Saturday, January 13, 2018

Being lost/Being home

There's the geography of maps, where the objects are a town, a river, a mountain, and then there is the subjective map, where the objects are all object-events: getting lost, coming home, being-in-a-strange-apartment. The subjective map has a very different scale - it measures not inches, miles, or kilometers, but uniqueness and repetitions. For instance, the geography of getting lost depends upon its position in the scale of encounters with a place - getting lost in the same place the second time is a harder thing to do, and eventually, if you keep coming back, you aren't lost at all and the lostness that you once experienced seems like a dream. Coming back home is perhaps the opposite of lostness, an East to lostness's West. Lostness is tied to the radical lack of experience of a place, a failure of recognition, while coming home is tied to the ultra experience of a place, the place raised by the power of some square of the mind and senses.

Friday, January 12, 2018

the reactionary rhetoric of victimization and the ideology of strength

I watched the interview with Catherine Millet on French Tv about the “Tribune” in Le Monde against the #metoo moment.

It was an interesting exercise in the rhetoric of reaction.

That rhetoric serves the ideology of reinforcing the power of the establishment, and dis-establishing attacks upon it.

Millet use of the terms “victim” and “strength” – as in strong women – in an almost exemplary way. I could almost draw a Greimas square (but I won’t) to analyze her responses.
Millet’s chief rhetorical instrument is to speak of women imprisoning themselves in “victimization.” It does have an unpleasant feel, this victimization. How much better to be strong!
But an odd thing happens as the conversation proceeds. Using the example of a man putting his hand on a woman’s thigh in public transport, Millet reveals that she is a “strong” woman cause it doesn’t effect her, and that the men who do this are pitiable. They are, hmm, victims, and as such they shouldn’t be denounced.

Such are the odd somersaults that victimization has to go through.

In the age of plutocracy, the ideology conceals (as is the tendency of ideologies) a contradiction.
On the one hand, public opinion has long been bombarded by the notion that strength is not merely a description of a contingent use of force in a given situation, but is a virtue all by itself. Once we marry the fetishization of strength to the real image of our society, where there is a chasm between a small group of economic winners and the much larger group of economic losers, the worship of strength legitimizes this order – it even ordains a certain shame in the losers. They are weak!

On the other hand, the establishment gets in on the victimization racket itself. Millet’s “pity” for the “guys” is parallel to such rhetorical tactics as making any attempt to limit the power and the wealth of the wealthy a form of victimizing the successful. Long ago, a conservative mook named Grover Norquist even pushed this rhetoric to urge a parallel between the estate tax and the Holocaust.

Millet’s rhetoric does catch a bit here. After all, to speak of people as powerful as Hilary Clinton as “not being allowed” x or y – a popular ploy among certain of Clinton’s supporters – is at once ridiculous and disempowering. I think that this did real damage to Clinton’s campaign, as advisors became convinced that Clinton could not reveal who she is because it would offend people. But what people? Sexists? What would be the point of not offending them?

It is this kind of victimizing down that led her, for instance, to speak of “deplorables” instead of “racists”. That was a gift to Trumpites. They can all race around in t shirts with deplorable written on them – whereas I have a feeling the t shirt industry wouldn’t have had that influx of money for t shirts saying “racists for Trump.” Here, the negative effects of the victim delusion are apparent.

That said, victims are not some nasty thing that needs to be expelled from the body politic. I have a strong feeling that if the guy in Millet’s case put his hand not on her knee, but in her purse, and drew out her credit card, she’d have no hesitation about going to the cops. Nor would she be deterred by the reminder that she was acting like a “victim” – because, hmm, she was a victim.

I have strong doubts that Le Monde would publish a tribunal decrying the outcry against those who stole from the wealthy, say. It is only a small part of their collected assets! We should not have a witchhunt against frauds or thieves! I can almost guarantee that if the conversation wasn’t about the ever ambiguous notion of strangers or bosses putting their hands on women’s bodies, or sending them dick pics – but was about robbing male bosses, picking their pockets, breaking into their homes – there wouldn’t be a tv show about it.

Cause there are victims and there are victims, guys! 

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Confederate monuments - and phallic ones

Sometimes I think I should find some untranslated minor French classic and translate it. With this in mind, I picked up Jacques Yonnet’s Rue des Malefices, which Raymond Queneau considered to be one of the great books about Paris. It does do that surrealist mixing thing, cutting autobiography and legend, street history and street voices, into a herky jerky narrative about being down and out and under a pseudonym in Nazi occupied Paris.
If I were really to translate the book, obviously I’d need help with those street voices (which were also dear to Queneau’s heart). Here, for instance, is la mere Georgette, naturally a “laveuse”, talking about a neighbor: Formidable qu’il est ce gniar-lá. Je vais sur soixante-dix piges et j’ai l’ai toujours connoblé. Reparouze de pendulettes et fourgueur  d’oignons d’occase. Jamais de bruit.”
Jamais de bruit is the highest compliment one Parisian resident can give another, by the way. As for his repairing clocks and second hand watches – the oignons – I would have to find the street equivalent, and probably end up making Georgette speak in Brooklyn gangster lingo.
So who knows.
But the point, here, is elsewhere. Yonnet, as I said, is immersed in a life of short term flights, among a group of people who are suffering from hunger and foraging the streets in the cold winter of 1941. And he writes this: “They penetrate the hostile night with an enormous fear in their bellies, like we screw by main force a woman who refuses.”
I was brought up short here. It is as if I were walking in a city and suddenly became aware that there was a monument to something nasty – for instance, to a Confederate general.
These monuments are, in fact, scattered all through the literature of the West, and East, and North, and South.  The walker in the city of books will never escape them, never find a route where there isn’t some doomladen shitty sexist thing there in the path.
This doesn’t mean that I give up on Yonnet. To do that would be to give up on Georgette as well, among other things. But it does make me think that there are enormous reckonings that we keep avoiding in this world, with as much energy as we avoid thinking about the future that we are handing to the people of fifty years from now, or twenty-five even. The Tribune in Le Monde that was signed by many other peeps than Catherine Deneuve is a reaction to the fall of these monuments, written in the elegiac tone of a lament for the end of sexual liberation. But of course sexual liberation doesn’t happen in a segregated space – it happens, if it happens, all over. And its shadow side, the exploitation of the rhetoric of sexual liberation to continue gender domination, is a familiar since the dawn of modernity. It was one of the central reactionary moments in surrealism that Bataille, in his over the top essay on Sade and the Surrealists, picked out with cruel accuracy.
It strikes me as no coincidence that the overthrow of confederate monuments and the overthrow of a few phallic monuments – shitty men from the media, firstly – are happening at the same time.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

The novel ain't dead

 There seems to be a perpetual market for thumbsucker pieces predicting the end of the novel. The piece is never written from the point of view of good riddance to bad rubbish – the Surrealists stance on the novel – but rather as an exercise in concern trolling. It starts out with how the novel was once important, then moves on to what is important today – which may be video games, or movies, or television.
“The question, however, remains: Should the demise of the literary novel trouble us? I think the answer is “yes,” but not nearly as much as some literary novelists would have you think.
Great television is taking over the space occupied by many novels, and taking with them many excellent writers. And by and large, it’s delivering the same rewards to its audience. But what about novels that exploit the opportunities that are available only to the form of the novel, such as novels that explore interiority, or rely on the novel’s versatile treatment of time and causation? Who will speak for such novels?
If I seem reluctant to sound the alarm for the demise of the literary novel, even as a novelist myself, it is because modern fiction, particularly English-language fiction, has moved in the direction of the televisual, anyway. Much so-called literary fiction is evidently written with an eye to an option for film or TV adaptation. The response to the challenges from television and other media has been to become more like the offerings of those media. In some ways, this is understandable behavior on the part of each novelist. For all but a tiny few, it’s nearly impossible to make anything even approaching a living from writing literary fiction.”
There are two arguable premises that underlie all these laments about the death of the novel.
The first one is that there is one space allotted to every media form, with the implication that it’s a jungle out there, and social Darwinism gives us a precise outline of how our larger social forces work. This, it seems to me, has been amply disproven by the real history of technology, which is much more about the intermeshing of media than the competition between same. In other words, if TV competes with the novel, it also borrows from it, uses it, promotes it. And vice versa. They are in other words symbiotic, exist in linked spaces, rather than in a struggle for the crown that leaves one dead on the field. Same thing is actually true for poetry, which is in the same symbiotic relationship with song.
The struggle for the crown has always been an American macho thing. This gets us to our second hidden assumption: that the novel is losing out because it is losing its important MALE audience.
Undoubtedly, white American males at the moment are much more like Donald Trump – a vindicative non-reader – than Barack Obama – an erudite guy who could discuss lit with the likes of Marilynne Robinson. Let’s say that as a class, this group of the population has been suffering a disastrous deficit of narrative intelligence, which is in inverse proportion to their grasp on our lives.
For proof, look at the discourse leading up to the invasion of Iraq. It was conceived and talked about exactly like some primitive video game – in fact, the ones that first came on the market in the eighties, when these guys were kids – in which the important fact about the “enemy” is that they are programmed to sneak attack and you win by wiping out as many of them as possible. The enemy, in these games, has no memory or imagination. They have no content, only form: they form a “side.” They are the “bad guys”. That the good guys with weapons in their hands are invading the space of the bad guys doesn’t even register. After all, who owns the video game?
It is no coincidence that, as the novel lost its male readership, all of these bemoanings of the end of the novel appear in all the midlevel media places. Just as the feminization of certain forms of work – say, the replacement of male secretaries in the late nineteenth century with a female workforce – led to the financial and symbolic downgrading of the role of secretary, so, too, the same sexist shit happens with the novel.
Even here, though, we can see a meshing, rather than a competition for the crown. Tom Clancy, who names not an author but an industry of military wankership, preceded and in some ways projected the form that those early vid games would take – and of course soon he developed a whole line of those games himself.
The reason for this is that the novel form comes from what the Russians call skaz. Skaz are routines – the story-routine in oral form. Go to, say, Reddit, or comparable sites, and you will find guys – very male-y guys – skazzing away. If your sense of the novel is delineated by the commodities  sold on Amazon, you will, of course, lament and lament the decline of the literary novel. So few peeps can make their living on them! But in truth, it was always thus. Samuel Johnson’s London, Baudelaire’s Paris, Joyce’s Dublin – always, always, the writer (whether poet or novelist) is a scrounger.
However, the novelist today – Margaret Atwood, or Joan Didion, or Rachel Kushner, etc. – does fairly well for herself. Besides which, there is the teaching. This is, from a financial point of view, really the golden age of the literary novelist, not its flameout. It is just that the patrons of the art have changed.
Big deal. In the end, the responding echo is not monetizable. And guess what? It was always like this. I would like thumbsuckers about the sad plight of the daycare worker and the nursing home caretaker, but as for the novelist, they are doing all right.

January's Paris

In Giles Fletcher’s Of the Russe Commenwealthe, written in 1591, there is a marvelously tossed off phrase in high Elizabethan style: after describing the terror of the Russian winter, Fletcher says: “It would breede a frost in a man to look abroad at that time, and see the winter face of that countrie.” The idea of inner temperature mirroring outer, or rather, inner weather being the broadcast of outer vision, is a powerful thought. The icicle is the icicle of the mind, so to speak – to paraphrase the Macbethian theme of daggers. I find it interesting, although impossible, the way the visual takes a different track from the tactile: Though the imagination may well break through time, so that one loses track, such is time’s touchlessness, it never breaks through temperature – however much I dream of Florida in the streets of January’s Paris, it provides no kindling. 

Elia meets Karl Marx at the South Sea House

    When Charles Lamb, a scholarship boy at Christ’s Hospital, was fifteen, one of his patrons, Thomas Coventry, had a discussion with a...