Sunday, August 22, 2010

Off the schnide

At the end of last year I suggested that 2010 would be the Year of Handke, and in the beginning, this held true as, consulting my records, 6 of the first 17 books I read this year were written by Peter Handke. Then I went through a meta-Beckett phase, where I read Beckett's letters, Knowlson's bio, and Christopher Ricks' wonderful Beckett's Dying Words. I expected to move on to more of Beckett himself (I still have yet to read more than a few phrases of any of his post- The Unnamable prose), mixing in more Handke along the way, possibly one or two of the Thomas Bernhard books I have remaining to read.

But then came a prolonged period of serious sleep deprivation. I couldn't read Handke. I couldn't read Beckett. I sure as hell couldn't read Bernhard. I couldn't read fiction. In truth, at times I was barely functioning. Despite this, though I slept a lot on my commute, my daily caffeine intake propped me up enough to allow me to make my way through plenty of non-fiction. But fiction was out. In brief moments of lucidity, I'd begin something: I read half of Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children before hitting a wall (in this case being annoyed was as much to blame as being tired). I read the opening two chapters of Nabokov's Bend Sinister, but I soon realized it wasn't happening; I wasn't up for the kinds of challenges even his reputedly lesser works offer. It's true that overall the year had been shaping up to be dominated by non-fiction anyway—I have several different strands I'm trying to follow in philosophy and history, not to mention my still ongoing reading of Capital (up to chapter 24 as of now, where I've been idling for a couple of months now). That's happened before. But these last few months, I just couldn't read fiction. Wasn't able to. I wasn't awake enough to read more than a page or two of anything formally interesting. And more conventional fiction simply seemed like an impertinence, an imposition. I couldn't face the introduction of characters, the establishment of setting or voice or style, the unfolding of story, any of it. Why are you telling me this? Why does your book exist? Who the fuck cares?

Finally, I got some consistent sleep, had a relaxing vacation, began to read some fiction. Perhaps unexpectedly, it was the stories of Alice Munro that got me off the schnide. Munro doesn't quite have a reputation as an experimental writer, but she doesn't follow obvious formulas either. Anyway, I read two of her collections and liked the stories well enough, though I don't really have much to say about them. Then, in recent weeks, I've read two novels by American writers, 30 years apart, who do have such reputations as experimental writers: Laird Hunt's The Exquisite and Coleman Dowell's Too Much Flesh and Jabez. Both had been gathering dust on my bookshelves for some time, so it was good to finally read them. I may have something more to say about each novel in a future post or two (as usual, no guarantees), but for now let me just say that I enjoyed reading them. They both sufficiently call into question the act of narrative, as implicated in empire (not that they put it in those terms), that I feel they justified their existence. Which is more than can be said for most books.

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Friday, August 20, 2010

Noted: Coleman Dowell

From his 1976 novel, Island People:
"Look," she had said, commending the day to him, "how beautifully new." Sulky, he replied, "I've seen it before." She told him — peculiar that he could recall each word, perhaps because the words were peculiar in such quantity from her, but he imagined later that she had known she was to die in a matter of days ("Be precise if you can"—"Yes, Mother"), in four days' time. She told him, "You have never seen this place before," and when he looked at her, frightened, for it was their own woodland they walked in, she said: "Never, never, never have the leaves bent precisely so in the wind; never has the sedge faced us from just that angle of the bog; never has decay been at this particular point visible on the wood of the fence, tree; never has this peculiar collection of detritus edged the road; never have so many, so precisely many, leaves hung dead at the same time, nor has the illusion of blue between been so precisely this blue, never." But it was not hindsight that told him of her impending death. It was language, her use of language, the mystery of language itself. She had, in an odd way, herself become a Bach structure, knowing that she would not, with woefully inadequate ghost hands, be able to find particular oblivion. He, surely her instrument on that day, as later, responded to her sureness by learning all that he was meant to know in his persona as sonata verging on nocturne.

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Friday, August 13, 2010

What is music for?

In recent weeks, Ethan has been reading Derrick Jensen's Endgame (at my recommendation, he says) and has been sharing salient passages with the rest of us. In mid-July, he posted an excerpt from Vol. 1: The Problem of Civilization, which included this passage:
...if we dig beneath [the] second, smiling mask of civilization--the belief that civilization's visual or musical arts, for example, are more developed than those of noncivilized peoples--we find a mirror image of civilization's other face, that of power. For example, it wouldn't be the whole truth to say that visual and musical arts have simply grown or become more highly advanced under this system; it's more true that they have long ago succumbed to the same division of labor that characterizes this culture's economics and politics. Where among traditional indigenous people--the "uncivilized"--songs are sung by everyone...within civilization songs are written and performed by experts, those with "talent," those whose lives are devoted to the production of these arts... I'm not certain I'd characterize the conversion of human beings from participants in the ongoing creation of communal arts to more passive consumers of artistic products manufactured by distant a good thing.
There is much about Jensen's books that appeals to me, though I've been thinking a lot lately about the possibility of the inevitability of civilization in general, capitalism in particular. And I've been doing some reading that has deeply complicated my thinking on these matters, which I hope to write about relatively soon.

Anyway, Ethan posted this passage from Jensen about music and the arts just two days after Marcello Carlin posted what I think is one of his finest entries at his excellent Then Play Long blog (in which, recall, he has taken it upon himself to review every album to reach the top of the charts in the UK) and which I immediately connected with the Jensen. The post was about, of all things, Top of the Pops, Volume 18—as anonymous an album as one could hope to hear, it would seem, and one that I would not expect to want to read about. The Top of the Pops albums were not simply collections of hits, but rather generic re-recordings of hits by generally no-name or aspiring session musicians and the like. From the point of view of those of us who follow or have followed music closely, such a collection sounds utterly dreary and is likely anathema to our way of thinking. But they were hugely popular in Britain. And Carlin has some fascinating things to say about that. He writes:
Looking at the remarkable success of these records begs some key questions, not the least of which is: what, and who, is music for? Remember that in the days before the vinyl record took hold of the market – and some considerable way into those same days – the song, not the performer, was predominant, the thing which attracted us. Even when the singles chart commenced at the end of 1952, record sales were very much a minority; sheet music was dominant, a harking back to the time when every family’s parlour bore a piano, when a family would learn to play the piano, sing these songs in their own homes, or in the pub. Delving into the early days of the singles chart, the commonest phenomenon is that of several competing versions of the same song; everyone had their individual preferences, but the song was the common/unifying factor.

People like Elvis and the Beatles detoured us. We grew to think that now the artist was the thing which mattered, the song secondary, the growth of individualism, the decline of familial and societal bonds (even if few artists did more than Elvis or the Beatles to unite the disparate strands of their multiple followings). And we decided that we had to take music seriously, to pin it down and analyse it, connect it to what else was occurring in the world, anybody’s and everybody’s world.

But the non-specialist consumer continued to confound these ambitions, and in various important ways still does. What we have to bear most importantly in mind – and this is common sense rather than revolutionary theory – is that most of us aren’t that bothered about music. Oh, we love it, couldn’t really do without it – what do these forty million people who never listen to music do with, or to, themselves? – but, as Tim Rice pointed out long ago (his introductory note to the 1981 edition of the Guinness Book Of Hit Singles, to be exact), the sheep get separated from the goats at around the age of eighteen – most people then relegate music to the background of their lives, but a small number of obsessives remain spellbound by music, feel the need to go even deeper into music, to keep up with new developments, to retrace histories.

But we continue to sing songs and like songs, be momentarily transported by songs, and it’s that residue which provides the main bloodstream in which music is actually able to live and survive. To connect all of this back to things like the Top Of The Pops series, a song catches the ear of a potential record buyer, and they like the song – it’s catchy, stays in their mind, they unconsciously whistle it while making breakfast – but they’re not particularly concerned about the backstory of either the song or the singer, unless the latter is a major figure; and even then they’ll allow some slack.
I've provided an overly long quotation here because he says a few different things here, and I like how he moves through the ideas. But the things that stuck out at me are the importance of the song over the performer and the links back to when music was played by more people rather than being left to the experts. I thought of songs we all know, and songs I sing to my daughter. And I thought again about the tension between individuality and community, about what has been lost in our rush ahead, and whether it's possible to regain anything of it, when we've re-made the world and re-conceived of it as a place in which individuals move, on their own, independent, always striving, we are told, for independence. . .

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Liberal Utopianism

Žižek's recent book First as Tragedy, Then As Farce, which I read earlier this year, is a characteristic combination of the nearly brilliant and the borderline stupid. My favorite bit is the section during which he discusses Utopia. He would call it pragmatic liberalism—that is, the current system—the "utopia in power", which manages to dismiss all competing visions as themselves utopian, indeed as dangerously so. In fact, "ideological naturalization" is such that few enough can even imagine such visions. Instead, we are repeatedly entreated to place our trust in gradual reformism, even as the so-called "left wing" of Liberalism, the Democratic Party, moves ever rightward, ever confident that it can do so without truly alienating left-wing voters. So I love it when Žižek says that "simplistic liberal universalism long ago lost its innocence", and when he describes the noble ideals this simplistic liberalism claims to stand for and says:
The problem lies with the "utopian" premise that it is possible to achieve all that within the coordinates of global capitalism. What if the particular malfuctionings of capitalism [.. .] are not merely accidental disturbances but are rather structurally necessary?
Of course, they are exactly that, structurally necessary, there's no "what if" about it. There is simply no way for the capitalist system to meet the basic needs of the many or the many other needs it calls into being. Žižek goes on to say:
This is how one should answer those who dismiss any attempt to question the fundamentals of the liberal-democratic-capitalist order as being themselves dangerously utopian: what we are confronting in today’s crisis are the consequences of the utopian core of this order itself.
And here, I think, we confront the limits of Žižek's approach. There are, in a sense, two utopias at work here, but Žižek has a tendency to conflate them. They work hand in hand, but they are not the same, and only one has the power, the other has delusions and carries water for the utopia in power. To be sure, they both dismiss competing (leftist) visions as themselves dangerously utopian. There is the liberal capitalist economic regime—the utopia in power—now in its neoliberal phase, pretending to promote freedom for all, pretending that its notion of freedom bears any resemblance to what ordinary people understand by the word freedom. Alongside this we have the true progressive believers, those people who believe the system is good (the best we have), that the course of American history is a progressive one (a noble "experiment"), in the sense of the gradual expansion of rights to more and more people, those who believe capitalism can be restrained (or that a return to Keynesianism is possible). These are the liberal activists who believed in Bill Clinton or Al Gore or John Kerry or Barack Obama, or even if any one or all of these men have not been quite the embodiment of progressive values, believed they are nevertheless the best we have. More to the point, they believe liberalism is besieged and that any overly radical approach is either a threat to the beloved system or a dangerous risk, given the spectre of the lunatic Right. From this perspective, genuinely left-wing activists (even Nader voters) are painted as "dangerously utopian".

Confusion aside, Žižek is exactly right that the time has long since come when we should ignore the crap about freedom spouted by liberals in power and turn the tables on the true-believing reformers by labeling them "dangerously utopian".

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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Entering the work force: a liberal sham

In March, Nina Power posted the text of her presentation at an event called "The Equality Gap". It basically boils down much of the material included in her book One Dimensional Feminism. She is talking about work and equality and the feminization of labour and so on. As with the book, most of what she says I have no problem with. But I'm interested here in her closing paragraph:
Feminism has often seen work as the opportunity for women’s emancipation, and historically there have been few long-term social revolutions with more impact than women’s mass inclusion into the workforce. However, if we remain uncritical of the exploitative dimensions of this work, then there will be no gender equality for anyone.
Which echoes this passage, from One Dimensional Woman (again, my mini-review is here):
No discussion of the current fortunes of women can take place outside of a discussion of work. The inclusion of women into the labor force has brought about unprecedented changes in the way we understand the 'role' of women, the capacity of women to live independent lives and the way in which women participate in the economy more generally. Of course, women have always worked, that is to say, raised children, tended to the home, grown crops, etc., and how different the history of the world would have been had this been from the start been regarded as labor to be rewarded. Nevertheless, as Marx notes, it is only when women enter work 'outside the sphere of the domestic economy' that transformations in relations between the sexes, the composition of families and so on, really start to happen.
No doubt this sounds uncontroversial and is orthodox Marxism and widely held to be the mainstream of feminism, but I'm confused by the assumption that it is entering the workforce that will lead to the emancipation of women. Emancipation from what? Liberation from what? Presumably from being tied to homemaking and childrearing. Except that it's not as if entering the workforce has meant that women, on balance, have not remained primarily in charge of maintaining the home and of rearing children. Their work there has remained under-valued, indeed has been increasingly devalued, only now they very likely have some other crap job on top of it (or possibly even a "good" job, most things considered, but even so). It seems to me that entering the workforce has had the collective effect of reinforcing the liberal order, particularly since too rarely have the "exploitative dimensions" of the work in question been examined, and since it has been without a necessary revaluation, a correct valuation, of reproductive work. The fact is, when it became necessary, capital was perfectly happy for women to "enter the workforce", knowing full well that the revolutionary potential for the move was minimal at best.

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In "Being Jewish", from The Infinite Conversation, Blanchot addresses questions posed by Boris Pasternak: "What does being Jewish signify? Why does it exist?" He writes the following:
I believe that among all the responses there is one in three parts that we cannot avoid choosing, and it is this: it exists so the idea of exodus and the idea of exile can exist as a legitimate movement; it exists, through exile and through the initiative that is exodus, so that the experience of strangeness may affirm itself close at hand as an irreducible relation; it exists so that, by the authority of this experience, we might learn to speak.

Reflection and history enlighten us on the first point with a painful evidency. If Judaism is destined to take on meaning for us, it is indeed by showing that, at whatever time, one must be ready to set out, because to go out (to step outside) is the exigency from which one cannot escape if one wants to maintain the possibility of a just relation. The exigency of uprooting; the affirmations of nomadic truth. In this Judaism stands in contrast to paganism (all paganism). To be pagan is to be fixed, to plant oneself in the earth, as it were, to establish oneself through a pact with the permanence that authorizes sojourn and is certified by certainty in the land. Nomadism answers to a relation that possession cannot satisfy. Each time Jewish man makes a sign to us across history it is by the summons of a movement.
This passage speaks obliquely to some of what I've been trying to write about here about the problems of modernity. In a sense, Blanchot here writes against Heidegger's conception of rootedness in place, offering instead a different kind of rootedness, an opposition (between different "worlds"?). The tension between these two ideas is fascinating and crucial. The spread of capitalism has destroyed community after community. While we deplore this destruction, we also value mobility. We want the possibility of movement, but the security of stability. The more I read and the more I think about these issues, the more this tension between these competing needs and desires seems to animate much of what makes us human.

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We are not serious

BDR links to a post by John Gallaher commenting on a recent silly-sounding entry at Huffington Post about overrated poets. I can't be bothered to read the HuffPo thing, because why would you read HuffPo? But almost as an afterthought to his post, Gallaher mentions another poetry-related controversy that had somehow escaped my notice: Ron Silliman has turned off commenting at his very popular blog and hidden the existing voluminous comment threads dating to the beginning of the blog. I don't read Silliman very often, primarily because I too often don't know what he's talking about, but I have read him often enough to know that there have been many long, detailed, often acrimonious conversations in his comment section. There have also been countless comments from people I would have banned long ago as a matter of principle for being annoying or stupid, but that's just me. I have little patience for pointless acrimony, even less for distractingly stupid commenting.

Anyway, people are upset. However, one thing stuck out at me in the conversation at Gallaher's blog. In his original post, he writes:
. . .amid the mess of comments on the most popular blogs (a really big mess), are there nuggets that should remain in the public record? Useful things? Yes, Ron Silliman could, if he wanted to, make visible the comment stream of old posts, but the question is, should he? Is there something to be gained by doing so? Is there something, by extension, about the Huffington Post comment stream, perhaps, that in the future should be archived as well?
There follows some conversation about the implications of this and about how weird and frustrating it is that webpages can just disappear; then one commenter, who was also a contributor to threads at Silliman's blog, says: "It wouldn't surprise me at all if posterity found Silliman's comment box a treasure trove of data."

I admit that this kind of thing used to bother me. I'd ponder the problems posed for future scholarship by email and blog comments and disappeared websites and uncached memory, etc., etc., and I'd wonder about the potential loss. Now I wonder what the hell I was doing worrying about "future scholarship"! What bothers me now are the implications of the blasé attitude reflected in the commenter's remark. We will attack someone who denies the truth or effects of global warming, and yet we act as if our way of life is not contingent on the very processes we claim to know are causing it. We expect, still, for our way of life to continue on into the future, with all of the ongoing technological change that we take for granted as normal. We are not serious about global warming and climate change. We claim to know that we are on the brink of (or in the midst of) ecological disaster, but we act as if it will not really affect us. If you're like me, you have days where it makes you want to curl up in a ball, terrified, and other days where you're angry about the world being left for your children and grandchildren. But then most days you're updating your iPod, updating Facebook or Twitter, writing a blog-post, surfing the web, going to fucking work, as if today is the same as yesterday and the same as tomorrow, an unbroken chain into the future. Along the way you might wonder what options for meaningful action are really available to you.

Meanwhile, on a related note (says me), IOZ, as he tends to, has it exactly right:
Liberals are the most egregious American exceptionalists, and they are the most avaricious preachers of the gospel of expansion. America could suffer a substantial economic contraction and still remain far and away the richest society the earth has ever known. I regret that this is true, because so long as we can afford it, it's gonna be faster, pussycat, kill, kill for the engine of empire.