Saturday, January 31, 2009

144 Years Ago, January 31, 1865: 13th Amendment Abolished Slavery

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Kentucky waited till 1976 to ratify it. Still waiting on Mississippi. 

And we have far from ended human trafficing. The hard line "illegal immigrant" forces, like the hard line "drug war" advocates, are doing their best to insure the perpetuation of slavery in the sex trades,  and to drive up the profit margins for illegal drugs high enough to guarantee there will be enough people willing to accept the risk of selling to anyone willing to buy,  and to use their profits to pour billions of dollars into the corruption of legal system.  

There are few things more dangerous than "morality" divorced from the reality of its consequences.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

New Yorker Stories: Wells Tower, Leopard

      There's a stack of New Yorkers by my desk. They've been piling up for some time. I've been wanting to continue with my "experimental" reviews, but have been at a loss where to take them since the "First Paragraph Reviews" petered out and came to nothing. Here, then, is the first of what I hope will be another attempt at a series of reviews of New Yorker stories.  As I've said before, I don't want to do the usual plot/character/prose style sort of thing. Consistent with my interest in the Aesthetics of Process, I want to find the internal connections, those associations that constitute the generative nodes I believe are at the source of the creative process.  Let me call them--until I come with something more elegant: Process Reviews.

Wells Tower, Leopard. The New Yorker, Nov. 10, 2008
For other reviews of this story, see Seán Costello of The Roving Editor and Clifford Garstang of  Perpetual Folly
 "Good morning," this story begins, "You have not slept well."

 Second person. Which seems reason enough for me to begin my review by entering the aura of the narrator and responding in the first person.
I notice that I have an odd name, "Yancy." More likely a nickname. Not odd then for an eleven year old. Nickname for what I can't say, as the name doesn't come up again. In fact, the only two names that do come up are my school mate, Josh Mohorn, and nine year old Samantha Measley, whose body was found last year in a maple tree, murdered and raped. An exciting girl. At least she did not die a virgin--"a thought you cannot share with even your wickedest friends." Why then did I shared it with you, if not because you are of an age when you understand that such thoughts cross our minds uninvited, and because you know that my keeping this secret shows that I understand it is not something I should be proud of , though you would likely not be wrong to find in my revelation evidence of another sort of pride--namely, of a certain psychological sophistication, an awareness of how tricky it is, this business of judging another person. Even when you know their innermost thoughts.

Which, of course, you don't. You must have been suspicious from the first. An eleven year old who knows the name of that thing that separates your nostrils. Who uses the word, "irremediably." Twice. This should reassure you (like the "die a virgin line") that I'm not trying to pull the wool over your eyes. All that stuff about my step father trying to convince my mother that I'm "a junior con man who can’t open his mouth without a lie coming out." You see, I admit it. Faking an upset stomach, Passing out in the drive way to lay a guilt trip on my stepfather for spoiling my sick day by making me get the mail. Really--how dishonest is that--admitting that I'm a liar? And how subtle is that--for an eleven year old?

 But of course this is not an eleven year old. Eleven year olds don't generally write stories for the New Yorker, and when we do, we know you are likely to call to mind the boy in Araby, or The Sisters, a kind of layered reminiscence, a looking back... here, an account not unlike what one might tell, talking to oneself while imagining one is being overheard by one's analyst. Which throws the focus quite off the story itself, doesn't it? I mean, the minimal events that make up the plot, such as it is. A boy wakes up, painfully aware of a sore on his lip. His mother calls it a "harmless fungal infection." More likely, viral: herpes simplex.. A "cold sore." Does she do this out of ignorance? To protect me? More likely herself. Herpes has such an adult ring to it, sexual connotations. The more so, that I've not yet been kissed... except, one might safely assume, by my mother, who, it seems, has an identity mark  echoing my own. This one on the knuckle of her little finger "like a stamp of quality from the manufacturer." Now there's an interesting word. It brings to mind here, not so much a mechanical maker (no support in the rest of the story for such metaphysical associations), as the idea of a finished product. Pre-approved. Her life is closed. Closed to judgement... and more important,  to me-- for all my skill (or because of it) at manipulating her to play the roles I assign--not to mention that her sympathy is misplaced: falling for my phony sick act, failing to recognize its source in my embarrassment at my disfigurement. Isn't she, after all, equally deserving of the contempt I express later for the cop--for his being fooled by my playing possum on the road? Easier to blame the effeminate cop.

 There are other marks. The scars from the poison ivy. Smoke from a fire set to get out of one of my stepfather's "jobs." And what are his "jobs" but scars on my life story? The jobs, the scars, the sores--all bound together by a common theme of deceit. Deceit and impotence, vicarious and immediate and personal--my real father cowering before the rock my stepfather did not throw. The painful (it must have been painful--it feels painful to recount it, as I imagine it must to read it)--of the vengeance lent me by this same stepfather when we destroyed the tree house of the neighbor who had wrecked my lean-to. What a humiliating demonstration of my own impotence--underlined, as it were, by my limiting my account only to the pleasure I felt. Not a hint of the repressed resentment that must have lurked behind the pleasure.

 You see, in my relationships with my stepfather, it's all process, emotional jiujitsu. My mother, inaccessible and closed as ... I was going to say, as Samantha... dead Samantha... the pleasure I might imagine, equally forbidden, equally impossible. But only perhaps, in death? A child's imagined version of death? I will lie on the road (not on Samantha, not on my mother), my face pressed into the gravel and she (my mother? Samantha? Leopard in the woods?) will find and rescue me, relieve me of my job-wounds, tear me from this life to an imagined life in death. "What's the mater with you?" my stepfather says when I refuse his orders to return to the house, "blacking out again?" Passive aggression. Impotence as imagined revenge.

 "Don’t' answer." (and to whom am I speaking now?
"Listen. Be still."

Follow up thoughts from an exchange with Clifford Garstang on Perpetual Folly on the use of second person in this story. 
An interpretation is not an explanation, and explanations of particular points fails as interpretation. An interpretation is a response, as strong or weak as the cumulative collaborating evidence. Being 'right' or 'wrong' has little or no bearing here. What matters is the constellation of interpretive points, how rich and suggestive that network of associations. In a constellation, meaning doesn't arise from the particular points (what is the purpose of 2nd person), but in how the lines are drawn from point to point. New interpretations arise by redrawing the connecting lines.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Obit: John Updike

John Updike 1932 - 2008

John Updike's New Yorker reviews will be missed. For a generous tribute,  and one he surely deserves, see Levi Asher of LitKicks. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Philosophy and Art ?

"Few things could be more anathema to Continental philosophy than realism and

This line, plucked at random from a POST  on Larval Subjects,  set off such a stream questions and ideas that I'm quite unable to put them in order, and too impatient to set them aside for fear the central association will
be lost.

Levi is here referring primarily to philosophical systems, but my mind
translated this (again) to literature. Realism.

My complaint with Wood--that he won't acknowledge his unexamined assumptions
about the "real," the possibility of mimesis--or representation without  difference, as though whatever the difference might be, it remains aesthetically insignificant; it makes no difference.

There is no imaginative writing without ideas. Which is not to say that  literature is reducible to philosophy, rather, the closer literature approximates (or accommodates itself) to such a reduction, it suffers aesthetic loss.

A novelist does not write philosophy. But a writer confronts ideas... whether  systematically formulated, or elements fragmented through the culture--still  unarticulated--along with whatever else he or she encounters, and shapes... and is in turn,  shaped by.

We make no effect on others that does not affect us in equal measure.

Missing that: the primary error of Neocon Realpolitics. Don't tell me aethetics has no real world significance!

"ELF" is more than the product of market pressures (another hegemonic fallacy)... the market, English writing, many writers... are responding to and engaging with a constellation of ideas about "reality," narrative, representation--that have not yet been subjected to a broad enough analysis and critique--a non reductive, anti-reductive critique.

We need an aesthetics that can address the unexamined assumptions, Without reduction. Without replacing one Hegemonic Fallacy with another. Without privileging one system (symbolic, materialist, idealist... no matter) over another, but ... like what you actually find in imaginative writing, a working out of constellations, networks of interactive meaning--a new hermeneutics.

Friday, January 16, 2009

What is the Difference Between Carving a Duck and Planting Peppers?

I've been reading with particular interest and growing excitement the recent posts on Larval Subjects--without being quite sure what I was responding to. With the lastest post, Margaret's Pepper Prinicple, I begin to see the connectioin.

(For a response see Towards a New Transcendental Aesthetic)

I wish I could quote the whole of his last five posts, but this exert may give you an idea of what I'm responding to.

In the case of the wood carving, the final product cannot be said to arise from either the carpenter or the wood. It often happens, as you’re carving or whittling, that you set out to carve something specific but as you work with the material something entirely different emerges. A particular knot might suggest an eye. The wave of the grain might suggest the contours of a bird’s head. The next thing you know, you’re carving the head of a duck on the end of a stick (I have vivid memories of precisely this happening on a camping trip with my father years ago). Graham and I have gone back and forth on whether object-oriented philosophy should be referred to as materialism or realism. I balk at the term “realism” because it evokes, to my mind, Platonism and the scholastic debate over universals. Graham balks at the term “materialism” because, to his thinking, it implies unformatted matter that simply receives form from the outside or from some other agency. However, I think the example of whittling provides a nice example of formatted matter from whence form is generated or arises, rather than matter that simply has an already established form imposed on it from the outside. The matter of the wood is formatted in the sense that it contains all sorts of singularities in the form of its grain, texture, knots, waves, and so on. These are points of force, resistance, density, potential, that do not prescribe or pre-delineate a final outcome in a process of actualization as in some classic notion of potentiality where the oak tree is already contained in the acorn. Rather, these singularities, these points of density, these knots, function as players, as agents in the unfolding of an entity when these singularities enter into dynamic relations with other singularities. The singularities don’t already contain the final form in reserve such that this form is simply waiting to be unleashed, but rather the singularities negotiate with one another giving rise to the form as a product. It is also notable that what counts as a singularity will be variable depending on the entities that come into contact with one another and the circumstances of that contact. In the case of the whittling, the other singularities would be certain properties of the knife (it’s shape, the sharpness of the blade, etc), coupled with singularities at work in the person doing the carving (elements pertaining to the physiology of the person, how their imagination is informed by their history, etc) [...]

All of this allows me to illustrate the scope or breadth of the Hegemonic Fallacy in a couple of different domains. On the one hand, the Hegemonic Fallacy would be committed in the case of the theorist discussing the carved duck were that theorist to explain the final product, the duck carving, as the result of an idea in the whittler’s head simply being imposed on the brute matter of the wood. What this misses is the dynamic interplay of singularities in the production of something that couldn’t have been anticipated. 

From my earlier POST (a chapter in my novel-in-progress, Ari Figue's Cat, I wrote (with some alterations)

Until the first word is writen everything is possible. ... We may, of course, erase as we write, circling back to a new starting point--speaking to ourselves, as it were, but that all comes to an end the moment the page is read, and in truth, even the freedom of erasure and revision is an illusion. Every word added to the next forecloses an infinite array of possibilities.

If you set out to tell a story you quickly find that you cannot go just anywhere. The more you write the more the words take charge, reducing the writer to a mere instrument playing out theme and variation over sets of ever more determinate patterns, and yet, it is seldom clear what those patterns are.
Busily translating (viva la difference!) from ontology to the aesthetics of process: all the elements of memory, association, ideas and language that we work into a written form are like the grains and eyes in the piece of wood. Like whitling the head of a duck, writing a novel is a process of negotion with the material at hand and every act, each engagement with that material translates both material and our intention. When reading and interpreting a literary work, it is useless to appeal to the author's intention, not because we have no access to the author's mind and are limited to the text--but because the author's intentions have been in a continuous process of translation along with the writing as it evolves. What existed in the beginning, and at every point to the completion of the work, is a continuum of difference that moves both forward and back. We cannot get there from here without changing both here and there.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Reading The Rebel.. a novel?

My question is my post.

It's certainly not a work of systematic philosopy... calls itself: An Essay on Man in Revolt.
The Plague is, in effect, a narrative of  ideas. Does that make The Plague less a work of fiction (many would agree to that), but why is The Rebel. for calling itself an essay, less a work of fiction?
It's as possible to read The Rebel as a kind of fiction... with disguised protagonists, action as ideas (with consequences), as it is to read (dismissively) The Plague as weak philosophizing. In fact--reading The Rebel as a work of fiction... a Fictive Essay, would involve a far richer reading than any I've yet seen.
Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition begs for a similar explication.
So yes, maybe it is the critical apparatus that is the problem.
The critique in each case depends on holding the one and the other to definitions of genre that each clearly refuse to submit to... an evasion of dealing with either for what they are.

The Novel as a Fictional Essay

Richard Crary, in a long and provocative post at The Existence Machine wonders why we need to call all our efforts at long fiction "novels."

Dan Green responds.

This is a question that's troubled me for some time. From a comment I left on The Reading Experience:

I begin my composition classes by asking my freshman students why Montaigne called his writings "essays." I like to compare what I want them to do in an essay to a "try out" for a sports team. That leads to interesting questions: what or who is "trying out?" Who or what is the judge of success? My aim is to make the idea-as-writing central. Yes, I will have to give them grades, but in their writing, they are not what is being judged, and though I don't pretend that we are equals in this effort, for them to succeed, they must learn how to both let the writing be a genuine exploration of an idea--to take risks, to write without knowing where the words will lead them, and to themselves become the first judge of their success. They are not in class to perform for my benefit, but the writing is to perform for us together as readers. Only then can we discuss what constitutes success.

I too am troubled by "novel" as a necessary lable. I called my first effort, The Magic Slate, a semi-comic literary fiction in seven movements, which seemed more accurate, given the priviledge of its loosly musical structure over the narrative. Why not, I wonder, go back to Montaigne? By acknowledging the experimental quality in the name, the essay has continued to evolve and branch out such that nothing else would capture its essence but that open ended designation--an essay, an exploration, a "try-out."

Why not...
Fictional Essays?

I like that... "essay" as Montaigne used the word in its French sense.

A much better description of the "novel" I've been working on...

Ari Figue's Cat: a Fictional Essay in 72 chapters.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Reading Notes: The Rebel: an Essay on Man in Revolt

Bataille's The Absence of Myth renewed my interest in Camus. Have been reading The Rebel again after many many years. Must have been 1965 or '66, while or shortly after spending nine months at Pendle Hill (a Quaker adult study center across Crum Creek from Swarthmore) where I arrived from Wichita, Kansas (I had been a student at Wichita State). Took almost a month, driving north from Kansas City (where my parents lived) across Iowa, down to Chicago to visit my uncle, up into Michigan to Bass Lake, just north of Pentwater--home of my grandparents, and where I'd spent all my summers from 1944 to 1961. This was on a Vespa 150 motor scooter packed with camping gear and my wife on the back. Absorbed with the writings of Martin Buber, I'd come to take courses with Maurice Friedman, his principle traslator and interpreter at the time. How I came to Philadelphia--never left.

Marx and Nietzsche:
"For Marx, nature is to be subjugated in order to obey history; for Nietzsche, nature is to be obeyed in order to subjugate history." 79

On Rimbaud's silence (which Camus laments):
"His metamorphosis is undoubtedly mysterious. But there is also a mystery attached to the banality achieved by brilliant young girls whom marriage transforms into adding or knitting machines." 89

On the banality of genius:
" Every genious is at once extraordinary and banal. He is nothing if he is only one or the other."

Quoted by intself, this reads like a self-contained aphorism (if any aphorism worth remembering is ever 'self-contained'), disintegrates into something more open and difficult in the context of what preceeds it.
Of course (?), genius cannot be separated from banality. But it is not a question of the banality of others--the banality we vainly try to capture and which itself captures the creative writer, where necessary, with the help of the censors (what does that mean ??) For the creative writer, it is a question of his own form of banality, which must be completely created. Every genius is at once extraordinary and...

From the chapter: Metaphysical Rebellion. Alfred A. Knopf, 1961 edition, translation by Anthony Bower

Friday, January 9, 2009

What a Difference a Difference Makes...

"Everything that makes a difference is."

I'm not going to expand on this here, but read this post and the comments that follow.. what an extraordinary idea if applied to literary theory and criticism.

Why I am happy that Larval Subjects is posting again:

The Ontic Principle: The Fundamental Principle of Any Future Object Oriented Philosophy

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Ron Silliman and the Sautrāntika Mind

I want to quote a sizable portion of Will Buckingham's recent post, Fluidity and Thought, from ThinkBuddah; it describes so beautifully what Ron Silliman is doing in much of The Alphabet. There are books that are years and decades in the writing, but what impresses me in the Alphabet is not the time it took to write, but the time needed to observe, record and complile this vast shimmering universe of perceptions--the mind catching the passing world and itself, each reflected in the other and as perpetually in motion as that river Heraclitus could not step into twice.

A distinction is being made here between the thoughts we have about the world – which tend towards fixity or (if they must have some kind of dynamism) which tend to be continually recreated in their own image, and the flux of direct experience which, as we all know, is changing moment by moment, and is never stable. The frameworks of thought are the conventially true things, the quicksilver changes of experience are the ultimately true things.

What this does, I think, is rather interesting. Firstly, when in the Western traditions we think of what is ultimately true, we often think of something big and important and stable and unchanging, something that lurks behind or beyond the world, whether a God, or what Kant thought of as the conditions of the possibility of what-have-you, or laws, or principles. This Sautrāntika view not only turns this upside down (the ultimate truths are the very things that are impermanent!), but is also rather more homely and rather less grand. One way of reading it is as a call to empiricism and away from dreamy mysticism or from the wilder shores of speculation. It reminds us to pay attention to the fluidity, to recognise that when thoughts find themselves snagged it is because the thoughts themselves are not keeping up with the world, because they have become too fixed and rigid, because, useful as they are, they are in need of revision. To pay attention to ultimate truth is not to seek the hidden face of things, not to lay bare a secret that lurks behind the world, but to return to a closer attention to experience, to asking what is actually going on here?

Friday, January 2, 2009

Edmond Caldwell on (Wood and...) The Savage Detectives

Edmond Caldwell's post on Contra James Wood, Gutless Realism: James Wood’s Housebroken Bolaño, is more than a savagely on-target dismantling of Wood's misguided domestication of The Savage Detectives--stripped of the contra-Wood polemic, there's a strong reading of ST that stands up quite well on its own--as good a critical review of this novel as I've read to date.

I've noticed this tendency in Wood--remember a passing remark on Junot Diaz's Oscar Wao--pulling it's fangs by tucking it into it's own special genre of "immigrant fiction."