Notes from the Underground

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I tolerate this century, but I don't enjoy it.

All of the ephemera that is far too trivial to be bothered with elsewhere on this site or, depending on your point of view, a meta-commentary on it. This ephemera includes, but is not limited to art, music and literature. Most of the content here will be discussed in terms that are as abstract as possible, reality being a singularly overrated concept.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Fantastic Journal has an interesting article on Terminal Five and the modern airport:

"The contemporary airport is probably the perfect architectural encapsulation of the strange complexities and iniquities of modern (western) life. They are glossy and expensive playgrounds offering endless diversions that never mask the ennui of actually being there. They are also highly policed, security-obsessed environments where the people in them are both flattered as consumers and treated as potential lunatics at the same time.

Airports are the quintessential contemporary building type, the symbolic target for terrorists and the rallying point for environmentalists. They are the manifestation of our desires and the focus of our fears. Spatially they are highly complex, a warren of labyrinthine corridors, border controls and security tape. Terminal 5 - like Foster's Stanstead - strives to transcend the reality of endless queues and sock shops, harking back to the grand spaces of Victorian railway sheds, but the grim realities of immigration control always brings such flights of fancy back down to earth... Airplane travel today is a weird echo of 1950's Service-with-a-Smile faux-luxury combined with the degrading intrusiveness of contemporary security arrangements. It's hard to equate the optimism of vintage BAOC adverts with the humiliation of thousands of people being forced to take their toothpaste through security in a clear plastic bag.

In a lot of respects, I rather liked Terminal Five. Victorians looking at the Crystal Palace or St Pancras Station must have felt the way I did when looking at it. That sort of gleaming futurism is rather uncommon in Britain. With that said, my main recollection of it was the contrast between the gleaming high-tech character of the building and the rather generic anonymity of the building interior; the effect of the contrast is rather bathetic. Terminal Five is in short, the perfect representation of what Marc Auge called the 'non-place:'

"Auge laments the rise of spaces like airports and freeways and rest areas that are decoupled from the world around them, places that could be anywhere and everywhere, but are actually nowhere. For Auge, these spaces seem to signal the end of borders, of locality, and of the old sense of identity rooted in place and time. The non-places are devoid of relationships and have 'no room for history unless it has been transformed into an element of spectacle.'"


posted by Richard 3:40 PM

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A glancing reference in a somewhat recursive Zadie Smith essay on essays, drew my attention to David Shield's Reality Hunger:

"Standard operating procedure for fiction writers is to disavow any but the most insignificant link between the life lived and the novel written; similarly, for non-fiction writers, the main impulse is to insist upon the unassailable verisimilitude of the book they've produced. I've written three books of fiction and twice as many books of non-fiction, and whenever I'm discussing the supposed reality of a work of non-fiction I've written, I inevitably (and rapidly) move the conversation over to a contemplation of the ways in which I've fudged facts, exaggerated my emotions, cast myself as a symbolic figure, and invented freely. So, too, whenever anyone asks me about the origins of a work of fiction, I always forget to say, 'I made it all up,' and instead start talking about, for lack of a better term, real life. Why can't I get my stories straight? Why do I so resist generic boundaries, and why am I so drawn to generic fissures? Why do I always seem to want to fold one form into another?

I have a very vivid memory of being assigned to read The Grapes of Wrath as a junior in high school and playing hooky from my homework to read Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72. Steinbeck’s humorlessness, sentimentality, and sledgehammer symbolism hardly had a chance against Hunter Thompson’s comedy, nihilism, and free association. I loved how easily Fear and Loathing mixed reportage or pseudo-reportage with glimmers of memoir.

I wanted to write a book whose loyalty wasn't just to art but to life, my life. I wanted to be part of the process, part of the problem. For quite a while I wrote in a fairly traditional manner - two linear, realistic novels and dozens of conventionally plotted stories. I’m not a big believer in major epiphanies, especially those that occur in the shower, but I had one, about fifteen years ago, and it occurred in the shower: I had the sudden intuition that I could take various fragments of things, aborted stories, outtakes from novels, journal entries, litcrit and build a story out of them. I really had no idea what the story would be about; I just knew I needed to see what it would look like to set certain shards in juxtaposition to other shards. Now I have trouble working any other way, but I can't emphasize enough how strange it felt at the time, working in this modal mode.

I'm hopelessly, futilely drawn toward representations of the real, knowing full well how invented such representations are. I'm bored by out-and-out fabrication, by myself and others; bored by invented plots and invented characters. I want to explore my own damn, doomed character. I want to cut to the absolute bone. Everything else seems like so much gimmickry. For me, anyway, the fictional construct rarely takes you deeper into the material that you want to explore. Instead, it takes you deeper into the fictional construct, into the technology of narrative, of plot, of place, of scene, of characters. In most novels I read, the narrative completely overwhelms whatever it was the writer supposedly set out to explore in the first place.

I tend to agree with Smith that Shields partly refutes his own argument, by noting the fantastical character of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as opposed to the sober realism of The Grapes of Wrath; it can often be the case that the more a writer adheres to autobiography, the more fantastical the narration becomes. Witness Huysmans and DeQuincey as obvious exmaples. One might also note that the division Shields draws between etoliated artifice and the crudity of raw experience is surely a false one; as John Bayley's The Uses of Division : Unity and Disharmony in Literature was at pains to point out, the most interesting work of many realist writers is often their more fragmented and inchoate. For me, writers like Lawrence, Eliot and Hardy are great precisely because of how untidy their novels often are. With all of that said though, in the end I probably sympathise more with Shields than with Smith. From Isherwood and Pessoa onwards to Coetzee and Sebald, writing that defies the division of reality and invention has become a hallmark of the age. Equally, it's difficult not to notice that if our age has any genre it has obsessively explored, it would have to be biography, even those of people who are still living and have done apparently little to merit the attention. Put simply, we live in an age where experience is a heavily circumsribed or heavily mediated concept. I recall an interview with Slavoj Zizek on this subject:

"In my work, I place strong emphasis on what is usually referred to as the virtualisation or digitalisation of our environment... But still, 30 percent of us live in a digitalised universe that is artificially constructed, manipulated and no longer some natural or traditional one. At all levels of our life we seem to live more and more with the thing deprived of its substance... Throughout the entire twentieth century, I see a counter-tendency, for which my good philosopher friend Alain Badiou invented a nice name: 'La passion du reel', the passion of the real. That is to say, precisely because the universe in which we live is somehow a universe of dead conventions and artificiality, the only authentic real experience must be some extremely violent, shattering experience. And this we experience as a sense that now we are back in real life.

I think this may be what defined the twentieth century, which really began with the First World War. We all remember the war reports by Ernst Junger, in which he praises this eye-to-eye combat experience as the authentic one. Or at the level of sex, the archetypal film of the twentieth century would be Nagisa Oshima's Ai No Corrida (In The Realm Of The Senses), where the idea again is that you become truly radical, and go to the end in a sexual encounter, when you practically torture each other to death. There must be extreme violence for that encounter to be authentic.

Another emblematic figure in this sense to me is the so-called 'cutter'- a widespread pathological phenomenon in the USA. There are two million of them, mostly women, but also men, who cut themselves with razors. Why? It has nothing to do with masochism or suicide. It's simply that they don't feel real as persons and the idea is: it's only through this pain and when you feel warm blood that you feel reconnected again. So I think that this tension is the background against which one should appreciate the effect of the act."


posted by Richard 6:01 PM

Monday, August 31, 2009

As I read this article, I realised that it reminded me of a certain contemporary figure:

"The West, it seems, is living through a golden age of civilisational anxiety, marked by endless agonising about the uncertain future... The sum of these fears – or their apotheosis – is the belief that civilisation is fated to decline, to be subdued from without or collapse from within. This too, is not a new idea. History, it is true, has often been narrated as a Whiggish tale of continual progress... But this uplifting Enlightenment sentiment has always been opposed by a darker view, one that stresses the cycles of history, the tendency for what has risen to fall again – a physics of decline with its own martial undertones, including the unmistakable implication that the West, fat and happy with the fruits of its technological and cultural sophistication, is blithely tottering on the brink of oblivion.

Few thinkers savaged Europe's faith in progress with the ferocity of Friedrich Nietzsche, who thought that anything called 'progress' was a mere illusion – if there was even such a thing, he suggested, its flowering could only give way to dissolution. Nietzsche’s ideas were carried into the 20th century by Oswald Spengler, whose book The Decline of the West became the ur-text of declinism in the 1920s. About history, Spengler concluded: "I see no progress, no goal no path for humanity." Spengler’s pessimism squared nicely with the gloomy mood of Europe after the First World War. If his book appears now as a curious artefact of its time, it helped to establish a template of decline – and a rhetoric to evoke its inevitability – that endures today, a kind of civilisational pessimism that exists at all points among the ideological spectrum; the declinists of the left and right obsess over very different threats, but the essential dynamic transcends politics."

If the current recession can be described as a counterpart to the great depression, it's hardly surprising that writers might respond to the times in a similar fashion to what is described above, which was why I found myself wondering whether John Gray might not count as our modern Spengler. Gray is in many ways the perfect embodiment of the spirit of our times; a self-styled contrarian whose arguments actually reflect an essentially mainstream view. Having had to live under a 'third way' government without any idea of political narrative and whose pragmatic approach to government resulted in little more than inconsistency, I do grow slightly weary of Gray tilting at windmills of Enlightenment political thinking. There were a couple of reasons why Gray came to mind when I read the above piece, of which this and this were the first:

"It is not surprising that Enlightenment thinking has become fashionable again: in uncertain times, people turn to the security promised by faith... liberal values are certainly at risk, but it is silly to look to the Enlightenment to safeguard them. It was a hugely complex movement, and some of its most influential thinkers were enemies of liberalism. Karl Marx allowed liberal values only a transitional role in human development, while Auguste Comte, founder of the influential positivist movement, rejected ideals of toleration and equality. Yet this was not simply a battle of ideas. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the anti-liberal strand of Enlightenment thinking gave birth to the 'scientific racism' that would be adopted by the Nazis. This ideology can be traced back to Kant's lectures on anthropology, published in 1798, in which he maintained, for instance, that Africans are inherently disposed to slavery. As an intellectual movement, the Enlightenment has always had a distinctly seamy side. In its political incarnation, it was one of the factors that shaped modern-day terror. Right-thinking French philosophes campaigned for the prohibition of torture, but their ideas also gave birth to the Jacobin Terror that followed the French revolution...

Much of the state terror in the past century was secular, not religious. Lenin and Mao were avowed disciples of an Enlightenment ideology. Some will object that they misapplied this. And yet it is a feature of the fundamentalist mindset to posit a pristine faith, innocent of complicity in any crime its practitioners have ever committed, and capable – if only it is implemented in its pure, unsullied form – of eradicating practically any evil. This is pretty much what is asserted by those who claim that the solution to the world’s problems is mass conversion to "Enlightenment values"."

There's a great deal I agree with here, such as insistence that communism as an ideology was responsible for the crimes committed under it rather than any abuse of the political theory by its practitioners. Nonetheless, there are two particular aspects of the above that particularly irk me. Firstly, while Gray is certainly correct that communist denialists tend to exculpate their ideology by claiming the cultural revolution as an aberration, he comes quite close to some of Marx's tactics in that last paragraph, suggesting that objections to his ideas represent a covert proof of them. Popper disdained that sort of circular argument in Freud and Marx and would doubtless take a similar view of the above. Even without that, it seems a little disingenuous to cite communism as an Enlightenment project without mentioning that the ideas of pluralism and democracy that opposed it had the same pedigree; those ideas being the ones that provide the normative basis against which Gray himself can critique Kant for racism or Comte for conservatism. More pressingly, it's doubtful that the opponents that Gray is addressing here really exist in any meaningful form; believers in a Marxist or Hegelian conception of progress as a form of historical inevitability must be few and far between. His references to the Euston Manifesto ignore the problem that its signatories were a relatively small group without substantial influence; had they or like-minded individuals not existed recent historical events would have run exactly the same course. For all their references to democracy, it somewhat strains credulity to take the view that the political elites that instigated the Iraq war were especially motivated by ideals of progress rather than by religious faith or simple expediency. Certainly, if that was the case it left precious little trace on the domestic policies of either the British or American governments of that time.

While I tend to agree with Gray on the role of politics as a means of facilitating the co-existence of different groups and ideologies, the denial of any meliorist trend in politics is an essentially conservative or Hobbesian worldview. Susan Nieman's recent articles make this point rather well:

"It is this, the profound demoralisation of the left, that spurs Neiman on in Moral Clarity. ‘The left is where I come from’, she says, ‘but it has been so remiss in the last couple of decades.’ Realism and pragmatism, the watchwords of a left bereft of even a residual utopianism, have been no substitute for a moral vision, she continues. Rather, such realism merely left the way open for politicians of the right, like George W Bush, to seize the moral high ground. So while the then president was wittering on about ‘evil’, and by default ‘good’, the left was left with little more than hard-headed nihilism. As Neiman describes it, value-less and hopeless, the pragmatic left, content to unmask the workings of power, is content also to leave the world as it is. The left has come to see all idealism as tainted, and all talk of morality as an axis-of-evil-style charade. The left now appears to share the outlook of that arch-conservative Edmund Burke: ‘What kind of man would expect heaven and earth to bend to grand theories?’

As the figure whose work not only went beyond the static dualisms of German idealism, but sustained the left for many years, Karl Marx cannot but haunt a reading of a work like Moral Clarity. For he, above all others – including Hegel – sought to go beyond the ossified opposition of the world as it is and the world as it ought to be, by grasping reality as a process in which subject and object form a contradictory unity, in which the ‘ought’ inheres within the ‘is’. Where a dualistic perspective might render the conflicts of society as wrongs to be judged as such, Marx was able to grasp them as wrongs produced – and produced not by the labour of the concept, as with Hegel, but by the labour that produces not just use-values, but exchange value, too; that is, alienating labour, wage-labour. There was not simply a moral reason, there was also an actual reason, an actual possibility to change the world as it is.

In a sense, then, the collapse of not just the ideals but of the political movement underpinning Marx’s revolutionary perspective does seem to return us to a dualistic moment, a historical point in which the social world confronts a solitary individual. So does the dualism of Moral Clarity reflect the contemporary impasse? Neiman is resolute. The direction that Marx and Hegel took, she says, showed an impatience, a desire to force the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’ to coincide. That Hegel’s absolute idealism led him rightwards, to make the ‘real rational’, and Marx’s materialism leftwards, is neither here nor there. Both sought to identify how things ought to be with necessity, whether historical or economic. Kantian idealism, however, is, as Neiman tells me, a grown-up idealism. It resists the violent utopianism of youth, but also the cynicism of youthful dreams disappointed. ‘You live with the dualism’, she says. ‘You always keep your eye on your actions and how you want the world to be. But you also need to be bound to a recognition, especially in political life, to the way that things are.’ ... Neiman at her Kantian best does not diminish but rather defends the autonomy of the moral subject. It is all about growing up for Neiman, about teaching people to use their judgment, their reason: ‘The Enlightenment gave reason pride of place, not because it expected absolute certainty, but because it sought a way to live without it.’"


posted by Richard 12:16 PM

Sunday, August 09, 2009

I was struck by this article on the rise of non-places:

"Auge laments the rise of spaces like airports and freeways and rest areas that are decoupled from the world around them, places that could be anywhere and everywhere, but are actually nowhere. For Auge, these spaces seem to signal the end of borders, of locality, and of the old sense of identity rooted in place and time. The non-places are devoid of relationships and have 'no room for history unless it has been transformed into an element of spectacle.' ... the phrase 'non-places' is creeping into the lexicon, because it taps directly into a fear we all have: That the world is becoming ever more homogenized and globalized, and soon it won’t matter where we go because the world will consist only of non-places. As Paul Theroux wrote in the New York Times a few years ago, the 'contraction of space on a shrinking planet suggests a time, not far off, when there will be no remoteness: nowhere to become lost, nothing to be discovered, no escape, no palpable concept of distance, no peculiarity of dress—frightening thoughts for a traveler.'"

The non-place is a familiar concept; transient spaces designed in a mass-produced manner. Airports, hotels, business parks, motorways, service stations all fit into the model. One of the reasons why I think Ballard was the greatest English author of the second half of the twentieth century is that he adapted the emphasis English novels had tended to put on place for an age where the idea of place was being erased. It's also interesting to note that the provincialism of the Victorian novel emerged precisely at the point that rail transport was beginning the erosion of regional difference. I was thinking of this concept, when I came across this anti-tourism manifesto:

"As the world has become smaller so its wonders have diminished. There is nothing amazing about the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, or the Pyramids of Egypt. They are as banal and familiar as the face of a Cornflakes Packet. Consequently the true unknown frontiers lie elsewhere.

The duty of the traveller therefore is to open up new zones of experience. In our over explored world these must of necessity be wastelands, black holes, and grim urban blackspots: all the places which, ordinarily, people choose to avoid. The only true voyagers, therefore, are anti- tourists. Following this logic we declare that:

  • The anti-tourist does not visit places that are in any way desirable.
  • The anti-tourist eschews comfort.
  • The anti-tourist embraces hunger and hallucinations and shit hotels.
  • The anti-tourist seeks locked doors and demolished buildings.
  • The anti-tourist scorns the bluster and bravado of the daredevil, who attempts to penetrate danger zones such as Afghanistan. The only thing that lies behind this is vanity and a desire to brag.
  • The anti-tourist travels at the wrong time of year.
  • The anti-tourist prefers dead things to living ones.
  • The anti-tourist is humble and seeks invisibility.
  • The anti-tourist is interested only in hidden histories, in delightful obscurities, in bad art.
  • The anti-tourist believes beauty is in the street.
  • The anti-tourist holds that whatever travel does, it rarely broadens the mind.
  • The anti-tourist values disorientation over enlightenment.

I sometimes think tourism is an attempt to recapture the idea of a sense of place. Cities like Venice have long been described as ossified mausoleums (incidentally, aspects of the above read rather like the Futurist Manifesto, which in itself was prompted by Italy having become a large museum for tourism) but in having been trapped like a fly in amber they retain the sense of individual difference that would otherwise have been lost. The issue is not the banality of the familiar, it is the anomie of the non-place.


posted by Richard 7:17 PM

Monday, June 22, 2009

A list of real fantasy cities, with China Mieville's choice being London:

"Because it is the triumph of a lack of planning –both for good and bad. It's chaos –and whether you say that with a gasp of despair or glee or both is up to you. Whereas Paris (certainly in the centre) is the success of a single overarching monomaniacal topographic vision, London is a chaotic patchwork of history, architecture, style, as disorganised as any dream, and like any dream possessing an underlying logic, but one that we can't quite make sense of, though we know it's there. A shoved-together city cobbled from centuries of distinct aesthetics disrespectfully clotted in a magnificent triumph of architectural philistinism. A city of jingoist sculptures, concrete caryatids, ugly ugly ugly financial bombast, reconfiguration. A city full of parks and gardens, which have always been magic places, one of the greenest cities in the world, though it's a very dirty shade of green –and what sort of grimy dryads does London throw up? You tell me."

Mieville's choice is rather different to the other writers. Venice or Prague seem exotic because of their perceived exoticism, London because of its emphatic mundanity. After all, British science fiction tends to prefer to see forests in wardrobes or timeships in Police boxes. With that said, I've have chosen Oxford. From Hardy's Sepulchre College and Trollope's Lazarus College to Sayer's Shrewsbury College and Pullman's Jordan College, it's a city that already exists as a myriad of Calvino's invisible cities.

Update: although Moorcock picks Marrakesh as his city, this piece on London is in a rather similar vein:

"There aren’t many pictures of my childhood London. To get a glimpse of the world I grew up in, I have to give microscopic attention to the backgrounds of English movies made between 1945 and 1955 in the hope of seeing the ruined South Bank in Hue and Cry or the remains of Wapping in Night and the City... London was different up to 1940. In illustrated books, it often seems tranquil and quaint, full of lost churchyards and hidden courts. There were always places where the traffic noise dropped away and you could enjoy a bit of peace. That was before the firestorms blasted the East End into blazing fragments of people and buildings, when so much of that quaint tranquillity became heaps of rubble, tottering walls, fire-blasted windows, cut-aways of people’s private lives, their bathrooms and bedrooms, everything they’d valued, exposed to the hasty curiosity of the survivors.

Then there were the places where London was simply not – a few irregular mounds of grass and weeds with rusted wire sticking through concrete, like broken bones, exposed nerves. These parts of London could very easily be identified because almost nothing survived except the larger 17th- and 18th-century buildings such as Tower Hill, the Customs House, the Mint, the Monument. And, of course, St Paul’s, her dome visible from the river as you came up out of the delicious stink of fresh fish from Billingsgate Market, a snap of cold in the bright morning, and walked between high banks of overgrown debris along lanes trodden to the contour of the land. You had made those paths by choosing the simplest routes through the ruins. Grass and moss and blazing purple fireweed grew in every chink. Sun glinted on Portland stone, and to the west, foggy sunsets turned the river crimson. You never got lost. The surviving buildings themselves were the landmarks you used, like your 18th-century ancestors, to navigate from one place to the other.

Slowly the big brutal blocks of concrete and fake Le Corbusier flats began to dwarf St Paul’s and the Royal Mint, and the familiar trails disappeared, along with the alleys and yards, the little coffee shops and printers. Like an animal driven from its natural environment, I’d turn a corner and run into a newly made cliff. The docks disappeared with astonishing speed. One day the ships were shadows honking out of the smog and the next they were gone."

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posted by Richard 8:16 PM

Sunday, June 21, 2009

William Boyd writes on the role of parks in the English novel:

"Angus Wilson (1913-1991), novelist and short story writer, identified what he called an essential dichotomy in the English realistic novel dating back to Samuel Richardson in the 18th century, namely the concepts of "town" and "country" and the opposing values that they imply. The division is an intriguing one, even today, and it is still relatively easy to classify a novelist in one or the other camp. Are you essentially "urban" or are you "rural"? This is not an innocent question, as Wilson infers. To categorise yourself as one or the other is tendentious and provokes a series of unconscious judgments. In his long autobiographical essay, The Wild Garden, Wilson lists some of the antitheses that "town" and "country" respectively embody: progress versus tradition; art versus nature; industry versus the contemplative life; reason versus instinct; strained sensibility versus sturdy common sense, bohemianism versus rootedness, and so on.

Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, in the pantheon of English literature, perhaps best illustrate the split between the "town" writer as opposed to the "country" one. It is a very 19th-century juxtaposition, made particularly acute and particularly obvious as the industrial revolution took its remorseless grip on the nation. Mansfield Park.. It best reflects Angus Wilson's dichotomy of "town" versus "country" in the English novel, with Fanny Price and Mansfield Park - and dull Edmund Bertram - representing all that is solid and worthy of "country" values, set against the witty and louche sophistication of the "town" Crawfords from London.

According to Edmund Burke's treatise of 1756, The Sublime and the Beautiful, the sublime finds its source in anything capable of exciting pain or danger. Beauty, however, consists of anything small, smooth, with an absence of angularity and a brightness of colour. This sounds almost park-like to me, the park providing us with those qualities of beauty we require in our life - in contrast to what the "sublime" city represents with its pain and danger."

Wilson's dichotomies are perhaps slightly disingenuous; in Fielding, Burney and Dickens the transition from the country to the city is essentially a journey from rural virtue to urban vice. Of course, Dickens is perfectly capable of writing of rural vice, as in Nicholas Nickleby but the contrast is still at the centre of his work, even as his descriptions of the city seem to echo Baudelaire's celebration of the urban sublime. The comparison with French literature is revealing; Maupassant and Balzac certainly see the division of town and country as a moral one but are rather more likely to portray it as a contrast of sophistication with dullness. Zola is perhaps slightly less withering in his indictment of rural vice to its urban counterpart, but the difference is one of degree not of kind. Conversely, Johnson might have thought that is a man tires of London he tires of life, but it is difficult to discern it from his depictions of 'the great wen.' While London was the first major industrialised city, writers of that era still tended to denounce or avoid it. The nineteenth century English novel frequently takes rural locations as its setting, from the Bronte sisters and Thomas Hardy to George Eliot, with the same applying to poets like Tennyson and Hopkins. Writers like Gissing, Orwell and Hamilton could justly be argued to belong to a minority tradition. Crime writers like Christie and Allingham preferred rural settings, even when their subject matter was considerably better described as an urban phenomenon. Even as technology made buildings like the Crystal Palace possible, medieval gothic became the preferred architectural style and the garden city movement arose. What tends to be interesting in the English tradition isn't so much a conflict between town and city, but between the sentimental or pastoral and the romantic. In Lawrence and Forster, the country represents eros and wildness, while in Dickens and Gaskell it represents tradition and the merely picturesque. Eliot, Hardy and the Bronte sisters depict the country in terms of both these categories.

Of course, modern England's agricultural sector is one of the smallest in Europe, as is the percentage of forested land area. Pastoral is not a mode that can be convincingly deployed today, which may be suggestive for the current condition of English literature.

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posted by Richard 3:50 PM

Sunday, June 07, 2009

I wrote a while back on the effect of the current recession on right-wing politics. For the sake of entertainment, if nothing else, here's its leftwing counterpart:

"Is it time for a return to communism? And, if so, to which idea of communism must we turn?... 'On the Idea of Communism' was about Alain Badiou's idea of communism. Badiou doggedly kept faith with the concept of communism at a time, after 1989, when it was both pronounced dead and criminalized , identified with the totalitarianism that a triumphalist liberal capitalism defined itself against. The key reference points for Badiou’s anti-statist version of communism are Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Jacobins and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The most obvious absence from this list is Karl Marx, and Badiou’s interjection in the closing discussion (see clip below) confirmed that he rejects the idea – fundamental to Marx – that the economic and the political are indivisible. For Badiou, the political must always hold itself at a principled distance from the economic. But is 'communism' the best name for Badiou's egalitarian and emancipatory philosophy? And does the word 'communism' have any further political viability?

An ambiguous spectre hangs over new formulations of Communist theory: a spectre called Marxism. In new Communist theory it cannot be fully discerned whether Marx has finally been put to rest, whether some organ without body of his theory persists; or rather, if his ghost is laughing, distraught, at the inscription of R.I.P. on his headstone, as the gears of global political economy grind on.

Still, there are good reasons for this ambiguity. Unlike Marx’s prophetic vision, the gravedigging of history turned out not to be capitalism digging its own hole, but rather capitalism, and a generation or two of disillusioned post-Marxists, digging the grave for Marxism itself. After all, the Marx of historical materialism appeared to die when capitalism emerged triumphant from the Cold War; the Marx of class struggle as the dialectical-historical motor of change appeared to die with the defeat of working class; and the Marx of revolutionary philosophy appeared to die with the turn to the anti-dialectical forms of 'resistance' propounded by Foucault, Deleuze, Laclau et al. Consequentially, when in recent years the term Communism has been resuscitated by theorists such as Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri and Alain Badiou, it has been at the expense of a presumed caesura between Marxism and Communism.

I suppose this makes a pleasant change from attempts to explain that communism as implemented had nothing to do with its Marxist origins, but it's still not especially convincing. From the look of how matters are actually progressing, a resurgence in communism, Marxist or otherwise, is the last thing that we can expect. When I voted in the European elections last week I was somewhat mortified to look at the long list of parties on the ballot paper, a list that was so long the paper had to have a perforated extensions to fit the remaining parties on it. The tendency of parties to dissolve into sectarian factions over points of doctrine is something I tend to associate with the left (Labour, the Liberal Democrats, No2EU and the Socialist Labour Party were all represented) but this paper seemed to suggest that it's become as much of a tendency for the right (quite a long list of nationalist parties like UKIP or the EDP, as well as the unwelcome presence of a christian party as clearly the absence of the religious right was a grave loss for British politics). It's slightly amusing to see both the left and the right campaign against the EU on entirely contradictory and opposed grounds. The BNP were of course present as well, although the content of their election pamphlets was not much different to that of UKIP. The result was a fragmented vote, in which the left-wing share declined as the working class switched to the extreme right and the middle class switched to the Greens, thereby allowing free market parties like the Tories to benefit from a recession caused by excessive free market deregulation. Here's Jonathan Derbyshire's analysis:

"One of the most striking things about the period since 15 September 2008 – the day that Lehman Brothers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the United States – has been the lack of any concerted intellectual response to the financial crisis on the left. A "sort of deathly hush" has descended, when the conditions might have led one to expect increasing "ideological polarisation"... Murdoch recommended that the left rediscover its taste for moral, rather than mechanical, reform, and reach back beyond welfarism and utilitarianism to ideas that could be found in William Morris as well as Marx. This prescription is echoed here... the crisis of neoliberalism is also a crisis of a certain conception of the individual human being – as "financialised subject" or "rational" preference-maximiser."


posted by Richard 6:46 PM

Sunday, May 24, 2009

This article by Stanley Fish on the Terry Eagleton's latest book has already received more attention that it really deserves, but I nonetheless thought that there some points to it that might have been overlooked:

In the opening sentence of the last chapter of his new book, "Reason, Faith and Revolution," the British critic Terry Eagleton asks, "Why are the most unlikely people, including myself, suddenly talking about God?" His answer, elaborated in prose that is alternately witty, scabrous and angry, is that the other candidates for guidance — science, reason, liberalism, capitalism — just don’t deliver what is ultimately needed. "What other symbolic form," he queries, "has managed to forge such direct links between the most universal and absolute of truths and the everyday practices of countless millions of men and women?"

Eagleton acknowledges that the links forged are not always benign — many terrible things have been done in religion’s name — but at least religion is trying for something more than local satisfactions, for its "subject is nothing less than the nature and destiny of humanity itself, in relation to what it takes to be its transcendent source of life." And it is only that great subject, and the aspirations it generates, that can lead, Eagleton insists, to "a radical transformation of what we say and do."

The other projects, he concedes, provide various comforts and pleasures, but they are finally superficial and tend to the perpetuation of the status quo rather than to meaningful change: "A society of packaged fulfillment, administered desire, managerialized politics and consumerist economics is unlikely to cut to the depth where theological questions can ever be properly raised."

And, conversely, the fact that religion and theology cannot provide a technology for explaining how the material world works should not be held against them, either, for that is not what they do. When Christopher Hitchens declares that given the emergence of "the telescope and the microscope" religion "no longer offers an explanation of anything important," Eagleton replies, "But Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It’s rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov."

Eagleton likes this turn of speech, and he has recourse to it often when making the same point: "[B]elieving that religion is a botched attempt to explain the world . . . is like seeing ballet as a botched attempt to run for a bus." Running for a bus is a focused empirical act and the steps you take are instrumental to its end. The positions one assumes in ballet have no such end; they are after something else, and that something doesn’t yield to the usual forms of measurement. Religion, Eagleton is saying, is like ballet (and Chekhov); it’s after something else.

"Ditchkins," Eagleton observes, cannot ground his belief "in the value of individual freedom" in scientific observation. It is for him an article of faith, and once in place, it generates facts and reasons and judgments of right and wrong. "Faith and knowledge," Eagleton concludes, are not antithetical but "interwoven." You can’t have one without the other, despite the Satanic claim that you can go it alone by applying your own independent intellect to an unmediated reality: "All reasoning is conducted within the ambit of some sort of faith, attraction, inclination, orientation, predisposition, or prior commitment." Meaning, value and truth are not "reducible to the facts themselves, in the sense of being ineluctably motivated by a bare account of them." Which is to say that there is no such thing as a bare account of them. (Here, as many have noted, is where religion and postmodernism meet.)

If this is so, the basis for what Eagleton calls "the rejection of religion on the cheap" by contrasting its unsupported (except by faith) assertions with the scientifically grounded assertions of atheism collapses; and we are where we always were, confronted with a choice between a flawed but aspiring religious faith or a spectacularly hubristic faith in the power of unaided reason and a progress that has no content but, like the capitalism it reflects and extends, just makes its valueless way into every nook and cranny...

The religions I know are about nothing but doubt and dissent, and the struggles of faith, the dark night of the soul, feelings of unworthiness, serial backsliding, the abyss of despair. Whether it is the book of Job, the Confessions of St. Augustine, Calvin’s Institutes, Bunyan’s "Grace Abounding to The Chief of Sinners," Kierkegaard’s "Fear and Trembling" and a thousand other texts, the religious life is depicted as one of aspiration within the conviction of frailty. The heart of that life, as Eagleton reminds us, is not a set of propositions about the world (although there is some of that), but an orientation toward perfection by a being that is radically imperfect.

The theory suggested by the likes of Derrida and Barthes and expounded by Eagleton and Fish had its ultimate origins in a critique of the Platonic and Biblical conception of logos, of the word as an inerrant source of truth. The increasing trend throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was to regard the word as an unreliable proxy for the concepts it denoted, culminating in Derrida's view of meaning as simply an endless chain of differance, in which one word simply represents another and then another, without any transcendent truth standing behind them. In other words, much of this tradition is explictly anti-religious, denying that holy texts have another capacity to represent anything other than themselves. While the conflict with science is equally evident in the work of Lyotard, I am very far from being persuaded that post-modernism and religion have as much in common as is being suggested above. Certainly, Christian theology is far from being without strains of thought based around the ineffability of the divine, but they hardly account for the majority of the christian tradition. Equally, the description Eagleton proposes of christianity as being akin to a form of art for art's sake, something that does not attempt to describe or prescribe the world, is something that barely seems recognisable to either a contemporary christanity which rarely lets a week slip without a cardinal or bishop somewhere making incursions into secular politics or to a history where the personal aspects of faith have been very far from those that have been most pronounced. Most religions do indeed purport to describe the world, they certainly attempt to prescribe how it should be and they typically do so without much evidence of the doubt Fish rather probably assigns to them above. In any case, this idea of religion as a form of 'non-overlapping magisteria' hardly seems consistent with Eagleton's vision of christianity as a radically transformative ideology, a kind of surrogate for communism. No ideology can dictate how the world should be made anew without some form of denunciation of how it stands at present, and christianity is no different to this. Having long viewed communism as a form of materialistic religion, it hardly surprises me that Eagleton has switched from one totalising ideology to another, although given his dismissal of the liberal ideal of progress as a myth it would be interesting to see how he copes with the problem that the ideal of progress and of history as teleological is a christian concept and one that is particularly evident in some of his current utopianism.


posted by Richard 7:33 PM

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

As I've mentioned before, my suspicion is that this period represents the end of a particular historical period and the decline of many of its economic, political and military assumptions. As a result, seemed to echo a few of those themes:

"For a brief period, it became possible to believe that the West was headed for a condition of permanent peace; that technology, democracy, and globalization were driving a virtuous circle that no atavistic violence could disrupt. This vision never came very close to becoming a reality; the late nineteenth century was, after all, the era of communism and anarchism, imperialism and scientific racism. It is remarkable, then, to consider how many of the greatest writers of the period were exercised by the possibility that reason, progress, and material well-being—in short, the bourgeois order—might destroy the human spirit. The definitive statement of this view was offered by Nietzsche in the prologue to Thus Spoke Zarathustra...

No sooner had humanity emerged from a century of hot and cold wars than Fukuyama was resurrecting Nietzsche’s admonition that a world of peace and prosperity would be a world of Last Men. "The life of the last men is one of physical security and material plenty, precisely what Western politicians are fond of promising their electorates," he pointed out. "Should we fear that we will be both happy and satisfied with our situation, no longer human beings but animals of the species homo sapiens?" While Fukuyama appreciates the seriousness of the Nietzschean warning, he hears it from the perspective of a partisan, not a foe, of liberalism. The danger he foresees is not simply that bourgeois democracy will cause human beings to degenerate, but that degenerate human beings will be unable to preserve democracy. Without the sense of pride and the love of struggle that Fukuyama, following Plato, calls thymos, men—and there is always an implication that thymos is a specifically masculine virtue—cannot establish freedom or protect it.

They are victims of the zeitgeist—of "Western Europe, in the latter half of the twentieth century," which Houellebecq describes in the novel’s very first lines as "an age that was miserable and troubled," when "the relationships between . . . contemporaries were at best indifferent and more often cruel." The most destructive agent of this indifference is Bruno and Michel’s mother, Janine, who Houellebecq describes as an early adapter of the hedonistic, materialistic lifestyle that would become routine after the 1960s and the sexual revolution... Bruno and Michel are the prime exhibits in Houellebecq’s programmatic indictment of modern European sexual mores. Starting in the 1960s, he writes, "a ‘youth culture’ based principally on sex and violence" began to drive out the ancient Judeo-Christian culture that valued monogamy, mutual devotion, and self-restraint. The innovative element in Houellebecq’s argument is to link this new hedonism with the triumph of the European welfare state. Freed from all concern about politics and economics, men and women had nothing to occupy themselves with but the pursuit of sensual gratification. But this pursuit quickly developed into a Hobbesian war of all against all, in which the young and attractive are the objects of worship while the ugly and shy, like Bruno, are utterly despised. "Of all worldly goods," Bruno rages, "youth is clearly the most precious, and today we don’t believe in anything but worldly goods.

The Rings of Saturn is not really a novel; there is no plot and no character development. It is, rather, a branching series of stories and memories, one giving rise to the next by no logic except that of free association. In the second chapter, for instance, Sebald starts out remembering a train ride from Norwich to Lowestoft. Along the way he observes that the countryside was once covered with windmills, which have now all disappeared; visits a country house that was an architectural marvel of Victorian England, and is now a crumbling, unvisited museum; walks down a boardwalk that was once a popular holiday destination and is now seedy and abandoned; and remembers a story he once heard about two American pilots who crashed nearby, close to the end of Second World War. In other words, Sebald is drawn to stories of abandonment and loss, to sites where Western civilization seems to have died out, to obsolete technologies and unrecapturable pasts. As the book goes on, he assembles so many of these tales as to become a Scheherazade of destruction. And because Sebald the wanderer almost never encounters another person, he manages to produce the eerie sense that England itself has been abandoned, that he may be the last man left to catalog its ruins."

The article in full makes some rather odd connections with Robert Kagan's analysis of Europe's 'post-historical' condition, which seems a little odd when one considers where America's embrace of power and history has led it and that the present US administration is adopting a mode that is rather more congenial to European sensibilities than someone like Kagan would probably like. As a result, the literary criticism seems somewhat off-key also; Houellebecq is notable for being as scabrous a critic of free market economics as he is of permissive culture (the critique made above could easily have been made of Wells or Huxley and is made to a large extent from the standpoint of a writer who models himself as a futurist), while the critique of Sebald could have been made of any number of romantic writers fascinated by ruin and decay (Hawthorne and Poe amongst them, while Rodenbach and Lampedusa match the above description rather better than Sebald). George Steiner's Bluebeard's Castle explains this well:

"The motif I want to fix on is that of ennui. "Boredom" is not an adequate translation, nor is Langweile except, perhaps, in Schopenhauer's usage; la noia comes much nearer. I have in mind manifold processes of frustration, of cumulative desoeuvrement. Energies eroded to routine as entropy increases. Repeated motion or inactivity, sufficiently prolonged, secrete a poison in the blood, an acid torpor. Febrile lethargy; the drowsy nausea (so precisely described by Coleridge in the Biographia Literaria) of a man who misses a step in a dark staircase -- there are many approximate terms and images. Baudelaire's use of &uot;spleen" comes closest...

"Vague epouvante," "humeur farouche" are signals we shall want to keep in mind. What I want to stress here is the fact that a corrosive ennui is as much an element of nineteenth-century culture as was the dynamic optimism of the positivist and the Whig. It was not only, in Eliot's arresting phrase, the souls of housemaids that were damp. A kind of marsh gas of boredom and vacuity thickened at crucial nerve-ends of social and intellectual life. For every text of Benthamite confidence, of proud meliorism, we can find a counterstatement of nervous fatigue. 1851 was the year of the Universal Exhibition, but also of the publication of a group of desolate, autumnal poems, which Baudelaire issued under the significant title Les Limbes. To me the most haunting, prophetic outcry of the nineteenth century is Theophile Gautier's "plutot la barbarie que l'ennui!" If we can come to understand the sources of that perverse longing, of that itch for chaos, we will be nearer to an understanding of our own state and of the relations of our condition to the accusing ideal of the past.

We also lack a history of the future tense (in another context I am trying to show what such a phenomenology of internal grammar would be). But it is clear that the Revolutionary and Napoleonic decades brought on an overwhelming immanence, a deep, emotionally stressed change in the quality of hope. Expectations of progress, of personal and social enfranchisement, which had formerly had a conventional, often allegoric character, as of a millenary horizon, suddenly moved very close. The great metaphor of renewal, of the creation, as by a second coming of secular grace, of a just, rational city for man, took on the urgent drama of concrete possibility. The eternal "tomorrow" of utopian political vision became, as it were, Monday morning. We experience something of this dizzying sense of total possibility when reading the decrees of the Convention and of the Jacobin régime: injustice, superstition, poverty are to be eradicated now, in the next glorious hour. The world is to shed its worn skin a fortnight hence. In the grammar of Saint-Juste the future tense is never more than moments away. If we seek to trace this irruption -- it was that violent -- of dawn into private sensibility, we need look only to Wordsworth's Prelude and to the poetry of Shelley. The crowning statement, perhaps, is to be found in Marx's economic and political manuscripts of 1844. Not since early Christianity had men felt so near to renovation and to the end of night."

What was a gifted man to do after Napoleon? How could organisms bred for the electric air of revolution and imperial epic breathe under the leaden sky of middle-class rule? How was it possible for a young man to hear his father's tales of the Terror and of Austerlitz and to amble down the placid boulevard to the countinghouse?... The generation of 1830 was damned by memories of events, of hopes, in which it had taken no personal part. It nursed within "un fonds d'incurable tristesse et d'incurable ennui." No doubt there was narcissism in this cultivation, the somber complacency of dreamers who, from Goethe to Turgenev, sought to identify with Hamlet. But the void was real, and the sensation of history gone absurdly wrong. Stendhal is the chronicler of genius of this frustration. He had participated in the insane vitality of the Napoleonic era; he conducted the rest of his life in the ironic guise of a man betrayed. It is a terrible thing to be "languissant d'ennui au plus beau moment de la vie, de seize ans jusqu'a vingt" (Mlle. de La Mole's condition before she resolves to love Julien Sorel in Le Rouge et le noir). Madness, death are preferable to the interminable Sunday and suet of a bourgeois life-form. How can an intellectual bear to feel within himself something of Bonaparte's genius, something of that demonic strength which led from obscurity to empire, and see before him nothing but the tawdry flatness of bureaucracy? Raskolnikov writes his essay on Napoleon and goes out to kill an old woman. The collapse of revolutionary hopes after 1815, the brutal deceleration of time and radical expectation, left a reservoir of unused, turbulent energies. The romantic generation was jealous of its fathers. The "antiheroes," the spleen-ridden dandies in the world of Stendhal, Musset, Byron, and Pushkin, move through the bourgeois city like condottieri out of work.

It is precisely from the 1830s onward that one can observe the emergence of a characteristic "counterdream" - the vision of the city laid waste, the fantasies of Scythian and Vandal invasion, the Mongol steeds slaking their thirst in the fountains of the Tuileries Gardens. An odd school of painting develops: pictures of London, Paris, or Berlin seen as colossal ruins, famous landmarks burnt, eviscerated, or located in a weird emptiness among charred stumps and dead water. Romantic fantasy anticipates Brecht's vengeful promise that nothing shall remain of the great cities except the wind that blows through them. Exactly a hundred years later, these apocalyptic collages and imaginary drawings of the end of Pompeii were to be our photographs of Warsaw and Dresden. It needs no psychoanalysis to suggest how strong a part of wish-fulfillment there was in these nineteenth-century intimations. Romantic exoticism, that longing for le pays lointain, for "faery lands forlorn," reflected different hurts: ennui, a feeling of impotence in the face of political reaction and philistine rule, a hunger for new colors, new shapes, new possibilities of nervous discovery, to set against the morose proprieties of bourgeois and Victorian modes. It also had its strain of primitivism. If Western culture had gone bad in the teeth, there might be sources of new vision among distant savageries.


posted by Richard 7:09 PM

Friday, February 20, 2009

Every so often I break my rule on avoiding political subjects and publish a political post. I regret to announce that this article has provoked one of them:

"It's very clear we're in the middle of a paradigm shift," he says. "We are witnessing the end of the neoliberal project - just as 30 years ago we saw the end of Keynesianism. We're in a shift of comparable proportions. The interesting question is what comes next." Blond argues that what ought to come next is something he calls communitarian civic conservatism - or "Red Toryism". "The current political consensus", he writes, is "left-liberal in culture and right-liberal in econo­mics. And this is precisely the wrong place to be." However, Blond thinks that Cameron and the Tories are beginning to see their way beyond the impasse. They are right, he says: we do live in a broken society. But it wasn't only the dead hand of the welfare state that caused the bonds and attachments of civil association (the "old mutualism of the working class" and so on) to give way; late-modern capitalism's "perennial gale of creative destruction" (to use Joseph Schumpeter's phrase) has played its part, too....

A central feature of his Toryism is a critique of "liberalism", a term capacious enough in his hands to apply to the cultural libertarianism of the 1960s as well as to the great philosophers of the liberal tradition, such as Locke or Mill. According to Blond, what the post-1968 "politics of desire" shares with those liberal titans, and in fact also with the Thatcherite or neoliberal model of rational economic behaviour, is a certain idea of individual human beings.

In the liberal view, at least as Blond characterises it, the defence of individual freedom, in its most extreme form, demands of each man that "he refuse the dictates of any other". In other words, liberal autonomy entails the repudiation of society, and no vision of the common good can be derived from liberal principles. The atomised dystopia of 21st-century Britain, the "broken society" overseen by a highly centralised bureaucratic state, turns out to have been the historic bequest of Locke and Mill. This is contentious, to say the least. Several commentators, notably the Oxford political theorist Stuart White, have criticised the history of liberalism that underpins the Red Tory thesis. White points out that the fundamental principles of justice articulated in the work of a liberal philosopher such as John Rawls amount to a vision of the "common good", and that for Rawls those principles impose just the sort of civic obligations on citizens that Blond regards as desirable, but to which he thinks liberals are fatally indifferent."

While I suppose it's interesting that conservatives have finally noticed that free market economics tends to dissolve traditional social structures thirty years after the rest of us did, I did find myself chortling at the idea of the current political consensus being 'left liberal on culture.' It seems significantly more likely the precise opposite has been true; social authoritarianism and economic liberalism seems a good description of the current administration. Civil liberties have invariably been construed as stumbling blocks to other policy goals, as with recent news stories relating to the curtailing of freedom of speech in the interests of 'community cohesion.' More specifically, much social policy has been quite explicitly communitarian (Amitai Etzioni surely counts as one of the most prominent intellectuals of the last decade), which accounts for the increasingly Benthamite and coercive character it has taken on. Government policy has been used increasingly as an almost Pavlovian means of determining means of enforcing desired forms of behaviour. Even if economic policy now seems inevitable to swing sharply away from laissez faire economic and back to a planned model, on social policy it looks as if the prospects ahead are essentially for more of the same of what we've had for the last ten years. I'm not looking forward to it much.

Update: a related piece from Richard Posner:

"The end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the surge of prosperity worldwide that marked the global triumph of capitalism, the essentially conservative policies, especially in economics, of the Clinton administration, and finally the election and early years of the Bush Administration, marked the apogee of the conservative movement... My theme is the intellectual decline of conservatism, and it is notable that the policies of the new conservatism are powered largely by emotion and religion and have for the most part weak intellectual groundings. That the policies are weak in conception, have largely failed in execution, and are political flops is therefore unsurprising... And then came the financial crash last September and the ensuing depression. These unanticipated and shocking events have exposed significant analytical weaknesses in core beliefs of conservative economists concerning the business cycle and the macroeconomy generally. Friedmanite monetarism and the efficient-market theory of finance have taken some sharp hits, and there is renewed respect for the macroeconomic thought of John Maynard Kenyes, a conservatives' bête noire."


posted by Richard 8:59 PM

Saturday, February 07, 2009

A somewhat unusual article on Post-Soviet 'Gothic morality:'

"How can we discover the consequences of historical amnesia? How can we employ customary historical methods to measure the impact of absent memory on contemporary Russian society? What kind of sources could reveal for us this hidden work of deformed memory that results in transformations of values, attitudes, customs and social relations? Fiction is a particularly fruitful source for studying historical representations of the Stalinist past. As a genre, it addresses moral and aesthetic dilemmas; describes transformations of values, attitudes, customs and social relations; and provides access to the emotions and to the workings of the individual memory of its protagonists. Post-Soviet fiction, loaded with reminiscences of Soviet terror and atrocities, discloses the connection between suppressed memory and the emergence of new moral norms and social structures.

However post-Soviet fiction differs considerably from realistic prose such as Tolstoy's War and Peace or even Grossman's Life and Fate. It is overwhelmed by all kind of magic and monsters – vampires, witches and werewolves... Over the last three centuries, Enlightenment rationality has boxed dragons and witches into a specific genre – fairy tale. Now we see them becoming the main protagonists of novels and films aimed at adults. The human being, that as an inheritance of the Enlightenment used to be the centre of the anthropocentric universe, has been pushed to the periphery in favour of the non-human. Two highly popular cult novels – Sergei Lukyanenko's Night Watch and Vadim Panov's Taganski Crossroads – serve as examples. Their success with the Russian reading public is testified by huge print runs and by the fact that they have been turned into movies and computer games. Both novels share features that are typical for the genre in general. Both leave the realities of Russian culture and society almost intact, making them extremely fertile for an analysis of moral and aesthetic developments. Their main protagonists are strikingly similar: rank-and-file administrators, average men on the street, painstakingly portrayed positive heroes with whom the reader fully identifies. In both novels, the plot unfolds in contemporary Moscow.

A simple mental experiment helps to prove this statement. If we remove the vampires, werewolves and witches from these narratives and substitute them with cops, gangsters and their victims, if we parenthesize the witchcraft and the magic, the story would not differ much from a pale description of everyday Russian life. At the heart of gothic morality is a remarkable equality of good and evil, expressed in Night Watch by the opposition between "light" and "dark" vampires. Their methods and goals are explicitly compared and judged to be the same. Nevertheless, light and dark vampires represent not just a metaphor for the notorious convergence of the state and mafia in Russia. The impossibility of distinguishing good from evil – the heroes conclude – makes any attempt to do so a sheer absurdity. The total denial of morality leads to a cult of force. Gothic morality considers murder an everyday routine – who counts (dead) humans? "Life against death, love against hate, and force against force, because force is above morality. It's that simple," concludes the hero of Night Watch... Personal loyalty to the boss is the only principle that the hero of post-Soviet fantasy never betrays. He is always ready to go against his own judgments, betray his inferiors and the norms of his unit to obey his boss's orders.

It's not an overly persuasive argument. It may be true that Lukyanenko does tend to depict the forces of light and dark as being opposed but equivalent, needing to be brought into balance. The two concepts sometimes seem equivalent to good and evil, sometimes not. But in any case, much of the above criticism of Lukyanenko would also apply to the likes of Anne Rice or any number of contemporary horror novelists in any number of other Western countries. I'm also not persuaded that it's such a bad thing to deny the validity of collective projects (or meta-narratives); if anything, that also seems a rather Western attitude. With that said, it is interesting for other reasons. Realist fiction does tend to presume some degree of social homogeneity or stability, in keeping with its status as what Lukacs called the "bourgeois epic," even if ghost stories were a favourite pastime for the writers as produced landmarks of nineteenth century realist fiction. Nontheless, this may be part of why the fantastic is a familiar component of Russian literature (or why South America produced magical realism). Dostoevsky, Pushkin and Gogol all wrote stories quite similar to the above, set in a familiar realist setting and depicting average men on the street. It would have seem more persuasive to me to observe that horror fiction in increasingly post-traditional societies that lack chiastic structures of good and evil to rehabilitate (or emasculate) the monsters they depict. In other words, to foreground the romantic outcast and decenter the damned creature. A novel like Dracula is frequently depicted as an allegory of Victorian anxieties that perhaps lack the same force today:

"According to Nina Auerbach, in "Our Vampires, Ourselves" (1995), Dracula’s crimes are merely symbols of the real-life sociopolitical horrors facing the late Victorians. One was immigration. At the end of the century, Eastern European Jews, in flight from the pogroms, were pouring into Western Europe, thereby threatening to dilute the pure blood of the English, among others. Dracula, too, is an émigré from the East. Stoker spends a lot of words on the subject of blood, and not just when Dracula extracts it. Fully four of the book’s five vampire-hunters have their blood transfused into Lucy’s veins, and this process is recorded with grisly exactitude. (We see the incisions, the hypodermics.) So Stoker may in fact have been thinking of the racial threat. Like other novels of the period, Dracula contains invidious remarks about Jews. They have big noses, they like money—the usual.

At that time, furthermore, people in England were forced, by the scandal of the Oscar Wilde trials (1895), to think about something they hadn’t worried about before: homosexuality. Many scholars have found suggestions of homoeroticism in
Dracula. Auerbach, by contrast, finds the book annoyingly heterosexual. Earlier vampire tales, such as Polidori’s story and Carmilla, made room for the mutability of erotic experience. In those works, sex didn’t have to be man to woman. And it didn’t have to be outright sex—it might just be fervent friendship. As Auerbach sees it, Stoker, spooked by the Wilde case, backed off from this rich ambiguity, thereby impoverishing vampire literature. After him, she says, vampire art became reactionary. This echoes Stephen King’s statement that all horror fiction, by pitting an absolute good against an absolute evil, is "as Republican as a banker in a three-piece suit."

According to some critics, another thing troubling Stoker was the New Woman, that turn-of-the-century avatar of the feminist. Again, there is support for this. The New Woman is referred to dismissively in the book, and the God-ordained difference between the sexes—basically, that women are weak but good, and men are strong but less good—is reiterated with maddening persistence. On the other hand, Mina, the novel’s heroine, and a woman of unquestioned virtue, looks, at times, like a feminist. She works for a living, as a schoolmistress, before her marriage, and the new technology, which should have been daunting to a female, holds no mysteries for her. She’s a whiz as a typist—a standard New Woman profession. Also, she is wise and reasonable—male virtues. Nevertheless, her primary characteristic is a female trait: compassion. (At one point, she even pities Dracula.) Stoker, it seems, had mixed feelings about the New Woman.

Whether or not politics was operating in Stoker’s novel, it is certainly at work in our contemporary vampire literature. Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series openly treats vampires as a persecuted minority. Sometimes they are like black people (lynch mobs pursue them), sometimes like homosexuals (rednecks beat them up). Meanwhile, they are trying to go mainstream. Sookie’s Bill has sworn off human blood, or he’s trying; he subsists on a Japanese synthetic. He registers to vote (absentee, because he cannot get around in daylight)... In The Vampire Chronicles, Anne Rice also seems to regard her undead as an oppressed group. Their suffering is probably, at some level, a story about AIDS. All this is a little confusing morally. How can we have sympathy for the Devil and still regard him as the Devil?

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posted by Richard 2:16 PM

Sunday, December 28, 2008

This article from the Guardian struck me as being far removed the point:

"When the phrase 'Hampstead novel' was used in the 80s, everyone knew exactly what it meant: a middle-class morality novel - probably involving adultery and shallow-masquerading-as-deep. Critics fastened on 'Hampstead' as if the place itself might be a clue to content - as if the postcode was a giveaway. But, actually, the idea of Hampstead may never have had much to do with reality. Professor John Sutherland says the phrase became more an 'idea' than a 'topographical truth' ... What is perhaps most interesting about this slippery mirage of a genre is what it suggests about place itself - and the way it can take hold and have an independent life in a reader's imagination. It was the 'Hampstead novel' tag that first nudged me towards thinking about the way places are used as critical shorthand. I started to wonder about the geography of novels - and whether we still use place as a symbolic key to content...

'Chelsea, Hampstead and St John's Wood have been replaced by Monica Ali's Brick Lane and Gautam Malkani's Londonstani, set in Hounslow and on the Heathrow Flight path.' (There may be hope for the Luton novel yet.) Hahn points out that gaps in the A-Z tend to be filled by 'non British writers'. 'Fifty years ago,' he says, "it would have been amazing to read a novel like Monica Ali's from someone with a different background.".. In non fiction, Iain Sinclair made his name writing about such places (no small feat to write compellingly about the M25 as he has done in London Orbital). In fiction, Blake Morrison is one of a growing number of writers attempting to do something comparable. He could hardly be plainer about his allegiance: his most recent novel is called South of the River... Yet although British novelists now spread their nets more widely, there is still a paucity of state-of-the-nation novelists, writers able to move freely across the map and get an aerial view. Hanif Kureishi puts it like this: 'Dickens had a sense of the whole society, from prisoner to home secretary. No writer has that now.'

It's certainly true that place was an especially important concept in the Victorian novel. George Eliot wrote of how she saw it as nurturing and forming character, making it the basis for the balance of character and society that is the hallmark of the Victorian novel (to the extent that Moretti could construct a series of maps from Dickens and Balzac). In Eliot, Hardy and the Bronte sisters (and DH Lawrence later), the place is typically rural, albeit one being transformed under the impact of an increasingly commercial and industrial society. In others, like Gaskell and Dickens, there is a contrast of urban squallor and vice with rural virtue, following the likes of Fielding. As society became increasingly urbanised (not to mention less homogeneous) these sorts of themes work less well. In contemporary terms, people are more mobile between places, less likely to be influenced by one areas. I often think of a line from Peter Shaffer's play Equus, about how the very concept of place has been eroded in the modern world. Equally, place has become an increasinly homogeneous concept, with most of the population living in suburbs that are invariably designed as to be mutually interchangeable, before travelling to work in offices of glass and steel that come close to being mass manufactured. Contemporary geography is characterised by what Marc Auge calls the unplace; places like supermarkets, motorways, hotels, business parks or airports that are the architecture of transience rather than social stability: "... like the place, the non-place doesn't exist in pure form; it's more likely that new places are generated, relations are reconstructed within. Place and non-place are contrary poles; the place never disappears completely and the non-place is never fully established - they are palimpsests on which the confusing game of identity and relation finds its own reflection over and over."

As such, it seems to me that the writer that best characterises the modern concept of place is JG Ballard:

"One of the things I like about Ballard is how he treats architectural space: highway flyovers, corporate campuses, flooded hotels, suburban home-development projects, abandoned swimming pools, army camps in the desert. He presents the modern, built environment as this kind of psychological field lab for testing new ways of being human. He encodes all this, or hardwires it, into the actual landscapes of his novels. You get humans trying to understand and psychologically accommodate themselves to the presence of vast, empty car parks, derelict hospitals, redundant freeways, under-subscribed exurban high-rises and so on. It's a 'malfunctioning central nervous system' in spatial form, on the scale of a whole civilisation.

Ballardian space is psycho-spatial. His books are full of artificial lakes, highway medians, multi-storey car parks, strangely over-air-conditioned corporate boardrooms – and these all take on a kind of menacing, even confrontational, gleam, as if you’ve just stepped into some kind of unspoken mental challenge. The buildings and cities and landscapes in Ballard’s novels are more like psychological traps built by management consultants – not architects – who then fly overhead in private jets, looking down, checking whether their complicated theories of human cognition have survived the test. Where 'the test' is the world you and I now live in.

Of course, any built environment has a psychological impact on the people who live there. In Super-Cannes, for instance, the book's setting – an office park – is haunted by a kind of 'controlled and supervised madness,' Ballard writes. One of the characters explains, at great length, how the too-perfect and over-manicured landscapes of this new corporate enclave inspire sexual violence and anti-immigrant raids – a rebellion against the boredom of tennis courts and well-mowed lawns. Every artificial landscape is the diagram of a certain psychological state – even if that just means reflecting the dominant aesthetic of the day. But the idea that the built landscape can be read as an 'encephalograph of an unresolved mental crisis,' as Ballard writes, crossing generations and countries, just fascinates me.

Space in Ballard’s novels is never deeply textured or deeply described. Instead, you get these abstract non-places – a corporate campus, a media center, a fitness complex. You drive down feeder roads and airport roundabouts and cross-city motorways. You never enter a world of rich, Dickensian details. He's like the anti-Dickens. You don’t walk past churches and bookshops and local bars and farmers' markets and whatever else makes a believable urban setting; you're always out in this weird edge-world of import warehouses and corporate development projects. Sports-car dealerships. The very lack of detail is what makes a setting Ballardian.

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posted by Richard 3:38 PM

Sunday, December 14, 2008

This article on Julian of Norwich struck several chords with me:

"I found the place unsettling. For a start there was the cold silence of the empty church and the bare room adjoining it: the site where Julian spent years of her life secluded from society, immersed in hallucinatory visions that she was convinced were sent to her direct from God... In this atmosphere of desperate piety, it wasn't too hard to imagine a 14th Century divine chuntering away to herself about bodily sickness, wounds and the stench of the Fiend... But the bonds of time have been broken. The sign went on to say: "War destroyed the building …" In 1942, a German bomb hit the building where Julian had spent so much of her lonely life as an anchoress. The church I was standing in was a reconstruction.

I felt similarly cut off when I read Julian's writing. There's a saying about writers and intellectuals holding hands across the ages, their linked arms forming a barrier against the cruel incursions of time. It's a lovely and persuasive thought, but it doesn't always hold true. Sometimes writers also push us away: reminding us just how foreign a country the past is – and how differently they do things there. Certainly, Julian's thought processes, even in Elizabeth Spearing's elegant translation in the current Penguin edition, are alien to me... The Christian guardians of her shrine and this website claim that her message is one of hope and love, but to me it seemed one of dread and cruel masochism. Julian begs to be hurt and abased before her God – a God she obsesses over in pages and pages of contorted, twisting theology that neither makes sense nor is, to be blunt, at all interesting - even if she took the daring step of attributing feminine aspects to Him.

I often wonder why people often seem to characterise literature as an atemporal phenomenon that transcends the time and place that produced it and is as readily comprehensible centuries later as it was at the time. The above was essentially my response to the majority of medieval literature and its concern with the extinction of the self in favour of the divine (I particularly recall Eco's description of medieval literature as a place where everything was subordinated to the theocratic). In an age where writing has been primarily interested in the individual consciousness for hundreds of years, the likes of Margery Kempe are not especially congruent with the modern sensibility. Even in the case of Chaucer I always had the sense that his characters were two dimensional replicas of what a character in a more modern work might look like, filtered through a rather narrow set of social and religious concerns that were all he had to hand to create consciousness out of. The only exceptions that I can immediately recall were, rather oddly, Langland (being too heterodox to fit in with conventional religious categories there's a form of inadvertent invididualism to his work) and Malory.


posted by Richard 2:05 PM

Friday, December 12, 2008

It comes as something of a relief to discover that I disagree with this rather pious piece on authenticity by Denis Dutton:

"A forged painting, for example, will not be inauthentic in every respect: a Han van Meegeren forgery of a Vermeer is at one and the same time both a fake Vermeer and an authentic van Meegeren, just as a counterfeit bill may be both a fraudulent token of legal tender but at the same time a genuine piece of paper. The way the authentic/inauthentic distinction sorts out is thus context-dependent to a high degree. Mozart played on a modern grand piano might be termed inauthentic, as opposed to being played on an eighteenth-century forte-piano, even though the notes played are authentically Mozart's. A performance of Shakespeare that is at pains to recreate Elizabethan production practices, values, and accents would be to that extent authentic, but may still be inauthentic with respect to the fact that it uses actresses for the female parts instead of boys, as would have been the case on Shakespeare’s stage. Authenticity of presentation is relevant not only to performing arts. Modern museums, for example, have been criticized for presenting old master paintings in strong lighting conditions which reveal detail, but at the same time give an overall effect that is at odds with how works would have been enjoyed in domestic spaces by their original audiences; cleaning, revarnishing, and strong illumination arguably amount to inauthentic presentation. Religious sculptures created for altars have been said to be inauthentically displayed when presented in a bare space of a modern art gallery....There may be Roman sculptures, copies of older Greek originals, which are in some respects aesthetically better than their older prototypes, as there may be copies by Rembrandt of other Dutch artists that are aesthetically more pleasing than the originals...

With a painting, therefore, there normally exists an original, nominally authen­tic object that can be identified as 'the' original; nothing corresponds to this in music. Even a composer’s own performance of an instrumental score — say, Rachmaninoff playing his piano concertos — cannot fully constrain the interpretive choices of other performers or define for ever 'the' authentic performance... Bach's keyboard writing includes interweaved musical voices which, under the hands of a skilled pianist such as Glenn Gould, can often be revealed more clearly on a modern concert grand than on a harpsichord.

This explains why aesthetic theories that hold that works of art are just aesthetically appealing objects — to be enjoyed without regard to any notion of their origins — are unsatisfactory. If works of art appealed only to our formal or decorative aesthetic sense, there would indeed be little point in establishing their human contexts by tracing their development, or even in distinguishing them from similarly appealing natural objects — flowers or seashells. But works of art of all societies express and embody both cultural beliefs general to a people and personal character and feeling specific to an individual. Moreover, this fact accounts for a large part, though not all, of our interest in works of art. To deny this would be implicitly to endorse precisely the concept of the eighteenth-century curiosity cabinet, in which Assyrian shards, tropical seashells, a piece of Olmec jade, geodes, netsuke, an Attic oil lamp, bird of paradise feathers, and a Maori patu might lay side by side in indifferent splendour. The propriety of the curiosity cabinet approach to art has been rejected in contemporary thought in favour of a desire to establish provenance and cultural meaning precisely because intra- and inter-cultural relationships among artworks help to constitute their meaning and identity.

It generally seems to me that inauthenticity could possibly be construed as a political or moral issue. I'm not convinced it represents an aesethetic issue, except perhaps as an obstacle to what Shklovsky called ostranenie or defamiliarisation. One might need to understand the historical or biographical context of an artwork in order to fully comprehend it. Nonetheless, contrast is as valid a mode as analysis and museums and galleries descended from the wunderkammer still exist.

To begin with obvious example of art galleries, the question that leaps immediately to mind is that of how works removed from that space become denuded of meaning, as with Duchamp's urinal; remove it from an art gallery and it becomes simply that. The art gallery becomes a place where normal mechanisms of perception are suspended and artistic authenticity becomes situational. The walls of galleries across the world are hung with fakes that are only discernible through the most precise forms of forensic analysis and which will be otherwise all but opaque. At its simplest level, people routinely hang their walls with mass produced replicas of artworks that presumably impart some small fragment of the original. The authenticity of van Meegeren's paintings or Reinhold Vasters's metalwork is of less interest than their merits. It's difficult not to recall Sickert's response to an art collector wishing to determine whether the Sicket painting he had bought was genuine or not. The response was 'No. But none the worse for that.'

In music, the score may not suffice to give an authentic notion of the work; the most obvious example is Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. This is commonly performed with Ravel's orchestration but no such arrangement was supplied by Mussorgsky himself. The result is that hundreds of arrangements exist, from the likes of Stokowski and Toscanini, all of them using widely divergent forms of instrumentation. It's certainly true that the use of period instruments may enable a greater appreciation of Bach and Handel; but I'm afraid I still prefer Stokowski's orchestral of the Toccata and Fugue to more authentic versions. Popular music presents a slightly different question, given that it does produce 'definitive' recordings; nonetheless there are more than enough cover versions in existence to compensate for that.

By the same token, the playing of Shakespeare's plays in the round might offer an insight into their original production, especially if performed with period dress and all male casts. Nonetheless, many modern plays prove to lend themselves rather well to such a format, even if they were never written for it. More generally, Shakespeare wrote at a time when writers still commonly did what the Ancient Greeks had done; write interpretations of mythical and historical narratives that were the common property of all. If Harold Bloom's theory that all writing is based on misreading and rewriting holds, then Chatterton's medieval poems, Walpole's 'Italian story,' Macpherson's Ossian poems or William Henry Ireland's Vortigern seem slightly different to being simple fakes. What Umberto Eco calls "the force of falsity" makes inaccurate ideas influential, tranforming flawed understanding into a creative misprision, as with Coleridge's admiration of Chatterton.

To take another example, a wooden Japanese temple must typically have its building materials renewed once every thirty years. The 'ancient' buildings in a city like Kyoto have in reality been regularly recreated and renewed. The same applies to many 'restored' buildings in the West, where it is dubious whether much of the original is left. To take an obvious example, Dresden's Frauenkirche is built on precise plans to recreate the destroyed original, even down to incorporating much of the original stone (blackened even before the firestorm, it gives the building a rather odd patchwork effect when contrasted with the new stone). Walking around the interior, I found myself wondering how authentic the bright pastel colours were. It is, in Eco's formulation, hyperreal. To elaborate on this point, I rather like this piece by Lisa Jardine in response to the Cutty Sark fire:

"Still, it could, we were reassured, have been much worse. Because of the restoration in progress, half of the ship's timbers had been taken away for treatment. The three 100-foot masts, their sails and rigging, had been removed at the beginning of the project and sent to Chatham's Historic Dockyard for storage. The prow, anchor and ship's wheel, and the complete contents of the below-decks galley and workshops, were also safe, as was the distinctive figurehead... Whatever happens now - and surely the restoration efforts will be redoubled, and the desperately needed extra funding forthcoming - the resulting ship will now conclusively be a replica, simply not the original. But then, wasn't she that already? The masts, everything on deck, many of the deck planks, and the fittings, were remade from scratch the last time the ship was rescued from destruction (by decay and neglect) in the 1950s. The masts, sails and rigging were once again restored, and pieces of the fabric replaced, as part of the celebrations for the Millennium...

In Japan, where wooden buildings have always been terribly vulnerable to the ravages of earthquake and fire, the idea that something is in effect a replica does not carry the same stigma of the inauthentic... Osaka Castle was completed around 1590 by the great military ruler of Osaka, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and is today part of a proud heritage for the residents of Osaka and Japan... Yet this beloved historical landmark is entirely a reproduction. Razed to the ground for the first time in 1615, ravaged by an explosion and fire in 1665, burned to the ground again when it was captured in 1868, heavily bombed in 1945, Osaka Castle was completely rebuilt as a concrete structure in 1932, and its exterior restored to its present splendour in the late 1990s. As our guide book boasted: "There remains no single piece of stone wall from the Toyotomi period."

Later in our trip we took a bus from Kyoto to Kiyomizu-dera (the Clear Water Temple), which like the Cutty Sark and Maritime Greenwich, is a Unesco-designated World Heritage Site. The origins of Kiyomizu-dera can be traced back to 798 AD, when a priest from nearby Nara was instructed by a vision to construct a Buddhist shrine there on an existing Shinto sacred site... Yet here again, the present buildings are nowhere near as old as the history of the shrine suggests. Some of them date from the 17th Century, others have been substantially restored in the 1980s. This last restoration included repainting the exterior of the soaring three-storey pagoda to its original bright reddish-orange. Once again, this causes the Japanese no hint of anxiety - our guide book informed us proudly that "the main temple has been destroyed and rebuilt many times in its centuries of history".

In Europe, by contrast, we have a tendency to disparage or overlook the history of objects which have failed to last, or survive only as replicas, reproductions or recreations. Holbein's paintings, produced for the court of King Henry VIII in the early decades of the 16th Century, receive an enormous amount of attention from art historians and the public alike - as the numbers attending the Holbein in England exhibition at Tate Britain at the end of last year confirmed.

King Henry himself, however, was far less interested in panel paintings than in his fabulous collection of 5,000 tapestries - more time-consuming and expensive to make, more valuable and highly coveted by other European royals, and much more impressive when hung. His tapestries, however, failed to survive the damp English climate - unlike Philip II's fabulous collection of 16th Century woven wall hangings, still in the Prado in Madrid. So tapestries are, on the whole, neglected in discussions of Tudor court culture.

The original Greek version of this philosophical problem of identity and persistence, known as "the ship of Theseus" is particularly apposite here. In his Life of Theseus, Plutarch tells us that the Athenians preserved and revered the ship in which Theseus returned from Crete, after he had rescued Ariadne from the Minotaur. Over time, however, they assiduously replaced rotten planks with new timber, until every plank of the ship had eventually been replaced. So is this still Theseus's ship?


posted by Richard 7:36 PM

Monday, December 01, 2008

New Scientist recently carried an article on the future of science fiction, featuring interviews with the likes of Margaret Atwood:

"As well as a mere storytelling device, science fiction often articulates our present-day concerns and anxieties - paradoxically, it is often about the here and now rather than the future. As Stephen Baxter points out, H. G. Wells's ground-breaking 1895 novella The Time Machine - famous for popularising the idea of time travel - was more concerned with where Darwinian natural selection was taking the human race than with the actual nuts and bolts of time travel... Science fiction is the literature of change. It is no coincidence that it emerged as a recognisable genre with writers such as Jules Verne in the late 19th century, an era when, for the first time in history, children could expect to grow up in a world radically different from that of their parents.

The single most useful thing I've learned from science fiction is that every present moment, always, is someone else's past and someone else's future. I got that as a child in the 1950s, reading science fiction written in the 1940s; reading it before I actually knew much of anything about the history of the 1940s or, really, about history at all. I literally had to infer the fact of the second world war, reverse-engineering my first personal iteration of 20th-century history out of 1940s science fiction. I grew up in a monoculture - one I found highly problematic - and science fiction afforded me a degree of lifesaving cultural perspective I'd never have had otherwise... I adopted, as a complete no-brainer, J G Ballard's dictum that Earth is the alien planet... I took it for granted that the present moment is always infinitely stranger and more complex than any "future" I could imagine. My craft would be (for a while, anyway) one of importing steamingly weird fragments of the ever-alien present into "worlds" (as we say in science fiction) that purported to be "the future".

In a certain sense, science fiction is one of the most realistic genres literature has produced, with novels like We and 1984 speaking to the realities of their time at least as much as Life and Fate or Darkness at Noon. Contrary to the above, Wells was at least as interested in contemporary social divisions as he was excised by natural selection. In an age where technology permeates our everyday lives it hardly seems surprising that many writers have in recent years decided to use the abstraction offered by science fiction as a means of tangentially exploring contemporary reality. Nonetheless, there are perhaps some differences from realist fiction; the essence of much science fiction often rests with the fear and paranoia that is our response to technology as much as with the technology itself, as with The Last Man to Day of the Triffids to The Drowned World (where the notion of events having an especially plausible cause is essentially dispensed with, as much as in The Trial). As Susan Sontag put it "science fiction films are not about science. They are about disaster." This piece expands on that theme somewhat:

"In 28 Days Later, an accidentally released supervirus transforms virtually all of Britain into a population of cannibalistic zombies. Margaret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake is a post-apocalyptic bestiary of genetically engineered species; among them, in a world half-drowned by rising seas, lives apparently the last surviving human. Michel Houellebecq’s Possibility of an Island is narrated by a misanthropic contemporary of ours named Daniel, as well as numbers 24 and 25 of the successive clones made from this not-quite individual. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is another clone novel; it concerns genetic supernumeraries raised for purposes of organ harvesting. And cloning likewise furnishes subject matter for David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, where one of five braided narrative strands takes the form of a Q & A between a normally human historian and an imprisoned rebel 'fabricant,' who—unlike Ishiguro’s clones, with their lamblike passivity—has escaped an underground world of slavery into horrified awareness of the genocidal nature of a 'corpocracy' raised on the blood of clones... In Cormac McCarthy’s fantastically grim The Road, all non-human nature has perished beneath the shuttered skies of a nuclear winter, and social organization as such appears to persist only in the form of roving cannibal gangs; the story follows the efforts of a father and his pre-adolescent son to elude these 'bad guys' (as the father-hero matter-of-factly calls them) while scavenging cans of food for themselves. Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men mixes dystopian elements with the apocalyptic premise that no human child has been born for seventeen years, leaving civilization to crumble under the accumulated weight of age and despair; once the world’s unique pregnant woman arrives on the scene, the handsome desperado played by Clive Owen takes up the burden of shepherding mother and child to safety... The Road and I Am Legend have a lot in common. Impressively stylish productions, they are also alike in presupposing a collapse of civilization that happens utterly and all at once rather than by degrees—in the movie the trigger is the supervirus, in the book "a long shear of light and then a series of low concussions" signaling all-out nuclear war—and both stories set the decency and steadfastness of the solitary hero-father against the sheer evil of a human population otherwise consisting of marauding cannibals...

Each of the more dystopian novels sketched above involves human cloning. It should also be clear that in the current political context the clone novel can hardly fail to suggest a nightmare of perfected neoliberalism. In the clone novel, class society—in what may be a lurid reflection of our distinction between citizens with full legal rights and 'illegal' foreign workers without them—hardens into a strict demarcation of castes... The possibility of love requires the existence of at least two irreplaceable individuals, a condition that can’t quite be met in any of the clone novels. The anxiety dominating each of these books is that a human being might prove perfectly fungible in an emotional and sexual as well as an economic sense, a fear most coherently and angrily expressed by Houllebecq, who may be the living writer best at suggesting the dystopian element in contemporary society. For him the problem lies not only in the liberalized private sector, with its ready disposal of people according to their economic value, but also in sexually liberalized 'private life'...

The diversity of apocalyptic triggers hardly conceals the basic sameness, from work to work, of the apocalypse itself. In almost every case... large-scale social organization, including the state, has disappeared; the cumulative technological capability of century upon century has collapsed to the point that only agricultural know-how, if that, is retained; and the global society we know has shattered into small tribal groups, separate families or couples, and helpless solitary individuals. In such anarchic conditions, without governments to enforce contracts, stable currencies in circulation, or any industrial or transportation infrastructure, capitalism likewise becomes a thing of the past—and yet the contemporary apocalypse, as painted in our collection of movies and novels, illustrates in the most literal fashion possible Margaret Thatcher’s famous dictum that there is no such thing as society, only individuals and their families. The corollary view holds that 'society' is merely the excuse used by tyrannical regimes like the Soviet one to justify the trampling of individual rights—and contemporary apocalyptic works are all but united in stigmatizing any group larger than the family as oppressive and evil. Frequently, collectives are simply occasions for organized cannibalism, as in 28 Days Later, I Am Legend, and The Road. Or bands of survivors are fascists at heart: again, 28 Days Later...

In the neoliberal dystopia a totally commodified world transforms would-be lovers into commodities themselves and in this way destroys the possibility of love. In the neoliberal apocalypse, on the other hand, the wreck of civilization reveals the inherent depravity of mankind (excepting one’s loved ones) and ratifies the truth that the family is a haven in a heartless world. Both the neoliberal dystopia and the neoliberal apocalypse defend love and individuality against the forces threatening to crush them; the difference is that the clone novel sticks up for humanity from the standpoint of an implied or explicit critique of neoliberalism, while the apocalypse narrative (whether in prose or on film) tends to reflect the default creed of neoliberalism, according to which kindness may flourish in private life but the outside world remains now and forever a scene of vicious but inevitable competition... The rub, of course, is that such sci-fi humanism is quickly overcome with another irony, this one unintentional, since it is the hallmark of genre fiction to treat characters instrumentally, putting them through the paces of the plot according to their function as the embodiment of some general psychological or social category and failing or refusing to endow them with the individuality to be found among the livelier inhabitants of the traditional realist novel and, for that matter, the real world.

This is the highly compromised 'individualism' promoted by our collection of futuristic novels: individuality here means escape from the bad collective (cannibals, the corporate state) but does not entail real individuation. Our literary sci-fi novels are bereft of strongly individual characters—the apocalyptic ones even more depopulated than they know, the clone narratives at least bespeaking the anxiety that their characters are redundant—and the ongoing merger of genre fiction (where the reader is accustomed to finding no complex characters) with literature (which no one would think to accuse of being indifferent to individuality) has allowed the liquidation of character to pass virtually unnoticed.

It's an interesting critique though I'm not sure that I'm fully persuaded; realist fiction embedded in the thisness of contemporary society lacks the ability to consider other political possibilities. In that sense, it represents a curtailed set of assumptions about what constitutes human nature and human society. The elimination of character in a JG Ballard novel represents a statement that human nature is neither fixed nor stable but is instead a set of drives fuelled by our genes and our environment. It is in short, not that far of the sort of conception of human nature that predated the advent of the realist novel (if we substitute Hobbesian notions of the passions for Locke's tabula rasa, for example) and the reason why characters in early novels so often acts inconsistently, with events proceeding from episode to episode rather than in a linear plot sequence.


posted by Richard 10:13 PM

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Rather predictably, this article has recently been highlighted on more than one occasion:

"The current economic woes look a lot like what my 96-year-old grandmother still calls "the real Great Depression." ... The problems had emerged around 1870, starting in Europe. In the Austro-Hungarian Empire, formed in 1867, in the states unified by Prussia into the German empire, and in France, the emperors supported a flowering of new lending institutions that issued mortgages for municipal and residential construction, especially in the capitals of Vienna, Berlin, and Paris. Mortgages were easier to obtain than before, and a building boom commenced. Land values seemed to climb and climb; borrowers ravenously assumed more and more credit, using unbuilt or half-built houses as collateral. The most marvelous spots for sightseers in the three cities today are the magisterial buildings erected in the so-called founder period.

But the economic fundamentals were shaky. Wheat exporters from Russia and Central Europe faced a new international competitor who drastically undersold them. The 19th-century version of containers manufactured in China and bound for Wal-Mart consisted of produce from farmers in the American Midwest. They used grain elevators, conveyer belts, and massive steam ships to export trainloads of wheat to abroad. Britain, the biggest importer of wheat, shifted to the cheap stuff quite suddenly around 1871. By 1872 kerosene and manufactured food were rocketing out of America's heartland, undermining rapeseed, flour, and beef prices. The crash came in Central Europe in May 1873, as it became clear that the region's assumptions about continual economic growth were too optimistic. Europeans faced what they came to call the American Commercial Invasion. A new industrial superpower had arrived, one whose low costs threatened European trade and a European way of life.

As continental banks tumbled, British banks held back their capital, unsure of which institutions were most involved in the mortgage crisis. The cost to borrow money from another bank — the interbank lending rate — reached impossibly high rates... In the end, the Panic of 1873 demonstrated that the center of gravity for the world's credit had shifted west — from Central Europe toward the United States. The current panic suggests a further shift — from the United States to China and India."

I've long felt that contemporary society bears a marked resemblance to its Victorian precursor, with marked social inequality being matched by the volatility and instability of free markets. As the conservative project to roll back the twentieth century progressed, the inevitable result was that many of the safeguards introduced to prevent depressions like 1873 and 1929 were also removed. The current conditions are essentially identical to those Marx and Engels had hoped would destroy capitalism in the previous recession of 1857 when Dickens had based the character of Merdle in Little Dorrit on railway speculator and Minister John Sadleir, who embezzled and then bankrupted the Tipperary Joint Stock Bank before killing himself. Given that the current crisis poses substantial questions around the Anglo-American economic model of the last twenty to thirty years, it will be interesting to observe whether current events produce novels like Our Mutual Friend or The Way We Live Now, as this article debates:

"In Britain, there is a long-standing aversion to writing about business. More than a century ago, Henry James decreed that novels should focus on private life and the emotions, not politics and business; most writers since have taken him at his word... Perhaps because US writers are generally more ambitious, and also because US culture is less sniffy about moneymaking, modern American novelists seem at home in the worlds of work and money in a way that few British ones do. Think of [Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities] Saul Bellow's comi-tragic portrait of errant market speculation in Seize the Day, or Philip Roth's account of factory life in American Pastoral. Or think of David Foster Wallace's sinister vision of a corporatised America of the future in his 1996 epic Infinite Jest.

We should not be surprised, then, that it is an American writer who has been most prescient about the current financial upheavals. In his slim 2003 novel Cosmopolis, Don DeLillo tracked the life of an enormously wealthy currency trader on a day of global financial meltdown. It is by no means DeLillo's best work, but many things about it that now seem prophetic – the way, for instance, he captures the trader's overweening ambition and arrogance, and how he evokes the sense of a system that no one fully understands spinning rapidly out of control."

I do tend to recall Milan Kundera's observation that the re-establishment of the middle class in the Czech Republic following the collapse of the Soviet bloc was a subject worthy of Balzac at a time when novels of that kind had ceased to be possible. Realism in its conventional sense seemed to assume a more homogeneous society that could be more easily conceived of a single entity, which applies rather poorly to contemporary society (although Hollinghurst's documenting of the 1987 stock market crash in The Line of Beauty does rather spring to mind as a counter example). In practice, it may not be that easy to roll back the twentieth century and all of the literary innovations that went with it. Of course, all of this assumes that we don't end up with nostalgic works of escapism like Brideshead Revisited ("it was a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster — the period of soya beans and Basic English — and in consequence the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past"), Love in a Cold Climate and Lord of the Rings instead.

Update: a closely related follow-up piece from Tristram Hunt:

"To wander through modern Los Angeles is to get a keen idea of Rome in 400AD, Venice at the end of its medieval glory or post-war London. LA is a city redolent of empire and it is visibly in collapse. It is not just the choking smog, violent ghettos or armies of homeless, but a more fin de siècle sense that its time has passed. One can imagine, in 100 years, the Pacific waves lapping at the stones of Santa Monica, the sand blowing through the skyscrapers and the great film studios serving as a 20th-century Colosseum.

Last week's report from the National Intelligence Council only served to confirm the fear that the age of America is drawing to a close, with the Iraq invasion standing as the final act of imperial hubris. As the Pentagon securocrats rightly predict, the emerging economies of the Bric nations - Brazil, Russia, India and China - are starting to flex their political and military muscles. The dollar's financial dominance is crumbling. Meanwhile, Bollywood and Nollywood (Nigeria's nascent film industry) are beginning to challenge the cultural prowess of Hollywood. In the coming decades, globalisation will no longer stand as a byword for Americanisation. quot;

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posted by Richard 7:51 PM

Sunday, October 05, 2008

George Szirtes writes on the mutability of signifier and signified alike:

"Writers rely on the precarious stability of language. It's like an artist not trusting fugitive colours. I think of Blake on Reynolds:

When Sir Joshua Reynolds died
All Nature was degraded;
The King dropp'd a tear into the Queen's ear,
And all his pictures faded.

Reynolds experimented with Lake colours that decayed far too quickly - in his own lifetime.

Writers depend on stable reference. Signifier should bear some reasonably constant relationship to signified. It has often been said that part of a poet's function is celebration: the preservation of fleeting phenomena in a medium that is, ideally, less fleeting. That is why all kinds of people write verses on weddings, birthdays, funerals. They are attempts to carve something into the language. You can't carve into that which is fugitive. Even the writing down of events in diaries in the plainest of prose is an attempt at carving.

There is an implication here that, by extension, the referents themselves should remain stable. This would include social circumstances, cultural practices, ideas, values, desires and even dreams: it seems to demand an ossified world of stable meanings. Márai's novelist tells us that his values, his compass, his entire craft depends on a vanishing social framework. He is working down a mine where the coal is all but exhausted. The colours are fading even as he writes.

We could regard him as a hidebound reactionary and indeed, in some ways he is. But that is not all he is. His whole aesthetic is based on the knowledge that the seam has been almost, if not quite, worked out, that the colours are fading. This, he tells us, is the nature of things. He is an elegist by nature, meaning that he gazes upon things dying and is not wholly consoled by a glance at things new born."

The likes of Sandor Marai and Joseph Roth (or Ford Maddox Ford to take an English example) are seeking to document the collapse of an entire form of social order (in this immediate example, the destruction of the Austro Hungarian Empire). In that sense, they have more in common with nineteenth century writers like Balzac, Scott that documented the near past with a suspicious eye on the present, than they do with many of their modernist contemporaries. While a preoccupation with social change is not necessarily mutually exclusive with the modernist fascination with the instability of language (Woolf or Broch for instance) the two have a rather fraught relationship. One particularly good example of this is Andrei Biely's St Petersburg, a novel that is ostensibly concerned with the acts of terrorism in Tadrist Russia that were leading to the Russian revolution. The theme is misleading as the narrative tends to approach events symbolically rather than through the lens of historical realism. Instead of social tensions, events are depicted through a set of chiastic oppositions; reason and unreason, occidental and oriental (at times it reads more like Sax Rohmer than Conrad's The Secret Agent). St Petersburg is at once a real city with places that can be found on the map and also a Escheresque labyrinth made unreal by mists ("he wondered as in a dream about the relation of appearance to reality"); the geometry of the enlightenment reverts to the swamp that lies beneath it. Unsurprisingly, the mutability of language emerges as a recurrent theme; "my words get entangled... a modernist would call it the sensation of the abyss and search for an image."


posted by Richard 8:22 PM

It's not a publication I greatly care for or regularly read, but I was struck by this article in First Things:

"The Platonic tradition in Christianity invests beauty with ontological significance, trusting it to reveal the unity and proportion of what really is. Our apprehension of beauty thus betokens a recognition of and ­submission to a reality that transcends us. And yet, if beauty can use art to express truth, art can also use beauty to create charming fabrications. As Jacques Maritain put it, art is capable of establishing "a world apart, closed, limited, absolute," an autonomous world that, at least for a moment, relieves us of the "ennui of living and willing." Instead of directing our attention beyond sensible beauty toward its supersensible source, art can fascinate us with beauty’s apparently self-sufficient presence; it can counterfeit being in lieu of revealing it... "Art is dangerous," as Iris Murdoch once put it, "chiefly because it apes the spiritual and subtly disguises and trivializes it."

This helps explain why Western thinking about art has tended to oscillate between adulation and deep suspicion. "Beauty is the battlefield where God and the devil war for the soul of man," Dostoevsky had Mitya Karamazov declare, and the battle runs deep....

The closer one moved toward the present time, the more blatant and unabashed became the association of the artist with God. Thus Alexander Baumgarten, writing in the mid-eighteenth century, compared the poet to a god and likened his creation to "a world"... If the artist in the modern age emerges as a second god, his divinity tends to close itself off from reality in order to clear a space for art’s fabrications. As such, the artist tends to draw close to the demonic, which Kierkegaard astutely defined as freedom "shutting itself up" apart from the good. ("Myself am Hell," Milton’s Satan declares in a moment of startling self-insight.) If, as Paul Valéry put it, "the artist’s whole business is to make something out of nothing," then, unable to meet this demand, he will find himself wandering alone among the shadows cast by the world he forsook in order to salvage his freedom and creativity. ...

We do not need Nietzsche to tell us that the disintegration of the Platonic-Christian worldview, already begun in the late Middle Ages, is today a cultural given. Nor is it news that the shape of modernity—born, in large part, from man’s faith in the power of human ­reason and technology to remake the world in his own image—has made it increasingly difficult to hold the traditional view that ties beauty to being and truth, investing it with ontological significance. Modernity, the beneficiary of Descartes’ relocation of truth to the subject ( Cogito, ergo sum), implies the autonomy of the aesthetic sphere and hence the isolation of beauty from being or truth....

The twentieth-century Welsh Catholic poet David Jones.. [thought that the real threat to the arts] was the modern world’s increasing submission to technocracy, to a thoroughly instrumental view of life that had no room for what Jones called the intransitive—for the freedom and disinterestedness traditionally thought the province of religious experience, on the one hand, and aesthetic experience, on the other.

And from a rather different perspective, Zadie Smith takes up a similar theme:

"All novels attempt to cut neural routes through the brain, to convince us that down this road the true future of the novel lies. In healthy times, we cut multiple roads, allowing for the possibility of a Jean Genet as surely as a Graham Greene. These aren't particularly healthy times. A breed of lyrical Realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked...

Critiques of this form by now amount to a long tradition in and of themselves. Beginning with what Alain Robbe-Grillet called "the destitution of the old myths of 'depth,'" they blossomed out into a phenomenology skeptical of Realism's metaphysical tendencies, demanding, with Husserl, that we eschew the transcendental, the metaphorical, and go "back to the things themselves!"; they peaked in that radical deconstructive doubt which questions the capacity of language itself to describe the world with accuracy. They all of them note the (often unexamined) credos upon which Realism is built: the transcendent importance of form, the incantatory power of language to reveal truth, the essential fullness and continuity of the self... In an essay written half a century ago, Robbe-Grillet imagined a future for the novel in which objects would no longer "be merely the vague reflection of the hero's vague soul, the image of his torments, the shadow of his desires." He dreaded the "total and unique adjective, which attempt[s] to unite all the inner qualities, the entire hidden soul of things."... The received wisdom of literary history is that Finnegans Wake did not fundamentally disturb Realism's course as Duchamp's urinal disturbed Realism in the visual arts: the novel is made out of language, the smallest units of which still convey meaning, and so they will always carry the trace of the real. But if literary Realism survived the assault of Joyce, it retained the wound...

The literary economy sets up its stall on the road that leads to Netherland, along which one might wave to Jane Austen, George Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Richard Yates, Saul Bellow. Rarely has it been less aware (or less interested) in seeing what's new on the route to Remainder, that skewed side road where we greet Georges Perec, Clarice Lispector, Maurice Blanchot, William Burroughs, J.G. Ballard. Friction, fear, and outright hatred spring up often between these two traditions—yet they have revealing points of connection. At their crossroads we find extraordinary writers claimed by both sides: Melville, Conrad, Kafka, Beckett, Joyce, Nabokov. For though manifestos feed on rupture, artworks themselves bear the trace of their own continuity.

As Rorty felt, my prejudice has always been that there is no overarching intellectual framework that can reconcile 'Trotsky and the Orchids' in his example (or perhaps the diseased body of a dying prostitute and the second French empire in Zola's Nana; as Eliot put it, these things are a parable) or truth and beauty in this example. My preferences in literature and art has always tended to shun the monologic medieval world where art is for the most part subordinate to the transcendental. Conversely, I've always tended to prefer romanticism specifically for its elevation of the individual ego. Nonetheless, the principal tropes of romanticism and modern literature are heavily indebted to christianity. The role of the transcendental in Emerson or Wordsworth may not be specifically christian (hence the fact that Kerouac could write in a similar vein while casting it in buddhist terminology) but it is difficult to conceive of it without christianity. The concept of the romantic spot of time or epiphany is a moment of revelation in the christian sense whether it belongs to Wordsworth or Joyce. The romantic quest romance is prototypically a christian narrative of fall, damnation and redemption, at the very least a form of via negativa that inverts the standard christian eschatology, as in Lautreamont or Melmoth. As a picture this becomes more intermittent in the twentieth century; Derrida's concept of differance is in many respects kabbalistic, assuming an infinity of arcane meanings within a text; De Man's statement that a text possessed of all meanings is possessed of none marks an end to transcendental underpinnings to literature, leading to places like Forster's Marabar caves where all meanings seem equally valid and invalid. It only waited for the postmodernist suspicion of all meta-narratives to complete the final coup de grace. The examples of Kafka or Perec point to a conception of writing akin to Lyotard or De Man; raising the notion of hermeneutics only to dismiss it, dissolving all interpretation in the same way as the paintings in Life A User's Manual are returned to being a blank slate after the jigsaw has been reconstructed. In the case of Robbe-Grillet's Jealousy, the narrative is deflated to the viewpoint of a single observer (who nonetheless remains absent and never uses any personal pronoun, there by removing any element of authorial interpretation from the narration). As the narrative lacks any speculation at to the consciousness of the observed actors or as to events where the observer is absent, it is one of the most anti-metaphysical narratives written (although a repeated incident with a centipede being squashed does seem to be correlated to the putative death of one of the female protagonists in a car crash), although the refusal of access to the consciousness of the other does rather serve to emphasise the issue in a way that the realist novel does not.

In theory, this should represent a form of literature that matches my philosophical predilections. In practice, I often find the likes of Perec more devoid of jouissance than the conventional realist novel, with the reader's every response manipulated and controlled. Where Eliot or Dostoevsky wrote novels that are filled with competing, contradictory voices, this is often subdued in novels like those of Robbe-Grillet that are intended to do the opposite; Barthes claimed that "the goal of literary work (of literature as work) is to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text," reassembling the scenes presented and represented here in any number of orders.

To borrow Takashi Murakami's term, such works tend to be characterised by their flatness, something sublunary and lacking transcendent values. It's difficult not to find the sheer untidiness or 'deconstructability' of the realist novel rather more appealing; realism is after all ultimately a form of artifice, hence contrived conventions like the omniscient narrator. I have often wondered if there's such a thing as a novel that retains the polyphonic character of the realist novel without the transcendental assumptions behind it.

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posted by Richard 8:21 PM

Friday, July 25, 2008

On the one hand, an article reclaiming Hugo's most extensive novel:

"The size was the centre of Hugo's discovery in the art of the novel. And this is visible immediately: it's visible, to the perturbed reader, in the second of this novel's many sentences. The beginning, it turns out, is not a beginning at all. "There is something we might mention that has no bearing whatsoever on the tale we have to tell - not even on the background." Les Miserables begins with a digression from a digression... The subject of one of the longest novels in European literature is - what else? - the infinite. That is why its tempo is so explicit with slowness, syncopated with digression. But in this novel there is no such thing as a digression. Everything is relevant - since the subject of this book, quite literally, is everything: "This book is a tragedy in which infinity plays the lead," writes Hugo. "Man plays a supporting role."

"Really, universally, relations stop nowhere," Henry James would write, 40 years later, in his preface to the New York Edition of his early novel Roderick Hudson, "and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so." Life was infinite, argued James, but the novel therefore required a form which gave the illusion of completeness. James, after all, had learned the art of the novel from Flaubert. According to this modernist tradition, the novel was an art of miniaturisation, and indirection.

Hugo, however, had come up with a new solution, no less artful than the solution proposed by Flaubert and James. He wanted to create a novel which would try to represent everything by pretending that it did, in fact, represent everything. It would be wilfully ramshackle and inclusive - both on the level of form, and on the level of content: an essayistic novel, or a novelistic essay. "The eye of the drama must be everywhere at once," wrote Hugo. For every plot, seen from the angle of Hugo's style, was infinite.. In Tolstoy's War and Peace, if people coincide, or marry each other, it still seems probable. Every decision retains its fluidity. And yet in Les Miserables this isn't true. In this gargantuan novel, everything seems utterly improbable. Every plot operates through coincidence. Normally, novelists develop techniques to naturalise and hide this. Hugo, with his technique of massive length, refuses to hide it at all. In fact, he makes sure that the plot's coincidences are exaggerated... One way in which Hugo emphasises the coincidences in his novel is the persistent failures of recognition... Les Miserables is a game with destiny: it dramatises the gap between the imperfections of human judgements, and the perfect patterns of the infinite.

On the other hand, and once more citing the spectre of Herny James, Zadie Smith reclaims the aesthetics of George Eliot's most extensive novel:

"In 1873, the young Henry James reviewed George Eliot’s Middlemarch. It was an odd review, neither rave nor pan. Eliot represented the past and James hoped to be the future. "It sets a limit," he wrote, “to the development of the old-fashioned English novel." James’s objection to Middlemarch is familiar: there’s too much of it. He found "its diffuseness makes it too copious a dose of pure fiction."... A famous query opens chapter 29 of Middlemarch: "But why always Dorothea?" It’s neat that James’s complaint, essentially, "But why always Fred?", should be the inverse reflection of it. You might say of Henry and George what the novel says of Lydgate and Rosamund: between him and her indeed there was that total missing of each other’s mental track . . . James can’t understand why Middlemarch should stray so far from Dorothea, to linger on Lydgate, Fred and the rest...

But Fred, to Eliot, is a member of "mixed and erring humanity" - her favourite Goethe quote. She always hoped that her work would demonstrate the "remedial influences of pure, natural human relations". Still, it took a great deal of Art to arrange Middlemarch so that it might resemble Nature in all its diffusion, all its naturalness. Eliot’s Nature is a thing highly stylised, highly intellectual. She was a writer of ideas, maybe more so than any novelist in our canon. In order to be attentive to Fred, Eliot had to take the long way round. It was a philosopher, Spinoza, who first convinced her of the importance of experience. It was theory that brought her to practice. These days, "writer of ideas" has become a term of abuse: we think "Ideas" are the opposite of something we call “Life”. It wasn’t that way with Eliot. In fact, her ability to animate ideas is so acute she is able to fool the great Henry James into believing Fred Vincy a commonplace young man who was wandered into Middlemarch with no purpose. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Yet to Eliot all were equal, and of equal interest, and worthy of an equal amount of pages. All her people are striving towards the fullest truth, the least partial good. Except, when Eliot thought of striving, she had more in mind than Austen’s hope of happy marriages, or Dickens’s dream of resolved mysteries. She was thinking of Spinoza’s kind of striving, conatus. From Spinoza, Eliot took the idea that the good we strive for should be nothing more than "what we certainly know will be useful to us", not a fixed point, no specific moral system, not, properly speaking, a morality at all. It cannot be found in the pursuit of transcendental reward, as Dorothea believes it to be, or in one’s ability to conform to a set of rules, as Lydgate attempts when he submits to a conventional marriage. Instead, wise men pursue what is best in and best for their own natures. They think of the good as a dynamic, unpredictable combination of forces, different, in practice, for each of us. It’s that principle which illuminates Middlemarch. Like Spinoza’s wise men, Eliot’s people are always seeking to match what is good in themselves in joyful combinations with other good things in the world. In Ethics, the book Eliot spent years trying to translate (she never finished), the wise walk in gardens, see plays, eat pleasantly, do work that is meaningful to them, and so on, as their nature allows and demands. They love and are attentive to the laws of nature, because these alone are eternal and therefore an attribute of the Supreme Good. All of this was the riposte Eliot needed to the arid rigours of her family’s Methodism; she responded passionately to the idea of worldly striving, of cleaving to those qualities in others, and in the world, that complemented one’s own strengths. It was what she herself had done. And it cast two things she cared for deeply - natural science and human relationships - in a new, holy light. Spinoza seemed to understand Marian’s way of being in the world. Her shocking common-law "marriage of true minds" to George Lewes (who also translated Spinoza) was exactly the right kind of conatus: a power-strengthening union characterised by joy. Her rejection of the organised church, so horrifying to her family, was really a turning away from false, abstract moral values. Her interest in the new natural sciences was, in Spinozian terms, a form of worship... Eliot has replaced metaphysics with human relationships. In doing this she took from Spinoza - whose metaphysics are, in fact, extensive - what she wanted, and left what she couldn’t use. To make it work, she utilised a cast of saints and princes, but also fools and criminals, and every shade of human in between. She needed Fred quite as much as Dorothea.

I have to say it's really very refreshing to hear a defence of the Victorian novel that understands its practitioners as being as capable of experimenting with form as much as their modernist counterparts, even if they do so in profoundly different ways. I always tended to be rather wary of James for his dismissal of much of the Victorian novel as formless in contrast to his own works, even when those works were parasitic of the norms introduced in the Victorian novel. In practice, much of the form of the Victorian novel can be described as being akin to a web, a metaphor used by Dickens and Eliot to describe how their work demonstrated that the apparently disparate and unconnected actually formed part of an organic whole. For Dickens, this was a theme related to social solidarity, for Eliot a theme connected to a secular form of ethics that replaced religion. In the case of Hardy, it served as a rather different metaphor for causality, the sort of web that involves spiders and flies. In other words, the form of their novels cannot be painted on anything other than a large canvas if they are to succeed. The Victorians were distinct in discerning how the fate of an individual was bound up with wider forces stemming from the economic and social trends around them, rather than any more metaphysical concept of fate. For a society, acutely aware of economic tides, a preoccupation with the material in their writing seems entirely natural. Again, this is all something that demands a larger canvas and it's always seemed difficult to see Ulysses or Mrs Dalloway (for all their merits) as anything other than a retreat for telescoping their focus down to individual consciousnesses over considerably compressed timescales. Following Baktin, I inevitably tend to think that the polyphonic and heteroglossic character of Victorian writing, with its counterpointing of multiple plot strands, is considerably more interesting than what followed it.


posted by Richard 6:51 PM

Saturday, July 12, 2008

This piece from Morgan Meis in The Smart Set struck a chord with me:

"Criticism isn’t powerful anymore. It doesn’t drive anything, it doesn’t define what is good and bad in culture. Surely this has mostly to do with all the changes in the media landscape over the last few decades. Basically, culture has been democratized. It has been flattened out and multiplied. There are no longer real distinctions between high and low. There’s just more... The blogosphere and social networking sites allow anyone to communicate tastes and opinions directly to those people with whom an outlook is already shared. Criticism is essentially bottom-up now, whereas it used to be practically the definition of top-down. The audience does not look to an external authority to find out what to think — it looks to itself...

Critics have, traditionally, prided themselves in a certain amount of distance. There’s even a name for it: "critical distance." To some extent this distance was always an illusion, the byproduct of a metaphysics that saw mind and world as fully separate and staring at one another from across an epistemological abyss. But more importantly, people believed that critical distance was possible and that they were achieving it. This self-perception was enough to fuel the practice from at least the early Enlightenment until some time in the middle of the last century... Trying to maintain critical distance today is thus a practice in self-alienation. The distance might as well be infinite. The proclamations might as well be made in outer space. So we need another metaphor. If criticism isn't about distance anymore, maybe it can be about closeness....

Pleasingly, a version of this argument was made by George Nathan, the co-editor (along with H.L. Mencken) of the original version of The Smart Set back in the early 20th century. Nathan wrote a little book called The Critic and the Drama. It was, I think, ahead of its time in setting up the dilemma of criticism in an age of too much art and suggested some ways to deal with it. Here's the crucial paragraph:

If art is, in each and every case, a matter of individual expression, why should not criticism, in each and every case, be similarly and relevantly a matter of individual expression? In freeing art of definitions, has not criticism been too severely defined? I believe that it has been. I believe that there are as many kinds of criticism as there are kinds of art. I believe that there may be sound analytical, sound emotional, sound cerebral, sound impressionistic, sound destructive, sound constructive, and other sound species of criticism. If art knows no rules, criticism knows no rules — or, at least, none save those that are obvious.

That last sentence is particularly crucial. Art, Nathan is perfectly willing to accept, has no rules. Another way to say this is that each work of art generates its own set of rules. The only way to deal with any individual work, then, is to read out that set of rules, to discover something about its own internal logic. A criticism that wants to step away, to achieve distance in order to apply a set of external rules and to make judgments, ends up stepping away from the only criterion available: the criterion there within the work. Nathan doesn't use the metaphor explicitly, but he is talking about closeness versus distance. He is talking about a kind of criticism that stands there right alongside the work of art, participating in it rather than holding it at arm’s length.

Going a little further into the metaphor of distance and closeness brings us inevitably to the grand master of critical distance, Immanuel Kant. It is simply impossible to talk about the modern critical attitude without addressing the sage of Königsberg. A central component of his aesthetics is the idea of disinterest and then of universality. For Kant, when we make genuine aesthetic judgments we do so with the implication that they are not made 'for ourselves' but with the implicit idea that they stand on their own, that anyone else would make the same judgment, that the judgment ought to be universally true even if that cannot be proven. This is how Kant puts it:

For if someone likes something and is conscious that he himself does so without any interest, then he cannot help judging that it must contain a basis for being liked that holds for everyone. He must believe that he is justified in requiring a similar liking from everyone because he cannot discover, underlying his liking, any private conditions, on which only he might be dependent, so that he must regard it as based on what he can presuppose in everyone else as well.

In contrast, here's a comment by William Hazlitt, an anti-Kantian in terms of aesthetics in every bone of his body: I hate people who have no notion of any thing but generalities, and forms, and creeds, and naked propositions, even worse than I dislike those who cannot for the soul of them arrive at the comprehension of an abstract idea…They are for having maps, not pictures of the world we live in: as much as to say that a bird's eye view of things contains the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth."

It's always seemed to me that the idea of universal standards of taste was an obvious absurdity; any such standard wide enough to encompass Perec, Dante, Orwell and Rabelais would be so generalised as to be meaningless. There's often something quite unpleasant about aesthetic demagoguery of critics; Ruskin's praise of gothic architecture and Pre-Raphaelite painting was predicated on a dismissal of Whistler's painting or architects like Cuthbert Broderick who disdained the gothic revival. Leavis praised Eliot, James, Lawrence and Conrad in The Great Tradition while dismissing the experimental on the one hand (Woolf, Joyce) and the gothic or sensational (Dickens, Bronte) on the other. Both essentially make the mistake of conflating their own predelictions with the universe and do so on grounds that are often moral or political. In either case, it's doubtful that many of us would agree with them now. In many respects, the idea of someone whose sole function is to tell us what to think about art or literature seems a form of impertinence.

When I was first introduced to the ideas of Barthes and Derrida, it seemed to me that much of the basis for criticism as a specialised function had been demolished. If literature was less the product of a single individual writing at a specific historical period and more the product of an endless play of differance in the mind of the reader, then meaning became a subjective affair. Sceptical even then, I'm less attached to either Barthes or Derrida now, but I do still think this view holds. Matters of interpretation or hermeneutics arose out of religious exegesis, the assumption that there were transcendent meanings encoded in texts that could be divined. I suspect I'd still agree with Derrida that such concepts have become untenable. Criticism as a professional activity might do well to be based on Moretti's sociological techniques or exploring reception theory through study groups, but the idea of interpretation as a valid function is one that probably should be discarded.

If there is a problem with the argument outlined above, it's less likely to be an aesthetic one and is rather more likely to be a political or social one. For example, Matthew Arnold's Kantian defence of criticism is partly due to his desire for a set of universal aesthetic standards to replace universal religious standards. Since criticism is derived from the study of religious texts and operates in a similar fashion, Arnold presumably saw the critic as an ideal replacement for the priest. A lot of this assumes that art is a form of individual expression and that the response to it is equally individual. Morgan's arguments are the perfect ones for an atomised, individualistic post-traditional society where consumption is as much a matter of individual preference as it is one of collective identification. But there is something rather ahistorical in this view and it does seem to me that there's a good case to be made that art if an expression of collective mores. That might be why particular genres tend to cluster in certain places at certain times. Labels like Greek tragedy, Restoration comedy or the nineteenth century novel are undoutedly generalisations but they do nonetheless exist for a reason; the works in question did not orginate in a vacuum.

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posted by Richard 2:57 PM

Sunday, June 08, 2008

While it goes without saying that it is the mark of a pride for any reasonable person to disagree with Roger Scuton on any conceivable subject, I did think this article was not entirely without interest:

"Humanity lives by trial and error, sometimes committing errors of a monumental scale. Architectural and urbanist modernism belong—like communism—to a class of errors from which there is little or nothing to learn or gain. . . . Modernism’s fundamental error, however, is to propose itself as a universal (i.e., unavoidable and necessary) phenomenon, legitimately replacing and excluding traditional solutions... Krier presents the first principle of architecture as a deduction from Kant’s Categorical Imperative, which tells us to act only on that maxim that we can will as a universal law. You must, Krier says, "build in such a way that you and those dear to you will use your buildings, look at them, work in them, spend their holidays in them, and grow old in them with pleasure." Krier suggests that modernists themselves follow this dictum—in private. Modernist vandals like Richard Rogers and Norman Foster—between them, responsible for some of the worst acts of destruction in our European cities—live in elegant old houses in charming locations, where artisanal styles, traditional materials, and humane scales dictate the architectural ambience. Instead of Bernard Mandeville’s famous principle of "private vices, public benefits," it seems that they follow the law of private benefits, public vice—the private benefit of a charming location paid for by the public vice of tearing our cities apart. Rogers in particular is famous for creating buildings that have no relation to their surroundings, that cannot easily change their use, that are extremely expensive to maintain, and that destroy the character of their neighborhoods.

Krier identifies the leading error of modernism as that introduced by Le Corbusier, Gropius, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: separating load-bearing and outward-facing parts. Once buildings become curtains hung on invisible frames, all of the understood ways of creating and conveying meanings lose out. Even if the curtain is shaped like a classical facade, it is a pretend facade, with only a blank expression. Usually, however, it is a sheet of glass or concrete panels, without intelligible apertures. The building itself is hidden, and its posture as a member of the city, standing among neighbors and resting its weight upon their common ground, is meaningless because unobservable. All relation to neighboring structures, to the street, and to the sky, is lost. The form conveys nothing beyond the starkness of its geometry...

The lack of vocabulary explains the alienating effect of a modern airport, such as Newark or Heathrow. Unlike the classical railway station, which guides the traveler securely and reassuringly to the ticket office, to the platform, and to the public concourse, the typical airport is a mass of written signs, all competing for attention, all amplifying the sense of urgency, yet nowhere offering a point of visual repose.

There's a great deal I have sympathy with here. I've long felt that modern architecture is a form of engineering rather than a branch of aesthetics, leading to the situation whereby one can wonder around the City of London at a weekend and find a deserted ghost town filled with modern skyscrapers whose weekday workers would never dream of living in anything that even remotely resembled them. Whereas early modernism led to the construction of private villas as well as public buildings, I'm not aware there is any significant private analogue for the Lloyds or Swiss Re buildings. On the other hand, this is all far from persuading me to endorse the tepid pastiche of Krier's Poundbury, Barratt Homes with a royal warrant, which is surely as unpleasant a form of utopianism as anything Corbusier dreamt up. Poundbury does have the rather unpleasant air of being a middle class commune.

Update: a defence of modernism from Jonathan Meades:

"Gordon was a Brutalist, probably the greatest (as well as unquestionably the youngest) of the English Brutalists and thus a ready target for indolent bien-pensants whose antipathy to the architecture of the 1960s is as drearily predictable, as dismally unseeing, as was their parents’ and grandparents’ to that of the 1860s. These people fail to differentiate between the many strains of Modernism and, more importantly, between what was good and what bad. Nor, in their arrogance, do they realise that tastes change. Today Brutalism is admired by a new generation of aesthetes as opposed to the clichéd, knee-jerk calumnisation of "concrete monstrosity", as John Betjeman and Osbert Lancaster were to "Victorian monstrosity".

The word Brutalism was coined by the architectural theorist Reyner Banham. It is a bilingual pun on the French beton brut (raw concrete) and art brut (Dubuffet’s word for outsider art) and the all too plain English word brutal. If only Professor Banham had failed to commit it to paper and had dreamt up a less loaded term, the fate of buildings in this idiom might have been happier, for their opponents, apprised only of the English component, would not have had the ammunition of what seems like a nomenclatural admission of culpable aggression.

On the other hand they might still have abhorred it, for Brutalism committed the grossest of sins in English eyes. It abjured the picturesque in favour of the sublime. It scorned prettiness. "It put on," as John Vanbrugh, a brutalist avant la lettre, had it, "a masculine show". A show which did not preclude a strangely butch delicacy, a steely effeminacy. Gordon might have worked in concrete but he made it sing. His buildings were articulated rather than monolithic. More than any other English Brutalist he had looked at Constructivism. Gordon’s professed aim was to create an architecture that was "raw, dramatic, sculptural". At the Tricorn in Portsmouth and Trinity Square in Gateshead he succeeded on a vast scale, unparalleled in Europe. These buildings were indeed extraordinarily sculptural, their silhouettes were audacious and poetic, jagged and rhetorical. They were thrilling structures that seem to be forces of nature, like fortresses in Castille which grow from the earth. "

It generally seems to me that the English vice isn't so much for prettiness as for puritanism (as with England favouring palladianism instead of rococo) and my objection to modernism tends to be that it panders to that vice, producing stark, geometric buildings that are essentially functional or utilitarian in character. They work well in a corporate or government context because they appeal to a sense of grandiosity while remaining sufficiently minimalist as to be comparatively low cost. I'm equally unsure as to why 'prettiness' and sublimity have to be opposed.

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posted by Richard 7:36 PM

Monday, May 26, 2008

On the one hand:

"Brecht... was a communist writer, not a writer who happened to support communism. The normal injunction to never judge an artist by his or her politics is an insult to his ghost because politics dominated his work. The Good Soul of Szechuan ends with the narrator asking if it is possible to lead a good life in a rotten world. The expected, indeed demanded, answer is "no". Individual morality will only be possible when the collective morality of communism comes.

Nothing, not the mountains of corpses or the cults of the personality, could shake Brecht's confidence. He preferred silence about the vast crimes of the Bolsheviks, including the murders of his friends and translators, to admitting that his god had failed... The American socialist Sidney Hook put the case for indifference best after Brecht came to dinner in Manhattan in the mid-Thirties. Stalin was forcing thousands of Soviet communists to confess to fantastic crimes, and Hook asked Brecht what he thought of the show trials. It was at this point that he said in words I have never forgotten, 'As for them, the more innocent they are, the more they deserve to be shot.' I was so taken aback that I thought I had misheard him."

And on the other:

"It's strange how forgiving we are of artists who were involved with Hitler's Third Reich. In 1933, Goebbels appointed the composer Richard Strauss - whose dreamily decadent operas Salome, Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier remain central to any contemporary opera house's repertoire - president of the Reichsmusikkammer, the state music bureau. In 1936, Strauss composed the Olympic Hymn for the infamous summer games and befriended some high-ranking Nazis.

He was probably politically naive. He may have been acting to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law; and he refused to have the name of his friend, the Jewish librettist Stefan Zweig, removed from the playbill of his opera Die Schweigsame Frau. This, it seems, is now enough to redeem Strauss the man... The early Brecht was a wild, anarchic poet. Productions of his 1928 Threepenny Opera often struggle to find in it a consistent political line... For a short time in the 1930s, as German society became more divided, Brecht's plays took a decidedly Leninist turn. His play The Mother shows a working-class woman struggling to reconcile individual needs with the demands of a political cause. It's a beautiful, moving piece, painfully ignorant of the horrors of Stalinism that were to follow. How strange that this play is considered beyond the pale in Britain and no longer performed - yet the Economist can declare, in 2003, that Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl's film of the 1934 Nuremberg rally, marks her out as "the greatest female film-maker of the 20th century".

Brecht was very clear about one thing: his resistance to fascism. Before the Nazis came to power, Hitler's brownshirts were disrupting performances of Brecht and Weill's 1930 opera Mahagonny, claiming that it brought the contamination of black and Jewish musical influences into the German opera house. Brecht dedicated the next 15 years of his writing - plays, film scripts, poetry - to the anti-fascist cause."

I'm not really sure why the second excerpt believes an analogy between Strauss and Brecht to be especially helpful. His complicity with Nazism is rather better documented and more frequently discussed than the above article might suggest, but it is nonetheless rather improbable to imply that Strauss was a fascist composer in the same way that Brecht was a communist writer. A better analogy might have been Hamsun, Celine or Pound, but then the issue of their engagement with Nazism is equally well known and all three faced legal reprisals for their views during their lifetime. The point about Riefenstahl also seems misplaced (although there is a good case to be made that her treatment after the second world war probably was too lenient), particularly given that an especially harsh biography of her involvement with the Nazis was only published a few years ago. Worst of all is the insinuation that Brecht's opposition to Nazism exculpates his support for the other great totalitarianism of the twentieth century. While there's certainly no reason to single Brecht out for more criticism of his art or politics than Pound or Hamsun, there is a good case to be made that communist writers have only comparatively had their political commitments subjected to the same scrutiny that writers associated with fascism did long ago.

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posted by Richard 2:17 PM

Friday, May 23, 2008

An article questions the resurgence of graphics in modern fiction:

"The Lazarus Project features a twin narrative, telling the story of a murder in 1908 and a present-day writer investigating the death. In both cases, the images are intended to add depth and resonance to both stories. The effect, however, is the opposite: their inclusion only suggests that Hemon lacks confidence in his present-day narrator, and the verisimilitude of his historical reconstruction. Last week, I asked a friend, and fellow Hemon admirer, what he thought about it all. "Sebald has a lot to answer for," he said.

WG Sebald subtly altered the literary landscape with his fiction/travel/history books. Melancholic, digressive and erudite, his unsettling narratives are punctuated with photos, landscapes, diary entries and other images. It's the tension between these two elements - between what is real and fake, what words can describe and what they can't - that gives his books their dream-like power. It also allows Sebald to give a direct line into the mental landscape of his narrator, one that is visual as well as linguistic.

Sebald was a master of this device, but it's a technique that can scupper otherwise good novels... Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer's image heavy second novel, also suffers under the weight of its artistic leanings. I'm still undecided as to whether the last pages which depict a man falling from the Twin Towers, are an ambitious attempt to prove that sometimes words are not enough, or whether it's a final tricksy passage to a book over-stuffed with visual stimuli."

It's not particularly new; prior to the advent of the printing press, image and text were inextricably entwined. With the Victorian period, the love of medievalism led to a revival of sorts; editions of works by Chaucer issued by the Kelmscott Press were illustrated by Burne Jones. In parallel, Paget's illustrations for Conan Doyle were sufficiently powerful to create an image of Sherlock Holmes that failed to resemble that described in the text. The same followed for Phiz and Cruikshank's illustrations for Dickens and in the case of Tenniel's Alice in Wonderland; although modern readers might find themselves reading an edition illustrated by Mervyn Peake. George Eliot had her novels illustrated by no less a figure than Lord Leighton. Much of Dore's work was done as book illustrations, while Rossetti served as both writer and illustrator. Photographs occurred in fiction as early as Rodenbach’s Bruges-la-Morte, followed by the work of Andre Breton. In a sense, modern fiction has been aberrant for relying solely on text. Nonetheless, the above comments immediately brought an essay by Neal Stephenson, In the Beginning was the Command Line to mind:

"Disney and Apple/Microsoft are in the same business: short-circuiting laborious, explicit verbal communication with expensively designed interfaces. Disney is a sort of user interface unto itself--and more than just graphical. Let's call it a Sensorial Interface. It can be applied to anything in the world, real or imagined, albeit at staggering expense.

Why are we rejecting explicit word-based interfaces, and embracing graphical or sensorial ones--a trend that accounts for the success of both Microsoft and Disney? Part of it is simply that the world is very complicated now--much more complicated than the hunter-gatherer world that our brains evolved to cope with--and we simply can't handle all of the details. We have to delegate. We have no choice but to trust some nameless artist at Disney or programmer at Apple or Microsoft to make a few choices for us, close off some options, and give us a conveniently packaged executive summary.

But more importantly, it comes out of the fact that, during this century, intellectualism failed, and everyone knows it. In places like Russia and Germany, the common people agreed to loosen their grip on traditional folkways, mores, and religion, and let the intellectuals run with the ball, and they screwed everything up and turned the century into an abbatoir. Those wordy intellectuals used to be merely tedious; now they seem kind of dangerous as well.

We Americans are the only ones who didn't get creamed at some point during all of this. We are free and prosperous because we have inherited political and values systems fabricated by a particular set of eighteenth-century intellectuals who happened to get it right. But we have lost touch with those intellectuals, and with anything like intellectualism, even to the point of not reading books any more, though we are literate. We seem much more comfortable with propagating those values to future generations nonverbally, through a process of being steeped in media. Apparently this actually works to some degree, for police in many lands are now complaining that local arrestees are insisting on having their Miranda rights read to them, just like perps in American TV cop shows. When it's explained to them that they are in a different country, where those rights do not exist, they become outraged. Starsky and Hutch reruns, dubbed into diverse languages, may turn out, in the long run, to be a greater force for human rights than the Declaration of Independence.

A huge, rich, nuclear-tipped culture that propagates its core values through media steepage seems like a bad idea. There is an obvious risk of running astray here. Words are the only immutable medium we have, which is why they are the vehicle of choice for extremely important concepts like the Ten Commandments, the Koran, and the Bill of Rights. Unless the messages conveyed by our media are somehow pegged to a fixed, written set of precepts, they can wander all over the place and possibly dump loads of crap into people's minds."

Update: on a related note:

"Our ancestors couldn't have foreseen, however, the sheer quantity of visual distractions which, while they aid, also hinder our readerly mind's eye. Indeed, surveys carried out in schools confirm that non-illustrated texts produce more mental images than illustrated ones. While there's a text/image balance to be struck as a means to training youthful brains in the art of visualising, we know that as adults the extent to which book covers, and even author photographs, while helping us situate a text before we crack open the pages, quite often mislead.

I'm not quite arguing that, in order to focus our minds we go back to minimalist Editions de Minuit style book covers as practiced over here in France - by their very austerity, they convey to the reader the immediate impression of the publishing house's chilly prestige. I am intrigued, rather, by the practice of certain readers like Nabokov, who produced for his Cornell students mock-serious diagrams of the comparative states of mind of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, or drew up sketches of beetle-man Gregor Samsa in Kafka's Metamorphosis."

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posted by Richard 8:01 PM

Monday, May 12, 2008

Stanley Fish reinterprets Derrida:

"What was involved was less the rejection of the rationalist tradition than an interrogation of its key components: an independent, free-standing, knowing subject, the "I" facing an independent, free-standing world. The problem was how to get the "I" and the world together, how to bridge the gap that separated them ever since the older picture of a universe everywhere filled with the meanings God originates and guarantees had ceased to be compelling to many... both the "I" or the knower, and the world that is to be known, are themselves not themselves, but the unstable products of mediation, of the very discursive, linguistic forms that in the rationalist tradition are regarded as merely secondary and instrumental. The "I" or subject, rather than being the free-standing originator and master of its own thoughts and perceptions, is a space traversed and constituted — given a transitory, ever-shifting shape — by ideas, vocabularies, schemes, models, distinctions that precede it, fill it and give it (textual) being.

The Cartesian trick of starting from the beginning and thinking things down to the ground can’t be managed because the engine of thought, consciousness itself, is inscribed (written) by discursive forms which "it" (in quotation marks because consciousness absent inscription is empty and therefore non-existent) did not originate and cannot step to the side of no matter how minimalist it goes. In short (and this is the kind of formulation that drives the enemies of French theory crazy), what we think with thinks us. It also thinks the world. This is not say that the world apart from the devices of human conception and perception doesn’t exist "out there"; just that what we know of that world follows from what we can say about it rather than from any unmediated encounter with it in and of itself. This is what Thomas Kuhn meant in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions when he said that after a paradigm shift — after one scientific vocabulary, with its attendant experimental and evidentiary apparatus, has replaced another — scientists are living in a different world; which again is not to say (what it would be silly to say) that the world has been altered by our descriptions of it; just that only through our descriptive machineries do we have access to something called the world.

This may sound impossibly counterintuitive and annoyingly new-fangled, but it is nothing more or less than what Thomas Hobbes said 300 years before deconstruction was a thought in the mind of Derrida or Heidegger: "True and false are attributes of speech, not of things." Three centuries later, Richard Rorty made exactly the same point when he declared, "where there are no sentences, there is no truth … the world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not." Descriptions of the world are made by us, and we, in turn, are made by the categories of description that are the content of our perception. These are not categories we choose — were they not already installed there would be nothing that could do the choosing; it would make more sense (but not perfect sense) to say that they have chosen or colonized us. Both the "I" and the world it would know are functions of language. Or in Derrida’s famous and often vilified words: There is nothing outside the text. (More accurately, there is no outside-the-text.)

This is not the conclusion that would be reached either by French theory's detractors or by those American academics who embraced it. For both what was important about French theory in America was its political implications, and one of Cusset's main contentions — and here I completely agree with him — is that it doesn’t have any. When a deconstructive analysis interrogates an apparent unity — a poem, a manifesto, a sermon, a procedure, an agenda — and discovers, as it always will, that its surface coherence is achieved by the suppression of questions it must not ask if it is to maintain the fiction of its self-identity, the result is not the discovery of an anomaly, of a deviance from a norm that can be banished or corrected; for no structure built by man (which means no structure) could be otherwise.

If "presences" — perspicuous and freestanding entities — are made by discursive forms that are inevitably angled and partial, the announcement that any one of them rests on exclusions it (necessarily) occludes cannot be the announcement of lack or error. No normative conclusion — this is bad, this must be overthrown — can legitimately be drawn from the fact that something is discovered to be socially constructed; for by the logic of deconstructive thought everything is; which doesn’t mean that a social construction cannot be criticized, only that it cannot be criticized for being one. Deconstruction's technique of always going deeper has no natural stopping place, leads to no truth or falsehood that could then become the basis of a program of reform. Only by arresting the questioning and freeze-framing what Derrida called the endless play of signifiers can one make deconstruction into a political engine, at which point it is no longer deconstruction, but just another position awaiting deconstruction. "Deconstruction thus contains within itself…an endless metatheoretical regression that can no longer be brought to a stop by any practical decision or effective political engagement. In order to use it as a basis for subversion…the American solution divert it…to split it off from itself." American academics "forced deconstruction against itself to produce a political 'supplement' and in so doing substituted for "Derrida's patient philological deconstruction" a "bellicose drama.""

While Fish's account of Derrida's 'negative theology' is quite coherent I'm less than convinced that it's an especially accurate summary of what Derrida had intended. In some senses it would be more valid to argue that Derrida intended a revaluation of all values, overturning logocentric western hierarchies, rather than simply a pragmatist redescription of the linguistic turn (particularly since an alteration of our understanding of how the world is described does change the world perhaps rather more than Fish is suggesting - his pragmatist account of the philosophy of science being a rather telling case in point). The extension of this to the feminist concept of phallogocentrism, with its influence on Cixous, Irrigaray and, indeed, Butler, introduces an explicitly political element into his work. Derrida certainly felt deconstruction to have political implications in his later stress on a form of Kantian idealism that stated justice to be the undeconstructible condition that makes deconstruction possible. In that sense, Fish is introducing a criticism of Derrida more than his American interpreters. I seem to recall Rorty wondering why should we think that the abandonment of Platonic ideas and strivings would have important ramifications for the rest of culture and questioning why Derrida insisted that science has been constrained by 'metaphysical bonds that have borne on its definition and movement from its beginning.' Instead Rorty preferred to cite the likes of Popper and Dewey to argue that the natural sciences have done a lot to loosen those bonds, and to make possible a post-metaphysical culture.

Update: a piece arguing that Derrida's ideas of differance can be empirically tested and found wanting:

"Hijacking methods from psychology, Joseph Carroll, John Johnson, Dan Kruger, and I surveyed the emotional and analytic responses of 500 literary scholars and avid readers to characters from scores of 19th-century British novels. We wanted to determine how different their reading experiences truly were. Did reactions to characters vary profoundly from reader to reader? As we write in "Graphing Jane Austen," a book undergoing peer review, there were variations in what our readers thought and felt about literary characters, but it was expertly contained by the authors within narrow ranges. Our conclusion: rumors of the author's demise have been greatly exaggerated."

I've always regarded Derrida as a Hume in need of a Kant to refute him; while Derrida's logic is robust there remains the gnawing sense that we empirically already know that language functions in far more straightforward and unambiguous terms than he suggests (as with Tarski's meta-analyses of language and their use to map the hermeneutic possibilities of even texts like Ulysses). Nonetheless, I'm not sure that the above approach is necessarily the best way to determine the 'valency quotient' of any given text; response to characterisation is a fairly narrow aspect of the response to the text as a whole. Assuming the above study relates to Jane Austen it also seems important to note that texts like The Outsider, Querelle of Brest or Correction would prove a father more difficult proposition.

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posted by Richard 7:48 PM

Thursday, April 10, 2008

An interesting summary of Beckett's lectures on literature:

"Beckett first defined his literary criteria by way of the contrast he set up between the 19th-century French authors Balzac and Flaubert. Unlike his Irish contemporaries, Beckett saw Balzac as the counter-example of the modern novel, and Flaubert as the great innovator. For Beckett (as he has the protagonist of his first novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, put it): "To read Balzac is to receive the impression of a chloroformed world." He resented both the lack of confusion and the lack of self-criticism in Balzac. What fascinated him was the clair-obscure (the painterly distribution of light and shade) he found in the writers he admired, like Dostoevsky and Flaubert. Balzac, by contrast, only transcribed the surface, creating a fictional world that resembled a pool table on which balls are perfectly arranged and sent in one direction or another according to a very precise strategy of control. In Beckett's eyes, Balzac divested his fictional universe of the unexpected and the unknowable, properties which, for Beckett, lay at the heart of human experience and whose expression must find its way into fiction.

Art for Beckett at this period was the progressive discovery of the "real", as Burrows remembered in an interview in 1982: "The artist himself was changing all the time and his material was constantly in a state of flux, hence you had to do something to organize this mess, but not to make puppets and set them in motion." Beckett favoured the absence of a controlling authorial personality and any sense of finality in a text, and was opposed to the control, embellishment or glorification of reality. In these respects, Flaubert was an exemplary modern author for him. Citing Madame Bovary and Salammbo he explained that Flaubert was neither photographer nor image monger, but a writer who displayed an honest apprehension of reality.

Beckett denied any modernity in Balzac, whose flawed duality he denounced - on the one hand he was a realist, and on the other a romantic psychologist. But, for Beckett, these two aspects did not fit together, resulting in a profound lack of cohesion in Balzac's work. According to Beckett a modern writer must seek "homogeneity". Thus, Flaubert was at once coherent and complex, in the manner in which the extreme precision of his texts revealed the contradiction of so-called 19th-century realism: exactitude was inevitably bound to be frustrated because confusion cannot be reduced to a neat narrative à la Balzac.

Beckett also appreciated that Flaubert, rather than fabricating heroes, created circumstances that reduced his characters to their just level of banality, thus revealing their paradoxical nature and sometimes their stupidity, an approach which shocked Henry James, who said: "Why did Flaubert choose, as special conduits of the life he proposed to depict, such inferior and ... such abject human specimens?" Madame Bovary's creator had anticipated such a charge by once writing that there were neither good nor bad subjects, and that, from an artistic point of view, the subject was irrelevant, style itself being an absolute manner of seeing things. He refused to dissociate form and content. "Here form is content, content is form. [...] His writing is not about something; it is that something itself" was Flaubert's motto, which Beckett used to champion Joyce's Finnegans Wake. It's a formula at one with Flaubert's notion of the ideal book - that would be about nothing, one that would rely on its style alone and whose subject would be invisible."

As noted on my previous post on this subject, there's a lot about this that reminds me of the distinction Keats drew between Milton (the egotistical sublime) and Shakespeare (negative capability) or that outlined by Berlin in the case of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, with Balzac firmly characterised as a writer who celebrates diversity and the contradictory and Doestoevsky described as the type of writer who sees the world through the lens of a single lens (itself an opposed description to Bakhtin's characterisation of Dostoevksy's work as polyphonic). It's certainly true that in Flaubert, we have the sense of consciousness as something submerged and independent from the normal categories of the social novel, as with Emma Bovary's romantic longings or Frederic's admission at the end of Sentimental Education that the zenith of his life was a hitherto unmentioned visit to a brothel. It's also not difficult to see how Flaubert's stated aim to "derouter le lecteur" would appeal to Beckett. Sentimental Education in particular goes a long way to confirming Beckett's contention; in a Balzac novel the different paths taken by the characters would often lead to different moral outcomes, whereas in Flaubert all paths lead to the same destination. The usual teleological structure of the nineteenth century novel, with its remorseless progress towards tragedy or marriage, is abandoned. While the depiction of Dambreuse is not that far removed from that of Merdle or Melmotte (the poverty of Madame Arnoux and Rosanette is also not that far from Dickens), Flaubert is equally cynical as to the alternatives, as with his observation that Senecal is filled with love towards the mases in their aggregate state and is merciless towards individuals; "a sort of Athenian Sparta in which the individual would only exist to serve the state... anything which he considered hostile to it he attacked with the logic of a mathematician and the faith of an inquisitor." Frederic is at once an aristocratic snob ("he felt utterly nauseated by the vulgarity of their faces, the stupidity of their talk...the knowledge that he was worth more than these men lessened the fatigure of looking at them.") and is fired with revolutionary ideals ("I think the people are sublime"). Deslauriers similarly notes that "he had preached fraternity to the conservatives and respect for the law to the socialists." Sentimental Education is the great novel of the middle ground, with all viewpoints contested and all found wanting Frederic and not steering a straight enough course, and Desluariers being too rigid, with the same applying to the aesthetic debates of Pellerin and Senecal.

Nonetheless, I'm still not quite convinced I find Beckett's argument wholly meaningful. It's certainly true that, like Dickens, Balzac seems to see his characters as caricatures, driven by social and moral concepts rather than an idea of human consciousness (his idea of each individual having only a certain amount of life force that can be frittered away by dissolute or hubristic behaviour has a rather medieval quality to it). On the other hand, there is the difficulty that Balzac, like Thackeray is not an especially good moralist, and the moral fables that lie at the centre of his work either lack conviction or simply go awry altogether, leading to something rather more interesting. In short, I think that the disconnection of the romantic and realist in Balzac is a strength rather than a defect - not the first time, I find myself preferring the dissonant and inconsistent to the consistent and harmonious. Homogeneity is probably the very last thing the novel should aim for. To take the example of The Black Sheep, I was struck by what an anti-novel it is. The form of the novel should be similar to that of Nicholas Nickleby but instead of simply dwelling on the notion of the good and neglected Joseph eventually receiving his dues, Balzac pays as much attention to Philippe, the prodigal son, and instead of solely focussing on the dissolute aspect of his life, depicts the raw will to power as someone could have been a great general but is left out of place in the world he finds himself in. Instead of a simple moral fable, Balzac instead describes "a place where speculation and individualism are carried to the highest level, where the brutality of self interest reaches the point of cynicism." Philippe's rapacity is as vital and necessary here as Eugenie Grandet's self sacrifice or Cousin Pons's good nature is as pointless or helpless in the novels of those name. In Balzac, we always feel that we are reading a novel where the characters are evaluated primarily in moral terms, only to discover that such considerations are never of any importance.

To take another example, Lost Illusions I was struck by how it forms a mid-point between the picaresque novel (since although Balzac's narrative is highly plotted, the plot nonetheless tends to turn through unexpected events in an episodic fashion, a moral fable depicting the travels of a young man from country to city and consequently from innocence to corruption and redemption) and later social novels (where morality has a much more problematic relationship with social conditions and where the character of society is not necessarily regarded as a given, though Balzac is markedly more nonchalant on that score than Zola). For instance, Balzac writes of Lucien that "he was under the spell of luxury and the tyranny of sumptuous fare; his wayward instincts were reviving," but in practice the majority of the narrative is driven not by Lucien's fall into immoral debauchery but by the machinations of society driven by the cash-nexus; "everything is taxed, everything is sold, everything is manufactured, even success." Accordingly, Balzac links dissipation with the society that produces it; "the helotism to which the Restoration had condemned young people... having no outlet for their energy they... frittered it away in the strangest excesses." The consequence is that although 'Herrera' is clearly marked as a Faustian figure, both author and narrator are left pinioned by the novel's own logic when he declares that any morality can only come after financial security. A statement that is worthy of Brecht's What Keeps Mankind Alive?

Update: an interesting comment on the same theme from a review of a history of modernism:

"Each of Gay’s dramatis personae exhibit his two key modernist traits – that is, the desire to challenge the cultural establishment (Ezra Pound’s 'make it new') and to give expression to hitherto unencountered depths of the self, be it the 'monologue interieur' of Joyce or the near pathological self-portraiture of Max Beckmann... Modernism, for its constituents, was experienced not simply as liberation, but as crisis. It bespoke something profound: the cultural experience, indeed, the disillusionment of modernity’s promise of autonomy. The emancipation of individual subjectivity, encouraging self-scrutiny as Gay sees it, if bereft of social bonds becomes as much a prison as a promise of freedom.

This is writ large in the development of literary modernism. As Gay notes, the mimetic, realistic component typical of nineteenth-century realism was increasingly experienced as a formal inhibition. But he fails to tell us why this was the case. What had changed between the time of Balzac and that of Flaubert and Baudelaire, the two progenitors of modernism identified by Gay? As the Marxist critic Georg Lukacs explained, between these two generations of French writers 'lies the year 1848 and the bloody days of June, the first independent action of the working class, which left so indelible an impression on the ideology of the French bourgeoisie, that after it bourgeois ideology ceased to play a progressive part in France for a long time'. In other words, universal aspirations were abandoned in favour of the protection of particular interests.

This is crucial. For the realist writer, the ability to narrate, to find meaning in social praxes, rests, as Lukács argues, on the artist having a 'living relationship to the real life of the people'. Be it Balzac or Walter Scott, the vital problems of the time are experienced as their problems; the life and struggles of the community as their struggles. Modernism’s emergence depends on the dissolution of just such an involvement. As Peter Nicholls notes, it is with Baudelaire, writing during the 1850s, that 'a cleavage begins to open up between bourgeois modernity, on the one hand, and aesthetic modernity on the other'.

The sovereignty of the artist, his autonomy, is set against the political sovereignty and autonomy won in 1789. Although free to experiment, to push the boundaries of their art, the artist loses those with whom he had previously found common, if problematic cause. His professionalisation becomes a burden. Bereft of something like solidarity, he is left before his fellows – the market – as before an antagonistic mass: 'Hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frere!'"

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posted by Richard 8:16 PM