Limited, Inc.

“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, April 21, 2018

The barcelona trip

We made it to Barcelona because the Revolution was letting some trains go, whilst stopping others. It was hard to understand the logic, and the committed part of me was longing for the general strike; but the other part of me just wanted the usual comfort bubble, and vacation. So we left, me in the state of a happy bourgeois slug.
We hadn’t had such a long getaway since last year in L.A., when we took off two days, stayed in the fanciest hotel in Pasadena, and visited all the neighborhoods in East L.A. we had read about in the books, or that A. knew about from the enormous store of information she had accrued during her time representing French culture at the Consulate. So now we were here, in Montpellier, going on a jaunt, and we took the train casting glances at each other, like we were so smart. The smart couple. This was going to be great!
We felt at first it had to be great – that we had to have a great time. This is an infallible formula for having a bad time. Which tinted our first day. Our room in the Gothic quarter was appropriately gothic, with medieval smells emanating from the drains and a donjon style staircase that would have thoroughly pleased the martyrprone heart of a penitante. It screwed itself up to the fourth floor, trying our lungs and heart with each turn. We deposited our stuff, headed out, and around the corner plopped down for beer and tapas. Barcelona is a big beer city, and it is characterized by these tiny sized glasses for drinking just a bit of beer, which is just the right thing, and giant sized glasses for drinking a lot, which is just the wrong, although it looks so festive. You can become soggy your first night out, a destiny I was trying to avoid.
The next day we arose bent on tourism. This was satisfied by an Himalayan trek up the slopes to the Miro Museum. I’d insisted on this, because I wanted to touch base with my memory of Barcelona as I saw it in 1981 – or was it 82? My early years keep falling through a hole in my pocket. I came to Barcelona with my CODOFIL friend, Danny Wilhite. For some reason, the visit to the Miro lodged in my memory as a highlight – at that point the place had probably existed for only a decade. It was barely an institution then – merely a duckling of an institution. However, A. and I discovered many many more stairs to climb than had protruded in my memory. It was worth the walk. Although the best Miros are not in the museum, and there are many of the sad, lost works from the 50s and 60s, when Miro was torn between being a UNESCO monument and imitating the Americans – let’s make the Miro dot drippy! – there are some lovely pieces from his great decades in the 20s and 30s, and some discoveries. I was really moved by a piece from 1945, that tracked white, reaching hand prints over a complex background that included a dense, scrolled black middle, giving the effect of something human pressing on the fourth wall of the painting, trying to escape it – which I image was very much the feeling of 1945.
The we foolishly disregarded the prospect of dining at the Miro – which had a very nice courtyard restaurant – and instead proceeded to the Museum of Catalan Art, which was a bit down the slope. The art was housed in a magnificent, many domed building that was originally erected as part of the World Exposition of 1928. Excellent views of the city, with a vast staircase leading down down down to a furiously frothing fountain, something that seemed competitively larger than the fountain in the Piazza Navone in Rome. There we ate some cheap crap, but with large views, touristically. Time for a fast parcourse of Catalan art history, from the Romanesque up to around 1900. The galleries were Borgesian, or Escherian one, since each section seem to wind around and around without bringing you to any exit. The Romanesque was a little disturbing, as it consisted of bits of mosaic and structures taken from old churches, which I kept thinking should have been kept in those churches. The Renaissance was more to my liking. I was impressed by the global fact that though the Renaissance brought with it perspective and the portrait, the whole humanistic ethos, with the Greek and Roman myths, was absent. There was not a goddess or centaur to be found. Instead, it continued the overwhelming piety of the earlier epoch. The great triumph of the Catalan painters of the early Renaissance was in the department of pious tortures. Everywhere there were martydoms, and the hacking off of heads, sawing through of bodies, or just general assault of staked and suffering saints, was rendered with an evident familiarity with how to do it. Public execution was a great school for these painters. My favorite, among the carnage, was Jesus descending into Limbo, by a Catalan artist named Bermejo. It was definitely on the same plane as Memlinc – had that unearthly coloring, that expertise with massed, naked bodies exposed on the day of Judgement. Nakedness that had lost all sexual allure, and was a sign of our species' utter poverty.
That evening we made dinner at home – saving money left and right! Or maybe not.
The next day we met my friend Bernat at his office. Bernat is the editor of Nuvol, a sort of mashup between a Catalan Mediapart and a Catalan Believer. He was in the midst of making abridged versions of the next print edition, which he was going to send to political prisoners. Although the world is paying no attention, Spain’s government, in a gesture redolent of the 19th century, has been putting Catalan nationalists in jail. The former president of Catalan is fighting extradition in Germany, but members of his cabinet are in jail for real, where they are being denied any but the most miserable of visiting rights – their children can see them twice a month, for instance. Hard to believe – like something the Austrians were doing post-1848 to the Italians.
Bernat was his usual courteous self. We met way back in the 90s, in New Haven. We immediately recognized in each other the joker in the pack. And, of course, with age we have each learned to sublimate, to an extent, our joker-ish instincts. Back when we met, hard as it is to believe, everybody was not perpetually staring at a screen. There was this extra-screen thing – called, back then, “reality” – and you would walk around in it much as now we can walk around a VR environment. The kids don’t believe it! But it is true. Someday I am going to acronymize it as RR - real reality - and offer tours.
Bernat took us to a restaurant that was not on the tourist circuit – which is what the tourist dreams about, the negation of his essence allowing for contact with the authenticity that the clever natives package up for him and bus him through. Ah, the paradoxes of everyday life! But we thought less of paradoxes than paella at this place. It was excellent. We talked of the usual topics – family, friends, literature, and politics. As for the form this took, I refer you to the Eumaeus section of Joyce’s Ulysses, which about covers it.
I told Bernat about trying to find an agent for my novel, so Bernat called up an agent he knows in Barcelona, and we arranged a meet n greet at a French bookstore that eventing. Vila-Matas, one of her clients (I was beaucoup blown away by that) was being interviewed in French about the French translation of his recent novel. When we arrived, the interview was just beginning. We understood the questions, which were in French, and not the responses of the great writer, which were in Spanish, giving us a rather jumpcut sense of the proceedings. Vila-Matas has the head of a great writer. It is broad and massive, a sort of Picasso creation, one part minotaur, one part bull-dog. Luckily, the sense of massiveness is dissipated when he talked, for he was funny. Or at least some snatches of speech that I vaguely understood were funny, and the audience laughed. Bernat introduced me to the agent, and I made my pitch, rapidly. Then Bernat introduced me to his wife, Anna, and his marvelous kids, a five year old girl and a ten year old boy. We went to his apartment for pizza. The apartment is in, I believe, the Gracia section of town, which was once the redoubt of anarchism. Strangely, there is no real monument to or museum of anarchism in the city where anarchism was once so prevalent. I proposed to Bernat starting one – we could even lead tours of tourists, who would wind through town to see the anarchist sites, and end up at the Sagrada Familia, where we would ritually spit on the devotional sculpture. I guess this is an entrepreneurial idea for another lifetime, though.
The next day we left by train.
Lessons from our trip are: Barcelona is the most beautiful 19th century city ever; subscribe to; and don’t buy the local nescafe in the grocery store cause it sucks.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Then-ism now, then-ism forever

These are the times that try one’s sense of “then”.

Yes, folks (he said, cartoonishly) then. As in if-then. And you do this and then this happens. 

Thenism is an unfashionable ideology to intrude into the Establishment narrative of virtue at home and humanitarianism abroad. In foreign policy in particular, doing something now is a very sweet proposition, especially when it involves dropping a bomb, while the “then” part of the equation doesn’t get any looksee whatsoever. I used to attribute this to the American male's preference for wallowing in the action movie narrative. Don’t even try to give your American male a halfway complicated novel to follow. Middlemarch? Who needs your stinkin' Middlemarch! No, much better to watch cops and super cops and even more super cops catch and kill bad guys, and in the process spindle, mangle and mutilate the poor “then.” In action movies, when a bomb is about to go off in one minute, we know that we will have five minutes of exciting action while the hero goes through all types of obstacles to reach the bomb and defuse it. 

The disjunction between the one minute and the five minute perfectly defines political ideology in America. Thus, the favorite campfire tale for your American suburbanite is that we need to shrink guvamint. We need that small guvamint. And why do we need it small? So we can have our wonderful private enterprise system work the magic of the marketplace. And why is the marketplace magic? Because every person works as hard as he can to produce his own advantage. And how then, are we gonna get that small government? Why, by electing people who completely forsake their own advantage as peeps in government to get the government off our backs. Of course! It is like we need to elect selfless self-interest saints. A perfect “then” moment.

The comedian on the Democratic side, right now, proclaiming how right we are to bomb Syria, is Anne-Marie Slaughter – which sorta messes up my idea that the loss of the “then” structure was a wholly testosterone poisoning event. Slaughter, in a tweet the encapsulates the entire sick mentality of the foreign policy establishment, the one that pretends it is out there leading the 700 billion dollar a year military to ever finer moral points, wrote:
“I believe that the US, UK, & France did the right thing by striking Syria over chemical weapons. It will not stop the war nor save the Syrian people from many other horrors. It is illegal under international law. But it at least draws a line somewhere & says enough.
Enough to violating international law! We are going to violate international law just to show you how much we respect it!
It is an interesting thing that using chemical weapons on children is considered a crime, but the U.S. bombing a country with which it is not at war – which we started doing under Slaughter’s boss, Obama – is considered a great thing, a mark of toughness. No pictures of the resulting carnage will be shown on the front pages of the newspapers of the US, UK and France. Nor will there be any discussion of the fact that according to Syria’s Observatory for Human Rights – an anti-Assad group – these airstrikes have so far killed 11,000 people.
But those people did not die in vain. They were sacrificed to the cause of saying enough with killing Syrian people!

The Syrian war rhetoric shows, perpetually, that we are in the Bush era. We have learned nothing about “then” from the  whole bloody story of Iraq. That story is about the triumph of the “then” over the action movie idealism of D.C. think tankers. That the invasion being sold in 2003 was obviously fucked, that the versions of how it was going to be paid for, how long the occupation was going to take, and what the point of it was were all in a narrative muddle unquestioned by the (at that time) Democrat dominated Senate, or the journalistic slant of the media, are the symptoms of the serious decay of narrative intelligence in America.  Then in Iraq meant, if you were going to invade, you’d have to have some kind of draft, you’d have to bear casualties in the Vietnam war range, and you’d have to put the country on a real war footing – or, you could go in half assed, accrue tens of thousands of wounded and dead soldiers, leave behind around a million victims and two million refugees, and go out again as more Middle East wars raged.
Well, we chose what we chose. We never discredited the stupid people who put us into Iraq. We never even discussed – say, in France – a very obvious thing about Syria: Syria under Assad, during the Iraq war, prevented Islamicist fighters from going to Europe. This isn’t some huge deduction on my part, it was said by Chirac’s own defense minister. When the neo-cons triumphed under Hollande’s Fabius, guess what? Assad was not there to capture those islamicists. If you take down Assad in favor of a patchwork of islamcist groups, you will get blowback. But Hollande’s foreign policy people just looked away from the consequences of what they were doing, and were ultra surprised that France got attacked.
Then-ism. The “then” is in our throats, and we are going to choke on it.

Friday, April 13, 2018


Pissing in a river, watching it rise 

Long ago, in a universe far away, Hilary Clinton appeared on a talk show and was asked about Donald Trump’s race for president in the GOP primary. Clinton burst out laughing.

I imagine that the scolds scolded her even at the time. Alas, the only times Clinton was likeable were the times that her advisors told her mistake! Ixnay on the laughnay. And her cult said, unfortunately, you aren’t allowed, cause-a sexism – terrible advice all the way around that made her into a stiff personality who seemed, even in her spontaneous moments, to be taking the advice of her spontaneous coach (oh God, please, let this not be true!).

But the point here is not to knock Clinton, but to praise her. For even today, even when we know what a disaster the short-fingered vulgarian is, even as we watch him go from racism to sexism to tax cuts like a mad triple, even now – he is genuinely funny. This is a man who tweets about the TPP and I think, Butthead-style, dude, he said PP! 
Because that is who he is.
Those who think comedy is some light dessert don’t understand how something on this scale of cruelty could possibly be funny. I mean, the Guardian is reporting that in twenty years, the top 1 percent worldwide will own 2/3 of our planet. The North Pole is now warmer than Albany, New York in the winter. There is war everywhere, and we live in a society where grave white men debate other grave white men about how dumb, genetically, blacks are – and the grave white men who maintain this, like Steven Pinker and Sam Harris, like to pretend that they are just being scientific.
So basically, what I’m saying is, we are fucked, and as the Good Ship Lollypop sinks, we are going to be harried by the dumbest people and their dumb fans so that even our dying bow will be laced with caricature and slapstick.
Yet, and yet – in all this darkness, I descry a silver lining. For isn’t this, friends, the golden age of the smart ass?
Smart assery has been my curse, my muse, my daimon, since I was a pup. I can’t help myself. Or no… lately, say for the past decade, I have toned down the sarcasm. Or sourcasm, as my brothers call it. But deep in my interior cathedral, the gothic lookin doctor and his monster are both rolling around on the lab floor every time another atrocity comes through the internets.
The reason for this is… romanticism! Modernism! Etc!
Ever since De Quincey showed how funny murder is, considered as one of the fine arts – ever since Poe – ever since Jarry’s Ubu Roi – the avant garde has known that the distance between tragedy and farce has lessened, or even collapsed. Marx thought the first time around was tragedy, the second time around was farce; Nietzsche thought that the first time around and the second and the third time and the nth time are identical; and Jacqueline Susan thought that once was not enough. Mix all of that up, and you get today’s wiseassery.
So I cry and I laugh about the state of the world, from Trump to Macron, but mostly I try to think of some appropriate jokes. Although every day, the newspaper comes up with jokes I could only dream of.

Candide's Revenge

It is a difficult thing to satirize Christianity today, as Voltaire once did. That is because the Christianity that Voltaire knew is dead. That is, the ideology of the clerks – the ideology of what James Scott calls the Great tradition – has moved on. It is no longer about glory and redemption. It is about commerce and science. 

Religion, in the Great Tradition culture, is now something to oratorically affirm on set occasions. Meanwhile, in the little tradition, in the daily life of the masses, belief has gone back to the wild. Thoughts are free – meaning it is all syncretic, a little astrology here, a little pop science there, a little Jesus, a little Oprah, a little politics. In these circumstances, the great biting ferocity of the old Candide tradition is simply out of place. Of course, there are fundamentalists, but they, too, are for the most part more moved by politics and commerce than anything like Christianity. 

My own stance on fundamentalists is that they are misnamed, since any literal reading of the Bible will tell you it is definitely as fierce as the Communist Manifesto. It makes a number of things crystal clear: that wealth is evil, that princes and nations are misguided, that primitive communism is the way to go, that thoughts aren’t free. The prophets are invariably – without exception – traitors. The messiah in the Gospels is serious that the first are last and the last are first in the kingdom of heaven. He is also serious about taking up your cross. 

I think the Candide genre died in The Master and the Margarita. Perhaps I should say, the death is explained in The Master and the Margarita. At the beginning of the book, there is a conversation between a poet and an editor. The latter, Berlioz, commissioned the poet, Ivan Ponyrev – or “Homeless” – to write an anti-Christian poem, but as he explains to Homeless, he is not satisfied with the result. The poem attributes dark motives and actions to Jesus – but the point, Berlioz says, is to bring out the fact that Jesus is a myth. He never existed. Now, Bulgakov is having some fun here, because as both are soon to find out, the Devil not only exists but has come to Moscow for an event. Berlioz’s rational world is swept away before the first chapter is over, in fact. But his theory about Jesus as a myth is a pretty good way of getting at why Candide is dead. In fact, in the current culture, whether Jesus existed or not doesn’t matter. Our liberal sentiments are offended by Candide style satire not because the belief in Jesus is belief in a myth, but because of the belief that we should be tolerant of the belief in Jesus. 

Both sides, of course, discard what we know about Jesus, whether man, God or myth: that he said and acted in certain ways, as recorded in four books and some so called Gnostic gospels. Nobody can swallow all of it, especially given the industrial-capitalist forms of our society today, which it totally did not predict, foresee, or experience.  Nobody wants to operate as though the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand anymore – which is the most absolute way of making sure that the Kingdom of Heaven isn’t ever at hand. Fundamentalists have clung on to the one book in the Bible that is the most doubtful, and certainly the most anti-semitic and anti-Jesus: Revelations. Revelations is the L. Ron Hubbard book, the one that attracts the wankers.  The Fundy high priests would gladly trade the entire Good news of love for the idea that their enemies will be left to the pitiless tortures of the demons. And they have.

A religion based on Revelations won’t last. The evangelicals and fundamentalists are working, slowly and steadily, to create a broad revulsion with Christianity in all its shapes and forms. You can already see it happening. Call it: Candide’s revenge.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Pablum politics

Looking for ‘politically viable’ solutions to our current problems is like looking for an anti-biotic that won’t kill microbes. The latter is called a pablum. Unfortunately, the American political class consists of people who deal in little else.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

fun among the fungus! politics and science in the 19th century

It isn’t known as well as it should be that both Georg F Hegel and Beatrice Potter were players in the study of the biology of the lichen, which in turn revolutionized the study of natural selection. Or at least I didn’t know. I do now thanks to Jan Sapp’s Evolution by Association: a history of symbiosis. A book I’d heartily recommend.

Hegel came first. Technically, Hegel didn’t know a lichen from a snowy owl. But he did put forward a view of the master-slave relationship in the Phenomenology of Spirit which must have influenced Simon Schwendener, a Swiss biologist who looked at lichens through the microscope and was startled by the fact, as he saw it, that lichens were not plants or organisms like the oak and the tiger. Rather, he claimed, they were composites.

Lichens, he argued, represented a master-slave relationship. The master was a fungus of the order scomycetes, "a parasite which is accustomed to live upon the work of others; its slaves are green algals, which it has sought out or indeed caught hold of, and forced into its service." He went on to describe how the fungus surrounds the alga, "as a spider does its prey, with a fibrous net of narrow meshes, which is gradually converted into an impenetrable covering. While, however, the spider sucks its prey and leaves it lying dead, the fungus incites the algae taken in its web to more rapid activity, nay, to more vigorous increase."7

This view, which Schwendener released to the world in 1868 (when, in America, they were putting in place the 13th and 14th amendments), was immediately controversial. Some thought this messed up the whole Linnean schema, and thus it couldn’t be true – another instance of classification influencing the classified. But Beatrice Potter in the 1890s also looked at lichens, and saw that Schwendener was right, at least about lichens being composite. But the paper she wrote about it had to be given to the Linnean society by her uncle, since the society didn’t allow women – even in the audience. And she couldn’t proceed with her studies as the British Museum because she was a woman who had made a stink. So she said to hell with it and turned to writing classic children’s tales. I don’t know if any enterprising critic has seen a lichenous theme in the Tale of Peter Rabbit, but I’d bet there is one somewhere.
Of course, in the 1860s and in the 1890s, the real intellectuals thought everything was competition. Surely! Superior races succeeding inferior ones, and all that. Nature bloody in tooth and claw. So the idea that all might actually be something else – cooperation – that was an offense to the Zeitgeist. If this was true, anarchy would rule the world!
These political views were not separate from the science. The positivist view that science floats on a cloud of theory above objective facts gives us a poor sense of what science does, since in the end theory is always about interpreting and organizing facts – and showing which ones are pertinent and which aren’t, showing what explains exceptions, etc. Just as the political economics of Malthus run through Darwin – which is not a criticism of Darwin, but an explanation of how science reaches out for models – so to the beginning of the discovery of symbiosis was couched, plainly, in terms of political power.  Its rejection, too – a rejection of any model that can’t be reduced to competition – is plainly political. Which isn’t to say it is wrong; rather, the controversies it arouses depend very much on organizing our vision of things.

It was out of this kind of controversy that symbiosis, as distinct from parasitism, was born:
“Some came to see in the lichen the possibility of a
more general phenomenon: associations between phylogenetically distinct organism
that ranged from the loosest to the most intimate and essential, and
from the most antagonistic and one-sided to the most beneficial for the wellbeing
of both associates. A neutral term was required that did not prejudge
such relationships as parasitic. Therefore, in 1877, Albert Bernhard Frank
(1839-1900) at Leipzig coined the word Symbiotismus: "We must bring all the
cases where two different species live on or in one another under a comprehensive
concept which does not consider the role which the two individuals play
but is based on the mere coexistence and for which the term Symbiosis
{Symbiotismus} is to be recommended.”

Interestingly, the other term in contention at that time was “mutualism”. This, naturally, was abhorrently sentimental to biologists who unthinkingly adopted the term “competition”, as if this was not rooted in a very heteronormative sentimentality that sits in an EZ chair, waves a pennant and roots for the home team.

Monday, April 09, 2018

the social costs of individualizing voice

I am sure that there is a relation between the ideology of the voice and the hegemonic situating of the story situation in the classroom. It is a deconstructive hunch. It is worth trying to suss it out, I think, because it would say something about politics of literature in the U.S. and perhaps the Anglophone world at the moment.

The ideology of the voice is entailed by what Derrida called logocentricity – the view that writing is always secondary to speaking, always dependent on speaking. In order to be coherent, this view first has to segregate its unities – speaking and writing – in such a way that they don’t, at least ideally, overlap. This separation has to be effected so that both categories retain their essential natures. If speaking, for instance, can’t be conceived without certain traits that belong to writing, then the whole hierarchy and its claims would become unbalanced.

I won’t go through the meticulous Derridian detective work that was applied to this thesis. I want to take up an ideological entailment of the mythical separation of the two in the Anglosphere – and in general in advanced capitalism – which I’d call the “individualism” myth. Just as voice, in the White Mythology, is one thing, spontaneous and natural, so, too, in the U.S. context, a voice is an individuating property. You “own” your voice. It is as unique to you, in this view, as your fingerprints.

Of course, the deconstructive response is to point out that the voice isn’t something you ever constructed. It is an organ that is almost uniquely sensitive to history. Within “my” voice there is a whole history of parents, of social groups, of geographies, of culture. Instead of being a unique unity, my voice is a composite, a nest more than an atom. There is a lot of fascinating research about people whose accents suffer major change after brain trauma – what is often found is that the new accent will often represent circumstances from some early portion of the patient’s life. Roth, Fink and Cherney published an interesting paper in 1997 about a patient who “sustained a left parietal hemorrhagic stroke” and began to speak again, after a period of aphasia, with a Dutch accent. This patient had been born in Holland, but he’d left Holland at five years of age. What he carried in his voice was a history of decisions, or perhaps one should say of unconscious choices, that were cruelly stripped away by the stroke. There are, that is to say, negative spaces in our voices.

If the voice, then, which can be recognized by a machine represents only the surface of that crowd phenomenon, the voice that came about and is still coming about through the twists and turns of a history that is neither spontaneous nor under one’s control, than the individualizing of the voice should be thought of not as a liberating project, but as a form of discipline and control. In the theme of “finding your voice”, the finder finds a fake voice, a unity, something that represents “him” the way a politician represents “him” – as an infinite compromise in a system of exploitation, a frustration that no hedonic headlock will resolve.

Which gets me to the classroom as the story site.
Mark McGurl’s book, The Program Era, is the most comprehensive history and meditation I know of the post-war blooming of creative writing as a college discipline. It does not treat this as a disaster, nor is it nostalgic for some era of organic intellectuals. But it does pay attention to the price of this moment. One of the great prices is the forgetting that “creative writers” are specializing in a part of human action that is being performed, day in and day out, by almost every person. The story situation occurs in restaurants, on street corners, in offices, around tables – it is an incontournable aspect of human socializing before it is anything else. This aspect of writing – the skaz – seems, to me, remarkably undervalued in the current literary market. 

This, I think, may be because the skaz defies the ownership program of “creative writing” – it exists outside the classroom taboo of plagiarism, and beyond the idea of ranking. Not that ranking of a kind doesn’t exist: “tell the story about x” is a part of friendship and love – as is, frankly, “you told that boring story about x again.” These stories also change, and are often added to – the story of “x”, reminding somebody of “y”, will often change in its next retelling to echo bits of y. Just as microbes in the environment of an antibiotic will pass around resistant genes, the rhythms, types of plot, and attitude of stories will change according to what has been, so to speak, in the room.

Well, there is much more to say about the individualization of voice and and the disappearance of skaz in our literature, but that will have to do for today.

fuck reform

I've read my share of stories about "reform". For instance, privatization is a "reform." The prince of Saudi Arabia imprisoning other princes and billionaires and extorting money from them is a "reform". Austerity is a "reform." The press loves the word reform so much that if, tomorrow, the GOP in Congress passed a bill re-legalizing slavery, the headline in the NYT would read: "Labor reform voted."
Fuck reform.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

the dream of the impossible plot

When I used to review novels for Publishers Weekly, the form was dictated partly by the editorial limitation of space: I had 250 to 300 words to operate in. Conventionally, the review would either start out with or end with some elaboration of an adjective – basically, blurb territory. Then would come characters and plot – or telling what the novel was about. If I could find the room, I might refer to the writer’s reputation.

Now, this procedure relies heavily on the idea that a novel is about a plot, and that a plot is something that one can extract from the text that ‘moves’ the events and characters in the novel forward. Even if the novel varies “forward” – even if it is arranged chronologically so that it looks backwards, or it mixes up narrative patches that are in the past or future of the narrative’s present – the plot is the thing that makes the novel. The plot is to the novel what the plays are to a game – a plot encloses, in a determined field, the chances that the narrative rehearses in its serial plot-parts. If an orphan goes out one foggy afternoon to visit the tomb of his dead mother and discovers an escaped convict among the graves  –  which happens in the first chapter of Great Expectations – I expect that this will have a bearing on the entire action of the book, an action which involves numerous small actions over the course of twenty some years. The action, the plot, is a great maker of pertinence, that very English virtue that Grice made into a fundamental part of conversational implicature.

There is, of course, another meaning of plot, which refers not to the implicate order of fiction, but to the conspiracies or plans of human beings in secret coordination, one with the other, to bring about some event. A plot in this sense hinges very much on secrecy.

The plots of fiction and the plots of non-fiction have a way of converging – in fact, the latter seems, sometimes, to have almost swallowed the former, as though none of the stunted rituals of modern life present the interest to the reader that is associated with plotting in secret.

In The Genesis of Secrecy, Frank Kermode brings together the narrative motive and secrecy as though, in reality, the plots of non-fiction have always been the secret sharers of the plots of fiction.  He usefully uses the notion of insiders and outsiders. A secret creates an immediate divide between those who share it and those who don’t. I itch to put the term “sharing” under scrutiny, here, since it seems to stand outside of the dominant exchange system and point to other systems of wealth and power – but I am more interested, here, in the categories of insider and outsider with relation to the form of narration.

Kermode takes the Gospels as an exemplary narrative. It is an inspired choice. From the perspective of secrets, the Gospels make the very strongest claims for the privilege of the insider. It is not that the Gospels unfold a conspiracy, although certainly some conspiring goes on to do Jesus to death. But the real secret, here, is in the double life of Jesus – on the one hand, a small time carpenter’s son, on the other hand, the beloved son of God. To understand the plot requires not only knowing that Jesus believed that he was the son of God, but believing it oneself. It requires metanoia, conversion.

Not only does the insider understand the plot, but if the insider is correct, the outsider can never understand the plot until he or she becomes an insider. The ritual of becoming an insider is not simply a matter of cognition, but of a special kind of semi-cognitive thing: belief. The belief comes not from the head – with its cognitive gearing – but from the heart – which understands that feeling is not subordinate to the world, but quite the reverse. And if this is true – death, where is thy sting?
To get away from the pull of the Gospel, Kermode’s point about secrecy and narrative is made in more general terms in a later essay published in Critical Inquiry: Secrets and Narrative Sequence.

“My immediate purpose is to make acceptable a simple proposition: we may like to think, for our purposes, of narrative as the product of two intertwined processes, the presentation of a fable and its progressive interpretation (which of course alters it). The first process tends towards clarity and propriety (“refined common sense”), the second towards secrecy, toward distortions which cover secrets.”

This does seem like refined common sense. And yet it shakes off, way too thoroughly, the insider/outsider categories that Kermode was using in the Genesis of Secrecy. I think that shaking off retreats to a classically ahistorical project: salvaging the presentation of the fable. As though the presentation came all in a block. After which – and the ‘after’ here signals, again, a certain ideal temporality, not an empirical one but a conceptual temporality – we find interpretation.

When I write the plot outline of my novel, I find myself writing, in a sense, about another book. Because the plot is so thoroughly part of the angles that determine the writing – angles that attempt to, as it were, hand the mic to many more characters – and even intellectual possibilities – than would be warrented by the plot alone.  Yet how could that be separated from the plot?

I have harbored Dadaist dreams of writing a novel which would have one surface plot for the reader and another for the author – and perhaps another outside of both the reader and the author. In this book, the plot that the reader thinks binds together the book is not the real plot, but incidental to the real plot, as it is understood and put together by the author. However, why  strain at that pitiable thing, the author? What if the real plot of the book is not understood by the author as well? As in the myth of Bellerophon, where a messenger carries a letter which, unbeknownst to him, requests that the receiver kill the messenger, perhaps the author of the plot could be considered a blind messenger, delivering a different plot from the one he or she knew? After all, there is a large degree of blindness in the world. Bellerophon is always a caution to those who think that a message can be reduced to the intention of the messanger.

In a sense, my dream novel would be an anti-gospel, because it would be closed, ultimately, to any access to its secret. The insider, here, would be defined by the fact that the secret he holds could not be shared. This would turn the world of the plot in a sense upside down. I don’t quite know how this kind of plot could even be constructed – a plot that resisted ever being known.

Surely, this is the great modernist temptation.