‘What’s especially tragic about a mind that imagines itself as something separate, defensible, and capable of “efficiency” is not just that it results in a probably very boring (and bored) person; it’s that it’s based on a complete fallacy about the constitution of the self as something separate from others and from the world. Although I can understand it as the logical outcome of a very human craving for stability and categories, I also see this desire as, ironically, the intersection of many forces inside and outside this imagined “self”: fear of change, capitalist ideas of time and value, and an inability to accept mortality. It’s also about control, since if we recognise that what we experience as the self is completely bound to others, determined not by essential qualities but by relationships, then we must further relinquish the ideas of a controllable identity and of a neutral, apolitical existence . . . But whether we are the fluid product of our interactions with others is not our choice to make. The only choice is whether to recognise this reality or not.’

— Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing

‘To resist in place is to make oneself into a shape that cannot so easily be appropriated by a capitalist value system. To do this means refusing the frame of reference: in this case, a frame of reference in which value is determined by productivity, the strength of one’s career, and individual entrepreneurship. It means embracing and trying to inhabit somewhat fuzzier or blobbier ideas: of maintenance as productivity, of the importance of nonverbal communications, and of the mere experience of life as the highest goal. It means recognising and celebrating a form of self that changes over time, exceeds algorithmic description, and whose identity doesn’t always stop at the boundary of the individual.”

— Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing

Forthcoming Books I am Looking Forward to Reading

It seems like mere moments, but in fact it’s been nine months since my last post listing the forthcoming books I was looking forward to reading. In most cases the books on that last list were acquired, though I’ve read only four of the nineteen listed, though remain interested in reading the others. This year I’m acquiring fewer books, but the following are mostly irresistible:

  1. Antonio Negri, Spinoza: Then and Now
  2. Michel Houellebecq, Serotonin
  3. Denise Riley, Time Lived, Without Its Flow
  4. Rachel Mann, A Kingdom of Love
  5. Yiyun Li, Must I Go
  6. Karl Ole Knausgaard, In the Land of the Cyclops
  7. Naomi Klein, On Fire: The Burning Case for a New Green Deal
  8. J. M. Coetzee, The Death of Jesus
  9. Roberto Calasso, The Celestial Hunter
  10. Vivian Gornick, Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader
  11. Roberto Bazlen, Notes Without a Text
  12. S. D. Chrostowska, The Eyelid
  13. Chantal Akerman, My Mother Laughs
  14. Sergio Chejfec, The Incompletes
  15. Kate Zambreno, Drifts
  16. Lars Iyer, Nietzsche and The Burbs
  17. Theodor Adorno, Aspects of the New Right-Wing Extremism

The Latent Possibility of Pure Language

In The Order of Things, Michel Foucault suggests that around the time of what is now known as the Enlightenment, a great divide, illusory maybe but no less powerful for that, took place. In Western culture before that age there was a ‘reciprocal kinship between knowledge and language. The nineteenth century was to dissolve that link, and leave behind it, in confrontation, a knowledge closed in upon itself and a pure language that had become, in nature and function, enigmatic — something that has been called since that time, Literature.’

It isn’t easy or even possible to project back to a time when readers thought Job or Achilles existed, when foundation stories were read as faithful renditions of events or people. This was the emergence of fiction, when literature was set a higher task. At the moment when literature became disassociated from reality, it became essential, a way through another consciousness to glimpse a possibility of truth. This project was in a way always doomed, a failure to translate the untranslatable, but it is the latent and revelatory nature of the search that is the measure of accomplishment.

This failure is constantly visible in the act of translation, whose task is to unearth the buried fragments of pure language. Walter Benjamin wrote, ‘It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language which is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his recreation of that work. For the sake of pure language, he breaks through decayed barriers of his own language.”

“The entire species of the verb may be reduced to the single verb that signifies to be. All the others secretly make use of this unique function, but they have hidden it beneath a layer of determinations: attributes have been added to it, and instead of saying ‘I am singing’, we say ‘I sing’; indications to time have been added, and instead of saying ‘before now I am singing’, we say ‘I sang’; lastly certain languages have integrated the subject itself into their verbs, and thus we find Romans saying, not ego vivit, but vivo. All of this is merely accretion and sedimentation around and over a very slight yet essential verbal function, ‘there is only the verb to be . . . that has remained in this state of simplicity’. The entire essence of language is concentrated in that singular word. Without it, everything would have remained silent, and though men, like certain animals, would have been able to make use of their voices well enough, yet not one of those cries hurled through the jungle would ever have proved to be the first link in the great chain of language.”

— Michel Foucault, The Order of Things

It doesn’t get enough recognition, this brilliant and beautifully written work (sadly there is no translator credited), amidst Foucault’s better known books. I’m reading a Routledge reprint, but have tracked down a first translation into English and will credit a translator if included in that edition.

“Strangely enough, man — the study of whom is supposed by the naïve to be the oldest investigation since Socrates — is probably no more than a kind of rift in the order of things, or, in any case, a configuration whose outlines are determined by the new position he has so recently taken up in the field of knowledge. Whence all the chimeras of the new humanisms, all the facile solutions of an ‘anthropology’ understood as a universal reflection on man, half-empirical, half-philosophical. It is comforting, however, and a source of profound relief to think that man is only a recent invention, a figure not yet two centuries old, a new wrinkle in our knowledge, and that he will disappear again as soon as that knowledge has discovered a new form.”

— Michel Foucault, The Order of Things