Sunday, February 28, 2010

A Heart So White and All Souls, by Javier Marías

I read A Heart So White last December while trying to duck the pressure of term papers. The Oxford-set All Souls probably would have been more suited to the job, but A Heart So White worked beautifully. And now, having also read All Souls (and seen Marías speak), I find Marías is now among my favorite authors, a fate probably foreordained (his style and themes seem quite congenial to my tastes) but highly satisfying in its fulfillment.

Not that this would necessarily be a recommendation to you; after all, many seem to like his work, but it rarely seems to evoke such exuberance. I have a theory about that, though, because I have found reading Marías to be a very odd experience, for my enjoyment of his work is deeply dissimilar to my enjoyment of any other writer.

My advice for reading Marías is to read him as quickly as possible, with as few breaks as possible. Despite a moment in All Souls where the narrator refers to his "general state of disequilibrium," what marks Marías's prose is an extreme sense of total equanimity, in fact a very powerful sense of equilibrium, of minute adjustments within a sentence or paragraph—even within a thought—that are constantly calibrating, correcting, reconsidering. This is not a prose style which one feels pleasure from by just reading a few pages at a time (although some of Marías's individual set-pieces—like the scene in A Heart So White where Juan meets his future wife, or the scene in All Souls where the narrator eats at the high table—are so good that they do provide just that immediate jolt of pleasure); it is a pleasure that one must adjust oneself to, and that adjustment takes time.


This all may be an odd thing to say about an author who is famous (or relatively famous) for the nonpareil fireworks of his opening lines, lines which are almost obscenely deft at leaping over expository throat-clearing and knocking you immediately on your heels. They are plunging, precipitous, like building a floor under you and knocking it through with the same gesture. "I did not want to know but I have since come to know that one of the girls, when she wasn't a girl anymore and hadn't long been back from her honeymoon, went into the bathroom, stood in front of the mirror, unbuttoned her blouse, took off her bra and aimed her own father's gun at her heart, her father at the time was in the dining room with other members of the family and three guests" (A Heart So White). "Of the three, two have died since I left Oxford and the superstitious thought occurs to me that they were perhaps just waiting for me to arrive and live out my time there in order to give me the chance to know them and, now, to speak about them" (All Souls). "No one ever expects that they might some day find themselves with a dead woman in their arms, a woman whose face they will never see again, but whose name they will remember" (Tomorrow in the Battle Think of Me). These lines are all, of course, in content cheap or melodramatic, but the style! One could write the basic facts of these lines in thousands of different ways and it would never turn out this way.

So it is rather strange that an author who could fire off these lines without preamble might be so resistant to giving other immediate pleasures—although the prose is always very good and often very funny, I don't think one can successfully read Marías often just for the joy of a single page, or of a single paragraph. The effects are generally cumulative, even concatenating, almost always the product of something one has just encountered and something that is buried many pages before (or perhaps even in another of his books). He is, in a sense, the polar opposite of Borges, although both are fascinated by tales of horror, suspense, and detection, as well as by books and the effects they have upon the mind.

In part, this style is the product of a certain mania for embedded repetition, the patterning of his books through certain key phrases which are something less than leitmotivs and more like tics or idiosyncrasies. One can see it at work even in a single line sometimes, as in this, where the narrator of All Souls could as well be describing Marías's prose style in general: "I feel deeply troubled, yet my sense of unease has never lacked coherence or logic, it is light, logical, coherent, transient…" This is obviously not sloppiness (either on the author's or the translator's part). The lacking but appropriate word here is consistent, and it is consistent, in a rather unusual way, for the narrator to use two inflections of "coherence" and of "logic." Marías's embedded repetitions structure his novels by creating these subterranean consistencies, these almost subliminal rivulets of self-congruity, even predictability. (It is, in fact, the predictability of these echoes that allows his plots to be so wild and baroque, so utterly outlandish.)

There may be a metaphysical dimension to this structuring. At one point in All Souls, the narrator refers to an essay by Nabokov on Lermontov's short novel A Hero for Our Time in which Nabokov refers to eavesdropping as, at least in the world of Lermontov, "the barely noticeable routine of fate." Fate is, in Marías's world, audacious, quite ostentatious—it's those deaths, thrown in our faces in the first few words of the novels, predetermined, overdetermined, a little garish. Yet even the absurdity of a literary convention so boldly artificial as an overheard conversation is also quite mundane because of its recurrence, its conventionality, like the embedded repetitions and idiosyncratic patterns of Marías's work. Fate is bold, but even that boldness has more quotidian underpinnings, more routine inner workings. This, I think, is the meaning of these 'echoes,' this style of accumulation and repetition.

If you are not aware, Scott Esposito is hosting a group reading of Marías's epic trilogy Your Face Tomorrow this spring. I will be trying to keep up, although I'm unsure how this term's papers might interfere. At any rate, I encourage you to join, especially if you have not read Marías before. From what I understand, reading some of his other books (particularly the two I have read) may be helpful preparation, but YFT is also a pretty good introduction.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Tournament of Books 2010

I've been asked to contribute a statistics column to this year's 2010 Tournament of Books, and my first column is up on the site today.

If you don't know about the Tournament of Books, it's a yearly event run by The Morning News featuring 16 books from the last year placed in a competition modeled on the NCAA Basketball Tournaments: brackets, seeding, etc. As I say in the column, "I’ll be weighing in after each round of play during the Tournament of Books to break down what’s happened so far, who’s left in the field, and how the upcoming round has played out in the past. Where and when may upsets occur? Which books are legitimate contenders and who are the dangerous underdogs?"

I've enjoyed following this Tournament every year in the past, and it's very exciting to be a part of it now. It's a really fun gig, especially since I get to spend a lot of time with Excel, which is oddly a nice break from classwork this term. Enjoy!

Monday, February 22, 2010

What Is the What, by Dave Eggers

In my post about The Forever War and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, I promised a further exploration of what I saw as a common theme in both those texts and in Dave Eggers's novel What Is the What. All three novels, and a number of others besides, attempt to find a way out of the dilemma of liberty vs. equality by supplying the third term of the French Revolutionary slogan: fraternité. What Is the What also makes more explicit what these other two works do to a lesser extent: fraternity is at root about survival. For fraternity is, after all, most needed and most likely to be found (at least in novels) at those moments where one is too weak to survive on one's own.

The narrative pattern proper to the ideal of fraternity therefore will always be a survival story, a narrative reduced to an account of its own possibility, how the narrator managed to live to the point of his or her narration, if it is told in the first person (which I think is the most common), or how the protagonist manages to get from the chaotic past to a stable (and therefore narratable) present. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is just as much a survival story (and obviously just as much dependent on the {broken} ideal of fraternity) as What Is the What, and it is certainly not alone in this regard among memoirs.

The most interesting thing about the survival story is its relationship to ideology. To be very general, the attitude of the survival story is that, because it is focused almost entirely on the mundane necessities of subsistence, because it has no time for ideology, it exists in a sort of sub-ideological space, or creates for itself a space below ideology, below the arguments for or against the events that have reduced its characters to this struggle for bare existence. Its narrative expression, therefore, is supposed also to be sub-ideological (which is sometimes mistaken for being post-ideological), to be invested only in the telling of itself, existing merely to continue existing, the direct corollary of the survival experience itself. The final paragraph of What Is the What expresses this directly:
Whatever I do, however I find a way to live, I will tell these stories. I have spoken to every person who has entered this club during these awful morning hours, because to do anything else would be something less than human. I speak to these people, and I speak to you because I cannot help it. It gives me strength, almost unbelievable strength, to know that you are there. I covet your eyes, your ears, the collapsible space between us. How blessed are we to have each other? I am alive and you are alive so we must fill the air with our words. I will fill today, tomorrow, every day until I am taken back to God. I will tell stories to people who will listen and to people who don't want to listen, to people who seek me out and to those who run. All the while I will know that you are there. How can I pretend that you do not exist? It would be almost as impossible as you pretending that I do not exist.
There is, to be sure, ideology working through this—the reference to God, the categorical invocation of the "human" both leave marks of a very nineteenth-century liberalism. But the stunning thing about this novel is that it actually achieves something that I feel we must recognize as a successful resolution of this project of creating a sub-ideological narrative space. While it will never not be ideological, the novel has found a strategy of non-resistance to ideology, a means of allowing any ideology—the various programs of the SPLA, global capitalism, global humanitarian efforts and NGOs, animism, tribalism, racism, militant Islam, Christianity, individualism—to wash over the subject, Valentino Achak Deng, such that he effectively sinks beneath them. These conflicting values and ideologies overdetermine his life to such an extent that he is pushed underneath their rushing and collisions, leaving him open to telling his narrative independently of them: "however I find a way to live"—seven words, already a narrative, bumping along innocently beneath the tumult of ideologies clashing, accepting the existence (and even the validity) of all possible ideological indictments of the situation, yet not yielding outright to nihilism. This last part is very important: this sub-ideological space is also a margin between a non-resistance to ideology and an ultimate refusal of nihilism.

Obviously, this strategy—this claiming a space below ideology or ideologies—is itself ineradicably political; I do not mean to argue that narrative actually can ever really occupy this position, or that this sub-ideological position could ever exist as such. What I mean to bring out or highlight by speaking of What Is the What as a "successful resolution" of this project is that it has successfully obviated the role of critique in addressing conflict by making critique antithetical to its own plan and by making the absence of critique not only go potentially unremarked but actually seem palatable, even desirable. We wouldn't want a harangue from Deng about the rapacity of US oil interests in Sudan; an anecdote about George Bush (Sr.) discovering oil in Sudan shows that Deng is aware that it is a contributing factor, but its importance is both stated and hedged against by turning it into the story of one boy's misfortunes: "Lino can tell you, Julian, about the role oil played in his own displacement." Oil is, at its most significant, "the beginning of the middle of the war," a prolonging concern, not a root cause. More importantly, it displaced Lino and his family, and the story of that event is far more significant to the book than a critique of the flow of petro-capital into Sudan could have been. And we, the readers, may even prefer this story to that critique. Eggers's novel has certainly sold better than any non-fiction book about Sudan.

But critique is not only less significant than "story," but I would argue that it must in fact be removed as a strategy of resistance for the narrator because maintaining the practice of critique would take attention away from the story of survival. Mere subsistence, in other words, must be the exclusive concern of the narrator and of the narrative; everything else—especially critique—must go. This structural obviation of critique may not be unprecedented (I'll come to some other examples which are actually contemporary, but I bet I could think of some predecessors as well), but it is worth inquiring what its conditions of possibility are, because I see this strategy of "survival as sub-ideology" as very likely to be proliferated in future narratives about conflict and violence. I only want to articulate a few of these conditions because I am considering expanding on these points in another forum.

First of all, I think it is important to recognize that Eggers (and, I suppose, Deng) refuses to believe that blame or responsibility can actually be adjudicated—Omar al-Bashir is a monster, the SPLA is monstrous, the industrial Western nations are hideously cavalier about African lives, but these competing claims to responsibility for the ethnic cleansing of Southern Sudan cannot be perfectly parsed, and so Eggers does not intend to parse them. Or rather, and I think this is very important, the idea is probably not that blame or responsibility cannot be adjudicated, but that it cannot be adjudicated through narrative. There is, in fact, a suspicion of narrative that derives from the debates on (and ultimate rejection of) the idea of mimesis as something at least potentially direct and transparent. No longer is it assumed that a narrative can represent without distortion; everything is always already situated.

Secondly, I think there has been since the First World War but more particularly in the wake of the Vietnam War a preference for what might be called a "corporal's-eye-view," an assumption that the most objective vantage point on war or conflict in general is to be found in the enlisted infantry. There is probably a longer history of this preference or assumption, but it has never, I think, been as pronounced as it has been since the Vietnam War. One thinks here especially of Tim O'Brien's novels and memoirs (whose quote from If I Die in a Combat Zone… sums up what I'm trying to articulate here pretty well: "Can the foot soldier teach anything important about war, merely for having been there? I think not. He can tell war stories.") but if we were to go back to WWI it could be traced back to All Quiet on the Western Front (which, like The Forever War, is about the transition from grunt to commander) and films like The Big Parade. At any rate, there is a very active assumption, or maybe a hope, that the division of enlisted and officers produces something like a division between ideological and non-ideological experiences of the war.

This is an ongoing assumption and a very live project, now updated to the Iraq War, where we might take In the Loop, which (as far as I know) does not delve into the experience of foot-soldiers as exemplary of the type of narrative which takes as its subjects the ideological class of officers and politicians, and The Hurt Locker, which features officers very rarely (and then only to underline how removed they are from the "reality" of war), as exemplary of the "survival as sub-ideology" strategy. The bulky IED-defusing suit, which is the perfect icon of the film, might also be taken to be the perfect metonym of this genre: inside the suit, there is (supposedly) no ideology, only the experience of the war and the creation of a war story.

But I also think we can view The Wire as a multi-protagonist version of this genre, although it is certainly more canny about the possibilities of truly sinking beneath ideology. It has also been seen as a sort of "post-" or "non-ideological" text, and one of the remarkable things about it is how readily anyone can find their own ideology validated in it—conservatives see indictments of welfare policies as surely as liberals see indictments of the drug war. (Liberals are more right, but that's not the point.) To return full-circle, I think it is very possible to read The Wire as the survival story par excellence of our time, and to see fraternity as its greatest ideal—again, a broken ideal, but nevertheless, the ideal and central theme of the show. And it too features a very extreme distinction between foot-soldiers and commanders, and some of its central plots are about the impossibility of moving from one position to the other. And, although, as I said, it is never innocent of the pervasiveness of ideology, one of its most straightforward points is that the "higher-ups" in the police force, the government, or the newspaper are more ideological, more given to justifying their actions through abstractions. Bullshit, in words more appropriate to the subject, always rises.

Obviously it is no great scandal to talk about the unparalleled success of The Wire in achieving its vision; I think it is also very reasonable to suggest that its success is part of a broader turn toward this particular strategy of using survival as a figure for a sub-ideological space in narrative, a margin between a non-resistance to ideology and an ultimate refusal of nihilism. I see this particular paradigm as culturally dominant in contemporary depictions of conflict and violence, and likely to become more so.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler

I enjoyed the book a good deal more in its last quarter or so, when the plot sharply diverges from the film version. (I like the film version, but the close parallelism of it to the book made reading the first three-fourths somewhat tedious.)

Before the action really kicks in, though, what interested me was the description. It's not uniformly good, but it is very frequently extensive, even belabored. What interests me, though, is not so much its quality as its role in the novel. Let's take the following, rather lengthy passage:
It was a wide room, the whole width of the house. It had a low beamed ceiling and brown plaster walls decked out with strips of Chinese embroidery and Chinese and Japanese prints in grained wood frames. There were low bookshelves, there was a thick pinkish Chinese rug in which a gopher could have spent a week without showing his nose above the nap. There were floor cushions, bits of odd silk tossed around, as if whoever lived there had to have a piece he could reach out and thumb. There was a broad low divan of old rose tapestry. It had a wad of clothes on it, including lilac-colored silk underwear. There was a big carved lamp on a pedestal, two other standing lamps with jade-green shades and long tassels. There was a black desk with carved gargoyles at the corners and behind it a yellow satin cushion on a polished black chair with carved arms and back. The room contained an odd assortment of odors, of which the most emphatic at the moment seemed to be the pungent aftermath of cordite and the sickish aroma of ether.
On a sort of low dais at one end of the room there was a high-backed teakwood chair in which Miss Carmen Sternwood was sitting on a fringed orange shawl. She was sitting very straight, with her hands on the arms of the chair, her knees close together, her body stiffly erect in the pose of an Egyptian goddess, her chin level, her small bright teeth shining between her parted lips. Her eyes were wide open. The dark slate color of the iris had devoured the pupil. They were mad eyes. She seemed to be unconscious, but she didn't have the pose of unconsciousness. She looked as if, in her mind, she was doing something very important and making a fine job of it. Out of her mouth came a tinny chuckling noise which didn't change her expression or even move her lips.
She was wearing a pair of long jade earrings. They were nice earrings and had probably cost a couple of hundred dollars. She wasn't wearing anything else.
She had a beautiful body, small lithe, compact, firm, rounded. Her skin in the lamplight had the shimmering luster of a pearl. Her legs didn't quite have the raffish grace of Mrs. Regan's legs, but they were very nice. I looked her over without either embarrassment or ruttishness. As a naked girl she was not there in that room at all. She was just a dope. To me she was always just a dope.
Perhaps it is merely due to my perceptions of the genre, but this seems unnaturally verbose (even florid) for the "hardboiled" aesthetic. While a number of very short declarative sentences punctuate this long descriptive section, the average number of words per sentence is about 16. Perhaps that is not very long (for fun, I found a passage on the same numbered page—page 31—of the Lydia Davis translation of Swann's Way which has an almost identical number of words, and the words-per-sentence figure there is about 39.5), but it is not exactly laconic. The reputation for hardboiled terseness, then, probably derives more from the relative frequency of these short, declarative sentences rather than an overall, consistent effect of close-lippedness.

But I'd like to focus more on the role of detail in this passage. Detail, generally speaking, has a few narrative functions. Scene-setting, of course, meaning the provision of details necessary to understand the action, but in this passage, the details which actually perform this function are relatively few: the cordite and ether smells and the nudity. These elements are going to be required both by the reader and by Marlowe to understand what has happened and to advance the plot.

Realistic scene-dressing is the provision of quotidian details which, because of their superfluity or excessiveness, demonstrate at least the authorial intention of anchoring the action in reality. The author is telling us, "I want you to know that I am holding myself to the possibly real; I am committed to keeping my imagination from running completely free." The upshot of this action is a sort of de-pressuring of the reader's suspension of disbelief; the reader isn't supposed to be convinced that the action has truly taken place, but that the contract between the author and the reader has been re-negotiated with better terms for the reader: less suspension, less effort is required. The main beneficiary of this re-negotiated contract is, however, the action. An author can be a little bit more flamboyant with plot, allowing for more coincidences, more exaggerated or stretched probabilities, when the reader believes that the author is committed to coloring in the lines of the real. The multitude of superfluous details here serves this function very well.

A third function, which does take place somewhat in this section, is the establishment of a character's attributes and inclinations—in short, his personality—by displaying what he sees and how he sees it. The fact that a deep carpet makes Marlowe think of gophers is interesting, and presumably tells us something about him—that he has a streak of whimsy, perhaps.

But what I think the details really do—and I think this continues throughout the book—their preeminent function is, in fact, the permission they give for voyeurism. The careful descriptions of the contours and colors of each irrelevant piece of furniture allows Marlowe's gaze to slide right onto a naked woman with the semblance, stressed by Marlowe, of disinterest. Taking note of the colors and contours of her body become just an extension of a process Marlowe has already started—a forensic examination of the room. This professional gaze simply must include the woman's skin and shape. We, the reader, merely get to look over the shoulder of the detective, as we have been doing throughout the book.

Of course, I am far from the first to note how the professional demeanor and habits of detectives or spies—police or private eyes—opens up a huge space for voyeurism. Critics of shows like Law & Order have made this point, as have critics of James Bond, and, no doubt, critics of the noir genre. Michael Denning, in his book on British spy thrillers, plays on the Bond formula "license to kill" by calling this the "license to look." And that is what is happening in the passage above. A balance is achieved between the mundane and the lurid that enables a plausible deniability of pure "ruttishness," as Marlowe calls it.

Of course the back cover, which begins, "She was waiting in his bed…" begs the question of whose plausible deniability is being constructed here. No one reads noir for the "Chinese and Japanese prints in grained wood frames," and no one really claims to be, or believes that other readers might be doing so. It's the girls and the guns, and everyone knows it, likes it, and admits knowing and liking it.

Perhaps the argument should be that the negligible obstacle of this inclusion of the mundane simply adds to the reader's pleasure by delaying it, just as the detective plot itself delays the gratification of knowledge and of the ending. But I think there's also a desire on the part of the reader for a sort of reciprocity: if the author is checking his or her imagination to give the appearance of remaining within the bounds of the possibly real, the reader likewise wishes to discipline his or her imagination, remaining within a code of sorts or adhering to a sense of decorum. It's no fun if the writer is playing tennis with a net but you're not.

Of course, some readers don't think that and skip to the lurid scenes of the books they read, whether that's Lawrence Durrell or Charlaine Harris. I don't know what to do with them, but I think they're probably a minority. Most readers are, I'll bet, interested in this reciprocity, which is itself a very fascinating phenomenon.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman, and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, by John Le Carré

I did not anticipate the thematic overlap which can be drawn from reading these two novels back-to-back, but there is a definite spiritual affinity between the two which goes well beyond their both being novels of and about the Cold War and the radical unconcern for the fate of the individuals involved in it which characterized the conflict.

Or rather, that affinity may be enough: both novels are, above anything else, intent on examining the separate but equally horrifying methods and philosophies of sacrificing personnel and resources across the Cold War front. More pointedly, both ask how the supposedly individualistic mentality of capitalism/the West finds ways and means of inducing its subjects to throw their lives away for an amorphous, interminable cause?

For Alec Leamas of Spy Who Came in…, this question is posed within an explicit contrast to the supposedly more effective ideology of Communism: the unshakeable belief in the inevitability of history and the rightness and superiority of collective goals which Leamas and Le Carré presume underwrites all Communists (except the defectors) and all Communist institutions is set against the post-Suez, post-imperial crisis of confidence which pervades British society, British government, and British citizens. Alec is incapable of answering an East German intelligence agent's demand to know what drives the men and women in Britain, what philosophy or belief enables them to order deaths or to allow deaths to occur. How can the threat to order which sacrifice presents be contained, be sublimated to a higher purpose? Why do the British accept the necessity of sacrifice when so very little of what they believe seems to permit its logic?

William Mandella of The Forever War exists in a different (post-Vietnam*) stage of the Cold War, one where the machinery of power whereby capitalism forces individuals into self-sacrifice has revealed itself. Mandella and his fellow elite soldiers are conscripts for a war that they never show genuine enthusiasm for, and the carrots (heavy remuneration) and sticks (strict military discipline) which are used are never veiled. Camaraderie is real, but there is maybe only one instance in the book where camaraderie prompts an act of self-sacrifice (more on this in a moment). Again, this lack of secure reasons for sacrifice is set against an other which seems unshakable in its capacity for—even desire for—self-sacrifice. (At the end of the book, this desire is explained in what I thought was a fairly unsatisfying manner.)

Both novels, despite their reservations and crises of confidence, still believe that the West will win and even should win. Or, at the very least, neither is capable of thinking either that the collectivists would or should win. Both, then, turn the Cold War internal: the War is being fought between the good individualists against the bad individualists, who are so bad they have turned individualism into a paradoxical collectivism, who have formed and tamed and chained Leviathan. Even the instinct for self-preservation, as both these novels demonstrate, is always planned for and incorporated into the greater good.

Or, in Haldeman's terms, logistics and tactics have become coterminous, identical:
While I was lying there being squeezed [in preparation for interstellar travel into a combat zone], a silly thought took hold of my brain and went round and round like a charge in a superconductor: according to military formalism, the conduct of war divides neatly into two categories, tactics and logistics. Logistics has to do with moving troops and feeding them and just about everything except the actual fighting, which is tactics. And now we're fighting, but we don't have a tactical computer to guide us through attack and defense, just a huge, super-efficient pacifistic cybernetic grocery clerk of a logistic, mark that word, logistic computer.
The other side of my brain, perhaps not quite as pinched, would argue that it doesn't matter what name you give to a computer, it's a pile of memory crystals, logic banks, nuts and bolts… If you program it to be Genghis Khan, it is a tactical computer, even if its usual function is to monitor the stock market or control sewage conversion. 
The concept of programming, of "remote control" is also a major theme in spy novels, and particularly in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Leamas's natural, individual inclinations are so comprehensively accounted for by his superior (whose title in the novel actually is Control) that their plans are advanced rather than frustrated by his "missteps." There is in both novels a bitter sense of frustration at the limitedness of human nature, that whether the ideology of a society glorifies the collective or the individual, equality or liberty, ruthless central planning works. It absorbs the mass and the individual alike and deploys either for its own ends.

Both novels, I think, provide the same answer: the missing leg of the triad alluded to just now: not equality, not liberty, but fraternity. While I noted above that camaraderie is not terribly effective in The Forever War as a reason for self-sacrifice, it is quite clearly the only thing that Mandella is left to believe in (Leamas never really gets a chance to believe in it, but I think the book implies it was the only remaining option). Both novels suggest that a non-ideological sense of fraternity is the only path out of the stalemate not just of the Cold War, but also of the larger philosophical morass (equality vs. liberty) that was supposedly being fought out in places like Berlin and Vietnam and space. I will have a little more to say on the possibilities of non-ideological fraternity in a few days in a post on Dave Eggers's What Is the What, but for now I think it is sufficient to say that Le Carré and Haldeman's turn to fraternity as the only possible resolution to this conflict is both characteristic of a broad swath of Cold War writers and has been massively influential, particularly in writing about war and violence, well after the Cold War ceased. I think it has of late been written mostly as a tale of simple survival, of which we can already see the beginnings in a book like The Forever War, but, again, I'll be following up on that in my post on Eggers.

On a more mundane level, both novels are structured in three acts, although the first act in The Spy Who Came in… is very short. In both, the pattern is action in the field, furlough, and re-activation or re-insertion into the field. In both, the second act is concerned with the problem of re-adapting to "civilian" society, although in the case of The Spy, this struggle is partially intentional. At any rate, the point largely seems to be a questioning of how effectively fraternity actually can serve as a third way between equality and liberty; the difficulties of returning to society suggest that the war has shattered any social cohesion, much less fellow-feeling, among civilians. 

This is already a fairly long post, but I want to insert a fairly long quotation from The Forever War which I thought was masterful in describing the social effects of a prolonged, almost invisible war. I don't want to rush too foolishly to draw a parallel to Iraq and Afghanistan, but I think it's impossible not to find this a little resonant in certain parts (others, not very or not entirely).
Wars in the past often accelerated social reform, provided technological benefits, even sparked artistic activity. This one, however, seemed tailor-made to provide none of these positive by-products. Such improvements as had been made on late twentieth-century technology were—like tachyon bombs and warships two kilometers long—at best, interesting developments of things that only required the synergy of money and existing engineering techniques. Social reform? The world was technically under martial law. As for art, I'm not sure I know good from bad. But artists to some extent have to reflect the temper of the times. Paintings and sculpture were full of torture and dark brooding; movies seemed static and plotless; music was dominated by nostalgic revivals of earlier forms; architecture was mainly concerned with finding someplace to put everybody; literature was damn near incomprehensible. Most people seemed to spend most of their time trying to find ways to outwit the government[…]
And in the past, people whose country was at war were constantly in contact with the war. The newspapers would be full of reports, veterans would return from the front; sometimes the front would move right into town, invaders marching down Main Street or bombs whistling through the night air—but always the sense of either working toward victory or at least delaying defeat. The enemy was a tangible thing, a propagandist's monster whom you could understand, whom you could hate.
But this war… the enemy was a curious organism only vaguely understood, more often the subject of cartoons than nightmares. The main effect of the war on the home front was economic, unemotional—more taxes but more jobs as well. After twenty-two years, only twenty-seven returned veterans; not enough to make a decent parade. The most important fact about the war to most people was that if it ended suddenly, Earth's economy would collapse.
One last thing—I think it is also important to note that both novels are fairly ambivalent about whether impersonal economic forces or actual, power-mad individuals caused and are prolonging the war, and both novels are a little unwilling to take the cop-out answer of "both." They think it must be one or the other, but they are extremely unsure which. Again, this is a recurring problem in Cold War literature and thought, but I did want to point it out. 

Oh, and of course, both novels are tremendous; Haldeman's in particular is so well and completely imagined in so many intricate and very important ways.

*The novel was published in 1974, so the Vietnam War had not ended, but the outlook (and, of course, chronology) of the book was definitely post-Vietnam.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Is the "New Global Novel" Dull?

Yes! answers Tim Parks in the NYRB blog:
From the moment an author perceives his ultimate audience as international rather than national, the nature of his writing is bound to change. In particular one notes a tendency to remove obstacles to international comprehension. Writing in the 1960’s, intensely engaged with his own culture and its complex politics, Hugo Claus apparently did not care that his novels would require a special effort on the reader’s and above all the translator’s part if they were to be understood outside his native Belgium. In sharp contrast, contemporary authors like the Norwegian Per Petterson, the Dutch Gerhard Baaker, or the Italian Alessandro Baricco, offer us works that require no such knowledge or effort, nor offer the rewards that such effort will bring.
Parks sees a massive culture shift underway in the world of European literature similar to the switch from Latin to vernacular; European writers are beginning to look at success in their own language and their own countries as insufficient, and their gazes are set abroad. "Certainly, in Italy where I live, an author is only thought to have arrived when he is published in New York. To appreciate how much things have changed one only need reflect how little it would have dented the reputations of Zola or Verga had they not achieved immediate publication in London."

In addition to the lack of culturally specific detail, Parks sees a likely trend toward simpler, less idiomatic language that presents fewer problems for translators, and a greater reliance on what might be called the best practices of already internationally established stars:
the deployment of highly visible tropes immediately recognizable as “literary” and “imaginative,” analogous to the wearisome lingua franca of special effects in contemporary cinema, and the foregrounding of a political sensibility that places the author among those “working for world peace.” So the overstated fantasy devices of a Rushdie or a Pamuk always go hand in hand with a certain liberal position since, as Borges once remarked, most people have so little aesthetic sense they rely on other criteria to judge the works they read.
I agree with Borges, and I agree that the fewer the Rushdie impersonators, the better, but I'm beginning to wonder which babies are being ejected with the bathwater. Even among the writers he's listed as among the vanguard of the new global novel (Petterson, Barrico, Baaker, Ishiguro) I have trouble recognizing this limp liberalism as all that pervasive, or a uniformity that is all that constrictive. There is a certain taciturnity in common between Petterson and Ishiguro (I don't know Barrico or Baaker) but I'm at a loss to attribute it solely to the desire to have international success; surely there is something very specific about both writers' sense of their characters' voices and the types of narratives they're interested in that is more personal (even idiosyncratic) than it is commercial or ambitious.

Secondly, I am left to wonder how Parks differentiates this "new global novel" from slightly older global novels: it would be very easy to read a work like Saramago's Blindness into this program of international pandering: it certainly seemed like it was written to facilitate fluid cultural translation. And aren't we told so frequently that the great modernist masterworks are among the most international of the century? Parks has written just a short blog post, so it may be unfair to expect a consideration of these larger contexts, but I wonder how much he is critiquing a specific marketing and compositional practice and how much he is complaining that he hasn't found many new novels he's liked recently. (Honestly, I'm inclined to believe that most general theories of literature derive from this quotidian problem. And when I hear "death of the novel," I think, "this guy's just fed up with his job," whether it's writing, editing, or composing 800-word reviews.)

Parks notes that his awareness of this shift comes from living in Europe, and I think it would be only fair to recognize that he's talking at most about a fraction (maybe a substantial fraction) of European writers. I suppose there are a number of Latin American and some African writers who could be read into this shift, but there are also a number of novels from these and other places which are fighting against this current, which do in fact attempt to render a sense of location or which at the very least are trying to engage a broad audience's ignorance. Junot Díaz's celebrated educational footnote to the second page of Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is only perhaps the most direct example, but there are a number of contemporary writers who at the very least begrudgingly accept the role of native informant and do their best to equip the reader with the necessary historical, political, and intellectual background for understanding the action. They are still very intent on writing novels deeply invested in local politics, history, and culture.

Lastly, I think it's hard to underestimate the extent to which genre fiction—mystery and science fiction in particular—has effected a change in the way writers around the world think about imaginatively coming to terms with local or national problems; while I don't want to write either genre off as allegory, the way that science fiction or detective novels might facilitate cultural translation because of their "highly visible tropes" is clearly one of their strengths and not a lack or a flaw. I haven't read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (which I kept expecting to come up in Parks's argument), but it's my understanding that there isn't so much a suppression of detail about contemporary Swedish society as it is made available to a global audience through the plot and through the internationalized conventions of the genre. Surely Stieg Larsson's wild success is more exemplary of a "new global novel" than Per Petterson or Alessandro Barrico.

I'm very skeptical that any desire to court international (and particularly American) success will ever be quite so unremittingly distortive and destructive to the novel—even to the European novel. And I am still more skeptical that it will ever become complete; while there may be a shift away from the pursuit of national prestige and toward international honors and sales, it is unlikely that national markets will wholly collapse, and some writers, unsuccessful on an international market, will inevitably turn back (or will never abandon) the local.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Hindsight's 2020

John Williams of The Second Pass has organized a feature called The 2110 Club: "What books published in the past 10 to 15 years might still be read a century from now?" (A similar feature from NY Mag appeared a couple years ago, only the time frame was 50 years from now.) It's a fun little parlor game although a rather tough assignment, as it's very difficult to make a cogent defense of a novel as something an unimaginable posterity will appreciate.

I was thinking last year of a fairly modest project (it obviously never got off the ground) where the objective would not be predictive and the time span would be shortened to ten years. (The stupid pun I came up with for the project is the title of this post.) Short of asking people to make an educated guess about what works will be future-canonical, I was hoping just to ask what novels from the past ten or so years people plan to keep recommending over the next ten years—that is, what novels are personally important to you to keep alive over the next ten years?

I imagine that I will keep encouraging people (although I have not done so on this blog yet) to read Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty. It was certainly the best book that won a major award over the last decade, and I can quite easily imagine returning to it myself in ten years.

I most definitely intend to continue recommending Aleksandar Hemon's work (all of it, all of it), but I wonder if by the end of the next decade I'll need to; he's already had considerable success but I wouldn't be surprised if he breaks through further in the next few years.

Two single books from this past decade whose authors I have meant to follow up on would also be on my 2020 list: Carol Shields's Unless from 2002 and The Wife, by Meg Wolitzer, from 2003. Tremendous books which I think will wear very well and which I am sure I will enjoy revisiting in ten years or so.

How about you?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

From "The Grey Area," by Franco Moretti

Franco Moretti has a wonderful analysis of Ibsen and the bourgeois world in the most recent New Left Review. Ibsen figures for him as the great chronicler of a field of dissonance between morality and legality which is proper to bourgeois society and, more directly, to relations within and among the ruling class, where "[i]ntra-bourgeois competition [i]s a mortal combat: and since life is at stake, the conflict easily becomes ruthless, or dishonest; but, and this is important, ruthless, unfair, equivocal, murky—but seldom actually illegal."

Moretti deploys the common term "grey area" to designate this field of competition, but does so under some taxonomical frustration:
As far as I can tell, there is no general term for these actions, which at first was frustrating; for I have often found the analysis of keywords illuminating for understanding the dynamic of bourgeois values: useful, serious, industry, comfort, earnest. Take ‘efficiency’: a word that had existed for centuries, and had always meant, as the OED puts it, ‘the fact of being an efficient cause’: causality. But then, in the mid-nineteenth century, all of a sudden the meaning changes, and efficiency starts indicating ‘the fitness or power to accomplish . . . the purpose intended; adequate power’. Adequate; fit to the purpose: not the capacity to cause something in general any more, but to do so according to a plan, and without waste: the new meaning is a miniature of capitalist rationalization. ‘Language is the instrument by which the world and society are adjusted’, writes Benveniste, and he’s right; semantic change, triggered by historical change; words catching up with things. That’s the beauty of keywords: they’re a bridge between material and intellectual history.
"A bridge between material and intellectual history": quite a claim, and one which may have increasing currency of late (I'm thinking in particular of Jenny Davidson's excellent book Breeding).

I like it a great deal; it is an excellent, pragmatic rationale for the study of literature, assuming (and I think one can assume) that a convincing argument can be made for a privileged position for literature in registering, preserving, and activating these "semantic change[s], triggered by historical change[s]; words catching up with things." And it offers a sturdy, ready-to-wear methodology which, though it may look a bit pedestrian and blunt at the outset, actually can, as Davidson certainly demonstrated, produce quite subtle results and multi-textured, sophisticated readings of a diverse set of texts.

My only question here would be precisely what Moretti means by 'material'; while this keyword has its own rather torturous history especially within Marxism, even within those allowances, Moretti's sense of materiality often seems a bit nebulous. One might quite reasonably (and I think accurately) translate his "bridge between material and intellectual history" into something like a "bridge between histories of production and histories of expression" as this would continue the spirit of the pair from the previous sentence: "words catching up with things." This threatens, of course, to fall back into a simplistic base-superstructure relationship where changes in the meanings of words mechanically arise from changes in the relations of productions (this particular phrase "catching up with" even seems to flirt with a revival of the notion of temporal lags), but I don't think that is what Moretti intends at all, and it would be interesting to position this keyword approach within Volosinov's philosophy of language.

At any rate, there's more to think about here, but I just wanted to draw some attention to this provocative paragraph and retain it for possible future use.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Our Lady of the Assassins, by Fernando Vallejo

Our Lady of the Assassins reads like the result of a brawl between Thomas Malthus and Louis-Ferdinand Céline after a night of heavy and surly drinking and reading Death in Venice in dramatic voices to each other.
"On a night drunk with cicadas, the Exterminating Angel came down and dispatched the six in a rough little bar whose tables spilled out onto the pavement and, with a bullet in the forehead of each of them, he punished them for their drunkenness, their 'bender.' And why this time? For what reason? For the ultra-simple reason of existing. That seems very little to you? No, while this life is no bowl of cherries, I've always said and I repeat it here, that the crime does not lie in extinguishing life, but in kindling it: organizing it so that, where there wasn't any pain before, now there is." (71-72)
Similar sentiments are repeated throughout, and one could probably even call it the moral of the novel: procreation is a greater sin than murder. Life in Medellín, Colombia's 'capital of hate,' is such that the addition of lives to its population is crueler than any subtraction, even a violent, capricious subtraction. In fact, the idea that violence may be capricious becomes itself remote, unthinkable: violence is a form of currency, and its transactions, whether we might call them impulsive or necessary, are indistinguishable from one another to those involved.

I wouldn't call the novel powerful (I think it's actually rather poorly written—to a purpose, but nevertheless ineffectively), but it is so adamant in this position that one is tempted to accede somewhat, to demur to its apparent authority. Yet its intransigent a- or anti-sociality finds itself frustrated more than it is invigorated by the texture of the book: there is also a strange lack of urgency to the prose which vitiates its anger—again, definitely to a purpose, but again, not effectively. It's written as if Vallejo believed torpor was a simple substitute for energy, and not a different substance entirely. Vallejo somehow means for this torpor to reinforce the book's militant hostility to life, and I suppose other writers have achieved this, but in this case, it simply exists as a separate feeling: the narrator's languidness and his antipathy never really find a common language, and the book teeters between world-weariness and sardonic venom.

There is one moment, though, where these two strands seem to come together, and while they don't entirely fuse and form something new and compelling, they do find a form external to the novel which indulges both the narrator's languor and his acerbity. Fernando is in a morgue:
I continued on to an anteroom. Over and above the weeping of the living and the silence of the dead, the stubborn ra-ta-tat-tat of typewriters: this was Colombia, officious in all its bureaucratic frenzy, its mountains of paperwork, its red tape, drawing up official reports of autopsies, of entrances and exits, solicitous, industrious, diligent, with its unredeemed penpusher's soul. My invisible man's eyes lighted on the 'Observations' they'd left on a desk about the removal of a body: 'The apparent motive was to steal the victim's trainers,' it said, 'but of the real facts and the authors of the crime nothing is known.' And it went on to speak of wounds to the vena cava and cardio-respiratory arrest after the hypovolemic shock caused by a wound from a sharp instrument. I loved the language. The precision of the words, the conviction of the style… The best writers in Colombia are judges and their clerks, and there's no better novel than a court summary. (128)
Of course one recognizes a similar feeling (and perhaps a similar envy) in Bolaño and Horacio Castellanos Moya, perhaps even Sebald, although Vallejo is more intentionally perverse about it. (Well, maybe not more so than Moya.)

But I think it is very strange how an author like Vallejo who is completely uninterested in objectivity, much less in something like "the truth" could be so enchanted by the clinical, documentary style of bureaucratic prose. Perhaps it is an act, or perhaps he simply is graciously acknowledging the skill of a competitor in the field of describing misery and death.

But there is also, I think, a sense in which Vallejo deeply wants the state to be what it is in Kafka: a realm of mysterious pointlessness, so enfolded upon itself that it can absorb all life in its unending and directionless corridors. The tragedy for Vallejo is that it is not: the state is not only complicit with the violence of the drug cartels and the petty assassinations, but it is much less capacious than they are: it is always the government which will be absorbed into the world of the druglords, and not the other way round. Vallejo at the end of the novel turns, very strangely, to the state as a last source of enchantment, reaching toward the purity of bureaucratic prose as a refuge against reality. He's certainly conscious that this is illusory and even stupid, but I'd argue he sees it as less illusory, less stupid, than art, and in it he finds some release. What he cannot reconcile in his own prose, he finds brought together in this cold document. It is a bizarre ending, to say the least, for a novel.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Crash, by J. G. Ballard

Crash is the strangest pastoral poem I've ever read. It's too bad that it and Raymond Williams's The Country and the City were published in the same year (1973), for I could see how the addition of Crash's landscape and particular yearning for a sublation of the technology which we've grafted onto ourselves would have greatly enriched Williams's (already very rich) study.

I think it is actually quite possible to read Crash as an explicit pastoral (Vaughan and Ballard as a very bizarre Corydon and Alexis, cars as the flock they're tending—okay, that maybe a little laughable, but is it really that far off?), but I have to confess that this reading is more of an intuition than something I can point to in the text.

Something I feel a little more confident in is a reading that focuses on the peculiarly dated aspects of the work: the constant convergence of bodily and mechanical fluids seems an unlikely metaphor now when many more drivers insulate themselves from handling their car's various fluids—it's all done by mechanics now—oil changes, engine flushes, even windshield wiper fluid refills. There is an important sense, I think, in which the technology of the car has become much more abstracted from us than it was in 1973; perhaps I'm reading Ballard's dystopic projections incorrectly, but it seems as if rather than a gradual fusion of the machine and the man, a greater necessity for machines to mediate between human relations, at least in the realm of the automobile, we've been moving in the opposite direction. We may be more dependent on the automobile, but it has become further instrumentalized and less directly mediates our human interactions.

Yes, we have become Harawavian cyborgs in various ways, but I think it's also extremely important to note the ways in which the posthumanism we're expected to have grown into has occurred in very different ways from what was once anticipated. Automobiles, I feel, are less environments of their own (although they obviously determine to an extreme the built environment) than they were in the moment Ballard was writing. While we now have DVD players built into mini-vans, is the object of these innovations the creation of an environment or a more instrumental end—shutting the kids up so the parents can drive? Likewise with other innovations such as the navigation systems or rear-view cameras: while commercials still sell (for some cars) the experience of driving, higher gas prices and other factors have largely put an end to the idea that driving—or more specifically, using an automobile—is an experience worth having on its own. What sells cars now? Highly instrumental features—gas mileage, safety, cargo capacity.


Crash is, despite this change in car culture, still shocking, unsettling, and very gross. I doubt any development in the use of cars or their changing roles in our lives could change that.

P.S. I find this hilarious: a Birmingham, AL lawyer named Ballard who specializes in automobile accident litigation.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Academic Ambition #1

Someday I want to write an article citing Fernand Braudel and somehow work in the pun "Annale-retentive."

Monday, February 1, 2010

eBooks, Piracy, and Stockpiling

Caleb Crain's excellent overview of what 2010 may have in store for book sales makes a very convincing case for the significance and likely effects of Amazon's decision this week to use a "nuclear" option on a recalcitrant publisher, Macmillan. Amazon caved sometime after Crain had posted, but his analysis of the move's importance and the background for it is very much still worth reading.

Crain argues that what is being fought over between Amazon and Macmillan is not, in fact, profits or even profitability (he says the way this particular argument is playing out is in effect a contest "to see to see who can lose more money" per book) but simply over who is controlling the "intermediary steps somewhere between the creation of a book and the reading of it," although I would change the phrasing to "whether publishing companies can retain control over those intermediary steps, which include negotiations over royalties, price points, and the strategy of whether and how to release eBooks alongside printed books." Crain's phrasing makes it sound like either side could potentially lose control, but that's not entirely accurate—Amazon has a lot to win but not much to lose; publishers could lose a whole lot, but they have very little (if anything) more they can win by facing down Amazon's demands—even retention of what control they have now does not exactly look like a prize the way things have been going. (Crain in a way acknowledges this earlier in the post.)

Crain also discusses Amazon's strategy for the Kindle, and does so very insightfully:
When Amazon first introduced its Kindle reading device, the reception was tepid. But Amazon improved the device in later models, and thanks to its aggressive low pricing on e-books, it now reports that the Kindle and e-books are selling briskly. In other words, with the money that it has lost by discounting e-books, Amazon has bought market share for its e-book reader and for itself as an e-book retailer. To put it still another way, Amazon sped up the American public's adoption of e-books by unilaterally lowering the American public's idea of what the natural price of an e-book should be.
Essentially, Amazon's decision to convince consumers that $9.95 is the right price for an eBook has backed Amazon into a corner, but it still has the publishers as a buffer between it and the wall. Any pressure from consumers on the price point, and it will be the publishers who get squeezed.

What also gets squeezed, or I should say what gets squeezed the most, is the ability of publishers to continue printing books on paper. As Crain says, "It may not be possible for a single company to publish e-books at that price and also retain the infrastructure necessary to publish ink-on-paper books." I added the emphasis, but I think it's pretty obvious that it has to be there: as I noted above, one of the forms of control at stake in this haggling over price points is the publisher's ability to determine how or even whether to release eBook versions alongside the printed product. If Amazon is committed to wresting control over price points for eBooks, it's also exerting indirect control over what the profit margins have to be for printed books to compensate for the losses incurred over eBooks. Being print-first (organizing one's whole production chain from acquisition to fulfillment around the print copies of a book) may end up being a luxury no publisher can afford.

That's the supply side, more or less. Being (at this point) completely unconnected to the supply side (knowing only a couple of people well who work in publishing and virtually no authors), I'm more interested in the demand side. Here are some thoughts:

One reason to oppose increased control for Amazon/increased pressure on printed books is a preference for (or fetishism of) the printed book. I find this less than convincing, especially when I begin thinking about the carbon footprint of my library (which isn't often, but painful when it happens).

Fetishism and environmentalism aside, though, I would imagine that a reduction in the number of books being printed each year (especially since any reductions would likely come for older, modestly selling titles rather than for new titles) will mean that used book prices will go up. (If the only way you're going to find a printed copy of, say, David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress is in a used book store, don't you think some used bookstores—especially the good ones—will know that?) That will be a bummer. (Okay, this is still kind of a supply question.)

Somewhat relatedly, Crain brings up piracy, making the assumption that piracy will correlate positively with increased eBook prices: $15 books will be pirated more than $10 ones. I'm not so sure this is actually the way it works, but it's really irrelevant if it's the way that publishers and Amazon (and Apple and the rest) think it works, because the way they respond will, if music companies are any guide, be far more predicated on how they think piracy works and how much it's hurting them than on how things actually function. If the perception is that piracy goes up with the price point, assuming that Amazon isn't totally successful and fails to force everyone (all the publishers and Apple and Sony) to assent to a $9.95 price point, the incentive will be high for everyone to make sure that their product isn't the one being pirated. This means DRM junk, much more proprietary file formats and more expensive proprietary hardware, and just many more headaches generally.

But I think it is important to be clear on what eBook piracy probably will look like, and while I had some thoughts about this beforehand, reading this interview with a "Book Pirate" essentially confirmed my speculations. Behaviorally, book pirates will proceed much like I did when I first got my Kindle: they will load their hard drives with free stuff. I found mine in the public domain, as many others seem to have, but the process is basically going to be the same.

The principal difference, it seems, between at least the public rhetoric of piracy and the actual habits of readers (or of music listeners or of film watchers—these activities are identical in this respect) is that the assumption in the first case is that books or music albums or films are acquired to be consumed, but the reality is that the majority of what is acquired is not truly consumed at all. Rather, it is stockpiled. The bookcase or stack of books with more unread than read titles on it is a familiar image to most readers, as is the CD rack stuffed mostly with albums you haven't listened to in many years (if you ever did). Stockpiling is, consciously or not, the purpose of the vast majority of our acquisitions, whether that is buying new, buying used, receiving as a gift, borrowing from a library or friend, or downloading illegally. We acquire to store, not to use.

This is not an insignificant or idle distinction because it is stockpiling and not consumption that shapes the desires and habits of piracy. Piracy is, most simply and most frequently, accelerated stockpiling—not an attempt to avoid buying something we intend to consume (to read, watch, or listen to immediately or in the near future). As the book pirate says in the interview, "a download does not translate to a lost sale." It may, but it often does not, and that is in large part, the media industry's collective fault.

Mass culture hooked us on stockpiling: units cheap enough to buy without regard to need, constant advertising and prods to purchase for the sake of purchasing, a huge but barely differentiated menu of products—all these factors, the basic DNA of the culture industry in the classic sense, are now playing out under new circumstances as a desire to fill our hard drive with more music than we will ever listen to, television shows or films that we may never watch, and now with text files we'll probably never read.

Jacques Attali's bizarre little study Noise details some of the more abstract consequences of the economics of stockpiling (e.g.), but the concrete point that is somewhere in his analysis is that stockpiling is pleasurable in a way that even purchasing is not. The very process of searching for and acquiring difficult-to-find media—whether that is in the bowels of a used bookstore or on a bitTorrent site—is inherently pleasurable and does not diminish very much with repetition, or even with failure. You might always find it tomorrow, and if you find it today, there will be something else to find tomorrow.

Stockpiling, for better or worse, has been for some time now an independent source of pleasure, connected to but distinct from (or, one might say, in excess of) regular consumption. The convenience of downloading alongside or in conjunction with other forms of digital entertainment has only increased the pleasure of stockpiling as an activity. And the funny part of the logic here is that the efforts of companies to set obstacles toward downloading only makes the chase more interesting.

***
Before I start sounding like I'm advocating piracy, let me draw back and admit that I am not. I want to make a case, though, that the primary way we think about it—as a substitute for legal consumption—misses the point because what "legal consumption" consists of sorely needs to be re-theorized. We already stockpile ceaselessly, whether we've ever downloaded something illegally or not. It is a hugely significant aspect of the logic of consumerism, especially within the media and entertainment sector, and failing to differentiate it as an activity from other forms of consumption is a serious gap in our understanding of the dynamics of consumer and producer behavior.

Perhaps record and publishing companies do understand it; perhaps they realize that the behavior of their paying customers is largely about purchasing things that won't be read, seen, or heard, or will only barely be sampled. But if they know that, then they have collectively done very little to amend their strategies to taking advantage of this hoarding, stockpiling instinct. Perhaps stockpiling is the bad conscience of the culture industry—the truth that most of it isn't consumed in the strictest sense is the reality that most in the industry don't want to face. Like many other things, I doubt it is a luxury many can continue to afford.