Yet Another Failed Novel

Lee Rourke, “A Conversation with Lee Rourke” by Amber Lee, Necessary Fiction 4 September 2012

How do you decide when a piece you’ve written is “finished” enough to publish?

When a good editor tells me it is. I’m not precious about my writing, or literature in general. Good writing needs a good editor to turn it into a good book. But, you know, it’s never really “finished” as I truly believe fiction doesn’t work. So, it’s never what I want it to be. It never happens in the way it should. Luckily I let go of it, and allow it to exist as yet another failed novel.

An Attempt at Exhausting Negation

Scott Esposito, “Negation: a Response to Lars Iyer’s ‘Nude in Your Hot Tub’,” The White Review September 2012

I do not know whether I have anything to say, I know that I am saying nothing; I do not know if what I might have to say is unsaid because it is unsayable (the unsayable is not buried inside writing, it is what prompted it in the first place); I know that what I say is blank, is neutral, is a sign, once and for all, of a once-and-for-all annihilation.
— Georges Perec, W, or the Memory of Childhood

[…] One important thing Perec helped commodify was negation. Negation was a huge thing in the 1960s, when Perec began to write. It informed and empowered the groups then fighting against capitalistic culture. … Perec was one of those writers who, in part, made literature from the irony and ridicule of consumer society. … Yet there is much more to these books than a critique of mass culture. These are books built around missing pieces, feelings of emptiness, unsolvable quests. The same irony that ridicules Anne’s fad diet [in Life A User’s Manual] also gestures toward a heavy, existential sense of void. (Dieting is perhaps the single most widespread, obsessively unsolvable, mass-produced quest of post-capitalist existence.) For instance, in Things the protagonists go to Africa to find a meaning to life that they can’t in France. In A Void the absence of the letter e comes to represent the absence of some essential quality in modern life that gives rise to malaise. Reading Perec, one senses an artist self-consciously working on a grand scale to generalise this quality of negation to as many forms as possible — an effort to exhaust negation. Such ambitions are of a piece with the Oulipo manifestos, despite the fact that the manifestos are written with a clear sense of optimism. Aware of the exhaustion of art’s old forms, Oulipo strove to find new paths for the novel. Perec’s optimism in the face of negation is due in large part to how he fought to make negation itself an engine for innovation.

The Loss of a Loss

Alec Niedenthal, “Literature, Materialism, and the Present Conjuncture: an Interview with David Winters,” HTML Giant 6 August 2012

[…] We might say that literature is the self-effacing object of criticism, its object whose total existence is the mark of its vanishing. So perhaps a materialist criticism needs to begin to defile and, as you say, humiliate literature because it cannot touch it — because, for it, literature is not. In its stead we find a formal aperture, a hole that invokes what has gone away, that allows criticism to begin. What is in question would then be a discourse that has lost its object. But because literature is already a loss — a loss of the world, at the site of representation — criticism could be called the loss of a loss, the loss of what itself already annihilates the world on whose border it hangs. This is where I find the utopian kernel in criticism, that it can lose the loss of which literature is culpable: the loss of the everyday object, that stagnant dumb stuff which modernism once tried to recuperate by convincing itself that the object already and always is marked by art. It is only through this double loss that a new object, an object beyond the literary Ding, can be brought to bear upon thought — not the form already contained in the mundane but the mundanity of literary form itself.

Impossible Words About Words

David Winters, “Literature, Materialism, and the Present Conjuncture: an Interview with David Winters” by Alec Niedenthal, HTML Giant 6 August 2012

[…] Critics are all too quick to make literature “meaningful,” freighting it with false positives. But I dream of a sort of duplex movement, where every statement made about a novel manages to put that novel out of reach of just such statements. Maybe Tantalus is my model of the ideal critic. A critic shouldn’t be much more than a tortured ghost who utters impossible words about words.

[…] Really, that book [Andrzej Stasiuk’s Dukla] is nothing but an attempt to make a subject visible. I guess that’s why I (slightly pretentiously) say that the novel “eradicates” itself. It tries to arrive at a state of transparency, so that something else can show through. I should note that I’m not talking about a “naive realist” transparency here — not at all. I mean something more extreme and exorbitant. It’s as if the novel advances against itself, approaching its own effacement in the face of “what happens”.

Put it this way: the novel’s prehistory is everything that is not the novel. But once this prehistory is perceived, it turns out to “be” the novel in some fundamental sense. That sounds mystifying I’m sure, but for me it really does mean something, maybe everything. Which isn’t much.

[…] “The novel” as a grand project: the idea fills me with nervous exhaustion. What I can say with confidence is that I’m less and less interested in that sort of novel. I’d rather read a book that wants to do away with itself. Deep down I closely identify with literature, but I also compulsively want to kill literature. One thing I want to do in my writing is assert the worthlessness of the novel. Not in favour of some other form, but just as a function of the worthlessness of everything.

[…] I’m not simply saying that I admire writers whose work appears to exceed or annul humanity. My point (and I’m an essentialist, in this sense) is that literature is “literary” insofar as it is, in itself, “against the world, against life,” to quote Houllebecq.

[…] Above all, I wouldn’t want to assume that art makes a “demand” which criticism must answer to. Can’t the opposite be the case? Criticism isn’t merely a mimetic, reflective activity, with art as its point of origin. Criticism’s aim is not adequation; art isn’t entitled to ask anything of it.

The implicit idea here, that criticism “owes” something to art, reflects an unexamined romanticism in our language about artists and critics. Another example would be when we worry about critics “ruining” our appreciation of artworks. Right? I find this especially interesting, since it reveals a certain fear of criticism, which I’d quite like to see critics explore and exploit. Let’s stop seeing criticism as secondary to art, as if it were something parasitical. Why can’t it be predatory? Forget fidelity to ethical imperatives: criticism can corrode and corrupt art if it wants to. Part of me longs for a literary criticism which writers would be right to be afraid of.

I’m being bombastic, but seriously, sometimes I feel like this corrosive force, this nihilistic impulse within criticism (its secret wish to destroy what it can’t create; the thwartedness at the core of it) could also conceal a utopian kernel. Perhaps a progressive criticism would wreck and redeem aesthetic experience in the same movement.

[…] As readers, the closest way we can engage with a literary work is to protect its indeterminacy; to return ourselves and it to a place that precludes complete recognition. Really, when I’m reading, all I want is to stand amazed in front of an unknown object at odds with the world.

The Uncontainable

Simon Critchley, “Absolutely-Too-Much,” The Brooklyn Rail July-August 2012

[W]e might say that a certain dominant strain in the history of philosophical aesthetics might be seen as trying to contain a dimension of experience that we might call the uncontainable. This is the dimension of experience that Nietzsche names the Dionysian, Hölderlin calls the monstrous, Bataille calls the formless, and Lacan calls the real.

But what might art be when it exceeds the relative comfort of the almost-too-much of the sublime or the fearful and moves toward the absolutely-too-much of the monstrous? What happens when the uncontainable can’t be contained? When art bears at its core something unbearable? At this point, art becomes anti-art and we experience discomfort—the Naumanian blow to the back of the neck. I would argue that this is what has been happening for the past century or so in various arts and media as a way of dealing with our presentiment of the unbearable pressure of reality, however we want to capture that experience — the shocking trauma of the First World War, poetry after Auschwitz is barbarism, or whatever — has been the experimentation with what we might call an art of the monstrous. Examples proliferate here, from Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, to Bataille’s holy disgust, to Hermann Nitsch’s blood orgies and the theatre of Heiner Müller, even through to that most jaded and overworked of academic tropes: the abject.

It seems to me that if we look back at much of what is most radical and interesting in the art of the last century, we can see that we are no longer dealing with the sublime or indeed with art as the possibility of aesthetic sublimation, but with an art of de-sublimation that attempts to adumbrate the monstrous, the uncontainable, the unreconciled, that which is unbearable in our experience of reality.

Here is my modest proposal: beyond endless video montages and the cold mannerist obsessionality of the taste for appropriation and reenactment that has become hegemonic in the art world, the heart of any artistic response to the present should perhaps be the cultivation of the monstrous and its concomitant affect, namely disgust. Disgust here can be thought of as the visceral register of a monstrosity that can no longer be excluded from the realm of the aesthetic, as it was for Aristotle and Kant, but should be its arrhythmic heart, its hot and volatile core. It is important to keep in mind the link to aesthetic judgments of taste or gustus, which gives us the “gust” in dis-gust, the ill wind in the soft-flapping sails of revulsion. Dis-gust is an aesthetic judgement of dis-taste.

What I am calling for, then, is a new art of monstrosity which is able to occupy a certain semi-autonomous distance from the circuits of capture and commodification. Art now must fix its stare unblinkingly at the monstrous, the unbearable, the unreconciled, and the insanely troubling. The disgust that we feel might not simply repulse or repel us. It might also wake us up.

It is a question of how we think through and deploy the essential violence of art, and perhaps understand art as violence against the violence of reality, a violence that presses back against the violence of reality, which is perhaps the artistic task, thinking of Hamlet, in a state that is rotten and in a time that is out of joint.

[…] The problem here is that art, which is meant to enable or produce some kind of experience of the real in our pushing back against it, might finally be a protection against that experience and end up as a kind of decoration. Perhaps, then, art has to become the enemy of aesthetic experience. In which case, we should become the enemies of art in order to reclaim it. Here anti-art becomes true art in a constant war of position with the degeneration of art’s critical potential into the lethean waters of the contemporary.

Infraordinary

Georges Perec, Introduction, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris

There are many things in place Saint-Sulpice (…) A great number, if not the majority of these things have been described, inventoried, photographed, talked about, or registered. My intention in the pages that follow was to describe the rest instead: that which is generally not taken note of, that which is not noticed, that which has no importance: what happens when nothing happens other than the weather, people, cars, and clouds.