Thinking Blue Guitars

Slogans stifle thought.

Raymond Williams’s Communicative Ideal

In the first novel Raymond Williams ever published, Border Country (1960), he describes the annual Eisteddfod of the fictional Welsh border village Glynmawr.[1] The Eisteddfod, supposedly an ancient bardic custom, was in fact an “invented tradition” of the 1840s.[2] Ostensibly, it was a talent competition for children and adults, based primarily on the reading of excerpts from the Bible. But it also had a deeper function: it brought together the local community and reaffirmed their communal identity at the local and national levels. In this particular, fictional Eisteddfod, communal cohesion is stressed in that, as each child mounts the stage to recite, the conductor-cum-master of ceremonies, Illtyd Morgan y Darren, “identified her family, and recalled older members of the same family, who had come as children to this platform” (Williams, 2006, p. 251). Remarkably, the narrator qualifies this genealogical ritual as “centrally…the meaning of life” (ibid.). Given such a description, one could be forgiven for thinking that what is occurring in these pages is an idealised depiction of village life, along the lines of that mythical “organic community” for which F. R. Leavis so famously yearned. Indeed, the central passage in which this sense of an ideal community comes into its own is the climax of the Eisteddfod when the whole village joins together in song:

…then irresistibly the entry and rising of an extraordinary power, and everyone singing; the faces straining and the voices rising around them, holding, moving, in the hushed silence that held all the potency of these sounds, until you listening were the singing and the border had been crossed. When all the choirs had sung, everyone stood and sang the [Welsh] anthem. It was now no longer simply hearing, but a direct effect on the body: on the skin, on the hair, on the hands. (Williams, 2006, pp. 258-259)

The key line here is “you listening were the singing and the border had been crossed”. It encapsulates an ideal, almost transcendent, form of communication: addresser and addressee are fused in a whole greater than its parts, to the extent that singing and listening become indistinguishable. It is also a bodily form of communication – one is almost tempted to say ‘communion’. Is this not the most dramatic example of the organic community in action? A community so organic that the “border” separating individuals from one another is crossed?

In fact, it is not. Even when Leavis’s influence on his thought was at its most pervasive, Williams accepted neither the terms nor the presuppositions of Leavis’s social diagnosis. (Williams’s The Country and the City is one of the most powerful critiques of such regressive nostalgia ever written.) So what could be the meaning of such passages in Border Country? And what is their significance for what Williams might have understood by the ‘politics of style’? Firstly, let us reconsider the Eisteddfod section, this time in terms of its narrative function within the broader context of the scene as a whole. The scene begins with a passage on Alun Hybart, a young man spotted by a scout for Gwenton football club who subsequently goes on to enjoy the success of leaving the village for ‘better’ things. The tension set up is that between staying and leaving, or, more complexly, how to stay true to a place you have physically and socially left, but to which you still somehow belong.[3] This includes a flashback to the scout’s visit to the village, in which the latter mocks the large number of inhabitants who share the surname ‘Davies’ (Williams, 2006, p. 247). The function of this mockery is to form a counterpoint to the overvaluation of names and naming within the genealogical ritual of the Eisteddfod itself.[4] Compounded with this external mockery of the village’s communal modes of meaning-making, Alun – a semi-insider – then claims that the entire basis of the Eisteddfod is competition and the desire to win, to which Will (the young male protagonist, based on a young Raymond Williams) responds that it is the taking part that counts. But Will himself is torn between, on the one hand, defending the communal traditions of the village enshrined in the Eisteddfod against external mockery and miscomprehension and, on the other, resenting the suffocating provinciality of such close-knit communal ties. The narrator makes constant references to Will’s uneasiness and his desire somehow to separate himself off from or define himself against the community.[5] Moreover, between the afternoon and evening sessions of the Eisteddfod, Williams includes a brief domestic interlude which reminds the reader of all of the major dramatic conflicts of the novel to date (Williams, 2006, pp. 252-256): intergenerational conflicts (which are also struggles over modes of inheritance of the past and interpretations of the present) and ideological struggles between Will’s father’s attempt at a total integrity of moral and economic self-sufficiency and the more opportunist, superficial approach to morality and economics of Morgan Rosser. It is in terms of these wider conflicts that the ideal unity of community embodied in the singing of the Eisteddfod must be read. Indeed, it is only against this backdrop of historical and personal strife that the Eisteddfod, located at the halfway point of the novel, becomes invested with such dramatic intensity in the first place.

It is the totality of this scene – the harmony and the conflict, the continuities and the discontinuities, the settlements and the struggles – with which Williams was concerned. Time and again throughout his work, one comes across the constitutively ambiguous senses of ‘community’ and ‘communication’: on the one hand, they already exist; he has lived them and known them in his working-class youth. On the other hand, however, he demonstrates that it was never a perfect community or communication in the first place, and never will be until the political and economic struggles that generate intra-communal strife are finally overcome. So it is that Williams’s texts always move – in a controlled, measured manner – from indicative to subjunctive and back again. The fictional Eisteddfod should stand as an allegory for what Williams saw as the perfection of human communication: but only as an allegory. From his theory of style to his concrete policy proposals on the media and the arts, and his sketches of a future socialist community, the regulative ideal of the “listening as the singing”, of writer and reader, addresser and addressee as co-producers and sharers of a communication – this ideal is always hovering in the background. But it stays there, whilst in the foreground he takes an unflinching “full look at the worst”.[6]

Just as Ken Hirshckop has argued that the defining issue of Mikhail Bakhtin’s philosophical and political project was “the felt need for a dialogism different from dialogue and at the same time its modern heir” (Hirschkop, 1999, p. 56) – that is, a type of communication that binds the immediacy of direct speech to the necessary complexity of written and abstract discourse – so Williams’s political project can be summed up in the following sentence: “The condition of socialist democracy is that it is built from direct social relations into all necessary indirect and extended relations” (Williams, 1983a, p. 124). Where Leavisites hankered after the “direct social relations” of the ever-receding “organic community”, Williams looked capitalist modernity in the eye and called its bluff. From now on, the complexity of modern societies was such that “indirect and extended relations” were inevitable, not least since they were currently structured around the commodity form, the very Muse of abstraction itself. Yet socialism involved the drive to embed these distanced and abstract relations within a concrete and liveable directness, to give them, as the saying goes, “a local habitation and a name”. The Eisteddfod scene thus stands just as much for a reminder of the difficult road to socialism as it does for its final destination.

 

[1] Glynmawr was based on Pandy, the village in which Williams grew up.

[2] Prys Morgan has written thus of the symbols and insignia used at the nineteenth-century Eisteddfod: “The new ceremonials and the symbols and insignia all served to help Welshmen visualize their own country, and they had an exceptional importance in a national community that was not a political state. They were a substitute for the lost customs and rites of the old society of patronal festivals, merry nights and calendar feasts” (Hobsbawm & Ranger, 1983, p. 92). Cf. also (Smith, 2008, pp. 52-53).

[3] This is the central theme of the whole novel. Williams returned to it several times, most notably when discussing the simultaneously formal and political problem he faced when trying to represent “combined continuity and discontinuity” whilst writing Border Country (Williams, 1979, p. 273). Cf. also (Williams, 1983b, pp. 240-241).

[4] There is also, of course, the matter of the protagonist’s two names: ‘Matthew’ is his formal, legal name, but the villagers know him as ‘Will’. Likewise, Raymond Williams, prior to university, was known locally as ‘Jim’.

[5] E.g., “Against his determination, Will felt himself caught up in that movement and pressure…” (p. 249); “Half-ashamed, Will found himself wishing that there could be some extraordinary blunder…” (p. 251); “The mounting excitement…seemed wholly apart from him” (p. 257).

[6] Taken from the epigraph Williams chose for his Towards 2000, an excerpt from a Thomas Hardy poem: “Who holds that if way to the Better there be,/ it exacts a full look at the worst”. Interestingly, Theodor W. Adorno chose an almost identical epigraph for the second part of his Minima Moralia, this time taken from F. H. Bradley: “Where everything is bad, it must be good to know the worst.”

 

Bibliography

Hirschkop, K. (1999). Mikhail Bakhtin : An Aesthetic for Democracy. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.

Hobsbawm, E. J., & Ranger, T. O. (1983). The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge Cambridgeshire ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, D. (2008). Raymond Williams : A Warrior’s Tale. Cardigan: Parthian.

Williams, R. (1979). Politics and Letters : Interviews with ‘New Left Review’. London: NLB.

Williams, R. (1983a). Towards 2000. London: Chatto & Windus.

Williams, R. (1983b). Writing in Society. London: Verso.

Williams, R. (2006). Border Country (New ed.). Cardigan: Parthian.

On the Far Right, Plain Speaking and Political Correctness

The mainstream press often observe that, unlike most Westminster politicians, spokesmen of far-right parties like UKIP and the BNP are plain-talking and “tell it like it is.” Part of the appeal of the far-right is thus not so much what they say as how they say it.

One of their most powerful tactics is the way in which they attack liberal discourses such as political correctness. They rightly sense, as most people do, that political correctness is essentially a formalism, with no substantive content, albeit one which has a certain local (and very important) efficacy. The problem with political correctness is that, like “tolerance,” it acts as an ideological supplement to and placeholder for actual, material justice and equality. It functions as a purely symbolic discourse which belies its origins in real social inequalities and injustices. One need only compare it to its socially substantive counterpart, solidarity, to understand its limitations: political correctness presupposes a social agent with some minimal form of power (arising from the white, patriarchal, heteronormative social structure) acting with enlightened tolerance and superficial decency towards an objectively less powerful social agent; solidarity, however, presupposes a fundamental universal equality as the basis of a collective self-organisation which aims to overthrow in actuality the very power structures which make political correctness necessary.

What the far right exploits is thus the gap between liberal formalism and social reality. That is why when they speak plainly it is as if they are speaking the truth: the empty clichés of Westminster give way to a man telling it how it really is. It is analogous to a situation in which two schoolboys who are usually thick as thieves being forced to speak far more formally than usual because the headmaster is present; the second he walks out the door they launch back into their usual slang and buffoonery. They feel relieved. They can laugh, joke, be their real selves again. Is this not precisely the logic of the far right? Like (public) schoolboys, they whisper to us when the teacher’s out of earshot and let us revel in our “real” selves, relieving us of our duty to play-act a political correctness that we all knew to be bullshit in the first place.

The problem, of course, is that what the far right says when it speaks plainly is completely false. But that doesn’t matter, because it has the structure of a truth. And a cathartic one at that. Moreover, the “real, authentic” self it allows us to be is potentially nothing but the purest ideology – a bric-a-brac identity cobbled together from the flotsam and jetsam of nationalism, racism, sexism and homophobia. It is a very dangerous mixture, and one which should spur us on to develop an alternative, socialist “common sense” which can take on the far right’s lies on the terrain of plain speaking.

On James Parker’s Prose Style

James Parker’s recent article on Joe Strummer in The Atlantic features one of the finest opening paragraphs I have ever read:

American shrinks know him well: the English boarding-school boy. Privately educated, privately damaged, culturally overstocked, and twanging with the knowledge of his own separateness. Having made an emigratory thrust westward, he washes up, middle-aged, in the therapist’s chair, head in hands, complaining of a sound, a sound: tires on gravel, and the swish of the family vehicle as it slides off the institutional forecourt, abandoning him to Matron, and cold toast, and the other boys.

Look at that prose. Understated, suave, elegant, intricately constructed – down to the individual comma. It purrs like a top-rate Jaguar. Instead of opening with a bang, the first sentence sidles into the reader’s psyche, the colon assuming the subtlety of the appositive comma rather than its usual consequential bluntness. Then, with the mention of the “English boarding-school boy”, we are in the realm of stereotype – a dangerous place to be with the wrong guide. But Parker is wily, absorbing all the force of the cliché (similar in affective tenor to gossip) but shaping it to his own ends.

“Privately educated” is official in tone; it would be at home in any old obituary or newspaper profile. But Parker undercuts the reader’s expectation with “privately damaged”, combining the stylistic curio of the anaphora with the continued cliché of the content (after all, it is part of the stereotype of English boarding-school boys that they are psychologically damaged). “Twanging” is a touch of genius; we have entered the sphere of Wallace Stevens (“I know my lazy, leaden twang/ Is like the reason in a storm”) but here it is not ratio that sounds out: it is knowledge of his own separateness – a lesser writer would have chosen “solitude”.

The paragraph continues in this guise, each phrase sculpted to semantic and tonal perfection: “emigratory thrust”, “washes up” and so on. And then we enter for the briefest of moments a stream of consciousness, “complaining of a sound, a sound”, the repetition of which is crucial for the vitality of the psychoanalytic scene. We are there with him, staring down at this helpless but enormously privileged man-boy. It ends as it begins: in the realm of stereotype. The distinct joy of reading this last sentence is a combination of cultural recognition – Matron! Of course! I remember that figure from all those terrible films! – and stylistic exactitude. The tires don’t roll or move, they swish off the forecourt, onomatopoeically reproducing in our mind the thousands of episodes of Famous Five or Midsomer Murders we’ve had the (mis)fortune of watching over the years. It is an exercise in stylistic perfection.

But now, initial excitement over, we must recover ourselves. For prose which produces such heightened cathexis must have something of the night about it, something embedded deep in the political unconscious. What might that be?

Let us look again. The overriding tone of this style is self-confidence. One rarely encounters it these days, for those who attempt it usually mistake arrogance for stylistic virtue (Martin Amis’s clichéd anti-clichés spring to mind). Yet, read the personal accounts of the “great individuals” of history and you will find it there: cf. Trotsky, passim. It is the tone of the victors, those to whose will reality ultimately conformed and whose triumphs echo in the sinews of their writing. It is a rhythm which implies a clear beginning, middle and an end; we are not, here, in the realm of Virgina Woolf, one who lingers on the abstract detail at the expense of the narrative totality. No, we are marched through the paragraph, hand in hand with a man (and that it is a man is crucial) who is sufficiently au fait with the cultural enthymemes of our time to draw on their ideological acuity, yet who by very subtle mockery implicitly raises himself above them. Quite whether we are raised with him is a question of who is reading.

In short, as unlikely as it may seem, I claim that what appeared initially to be a purely aesthetic excitement over Parker’s prose style is in fact socially and politically specific. The joy I felt on reading this prose was the form momentarily assumed by the Utopian (or Dystopian) desire for historical triumph in combination with my identification with an ideological construction of bourgeois masculinity: I wanted to be the man who knows what he wants, gets what he wants, but does so with the all the suaveness that stylistic capital has to offer.

Nonstop You

The BBC reports that a combination of CCTV, facial recognition technology and radio frequency identification are paving the way for real-time individualised adverts. Based on our online activity, our physical appearances and so on, we will be presented in public with adverts which cater to our unique personal tastes. This is worrying on many levels, but the one I want to focus on is how it might affect our subjectivity.

The first result will be to urge us into an unchanging, eternal present of ourselves (an extension of a process already well underway). By accessing data on what I like, on what I’ve already bought and so on, it will simply present me with more of the same. In no matter how subtle a manner, it will urge me to continue along this one particular path of taste (within the general cycles of fashion). It will recycle my affect, and in doing so it is effectively designed to prevent the advent of novelty. For if all I am ever confronted with is an extension of a previous version of myself, I am partially stripped of my capacity to be other than I was.

The second result will be an objective narcissism. I say “objective” because here the narcissism is literally inscribed in (what was once) public space itself. As Žižek has observed,Even in a public space, I am still within my private space, engaged in no interaction with other people”. And if I am everywhere surrounded by my inner private world, incapable of experiencing the objective limits of my own desires and introspections, then I cannot fully live. For surely any life worth living is one in which I am able to learn and accept my limits via my interactions with other people and the natural world – with that which is subjectively and materially other than myself. It is no wonder that death has no place in such a society, since it is the ultimate limit on all egomaniacal projects. Likewise, it should make us stop and think when the German airline, Lufthansa, has as its slogan a theological definition of hell: “Nonstop you”.

The political upshot of such subjective dispositions is yet more erosion of our in-built capacity for solidarity. For if I live constantly in the shadow of my own mollycoddled self, a subject who is seriously other than me – one who makes demands on me – can only strike me as at best an obstacle, at worst a monster. So it is, then, that seemingly innocent advances in advertising have quite direct political effects.

In Utopia, of course, this technology will be used for far different purposes. One day, as I’m brushing my teeth, an image of my rotting corpse will suddenly flash up on the mirror in front of me, surrounded by my children – old themselves now ­– and friends. Or as I’m walking to the forum to take part in the collective centenary movie of the saviour of earth from the Anthropocene, I will see an image of another world suddenly appear on the side of the workers’ theatre, a world where everything is different, like a fairy tale in which we are all invited to honour our past selves but not to be shackled by them, to dare to dream in the bosom of the space we have made together.

Eloquent Silences

Corey Robin has written a genuinely wonderful response to James Wood’s review of Greg Bellow’s new memoir. Wood himself has even commented on the response. I want here simply to reply to the question posed in Corey Robin’s title: “Are We Not All the Child Memoirists of Writers?” My answer to this is: “It depends”. If the “writer” metaphor is simply that – a metaphor that stands for the mysterious interior life of our parents, beyond the care and devotion they bestow on us – then yes. But if Robin means it somewhat more literally – which phrases such as “their real life may be the life they lead elsewhere, which may also be on a page, whether a diary, a letter, a legal brief, a memo” – then I’d say no, simply because most people do not write down their inner, mysterious lives but live them out in an often painful, occasionally tragic silence. Ironically, I suspect it is partly their realisation that this is so which drives many people to become writers in the first place. They recognise the eloquent silences of people’s lives and, unlike those who live them, cannot bear to leave them unsaid. I myself have never understood why literature has at certain points in its history aspired to the pristine nothingness of silence, for it can be a truly terrible thing.

Orpheus Song

The Standing Men and Women of Taksim

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Once there was a man who stood below the sun and hurled his eyes aloft. At first he lasted but a fraction of a second before the blazing white was too much and he had to look away. But slowly he evolved. Each glance outlasted the one before by several seconds. As the days went by, the glances prolonged themselves even further, first by minutes, then by hours, until, after several years, glance mutated into look, and look into gaze, and gaze into knowing silent wonder. His eyes developed gelatinous films, transcoders of the light. He was a mystery to men. Some say he was insane; others, he was a phantom. But older legends exist describing how an angel hypnotized him, how every day whilst he slept a six-winged beast would come with holy balm and coat the spongy spheres beneath his lids. And each time the man awoke to resume communion with the sun, a flutter of wings trailed off into the bright white spaces of the world.

What the legends forget is that he was not alone. First one, then ten, then thousands of others joined him, until the standing men and women of Taksim stood for all men and women everywhere. Whilst they stood – as they still stand – scholars squabbled over meanings: did an angel really coat their eyes, or was it something else? But the standing men and women knew what graced them: it was the future. Scarred and ugly from the struggle, half-blinded from the tear gas, but fierce, beautiful and new.

 

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Lars Iyer’s Misreading of Badiou

In many ways Alain Badiou and Lars Iyer constitute the existential extremities of the present political conjuncture. Where the latter has raised bathos to a fine but torturous art (too bathetic, too fine and too torturous for my tastes), the former has reinvented the heroic for the post-heroic age. If I have time, I will write more on this opposition but for now I want merely to point out that Lars Iyer’s reading of Badiou (if this extract from his latest novel is anything to go by) is mistaken. I say this with no particular malice since it was a (mis)reading I more or less shared until being set straight by Bruno Bosteels’ The Actuality of Communism.

The excerpt from Iyer’s novel ends thus:

But what would Alain Badiou make of us? What would he conclude? Enemies, he would think. No, not even that, Badiou would think. – ‘Pas enemies. Les tosseurs’. But perhaps he wouldn’t think anything at all. Perhaps he’d just look through us, as if, as with evil for Plato, we didn’t really exist.

For the mathematical philosopher, vagueness doesn’t exist, not really; it’s only a deficiency of precision. And pathos doesn’t exist for the political philosopher, not unless it is the glint of starlight, impersonal and remote, on the eyeglasses of the militant, brick in hand, charging the police.

This is wrong: vagueness does exist for Badiou. In his Ethics, for example, he makes it clear that those forms of politics which attempt to expunge “opinion” – here a synonym for (Gramscian) “common sense” or the sedimentation of habit (i.e., the vagueness of Platonic doxa) – amount to Evil. As Bosteels has it:

…in Badiou’s Ethics both the temptation of “total reeducation” dreamed of by some of Mao’s Red Guards and Nietzsche’s mad dream of a “grand politics” are diagnosed as disastrous forms of extremism. These are attempts to draw a rigid and dogmatic line of demarcation between truth and opinion, in the name of which all immanence to the existing state of things is denied as sheer decadence or bourgeois revisionism. To be more precise, these are attempts to perform a complete tabula rasa of the past for the sake of truth’s absolute present. “When Nietzsche proposes to ‘break the history of the world in two’ by exploding Christian nihilism and generalizing the great Dionysian ‘yes’ to Life; or when certain Red Guards of the Chinese Cultural Revolution proclaim, in 1967, the complete suppression of self-interest, they are indeed inspired by a vision of a situation in which all opinions have been replaced by the truth to which Nietzsche and the Red Guards are committed,” claims Badiou. But these are forms of absolutization of the power of truth that amount to a disastrous Evil: “Not only does this Evil destroy the situation (for the will to eliminate opinion is, fundamentally, the same as the will to eliminate, in the human animal, its very animality, i.e. its being), but it also interrupts the truth-process in whose name it proceeds, since it fails to preserve, within the composition of the subject, the duality [duplicité] of interests (disinterested-interest and interest pure and simple).” To avoid the trap of speculative leftism, therefore, a certain degree of duplicity and impurity must be preserved in the articulation between the old state of things and the new emancipatory truth.

The worst that can be said of Badiou is that he deals with vagueness precisely – but between this and the eradication of vagueness tout court, there is a world of difference.

Raymond Williams and Derrida

Thanks to a friend of mine, I recently discovered this invaluable series of videos of Raymond Williams, filmed at a conference in Strathclyde back in 1986. The totally unexpected highlight, and one that has about it that disorienting aura of the uncanny, is a video of Derrida in conversation with Raymond Williams. Moreover, in the audio section, one has access to the complete recording of Williams’s very important lecture on language and the avant-garde.

Proust: In Search of the Present

I noted long ago a common misconception about Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Put simply, people seem to think that the “lost time” of the title denotes the past, but in fact it denotes the present. More specifically, it implies a present that is present to itself in all its plenitude. So why, you might ask, was there all this talk of involuntary memory? Why care so much about memory if what you really want is a full present? It is my thesis that it was not involuntary memory as such that interested Proust, but rather the problem of narrating the atemporal plenitude which that memory implied. In short, Proust raised to the level of a literary phenomenology the split between Erzählzeit (time of narrating)and erzählte Zeit (narrated time).

Let us take the example of the famous “madeleine” scene. This is the scene that everybody knows – even those who have never read the book. According to common wisdom, it is the prime example of Proust’s concern with recovering a lost past. I claim, on the contrary, that this passage is a literary exemplification of the temporal dislocation of the phenomenological “now”.

The scene begins when Marcel’s mother (i.e., the narrator’s mother, not the real Marcel Proust) sends out for the little “madeleine” cakes. He “mechanically” raises the tea-spoon to his lips on which crumbs of the madeleine are soaked in tea. The moment the concoction touches his palate, he is invaded by an “extraordinary” pleasure. The next few paragraphs are an attempt to discover the source of this pleasure. Important for our purposes are the tenses Proust uses throughout the passage. It begins in the traditional French storytelling tense, the passé simple. But as soon as the unattended pleasure sets in, the tenses alternate between passé simple and the pluperfect. The first tense implies a conventional relation between the “now” of the act of narration and the “now” of the story’s present. But the use of the pluperfect adds a temporal depth: it produces a time-lag internal to the storyworld itself between the “now” of the character’s reflection and the “now” of a previous act or experience. Thus, when we read

Mais à l’instant même où la gorgée mêlée des miettes du gâteau toucha mon palais, je tressaillis, attentif à ce qui se passait d’extraordinaire en moi. Un plaisir délicieux m’avait envahi, isolé, sans la notion de sa cause.

we are confronted with three tenses. The passé simple (toucha, tressaillis) produces a clear relation between the time of narration (the time in which toucha is uttered) and narrated time (the actual event that happened in the past). The imperfect (se passait)  implies an ongoing state of affairs (a happening through time). The pluperfect (m’avait envahi), however, indicates the character’s reflection – within the narrated time – on what has just happened to him – also within the narrated time. So here we have a narrator telling us about his past self and what this past self was itself thinking about its own immediately past self. Throughout the rest of this paragraph, the shift is always between: a) present of narration/ present of the narrated and b) the present of the narrated/ present of a past narrated.

But the real temporal confusion (as if it wasn’t confusing enough already) arises when the tense switches to the present: Je bois une seconde gorgée où je ne trouve rien de plus que dans la première, une troisième qui m’apporte un peu moins que la seconde. What is the ontological status of this present (bois, trouve)? We know from the context that this present must be the present of narrated time, but the interweaving presence of the time of narration can still be felt. The past present is haunted by the present present, such that the present seems neither truly past nor completely present. The ambiguous status of this time is only compounded when (the past) Marcel tries to force himself to “retrograde his thought” to its initial configuration prior to having eaten the madeleine.

The ambiguity comes to a head in the following sentence:

Arrivera-t-il jusqu’à la surface de ma claire conscience, ce souvenir, l’instant ancien que l’attraction d’un instant identique est venue de si loin solliciter, émouvoir, soulever tout au fond de moi ? Je ne sais. Maintenant je ne sens plus rien…

It is precisely this maintenant, this “now”, which is at the heart of Proust’s entire project. The “now” in which he does not know and no longer feels anything (Je ne sais…je ne sens plus rien) brings to consciousness for the reader, almost in spite of itself, the not-yet-forgotten “now” of the time of narration: i.e., that time in which it is quite clear that Marcel does know because he’s about to tell us! What we have here can only be described as something like the zero degree of that hairline fracture which prevents the “I” from ever coinciding with itself: the split that forever separates the I-utterer from the I-uttered. It is a split internal to the “now” as such, one which means that the present can never present itself without simultaneously absenting itself.

It should thus come as no surprise that when the Marcel of narrated time finally remembers whence he knows this taste, the narration immediately switches to the passé composé tense: Et tout d’un coup le souvenir m’est apparu. Why the past perfect and not the passé simple? Both tenses seal off the presentness of a past, but the past perfect implies more of an ongoing relation to the present than the passé simple could ever muster. In other words, the past perfect voids the presentness of apparition (an index of the impossibility of the self-present “now”) whilst trying to mask the rift between Erzählzeit and erzählte Zeit (given that it could be used in either). In short, the act of remembrance never actually presents itself.

À la Recherche is full of such failed nows; it is for this reason that the “lost time” of the title denotes the present and not the past.

(I am grateful to Andrew Kahn for pointing out two errors in a previous version of this blog post).

Seamus Heaney on Life and Death in Larkin and Yeats

As I try to fight off a fairly unpleasant bout of flu, I turned last night to an old essay by Seamus Heaney. The essay, entitled “Joy or Night: Last Things in the Poetry of W. B. Yeats and Philip Larkin”, collected in his excellent volume, The Redress of Poetry, is an examination of how one’s fundamental attitude towards death affects one’s poetry. I shan’t write about it at length, since my aim is merely to recommend it to readers. I shall, nonetheless, make one or two brief observations.

One of the pleasures of this essay is its emphasis on form as a constitutive aspect of a poem’s meaning. Indeed, Heaney endows form with a nigh-on metaphysical import: “[W]hen a poem rhymes, when a form generates itself, when a metre provokes consciousness into new postures, it is already on the side of life. When a rhyme surprises and extends the fixed relations between words, that in itself protests against necessity” (p. 158). Thus it is that the poetry of Larkin and Yeats comes to be seen as a battle ground between life and death: the dialectic of “life as cornucopia” and “life as empty shell” plays itself out in both overt moral pronouncements and the forms in which those pronouncements are embodied. In Yeats, Heaney claims, no matter how close he drives to the “aboriginal ice” – the cold heart of all things – there is in this very drive itself a superabundant Yes! to life, which overcomes the terrestrial No! of human suffering and nihilism. Because of this, Yeats’s “aboriginal ice” is of a very different glacial genre from Larkin’s “sun-comprehending glass”: “It represented not so much a frigid exhaustion as an ultimate attainment” (p. 157). Larkin, however, reneges on the fundamental task of poetry, as Heaney sees it: “[Larkin’s ‘Aubade’] does not hold the lyre up in the face of the gods of the underworld; it does not make the Orphic effort to haul life back up the slope against all odds” (p. 158). No matter how much the form of Larkin’s poem cried out for life, its argument could not overcome its entrapment in the vision of life as empty shell, in which “Death is no different whined at than withstood”. Heaney, with Yeats as corroboration, suggests it is very different – very different indeed.

More than Nothing: Kevin Bacon’s “Bacon Number”

A new craze is surging across the internet: “The Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”. According to Wikipedia, it is “a variation on ‘six degrees of separation’ which posits that everyone in the world is no more than six acquaintance links from anyone else on Earth…The game requires a group of players to try to connect any individual to Kevin Bacon as quickly as possible and in as few links as possible.” Google has promoted the game by allowing users to type the name of any actor or actress into its search engine followed by the tag “Bacon number”: it then calculates and displays the said number (i.e., number of degrees of separation he or she has from Bacon). Obviously – or so one might think – Kevin Bacon has a “Bacon number” of 0 because there are no degrees of separation between him and himself.

The question I would like to pose is this: what is the precise value of Bacon’s Bacon number? In other words, what exactly does 0 mean here? On the surface, the meaning is simple: since Bacon is himself, there cannot be any degree of separation between Bacon and Bacon. Yet philosophers would disagree. At the beginning of Sickness unto Death Kierkegaard claims that a “self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation”. A self is an active self-relation that must constantly relate itself to itself in order to endure in its selfhood. Kevin Bacon is many things: a man, an actor, a celebrity, an American, but he is not entirely reducible to any one or several of these predicates. Paradoxically, he can only continue to be those things for as long as he resists being reduced to them. As Žižek writes:

On the one hand, subject is pure negative universality; an identity-with-itself which “repels”, makes abstractions of, all its determinate content (“I” am not any one of my determinations but the universality which simultaneously encompasses and negates them); yet on the other hand, “I” is this abstract power of negativity which has come into existence in the very domain of its determinations…[1]

In other words, the subject is a ceaseless oscillation between “abstract-negative universality (abstraction of all determinate content)” and “the vanishing point of pure singularity”. A subject is not so much a thing as the process of a thing relating itself to itself; or, as Hegel has it: substance is subject, and vice versa.

Thus, Kevin Bacon’s “Bacon number” of 0 is misleading, since it implies an inert, atemporal being-in-itself, lacking all dynamic negativity. In truth, however, Zero here is in cahoots with the One. For Hegel, the “One cannot coincide with Something”:

The being of Something is therefore always a being-for-other…; one attains the One only when this other, something-other for which something is, is reflected into the (some)thing itself as its own ideal unity – that is to say, when something is no more for something-else but for itself…[T]he Void is precisely the reflection-into-self of the Otherness…[T]he Void is not external to the One, it dwells in its very heart.[2]

The self is a constant process of insistence on (One’s) unity and integrity in, through and beyond the enabling-disabling relation with and for an Other. For Kevin Bacon to be Kevin Bacon, 0 must constantly propel itself into 1. More than that, this qualitative One of self-relation is the precondition for inscription within the symbolic order as the quantitative One; the Bacon number 0 is positively charged and contains within itself the condition of possibility for all other Bacon numbers.


[1] Slavoj Žižek, For They Know Not What They Do (London: Verso, 2008), p. 47.

[2] Ibid, pp. 51-52.

From the Archive

On Learning a Language

On Rilke and Love

On Autumn

Derrida and Literarity

The Condition of Mediocrity

I hope you enjoy them!

Q. D. Leavis on J. G. Ballard

Q. D. Leavis (1906-1981)

I came across this quotation last week in an essay by Francis Mulhern. Q. D. Leavis thinks she’s describing the general destitution of Britain and its literature, but what she’s actually doing is summarising the key elements of J. G. Ballard’s fiction.

The England that bore the classical English novel has gone forever, and we can’t expect a country of high-rise flat-dwellers, office workers and factory robots and unassimilated multi-racial minorities, with a suburbanized countryside, factory farming, sexual emancipation without responsibility, rising crime and violence, and the Trade Union mentality, to give rise to a literature comparable with the novel tradition of a so different past.

Touché, Queenie.

The Ideology of Form: Boyle’s Opening Ceremony

Of Aristotle’s six elements of tragedy, spectacle was the least important, plot the most. Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony was devoid of plot but a virtuoso spectacle: lucky for him, then, that he wasn’t writing a tragedy. But what was the ceremony? Under what genre could we class it? The modern world is full of these bizarre performances in which nations riven by class divisions present themselves to themselves as harmonious communities. They assume many different forms – plays, films, advertisements, paintings – but Boyle’s, I claim, was fundamentally a chronicle.

A chronicle, in a nutshell, is ‘one damned thing after another’: a series of discontinuous events whose only mutual connection is that they happen to be united by temporal or spatial sequence. Quite why these things occurred, and why they occurred in the manner that they did, is never explicitly explained. But, as Hayden White has observed, they don’t have to be: “The paratactical style of the chronicle falls short of pure nonsense because it presupposes the capacity of its envisaged audience to apprehend both the significance of the events reported in it and the causal connections presumed to link the events depicted in a comprehensible order of occurrence”. In other words, where no causal connection is represented, the audience fills in the blanks by drawing on what you might call the “political imaginary” – the warehouse of (generally historically unsound) common sense which helps us make sense of the everyday world around us.

Thus, in Boyle’s representation of British history, the rolling hills gave way to industrial Pandemonium without so much as a how’s-your-father, and the Sex Pistols followed the Beatles as peacefully as if John Lennon had never been scandalous and “God Save the Queen” had never been written. In the choreographed scenes of the Industrial Revolution, the workers and the bosses were spatially contiguous rather than politically antagonistic. Time and again throughout the performance, history was shown to be one thing after another, a series of contingent happenings in a timeless vacuum, controllable by no one and on account of no human deed. (At a push – and it is a push – you might infer from Boyle’s potted history that technology, void of all context and social relations, is the driving force of change.) But this is almost never registered by the audience because its storehouse of common sense imposes the feel of a narrative onto what is, in fact, just about as far from narrative as you can possibly get.

What the form of the chronicle can never register is conflict as the driving force of history. Where was the Empire, the massacres, the slave trade, the organised theft of indigenous natural resources which enabled the Industrial Revolution in the first place? (Is it too much to see a return of the repressed in the black monsters of the NHS scene? Shooed away, of all things, by a patronising middle-class white woman…). Where were the strike-breakers? Where were the calculated and imposed Hungers? And that’s just for History. At the level of pop culture, we can spot the same lack of conflict: Boyle’s performance captured none of the drama of these musical events. His rock ‘n’ roll was all roll and no rock: where were the grey-suited patriarchs against whom a whole generation rebelled? Where was the sense of outrage and profound libidinal release so central to those heady years?

Here, then, we begin to see why for Aristotle spectacle was less important than plot, which almost invariably included conflict (and, usually, conflict-resolution). Boyle’s implicit non-conflictual historiography affected the very form of the performance as such, because it voided it of drama. Thus, in the pop music section, where the real drama of the time lay in the communal upheavals of young versus old, of new forms of capitalist organisation rendering old ones obsolete, of the Pax Britannica ceding to the Pax Americana, what we get instead is a young couple flirting via SMS. The genre of the romance is grafted onto the chronicle to conceal the latter’s lack of drama; the fate of erotic individuals usurps the destinies of political collectivities. And this, put crudely, is what literary theorists mean when they refer to the ‘ideology of form’: the ideology of Boyle’s opening ceremony was contained, not in its content, but in the very form itself.

The Concept of Totality in Lukács and Jameson

For anyone who’s interested in the work of György Lukács or Fredric Jameson, I’ve just uploaded a draft version of a paper I gave 18 months ago at the Historical Materialism conference in London. Here’s the abstract:

This paper sets out the implicit and explicit theories of “totality” in the work of György Lukács and Fredric Jameson. It begins by asking to which problem the proletariat is a solution in the work of the early Lukács. It suggests that this problem is not only historical, but also literary in nature. In the second section, I offer a brief explanation of Lukács’ theory of realism, as found in the Marxist aesthetic debates of the 1930s, and as it relates to his concept of totality. Finally, I outline Fredric Jameson’s problematisation of Lukács’ theory of totality and spell out two key innovations in his use of the term.

 

Fredric Jameson: The Antinomies of Realism (Excerpt)

For anyone who is in any way passionate about the work of Fredric Jameson, this will be an absolute treat: an excerpt from his forthcoming book, The Antinomies of Realism. It’s a photocopy of a section of the manuscript, and like the modernist that at heart he remains, it is typed on a type-writer with handwritten alterations interspersed throughout (rumour has it that he has a specialist manufacture the type-writer ribbon since it is no longer commercially available). Longer quotations taken from other works are photocopied and then cut and pasted into the manuscript. If anyone has ever enquired into the stylistic mechanics of Jameson’s prose, this will offer a rare glimpse “under the hood”.

On Two Types of Plot

Of all the elements of tragedy, said Aristotle, plot is the most important:

[F]or tragedy is a representation, not of people, but of action and life, of happiness and unhappiness – and happiness and unhappiness are bound up with action. The purpose of living is an end which is a kind of activity, not a quality; it is their characters, indeed, that make people what they are, but it is by reason of their actions that they are happy or the reverse.

This is a very unmodern conception, both of fiction and of ethics, but my novel-writing experience to date has convinced me of its soundness. There are, I have discovered to my detriment, two types of ‘plot’: the first – my original understanding – is that of a series of events, one leading inexorably to the other until a point of closure. I’ve started several novels and short stories with that definition of plot in mind, attempting to ‘write blind’ and hoping that the subsequent events would magically spring out of the current one. Unsurprisingly, it would now seem (with hindsight), I never finished them. That includes the novel I began earlier this month. I’d written some pretty decent individual scenes, but I had no real feel for how the pieces would come together.

Then, on Friday 13th, just before midnight, the departing evil spirits whispered the secrets of a Young Adult novel into my disconsolate ear. It was my ‘crossroads’ moment. Robert Johnson and Bob Dylan sold their souls to the devil the better to play guitar; all I had to do was sit in my office chair looking diabolical. And for that I received the art of muthos. Like Athena from the head of Zeus, the story jumped out whole. I sat down and started writing. I didn’t stop until 4.30a.m. I had 2,000 words. And within those few hours, the outline of the entire story was clear in my mind

That’s when I really knew what plot was. A plot is not a series of events, it’s a field of forces. It consists of fundamental agents counteracting one another, battling for supremacy, but – and here is the key – these forces do not coincide with the characters. As Aristotle rightly claims, you could have a tragedy without characters but never a tragedy without plot. The characters are the organic outgrowths of the clash of forces. Their entire raison d’être is not contained within themselves, but only arises in the context of the clash of forces of which they are but one element.

What does that mean in practical terms? It means that when you sit down to write, the characters burn through your mind’s eye because they have the force of a whole action behind them. They overpower you with their longings, their vices, their idiosyncrasies – all because of the drama they’re caught up in. Their words and deeds flow from the pen much more readily because the plot decrees that what they say or do will have been necessary. Everything you write, everything they say, all of it builds up inexorably to that central event that holds the entire novel together.

Plot is the Aristotelian unity of action; it is the synoptic, nightmarish gaze of the Author. It is the reason I do not sleep at night.

Kindle Single Review: Dean Koontz, The Moonlit Mind

I suspect the key to Dean Koontz’s popularity can be summed up in two words which happen to be the titles of two of his novels: Breathless and Relentless.

His sentences are generally short, staccato affairs. It’s all about pace. It doesn’t matter whether he’s describing a mut or a murder, he’s gonna charge you through that son-of-a-bitch scene if it’s the last thing he does. (As someone who’s read Proust, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing: if Dean Koontz had written the salon scenes, he’d have spared us a good three months of our lives!) Yet such constant relentlessness becomes strangely wearying. When the rhythm refuses to conform to the dramatic requirements of the action, making relatively irrelevant setting descriptions just as swift as grand climaxes, the style itself becomes a sort of steam-roller, crushing all the diverse vitality of the world beneath it.

This general stylistic issue is then reflected at the level of narrative voice. Occasionally, there is at work in this narrator’s mouth what I should call the “Great American Male”. It is that voice which runs through the very marrow of the un-self-doubting male American penman, from Mark Twain (“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter”) and Herman Melville (“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely…”) all the way to Saul Bellow (“I am an American, Chicago born – Chicago, that somber city – and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way”) and Don DeLillo (“He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful”). It is the man who holds God in one hand and Satan in the other, he who has known and experienced the whole wide world, such that his love for that world and for Life in general (with a capital ‘L’) begins to overflow like ink from a broken pen, casting an equally jovial beam on the sinner and saint alike. Not that I would want to argue that Koontz is their literary equal – if The Moonlit Mind is anything to go by, he is not. But nonetheless he clearly taps into some strange reservoir of inveterate unflinchingness.

That said, if he inherits this tradition’s general openness to life’s exotica, he most certainly does not inherit its magnanimity. There is a puritan preacher hidden behind the pages of this book, one which would be riotously mocked by the aforementioned writers. The Moonlit Mind follows the fate of Crispin and his dog, Harley. At the age of 9 Crispin witnesses the brutal murder of his brother. The chapters then alternate between a present in which Crispin is 12 years old and a past in which he is still 9. The older Crispin is a lone wanderer, trying to come to terms with what happened to his younger self. Koontz draws on many of the tried-and-tested modes of evil: child abuse, guardian figures who are secretly demonic, black mass rituals and so forth. But he adds a few more, just for good measure: laziness, sexuality, homosexuality. The principal evil figures in this book are an alcoholic mother who has a lesbian tryst with one of her rich husband’s maids, a nanny who attempts to sexually seduce the young protagonist, and several very wealthy figures whose only fault seems to be laziness. Only to a puritan mind could sex and leisure pose such profound threats.

Still, despite the barely hidden moral agenda of this book (which doesn’t shy away from offering overt lessons for the reader to take away with her), it’s not a bad yarn. If you like swift-flowing, sometimes genuinely beautiful prose, with paper-thin but undeniably arousing housemaids, plus occasional esoteric references to angels – and all of this framed within a view of the Good Life congenial to a seventeenth-century puritan colony, then knock yourself out!

Terry Eagleton on Alain de Botton’s Conservative Atheism

Terry Eagleton has written a ‘review’ of Alain de Botton’s latest book, Religion for Atheists. In typical Eagleton style, it is less a review than a polemical destruction – reminiscent at times of arguably his greatest ever LRB essay: his ‘review’ of The God Delusion. Here is a brief extract:

‎”The book assumes that religious beliefs are a lot of nonsense, but that they remain indispensible to civilised existence. One wonders how this impeccably liberal author would react to being told that free speech and civil rights were all bunkum, but that they had their social uses and so shouldn’t be knocked. Perhaps he might have the faintest sense of being patronised. De Botton claims that one can be an atheist while still finding religion ‘sporadically useful, interesting and consoling’, which makes it sound rather like knocking up a bookcase when you are feeling a bit low. Since Christianity requires one, if need be, to lay down one’s life for a stranger, he must have a strange idea of consolation. Like many an atheist, his theology is rather conservative and old-fashioned.”

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