David’s Dirty Diaper

It turns out that I am an artist. Who knew? And this is my art:

David's Dirty Diaper

It is currently exhibited as part of a “Dirt Museum” temporarily on view at the Lobby Gallery of UBC’s Liu Institute for Global Issues.

The genesis of the Dirt Museum is a visit by anthropologist Diane Nelson, who was invited here a couple of months ago by a working group that I help run on “Latin America and the Global.” As part of her visit, she facilitated a rather interesting workshop, “Playing with Dirt”, whose aim was to “focus on the language and imagery of dirt as both a thing (soil, earth, what feeds us) and a metaphor of a person or a communities’ subjective positioning. We will ask participants (faculty and students) to bring a thing and/or image from their own field sites for the ‘dirt museum,’ and use it to create a critical dialogue on the usage of dirt.” The item I suggested for the workshop, and now for the subsequent exhibition, was a dirty diaper from my son.

The interesting thing is that, even though the diaper is presented in a sealed jar, it was felt by the curators to be altogether too insalubrious to be placed on a table with other exhibits. So it was put on the floor, under the table. A little too dirty even for a “Dirt Museum.”

The Everyday Multitude

This is one of my contributions to this year’s Latin American Studies Association Congress in Chicago…

Coco Fusco, The Empty Plaza

In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels famously announce that there is a “specter haunting Europe.” And in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire, a book that Slavoj Zizek called a “Communist Manifesto for the twenty-first century,” we are reminded of this ghostly scene, which now, however, seems to be global: in the Americas as much as Europe, First as much as Third Worlds, “it is midnight in a night of specters,” they tell us (386). If anything, the number of ghostly apparitions have increased: not one, but many. Or at least two. On the one hand, there is the new supranational mode of political organization and sovereignty that they term “Empire.” And on the other, there is a countervailing but equally international, unbounded political subject that goes by the name of the multitude. “Both the new reign of Empire,” however, “and the new immaterial and cooperative creativity of the multitude,” Hardt and Negri tell us, “move in shadows, and nothing manages to illuminate our destiny ahead” (386). But if Empire is shadowy and mysterious, at least its traces can be fairly clearly discerned in a series of developments from the creation of the United Nations to the end of the Cold War and beyond. The multitude, by contrast, is particularly difficult to pin down. It is, if you like, the specter haunting the specter of Empire: a counter-specter of a “political subject [. . .] begin[ning] to emerge on the world scene” (411). Or as they put it in their follow-up book–entitled, precisely, Multitude–it is “the living alternative growing within Empire” (xiii). However much we find ourselves in the shadow of globalization and “under the cloud of war” (xviii), the multitude, they argue, is on its way. Yet in some ways, the more they argue for its actuality, the more spectral it appears: in response to the criticism “You are really just utopians!” they declare that “We have taken pains to argue that the multitude is not merely some abstract, impossible dream detached from our present reality but rather that the concrete conditions for the multitude are in the process of formation in our social world and that the possibility of the multitude is emerging from that tendency” (Multitude 226-27). This, however, hardly seems to shed much light on things. It may have “concrete conditions,” but the multitude remains merely a “possibility [. . .] emerging” from a tendency. It is perpetually “to come.”

Read more… (.pdf file)

The Eye of the Beholder

[Crossposted to Infinite Test.]

Madame Psychosis

“Of particular interest are the eyes” (299). Though this is a book with much to say about language and words (not least in the fact that Hal has apparently memorized much of the Oxford English Dictionary; so perhaps has Wallace), it also focuses particular interest on vision and the visual. Hal’s father, James, is after all a film-maker of some sort, who spends ever more of his time shooting and editing avant-garde movies rather than attending to the tennis academy that he founded. And his son Mario, Hal’s elder brother, has also taken up some of this cinematographic obsession with his cinema verité-style documentaries of the academy’s activities. Apparently unconcerned with the competitive sport that dominates the other boys’ lives, his perspective on what goes on around him is frequently mediated through thoughts of its technical reproducibility. As a player about to go on court is retching uncontrollably into a bucket, “Mario is wondering how you could get enough light back here in a tarp-tunnel to film a tense cold pre-match gladiatorial march behind an indoor tarp” (265).

But rather than the technicalities of mediation, for Wallace, or for his characters, vision seems on the whole to promise a dangerous immediacy. This surely is the threat of what looks like being one of the novel’s crucial plot points: the “Entertainment,” the unmarked video cartridge that apparently immobilizes all who watch it. It has even been suggested that this video is part of a clandestine plot launched by Quebecois separatists against the Organization of North American Nations: “The local constabulary were shall we say unprepared for an Entertainment like this” (90). And now it appears that this could be a film shot by Jim Incandenza himself, maybe the last film he ever made: a film whose title and status is unclear, but which may be the fifth iteration of a work called (yes) Infinite Jest. In Incandenza’s filmography, increasingly dominated by unfinished and unreleased films (Too Much Fun; Sorry All Over the Place), Infinite Jest (V?) is described as put out by “Poor Yorick Entertainment Unlimited,” starring “Madame Psychosis.” But it has “no other definitive data”: we are told that “no other scholarly synopsis or report of viewing exists” and “all other comprehensive filmographies have the film either unfinished or UNRELEASED, its Master cartridge either destroyed or vaulted sui testator” (993).

This fatal film, fatal perhaps both to its viewer and its maker, further seems connected to the (attempted?) suicide in some way of its star, a character whose importance to the plot (or what there is of a plot) is slowly being revealed, in fits and starts. For Madame Psychosis is the pseudonym of the mysterious DJ who slips into the radio studio at the dead of night without allowing anyone to see her face: “She is hidden from all view by a jointed triptych screen of cream chiffon that glows red and green in the lights of the phone bank and the cueing panel’s dials and frames her silhouette” (183). And this Madame Psychosis is later identified with Joelle van Dyne, whose most notable quirk is that she goes about with a full veil, and who we see (or don’t exactly see) as she takes an overdose in a friend’s bathroom during a party full of hipster film students and scholars. Throughout the laborious process of cooking up the drugs, she is thinking about her suicidal process as “Too Much Fun” and also casting her mind back to the movies: the films she grew up seeing with her “her own personal Daddy” (237) and the film made by another father figure, Jim Incandenza, that for some reason he had never screened: “Had he even cut the tape into something coherent? [. . .] He never let her see it, not even the dailies. He killed himself less than ninety days later. Fewer than ninety days?” (230).

Psychosis/Joelle is coming to appear central in other ways, too: she is the reason why Hal’s eldest brother, Orin, shifted from tennis to American Football when he saw her (then still unveiled) as a college cheerleader. Transfixed by the sight, he and his room-mate nickname her the “P.G.O.A.T” or “Prettiest Girl Of All Time” (290). They instantly think that she must be out of their league, but it turns out that this is what everyone thinks: her looks are a in fact a curse, and provoke in heterosexual males “a kind of deep phylogenic fear of transhuman beauty” (290). Is this also then the curse that seems to be encoded in Infinite Jest, a fatal visual contact with the aesthetic sublime?* Does this indeed account for the simultaneous, if rather different, anxiety about language and words? Note that, even in her determined preparation for suicide, Joelle’s train of thought is apparently derailed as she hesitates between the grammatical issue of whether it’s right to say “less” or “fewer.” For words in this novel are less about communication and the transmission of experience than they are vehicles of prevarication and denial. And that includes the word “denial” itself, which is lambasted as one of the many clichés that abound in the half-way house for recovering addicts that is emerging as a major locale for much of the novel’s (in)action. If the danger of the visual image seems to be the prospect of its overwhelming intensity, that it is “too much,” even perhaps “too much fun,” the danger of words is that they are quickly deadened and indeed deadening, turning those that utter them into little more than zombies: “I walk around with my arms out straight in front of me and recite these clichés” (271).

And yet the deadening effect of words is also their salvation. There is nothing more frightening for Hal than the prospect of a “conversation” offered him by a therapist who may in fact be his father in disguise. Hal’s response is to debate lexicology: “Implore’s a regular verb, transitive: to call upon, or for, in supplication; to pray to, or for, earnestly; to beseech; to entreat” (28). The whole point of such heart-felt supplications is lost precisely as the meaning of the term is dissected. Likewise, when Hal again faces a therapist, this time demanding that he grieve for his father’s death, his response is to go to a library (“the nearest library with a cutting-edge professional grief- and trauma-therapy section” [255]) so as to bone up on the requisite (clichéd?) responses required of him in the therapeutic situation. Words, (mis)used well, can stave off the threat of emotion and intensity. By contrast, it is suggested, we have little such protection against the image, beyond a clumsy veil.

*Here, a (perhaps apposite) footnote, in that Joelle seems to be suggesting that by the time of her suicide attempt, at least, she is no longer insufferably pretty, but rather insufferably ugly. But the point may turn out to be that extreme beauty is itself a form of extreme ugliness. Or, as the cliché has it, that beauty is always only in the eye of the beholder.

“brain-scrambling technical synaesthesia”

William Burroughs

The Wednesday quotation, part XX: Gary Indiana’s fantastic take on the relevance of William Burroughs, and the irrelevance of most contemporary US fiction, in the London Review of Books:

The radically anti-authoritarian, left-libertarian notions he espoused probably look like irresponsible nihilism (or “antinomian morality,” in Schjeldahl’s solecism) to many of those ensconced at their computer screens during most of their waking life, or bedazzled by mobiles and ubiquitous electronic signage in a society overloaded with information yet drained of authentic experience. It now seems almost logical that the insight Burroughs offers into the brain-scrambling technical synaesthesia spreading everywhere would be precisely what brands him a crackpot, rather than the silly religions and fatuous disciplines he so often became fascinated by. Still, I feel it’s necessary to say how stupid this inverted logic is.

[. . .]

Yet it’s a fact that Burroughs, one of the very few American novelists of the last fifty years who actually mattes, has had a negligible influence on “mainstream” American literature, while his effect on popular culture has been incalculable. It may be comforting to some arbiters of aesthetic fashion to write Burroughs off as a perennial enthusiasms of “the young,” but they might consider that several generations of these young have since occupied key positions in film, TV, the recording business and advertising, to cite only four sectors of the consciousness industry that seem far more familiar with our internal wiring than the current literary world, which becomes ever more parochial and conservative as its importance in the culture shrinks.

(“Predatory Sex Aliens” London Review of Books 36.9 [8 May 2014]: 26)


Oscar Cabezas, Postsoberanía

Oscar Cabezas’s Postsoberanía: Literatura, política y trabajo is a provocative and important contribution to our understanding of contemporary capitalism. Not that Cabezas’s view is a rosy one: though he ends with a rousing homage to Communism as the “irreducible horizon of emancipatory thought and social justice” (281), the rather more lasting impression this book leaves us with is of the extent to which the logic of the market has so thoroughly permeated and colonized everyday life. As he puts it in his final chapter, which is essentially a phenomenology of the contemporary labor process by means of readings of Charlie Chaplin, Albert Camus, and Sergio Chejfec, what he calls “post-sovereignty” is far from sovereignty’s demise but rather the “total, totalitarian, and totalizing sovereignty” of money as general equivalent (277). Not only our everyday experience but language itself is subject to the colonizing principles of money and calculation such that “language communicates nothing beyond instruction functional to the relation between capital and labor” (265-66).

This is, then, a somewhat apocalyptic book that, despite its historical range (from 1492 to the present), argues that capital has already abolished history in a “bad infinity” of perpetual production and absolute depersonalization in which the “eternal worker” is absolutely alienated by being pressed into service as organs without body (261-62). Despite the centrality of alienation to Cabezas’s argument, there can be no relief in humanism, which is merely the “aestheticization of poverty, of differences, which are transformed into mercantile cult” (270). Little prospect here for cultural studies! Moreover, the talk of “organs without body” shows, perhaps more interestingly, that however much he draws from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Cabezas up-ends many of their categories and gives us a kind of perverse version of posthegemony in which nothing escapes. This is, in other words, a Deleuzoguattarianism without any line of flight, or a dystopian recasting of Michael Hardt and Toni Negri’s Empire in which Empire is all, the multitude nothing. “We know,” he says,” that there is no community outside of capitalist society”; and yet the (would-be) communitarian subject within capitalism is absolutely dependent upon an eternal spiritualized debt, an “effect of neo-imperial domination” (272). Any such community “under the neo-imperial dominion of post-sovereign capitalism is community of debtors” (272; emphasis in original). Cabezas thus also gives us a thesis on the primacy of debt à la David Graeber in which, however, “occupy” is unavailable as a slogan for resistance.

Cabezas may argue that all this is precisely the point. For the main argument that links the four essays that comprise this book is a protest against political theology in all its forms. The opening line of its introduction notes that it is inspired in part by Jacques Derrida (who, however, scarcely gets a mention thereafter) and in part by Carl Schmitt’s famous observation that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts” (13). Cabezas then presents himself as absolutely anti-Schmittian: drawing above all on the work of Argentine theorist Leon Rozitchner, he sets out to extirpate political theory of every residue of the sacred, wherever it is to be found. As such, we should not then be seeking anything resembling redemption. And it is precisely the desire for redemption that therefore damns cultural studies and even such unlikely bedfellows of cultural studies as Deleuze and Guattari or Hardt and Negri. Hence perhaps Cabezas’s absolutism, his condemnation of just about every aspect of the contemporary worker’s (and consumer’s) experience: our alienation is absolute; “within the space of post-sovereignty, capitalism administers and controls from heterogeneity or, to put it more precisely, from language made up of residues, of transnational mixtures, of mercantile innovations, of fragments of erased memories and incomplete legacies that even so do not escape the production of surplus value” (238). This indeed is the novelty of post-sovereignty, the means by which sovereignty becomes absolute: difference and hybridity proved an obstacle to modern, more conventional forms of sovereignty; but they are no bulwark against the post-sovereign. Quite the contrary, post-sovereignty thrives on difference. And again, there is no escape: post-Fordist language (and presumably also literature) is now “completely subordinate to the [. . .] post-sovereign accumulation of capital” (239; my emphasis).

It may be too easy (if still warranted) to point out that Cabezas’s apocalypticism and absolutism remain wedded to a quasi-religious eschatology that posits Communism as a City of God utterly distinct from the City of fallen, post-sovereign Man. Indeed, Cabezas’s recourse (via Rozitchner) to a mater-ialism that plays on the notion of feminine embodiment (mater/matter) as what is repressed by the Judeo-Christian tradition draws on a long religious lineage that is not entirely foreign either to Judaism or to Christianity. Perhaps more significantly, I find Rozitchner’s version of cultural psychoanalysis unconvincing, picking up as it does on the least interesting aspects of the late Freud, and Cabezas’s exposition (which seldom if ever takes any distance from Rozitchner) does little to make it any the more compelling.

By almost any measure the best chapter of the book is the final one, in which Cabezas finally finds his own voice. Even here, however, he maintains the habit of incorporating long quotations more or less undigested from the texts that he is discussing: as such we have not so much discussions of the texts as recapitulations and extrapolations from what is too often treated as holy writ. The first part of the book would have benefitted from more and more sustained readings, both in quantity and in closer attention: the opening chapter on the 1492 Edict of Expulsion of the Spanish Jews is particularly skimpy on the historical archive, and doesn’t even cite the text in question; the second chapter’s approach to (anti-)Peronism is similarly unsatisfying. But as I say, the final chapter’s engagement with Chaplin’s Modern Times, Camus’s “The Myth of Sisyphus,” and Chejfec’s Boca del lobo is provocative and important. Still, however, the ghost of Derrida perhaps haunts the book even here, as these texts are not so much deconstructed as presented as evidence for thesis of the modern (non)subject absolute alienation. In the end, Cabezas’s methodology is strangely reminiscent of cultural studies, albeit that rather than seeking traces of resistance to celebrate, he is instead combing these works for proof of the awful situation we find ourselves in. But I am not sure that the (post-)sovereignty of capital is so total: look simply to the state’s interventions following the financial crisis of 2008 and since, for example. For me, the crux of posthegemony (and this is a posthegemonic book) is neither celebration nor condemnation per se, but ambivalence. These are dangerous times, and Cabezas does signal service in pointing to some of the tendencies inherent in capital’s real subsumption of the social, but these tendencies are not the whole story. Absolutely not.

Update: This post has now been translated into Spanish at Lobo Suelto.

Circus Philosophicus

Philosophers, particularly Anglo-American ones, have a penchant for little stories designed as thought experiments to test or illustrate some hypothesis or another. I still remember from high school the tale of the fat boy stuck in the cave: a group of people go to the seaside and enter a cave system by the sea. At some point they realize that the tide is coming in and threatens to engulf them all. There’s only one small outlet up top, but it turns out that the first person to try to get out is too big for the opening, and he gets stuck. If things stay this way, he will live (his head is above the high tide mark), but everyone else in the group will drown. It so happens that they have a stick of dynamite. Hence their quandary: do they blow up the fat boy and save each other at his expense; or do they refuse to take his life, and sacrifice themselves instead. There are, for whatever reason, no other possible alternatives. The point of the fable was to illustrate the difference between deontological and utilitarian ethics. A utilitarian will light the fuse, based on the greatest good for the greatest number of people. A deontologist will believe that it’s always wrong to take another person’s life. (As I recall, the only person I talked to at the time who would refuse to blow up the fat boy was my grandmother; she said she’d prefer to wait for a possible act of God to rescue them all.)

There are many similar fables: of violinists with a shared circulatory system (in Judith Jarvis Thomson’s argument for abortion), of children drowning in a pond (in Peter Singer’s case for charity), and so on. But this is a long tradition, and not restricted to ethical dilemmas. Think, for instance, of Rousseau’s Emile, which is essentially a book-length philosophical parable. Or of Plato’s Republic with the “Ring of Gyges” and, most famously of all, the “Allegory of the Cave.” Indeed, Plato’s dialogues as a whole are in some ways as much literary as philosophical–certainly more literary than the tale of the fat boy, though in all these cases narrative and the imagination and invoked for the services of reason and argumentation. In fact, there are few thinkers, however rigorous, who do not find themselves indulging in some such artifice not only to embellish but also to undergird the tenets of their philosophical systems. Even Spinoza has, say, the man who “because he does not believe that he can by wholesome food sustain his body for ever, should wish to cram himself with poisons and deadly fare.” And Wittgenstein has his ladder, however much he urges it needs to be thrown away once his propositions are finally understood.

Graham Harman, Circus Philosophicus

So when Graham Harman is said to be trying, in Circus Philosophicus, “to restore myth to its central place in the discipline” or to be resurrecting “the long-abandoned style of Platonic myth” (77), I’m not quite so convinced that myth has ever really gone away. Nor, on the other hand, is it obvious to me that what Harman offers in this short book are “myths” at all. Myths, after all, imply some kind of collective belief–and it is in the name of revealing the presuppositions of such beliefs that myth-making has rather gone out of fashion in theoretical circles, and understandably so. (Think only of Roland Barthes’s Mythologies as one of the founding texts of what we might call cultural studies, or one of the points at which French Theory and cultural studies most nearly intersect.) Harman’s myths are designed rather to explicate his own, rather particular, beliefs about the world around us. It is better then to see the six brief vignettes that he offers us simply as stories, parables intended to shed unfamiliar light on familiar topics. The fact that he resorts so unabashedly to literary forms to advance his agenda is neither novel nor all that exceptional. But it does allow us to evaluate these short texts as stories as much as for their philosophical content. Or to ponder the relation between form and content here.

What’s striking is a certain flatness or affectlessness, even when the matter narrated by Harman’s stories is otherwise full of drama or pathos. Take the way in which death is treated, for instance. This short book is surprisingly saturated by death, but at the same time remarkably free of mourning. Sometimes this is understandable enough: when, as in “The Bridge,” we are asked to imagine a series of pre-Socratic philosophers being thrown by devils one by one into a molten lake, it is clear that it is really ideas that are being dispensed with, not people. It is at best cartoon violence when, for instance, Pythagoras is dispatched: “The demons drag the geometer to the edge of the lake. They add a final insulting touch by scrawling numbers on his cloak, both integers and his hated irrationals, before pushing his soul into the void” (23). Still, here the philosophers’ demise is at least the point of the story. Elsewhere, death is a little more unexpected and inexplicable. “Offshore Drilling Rig,” for example, is a story that takes Harman and the novelist China Miéville to a rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Their chaperones are (unbeknownst to them) killed in a helicopter accident, leaving Harman and Miéville to debate the nature of being as a hurricane passes through. The fate of the oilworkers, however, is here unlamented; if anything, the accident is the condition of possibility for the conversation it enables, though presumably it could have been enabled by means other than a ditched helicopter that kills off “a blunt but sensitive name of Jonas” (41), among others.

The oddest death is the one that Harman inflicts in “The Haunted Boat.” This story is in fact misnamed: it is less about a haunted boat than a haunting one, concerning as it does a ghost boat rumoured to plough the Sea of Japan. By means of a comparison between the actual ferry, which he takes between Hiroshima and Matsuyama, and the parallel one that haunts it, Harman illustrates his “fourfold” conception of objects in terms of time, space, essence, and eidos (62). But Harman’s ferry is haunted not only by its imagined double, but also by the ghost of the fellow traveller who first tells him the story of a mysterious second vehicle: “a pleasant native of Osaka, roughly [Harman’s] own age, who said that his name was Kenji” (54). Later, we are told in rather desultory manner that “Kenji is now dead (or so I read recently on his suspended Facebook page” (55). Again, however, no mourning or other affect ensues: Harman merely tells us that “reports of Kenji’s death have only heightened [his] interest in the [haunted/haunting] vessel” (55). In short, this is the strangest kind of ghost story, in that it seems almost oblivious to the question of life and death except in that death poses the practical problem (against the whole ghost story genre) of cutting off access to the living, of now precluding rather than enabling conversation.

The affectlessness of Harman’s stories is, moreover, frequently combined with notably mannered stylization. Consider the treatment of love or romantic relationships in “The Bridge,” which is framed as a conversation between Harman and his fiancée. But it is written in the voice of a rather repressed minor man of eighteenth-century letters: “My Olympia, this image may seem only obliquely related to our disagreement. But you know me well, and can guess the trend of my thinking” (17). This odd mannered and half-strangled voice is also presented as Harman’s elsewhere: in “Offshore Drilling Rig,” he tells Miéville “Your thoughts are known to me” (47), for instance, rather than the more obvious twentieth- or twenty-first-century idiom, “I know what you’re thinking.” And when we discover that Harman’s fiancée breaks off their engagement, though this is presented as an outcome of philosophical or even religious differences, one feels one’s sympathy tending towards a woman who would have otherwise to endure a man who describes his “jovial bonhomie and backslapping ways” leading to his being “lionized by jaded scions of the East” (13, 14). Frankly, he sounds insufferable.

Now, none of this need reflect on the philosophy itself. There are very few philosophical tales that can make much claim to literary value. Besides, there are perhaps some who enjoy these strange hybrids of travel writing with a dash of steampunk and a side of one of Jane Austen’s country parsons. And yet Harman seems to think that they should delight as well as instruct: with his first story’s concluding image of the cosmos as “a vast series of interlocking ferris wheels” he says “Let these trillions of wheels spin in your mind. Let them sink into your heart and enliven your mood” (12). Well, they may have that effect on some. But me, if I want my mood enlivened, I’ll look elsewhere than this stilted fictional universe, this dull circus whose equanimity towards death is symptom of an entrenched and pervasive absence of life.

What Happened?

[Crossposted to to Infinite Test.]

Michael Joyce

Infinite Jest was published in 1996, but is set in what was then the near future and is now the recent past. The chronology is complicated by the fact that in the novel years are no longer referred to by numerals (1996, 1997, or whatever) but by product names as time itself is now “subsidized” by corporations that presumably pay good money for the privilege. Hence we have the “Year of the Whopper,” the “Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment,” and so on. This shift to a new mode of reckoning time (or at least, naming it) accentuates a general sense of uncanniness that, I think, pervades Wallace’s text. There is much here that is recognizable, familiar; but there is also the impression that everything is just slightly out of joint and that something, possibly something traumatic, must have happened to make it so.

It is not just time that is out of joint; it is space, too. Again, something has happened: some kind of new international organization, the Organization of North American Nations (happily abbreviated to ONAN), has emerged, and at the same time national borders seem to have been renegotiated: territory (Maine? Vermont? Parts of New York State?) has been given to Canada; and yet in some way Canada has also been assimilated to the USA. Hence the various more or less violent organizations, mostly but not entirely from Québec, “whose opposition to interdependence/reconfiguration is designated by RCMP and USOUS as terrorist/extortionist in character” (144). Here, the RCMP is presumably still the Royal Canadian Mounted Police; but the USOUS is an unfamiliar acronym, part of this new, uncanny world that is so like and unlike our own.

The third element in the novel that is slightly (but significantly) misaligned is technology. In the world of the novel it seems that telephones have been replaced by consoles of some sort (there is a chapter devoted to the rise and fall of video telephony [144-151]), and that broadcast television has disappeared altogether. In place of TV, audiovisual entertainment is provided via a system of cartridges dominated by a small number of suppliers: “InterLace, Tatsuoka, Yushituyu, SyberVision” (110), but above all InterLace. The Internet exists–we even get a copy of an email detailing a somewhat bizarre insurance claim–but this is not exactly a wired, or even wireless, world. A long chapter is devoted to the decidedly old-school pleasures of late-night shows on a local (indeed, hyper-local) college radio station.

Of course, there is always something slightly uncanny about any novel, any work of art, which is inevitably both like and unlike, both part of and distant from our own everyday lives. But here there is also a touch of science fiction, even a touch of post-apocalyptic narrative. But only a touch: it wasn’t quite an apocalypse; life continues in many ways much the same. And the answer to the question as to what exactly happened may not be so very important. Something was bound to happen anyhow. In “actual fact” what happened was the world wide web and 9/11, whose effects are perhaps not all that different from the aftermath of whatever the trauma is that haunts Infinite Jest: a vague sense of paranoia, surveillance, and underlying violence; the rampant commodification of everyday life.

In the midst of all this, we are presented with a paper about the modern, postmodern, and post-postmodern hero, written by the character who is probably the closest thing this book has to a hero of its own: Hal Incandenza, tennis player and lexical prodigy. Written “in the year of the Perdue WonderChicken” and “four years after the demise of broadcast television” (140), the essay puts forward Chief Steve McGarrett of “Hawaii Five-0” and Captain Frank Furillo of “Hill Street Blues” as epitomes of modern and postmodern heroism respectively. McGarrett presents us with ”the hero in action” as we watch him “stalk and strut, homing in on the truth. Homing in is the essence of what the classic hero of modern action does” (141). By contrast, Frank Furillo is “a hero of reaction [. . .] his heroism is bureaucratic, with a genius for navigating cluttered fields.” Furillo is “a virtuoso of triage and compromise and administration” (141). But Incandenza then suggests that we are now waiting for a new kind of (post-postmodern) hero, “the hero of non-action, the catatonic hero, the one beyond calm, divorced from all stimulus, carried here and there across sets by burly extras whose blood sings with retrograde amines” (142).

Is Hal himself a “hero of non-action”? It is not yet clear: he and the other boys in the tennis academy seem to be striving, perfecting their game for a place in the “Show.” And yet all that effort is less about action itself than about perfecting the habits of the forehand and backhand, ensuring that playing tennis becomes almost robotic, to produce a kind of catatonia in motion: “over and over, each forehand melting into the next, a loop, it’s hypnotizing, it’s supposed to be” (110). As Pierre Bourdieu used to say, when watching good tennis players it’s not always clear whether they control the ball or the ball controls them: through constant practice and repetition, habits of play and performance are instilled to become almost instinctual. This is the aim of the Enfield Tennis Academy that Hal’s father founded and his mother and uncle run. And perhaps for a good tennis player, as for the post-postmodern hero, the question of “what happened?” becomes unimportant or irrelevant. Something happened–it always does–but true heroism consists in insulating oneself from such events, which are mere distraction.

Long Books

[Crossposted to Infinite Test.]

For some time I have been wanting to teach a course on long books. In the first instance, this is a response to the common student complaint that the books I set are “too long.” I want them to think, then, about what it means for a book to be “too long.” I want them to reflect first on the irony that many of the books that are popular among people their age are long, and increasingly so: think of the ever-expanding length of the successive Harry Potter installments, for instance, though more generally much young adult fiction comes in weighty tomes, often a whole series of them. And yet they start to complain as soon as a novel set for class is more than a couple of hundred pages, grumbling that such longer books are “wordy” or boring. Is it really length then that is at issue? Why are some books too long, while others, no shorter, are not? Or to put this in more general terms: why are long books long? What can or does a long book do that a shorter one can’t? Ideally, I would structure the course to pair long and short books by the same author, to show that length is a choice, not simply a habit; that the same writer can be taut as well as prolix. We might read Gravity’s Rainbow alongside The Crying of Lot 49, The Magic Mountain with Death in Venice, Ulysses with “The Dead,” and so on. In some ways, this would be a class on genre: the genre of the long novel. We would look at the expectations, rules, and demands of the genre, and try also to see its shifting historical coordinates. Is, for instance, a long modernist novel long for different reasons than a long postmodern one? How does reading a long text in print, always aware of its physical size, compare to reading it on a screen?

To put this another way, and sticking for the moment to the physical object that is a book: if (admittedly this is a big “if”) form follows function, and perhaps the first and most overwhelming formal quality of a long book is its sheer heft, the number of pages that the reader knows he or she will have to traverse, then what function is that serving?

Too Long

David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest is undoubtedly a long book, one of the longest of its kind in recent times. Its title already raises the notion of boundlessness (though a book can never quite be “infinite,” can it?) as well as the possibility that its very length may be a joke, perhaps at the reader’s expense. Is this a long-form shaggy dog story? Does its effect then depend upon the extended build-up to a punchline that will never quite feel just reward for the patience its delayed arrival has enforced upon us? Perhaps the most famous such shaggy dog novel in twentieth-century US literature is Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, but that comes in at a breezy 275 pages, compared to Infinite Jest’s 1079 (footnotes included). At present, I’m only a hundred pages in, and whatever follows I can already attest to the playfulness of Wallace’s novel: it is often funny, sometimes quite absurd. And it is also clear that its author is playing with us, teasing his readers with allusions that are obscure at present but that will (we hope and expect) become clear in the future.

For if we think of the process of reading a long novel less as a game and more as a battle (no doubt the experience of many), one weapon in the author’s armory is delay. Here, for instance, we open with a rather tense and certainly dramatic scene, in which the narrator, Hal, is questioned under suspicion of cheating in his application to college. The scene has a somewhat bizarre dénouement in which the college deans react with shock and horror to Hal’s speech, which is presented to us as eloquent and erudite (“Let’s talk about anything. I believe the influence of Kierkegaard on Camus is underestimated. I believe Dennis Gabor may well have been the antichrist” [12]), but which is received as though it were the ravings of a madman (“’What in God’s name are those . . .’ one Dean cries shrilly, ‘. . . those sounds?’” [12]) and lead him to be promptly restrained and sent to a mental hospital. But rather than resolving this mystery, the narration shifts abruptly to another character, another scene, apparently utterly unrelated, and some ninety pages later we still haven’t returned to that opening trauma.

Indeed, beyond delay, the other device to which a long novel has recourse–and Wallace certainly uses it repeatedly–is the abrupt shift of setting and personnel. A long novel can sustain several stories in parallel, with no rush to bring them together or show their relatedness (if any). Here, we have on the one hand Hal’s world with his stories of his brothers, parents, and uncle, as well as the East Coast tennis academy (with its own populous cast) that his father founded and his uncle now runs, and on the other hand a shadowy sequence of plots involving wheelchair-bound Quebecois activists and a mysterious film of some kind that seems to paralyze all those who see it. Throw in a suicidal girl and an addict waiting for his marijuana delivery, and there’s a lot going on already. Enough at least to help us forget Hal’s opening predicament, as we struggle to keep up with the growing list of dramatis personae and their various situations. But we can already see a few thematic resonances that cut across the various plots (drugs, obsessions, madness, secrecy, language) and, rightly or wrongly, can expect everything to come together in the long run. The long run is what the long novel has on its side.

The risk that a long novel runs (and also flirts with) is raggedness and even incoherence. That incoherence–or the possibility that you are taken to be simply raving, senselessly–is already explicitly thematized in the opening scene with the deans. More subtly, the problem is that an ambitious novel such as this one proves to have no center or (which is to say the same thing) no clear boundaries. This, too, is thematized early on through the metaphor of tennis as a game that, when played well, is a place not of clinical excellence but of “not-order, limit, the places where things broke down, fragmented into beauty” (81). The curious sage-like (but also, we’re told, possibly one-time fascist) coach who makes this pronouncement also praises the sport as an instance of “life’s endless war against the self you cannot live without.” To which his protégé, Hal’s younger brother Mario, muses in response: “But then is battling and vanquishing the self the same as destroying yourself? Is that like saying life is pro-death? [. . .] And then but so what’s the difference between tennis and suicide, life and death, the game and its own end?” (84). Surely this is also the risk of the long novel: for all its straining to assert itself, if through sheer (literal) weight alone, there is something almost self-destructive about writing at such length, not least the chance that the book is not published, does not sell, or is not read as its potential readers drop out along the way.

My wife got to page 32 when she first tried to read this book a couple of years ago. I’m still only at page 109. 970 left.


Benoît Peeters, Derrida: A Biography

“Does a philosopher have a life? Can you write a philosopher’s biography?” So opens Benoît Peeters’s book on Jacques Derrida, a figure about whom a biographer has particular reason to be circumspect, not least because of all the ways in which Derrida’s work problematizes our notions of the relationship between writing and experience, or between language and being. Peeters answers his own questions in the affirmative by proceeding to give us almost six hundred pages on Derrida’s journey from Algerian childhood as the son of a travelling salesman to his death in Paris as perhaps the most famous (and the most controversial) thinker of the past fifty years. He also, however, finds solace in his task from some of Derrida’s own comments on the importance of “put[ting] philosophers’ biographies back in the picture” (qtd. 1). Indeed, this is probably as close to an “authorized” biography of Derrida as we are likely to get: Peeters thanks Derrida’s widow, Marguerite, for “placing her confidence” in him, and has talked to many members of the philosopher’s family as well as to schoolfriends, colleagues, collaborators, and others who knew him well. So while this is far from being a “Derridean” biography, for Peeters argues that “mimicry, in this respect as in many others, does not seem the best way of serving him today” (6), and while it is not exactly devoid of criticism, it is undoubtedly a work that aims to “serve” Derrida. So then the question becomes: how well does this biography serve him?

Derrida: A Biography does little to explain very well why its subject was important. It is particularly uneven when it comes to explicating the key points of his thought, or their contribution to the philosophical tradition. Peeters avers that he “will not be seeking to provide an introduction to the philosophy of Jacques Derrida” (3). But absent that, and given that (frankly) the life of a philosopher is not all that interesting in itself, what we are left with are what can otherwise seem to be rather petty struggles for advancement within the academic institution and/or rather excessive, even fawning, expressions of loyalty and partisanship. We are left, in short, with friendships and enmities whose basis or whose stakes are almost impossible to determine or judge. Derrida comes to seem important simply because others thought that he was–although it also becomes clear that there is nobody who has a higher regard for his work than Derrida himself. In one of his few critical moments, Peeters notes the consensus, even among the man’s friends, about his narcissism, adding the peculiar comment that “Derrida practiced it to excess, thereby questioning the boundaries of narcissism and turning it into a philosophical gesture” (421). But what were the terms of this gesture? On what grounds, if any, was it made? On this Peeters is, almost stubbornly, silent.

Meanwhile, about the life itself: I have said that it was not all that interesting, but it was not completely uneventful, either. This is a tale of quite dramatic social mobility in the context of one of the more violent episodes of twentieth-century decolonization. It is also the story of a quite unconventional family life, including an illegitimate son whom Derrida officially recognized but essentially never met, and who was adopted by a man who went on to be Prime Minister of France. Yet, perhaps because of the semi-authorized nature of this biography, Peeters shows no great desire to probe: he indulges in neither gossip nor speculation, instead allowing Derrida’s own, often exceedingly elliptical, words to stand almost on their own. For instance, on paternity: “The father is someone who recognizes his child; the mother recognizes her child. And not only in a legal sense. The obscurity of the question lies entirely in this ‘experience’ that is so hastily called ‘recognition’” (qtd. 357). In similar fashion, Peeters repeatedly calls attention to Derrida’s profound sense of anxiety, and though this was presumably in part the other face of the too-obvious narcissism, he never really describes or stops to ponder these anxieties at any length. The biography thus falls between several stools: it is far from being a rigorous account of its subject’s intellectual development and theoretical work; but it also stops short of either titillation on the one hand or anything resembling an analysis of the psyche on the other.

If anything, this is then a political biography, in the rather limited sense (drawn from Carl Schmitt) of the political as founded on the distinction between friend and enemy. This is true as much of the academic politics (the blocked career advancements; the quarrels and reconciliations with colleagues and competitors) as of the increasingly evident commitments to political causes such as human rights or anti-racism. Perhaps particularly for Parisian intellectuals, these two forms of the political go almost hand in glove: Derrida is repeatedly moving between publishers or journals, for instance, based on his assessment of their political line, or theirs of his. Moreover, the same themes (as Peeters puts it, “justice, witness, hospitality, forgiveness, lying” [486]) loom large in both arenas. And though he often portrayed himself (sometimes justifiably) as a victim, especially of the official French university system, it becomes clear that Derrida himself was fully invested in the complex maneuvers that are often described in alarmingly martial manner. Here, for instance, is Jean-Luc Nancy’s take on Derrida in the USA: “He always saw battles to be fought, fortresses to be taken and alliances to be made or consolidated. [. . .] It was important for him to maintain links with certain potential allies, even if they weren’t intellectually all of the first order. He knew he needed a lot of people to pass on the torch for deconstruction” (459-60). Nancy is a friend–one of Derrida’s oldest and most loyal–but his is a surprisingly cynical account of deconstruction’s transatlantic success. True, Nancy may equally be aiming a swipe at America and Americans, but for one Frenchman to call another “a kind of Prussian general” (qtd. 459) is hardly a compliment at the best of times.

Above all, the impression we get from this biography is of Derrida’s remarkable energy. In the first place, the man was a writing machine, producing endless books, essays, and talks. And the talks themselves were increasingly of almost frightening length: two hours, three hours, or more; of a paper in July 1997, he himself reports “I inflicted a twelve-hour lecture on them!” (qtd. 484). At the same time, he was perpetually teaching (the concept of a sabbatical seems to have been foreign to him), not just in his home institution but also at up to three others each year. He jetted in and out of conferences and speaking engagements around the globe. And apparently he was still available to students and others for casual conversation, as well as having time to keep up a prolix personal correspondence and running up what must have been a formidable international phone bill. No wonder Peeters should make the otherwise odd observation that “he had the heart rate of a sports cyclist or marathon runner, less than fifty beats per minute” (420). Again, however, I wonder how much this truly “serves” Derrida. After all, one of the criticisms of deconstruction is the way in which, among Derrida’s followers if not for the man himself, it too soon became the almost robotic application of a voracious new set of techniques for reading. Or to put this another way: if Peeters’s aim is to humanize Jacques Derrida, I’m not sure he’s done such a good job.

But perhaps, on the contrary, the problem here is that Peeters hasn’t gone far enough in giving us a truly inhuman or posthuman Derrida. He provides glimpses of the machine, without really showing us its workings. For it may be that a philosopher doesn’t have a life so much as he or she puts together (and becomes part of) a machinic apparatus. What we’re really waiting for, then, is less a biography than a machinography of an always excessive system, which encompassed but went beyond the proper names of (to take Peeters’s section titles) “Jackie,” “Derrida,” and “Jacques Derrida,” to recast and reformulate many of the fundamental propositions of academic writing and conduct, beyond the pseudo-hegemonic (and frankly banal) campaigns of alliance and filiation to which this book too often reduces its subject.