A Quiet Revolution Triptych

For a long time I was genuinely puzzled as to how so many suburban American teenagers could be entranced, for instance, by Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life — a book, after all, written in Paris almost forty years ago. In the end I decided it must be because Vaneigem’s book was, in its own way, the highest theoretical expression of the feelings of rage, boredom, and revulsion that almost any adolescent at some point feels when confronted with the middle class existence. The sense of a life broken into fragments, with no ultimate meaning or integrity; of a cynical market system selling its victims commodities and spectacles that themselves represent tiny false images of the very sense of totality and pleasure and community the market has in fact destroyed; the tendency to turn every relation into a form of exchange, to sacrifice life for “survival”, pleasure for renunciation, creativity for hollow homogenous units of power or “dead time” — on some level all this clearly still rings true.

David Graeber, Revolution in Reverse

We are witnessing the collapse of financial capitalism. This was easily predictable. Even among economists, where one finds even more idiots than in the political sphere, a number had been sounding the alarm for a decade or so. Our situation is paradoxical: never in Europe have the forces of repression been so weakened, yet never have the exploited masses been so passive. Still, insurrectional consciousness always sleeps with one eye open. The arrogance, incompetence, and powerlessness of the governing classes will eventually rouse it from its slumber, as will the progression in hearts and minds of what was most radical about May 1968.

Raoul Vaneigem, Hans Ulrich Obrist: In Conversation with Raoul Vaneigem

We may very well stand at one of those decisive turning points of history which separate whole eras from each other. For contemporaries entangled, as we are, in the inexorable demands of daily life, the dividing lines between eras may be hardly visible when they are crossed; only after people stumble over them do the lines grow into walls which irretrievably shut people off the past.

Hannah Arendt, Home to Roost

A Vanishing Breed of Writer

I feel like part of the vanishing breed that thinks a writer should be read and not heard, let alone seen. I think this is because there seems so often today to be a tendency to put the person in the place of his or her work, to turn the creative artist into a performing one, to find what a writer says about writing somehow more valid, or more real, than the writing itself.

William Gaddis — from his acceptance speech for the National Book Award in Fiction for J R , April 1976

Catherine Lacey’s Nobody is Ever Missing


Insidious, that’s my one word summary for Catherine Lacey’s Nobody is Ever Missing, ‘proceeding in a gradual, subtle way’ confirms the dictionary, ‘but with very harmful effects’. Like insomnia. I finished Nobody is Ever Missing forty-eight hours ago unsure whether I enjoyed reading Lacey’s story. Sometimes that happens and a few hours later I’ve forgotten a story, other times it won’t leave me. It encroaches on my thoughts like a screwworm, burrowing deeply.

There are many ways in which Nobody is Ever Missing could be different, even better. For the first forty pages I was going to abandon the book, leave it on my commuter train for someone else to give a fuck. The following paragraph was almost the moment to quit:

She pulled over in front of a café with a sign that said THE INTERNET. I got out of the car and the old lady said, Good luck, take care, and I didn’t know what I was going to spend any good luck on or what I could care for, but I said, Thank you, because that’s what you do

That’s the cutesy note that puts me off a shedload of American literature, normally time to give up, but something of Lacey’s voice kept me reading. The deftness of narrative control whilst depicting the inchoate narrator’s chaotic inner monologue is thrilling and really smart. The way that Lacey handles the passage between monologue and narrative creates a fluidity that sustains the compulsion to read on. There’s also a lightness of touch that situates the story almost, but not quite, on the razor edge of comedy , awaiting a turn to the comic, but the turn never comes. Instead it spirals into deepening notes of darkness, but without losing its place on that razor’s edge.

Forty-eight hours later Lacey’s story is still playing on my mind. The ending is brilliant. It doesn’t allow you to leave the story behind. I don’t know if I enjoyed the book, but I want to read more of Lacey’s work. As a début, it is staggeringly good.

Homogenisation of Perceptual Experience

Philosopher Bernard Stiegler has written widely on the consequences of what he sees as the homogenization of perceptual experience within contemporary culture. He is especially concerned with the global circulation of mass-produced “temporal objects,” which, for him, includes movies, television programs, popular music, and video clips. Stiegler cites the advent of widespread internet use in the mid 1990s as the decisive turning point (his key date is 1992) in the impact of these industrial audiovisual products. Over the last two decades, he believes, they have been responsible for a “mass synchronisation” of consciousness and memory. The standardisation of experience on such a large scale, he argues, entails a loss of subjective identity and singularity; it also leads to the disastrous disappearance of individual participation and creativity in the making of the symbols we all exchange and share. His notion of synchronisation is radically unlike what I referred to earlier as shared temporalities, in which the co-presence of differences and otherness could be the basis for provisional publics or communities. Stiegler concludes there is an ongoing destruction of the “primordial narcissism” essential for a human being to care for themselves or for others, and he points to the many episodes of mass murder/suicide as ominous results of this widespread psychic and existential damage. He calls urgently for the creation of counter-products that might reintroduce singularity into cultural experience and somehow disconnect desire from the imperatives of consumption.

A paragraph from Jonathan Crary’s bold 24/7, an important book that demands a personal reaction.

Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams

Leslie Jamison’s final essay in The Empathy Exams is its strongest piece. “I’m tired of female pain, and also tired of people who are tired of it,” she writes. In many ways Jamison’s response to the female body and pain opposes Kate Zambreno’s project, but I prefer to see it as complementary, viewing the same issues though other prisms.

The Empathy Exams is a series of unrelated essays, memoirs, and ‘pain tours’ that focuses primarily on American culture. It is framed at by the fascinating The Empathy Exams, an exploration of Jamison’s job as a medical actor, paid to convincingly fake illness as part of medical students’ training, and concludes with Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.

Jamison writes beautifully, though often without the punch of a storyteller like Joan Didion, but the collection shows tremendous power as an essayist with a journalist’s eye.

Unmoving Targets

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This concerted attempt to erase the responsibilities of thought and volition from our daily lives has produced a nation of couched-out soft touches, easily riled by the most cynically vacuous sloganeering and handily manipulated by the alibis of “morality” and false patriotism. To put it bluntly, no ones home. We are literally absent from our own present. We are elsewhere, not in the real but in the represented. Our bodies, the flesh and blood of it all, have given way to representations: figures that cavort on TV, movie, and computer screens. Propped up and ultra-relaxed, we teeter on the cusp of narcolepsy and believe everything and nothing.

Barbara Kruger
Remote Control: Power, Cultures, and the World of Appearances

Writing That Stops Itself

Binge-reading Anne Carson continues with Men in the Off Hours. I’ve just spent a fortnight with Eros the Bittersweet, reading it three times back to back and then a fourth to transcribe large passages into my notebook. It is simply one of the most sublime books I’ve read, and certainly the finest on the nature of desire and love, and how each intertwines with the act of reading and writing.

I keep thinking of how to write about Anne Carson’s work which I might attempt when I’ve finished this reading of her oeuvre, but my reverence gets in the way of any critical insight. Michelle mentioned Carson’s idea of writing/language that “stops itself” which is evident even in the weaker works like Autobiography of Red, with unexpected images like “He switched on the light. He was staring at the sweep hand of the electric clock / on the dresser. Its little dry hum ran over his nerves like a comb.”

But the writer who comes to mind most immediately whose language constantly disrupts thought is Derek Walcott. Last night I reread his dazzling Omeros, and wanted to share these seven exquisite lines (I can’t preserve the spacing on WordPress):

We watched the Major lift
his wife’s coffin hung with orchids , many she had found
in the blue smoke of Saltibus. Then Achilles saw the swift
pinned to the orchids, but it was the image of a swift

which Maud had sown into the silk draping her bier
and not only the African swift but all the horned island’s
birds, bitterns and herons, silently screeching there.

There are, so far, many poems in Carson’s Men in the Off Hours that stop me dead. I have to put the book down and inhabit the silence that her work conjures.

The Selfish Individual

Throughout this week I’ve binged on Susan Sontag’s essays and interviews. The last pieces Sontag wrote are collected in At the Same Time, which include two of my favourite Sontag reviews.

Sontag’s A Double Destiny: On Anne Banti’s Artemisia in which she writes of Banti’s “prowling” around her own text is a deeply insightful review of a stunning book, a rare work of historical fiction that is worth reading. The essay sent me dipping back into Artemisia.

I also came across an essay I haven’t read before, an acceptance speech written for the Jerusalem Prize. With great lucidity Sontag deals with the encouragement of personal liberation, the legacy of the 1960’s that far from freeing up human subjects, acted as a precursor to the selfish individualism so prevalent today in America and the UK, and being exported to a society near you year by year.

I prefer to use “individual” as an adjective rather than as a noun.

The unceasing propaganda in our time for “the individual” seems to me deeply suspect, as “individuality” itself becomes more and more a synonym for selfishness. A capitalist society comes to have vested interest in praising “individuality” and “freedom”-which may mean little more than the right to the perpetual aggrandisement of the self, and the freedom to shop, to acquire, to use up, to consume, to render obsolete.

I don’t believe there is any inherent value in the cultivation of the self. And I think there is no culture (using the term normatively) without the standard of altruism, of regard for others, I do believe there is an inherent value in extending our sense of what a human life can be. If literature has engaged me as a project, first as a reader and then as a writer, it is as an extension of my sympathies to other selves, other domains, other words, other territories of concern.

Shored Against My Ruins

The entrance to the Zendo (meditation hall) of a Zen Buddhist temple on the Japanese west coast. (2009) - Pepijn Sauer

The entrance to the Zendo (meditation hall) of a Zen Buddhist temple on the Japanese west coast. (2009) – Pepijn Sauer

Susan Sontag’s wrote, “The wisdom that becomes available over a profound, lifelong engagement with the aesthetic cannot, I venture to say, be duplicated by any other kind of seriousness.” I don’t know if Sontag was right, but I like to think so. I live as though it is a statement of truth.

This photograph, borrowed from a deeply impressive archive, reminds me of a visit to Nara, a city that brought great aesthetic delight, as much for the woodwork of the temples as the proportions of architecture.

Fly-specks: Prototype of Punctuation

FLY-:SPECK:, n. The prototype of punctuation. It is observed by Garvinus that the systems of punctuation in use by the various literary nations depended originally upon the social habits and general diet of the flies infesting the several countries. These creatures, which have always been distinguished for a neighborly and companionable familiarity with authors, liberally or niggardly embellish the manuscripts in process of growth under the pen, according to their bodily habit, bringing out the sense of the work by a species of interpretation superior to, and independent of, the writer’s powers. The “old masters” of literature – that is to say, the early writers whose work is so esteemed by later scribes and critics in the same language – never punctuated at all, but worked right along free-handed, without that abruption of the thought which comes from the use of points… In the work of these primitive scribes all the punctuation is found, by the modern investigator with his optical instruments and chemical tests, to have been inserted by the writers’ ingenious and serviceable collaborator, the common house-fly – Musca maledicta.

Ambrose Bierce
The Devil’s Dictionary