annoyance

Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage presents itself as the account of a failed attempt to write a book about D. H. Lawrence. Or rather, it is a failed attempt to write a “sober, academic study of D. H. Lawrence” (1) because, ultimately, Dyer’s book does still claim to be about Lawrence, if obliquely–or perhaps not obliquely enough.

The book is only obliquely about Lawrence in that so much of the narrative concerns the ways in which Dyer manages to procrastinate over his self-assigned task, often quite hilariously so. For instance, instead of reading about Lawrence he finds himself reading about Rilke, who himself wasted time agonizing about Rodin’s words about the necessity of work:

I should have been working on my study of D. H. Lawrence and instead I was idling over Rodin’s words. Il faut travailler, rien que travailler. I should be writing my book about D. H. Lawrence, I said to myself, everything else should be subordinate to that–but who can tell where that task begins and ends? Some huge benefit may yet accrue from reading Rilke’s letters. The more I read, in fact, the more convinced I became that a better understanding of Rilke was crucial to an understanding of Lawrence. (20)

And yet Dyer’s book is rather more directly about Lawrence than the standard academic monograph, in that Dyer is concerned less with reading secondary literature on Lawrence (“the vast majority, the overwhelming majority of books by academics,” Dyer tells us, “are a crime against literature” [102]) than with going where Lawrence went and, as far as possible, experiencing what Lawrence himself experienced.

In short, Out of Sheer Rage is a sort of gonzo literary criticism; he himself terms it “method” criticism (128). Rather than read Lawrence (because although Dyer does seem to have read plenty of Lawrence, he tells us precious little of that reading), the aim is to track Lawrence’s own apparently aimless wanderings from Derbyshire, across the Mediterranean, and on to Mexico and the Southwest USA, and so to feel something of what Lawrence himself may have felt in those same places. Rather than interpretation, Dyer gives us affect.

This affective approach to Lawrence may seem to be peculiarly appropriate, given that this is a writer whose work is after all often concerned with intensity, spirit, and feeling, except that the prevailing affect in Dyer’s traipse in Lawrence’s tracks turns out to be lassitude, frustration, and boredom. If academic criticism is from the start ridiculed (perhaps particularly for a subject such as Lawrence) as spectacularly missing the point, the attempt at affective encounter would likewise appear, at least as Dyer presents it, to be inevitably doomed. For instance, when he finally reaches the site of Lawrence’s house in Taormina, Dyer first finds roadworks and “a Moscow smell of petrol” and then, seeing a plaque verifying that this is indeed the place, comments:

We had found it. We stood silently. I knew this moment well from previous literary pilgrimages: you look and look and try to summon up feelings that don’t exist. You try saying a mantra to yourself, “D. H. Lawrence lived here.” You say, “I am standing in the place he stood, seeing the things he saw…”, but nothing changes, everything remains exactly the same: a road, a house with sky above it and the sea glinting in the distance. (60)

New Mexico is similarly disappointing: Santa Fe “didn’t quite live up to the immense romance of the name” (213-4) while Taos’s one distinguishing feature ends up being the fact that it has “an unrivalled concentration of terrible artists” (216).

If this book is born “out of sheer rage” (the quotation comes from Lawrence himself, writing a book on Thomas Hardy that “will be about anything but Thomas Hardy I am afraid”), perhaps that is because it effects a transmutation of Lawrentian rage (“Lawrence was angry even in his sleep,” we are told [160]) to what we might call a characteristically Dyersian minor irritation and petty annoyance. Dyer shows his talent for petty annoyance particularly in his relations with his girlfriend, who accompanies him on much of his journey and with whom he frequently squabbles. He himself, near the end, concludes that his own book is ultimately about despair, but really it’s a peculiarly affectless despair, a depression that he defines as “the complete absence of any interest in anything” (227).

But in a final twist of a book that is full of the kinds of twists and turns that constitute uncertainty, general unease, and restlessness rather than high drama, the pursuit of Lawrence, however dissatisfying and even trivial (“Could such a simple quest really have required such a disproportionate investment of effort?” Dyer askes [226]) turns out to be therapeutic. The voyage itself at least staves off the utter meaningless and depression that otherwise, it’s suggested, awaits us. We all need some vague sense or irritation, we’re told, that keeps us in a kind of Brownian motion that attempts to salve minor dissatisfactions:

Our lives are actually made up of lots of tiny searches for things like a CD we are not sick of, an out-of-print edition of Phoenix, a picture of Lawrence that I saw when I was seventeen, another identical pair of suede shoes to the ones I am wearing now [. . .]. Add them together and these little things make up an epic quest, more than enough for one lifetime. (230-1)

Hence it is that “One way or another we all have to write our studies of D. H. Lawrence” (231) and “the best we can do is to try to make some progress with our studies of D. H. Lawrence” (232).

And yet, perhaps appropriately, I find this conclusion disappointing. Dyer would say “But of course!” The apparent profundity, however, is plucked out of nowhere. And the fact that a book that is rather interesting on what we might call an affect of disinterest and fragmentation, of never being able to resolve the elements of what we imagine must once have been a coherent whole, ends up as a form of consolatory self-help in renaming these petty parts an “epic quest”–indeed, ends up taking a sort of smug satisfaction in dissatisfaction–well, I find it mildly annoying.

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ohm

Radio On poster

Radio On is a chilling portrait of Britain in the late 1970s. As with David Peace‘s more recent novelistic portrayals of Yorkshire in the grip of Rippermania, Petit’s film suggests that violence and unsavory hidden networks underpin (but also undermine) the ennui and repetitive routines of an almost affectless daily life.

Unlike Peace, however, Petit has no great desire to prove the conspiratorial thesis that promises (as all conspiracies do) to give meaning to what is superficially odd or opaque. Rather, he prefers to surf the affectless surface itself, fascinated by the strange quirks and eddies that arise out of a life of constant (often mechanized) motion without particular end.

Hence, though the film’s plot involves a man named Robert who takes a road-trip to Bristol to find out why his brother has committed suicide, with the implication that he may have been involved in some kind of hard-core pornography ring recently busted by the police, in the end the protagonist seems hesitant to discern any kind of ultimate truth. As he comments to a German woman whom he picks up on the way, the reason for his journey turns out to be strangely unimportant.

The quirks and eddies of the trek include a brief episode with an apparently psychotic army deserter whom Robert picks up as a hitch-hiker. He’s been traumatized, it seems, by his tours of duty in Northern Ireland; but again Robert has little interest in probing much further, choosing instead to throw the man’s stuff out of the car and drive on when the ex-soldier stops to take a piss. Instead, Robert is rather more amused by the gentler figure of a petrol station attendant (played by Sting) who is too distracted by his rock and roll fantasies and idolization of Eddy Cochran to bother with manning the till or taking money from customers.

Together, Robert and Sting’s character sing a version of Cochran’s posthumous hit “Three Steps to Heaven”, which declares that “the formula for Heaven’s very simple / Just follow the rules and you will see.” There’s no greater indication of the distance between the early 1960s and the tail end of the 1970s than the fact that such simplicity, or even such aspirations, are totally out of place. But the link between then and now is that music remains central.

For this is a film almost entirely devoid of dialogue; and even when characters do converse, they speak past rather than to each other. For instance, there are a couple of long sequences of untranslated German; in Radio On, language is part of our alienation, not a means to counteract it. Music, on the other hand, while it may reflect the repetitiveness and routine of our humdrum lives (Bowie’s “Always Crashing in the Same Car”), perhaps also offers the possibility of connection and even heroic insistence on affect (Bowie again, with “Heroes/Helden,” or Wreckless Eric’s “Whole Wide World”).

radio_on_still

Indeed, before Robert hears about the suicide, he gets a package in the post in which his brother has sent him three Kraftwerk tapes. So it is this German band, whose constant theme is our uneasy relationship to technology and mass production, that come to dominate the film’s soundtrack. The movie ends as Robert’s car fails to start, and he is unable to crank the engine as the vehicle is poised on the edge of a disused quarry. So he puts one last track on the car tape player, Kraftwerk’s ironic anthem “Ohm Sweet Ohm,” and takes the train back to London.

As the quasi-manifesto seen in the dead brother’s flat says, “We are the children of Fritz Lang and Werner von Braun. We are the link between the 20’s and the 80’s. All change in society passes through a sympathetic collaboration with tape recorders, synthesizers, and telephones. Our reality is an electronic reality.” Ultimately, Britain in the seventies is not quite “home,” and is by no means homely, but it may be that postindustrial (post)modernity gives rise to its own culture, and its own (electronic) reality in which we may find some uncertain facsimile of “ohm.”

YouTube Link: the film’s opening (almost entirely dialogue-free) ten minutes; the whole film can in fact be seen, in segments, on YouTube.

murder

Evelyn Waugh’s 92 Days is an account of a trip, in 1933, through what was then British Guiana (now Guyana) and the far north of Brazil. Last month I covered some of the same territory, traveling from Boa Vista via Lethem to Georgetown overland, and then on to New Amsterdam. Our means of transportation, however, were rather different: I felt that the sixteen-hour bone-shaking ride in a minibus to the Caribbean coast was bad enough; but for Waugh it was a question of several weeks on horseback, on foot, and in a succession of riverboats. Each stage of the journey in the 1930s involved organizing a small expedition, taking in supplies, hiring horses and porters, or waiting days for the uncertain arrival of mailboats.

Waugh goes out of his way to underline the discomforts of travel, from the sheer physical exertion (not least when he is half-lame thanks to an inflamed foot) to the hordes of biting insects, or from the poor food to the often even poorer company. As he says, “There are a hundred excellent reasons for rough travelling, but good living is not one of them” (135). The book is a catalogue of frustration, delay, deprivation, and discomfort to which Waugh only gradually becomes inured.

It is the fact that Waugh becomes (at least relatively) inured to these daily discomforts that prevents the book from ever becoming a tale of high adventure. And after all, the author is seldom in great danger; the one point at which his expedition is truly at risk of disaster, when he becomes totally lost, he is supremely unaware of the fact until fortuitously meeting the man who will set him back on the right track. Hence there is little in the way of tension or drama in Waugh’s rather stately progress through jungle and savannah. Indeed, the atmosphere is rather one of some tedium in which obstacles are rendered merely disagreeable inconveniences.

We might even begin to wonder what are the “hundred excellent reasons” for such a trip. To the extent that his voyage is not completely aimless, Waugh fails in its ostensible goal: he hopes to go to Manaus, but after a fruitless week or two hanging around in Boa Vista, he turns tail and goes back the way he came.

Boa Vista itself, which by default then becomes his ultimate destination, proves a vast disappointment. He had heard mainly tales of the town’s magnificence: “I had come to regard it as Middle Western Americans look on Paris, as Chekhov peasants on St Petersburg. In the discomforts of the journey there, I had looked forward to the soft living of Boa Vista” (99). And yet when he finally arrives, Waugh soon finds the place miserable and squalid and that “all that extravagant and highly improbable expectation had been obliterated like a sandcastle beneath the encroaching tide” (103). Even the place’s one distinguishing feature, its remarkably high rate of homicide, turns out to be shabby and unremarkable: “It was the first time in my life that I found myself in contact with a society in which murder was regarded as being as common and mildly regrettable as divorce in England; there was no glamour in it; I found it neither heroic nor horrifying” (107).

Throughout, indeed, Waugh deflates any sense of cultural difference, however much he also indicates that the Europeans stranded in this vast landscape are all slightly insane while the indigenous and the blacks are invariably sullen and ugly. They are no more so than his compatriots back home: “In fact the more I saw of Indians the greater I was struck by their similarity to the English. The like living with their families at great distances from their neighbours; they regard strangers with suspicion and despair; they are unprogressive and unambitious, fond of pets, hunting, and fishing” (41) and so on.

Obviously, Waugh does also seek to exploit the comic value in these determinedly unexotic comparisons. And yet the book rather falls between two stools, as it is not on the whole a comic memoir. Enough sense of discomfort and frustration comes through that cannot quite be laughed ironically away. Nor is the voyage ever quite redeemed by any soul-searching or other forms of enlightenment, however much so many of the people he meets are in one way or another obsessed with religion and metaphysics.

As Pauline Melville points out in her thoughtful afterword, the key is no doubt in “what the author chose not to reveal”:

Waugh states that the journey was undertaken for reasons of adventure and to collect material for a book. This is not the whole truth. He was in despair. His marriage had broken down after the bitter discovery that he had been betrayed and cuckolded. Humiliation drove Waugh to seek solace in what he describes as the “most far-flung and wild region of the British Empire.” (211)

In this light, the apparently trivializing comparison of murder in northern Brazil to divorce in the home counties takes on new significance. Perhaps, in fact, for Waugh the emphasis was the other way around: that as far as he was concerned, divorce was like murder, however unglamorous it may also have been.

Link: Nicholas Lezard’s review of the book for The Guardian.

storytelling

In his autobiography, The Future Lasts a Long Time, Louis Althusser twice provides the same capsule definition of materialism:

“My objective: never to tell myself stories, which is the only ‘definition’ of materialism I have ever subscribed to” (169)

“‘Not to indulge in storytelling’ still remains for me the one and only definition of materialism” (221)

[“‘Ne pas se raconter d’histoire,’ cette formule reste pour moi la seule définition du matérialisme.”]

I like this definition, for reasons I’ve hinted at before. The real follows no narrative; stories are always elaborated around, and an inevitable distortion of, the real.

photo by Martin ParrMeanwhile, Susan is getting excited about boredom. (Catchphrase: “boredom, not as boring as you think.”) It’s in part an elaboration of her suburbs project. (Catchphrase: “suburbs, not as boring as you think.”) She’s enjoying A Philosophy of Boredom. (The Times: “Lars Svendsen (boring name), a professor of philosophy (boring subject) from Norway (boring country), has written a quite fascinating book.”)

And I’ve mentioned boredom before, both as a kind of degree zero of affect, and in terms of Agamben’s discussion of Heidegger.

photo by Martin ParrBut if we think of boredom as a result of narrative failure–the point at which stories fail to entertain–could it not be recast as the materialist affect par excellence?

As Deleuze says, in what is one of my favourite lines of his (which I’ve also cited before): “Tiredness and waiting, even despair are the attitudes of the body.”

“These are tough times for boredom”, claims Michael Crowley. I’m not so sure. The fact that we endlessly seek distraction (Crowley mentions ubiquitous TV and the “wormhole” of the internet) signals less “boredom’s demise” than how easily distracted we are, precisely because of our underlying disaffection.

We flip through the channels and click through the pages, listessly, mechanically. We have an ever smaller attention span for the stories we are told. Are we then close to a “materialist way”?

The images in this post are from Martin Parr‘s “Boring, Oregon” project. Parr is today’s high priest of boredom, with Bored Couples and the Boring Postcards trilogy. See Jonathan Bell’s review and also a fine collection of Swedish boring postcards.

refusal

Ya BastaA plan is afoot at archive : s0metim3s for a discussion of Mario Tronti’s “The Strategy of Refusal”. This comes on the heels of Jodi’s Long Sunday post on “Bartleby in Power” and coincides with Nate’s encouragement: Leggiamo Tronti.

We all want to say “We prefer not to.” The brilliance of the “strategy of refusal” is its immediate appeal. Against the moralism that so often characterizes the Left. Against notions of sacrifice, struggle, or self-improvement. A valorization of what starts as an exasperated sigh: “Enough already!”

And a realization that the real moralism lies elsewhere.

Parr

I’ve been a fan of photographer Martin Parr‘s work ever since I first saw his book Signs of the Times. I think it was because his photographs, and the laconic quotations that accompanied them, seemed to illustrate Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction better than anything else I’d seen.

Martin Parr photo of lightswitch“We wanted a cottagey stately home kind of feel.”

I don’t like all his work–I’m less keen, for instance, on his super-saturated images in Common Sense or Think of England–but he has an extraordinary eye, a wry perspective that’s never as simple as it seems, and an inventiveness and creativity that gives his work great diversity, while all the time he maintains his customary obsessions.

Who would have thought, for instance, that he’d come up with a project such as Saddam Hussein Watches? And yet, once you have seen it, it’s so obvious, so… Martin Parr. It is, moreover, a typically oblique take on politics. Parr is among the most political of photographers, but at the same time one of the most disturbingly apolitical.

Perhaps what’s disturbing about Parr’s work is how often it literalizes the notion that, ultimately, photography is no more than collectionism.

Parr himself is a notorious collector. I remember seeing a documentary about him in which he showed an interviewer around his house, absolutely stuffed with an almost unimaginably vast assortment of old comics, cheesy plastic ornaments, postcards, and so on. Several of these collections have been repackaged as books, most notably the “Boring Postcards” series. Parr also collects concepts and ideas, with the same almost anti-intellectual, anti-theoretical, non-judgmental passion that characterizes all true collectors: one of his projects, for example, has been to photograph the last parking spaces in car parks around the world.

Martin Parr photo of man on phoneSo (and despite what I said above) Parr endlessly implies that his photography follows no other logic than his own compulsion to take a picture of yet another person on a mobile phone, say. That the photographer is only some kind of semi-autistic über-geek trainspotter, whose snapshots can have no claims to artistry, subjectivity, or intention, beyond the purely mechanical, machinic.

At times, in short, it is as though the photographer were no more than the camera’s prosthesis.

disaffection

A friend and I were chatting today, and he asked about disaffection. What kind of affect, or anti-affect, is it?

Disaffection is not simply an absence of affect. It usually has an object: people are disaffected with something. In some cases, disaffection can be the prelude to rebellion. It’s a kind of low-grade insurrection, perhaps less focussed and less determined than refusal (for which the paradigm is always Bartleby), but more spirited than anomie.

Then there’s boredom. I’m interested in boredom, as both affect and affectlessness. I remember Patrice Petro always suggesting that boredom was a feminist affect, indicating an impatience with the status quo and an unwillingness to hear the same old patriarchal stories told over and over.