The Obscene

Jean Baudrillard
Jean Baudrillard

When things become too real, when they are immediately given and realised, when we are in short circuit which means that these things are brought closer and closer together, we are in obscenity. From this standpoint, Régis Debray made an interesting critique of the society of the spectacle: according to him, we are no longer in a society that distances us from things, in which we could be said to be alienated by our separation from them . . . Our curse is that we are brought up ultra-close against them, that everything is immediately realised, both things and ourselves. And this too-real world is obscene.

Ink-Black Triptych

'black painting' - Ad Reinhardt
‘black painting’ – Ad Reinhardt

Today, life is fast. It vaporizes morals. Futility suits the postmodern, for words as well as things. Bur that doesn’t keep us from asking questions: how to live, and why? You’re not done living because you chalk it up to artifice.

Jean-François Lyotard


Nihilism no longer wears the dark, Wagnerian, Spenglerian, fuliginous colours of the end of the century. It no longer comes from a weltanschauung of decadence nor from a metaphysical radically born of the death of God and of all the consequences that must be taken from this death. Today’s nihilism is one of transparency, and it is in some sense more radical, more crucial than in its prior and historical forms, because this transparency, this irresolution is indissolubly that of the system, and that of all the theory that still pretends to analyse it.

Jean Baudrillard


The dissolution of being is a tragic dissolution; and driven by a grievous nostalgia every person keeps asking the other to be something he can no longer be, and to find the weight of being, like a blinded phantom, that he himself can no longer find. The resistance, the permanence; the depth. In the end, we all come away empty-handed, and the loneliness is terrible.

Michel Houellebecq

Links of the Week

Many of these links have been tweeted in the past, but here I can tag and categorise them for future reference. I hope you find some of them interesting too. Please feel free to discuss in comments or on Twitter. Some of the links to PDFs disappear quickly so download them promptly.

Gerhard Richter - 'The Reader.'
Gerhard Richter – ‘The Reader.’

Gerhard Richter is the top-selling living artist. This thrilling lecture/essay [PDF] takes two of Richter’s paintings (including The Reader) and examines them using as a framework Heidegger’s thesis that art should be understood as a discovery and disclosure of truth. “Things, scenes and persons depicted do not act for the spectator; rather, they act as if the spectator is not present.”

Chris Kraus’s intelligent, controversial I Love Dick narrates an infatuation with a fictional media theorist based, allegedly, on Dick Hebdige, whose 1979 Subculture: The Meaning of Style , [PDF]influenced by Julia Kristeva’s work, provides a semiotic reading of punk.

Reading Jacques Lacan can be worthwhile but hard work. This guide to Lacan is very useful, as is this Cambridge Companion [PDF] (Alenka Zupančič’s essay is particularly good).

In The Art of Fiction Henry James provides a practical, radical definition of the novel, arguing that the craft of writing cannot be taught and pouncing on the failings of philistine readers. Surprisingly relevant and amusing to read.

Do you know Borges’s short story, Of Exactitude in Science? It is a favourite, and short enough to quote:

In that Empire, the craft of Cartography attained such Perfection that the Map of a Single province covered the space of an entire City, and the Map of the Empire itself an entire Province. In the course of Time, these Extensive maps were found somehow wanting, and so the College of Cartographers evolved a Map of the Empire that was of the same Scale as the Empire and that coincided with it point for point. Less attentive to the Study of Cartography, succeeding Generations came to judge a map of such Magnitude cumbersome, and, not without Irreverence, they abandoned it to the Rigours of sun and Rain. In the western Deserts, tattered Fragments of the Map are still to be found, Sheltering an occasional Beast or beggar; in the whole Nation, no other relic is left of the Discipline of Geography.

I mention Borges’s story because I am always reminded of it by Jean Baudrillard’s Simulcra and Simulation [PDF] in which he argues that our models and maps have distanced us from the real world that preceded the models and maps:

It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real, that is to say of an operation of deterring every real process via its operational double, a programmatic, metastable, perfectly descriptive machine that offers all the signs of the real and short-circuits all its vicissitudes.

Paul Virilio’s The Information Bomb [PDF] packs a lot of power into less than 150 pages, a deeply pessimistic analysis of humanity’s relation to technology.

The legendary 1978 samizdat recording of Audience, starring Václav Havel (1936-2011) as Vanek and Pavel Landovský as Sládek.

The only way I can take Georges Bataille’s work seriously is to read it ironically. Like Björk, I read his Story of the Eye [PDF] when I was 17 years old.

I read Adorno’s Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life much more recently, and it is rare a day goes by that I don’t dip into the copy I keep on my desk.

Links of the Week

Many of these links have been tweeted in the past, but here I can tag and categorise them for future reference. I hope you find some of them interesting too. Please feel free to discuss in comments or on Twitter.

Translations of works by Augusto Monterroso (by Adam Thirlwell).

Andrei Konchalovsky’s enjoyable, if not entirely accurate The Odyssey (complete film).

The first ten Penguin books – Treasures of the Bodleian.

New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies.

John Newman on Architecture and Aging.

An interview with Blake Butler (2012).

Angela Carter’s Gothic Bride and subversion of the white wedding dress trope.

Interview with Helen DeWitt including discussion about the brilliant Lightning Rods.

Now interconnected and fully searchable, the virtual digital Loeb Classical library.

Addicted to Chekhov – Lloyd Evans on why we’ve all become hooked on the Russian playwright.

Review of the terrific Madness, Rack, and Honey essay collection by Mary Ruefle.

The Precession of Simulacra by Jean Baudrillard.

Remembering Baudrillard: Wither Baudrillard’s World?

Static Mass’ take on Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse, an examination of nihilism and the death of God.

HTMLGiant’s review of Mathematics: (a novel) by Jacques Roubaud.

Michelle’s excellent review of Clarice Lispector’s Água Viva.

JM Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians

To read Coetzee’s fiction is to undertake a journey, a passage, with the consequent necessity of recuperation when the passage is completed. Waiting for the Barbarians offers a passage to an undesignated time and place, a frontier town, one of many established to secure a heartland from barbarians. The mise-en-scène offers clues to both place and period (lances, fusils, desert and marshland) but these are unimportant. This is a novel that describes a number of binary oppositions, which turn out not to be genuine choices.

Sharing, at the beginning at least, a mood of detachment similar in texture to Kafka’s In The Penal Colony, the central protagonist is unnamed, referred to simply as The Magistrate. Just three of the novel’s many characters are named: the menacing Colonel Joll from the Third Bureau ( I am intrigued that ‘jol’ is South African slang meaning to have fun, to party, which Coetzee was probably aware of in choosing this surname), his vicious sidekick Mandel, and, singly, Mai, a mother that The Magistrate turns to, briefly, for intercourse. By naming just the opposite poles of violence and intimacy Coetzee foregrounds this as a didactic fable with its roots in Kafka.

It is of course essential to read Waiting for the Barbarians as a critique of two distinct forms of colonialism, the benign but amoral form identified with the Magistrate, the last just man, and the unreserved despotism of the Third Bureau and Empire as represented by Joll. Finally, as in Cavafy’s poem, the barbarians never come, thus leaving the reader to ask if they existed, and whether the truly barbaric were within the fortress all along. A Baudrillardian reading through a filter of American barbarism in the Middle East would be rewarding but perhaps for another time.

A Textual Reality

We live in a textual reality

Texts, I am suggesting give meaning even to the contingent and fleeting events of our lives, and that is one reason why we value them. But the conditions of our being come to us already scripted, textualised, shaped in patterns into which we fall, almost like actors given a script that they must follow. The human condition is a condition of textuality.

What we call realism, then, in literary works may be nothing more than a reading of those “scenes of language” that shape the actual world and turn its inhabitants into characters upon a textual stage. That is, literary realism may be most real when it represents events that are already “scenes of language.”

The Reading the World chapter in Robert Scholes’s The Crafty Reader is a reminder to read and reread Barthes and Baudrillard. Scholes’s book has acquired more substance during subsequent contemplation.