Friday, March 27, 2009

The City from Below

I'm a bit late in posting this, but this weekend here in Baltimore, beginning this evening, is the The City from Below conference. Numerous workshops and panel discussions are planned, with scheduled participants including, among many others, David Harvey, George Caffentzis, Sylvia Federici, and numerous local, regional, and national groups committed in various ways to fighting back and taking back the city. This is from the description on the site's main page:

We are committed in organizing this conference to a horizontal framework of participation, one which allows us to concretely engage with and support ongoing social justice struggles. What we envision is a conference which isn't just about academics and other researchers talking to each other and at a passive audience, but one where some of the most inspiring campaigns and projects on the frontlines of the fight for the right to the city (community anti-gentrification groups, transit rights activists, tenant unions, alternative development advocates, sex worker's rights advocates, prison reform groups) will not just be represented, but will concretely benefit from the alliances they build and the knowledge they gain by attending.

At the same time, we also want to productively engage those within the academic system, as well as artists, journalists, and other researchers. It is a mistake to think that people who spend their lives working on urban geography and sociology, in urban planning, or on the history of cities have nothing to offer to our struggles. At the same time, we recognize that too often the way in which academics engage activists, if they do so at all, is to talk at them. We are envisioning something much different, closer to the notion of "accompaniment". We want academics and activists to talk to each other, to listen to each other, and to offer what they
each are best able to. Concretely, we're hoping to facilitate this kind of dynamic by planning as much of the conference as possible as panels involving
both scholars and organizers.


  • Gentrification/uneven development
  • Policing and incarceration
  • Tenants rights/housing as a right
  • Public transit
  • Urban worker's rights
  • Foreclosures/financial crisis
  • Public education
  • Slots/casinos/regressive taxation
  • Cultural gentrification
  • Underground economies
  • Reclaiming public space
  • The right to the city
  • Squatting/Contesting Property Rights
  • Urban sustainability
  • It sounds like it will be a fun, informative, potentially exciting weekend. We hope to be able to take in what we can. If you're anywhere near Baltimore and can make it, please try to come out and take part.

    Thursday, March 26, 2009

    On blogging and hype and The Kindly Ones

    Recently, Andrew Seal considered why he reads new books. Since my time of despair on this particular question has passed, I now read very few new books. Which is to say, I may still despair of having time to read the history or philosophy or theory or political economy I want to read, I no longer worry much about new novels. Where once I not only jumped at the new Amis or Powers or whoever, but also felt compelled to track down the latest hype-gathering novels, now I barely even notice when something new is afoot (hence Aleksandr Hemon's excellent novel The Lazarus Project almost completely escaped my attention until very late last year). I don't trumpet this as a virtue, just noting that I've allowed myself to quite happily fall out of the loop. I will still read, sooner or later, the newest works from, for example, Coetzee or Roth or Marilynne Robinson, but new books from new writers or writers of heavily hyped books are rarely of immediate interest.

    There are exceptions. For example, it has been hard to avoid the hype surrounding Roberto Bolaño in recent years, and though I've been spending time mining the classics, modernist or otherwise, I have ultimately succumbed. Though in a sense Bolaño is an exception, he is also a case in point. I did not run out and immediately buy his many books that have been blog-hyped, though I took note for future reference. I ended up reading The Savage Detectives last year because a friend had left it at our house and I was between books. In the wake of reading that book, which I was somewhat less than enthusiastic about, I was still unable to finally resist all the 2666 buzz; I asked for and received it for Christmas. And yet still it sits, patiently awaiting my attention.

    A clearer exception is Jonathan Littell's controversial novel, The Kindly Ones. Though it's not really the buzz that has me wanting to read this book (after all, the buzz is not altogether positive, is it?). No. There has been an excess of words written about this book, much of which I have studiously avoided. Too much of what I have seen has been depressingly literal or reductive, reducing the book to either "Holocaust porn" or otherwise about something easily captured in a quick review. The book is this or that, and can be safely dismissed as such. But why do I feel as if I can sense that the book has not been fairly treated by such treatments, when I haven't yet read it myself? The answer is that the very voices that have elevated the novel to a must-read for me have done so by arguing for its virtues in a manner that seriously calls into question most other reviews (the tiresome remarks of reductive non-readers of the book notwithstanding). These voices are primarily Steve Mitchelmore's and, returning to the blogger who touched off this post, Andrew Seal's. It was, as is often the case, Steve who first put the book on my radar, and his own response to it, in typical fashion, bears little to no resemblance to any other. Meanwhile, Andrew's two fascinating posts (one, two) have deepened my sense that this is a book I need to read; I especially appreciate the attention Andrew pays in the first of his posts to some of the arguments used by other reviewers, positive or negative, in particular some of those employed by Daniel Mendelsohn in the New York Review of Books, and Samuel Moyn in The Nation (coincidentally, the only mainstream reviews of any interest to me).

    I highlight Steve's and Andrew's posts not just to express my appreciation and to announce that I plan to read this particular novel, but to point out the continuing possibilities they represent. With a book like The Kindly Ones, the pressure on the reviewing establishment to respond quickly and reductively is immense. The historical and political baggage associated with the Holocaust just makes matters worse. Blogs, in theory, have the opportunity to take more time, allow more space, encourage critical exploration. Too often, it seems, bloggers get caught up in the reviewing pressure too. But there's no need to. Some books demand better attention than the newspapers are willing or able to give them--or, rather, some books bring into focus the demand made by all books of any value. As Andrew puts it, in a comment to an unrelated post of his, a comment in which he linked to the reviews of The Kindly Ones that appeared in the LA Times and the New York Times, "This is why I don't feel newspaper book review sections declining is a peril to the republic": I couldn't agree more. If it were up to newspapers to keep me informed on anything, let alone writing, I'd never have any idea what's going on.

    Monday, March 23, 2009

    The world is never over!

    At zunguzungu, Aaron Bady offers a useful reminder for those of us, like myself, who have a tendency to give occasional vent to our apocalyptic jones:
    The world is never over! The “deckchairs on the Titanic” metaphor is a nice way to belittle people who prefer to rearrange deckchairs rather than address the iceberg, but the world is not a ship, ontologically defined by whether it is sinking or floating; the world is a place in which history has a way of going forward, even if those living in it have difficulty imagining how.

    [. . .] Life always goes on, somehow, and maybe badly, but the character and dynamism of its continuity is of profound importance for those of us who want to live in the future.
    I should say that I intend my catastrophic comments here as a little different than what Aaron is talking about. He is posting in response to Brad DeLong's semi-apocalyptic outburst about the Geithner Plan. DeLong cannot imagine the world working differently (perhaps, because it simply shouldn't--he might say doesn't, can't--work otherwise) (I don't pay too much attention to DeLong, usually, since he first came to my attention some years ago for his stupid attack on Chomsky; his more recent attack on David Harvey didn't help matters (latter link via)--Harvey commented to that, and followed up here). For my part, I'm trying to imagine the world being otherwise than it is, both ideally (how I would like it to be or think it ought to be) and in the reality in which we might find ourselves in the coming years or decades (how I think we might be able to live in such an eventuality). In addition, my desire to try to figure out a way to live differently pre-dates the actuality of this particular crisis. Admittedly, my ability to imagine is severely hampered by the current system itself and my position within it. The problem is huge, the task before us enormous.

    Aaron closes his post by observing that everything he's read tells him
    that we do live in a world economic system that’s just lost all four engines. But the difference between a controlled crash-landing, where most of the passengers have a good chance of survival, and pretending that the engines still work (because the alternative is too dire to imagine) is extremely important, and needs to part of this discussion. To ignore it would be stupid, almost suicidal. Or rather, it’s a kind of thinking that those members of our society equipped with parachutes are more likely to indulge in, isn’t it? They can afford the fallacy. They’re not the ones flying coach.
    This, for me, is the key thing. It appears that the capitalist system, which necessarily undergoes periodic crises, may have entered its terminal crisis. This could mean any number of things, of course. When we factor in environmental limitations (the barely yet registered effects of global warming) and whatever the truth may be about the remaining availability of oil, the system, in one way or another, could and likely will limp on, more and more destructively, for decades. The very rich are not likely to be as negatively affected by such an increasingly unstable system. But the rest of us are going to need to make potentially radical adjustments in how we live, and those adjustments can be very painful indeed, or a lot less painful, depending on how we respond collectively to the problems. In my view, efforts at re-localization are crucially important ways in which we can make that crash turn into a softer landing. Hence the focus on food.

    Thursday, March 19, 2009

    Food Politics

    For some time, since well before the current financial crisis, I've been painfully aware that I don't actually know how to do anything fundamental--such as, crucially, grow my own food or build things or repair things around the house (minor exceptions notwithstanding). Having skills of this kind, or being in close community with others who have them and are willing and able to share, seems to me to be of vital importance, either for attempting to lessen dependence on the capitalist system, or for long-run survival, in the likely event of that system's collapse, partial or otherwise (in which case, we would be forced to make do on our own).

    Naturally, this sounds no doubt unduly alarmist to many. So be it. But I'll be returning to this theme again and again. Access to food is perhaps the major long-term problem facing us, along with the related problem of access to water. On that front, I want to direct you to this great piece by DeAnander at Feral Scholar. In it, she discusses the destructiveness and inefficiency and unviability of the monocrop industrial agricultural model, the importance and sustainability and diversity of local polyculture farming, and the concept of food as a basic human right. Here are some excerpts, but you should read the whole thing:
    Not only does industrial monoculture produce less food per hectare, it produces its inefficient results at very high (and unaccounted-for) “external” costs. North American industrial farming has been estimated to consume 10 calories of fossil fuel for each calorie of food produced; estimates of topsoil loss vary from 2 to 6 bushels for every bushel of industrial corn harvested. Water usage for industrial farming is similarly alarming: in North America, the ancient Oglalla Aquifer is being drained dry by the enormous water demands of huge acreages of unnatural monoculture. Meanwhile, runoff from artificially-fertilised fields is creating large “dead zones” in coastal waters, destroying fisheries; and pesticides are implicated not only in human health risks, but in the destruction of beneficial insect populations including essential pollinators. Clearly, the inefficiencies of industrial agriculture go far beyond how many bushels of corn or soy can be extracted from each hectare of land in each season; if non-renewable resources are being consumed, or other sources of food (such as oceans and rivers) are being damaged, then our food-producing capacities are being impaired by the way in which we are producing food — in which case we are on a downward escalator of diminishing returns and negative feedback, and there is no future in the present paradigm.


    In seeking local food security, then, we may be quite confident that the encouragement of diverse smallholdings — backyard gardens, SPIN farms, family farms — practising polyculture rather than monoculture, is a sound, practical, and realistic strategy. It is not sentimental dreaming, nor the charming but useless hobby of a handful of food snobs; the myths we were taught in school are just that — myths. It is industrial monoculture that is unsound, impractical, inefficient, and unrealistic. We can — and sooner than we think, perhaps, we must be prepared to — feed the world with small-to-medium-scale organic/sustainable farming.

    It is not the productivity of land that prevents us from eliminating hunger. It is not the lack of new, improved, ever more phantasmagorical high-tech toys and techniques. What prevents us from eliminating hunger is our failure to return to, and adhere to, a moral code that recognises healthy food as a human right. As F M Lappé notes in a recent article, such a moral code is nearly universal among the people we call “primitive”; early humans, in striking contrast to many other animals, seem to have an innate tendency to share food — even with others not directly related to themselves. Allowing people in our tribe, village, or city to starve is a violation of our primeval human nature. When we muster the political will to continue our ancient food-sharing behaviour in modern dress, the results are astonishing: astonishingly simple, astonishingly easy, astonishingly efficient.
    Recall, also, DeAnander's important essay from last year, co-authored with Stan Goff, "Politics is Food is Politics" (which I previously linked to last summer).

    Tuesday, March 17, 2009

    Analysing Sentences

    In The Limits to Capital, in a footnote addressing a book claiming to subject Marx's analysis of technological change to "the standards and rigor which distinguish twentieth century analytic philosophy", David Harvey says the following:

    "Analytical philosophy may be good at analysing sentences but is not so good, apparently, at capturing the total flow of an argument."


    Monday, March 16, 2009


    After Mirah was born, we encountered a variety of surprising difficulties with breast-feeding. As part of that often painful process, we learned a lot about how nursing does and does not happen, about pumping, and about breast milk and formula. Ultimately, before Mirah finally did learn how to nurse, we entered into relationships with other women seeking to donate their excess milk.

    All of which is a preamble to announce that my beautiful wife Aimée has written and published her inaugural free-lance article, for, in which she discusses the phenomenom of donated milk, in part through the prism of our personal experience, with some history thrown in for good measure.

    Please do, check it out. (Also note at the very bottom a nice picture of Aimée with Mirah. Yay!)

    Sunday, March 15, 2009

    Spleen, Olive Moore

    I'd intended to write about Olive Moore's Spleen last year, but time got away from me and I never got round to it. But even if the time for a proper review has passed, I do want to say something about it before allowing myself to move on completely, because Spleen is the quintessential forgotten book and it deserves to be read.

    I bought Spleen several years ago, precisely why I cannot say. No doubt it was in the midst of my full-blown obsession with all things associated with the Dalkey Archive, though it would have been prior to the Big Dalkey Get. I say Spleen is the quintessential forgotten book: Moore is the forgotten writer par excellence. (In fact, I'd pulled the book down from the shelf, its slim volume lost between our several books each by Lorrie Moore and Toni Morrison, to see whether it should be discarded.) She wrote four books ("Olive Moore" is a pseudonym for Constance Vaughan; according to the biographical note in the back of the book, she lived in Bloomsbury, ran in those sorts of literary circles, and wrote an essay about D.H. Lawrence), in the early 1930s, before disappearing, presumably dying around 1970. Dalkey produced a hardcover, omnibus edition of her work in 1992 and the stand-alone paperback of Spleen in 1996. It seems these reissues got good notices, where they were noticed, but I'd wager she's been forgotten again. Even in Dalkey's roster of misplaced modernists and post-modernists, lost writers and otherwise missing books, she seems easy to overlook.

    This is a shame, for Spleen, at least, is excellent. The back of the Dalkey edition suggests that Moore writes "in a style similar to Virginia Woolf's". I think this comparison is apt, though if anything, I preferred reading Moore's prose over Woolf's chewier writing. Woolf is a useful formal comparison, too, I think. Things are narrated primarily from the perspective of Ruth, the novel's main character; her consciousness is revealed above all. Where so far Woolf's fiction has struck me as self-consciously innovating--as evidently by a writer conscious of trying something new (no disrespect to Woolf intended at all; I like her), Spleen feels somehow, to this reader, more organic. (For no good reason, I'm sure, I am also reminded of Ann Quin's Three, but my memory of that novel is dim. The reminder could simply be because they're both more or less forgotten English writers, now published by Dalkey.)

    The novel concerns Ruth and her self-imposed exile after the birth of her deformed son 20 years earlier, whose deformity she feels responsible for. She meditates on motherhood, nature, equality, class. In her exile, for example, she muses on the pregnancy of one of the local Italian girls:
    One day she would return from the beach or from the town with the day's papers, and Lisetta would run out to her with a face of beatitude announcing that Graziella had been delivered of whatever she had had to deliver, and Graziella, completed, would be sitting up in bed, the sweat still on her smiling face, accepting the cup of zabaglione and the figs, and the next day she would be up and about, singing to her infant, feeding it, washing it, ravished with delight in it, and binding it in the mummy-bands of a della Robbia holy child until only its face, surprised and formless, was visible. And from the first to last no fear, no despair, no mental torture. Nothing that was known to colder northern women, over-civilised, over-sensitised, bearing their children in an agony of pain and bewilderment.
    As she herself, much earlier, when she had found herself desultorily pregnant, had been bewildered:
    For how can one love a thing one does not desire? Perhaps because it is usual to love one's child. Then I am not usual. (How easy to accept this in the darkness of the night when the unreal becomes the obvious!) Because she knew that not wanting the child now she would not want it later. She knew it was not possible to her to love a thing she did not know or had not seen. How can one? Yet I am expected to. All women do. I am a woman. Therefore I do. And if I do not? (And at a movement real or a imaginary within her.) When I breathe, it breathes. When I feed, it feeds also. Against my will. Yet when it had finished using her for its own purpose, she must welcome it and say that it was hers and that therefore she loved it (all women do) at once and without question. When it had had nothing to do with her from start to finish.
    She had eventually come to an understanding about the unborn baby and decided to try to will something in the world with it, not passively accepting it, but as an active agent, as men presumably are in the world. It is as if she were responding to a message: "Something different, said the message. Something worth having. Something beyond and above it all, said the message. Something new." After which she is radiant, happy; but something went wrong, and she blamed herself--both because of her earlier ambivalence and her later desire to create "something new"--and left. The novel begins with the present of her in exile and shifts back and forth, various details coming to light along the way. We are treated to images from her childhood (free and Edenic, raised by a father with radical educational theories) and her perfunctory marriage (after the father's death, she going along with what comes; her mother-in-law never forgiving her for not being sufficiently grateful for being "rescued from genteel poverty", not understanding "that Ruth was without gratitude because without knowledge of what genteel poverty might be"); descriptions of the beautiful Italian landscapes; conversations with locals; intellectual battles with a certain visiting male artist ("He said things which in her world simply were not said, were not thought: but she had lived too long out of any world to care what was said or thought.") . . .

    As I said, this is not a formal review, but I hope I've managed to give some idea of the book and why it might be worth reading. (Another point in its favor, if you're interested in giving it a shot: the novel is 128 pages long.) As should be obvious, I recommend the book, especially--but not only--to admirers of Virginia Woolf and to readers interested in the period of the historical Modernists, and fictional explorations of class and gender.

    Friday, March 13, 2009

    Attaching to Power

    At Black Agenda Report, Glen Ford addresses some of the common complaints of the pro-Obama "Left" about the non-Obama Left, here in the context of a response to this article from Linda Burnham. A sample:

    Below are the “two conflicting views” on Obama, on the Left:

    "First, that Obama represents a substantial, principally positive political shift and that, while the left should criticize and resist policies that pull away from the interests of working people, its main orientation should be to actively engage with the political motion that’s underway."

    "Second, that Obama is, in essence, just another steward of capitalism, more attractive than most, but not an agent of fundamental change. He should be regarded with caution and is bound to disappoint. The basic orientation is to criticize every move the administration makes and to remain disengaged from mainstream politics."

    The first viewpoint is no doubt held by Burnham. It is essentially mooted by the reality that most Left Obamites only weakly “criticize” and virtually never “resist” Obama’s rightist policies and appointments in the crucial military and economic arenas – which was, first, the fear and, later, the main complaint of the non-Obamite Left. The Obama Effect is to neutralize Blacks and the Left (Blacks being the main electoral base of the American Left) by capturing their enthusiasm for Obama’s own corporate purposes. Obama and his Democratic Leadership Council allies (and their corporate masters) monopolize the “motion,” all the while shutting out even mildly Left voices (as in the recent White House Forum on Health, from which single payer health care advocates were initially barred). Blacks and the Left have not been in any kind of effective forward “motion” since Election Day. As we shall see, Burnham’s definition of “motion” does not involve confronting Power, but rather, attaching oneself to it.

    Policy-wise, Obama no more “represents a substantial, principally positive political shift” than his political twin, Hillary – again, color aside. The second viewpoint is supposedly held by the opposition, and partially reflects the views of the BAR team. Yes, Obama is “just another steward of capitalism, more attractive than most, but not an agent of fundamental change.” This has been easily observed, since Blacks and the Left have allowed Obama to act upon his corporate and imperial instincts, unimpeded by even the mildest counter-pressures. His presidency takes shape to the Right of Democratic congressional leaders, who have made more noise over Obama’s Iraq trickle-out and his clear threats to Social Security and other “entitlements,” than have many Left Obamites. Obama is not simply “bound to disappoint” – he has already been cause for great disappointment, even among those of us who scoped his essential corporatist nature years ago. Who would have predicted that he would play the most eager Gunga Din for the bizarre Bush/Paulson bank bailout decree, last year? Who would have foreseen that Obama would retain the loathsome international criminal Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense? That he would continue Bush’s policies on Africa – Zimbabwe, Sudan, Somalia, AFRICOM – without missing a beat? That he would so quickly offer to put Social Security “on the table” for “reform” (in the Republican sense of the term)?

    But Burnham would have you believe the Left opposition are nothing but nitpickers, inflating executive pinpricks into major assaults. Thus, she seeks to make the opposition look silly, as if we “criticize every move the administration makes.” In truth, her argument is designed to excuse her and her Left allies failure to “resist” or confront Obama in any meaningful way.

    Thursday, March 12, 2009

    David Harvey on the Financial Crisis

    Reading Capital has an excellent piece from David Harvey on neoliberalism and the financial crisis ("The Crisis and the Consolidation of Class Power"). Here's an excerpt:
    One of the major barriers to continuous capital accumulation back in the 1960s and early 70s was the labour question. There were scarcities of labour both in Europe and the US and labour was well organised, with political clout. So one of the big barriers to capital accumulation during that period was; how can capital get access to cheaper and more docile labour supplies? There were a number of answers. One was to encourage more immigration. In the United States there was a major revision of the immigration laws in 1965 that in effect allowed the US access to the global surplus population (before that only Europeans and Caucasians were privileged). In the late 1960s the French government was subsidising the import of Maghrebian labour, the Germans were bringing in the Turks, the Swedes were bringing in the Yugoslavs, the British were drawing upon their empire. So a pro-immigration policy emerged which was one attempt to deal with the labour problem.

    The second thing you go for is rapid technological change which throws people out of work and if that failed then there were people like Reagan, Thatcher and Pinochet to crush organized labour. And finally capital goes to where the surplus labour is by off-shoring, and this was facilitated by two things. Firstly technical reorganisation of the transport systems: one of the biggest revolutions that happened during this period is containerisation which allowed you to make auto parts in Brazil and ship them for very low cost to Detroit or wherever. Secondly the new communications systems allowed the tight organization of commodity chain production across the global space.

    All of these solved the labour problem for capital, so by 1985 capital has no labour problem any more. It may have specific problems in particular areas but globally it has plenty of labour available to it; the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union and the transformation of much of China added something like 2 billion people to the global proletariat in 20 years. So labour availability is no problem now and the result of that is that labour has been disempowered for the last 30 years. But when labour is disempowered it gets low wages, and if you engage in wage repression this limits markets. So capital was beginning to face problems with its market, and there were two things which happened.

    The first was the gap between what labour was earning and what it was spending was covered by the rise of the credit card industry and increasing indebtedness of households. So in the US in 1980 you would find that the average household would owe around $40,000 in debts now it’s about $130,000 for every household, including mortgages. So household debt sky-rockets and that brings you to financialisation, and that was about getting the financial institutions to support the household debts of working class people whose earnings are not increasing. And you start with the respectable working class, but by the time you get to the year 2000 you start to find these sub-prime mortgages circulating. You are looking to create a market. And so finance starts to support the debt-financing of people who have almost no income. But if you hadn’t done that what would have happened to the property developers who are building the houses? So you try and stabilize the market by funding that

    The second thing which happened was that from the 1980s onwards the rich are getting far richer because of that wage repression. The story we are told is that they will invest in new activity but they don’t; most of them start to invest in assets, i.e. they put money in the stock market, the stock market goes up so they think it is a good investment so they put more money in the stock market, so you get these stock market bubbles. It is a ponzi-like system without the Madoff’s organizing it. The rich bid up asset values, including stocks, property, and leisure property as well as the art market. These investments involve financialisation. But as you bid up asset values this carries over to the whole economy, so to live in Manhattan became all but impossible unless you went incredibly into debt, and everyone is caught in this inflation of asset values, including the working classes whose incomes are not rising. And now we’ve got a collapse of asset values; the housing market is down, the stock market is down.

    Monday, March 09, 2009

    More on Biblical narration and The Adventures of Augie March

    Recently I suggested that Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March was in some respects like the Bible in its mode of narration. I had intended to say more about it but did not want to weigh down that earlier post. I won't go into great detail here, either, but I do want to mention something about how it was that I arrived at this idea. As part of this effort, I have since discussed "The Bible Open and Closed", an essay in which Gabriel Josipovici argues that the Bible's basic mode of narration is open (admittedly, that entry is more of a report than anything else). In fact, it was re-reading The Adventures of Augie March that once again brought Josipovici's argument to mind, prompting me to re-read the essay (which is of course much shorter than The Book of God, in which the same argument, among others, is dealt with in greater detail).

    This, then, is the passage from Augie March that caught my attention in this regard (Augie, here, is working for his brother Simon at the latter's coal yard):
    "Well," he said to Happy and me, "why don't you two take the car and go see some of the dealers? Try to drum up some trade. Here's five bucks for beer money. I'll stay here with Coxie and try to get that back fence in shape. They'll steal us blind [if] we don't do something about it." Cox was the handyman, an old wino in a slap-happy painter's cap that looked like an Italian officer's lid. He sent him scouting along the fence of the Westinghouse plant for old planks. Coxie worked for hamburgers and a bottle of California K. Arakelian's sherry or of yocky-dock. He was watchman too, and slept on rags back of the green lattice before the seldom used front door. Off he limped--he carried a bullet, he claimed, from San Juan Hill--by the mile-long big meshed fence of the corporation in which such needs as fences were met by sub-officers' inviting contractors' bids a tight steel net permitted all to look in at the vast remote shimmer, the brick steeples, the long power-buildings and the Vesuvian soft coal under the scarcely smeared summer sky and gaudiness.
    It's that final detail about Coxie--"he carried a bullet, he claimed, from San Juan Hill"--that did it. Then I notice the other character details--he works for hamburgers or a bottle of sherry; sleeps on rags--do some of the same suggestive work. This character never appears again, but a life is briefly allowed to emerge here, before sinking back into the narrative, without any laborious back-story being filled in.

    Again, I don't want to over-sell the comparison with the Hebrew Bible (not least because my experience with the Bible is highly limited!)--obviously, for just one example, Augie is the center of his own narrative. But I think such passages as the one quoted above, in the details I've highlighted, as well as Augie's general refusal to assign a meaning to his life and his uncertainty about it all, suggest an approach to literature that is more in the tradition of narrative, as argued by Josipovici, than in that of the novel, dominated as it is by story or even plot.

    A clearing in the forest

    Following on from yesterday's post, here is Gabriel Josipovici, in an interview in Forward, with Tamar Yellin, acknowledging his preference, as both reader and writer, for narrative over both plot and story (thanks Steve):
    "Plot is not really my thing. Stories have a linear progression. My fiction is more like a clearing in the forest, a patch of clarity." If one can discern a philosophy behind this, it is a desire to serve truth through art rather than reshaping life artificially in order to lend it meaning. "I think the fiction — indeed the art — I like is that which reaches out toward meaning but accepts that in the end, it will always slip out of our grasp or turn out to be an illusion. . ."

    Sunday, March 08, 2009

    Notes on Josipovici's "The Bible Open and Closed"

    Regular readers of this blog will probably not be surprised to learn that the writings of Gabriel Josipovici have been of prime importance in the evolution of my thinking on matters related to religion and faith. In his case, it is of course through the loving attention he has paid to the Bible itself, along with his illuminating inquiries into suspicion and trust and tradition.

    I've always wanted to read the Bible, largely because I felt I ought to, because of its standing as cultural artifact, its importance in history and in literature. I wanted to know what was in it, so that I could better read other things, understand allusions, and so on. And I wanted to know what it really meant, in the face of so many apparent believers in the Bible as repository of Truth and the literal Word of God, and so on. It thus stood tall as the ultimate obligation text. But Josipovici has made the Bible seem approachable for me, just as he has done with so many once-forbidding writers, writers who I'd previously held at arm's length, continually deferring my own reading, writers from Dante to Kierkegaard to Proust. And he has made the Bible come potentially alive for me, as a text. (Which is not to say that I've yet made much headway myself, for a variety of reasons I'll not go into here.)

    His marvelous study, The Book of God, is vitally important in this area, obviously, but here I want to discuss a later essay I've recently re-read. In "The Bible Open and Closed", a beautiful essay collected in The Singer on the Shore, Josipovici discusses the decentred nature of the Bible's narrative mode, its openness. The Bible is, he writes, "a series of narratives" (italics his):
    Narrative was clearly how these ancient Semitic peoples made sense of the world, as it was the way the Greeks of the time of Homer, and so-called primitive peoples all over the world did. Yet we in our culture have a problem with narrative. What does it mean? we ask. What is the guy trying to say? And if the book in question is a sacred text the problems grow even more acute. For then it is even more important to understand clearly what it is saying, since our very lives may depend upon it. We need to feel we are dealing with a text that is closed, in the sense that its meaning can be clearly understood and translated into other terms; yet the Bible, like all narratives, but, as I hope to show, even more than most, is open, that is, it resists translation into other terms and asks not so much to be understood as lived with, however puzzling and ambiguous it may seem.
    He then proceeds to discuss examples of what he means. One involves a certain Phalti or Phaltiel, son of Laish. When David rebels against Saul, Saul gives David's wife Michal to Phalti. Later, after Saul's death, when Saul's son Abner and everyone else realize that David now has the power, Michael must be returned. Here Josipovici quotes the relevant passage from the Bible:
    And Ishbosheth sent, and took her from her husband, even from Phaltiel the son of Laish. And her husband went with her along weeping behind her to Bahurim. Then said Abner unto him, Go, return. And he returned. (2 Sam. 3:15-16)
    These are the only times Phalti appears in the Bible. It would have been one thing, Josipovici observes, for this obscure character to appear once or twice, and no more. But the narrator "chooses instead to bring this man momentarily to life, to make his pain, whether wounded pride or anguished love, all the more palpable for remaining unspoken." So troubling are such examples, so counter to our expectations, particularly our expectations of how a sacred document should operate, but also counter to how we expect a story to be told, used to novels as we are, that we insist on assigning reasons for it. Indeed, the history of Biblical interpretation is full of just this sort of reason-finding. There must be something missing, or maybe this is meant, or perhaps that. But the Bible proceeds as an open narrative. What this means, he says, is that the text's meaning is not certain, not nailed down, not closed. Meaning is sought, but the Bible does not disclose meaning. There is no center to the narrative. All is rendered contingent--not just meaning, but the stories themselves, whether a given story is told, versus another. The characters, like Phalti, who simply walk on the stage, evidently have lives that could have been narrated too, but are not--and we are made to feel it, however briefly. Looked at from the outside, especially from this late date, we think we know that Phalti is of little consequence, so chances are good we will not even notice his appearance. And the Bible does not offer reasons why things happen or why certain people are affected or chosen--why Abraham? for example; indeed, why the Jews?--and of course this is how life is. Things happen. Things are. What matters is how we respond to things. In this way, he argues, the Bible is above all, realistic, which may seem odd to us, given how used to the conventions of the so-called realist novel we are, and how unlike such a novel the Bible is, regardless of our attempts to read it as if it were one.

    Now, Josipovici is primarily talking about the Old Testament--for one thing, the New Testament clearly has a central figure in Jesus--but even the New Testament, he argues, can be seen to operate within this tradition. With the Gospels, he shows how Matthew's and Mark's version of certain events are different, in their mode of narration, than is Luke's. With the former, the narrative proceeds with elements similar to that of the Hebrew Bible: "the deadpan of narration, its refusal to comment on the action from some position outside and above it; and (what follows from this), its depiction of man as a being existing in time. . ." Whereas Luke tries to impose meaning. The former, the way of the Hebrew Bible, and of Matthew and Mark, for example, is "open" because, in the case of Jesus, "we are forced to experience Jesus's anguish [as when he asks 'My God, why has thou forsaken me?'], his sense that what he desires and what he has to be are not one and the same, and his sense that he does not know how things will turn out." His ultimate acceptance is more real, more forceful, when we are not assured, as Luke tries to assure us, that everything will be ok. Only with this openness, this kind of narrative movement, "can Jesus's remarkable acceptance be grasped for what it is: a gesture of trust."

    All of this makes the Bible seem like something other than the boring, obligatory religious text I have at times tried to force myself to read. And it's method, it seems to me, does have implications for writing and for literature, as well as for important extra-literary matters--the notion that the Bible resists meaning rather than imparting it clearly seems to me to have radical implications in our politics and our religion. But these are topics to explore another time. For now, let me close with another passage from Josipovici's essay, this one from near the end:
    It is remarkable that a religious document should place narrative above theology, reality above consolation in this way. But the Bible does. And it does so, it seems to me, because it recognizes that in the end the only thing that can truly heal and console us is not the voice of consolation but the voice of reality. That is the way the world is, it says, neither fair nor equitable. What are you going to do about it? How are you going to live so as to be contented and fulfilled? And it contains no answers, only shows us various forms of response to these questions. And from Adam to Jesus it is constant in its reliance not on teaching, not on exhortation, not on reason, but on the one human form that can convey the truth that we are more than we can ever understand, the only form that is open, the form of narrative.

    Friday, March 06, 2009

    Those Beckett Letters

    As has been fairly widely noted, Cambridge University Press recently published The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 1, 1929-1940. Not too long ago, I would have looked on this event with something close to complete indifference, whether I'd begun reading Beckett or not. I had no interest in biographies in general and extended this lack of interest to diaries and letters--I saw interest in these latter two categories in particular as bizarre and puerile. In part my indifference had to do with my resistance to the reading of fiction through the lens of biography. This particular resistance has not lifted, but I can now see value in reading good biographies of literary figures, biographies that are interested in the writing, or that might perhaps help with reading the author in question, by attending to the his or her problems writing. That is, not merely a series of events, alongside breathless sales reports and the biographer's tedious speculation as to the psychological make up of the author.

    I admit that letters and diaries still seem weird to me, but my view has been softening. I've always blanched at the thought of some of my own letters and journal entries being published, in the extremely unlikely event that I became famous enough that some poor soul should have to read them. (I've also wondered at the problem for scholarship posed by email chains, versus physical correspondance, at least when I operated under the assumption that society would continue without catastrophe. Ahem. But I digress.) Of course it's the personal nature of such documents that has bothered me, the writing being obviously not intended for public consumption.

    So they seem weird, but as I say, my attitude has changed somewhat. I must confess to having developed an interest in certain diaries, certain letters, such as those of Kafka (of course, by now I've already read his Letter to His Father, which at least one reader thinks perhaps ought not have been published at all) and, obviously, Beckett. My attitude had softened somewhat already by this time, but when I read Josipovici's On Trust two years ago, I became fascinated by some of what Kafka had to say in his letters and diaries, and how those related to the problems of writing, the problems of suspicion and trust. I was similarly moved by Beckett's approach to writing, his problems, as revealed till then only in his biographies, which made use of some of his letters.

    But anyway, here I am unexpectedly wanting to read Beckett's letters, like now, knowing it's foolish, that I'm being pointlessly impatient, since I have a quite a bit of Beckett's fiction still to read, as well as the two biographies, Dierdre Bair's Samuel Beckett and James Knowlson's Damned to Fame (both recently acquired, though in somewhat beaten used copies). Not to mention piles of other books (which I also want to read now). I was not expecting this. Nevertheless, I do plan to hold off, for a while. In the meantime, I'm enjoying the bits and pieces revealed by others. For example, Steve Mitchelmore really got the ball rolling, for me, with this post, which included two tantalizing excerpts. Here's part of one:
    Is there something paralysingly sacred contained within the unnature of the word that does not belong to the elements of the other arts? Is there any reason why that terrifyingly arbitrary materiality of the word surface should not be dissolved, as for example the sound surface of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony is devoured by huge black pauses, so that for pages on end we cannot perceive it as other than a dizzying path of sounds connecting unfathomable chasms of silence?
    Then at his fine blog, A Piece of Monologue, Rhys Tranter wrote about the book a few days ago, which he had not quite dived into yet. But he quoted from the introduction. I will finish up by excerpting one of his equally tantalizing excerpts. The letters, say the writers of the intro:
    demonstrate his numerous commitments: to reading in a systematic way the classics as well as the literatures of several cultures; to training himself in music and the visual arts; to learning languages, becoming fluent in at least five and familiar with many more; to keeping up with a broad range of acquaintences, friends, and professional associates; to answering in polite and timely fashion practically every letter that was addressed to him, even when he became famous and the inquiries grew in number; to writing, of course - criticism, fiction, poetry, drama; and perhaps more surprisingly, a commitment to getting published and to seeing his dramatic work realized on stage. The letters also show the author's endeavor to lead the life that would make all these commitments realizable.

    Thursday, March 05, 2009

    Notes on Stephen Crane and Modernism

    I read some of Stephen Crane's fiction recently (I won't deny that an impetus for this reading was Gabriel Josipovici's enthusiastic mention of Crane in last year's Ready Steady Book year-end symposium, though I'd been meaning to at least re-read "The Open Boat" for some time). Looking at the biographical sketch in the front of the book, I was struck by the fact that Crane was born November 1, 1871. That is, four months after Marcel Proust (born July 10, 1871).

    Younger than Proust! In my mind, where Proust feels present, his concerns relevant, Crane has always seemed locked in the dusty past--not only were some of his writings required reading in grade school, but the subject of his most famous novel, The Red Badge of Courage, is the Civil War. His association with this war is so complete, I think, that it has only served to reinforce the sense I had of him belonging to a much earlier period than he does. In truth, of course, Crane's realism was innovative in its time, and I can see now that it stands as a precursor to the writing of some of the historical Modernists, Hemingway in particular. Actually, I'd always had Crane slotted in as an influence on Hemingway, who I've never been able to read. Neither of which did much to change my flawed view of Crane's own writing (yet I'd had fond memories of reading "The Open Boat"--it's a mystery). I knew that Crane had died very young, of tuberculosis, not yet 29. But whereas he wrote and published a lot in the 1890s--journalism, stories, novels--Proust struggled with his literary direction.

    It occurs to me, now, thinking of Crane as an influence on Hemingway and perhaps other Modernists, to wonder if this might help us draw a distinction between conceptions of Modernism, a topic which has come up again here recently, and elsewhere. Crane's writing can be posited, from one point of view, as a set of advances for realism as a technique. I've already used the word "precursor" above, the kind of language I generally try to avoid in these matters: the notion of literary progress comes into play here, a notion I don't have much use for. The association of Modernism necessarily with a particular set of aesthetic advancements is of little interest to me. For me, the question is not about a particular aesthetic, but rather about whether the writer is attending to the problem at hand, solving the problems presented by writing--by writing in the particular instance, and by writing in general.