Thinking Blue Guitars

Slogans stifle thought.

Month: May, 2010

Against Good Punctuation

The book market is strewn with books on ‘correct English’ or good grammar and punctuation: let Lynne Truss’s Eats Shoots & Leaves stand as the archetype. It is telling that the subtitle to Truss’s work is ‘The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation’ – if ever a signal of the sheer reactionary nature of this type of book were needed, then here we have it. Small armies of conservatives – the type that write letters to the council to moan about the bin men, and whose favourite form of conversation is the mutual complaint – scour the country intent on transforming the demise of the Great British nation by imposing on all and sundry the iron rules of genitival apostrophes. They’re fighting a losing battle.

Each generation since English became relatively standardised some time in the fifteenth century has bewailed the flagging standards of the mother tongue. And for each generation it has been bound up with matters of social status and class. Don’t know the difference between there and their? Foul commoner! Worse still – don’t know the difference between there and they’re? Are you an ILLEGAL?! In an age when the richest one per cent of the country dwarfs the motley sums of everybody else, grammar and punctuation become the linguistic equivalents of Rolex and sports cars: ‘I am superior. I am old-school Bulldog. I belong.’

Judging solely on personal experience, here are my predictions for at least three rules that will fade or change. And I say so with joy:

  • Genitival apostrophe in both singular and plural: Julia’s and couples’ (plural) will give way to Julias and couples, with the context determining the meaning in each case. The only marginal cases will be nouns ending in ‘s’.
  • You’re and your will no longer be distinguished – both will be your.
  • Their, there and they’re may well merge into one word – probably ‘there’, since that’s the one everybody knows well.

The main criterion which matters is: can it be easily understood? If it can, it’s likely that the simplest use will prevail; if not, the old rule may live on. The criterion is not correctness. Correctness is historically relative, and alters age by age. Those like Truss will be looked back on as small-time busybodies, before there forgotten forever in the oblivion of time. (That’s right, Lynne – there).

Fredric Jameson on Marx’s Capital

Fredric Jameson is to publish a book on Marx’s Das Kapital, entitled Representing Capital: A Reading of Volume One. It is to be released in February 2011.

For a foretaste, here is a lecture (audio only) Jameson gave at the 2009 Historical Materialism annual conference in London. A useful critique of Jameson’s lecture is given by the up-and-coming Gramsci scholar, Peter Thomas, here. Thomas’s book, The Gramscian Moment, is certainly one to look out for.

Eric Hobsbawm on Being a Jazz Writer

“I owe my years as a jazz reporter to John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, which made the British cultural establishment of the mid-1950s take notice of a music so evidently dear to the new and talented Angry Young Men. When, needing some money, I saw that Kingsley Amis wrote in the Observer on a subject about which he obviously knew no more and possibly less than I did, I called a friend at the New Statesman. He arranged a meeting with the editor, Kingsley Martin, then at the peak of his glory, who said ‘Why not?’, explained that he conceived his typical reader as a male civil servant in his forties, and passed me on to the commander of the (cultural) back half of the mag, the formidable Janet Adam Smith. Her interests ranged from mountaineering to poetry, but did not include jazz. As ‘Francis Newton’ (named after a Communist jazz trumpeter who played on Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’), I wrote a column every month or so for the New Statesman for about ten years.”

Read the rest of Hobsbawm’s article here.

John Lennon, Rowan Williams and Grace

Having recently been pondering Badiou’s concept of ‘event’, I was surprised to come across the following passage in Rowan Williams’s Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction:

Christ is apprehended when something not planned or foreseen in the contents of the world [which he defines as ‘the ensemble of true propositions’] breaks through, in an act or event that represents the gratuity of love or joy. And such an event alters what is possible by offering the will what might be called a “truthful” or appropriate direction for desire.

In this light, the surprisingly theological tenor of Badiou’s atheism couldn’t be more apparent. But it is not Badiou that I want to discuss here; it is John Lennon.

I’ve just watched Nowhere Boy, Sam Taylor Wood’s biopic of John Lennon’s difficult early years. It portrays his painful adolescence, torn between an aunt who has always acted as his mother, a biological mother who effectively abandoned him, and a general fatherlessness (his biological father abandoned him and his uncle dies when he’s a teenager). Aside from its immediate interest as an insight into the sources of Lennon’s artistic genius, I was surprised at just how powerfully it demonstrated the potential damage that suburbia can do to people.

The problem with suburbia is not just its soullessness, its general conservativism and existential ennui; if this film is anything to go by, the real problem is twofold. Firstly, suburbia is a geography of stymied desire. The architectural economy of the suburbs, with its identical rows of individual monadic homes and its front gardens which act as shields against spontaneous fellowship, is such that humans’ desire becomes penned in and pent up. The Oedipal drama unfolds within a severely restricted space, across a numerically limited cast, and there is simply no outlet for excess libidinal charge. Some of the most touching moments of this film are when characters confront themselves in mirrors over mantelpieces, as if searching for a spiritual enlargement of their world. Lennon, of course, in an age where large-scale communal politics or the Church are no longer liveable options, will find his outlet in the ultimate cathectic substitute: rock and roll.

The second part of the problem is the dreariness of suburban architecture. There is a scene in the film which takes place during a post-funeral get-together following the death of Lennon’s mother. John is confused, enraged, and grieving and takes out his wrath by punching Paul McCartney to the ground. As soon as he does so, it is as if he awakens from a drugged stupor; he apologises, lifts up McCartney, and then the two friends, both now motherless (McCartney’s lost to cancer), hold each other in the middle of the street, weeping. At this point the camera switches to an aerial shot, and we see the pair stood stock-still in the suburban street, lined with identical squat brown semis. And when I saw this, it occurred to me: this street is not designed for this. These buildings cannot bear the emotional burden of what is being asked of them. The two lost boys, in a road in which they should not be stood, have opened up to something beyond the empirical stranglehold of their surroundings. The brown bricks have tried to imprison this unseemly drama, to generate the conditions in which such excess is not even contemplated; but the boys have ruptured suburbia. They have dared to lose and they have dared to love in a situation structured by the will-never-to-love.

And this, perhaps, is what is meant by Rowan Williams when he speaks of that moment of gratuity which occurs in a situation governed by a logic alien to any such gratuitousness.

New Works by Terry Eagleton and Herbert McCabe

Yes, that’s right: another post on Terry Eagleton!

At the end of his recent Gifford Lecture at the University of Edinburgh, he mentions that he’s just written a new book in which he takes the ten most common arguments against Marxism and contradicts them one by one. I have high hopes for this book, though I doubt whether Eagleton is sufficiently qualified to respond to the detailed economic critiques of socialism.

The second book is actually already out, though I’ve come across no coverage of it. It’s not one of Eagleton’s own, but one to which he’s written a foreword: God and Evil: In the Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas by Herbert McCabe. The late McCabe has been a lasting influence on Eagleton (an influence ‘impossible to localize’, he tells us in a foreword to After Theory), and it’s no surprise that this book has been published more or less in tandem with Eagleton’s On Evil. (He’s in Toronto this week at the Historical Materialism conference and will be speaking on the topic of ‘Is Marxism a theodicy?’ One not to miss if you’re around).

Defamiliarization as Revelation

This is a very brief post simply to share what felt like an epiphany. I’ve just watched a lecture given by Terry Eagleton at Berkeley, after which he answers questions ( One of the questions put to him mentions that during the talk he argued that every aesthetic concept is a theological concept in disguise. The questioner goes on to ask him how this applies to the Russian formalist concept of defamiliarization, since, as the lady says, it is not immediately apparent how this is a theological concept in disguise.

To paraphrase roughly, Eagleton responds that defamiliarization is effectively revelation or epiphany for a secular world, a world without grace. It is the notion that, like Gerard Manley Hopkins, we must do violence to language to get anything out of it.

Poem for Terry Eagleton

For Eagleton:

His throat intoned a plum:
you ripped it out,
studied the blood-blue flesh
and ate it up.

Inside there was a stone
on which was carved
a worker’s simple fist,
Walter’s farewell.

“Oh yes,” you laughed out loud,
“I could build my house on this!”

Against Satire and For Personality Cults

The Shitter

Embarrassingly, one of my first breakthroughs on the road to taking Marxism seriously was when, as a young boy, someone explained to me that the queen must piss and shit like anyone else. It came as quite a revelation to the embodiment of sheltered suburban decency that I then was (and, depressingly, still more or less am).  That she was somehow ‘human’ like the rest of us was almost unthinkable, the discrepancy between regal appearance and faecal truth too much to grasp.

But the saddest thing is that most current political satire hasn’t really moved beyond this infantile act of revelation: in public, politicians are virtuous statesmen, whilst behind closed doors they’re fallible, vindictive, power-hungry maniacs. In public they are eloquent spokesman, in private they shit all over themselves and all over us. The problem is that everybody already knows this, and hence there is no revelatory or liberatory potential in such comedy. ‘Cameron’s a good, immigrant-loving man, nudge nudge, wink wink!’ is not exactly explosive stuff.

As Žižek, following Peter Sloterdijk, has long been telling us, we live in an age whereby ideology functions through cynicism. Everbody knows that politicians are corrupt, that capitalism is unjust, that the poor are being screwed over, but we act as if we didn’t know. Ideology used to be conceived as ‘false consciousness’, which could be remedied by revealing to someone the truth of his or her situation. In other words, it was an epistemological affair. And this, we might argue, was when traditional satire was politically progressive. But now ideology is no longer ‘false consciousness’; it is that which we do despite knowing that what we’re doing is perpetuating a system we know to be destructive of humanity.

It is in this age of cynicism that satire becomes a reactionary force. What do shows like Have I Got News For You? or The Daily Show effectively do? They make us laugh at what we already know. They constitute a sort of balm, soothing the daily pain of knowing that I’m acting in a way contrary to almost all reasonable evaluations of the state of the world.  They create an atmosphere of entertaining resignation.

And here I’d like to move on to a related topic. Part of this whole age of cynicism, it seems to me, is that obsession with debunking the aura of greatness surrounding certain revered figures. If you want to make a film of Homer’s epics these days, you can’t present these figures as towering above their epoch; you have to drag them down into the nitty-gritty of the daily grind. If you want to make a TV program about Caesar, you have to show him shagging half the women of Ancient Rome. Even superheroes now have to have a ‘human’ side!

Back in the day, of course, this was progressive. If the Establishment told you that Dante was great, you went looking for the material historical circumstances that made Dante possible in the first place. But today I have the sneaking suspicion that this simply plays into the hands of the enemy.

And that is why I would like to suggest the benefits of the personality cult. Liberals shy away in horror from those massive icons of Stalin and Mao, symbols of dictatorial atrocity, but they forget their hidden powers. In Soviet or Chinese propaganda it was common to be told tales of superhuman heroics – Stalin takes on a whole battalion of the imperial army with his bare, crop-coarsened hands…and wins! – which no one could be expected to believe, and which no one did believe. The point, however, was that instead of dragging these figures down into the depths of bureaucratic mundanity, it swept gazes up and out, and into the impossible gyres of history! What we need now is not to engage in apathetic satire, posting re-runs of the ‘Ten Best Anti-Thatcher Gags’ so as to make us chuckle into our spreadsheets; we need to outsoar the easiness of cynicism and dare to be great, dare to be mocked, dare to be epic heroes in the age of Peep Show.

(The comic bathos of that last sentence should give you some idea of how difficult is our task).

A Note on Children of Men

Much has been written and said about Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, based on P. D. James’ 1992 novel of (almost) the same name. Perhaps the most entertaining example is Žižek’s YouTube appraisal of the film. Wiki gives a nice summary:

Set in the United Kingdom of 2027, the film explores a grim world in which two decades of global human infertility have left humanity with less than a century to survive. Societal collapse, terrorism, and environmental destruction accompany the impending extinction. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom—perhaps the last functioning government—persecutes a seemingly endless wave of illegal immigrant refugees seeking sanctuary. In the midst of this chaos, Theo Faron (Clive Owen) must find safe transit for Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), a pregnant African “fugee” (refugee).

Clearly, if you haven’t seen the film, you’ll already appreciate how bleak it appears. But what added to the general gloom for me was the figure of Jasper Palmer (played by Michael Caine), an old satirical cartoonist and hippy. In fact, it was precisely this that bothered me about him: he’s a hippy. The film in itself, as Žižek explains, is radical enough – I’m not disputing that – but is it not depressing that the current generation is so uninspiring that our political imagination has to project on to the future a figure from the 60s that was only ambiguously radical in the first place?

Best of the Bunch

Here are a few posts I’ve enjoyed reading over the last few days:

Ben Myers announces a series of posts on the art of writing

Steve Mitchelmore, a long long time ago, writes a piece on Thomas Bernhard (of whom I knew nothing until reading this) on the tenth anniversary of his death.

Little Star publish a Thomas Bernhard short story – which was so good that I’ve now ordered Bernhard’s The Loser.

Mark McGurl over at n+1 has a great piece on the novel as a zombie form.

Maud Newton is a fellow hypochondriac

Paul Myerscough analyses the situation at Middlesex

Nabokov discusses Lolita

Review: Javier Marías, Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear

To understand the first volume of Javier Marías’s trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow, it strikes me that habitual categories of interpretation are insufficient. The first such category is plot; if asked the inevitable ‘So, what’s it about?’ of Fever and Spear, you’d be hard pushed to string together more than: ‘It’s about some Spanish guy with strange interpretive powers, who’s separated from his wife, and who goes to a dinner at Oxford at the home of some old timer and then ends up working for a weird MI6-like organisation, deciphering random people’s speech and body language.’ And even that description belies the decidedly uneventful feel of the novel.

But plot is not the only category which doesn’t seem to fit this work: character is also a dubious one. Yes, we read a lot about various people, and, yes, the narrator is supposedly extremely gifted at immediately intuiting the very essence of people he meets, but one never feels involved with these characters; we don’t really care about them. They have no flesh and blood – and even when flesh is bared (I’m thinking of the mildly titillating ‘scene with the armpit’ in the office) it is so over-cerebralised that any libidinal investment we might have made is dissipated through the course of a two-page, compulsively paratactic, synonym-generating sentence-cum-analysis. (For more on Marías’s style, see my comparison of him and Proust). Any talk of plot or character just won’t suffice.

So what’s left? The usual tactic at this point is to start talking of a ‘novel of ideas’, as if entertaining, plot-driven novels were somehow magically devoid of them. If this really were a ‘novel of ideas’, what would those ideas be? Firstly, no matter how well you think you know someone, no matter how close they are to you, nor how much they say they love you, there is always the possibility that tomorrow they will betray you: you can see their face today, but you cannot foresee their face tomorrow:

How can I not know today your face tomorrow, the face that is there already or is being forged beneath the face you show me or beneath the mask you are wearing, and which you will only show me when I am least expecting it?

(Even in a sentence as short as this, note the will-to-synonymy). Secondly, to tell someone anything, to entrust to them a confidence is to lower your shield and offer them a spear which will sharpen in the forge of Time, all the better to pierce you with when the clock strikes darkness. But beyond these two main ideas there is not much more to say.

So what is the novel really ‘about’? In order to answer that question we have to consider three aspects which are intertwined. The first aspect, as far as I can see, is an attempt to ‘win back the rights of subjectivity’ (a phrase taken from Fredric Jameson’s early book on Sartre – an interesting symptom in itself). In order to contextualise what I mean by this, let me quote from a paper I wrote last year on Adorno, in which I outline the basic thesis of Dialectic of Enlightenment (and which touches upon what I wrote in my Birkerts post):

If enlightenment reason liberated the mind from the bondages of myth, then this same reason has since become a form of bondage in its own right. The rational subject was once a force of emancipatory disenchantment, but now he mistakes his quantifying omnipotence for freedom and has re-enchanted himself into a dogsbody of the status quo: ‘The spell cast by the subject becomes equally a spell cast over the subject’. The only form of objectivity which remains is that bought at the cost of the subject voluntarily reducing himself to the contentless point of universality; like an imperial tragic hero, in attempting to grasp all he brings himself to nothing.

In other words, since gloriously enthroning scientific rationality, human subjectivity has become enslaved to scientific, quantifiable standards of truth, thereby diminishing itself to a mere organ of biased ‘point of view’. As a catchphrase for the upshot of this process, we might quote that infuriating relativistic phrase: ‘Yeah, but that’s just your opinion.’ Marías’s narrator counteracts this by continually verbally articulating the normal processes of our everyday consciousness; he does so in such a manner that our consciousness comes to seem superhuman, thus shocking us into the realisation that it really does possess that objective potency which we had long thought lost. And this is also important politically, since, as Adorno points out in Negative Dialectics, every age plagued with subjective relativism is at the same time an age of objective absolutism (i.e. totalitarian oppression of one sort or another).

Hence the power, as I see it, of Peter Wheeler’s explanation to Jacobo, which is the crux of the entire first volume:

“Listen, Jacobo, according to Toby, you had the rare gift of being able to see in people what not even they were capable of seeing in themselves, at least not normally…It’s a very rare gift nowadays, and becoming rarer, the gift of being able to see straight through people, clearly and without qualms, with neither good intentions nor bad, without effort, without any fuss or squeamishness.”

So much is at stake here! If Wheeler has about him the tone of a no-nonsense, Daily Mail columnist (‘Yet more PC madness!’), then that can only be because of a bizarre historical predicament: what is happening here (today? now?) is that a project of winning back an objectivity for the disenfranchised Geist, originally initiated by Husserlian phenomenology, then continued by Sartrean existentialism and a certain Adornian negative dialectics, is overlapping with a British commonsense empiricism which ‘calls a spade a spade’. If Adorno’s claim is correct that relativism and absolutism are two sides of the same coin, then what we have here is a bizarre corollary: a subjective absolutism being put to work in aid of a vague objective Big Brother.

And the nature of this Big Brother is the second unsettling aspect:

I gave them my answers, expanding on them and making comments and observations, identifying and summarising, inevitably going too far. I didn’t know what they did with it all afterwards, if it had any consequences, if it was useful and had any practical effect or was merely fodder for the files…everything – for me at least – came down to that first act dominated by my ideas and a brief interrogation or dialogue…And so, for a long time, I never had the feeling or the idea that I could be harming anyone.

Kafka drawing

In Kafka’s The Trial K. is ensnared in a dark, deeply oppressive legal system of which he compulsively seeks the centre and means of escape. If Javier Marías’s Jacobo is anything to go by, then today we are just as ensnared as K. was, but without the desire to disentangle ourselves. He has no idea who he is working for, what they do, or why they do it, and yet nonetheless he goes to work, does his job, and goes home. When I read this passage I was instantly reminded of Mark Fisher’s description (in Capitalist Realism) of our current Weberian ‘iron cage’ nightmare – from which we are not even struggling to wake up. Do not all multinational corporations have the structure of this anonymous intelligence agency? We all go to work, give our best, and go home, ignorant of the vast networks of hidden tentacles along which my well-intended actions transform into acts of viciousness I could never have dreamed of in my little office, with the Monet reprint on the wall, the photo of my wife and daughter on the desk, and my favourite Hay Festival mug on the lever arch file.

And now for what I really really think the novel is ‘about’. These two previous points are important but accidental. Their essence lies in that they presented Marías with what I can only think to call a ‘framework-machine’ for producing those notorious sentences and mini-narratives. Everything points to this conclusion: the impersonal aura of the characters, the over-intellectualised nature of the whole text, the vague omnipresence of the intelligence agency, which means that literally anyone anywhere can become the trigger for a barrage of Javier’s finest phrases, the acts of interpretation which the narrator is called upon to perform: all of this is what the Russian formalists would have called the ‘motivation of the device’, the structure which gives Marías the excuse to produce those potentially limitless sentences (limitless because trying to mimic exactly the movements of consciousness in language is like trying to capture the whole of one’s head when stood between two mirrors – impossible and infinite). The framework he has developed is nothing short of miraculous. Almost nothing happens; a single simple event (the mopping of a bloodstain, for example) can last fifty pages – all because ‘what happens’ is simply a receptacle designed to provide some wafer-thin semblance of formal design where, in reality, none exists. It strikes me as no great exaggeration to say that Marías was forced to develop the ‘plot’ simply as a reason to stop writing those sentences, to escape that apartment in Madrid and get out in the fresh air for a while.

Of course, all of this is based on the first volume alone; it will be of great interest to see how my observations endure, mutate or self-eviscerate in the course of the other two.

Coming Soon: The Aesthetic Education of Dan and Terry

What not to expect...Van Gogh

I’ve been speaking to a good friend of mine – Terry Craven of Shakespeare & Co. bookshop (Paris) – and we’ve decided that we’d like to resurrect the form of the letter exchange for the digital age. Ever since we met in Orléans back in 2005, we’ve been sharing our thoughts on an almost daily basis: on literature, our own writing, politics, theory, music, and so on. But now from time to time we’d like to do so in the public domain (i.e. this blog). It will probably consist of discussions ranging from something as deceptively simple as how an author gets a character out of a house (a discussion we had last week), to the grander realms of the very possibility of a politically radical act in postmodernity (something we mention almost every time we speak). We have no idea how it will turn out or how often we’ll write. All we know for sure is that it will be slightly more formal than our usual e-mail and Skype exchanges but much less formal than the great artistic letter-scribes of days gone by.

Hopefully it will be of interest to writers and readers alike: two young writers in two separate countries helping each other to get some words on the page.

Coming soon…

Poem: Winter Night

Inspecting obscured and outside things –
stars, delicate twinklings almost graspable
bombs raging from undead lightyears
felt with feet embedded in frozen ground –
my hidden bones wrapped in dying flesh:
small gift simply given.

Head from pylons descends to frost, and then to it:
shadow. Floodlit shadow. Long, full, living.
Small my feeble legs, cold my whitened hands,
pale me. This thing can I have cast,
so long and full, so worthy of the light,
so emptying of jewel-encrusted night?

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