revisions he did to the book in 1787, masterly though they are, were done from the outside, and are not at one with the original inspiration.

Difficult not to read this in relation to Coetzee’s ostensibly late-life depictions of “himself” – or depictions of fictional depictions of himself – in Summertime and elsewhere. Yet another reframing – is his portrayal of himself (or, again, portrayal of portrayals of himself) as emotionally desiccated a kind of yin to Goethe’s yang, something he had to “split off in order to live,” or do something else than live. Anyway, bears some thinking through, this.

2) Corngold and his translation are mentioned only twice in the course of this long essay. The first time is to criticise the fact that the translator does not retranslate a long excerpt that Werther recites from The Works of Ossian but rather inserts Macpherson’s original. The second mention is simply to introduce some consideration of another broad question:

Corngold’s scholarly concern about anachronism raises a wider issue: With works from the past, how should the language of the translation relate to the language of the original? Should a twenty-first-century translation into English of a novel from the 1770s read like a twenty-first-century English novel or like an English novel from the era of the original?

A great question, but one that leads off from rather than back into Corngold’s own translation. So, after these two slight incursions into the edition at hand – incursions that mostly offer Coetzee to offer brilliant riffs of his own on the topics which and implicitly leave Corngold looking a bit under-rigorous in these spots – Coetzee makes a jarringly abrupt turn into the final paragraph of the review:

The Sorrows/Suffering of Young Werther has not lacked for translators. Among first-rate modern versions are those by Burton Pike, Michael Hulse, and Victor Lange. Corngold’s new translation is of the very highest quality, punctiliously faithful to Goethe’s German and sensitive to gradations of style in this extraordinary, trail-blazing first novel.

Wait, what? Sounds like the first paragraph of a more conventional review, the 800 word pieces you see in other magazines and newspapers. After all this, just “very highest quality, punctiliously faithful… sensitive to gradations of style”? After all of these complex and provocative analyses that Coetzee has offered – only some of them provoked by anything specific to the translation ostensibly under consideration?

In other words, it seems as though Coetzee here has written something like a pastiche of the style of the “long-form” reviews that we’re accustomed to find in the LRB and NYRB, where the expectation is that the reviewer does her or his own routine about the topic and then, only late, turns back to the book at hand. Which is what he does here too, but comically starkly, as if to make yet another point – this one performative – about the issue of writerly personality and its vicissitudes.

Written by adswithoutproducts

April 27, 2012 at 10:54 am

“meteor strikes”

with 4 comments

From the NYT today: 

The agreement came despite a series of setbacks in Afghan-American relations, including the burning of Korans, the massacre of 16 civilians attributed to a lone Army sergeant, and the appearance of grisly photos of American soldiers posing with the body parts of Afghan insurgents.

“In the midst of all these meteor strikes, we were able to still sit down across the table and get these documents agreed to,” one NATO official noted. Many Afghans, including some who are ambivalent about the American presence, believe that the country’s survival is tied to having such an agreement with Washington.

More meteor strikes, slightly older ones, from the Guardian this weekend. One example, if you don’t feel like clicking through, although you really should:

I saw Patrick Keiller’s exhibition at the Tate yesterday. It features, among so many other things, a few meteorites that had fallen in Britain. The most interesting one of all – at least to me – is the Wold Cottage meteorite, the one in the middle in the picture above. It fell in Yorkshire in 1795.

What is important about it, as Wikipedia summarizes, is this: “The Wold Cottage meteorite was the first meteorite observed to fall in Britain and is the second largest ever recorded to land in the United Kingdom. It was used by scientists as proof that extraterrestrial matter existed, and was made of the same materials as terrestrial matter.” In other words, it wasn’t until they found this one in a field that they believed that meteorites were in fact real rather than superstitious fictions.

What’s fascinating about that, of course, is that while we’re accustomed to thinking of the progress of human thought (or Enlightenment, if you will) as a process that involves the dispelling of myths (things that weren’t true that were thought to be) in some cases, as with this one, it works in reverse: things that were thought to be untrue, to be a matter of myth, were proven to in fact be true.

The usage of the phrase “meteor strikes” by the NATO official in Afghanistan, which have threatened to undo the persistence-despite-withdrawal of American power there, seems to me to partake of the pre-Wold Cottage meaning of the phrase. Events like these are taken as random and immaterial, lacking a physical foundation or cause, meta-effects like fireworks projected onto a screen rather than, as the photos in the Guardian begin to illustrate, part of the predictable weather patterns of our world as it is currently arranged.

Written by adswithoutproducts

April 23, 2012 at 10:23 am