Secondhand Avant Garde

Geoff Dyer, “‘Based On a True Story’: The Fine Line Between Fact and Fiction,” The Observer 6 December 2015

The dizziness occasioned by WG Sebald lay in the way that we really didn’t know quite what we were reading. To adapt a line of Clint Eastwood’s from Coogan’s Bluff, we didn’t know what was happening — even as it was happening to us. That mesmeric uncertainty has diminished slightly since the Sebald software has, as it were, been made available for free download by numerous acolytes, but a similar categorical refusal informs Ben Lerner’s 10.04, “a work,” as his narrator puts it, “that, like a poem, is neither fiction nor nonfiction, but a flickering between them”. The flicker is sustained on an epic scale — in a thoroughly domestic sort of way — by Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume My Struggle series. A side-effect or aftershock of Knausgaard’s seismic shakeup was to make us realise how thoroughly bored we had become by plot. Rachel Cusk addressed and exploited this in her wonderfully plotless novel Outline, which was shortlisted for last year’s Goldsmiths prize.

Seeking to reward innovation and experimentation, this prize is a good and timely thing — but it’s unfortunate that it’s limited to fiction. While last year’s Samuel Johnson prize went to Helen Macdonald for her beautifully novel H Is for Hawk, much so-called experimental fiction comes in the tried-and-tested form of the sub-species of historical novel known as modernist. Had they been LPs rather than books, several contenders for last year’s Goldsmiths prize could have joined Will Self’s Shark in that oxymoronic section of Ray’s Jazz Shop: “secondhand avant garde”.

Simmering in the Elastic Gloom

Claire-Louise Bennett, Pond (2015)

English, strictly speaking, is not my first language by the way. I haven’t yet discovered what my first language is so for the time being I use English words in order to say things. I expect I will always have to do it that way; regrettably I don’t think my first language can be written down at all. I’m not sure it can be made external you see. I think it has to stay where it is; simmering in the elastic gloom betwixt my flickering organs.

L’événement qui sort du langage

Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes 1915-1980: Le théâtre du langage, dir. Chantal Thomas and Thierry Thomas, 2015 [TV interview]

La mort est le seul événement. Tout le reste est discours, au fond. Tout le reste est langage. Le réel ne peut jamais se saisir, se posséder. C’est toujours un langage qui renvoit à un autre langage, indéfiniment. L’amour lui-même. Mais la mort, c’est l’événement qui sort du langage.

Abandoning Art

Susan Sontag, “The Aesthetics of Silence,” Styles of Radical Will (1969)

But the choice of permanent silence doesn’t negate their [Rimbaud, Wittgenstein, Duchamp] work. On the contrary, it imparts retroactively an added power and authority to what was broken off; disavowal of the work becoming a new source of its validity, a certificate of unchallengeable seriousness. That seriousness consists in not regarding art (or philosophy practiced as an art form: Wittgenstein) as something whose seriousness lasts forever, an “end,” a permanent vehicle for spiritual ambition. The truly serious attitude is one that regards art as a “means” to something that can perhaps be achieved only by abandoning art; judged more impatiently, art is a false way or (the word of the Dada artist Jacques Vaché) a stupidity.

[See Blanchot.]

Almost a Negative Theology

Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936)

What happened was: when, with the advent of the first truly revolutionary means of reproduction, namely photography (simultaneously with the dawn of Socialism), art felt a crisis approaching that after a further century became unmistakable, it reacted with the theory of ‘l’art pour l’art’, which constitutes a theology of art. From it there proceeded, in the further course of events, almost a negative theology in the form of the idea of a ‘pure’ art that rejected not only any kind of social function but also any prompting by an actual subject. (In poetry, Mallarmé was the first to reach this position.)