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Dead Irony Part II

I referred yesterday to a NYT article about the alleged murder of irony which has been committed by the naïve cadres of young Obamaniacs too eager to embrace anything but their Shepard Fairey posters and t-shirts.

In the article, Joan Didion represented the prosecution, but the journalist covering the NYRB event where she made her case missed all of her best lines, as you can find out by reading her remarks! No, seriously, take a moment to read—it's short, and it's crucial to what I have to say.

Let's examine Ms. Didion's basic argument. Two caveats first: I will frequently use "we" or "us" or "our" to refer to the 'generation' Didion believes lacks irony, as I consider myself a member of this target group. Secondly, I recognize that Didion is not a Boomer, but I will use this term to include her, as it seems to be an appropriate antonym of the 'generation' Didion has targeted.

Didion's harangue hinges on her appreciation of irony as a necessary political vitamin, which she seems to define (implicitly) as detachment, 'healthy realism' (i.e. skepticism) or pragmatism. This election, she argues, demonstrated a terrifying irony deficiency in the body politic, or more particularly in its youngest members. On whether or not Americans can survive this political scurvy, she does not offer an opinion. But from this deficiency, she diagnoses 1) age-ism (apparently we sneer at our parents while we're making really cogent arguments about who to vote for), 2) superficiality (we're not protesting our wars) 3) consumerism (namely, Obama baby gear), 4) cultishness (of both the suicide and cargo varieties), and 5) a menacingly ignorant naïvete which will somehow hamstring Obama's ability to govern when we realize he isn't... actually, I'm not clear on what Didion thinks we think Obama is, but I imagine it's somewhere between "imaginary hip black friend" and "messiah." Evidently, irony would cure all of these ills (symptoms?), but she doesn't see any forthcoming. Well, Joan, here you go.

May it please the court, Exhibit A in the case for the defense: This image comes from a site (as you can see, which hosts a very large number of similarly composed images, mimicking the very popular Lolcats format—large, all-caps lettering in the caption, highly informal speech, humorous and obviously inappropriate (even absurd) conjunction of caption and image.

From Didion's remarks, I get the feeling that this would not have been her facebook profile pic at any point during the campaign, as it was for a number of my friends. I am not sure what, exactly, she'd make of it. I get the feeling, though, that she would not likely see it as part of a 'healthy skepticism' of Obama's capacities or coolness, and that she might have a problem with me if I called it 'ironic.' But the question is, would she read it differently from this, the Obama-as-icon image?

Then again, the real question is, does Generation Obama read these two images differently? Is either one read "ironically?" Is neither? Are both ironic? Well, not by Didion's lights, I think.

Didion's notion of irony—detachment, skepticism, "realism"—is, if I may generalize, the broad notion of irony regnant at least from the Baby Boom through "GenX": it's the irony of significance, which writ large is historical irony, writ small is Seinfeldian irony.

Irony is always built on dualism—the feeling that in some way, things are incongruent—with themselves, with something they're related to, with our expectations, with accepted definitions of what the thing is. Seinfeldian irony is primarily about things which assume enormous significance in our lives which generally have (or should have) no or little significance. We feel the irony when we experience them in disproportionate significance to their actual significance. Historical irony is, unfortunately, exemplified for the period I'm thinking of by Forrest Gump, which was the equivalent of a generation singing the whole Top Forty to itself. The irony the movie constructed was that Gump continually missed the historical significance of the events he kept participating in, but the events that he experienced as personally significant were repeatedly overwhelmed by history. The incongruity of personal and historical experience is the banal basic theme of Gump, and its success was a measure of how truly Boomers felt that disjuncture.

But what I think happens with the irony of significance is that the people who most felt its sting—i.e. the Boomers—often try to turn it around and fashion it into a virtue. There should be an incongruity between personal and historical significance; there must be a distance between the enthusiasm we feel and the reasons we hold for political action. And what they don't understand is that someone can disagree with them without arguing for total earnestness—an elimination of this incongruity and an ignorance of that distance.

I am going to be polemic here and argue that what the (purposeful or inadvertent) disjuncture of personal and historical significance creates (or permits) is a very wan sense of commitment to a cause, a very notional sense of individual investment in political action, and that this notionality is what characterizes Boomers. This notionality is largely absent in my generation, but not because we experience all historically significant events personally or all personally significant events historically. But since we don't experience incongruity (irony) in the same place as Boomers (i.e. between personal and historical significance), it's very easy to accuse us of not experiencing irony at all, of believing that historical significance and personal significance are virtually identical. But my generation is not simply an antithesis of the Baby Boom. Where the difference lies is in how incongruity (or irony) is experienced in our lives.

A generation that experiences (and has experienced for most of its mature years) a very significant proportion of its personally meaningful interactions, commitments, pleasures, achievements, inspirations, and even education through the Internet is going to have a very different feeling for the incongruity of personal and historical significance. Someone might think that such a circumstance would aggravate the incongruity to unbearable extremes; the sheer size of the internet would make us feel constantly insignificant on a personal level, necessitating overwhelming amounts of irony to compensate.

Yet that has not happened; we don't find setting our facebook status to "VOTE for Change!!1!" ironic because we don't experience this conjunction of an ephemeral personal statement and a monumental historic event as an incongruity. This isn't about abandoning pragmatics (I don't really, earnestly believe setting my status is going to win hearts, minds or votes), nor is it about trendiness (lots of people knew I was for Obama, so how much cooler does changing my facebook status really make me?). It's very much about establishing a commitment, which is as much a communication to myself as it is to anyone else.

And this is where my generation's sense of irony comes in. For my generation, irony is not so much a question of detachment or skepticism as it is one of participation. It's not a question of taking the distance between personal significance and historic import. After all, what is distance on the internet? It's a meaningless concept. Instead, our commitments, our humor, our very mode of reading are persistent interrogations of what it means to participate in something, particularly what it means to be a part of (to participate in) an audience. Part of this interrogation starts with the sense that declaring one's participation in or attachment to something is first and foremost reflective. If I change my facebook status, that is (both literally and figuratively) a message back to myself before it is a message to anyone else.

Now, this self-reflection is not in itself ironic. It's also not, however, "irony-free" in the way Didion means—it's not closed off to irony or set against irony. It just hasn't acquired the necessary context for irony. That context comes through the acknowledgement of the potential existence of other audiences for this act of participation—and that we may be members of an audience (or many audiences) that we cannot define or delimit. This uncertainty is as true for an act of participation we initiate as it is for an action that induces or impels us to participate.

Let me be more concrete; let's take a look at the first of the two images I posted above, and the one immediately below. The first Obama image is, as I mentioned, a reference to Lolcats, as is, quite obviously, this image of Althusser.

Now, these Lolcats-type images usually appear in two contexts: "galleries" of similarly formatted and themed images (Punditkitchen or, in Althusser's case, there's a flickr group called Philolsophers) or as a personal appropriation (e.g. posting it as a facebook profile picture). The irony of these images is activated by the understanding that they are being diffused to an audience that cannot be rigidly or accurately defined. If I post the Althusser image to my facebook, I am completely unsure who is looking at it. Even among those whom I have "friended" on facebook, I am unsure who is even checking facebook and who might be looking at my profile. There is a further measure of doubt in that, even among friends whom I have reason to believe might be looking at my profile, I am quite unsure how many of them would get the Althusser joke. In other, Althusserian words, I am unsure both of whom I am interpellating, and to what degree my efforts at interpellation have succeeded. In the case of these images existing in "galleries," the terms change slightly: viewing them, I'm not sure what audience I'm a part of; I'm not sure how I'm being interpellated, or with whom.

Now, it's been awhile since I've read "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses," but I'm pretty sure that doubt—or what I'd prefer to call undecidability—was not a constitutive part of the process of interpellation, and I don't think irony factored in either. At any rate, this undecidability is where the irony of these images crystallizes: there is a deep incongruity between the ideal audience and the knowledge I have of how close the image's eventual audience is to that ideal audience. I would even go further and offer that this incongruity is so extensive that it overwhelms even the possibility of the self as an ideal audience, injecting considerable self-doubt into our feelings of control over the images, over which direction, precisely, the interpellation has run.

The Obama Lolcats image is subject to the same undecidability, the same irony. Partly, the irony is again a question of who is being interpellated, and to what extent, questions which can together be rephrased as "what audience are you(/am I) a part of?" or "how much of the joke do you(/do I) get?" But in this image there is also a further question, a more radical uncertainty, which is "how much of a joke is there?" I first saw this image almost immediately after the Republican Convention, when McCain got a big bounce and everyone was wailing about how Democrats would find a way to screw this one up too. The image was therefore very directly addressing that concern and the people who had that concern, but it also forced you to confront whether or how much you shared in that concern as well, and it did so by asking you how much of a joke the image seemed to be. The "everyone" of the caption was therefore permanently undecidable, as you could not place yourself in a stable relation to the "everyone" that is being addressed.

The Shepard Fairey poster is really no different, although its hyper-iconicity begs exactly those questions which Joan Didion asks: is my generation (or any part of it) irony-free? Have we (or any part of us) become cultic in our exuberance for Obama? The Shepard Fairey image confronts us directly with these questions by asking us forthrightly whether we are part of the (possibly imaginary) segment of our generation which would read this image without skepticism. (It's notable that Shepard Fairey was previously most famous for the OBEY GIANT posters, which may be the bluntest pop culture questioning of interpellation imaginable.)

The Fairey poster asks us, "How are you interpellated into the Obama campaign? How do you fit into the movement?" These are slippery questions, and to be honest, I can't give you an answer, even from a personal standpoint. The Fairey posters, like Obama himself, spoke to a radical uncertainty about politics in general, an undecidability which could be phrased as, "Who's really addressing me? Which public am I a part of? Which America am I a part of?" Obama's "big" speeches—which have as their consistent theme "a more perfect union"—probe these questions with stunning directness. The speech on race, in particular, but also the 2004 convention speech acknowledged the rifts in America by denying their permanence, their inevitability. We—my generation in particular—are unsure, radically unsure, where those rifts are in relation to our position as citizens, and we are uncertain as to where they will be, or where they will be healed.

For my generation, undecidability of audience (whom do you address? who is addressing you? who is addressed with you?) is the primary form of irony because it is a complete and completely felt incongruity. But it is not skepticism or "healthy" realism or detachment. It's not about keeping the proper distance from events. It's also not about making blind commitments, about prizing ignorance or about moralizing pragmatic questions. We are not irony-free either. We experience irony in the conditional, and we act in the declarative.

I wonder if Joan Didion's form of irony isn't the opposite.

Note: This post has changed slightly from what was first posted. I found a new mode of addressing what generates irony in "my" generations' experiences. I feel what is now posted is both clearer and more comprehensive in describing these experiences. Also, I apologize for the length of the entry. However, I think irony is one of the most significant and most contested sites in the struggle to define powerful abstractions like "generation" and the zeitgeist, and so the subject justifies the expansiveness.

Dead Irony

Ah yes, my generation has been accused of killing irony... yet again.

I wait with bated breath for tomorrow's NYRB publication of Joan Didion's little harangue about the matter, although I'm worried that something like this, which I assume is a little too adult for Generation Obama, might be subscription-cordoned. On the other hand, it looks like the "What Happens Now?" podcast on this page might be from the event where Didion complained that "naïveté, translated into ‘hope,’ was now in." (I'll listen to the thing later; football is on in less than an hour. Sorry.)

But anyway, I am deeply indebted to you, Joan Didion, for rattling the scales from my eyes. I never knew that voting was supposed to be ironic. (Thanks for leaving that one out, Mr. Weir, my formerly-beloved senior-year Government teacher.) Next time I'll vote Nader; that should count as ironic.

But seriously, I mean, what the hell were we (Generation Obama) supposed to do here? Vote for McCain? Not vote? Vote for Obama quietly, without fuss or, you know, volunteering and stuff?

I have more to say, but I'll wait until I can at least listen to Didion's remarks. For now, though, I want to leave you with this passage from the NYT article, which sort of speaks for itself:
A Nexis search found that the incidence of the words “irony,” “ironic” and “ironically” in major American newspapers during the two-week period beginning Nov. 6 slipped 19 percent from the same period last year.

In New York, Ms. Didion’s home city, irony has been steadily disappearing from daily newspapers for a decade, the analysis found. In those same two-week November periods from 2000 to 2008, appearances of “irony” and its cognates tumbled 56 percent. Some of the drop seems to be because of the shrinking of newspapers, but a similar Nexis search with a control word, “went,” showed a drop of only 32 percent, leaving an irony gap of 24 percentage points.

The analysis may have its flaws. For one thing, the search algorithm also, ironically, picked up phrases like “end of irony.” More significantly, no self-respecting ironist actually uses the word “ironic,” except, perhaps, ironically.
Whoa. That's deep.

Senselessness, by Horacio Castellanos Moya

"[O]ne testimony... seemed like the plot of a novel I had once read and that on that Sunday morning came back to me along with an urge to take it on and release all restraints on my imagination, for in fact no such novel existed, only the desire to write it, to turn the tragedy on its head..."

Senselessness is, in many ways, a Bolaño novel. It features those ever-so-long sentences that James Wood frequently celebrates—"Much of the most successfully daring postwar fiction has been by writers committed to the long dramatic sentence (Bohumil Hrabal, Thomas Bernhard, W. G. Sebald, José Saramago). Bolaño is in their company..." or, in a review of Saramago, "Some of the more significant writing of the past thirty years has taken delight in the long, lawless sentence—think of Thomas Bernhard, Bohumil Hrabal, W. G. Sebald, Roberto Bolaño—but no one sounds quite like Saramago."

Senselessness is narrated by a fugitive writer who seems to do very little writing, contains strong statements of anti-clericalism and homophobia (by the way, why does no one mention the homophobia of Bolaño's characters?), and seeks to blur the distinctions between literary and physical violence. In all three respects and in some others, one might easily mistake Moya's novel for a work by Bolaño. And, for what it's worth, there's a blurb by Bolaño himself on the back of the book.

My intent in pointing out these similarities is not to outline the author's debts or insinuate mere emulation; Moya is far too strong an author with very definite and independent notions of art, violence and politics to be mistaken for an acolyte. But I do think a comparison brings to the surface some issues I had with the book, and with books that feature similar narrators. I could, however, just as well be comparing Moya with Bernhard, whose dramatic monologues also share a great deal in common with the narrator of this novel.

First, a brief summary of Senselessness. The narrator has been invited to work on a project that consists of copy-editing and "manicuring" 1,100 pages of testimonies from survivors and witnesses of the hundreds of massacres in Guatemala. The narrator's contributions to this report become a little tumor of ironies swelling at the heart of the novel: the narrator dislikes and distrusts the Church; he is an atrocious copy-editor of his own thoughts, impulses, and words; and he dwells compulsively on the "poetry" of the traumatized witness accounts, writing the best sentences in a little pocket notebook, a crude inversion of the work of an investigative reporter. He also, in a series of encounters which I believe are meant to be darkly comic, tries to share his feelings for the beauty of these sentences of despair.
[...] what I really wanted, as I told him now a little pissed off by the circumstances, was to show him the richness of the language of his so-called aboriginal compatriots, nothing more, assuming that he as a poet might have been interested in their intense figurative language and their curious syntactic constructions that reminded me of poets like the Peruvian César Vallejo, and I proceeded to read, now with more resolve and without letting myself be intimidated by the marimba that again started up, a longer fragment so that Toto could have no doubts whatsoever: Three days I am crying, crying I am wanting to see him. There I sat down on the earth to say, there is the little cross, there is he, there is our dust and pay our respects we will, bring a candle, but when we bring the candle, the candle there's nowhere to put it... And this sentence, tell me, I rebuked him, now decidedly more pissed off, if this isn't a great verse, a poetic jewel, I said before reciting it with greater intensity: Because for me the sorrow is not to bury him myself...
The aesthetic pleasure the narrator takes in the traumatized witnesses' remarks is unsettling, and clearly meant to be so. The problem is that this ironized feeling of vague repulsion—our vague repulsion and the assumption that the narrator's interlocutors are also vaguely repulsed—is all we get, is the closest we get to the actual violence and brutality of the massacres. The narrator offers us a chance to evaluate the massacres—or rather their products, the words of the witnesses—but not to feel them, or at least feel what they mean to the witnesses or the victims. Everything is cited; nothing is spoken.

To counteract this, Moya tries what has now become a very old trick: to generate the real repulsion we should feel toward the massacres and the forces that perpetrated them, make the narrator repulsive. I expected our narrator to break out at the end of every page with an "I am a sick man. I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man." I don't understand why writers think this is an appropriate or honest approach: to pretend to magnify the horror, depravity and ugliness of the world by giving us a horrible, depraved and ugly tour guide who speaks only about himself, who is more desperate to convince us of his internal depravity than he is concerned with external horror. That isn't magnification, that's distraction.

But my final objection to this strategy is not moral but aesthetic: a narrator like the one in Senselessness is simply gratuitous because nothing seems held back. The narrator doesn't act like a structuring principle or agent but merely as a source of several unfiltered obsessions. Which is where the comparison with Bolaño comes back in. Take Padre Urrutria, for example, in By Night in Chile. There are things he clearly is not willing to tell us, and revelations which are obviously composed for specific effects. The narrator is not merely a source of thoughts, but a thinker, a conscience and not just a consciousness. In Moya's novel, the narrator is an excuse for a flow of thoughts, and the flow of thoughts is an excuse to keep the reader distracted, unable to engage with the real trauma which the narrator refuses to acknowledge except in aesthetic terms, terms which float easily on the flow of thoughts and are silently borne away.

Later (12/5): I came across this excellent review at ReadySteadyBook. It similarly demurs from the opinion that Moya really gets the horrors of the brutal regime across, that the narrator's antics detract from the report itself, and of the voices it contains. Stephen Mitchelmore, who wrote the review, believes that the narrator is more deeply affected by the report than I would allow. "Seeking to remain fully himself, he clings to habit: carousing in bars, seducing the first pretty girl he meets in the archbishop's palace, only for the sentences he has copied into his notebook to recur in his mouth, producing at first a kind of rapture at their expressive power, but then propelling initial disturbance into paranoia."
Yes, the narrator lapses into paranoia, but I don't think the report has as much to do with it as his narcissism; the first two instances of acute paranoia come from seeing his name in the paper and from believing he's just met an Uruguayan military officer whose girlfriend just gave him the clap. The third outbreak of paranoia is exclusively related to his descent into the horrors of the report, but after firmly establishing himself as a venal and vain figure, I can't see how the narrator's sudden attention to the report (which he successfully avoids for most of the novel) isn't ultimately vitiated. The narrator's half-prurient, entirely discompassionate response to the fellow Church employee whose rapes and beatings he reads about completely destroyed for me any sense that the narrator could or would invest himself in the justice or the risks of the project, and that the effects it had on him were nothing compared to those of his own selfish drives. Note, though, that I am not arguing that Moya shares in his narrator's narcissism; I think the narrator's voice took over the story and became larger than the idea Moya started out with.

Miami and the Siege of Chicago, by Norman Mailer

In the interest of historical comparison, I read Norman Mailer's accounts of the 1968 conventions while I was out in the Midwest campaigning for Obama a few weeks ago. There were, as is usual when reading something historical for its commentary on the present, numerous passages which generated little chills of recognition and "uncanny" similarity.

A remark about Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, is extraordinary in its similarity to observations made about Obama: "He had the presence of a man who would deal with complexity by absorbing its mood, and so solve its contradiction by living with it, an abstract way of saying that he comprehended issues by the people who embodied them, and so gave off a sense of social comfort with his attendance in a room."

Mailer is exceptionally fond of forms and formulations that reach after the epic: he employs catalogues, a host of epic similes and nearly invokes Bobby Kennedy as a muse. These aspirant tropes, however, pay off when it comes to characterization: "Nixon had entered American life as half a man, but his position had been so high, the power of the half man had been so enormous that he could never begin to recognize until he fell, that he was incomplete." A writer who wasn't trying as hard as Mailer could simply never write something as good as that.

Of course, Mailer doesn't want to be Homer only: he wants to be Teiresias, too. "One could predict," he says, and he does. "We will be fighting for forty years," he says, which sounds eerily accurate right now, though it should be remembered that we haven't reached year 41 yet. (Perhaps this might end up being Mailer's only recorded instance of litotes.)

Having said that, I'd like to look at one of the longer and more detailed predictions Mailer makes. Like Dartmouth College, Mailer is somewhat obsessed with WASPs.
"for the first time in their existence, the Wasps were modest about power. They were not certain they would know what to do with it... They were the most powerful force in America, and yet they were a psychic island. If they did not find a bridge, they could only grow more insane each year, like a rich nobleman in an empty castle chasing elves and ogres with his stick. They had every power but the one they needed—which was to attach their philosophy to history...

One could predict: their budgeting would prove insane, their righteousness would prove insane, their love for order and clear-thinking would be twisted through many a wry neck, the intellectual foundations of their anti-Communism would split into its separate parts. And the small-town faith in small free enterprise would run smash into the corporate juggernauts of technology land; their love of polite culture would collide with the mad aesthetics of the new America; their livid passion for military superiority would smash its nose on the impossibility of having such superiority without more government spending; their love of nature would have to take up arms against the despoiling foe, themselves, their own greed, their own big business.
Well, if you turned that last paragraph into a checklist, Mr. Mailer would be batting 1.000, and of course the temptation is to turn the 2008 election (and its developing aftermath) into the final confirmation of the doom Mailer predicts. And in a certain way it is, though I want to separate out a few strands here.

First of all, let's isolate two different narratives: there is the long decline of the Wasp and the very rapid dismantlement of the Republican majority. Mailer believes that the 1964 election, when "these same doctors and small-town lawyers, or men not so unlike them, had had their manic dreams of restoring order to America with the injunction and the lash," was a confidence-shattering defeat for the Wasps, leading them into a sort of meekness about holding and exercising power.

This modesty stands, quite obviously, in high contrast to the swelling confidence and rising fortunes of the Nixon-led Republican Party. 1964, in the Republican party's narrative, was the beginning, the glorious defeat which led to long years of stunning success. It did not shatter the confidence so much as purify the party, establishing the basic ideological nostrums which Reagan supposedly fulfilled. Mailer's account of the 1968 Republican Convention, and particularly of Reagan's part in it, complicates this narrative, but it doesn't fully interrupt it. What it does do is encourage more examination of the fortunes and fates of the Wasp within the Republican Party.

Such an examination must start out with one figure foremost: William F. Buckley, for it was Buckley that ties these narratives together in the minds of most conservatives. Newt Gingrich put it plainly at his death, "Buckley began what led to Senator Barry Goldwater and his Conscience of a Conservative that led to the seizing of power by the conservatives from the moderate establishment within the Republican Party. From that emerged Ronald Reagan." For many Americans (and likely for many Wasps), he was a symbol, even the symbol of Wasp culture. Yet what is often overlooked is that he was not, properly speaking, a Wasp—he was not Protestant by practice or heritage.

This matter is not nit-picking, I think, because the political cooperation of various Christian denominations is absolutely critical to the conservative ascendancy. I think too few questions have been asked about the nature and causes of this collaboration, and virtually no attention has been paid to Buckley's involvement in it.

Buckley's ascent to the head of the Wasp establishment (in political terms, at least) marks an earlier loss of confidence, I believe, than Mailer describes. How, in 1951, did a Catholic come to speak for a threatened Wasp hegemony (in God and Man at Yale), even on theological grounds? I can only answer that there seemed to be few Wasps at the time who were speaking out on their own behalf, and they were glad to have someone do it so well in their name. What proceeded from this first intervention was a gradual outsourcing of a huge amount of the defense-work of "traditional values" to non-Wasps—Jews and Catholics, mostly—who were willing to speak for an older order which was not, ultimately, theirs at all. And eventually, the evangelicals were brought in for added vigor and vitriol, though their connection to the old Wasp heritage was remoter still—remote enough, in fact, that they ignored it almost completely.

Look back at the list of the Wasp values which Mailer said were doomed. Abortion is not on there, nor school prayer, nor any of the cultural wedge issues we can associate with the right in its last twenty-five years of demagoguery. When we compare a Republican like Nelson Rockefeller, who plays a big part in Mailer's report but was considered even then a faux conservative, with the gang running about today, one wonders (a bit) what might have been. Certainly a better Wasp than George W. Bush might have been found to represent the right, right?

Gossip Girl

A very amusing post on Gossip Girl at The Millions, though I question Garth Risk Hallberg's assertion that GG is less of a "cultural touchstone" for the generation currently in college than it is for the thirty-something set.

I also used Gossip Girl as a sort of pedagogic panacea this summer, when I conducted a mini-course at a summer camp for high schoolers. It worked remarkably well, although, like Garth, I have never seen an episode (and unlike Garth, I could not have named with such precision any character from the show). If attention flagged, I would throw in a reference to Gossip Girl, usually something vague and referring to its popularity.

The most amusing translation of a literary reference into a pop cultural reference that I encountered as an undergraduate was in a course I took my freshman year on the Romantic poets. Our professor re-worked the Shelley-Wordsworth generational battle (best expressed in the very direct Shelley poem "To Wordsworth") as a series of cartoon strips replacing Shelley with the rapper Nas and Wordsworth with Jay-Z. (Speaking of Jay-Z, has anyone figured out yet if the Brits call him "Jay-Zed" or not?) The professor promised us a follow-up series starring Byron as Puff Daddy, but I don't think she ever got around to that one.

Monday Links

  • A very good article from The International Literary Quarterly which is mostly about Dave Eggers, though it includes some brief commentary on Jonathan Franzen. I have never warmed to Eggers's writing, though I deeply admire his philanthropy and activism. This article tries to show a deep harmony between the two, a harmony which has become obvious (culminating in What is the What) but which was far from obvious (at least to me) back in the days of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I'm still not entirely convinced, but now feel like I should maybe re-read AHWOSG.

  • A whole raft of good stuff in the minnesota review. It's the spring/summer issue, so I'm really late, but that doesn't take away from the excellence of the contents. All three interviews are fantastic (tmr consistently has, I think, the best interviews of any academic or intellectual journal)—Hazel Carby, Michael Denning and Jonathan Culler.

  • Also in the minnesota review, Paul Grimstad's revaluation of Knapp/Michaels's Against Theory is worth its own bullet point. It certainly addresses the kinds of questions raised on The Valve a couple of days ago, and which I responded to here.

  • Zizek in the LRB on Obama.

  • A very thorough recount of the n+1 vs. Elegant Variation smack-down.

A Mercy, by Toni Morrison

In a bit of pedantic pique that has caught even the notice of Gawker, John Updike started his New Yorker review with the following observation: "Toni Morrison has a habit, perhaps traceable to the pernicious influence of William Faulkner, of plunging into the narrative before the reader has a clue to what is going on." Morrison responded, "He says I like starting stories smack in the middle of things and you don't know what's going on... I was laughing at that because I thought, all stories start in the middle of things!"

Well, Morrison's retort is a little misleading because, while Updike is still just being crotchety, what he was probably complaining about was not starting the storyin medias res (hardly a new-fangled contraption, and one we tend to attribute to Homer's influence, not Faulkner's), but that Morrison throws the reader into a virtually unplottable position in someone's consciousness, with absolutely no clear guide (for awhile at least) as to the antecedents of any pronouns or the referents of any allusion. I'm not complaining that Morrison does this (and I'm certainly not defending Updike), but I think that this distinction holds some importance for our reading of the novel.

(I don't want to spend much time over the basics of the plot and characters, so I would recommend reading the Updike review in full, as he basically gives everything away on up to the end of the novel. Because the novel is well worth reading, not much is lost by these revelations.)

Formally, the novel is of two souls: we start off with a first-person Florens-narrated chapter, then move to a fairly close-third chapter about Vaark. This alternation is repeated for the rest of the book up until the last two chapters, though in each subsequent close-third chapter, Morrison takes us near a different character. The novel is, therefore, structurally a competition between consciousness and story.

Morrison has bigger conflicts to stage, however, and the largest one is a perennial theme: an internal debate over whether women are naturally cohesive or fractious in groups or pairs—in other words, when women congregate, do they tend to band together or break apart, reinforce each other or undermine each other? Or is one action merely the first step toward the other? Is what Jacob Vaark thinks—that "in the right environment, women were naturally reliable"—refuted by nature, or by circumstance?

As I said, this question has been a consistent theme throughout many of Morrison's novels—Sula foremost. But as with Beloved, motherhood is the primary crucible for testing this question. "Mother hunger—to be one or have one," as Morrison refers to it. A Mercy is more than this, but it is first and foremost an examination of the limited and improbable forms mother hunger can take in the New World.

And the newness of the New World is crucial here, as Morrison wants these questions about women and about mothers asked not abstractly but anchored immovably in time and place. Morrison wants to remove as much circumstance from these questions as possible, wants to minimize contingency by returning to the nub of first beginnings, to the American Eden if possible.

Yet she knows that no matter where she begins, chaos precedes her—again, Vaark's thoughts beg the question: "Where else but in this disorganized world would such an encounter be possible?" he asks as he accepts Florens in payment for a debt from a Portuguese slave trader. This improbable encounter is between men, and Morrison suggests that may be the problem. In the closing pages of the book, a male character looks at the plight of the women and considers "the consequences of women in thrall to men or pointedly without them." How can we examine the relationship of women to one another—even in the newest of new worlds—when we cannot separate them from from men? And particularly so with mothers—indeed, the title "A Mercy" refers to a man's interference in a mother-daughter relationship, though we come to find out that this interference was the selfless desire of the mother (a sort of inversion of the murder of Beloved by Sethe).

In multiple cases, a man's intervention provides mercy in the novel, but there is no action initiated by a woman that can be called merciful. Indeed, one (Florens) is asked directly, "Where is your ruth?" when she strikes a child. The closest any woman comes to mercy is sharing small portions of food or companionship, as the ragtag group of women accompanying Rebekka Vaark do on the voyage over from Europe. Even this, though, is temporary: "upon landing they made no pretense of meeting again."

The obvious disconnect between this male monopoly of mercy and the very real structures and institutions of domination perpetrated by men is felt all through the novel. Slavery, rape, religion, violence, indenturement, marriage, genocide, trade—all these methods of control are organized by men. How is this to be reconciled?

The stunning last chapter offers some direction, although it is difficult to summarize or even to parse. Florens's mother speaks to her far-away daughter, and offers the cryptic line, "There is no protection but there is difference." Like many of Faulkner's greatest characters' speeches, this chapter is part self-justification, part dream-vision. Florens's mother closes,
It was not a miracle. Bestowed by God. It was a mercy. Offered by a human. I stayed on my knees. In the dust where my heart will remain each night and every day until you understand what I know and long to tell you: to be given dominion over another is a hard thing; to wrest dominion over another is a wrong thing; to give dominion of yourself to another is a wicked thing.

Oh Florens. My love. Hear a tua mãe [your mother].
Florens, we gather from the book, does not hear, and neither does the world. But Morrison is still begging us to hear, at least, at last.

2666, by Roberto Bolaño

2666 is a long book, and instead of waiting to finish it to write a summary post recording my reactions and thoughts, I'll be taking it in the five sections it is already divided into.

'The Part about the Critics'

A site that is very much in the spirit of Bolaño's work is The Invisible Library, a project run by Levi Stahl and Ed Park. The Invisible Library is an index of imaginary books, alphabetized by author and citing, in each instance, the "real" work from which the fanciful creation derives. E.g.

WHARFINGER, Richard: The Courier's Tragedy
—from Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49

The editors' choice to set it up as a blog instead of a wiki is interesting, as its point, one would think, would be to remove the limitations of a centralized archive, or at least to suggest the arbitrariness of such limitations.

After all, the thrilling thing about the idea of imaginary books is that, like nuclear weapons, they seem designed to proliferate. Once you create (or even read about) one imaginary book, you can—in fact, must—see its imaginary neighbors on a shelf, a whole imaginary bibliography of secondary literature for its exegesis, a whole imaginary floor in a library dedicated to its imaginary subject. What this immediate proliferation suggests is infinite time.

This desire is incredibly powerful, and it is deeply related to the passions which drive readers to read. Bolaño is not the first to find a way to incorporate this power into his books, but he is masterful at storing the tension of the reader's imagination in his own plots. By now, it's pretty obvious he's even developed a formula, which can be enumerated thus:
  1. The key to this tension is always the shape of the plot. It must be a search, an investigation.
  2. That search must be for a source of the literature, not just a singular book or poem, and finding that source must be the protagonist's objective.
  3. Although the protagonist(s) finds definite products from this sought-after source, the existence of the source needs to remain in doubt.
  4. Its existence needs to remain in doubt so that we are tempted (and so are the protagonist{s}) to imagine alternative sources which could have produced these products.
  5. There also need to be unattributable products which we (and the protagonist{s}) are tempted to attribute to the source.
  6. These unattributable products should be foreboding in nature. They do not, however, need to be literary products, though some should.
This is the way The Savage Detectives works, the way Nazi Literature in the Americas works on a macro-level, the way Distant Star (which is an extrapolation of one of the entries in Nazi Literature) works, and the way 'The Part about the Critics' works. The writer Benno von Archimboldi is the mysterious producer that Bolaño has buried in 2666, and the four critics (Norton, Morini, Espinoza and Pelletier) are the searchers.

For what it's worth, it's also the way The Crying of Lot 49 works, and a good deal of Borges too. (And Lynch for that matter, only his sources and products aren't literary in nature.) But what Bolaño does more completely than any of those writers is immerse his mysterious sources and products in an environment of real literature, to the point where you begin looking up virtually every name, even if you know it's real. Next to the mysterious source, however, these real authors seem sterile. Take, for example, Octavio Paz, who appears in The Savage Detectives. A mandarin met in a city garden, sedentary and innocuous. And those writers who are mentioned by name are often only mentioned by name, severed from their works.

A lot is made of the fact that none of Bolaño's characters who call themselves writers seem to write anything, or at least that we never see their writing, and we rarely see them in the act of writing. But the reason for their unproductivity is not, I think, merely that they are busy doing other things (arguing about literature, having sex, doing drugs, accomplishing all three at once). Bolaño needs for his characters to be unproductive (as he needs for the writers he mentions to be removed from their works) because he needs to concentrate all creative activity in his mysterious source. Doing so creates a sort of singularity of the imagination, which becomes fathomless, focusing the reader's imagination, drawing it deeper and deeper into the story.

It's a neat trick, for sure.

Abstruse Theory, or the Privacy of Small Audiences

This post on The Valve is an excellent discussion of the place and value of theory in a democracy. Taking as its point of entry the brouhaha surrounding Derrida's obituary in the NYT from 2004, Joseph Kugelmass springboards from the infamous title of that obit ("Jacques Derrida, Abstruse Theorist, Dies at 74") into "a question that never seems far from the surface in discussions of literary theory and criticism: what are we to make of the last fifty years in criticism? Can it be summed up? Can it be comprehended fully? Must we refrain from 'calling out' Derrida on the thicket of his prose?"

The questions grow well beyond Derrida, however. Kugelmass reprints a number of comments made to an earlier post he wrote. The key exchange here is Kugelmass's comment: 
The problem here is language about language (e.g. literature). If somebody dumbs down Heisenberg and quantum mechanics enough for me, sure, I can see that the observer cannot be separated from the observed, and I can worry over the death of Schrodinger’s cat. But what I can’t do is important work in the field of quantum mechanics. Whereas that seems to be exactly the desire with synopses of literary criticism and theory: to reduce things down to inarguable truisms or clichés, and then to believe that’s actually preparation for reading in depth.
and tomemos's rejoinder:
[a primer on literary studies] would amplify our cultural misunderstanding of what the humanities are supposed to produce: when are we going to roll up our sleeves and get something done? Bill talks about a book that would “present the results of academic literary criticism,” but obviously literary criticism does not have “results” in the scientific sense, and so a book that pretended that it does would not just be dumbing down the ideas of the field; it would be a complete distortion of the field itself.
This question—whether laicization of literary theory doesn't transform the original thought into something false and distorted—is clearly one that concerns all who write about theory or practice it. Comparing work that summarizes scientific theories and laws with works that would attempt to summarize literary theory, Kugelmass makes an important distinction: "scientific summaries are indexical—they point at a functioning system not significantly altered by the summary itself—whereas philosophical or literary summaries are performative, and do alter what they describe because they are forced to re-create it in a certain way."

Kugelmass proceeds to make four very good points:
  • "When you summarize these texts, you completely destroy their power as works of provocation, and they turn into echoes of what people already believe or reject."
  • "One of the secret engines of the desire to 'get' postmodernism in one sentence is the deep unpopularity of Marxist thought, which was the very air that 20th Century theorists breathed: in reducing them, we try to pry them free of their origins in conversations about Marx."
  • "the response to a very accessible writer like Zizek has been, at least in America, so identical [to truly obscure stylists like Lacan] that it becomes necessary to ask whether anyone is even trying to determine who is abstruse and who is not."
  • "it behooves us to remember the sad case of Albert Camus, who wrote utterly transparent prose, and whose reward was that everyone thinks they understand him, though few actually do"
However, the last point Kugelmass makes is a sort of retreat:
Finally, the overlapping universes of literature, philosophy, and literary theory meet in a garden of forking paths. This is particularly true of literary criticism, as opposed to literary theory, since literary readings are mainly interesting to people who enjoy the works or period in question. The greatest failure of that unkind obituary for Derrida was that it failed to see how intimate and personal his writings were, how their supposed opacity was often a result of Derrida’s insistence on writing for those people whose preoccupations were similar to his own, turning his back on that enforced universality which, so often, represents an attempt to make ideas work like money: good for all debts, accepted everywhere, transmutable into anything the occasion demands. We make our own way into the conversation about the world, and into the vast literary and philosophical library to which we are heir, and none of it is ours until we cease timidly surveying it, and choose, rashly, somewhere to begin.
Derrida, then, becomes nothing more than a genial literary critic of his own corpus, writing to and for Derrida enthusiasts. This kind of flight into the personal is precisely the move conservative critics take as a sign of the weakness of post-structural thought. Whether or not this is fair, it is highly important to question the value of such a move if it ends up inevitably sticking us with charges of "meaninglessness," "relativism," and "charlatanry." This is the bedrock problem of the mischaracterization of post-structuralism, gender/queer theory, critical race theory, post-colonialism, etc.—the reactionaries listen to us denounce repeatedly the notion of an integrated, coherent, autonomous subject, and then we say something like "well, Derrida didn't mean for everyone to understand his work—his books are intimate and personal writings for people who take the time to really get to know him." I'd throw my hands up to, if I weren't typing.

When some defender of theory does make one of these appeals to the "personal," what they're really doing is making an appeal to the hieratic: if you're not an initiate, you shouldn't be paying attention. If you haven't taken the time to make Derrida "personal," you don't have standing in this field.

Let me be clear: I'm not attacking this move on populist grounds. I'm attacking it on elitist grounds: this is an incoherent and unstable elitism, one more dangerous to the elites than to the masses. It relies on an illusion: what I'd like to call the privacy of small audiences. I know this illusion very well; I often employ it when thinking about what or whether to post on this blog.

Blographia Literaria has a very small audience, and this is more or less intentional. I've done next to no pr work on its behalf—though I hasten to add that I'm not calling this a virtue, and that I may very well be trying to raise its profile in the coming months. This isn't about being "underground" or anti-establishment; it's largely about not being sure even a modestly well-read blog wouldn't alter or de-prioritize the goals I had for this project: cleaning up my clunky writing style (mixed success there), practicing writing about a number of different genres and media (again, mixed success), and maintaining a record of my reading and my most immediate reactions to it. Even still, those goals have been de-prioritized on a number of occasions (including this one) when I have been compelled to write about internet articles or blog posts or news rather than books.

At any rate, the illusion I have often operated under is that because my audience is small and relatively intimate (mostly if not entirely friends), I have very few obligations to it and I could, if I wished, treat Blographia Literaria as a private enterprise. Private, in this case, does not mean confessional. Privacy, in the way I'm considering it, is not about the content of the information, but about the belief that its dissemination is controlled or controllable—that it is in some real way hermetic. And as I said, the notion that a small audience grants you this belief, grants you this privacy—this notion is illusory.

To start with, an examination of referring URLs to this blog shows that the vast majority of Blographia Literaria's traffic comes from image searches—e.g. people who Google Image Search "mad men" and come to this page. These visitors are not my "readers"—they're not here for my thoughts on Mad Men, much less on literature. They're here for the picture. But this fact does not warrant a belief that they are not part of the blog's audience, that Blographia Literaria isn't speaking to them. (I could remove all pictures from the blog, but let's forget that for a second.)

Why is this important? It isn't really—until someone who came to my blog via an image search responds to me or uses my words. Now, I don't claim to be developing a methodology or even a coherent world-view through this blog, so being cited out of context is kind of an absurdity or an impossibility. Being misunderstood isn't, though. And here's where things get a little trickier: when we make an appeal on Derrida's behalf to the personal(/hieratic), what we're saying is effectively the same as if I were to consider Google Image Search an invalid mode of access to my blog, rendering any misunderstandings that accrue from this mode of access also invalid. It's as if I'm saying that because I believe the information on this blog to be under my control (because of the privacy of a small audience), any misunderstanding (which is obviously out of my control) must be the result of a breach of privacy.

The students who hear Derrida's name in class—from their teachers, from other students—the people who read about him in non-specialist articles—these are the Google Image Searchers. Their misunderstandings and misapplications aren't breaches of privacy, and we can't keep treating them like they are.

Now let's go back to Kugelmass's post as an example of why this move has proved to be persistent within the academy.
  • It's not because everyone who makes it thinks complexity is a virtue and simplicity is threatening. Kugelmass may think this about some things (as do I), but he also recognizes that it's not a universalizable set of values.
  • It's not because everyone who makes this move to the personal thinks it's the best argument. I don't really think he believes the retreat to the personal is the best defense of Derrida's "abstruseness" or of abstruseness in general. I think he knows that the stronger points are those I enumerated above; the retreat to the personal was simply the best, most poetic way to end the post.
  • It's not because everyone who uses this move is a sort of intellectual determinist—that there are some people who can get Derrida and a lot of others who can't. Kugelmass implicitly addresses this in his paragraph about the Jeffersonian ideal.
The crux of this issue isn't about knowledge or intellectual capacity or complexity. It's about privacy and intimacy—the desire for it, the need for it, and the pleasures of it. One of the pleasures of reading automatic writing or high modernism or theory is the sense of privacy that adheres to your unreproducible process of making sense of it.

Unreproducibility is key here—when you return to a passage of Derrida (as when you return to a passage of Stein), the texture of your comprehension will be different from the first time you approached it, and a feeling of loss—of the precise dynamics of your first experience, your first comprehension—is ineradicable, but also pleasant. Pleasant because it insures a privacy—the privacy of the smallest audience possible—yourself. And that, too, is illusory. 

The Public Intellectual and the Blog

A very sensible take on the endlessly retreaded "do we still have public intellectuals?" debate from Dan Drezner. I have not read a pithier defense of the present environment for intellectual debate, or a better dismissal of the more feeble attempts to spread doom and gloom about our supposedly failing culture. In particular, Drezner mounts a very solid case for the place of blogs in the intellectual forum. Some highlights:
To be sure, some important differences exist between the current generation of public intellectuals and the Partisan Review generation extolled by so many. In the current era, many more public intellectuals possess social-science rather than humanities backgrounds...

That fact in particular might explain the strong belief in literary circles that the public intellectual is dead or dying... What made the New York Intellectuals stand out, however, was that they started in literary criticism and migrated to social analyses. When social scientists like Tyler Cowen or Richard Posner return the favor, they are viewed as either arrivistes or methodological imperialists.
Very true, very simple. And if it's an unfortunate truth for humanities souls, it's more unfortunate that we are so often loath to admit it.

For academics aspiring to be public intellectuals, blogs allow networks to develop that cross the disciplinary and hierarchical strictures of academe. Provided one can write jargon-free prose, a blog can attract readers from all walks of life — including, most importantly, people beyond the ivory tower. (The distribution of traffic and links in the blogosphere is highly skewed, and academics and magazine writers make up a fair number of the most popular bloggers.) Indeed, because of the informal and accessible nature of the blog format, citizens will tend to view academic bloggers that they encounter online as more accessible than would be the case in a face-to-face interaction, increasing the likelihood of a fruitful exchange of views about culture, criticism, and politics with individuals whom academics might not otherwise meet. Furthermore, as a longtime blogger, I can attest that such interactions permit one to play with ideas in a way that is ill suited for more-academic publishing venues. A blog functions like an intellectual fishing net, catching and preserving the embryonic ideas that merit further time and effort.

Perhaps the most-useful function of bloggers, however, is when they engage in the quality control of other public intellectuals. Posner believes that public intellectuals are in decline because there is no market discipline for poor quality. Even if public intellectuals royally screw up, he argues, the mass public is sufficiently uninterested and disengaged for it not to matter. Bloggers are changing that dynamic, however. If Michael Ignatieff, Paul Krugman, or William Kristol pen substandard essays, blogs have and will provide a wide spectrum of critical feedback.

Well, I think 'quality control' is highly optimistic, but the jaggedness of the integration of blogging into intellectual life has certainly opened up some new opportunities (Nate Silver of is probably the latest example) for commentators with comparable skills but non-traditional backgrounds to find a voice in a debate or a discourse. That's something worth cheering.