Nicholas Rombes by Andrew Gallix

This piece appeared in Bomb Magazine on 8 May 2014:

Nicholas Rombes by Andrew Gallix

Constraint as liberation, knife-wielding film scholars, and the human brain as total cinema machine.

Still from the ten-minute mark of The Foreigner, 1978, Amos Poe.

Still from the ten-minute mark of The Foreigner, 1978, Amos Poe.

There was a time when movies lived up to their name. They moved along and, once set in motion, were unstoppable until the end — like life itself. What you missed was gone, lost forever, unless you sat through another screening, and even what you had seen would gradually fade away or distort along with your other memories. I recently happened upon a YouTube clip from a film I had first watched in 1981. I thought I knew the scene well, but it turned out to be radically different from my recollection: the original was but a rough draft of my own version, which I had been mentally honing for more than three decades. Such creative misremembering — reminiscent of Harold Bloom’s “poetic misprision” — is now threatened by our online Library of Babel.

According to Nicholas Rombes, who is spearheading a new wave of film criticism, movies surrendered much of their “mythic aura” when they migrated from big screens to computers via television. Indeed, since the appearance of VCR, spectators have been able to control the way movies are consumed by fast-forwarding, rewinding, and — most importantly, at least for digital film theorists — pausing. If such manipulations run counter to the magic evanescence of the traditional cinematic experience, Rombes manages to recast the still frame as a means of creative defamiliarization and re-enchantment. In 10/40/70: Constraint as Liberation in the Era of Digital Film Theory, he freezes movies at ten, forty, and seventy minutes. The resulting motionless pictures take on the eerie quality of Chris Marker’s 1962 masterpiece La Jetée, famed for its cinematic use of still photography. But soon the frozen frames Rombes burrows into start to move again — and in mysterious ways. They are rabbit holes leading to subterranean films within films.

In the bowels of an appropriately warren-like cinema, I met up with Rombes, whose criticism, artwork, and fiction are taking on the shape of a beautifully intricate Gesamtkunstwerk. Over several (too many?) espressos, we mapped out the treacherous critical terrain he excavates in this latest book. The danger “of staring too long into frozen images” and the fear of being swallowed up by gaps between frames were visible in his eyes.

Andrew Gallix For you, digital film theory is an attempt to retrieve something — “traces of something that was always there, and yet always hidden from view.” From this perspective, the 10/40/70 method has led to a significant discovery: the importance of what you call “unmotivated shots” — shots that do not strictly advance the storyline but, rather, contribute to the general mood. You go so far as to say that such moments, when directors seem to be shooting blanks, are “at the heart of most great movies.” In The Antinomies of Realism, critic and theorist Fredric Jameson argues that the nineteenth-century realist novel was a product of the tension between an age-old “storytelling impulse” and fragments through which the “eternal affective present” was being explored in increasingly experimental ways. Can we establish a parallel here with your two types of shots — plot versus mood? Are these unmotivated shots the expression of a film’s eternal affective present, perhaps even of its subconscious?

Nicholas Rombes This opens up a really fascinating set of questions about cinema’s emergence coinciding with the height of realism as both an aesthetic and as a general way of knowing the world. I’ll backtrack just a bit. In his 1944 essay “Dickens, Griffith, and the Film Today,” Sergei Eisenstein explored the relationship between Dickens-era realism and montage in cinema as pioneered by D. W. Griffith, specifically in his use of parallel editing. Eisenstein quotes Griffith explicitly acknowledging that he borrowed the method of “a break in the narrative, a shifting of the story from one group of characters to another group” from his favorite author, Charles Dickens. And that tension between the ever-present affective experience of watching a film or reading a book and the internal world of narrative time is beautifully explored in Seymour Chatman’s Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. He draws a distinction between “story” (events, content) and “discourse” (expression). I prefer Chatman to Jameson here only because there is a boldness and a confidence to Chatman’s structuralist rendering with its charts, diagrams, and timelines. But yes, the messy correlation between the informational mode of a film still and the affective mode is a mystery. For me, a sort of enforced randomness — selecting the seventy-minute mark, no matter what — is an investigative tool for prying open this mystery. The element of chance is key. This method of investigation is opposed to hermeneutics, insofar as it approaches the text backwards. That is, rather than beginning with an interpretive framework, it begins with a single image I had no control over selecting. Whatever I’m going to say about the image comes after it’s been made available to me, rather than me searching for an image to illustrate or validate some interpretation or reading I bring to it.

AG The seventy-minute-mark screen grab of The Blair Witch Project (1999) just happens to be “the single most iconic image of the film,” but such serendipity is rare. In the case of a monster movie like The Host (2006), for instance, the 10/40/70 method fails to yield a single picture of the creature. As a result, your approach tends to defamiliarize films by pointing to the uncanny presence of other films within them — phantom films freed from the narcotic of narrative:

Such moments could be cut or trimmed without sacrificing the momentum of the plot, and yet the cast-in-poetry filmmakers realize that plot and mood are two sides of the same coin and that it is in these in-between moments — the moments when the film breaks down, or pauses — where the best chances for transcendence lie. […] It is in moments like these that films can approximate the random downtimes of our own lives, when we are momentarily freed from the relentless drive to impose order on chaos.

As this quote makes clear, your constrained methodology is “designed to detour the author away from the path-dependent comfort of writing about a film’s plot, the least important variable in cinema.” It is often a means of exploring the “infra-ordinary” — what happens in a film when nothing happens, when a movie seems to be going through the motions. One thinks of Georges Perec, of course, but also of Karl Ove Knausgaard, who recently explained that he wanted “to evoke all the things that are a part of our lives, but not of our stories — the washing up, the changing of diapers, the in-between-things — and make them glow.” When such in-between moments lose their liminality, do they become “moments of being” (to hijack Virginia Woolf’s expression) during which a movie simply is?

NR I think they do, and I very much like that phrase from Woolf. At the heart of this is the notion that films — all films — are documentaries in the sense that they are visual records of their own production. In a narrative film, for instance Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England (2013), we have a documentary record of so many things: the actors playing their roles; the landscape, whether natural or constructed; and of course filmic technology itself, insofar as the film is created with equipment that, in recording the narrative, is also leaving behind traces of itself. This is much easier to see in older films that are historically removed from us (i.e., a Griffith film “looks” filmic and reminds us of the technologies of, say, 1906 or 1907) or films that call for immediate and sustained attention to the process of their production (again, The Blair Witch Project). And, in that sense, as documentaries, I like to think that no matter how controlled, how airtight, how totalizing their efforts to minimize chance are, there will always be gaps, fissures, eruptions of the anarchy of everyday life. Even in something so small as the accidental twitch of an actor’s face, or the faint sound of a distant, barking dog that “shouldn’t” be in the film but is, or the split-second pause in a actor’s line and the worry that crosses her face that suggests she is really thinking about something else, something far apart and far away from the movie at hand. And so that’s one of the things I’m hoping to capture in pausing at ten, forty, and seventy minutes, though any numbers would do.

AG What was experimental in the context of the nineteenth-century novel has long been deemed conservative in the field of film. This, you argue, is due to “the near-total triumph of montage,” which “mutilated reality” through its depiction of “fractured time.” But Eisenstein-style dialectic montage is now the “dominant mode of advertising and a tool of media industry” — think “fast-paced cutting and MTV.” This led, by way of opposition, to the rise of neo-realist “long-take aesthetics,” ushered in by digital cinema, paradoxically a technology once thought to “represent a final break with the real.” Could you talk us through this?

NR The single-shot films of the Lumière brothers, though most lasted less than a minute, contained no cuts: they were continuous, real-time shots. These early films are often discussed as “actualities,” which is not helpful in that it suggests that cinema evolved out of this into its “inevitable” status as narrative/fiction, a supposed higher-order form of storytelling. Although it’s been an enormously productive way to think about early single-take cinema, it’s also created a binary that privileges so-called artifice (“art”) over so-called naive representations of reality. For André Bazin, long-take aesthetics, based in the Lumière films, are in some ways a moral act, one that had the radical potential to reveal, rather than to obscure, God’s created world. In his 1955 essay “In Defense of Rossellini,” he wrote:

[T]o have a regard for reality does not mean that what one does in fact is to pile up appearances. On the contrary, it means that one strips the appearances of all that was not essential, in order to get at the totality in its simplicity.

It’s easy to see why Bazin came under such withering assault by the post-structuralists in the 1960s and 70s, for whom words like “essential” were anathema, and for whom reality itself was always already a construct. And yet, a society gets the technology it deserves, and Bazin could only praise the long takes he was given — those in the films of Orson Welles, for instance, or Theodor Dreyer. This was an era when the typical motion picture camera magazine only held enough film for a ten to twelve-minute shot. So I would say that we have come full circle. Films like Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002) show that narrative film can be made without any montage.

Still from the forty-minute mark of The Foreigner, 1978, Amos Poe.

Still from the forty-minute mark of The Foreigner, 1978, Amos Poe.

AG One of your sources of inspiration was Roland Barthes’s 1970 essay, “The Third Meaning: Research Notes on Some Eisenstein Stills.” Do you share the French critic’s view that a static movie frame is neither a moving image nor a photograph?

NR Yes. One of the things Barthes suggests in that essay is that a “still is the fragment of a second text whose existence never exceeds the fragment; film and still find themselves in a palimpsest relationship without it being possible to say that one is on top of the other or that one is extracted from the other.” With digital cinema all sorts of wonderful complications come into play: in what sense, say, are film frames “frames” in digital filming, processing, and projection? And what’s the ontological status of an image that exists as ones and zeros? But no matter what the technology, the idea is the same: a “stilled” image from or of (in the case of a still versus a frame) a motion picture exists at a weird threshold, and, Barthes suggests, we might as well say that it’s not the paused image that’s extracted from the film, but the film itself which is extracted from the paused image. That’s the secret world I hoped to enter through intense scrutiny of an individual frame. This secret world, however, is perilous, and my own experience dwelling for so long in these film frames is that the tug of motion is sometimes still alive in them, perhaps like a cadaver that suddenly shudders for a moment with a trace of life. I found the experience altogether unsettling and even frightening.

AG Have you ever considered applying the 10/40/70 method to movies you’d never seen before? What kind of result would that produce, in your view?

NR I very much like this idea — sort of like flying blind. Without the context of having seen the movie to appreciate not just its plot but its texture and mood, the 10/40/70 method would coerce me into focusing even more on the formal qualities of the three frames in question. This would be especially true if it was a film that I not only hadn’t seen, but also had never even heard of before. Stripped of context, I wonder if the frames would assume something more akin to the status of photographic images, truly “stilled” in a way that’s impossible if you’re already familiar with the film.

AG Could you comment on the pleasing congruence between theory and practice — the “frozen moving image” being, as you point out, “the ultimate long take”? Something similar happens in the “Intermission” chapter, where your text mimics the split edit technique under discussion. In fact, one could argue that the 10/40/70 method itself produces a series of textual approximations of split edits. Is this continuity between writing and film a quest for a cinematographic writing style?

NR The theorists who’ve meant the most to me — such as Julia Kristeva, Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, Laura Mulvey, Robert B. Ray, bell hooks, Eugene Thacker — perform their ideas through the shape and tenor of their prose, and that’s something I’ve aspired to, especially in 10/40/70, where the split edits between formal analysis, personal reflection, and theory hopefully generate, if only in flashes, the same sort of feeling you get when a film suddenly bares its teeth and shows you that it wasn’t what you thought it was. But I will also say there is a dark gravity at work in certain of the film frames, perhaps because portions of the book were written during a very low point for me. The film frame — motionless — doubling as a long take was an idea born of desperation, of staring too long into frozen images.

AG You quote André Bazin, for whom the power of a movie image should be judged “not according to what it adds to reality but to what it reveals of it.” Do you agree that this would provide an excellent description of your own analytical method, which is all about revealing something as yet unseen? On at least a couple of occasions, you acknowledge that there is “very little to say about [a] scene that is not outstripped by the scene itself.” On others, however, you adopt a more hands-on approach — by projecting a scene from The Passenger (1975) onto Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), or by splicing together a movie and a novel — as though the 10/40/70 constraint were no longer enough.

NR Well, I do think some films theorize themselves and suffer from the words we use to untangle them. I’ve gotten in some terrible rows with colleagues about this over the years. In fact, one of the sections I deleted from the book described a knife fight between a fellow graduate student and myself at Penn State in 1992. It was about Wild at Heart (1990). After a long night of arguing and drinking Yuengling, I said something like, “that movie doesn’t need your theory because it’s already theorized itself,” then there was some unfortunate language that escalated into an actual, awkward fight with knives. Some film moments are diminished, rather than enlarged, by the words we bring to bear on them. As I’m answering this question I’m reading a novel by Jeff VanderMeer called Annihilation, and there’s a moment when the narrator realizes the enormity of the mystery she’s trying to understand: “But there is a limit to thinking about even a small piece of something monumental. You still see the shadow of the whole rearing up behind you.” For me, during the writing of 10/40/70, that shadow was the realization that the constraints I established were weak and insufficient against the tyranny of interpretive intention.

AG Your book is, among many other things, a rehabilitation of Bazin — what is his significance today? Could you explain what you mean when you claim that his “total cinema” is the “end point” of digital cinema?

NR Bazin was interested in excavating the desires that fueled the invention of moving images — desires that he suggests were based on a passion to create an utter and complete replication of nature. In his 1946 essay “The Myth of Total Cinema,” he suggests that what energized this desire was “the recreation of the world in its own image, an image unburdened by the freedom of interpretation of the artist or the irreversibility of time.” He says that the myth (i.e. the desire to replicate reality entirely) preceded the technology that made it possible. The tricky thing here is Bazin’s use of the term myth, which he doesn’t seem to equate with “false.” Instead, he almost suggests that this myth is achievable, as in his point that the flight of Icarus remained in the realm of myth only until the invention of the internal combustion engine. In this regard, Bazin occupies a fascinating and precarious place in film theory. While his approach has something in common with the later “apparatus theory,” which historicized film production, he decidedly didn’t share their assumptions about the ideological contamination of cinema’s very technology, instead framing that ideology within the larger and more important (for him) question of human desire and aspiration. By linking total cinema to a terminal, or end point, I’m wondering if we have achieved, on a symbolic level, Bazin’s notion of the recreation of the world in its own image. Doesn’t the surveillance state suggest this? On a practical level — and linking straight back to Bazin’s terms — it’s possible to have a camera, or multiple cameras, capture in a continuous, uninterrupted shot an object or a place and to keep recording this for as long and longer than you and I shall live. This one-to-one replication, to use Bazin’s term, of reality that unfolds contiguous with time itself, stretching decades with no interruption, with no need for interpretation, was not possible in Bazin’s era, except as a theory.

Still from the seventy-minute mark of The Foreigner, 1978, Amos Poe.

Still from the seventy-minute mark of The Foreigner, 1978, Amos Poe.

AG You suggest that the true, ultimate long take may be human perception itself: “a lifespan unfolding in real time, punctuated by cuts and fade-outs that take the form of blinking and sleeping and forgetting.” What’s at stake for you in film criticism is far more than just film criticism, isn’t it? I’m thinking especially of passages where you apply the 10/40/70 method to your own memories: “There was yet no logic. No 10/40/70. No sense that images could be tamed only to be let loose among their tamers.” Could you comment upon that last quote, which reminds me a little of Raymond Queneau’s definition of Oulipians as “rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape”?

NR There was a deep sadness that accompanied the writing and assembling of the book, and your question touches on the nature of that sadness, which I think has to do with realizing that theory — whether it’s 10/40/70 or any theory — is an attempt on some level to structure and impose some sort of narrative coherence on our very selves and memories. Our brains are the most vicious total cinema machines of all. Our continual efforts when awake and when sleeping to work out the past, to smooth it into layers of meaning, must certainly wear the gears down until we can’t even hear or feel them moving. Forced into a high level of concentration we come to realize that it’s not films we’re talking about, but ourselves. Our fingerprints are already over everything.

AG At times, the book does become darkly autobiographical. This appears to be the case towards the end of the piece on Lindsay Anderson’s If… (1968) and clearly is throughout your Lynchian “Intermission” and “Epilogue,” which often read like short stories. The screenplay you’ve written, The Removals, seems to be, if the teaser is anything to go by, about the gap between life and art, which all the major avant-garde movements of the twentieth century aspired to bridge. Please tell us about the interaction between criticism, autobiography, and fiction in your work in general, and your forthcoming novel, The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing, in particular.

NR I’m reluctant to talk about this, so forgive me if my answer is a bit elliptical. There are certain things that have happened to me that don’t seem possible, but that bear witness to truth. The terrible knife fight is one. Criticism, autobiography, and fiction are linked by the desire to uncover what lies beneath and, as you suggest, to fatefully go into the gap between art and life. Once you enter this gap you use every genre and mode of writing to close it, only to realize that in the process you’ve created something new, something in between life and art, and it’s so fragile you dare not talk about it. The Absolution of Robert Acestes Laing is about the frightful consequences of what happens when this gap decides it doesn’t want to be bridged and strikes back.

AG Your constraint-based approach was directly inspired by Dogme 95, but what about the Oulipians: how much of an influence were they? Were you, for instance, aware of the Oucinépo, launched by François Le Lionnais in 1974, which was later renamed Oucipo (Ouvroir de Cinématographie Potentielle) and appears to have done precious little? Could you also talk to us about other sources of inspiration: Laura Mulvey, certainly, but perhaps also Douglas Gordon’s art installation, 24 Hour Psycho?

NR Oulipo has always been a low-frequency inspiration, although I didn’t always know it. I think I was first introduced to them through Brian Eno and Brian Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies, and then worked my way back to Georges Perec. Oulipo must have been somewhere in the back of my mind when coming up with 10/40/70, but it was much more, as you say, the Dogme 95 movement that served as a direct inspiration. It seemed more outrageous to me, more difficult to get a handle on in terms of sincerity and irony. 24 Hour Psycho — yes, but also, now that I think about it, there was a more obscure and personal inspiration. Our children and their friends went through a phase when they were maybe eleven or twelve (this would have been in the early 2000s) when they used the term “random” in a sort of complimentary way. I distinctly remember my daughter Maddy saying, from the back of the car, “that’s so random, Dad!” in response to something I had said. It signaled to me — and I remember very strongly feeling this — that I was, for that one brief moment, in her world, that I had accidentally and momentarily become “cool” because what I had said was “random.” And the movies and video games and even music they were attracted to had elements of this feeling of randomness: sampling, the choose-your-own-adventure-first-person-exploration video games like Metroid Prime (2002) and TV shows like Lost (which debuted in 2004) and which had this feeling of randomness, chance, and risk.

AG You discuss the essentially random nature of the 10/40/70 constraint, but say nothing of the conscious choices that were made while composing this work. How did you go about selecting the films and their order of appearance in the book?

NR This is embarrassing, but prior to the book I had worked out what I thought was an arbitrary method for selecting films. This involved using the IMDB database of all films released in a certain year and having various acquaintances select one from each. But there were so many problems with that, not least of which is that for, say, 1997, there are over forty thousand movies listed, and what are movies anyway? Is a direct-to-TV movie a movie, or is a movie released directly to VOD a movie, or what about a movie made for TV but thought of as a motion picture — like Spielberg’s Duel (1971)? And there are thousands of porn titles listed there, too. And then there were other methods, including a Lev Manovich-like algorithm that used a database and random generator to select films. But finally all these seemed too impersonal and involved — a sort of fakery, a false sheen of objectivity. So I used the limits I had at hand: my own collection of films, which didn’t always represent my tastes because many of them I had purchased simply to illustrate a technique in my film class. My one strict rule was that once I selected a film, I’d write about it no matter what, no matter what it revealed, or didn’t reveal.

AG Perhaps you could say a few words about other similar projects like “The Blue Velvet Project” or “The 70s”?

NR The original idea for “The Blue Velvet Project” was to purchase a 35 mm print of the film, digitize it, and work on each frame, but of course there’s no way to do that in a lifetime, as there are close to 1,500 frames in just one minute of film time. This idea eventually morphed into the project that ran at Filmmaker for one year, where I stopped the film every forty-seven seconds, seized the image, and wrote about it. A goal there was to take a film I was familiar with and devise a method of writing about it that would, as much as possible, dispense with interpretive intention and to subject myself to the film’s interrogation. With “The 70s” I’ve opened the call to anyone who wants to send me a frame grab from the seventy-minute point of a film, partly to see whether there is any weird correspondence, affinity, or secret knowledge passed back and forth between films at seventy minutes.

AG Post-VCR technology has transformed film theory, but has it also influenced film practice? Was this something you took on board when writing the script for The Removals, directed by Grace Krilanovich?

NR Yes, in the sense that I still don’t believe we’ve acclimatized to the radical displacement of actually seeing and hearing ourselves broadcast back to us, as film made possible only a little over a hundred years ago. This displacement — or removal — of ourselves from ourselves was first made adjustable by the VCR and other early forms of image playback technology. The Removals is a thriller in the sense that it’s about the revenge of this second or third or fourth copy or iteration of ourselves on ourselves. Robert B. Ray has written elegantly — in How a Film Theory Got Lost and Other Mysteries in Cultural Studies — about how film theory, especially in the US, suffered a blow to the imagination by adopting a vague sort of social sciences approach to hermeneutics. One of his suggestions is to view film theory as a form of radical experimentation. What would happen, say, if I adopted the editing style of film X as a method of inquiry? The overall goal is to find something new and unexpected, not just in the film itself, but in the writing about the film.

AG Would you like to try your hand at directing some day? Perhaps you could ask Grace Krilanovich to write a script for you.

NR I have all the props to be a director: an eye patch, a Colt single-action Army revolver, and an ascot à la Dom DeLuise in Blazing Saddles. If I directed a film it would be incoherent, but hopefully in the way that Robin Wood uses that term in his great book Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan.

AG Your earlier work, Cinema in the Digital Age, highlights the ways in which digital films were haunted by their analogue past. Do you think this is still the case?

NR Perhaps not so much as I thought when I wrote that book, and in fact I’m working on a new edition which will address just this question. I bring, as someone born in the 1960s, a certain generational perspective to the analogue/digital transformation, as it unfolded in real time for those of us from that era. But my university students today were born in the 1990s and came of age in the 2000s, on the digital side of history. Also, the haunting that I described, especially in self-consciously digital films, such as those from the Dogme 95 movement, seems to be characterized by suppression. It’s in the efforts to suppress vestiges of cinema’s analogue customs — mise-en-scène, depth of field, shot reverse-shot, etc. — that digital cinema, paradoxically, reveals traces of those very customs. In their absence, they remain. In Lars von Trier’s The Idiots (1998), for example, efforts at ugliness are undermined by our own weird form of metatextual tmesis, which Barthes described as skipping or skimming around in a text, rather than reading it word-for-word. In the sort of tmesis I’m thinking about, we as the audience sporadically fill in the empty spaces and derail The Idiots’ digital attempt to break free from analogue aesthetics: we substitute blank ugliness with mise-en-scène and we credit shaky camera movement. In this sense it may be that it is the spectator herself who haunts digital cinema.

AG Punk is another important point of reference we have failed to mention so far. You have written a book about The Ramones’s classic debut album and A Cultural Dictionary of Punk 1974-1982, as well as edited an anthology devoted to New Punk Cinema.

NR I’m almost ashamed to talk about punk, as I was drawn to it because it repelled me. I wanted to learn more about what this thing was that came along, then destroyed and made laughable the music that I loved. I read Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces and then Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming, and I suppose, to be honest, I wanted to write heroically, as I felt they had. My goal in the 33 1/3 book, devoted to the first album by the Ramones, was to bring to bear upon that material a highly rigorous, almost exaggerated academic method and tone to try to capture what I felt was the cold, removed, distanced feeling of that album. For A Cultural Dictionary of Punk, I switched gears, and will be ever grateful to my editor David Barker (then at Continuum Publishers) who gave me full permission to drive the bus off the cliff, as it were, to see what the crash would look like. So there’s an alter ego in that book — Ephraim P. Noble — who despises punk and who writes some of the entries. But it’s also a heavily researched book, and I hope that it succeeds in drawing connections between the deep tissue of punk and other cultural forms that it corresponded to in coded ways.

AG To return to 10/40/70, does Zeno’s (the bar which casts a Lynchian shadow over the autobiographical “Intermission” chapter) really exist? It seems too good to be true, given that the Greek philosopher — a digital film theorist avant la lettre — is known for his paradoxical arguments against motion.

NR Zeno’s seems too good to be true, but it exists, and was a favorite watering hole for those who wished to get drunk on more than theory in grad school. There was a woman there who tended bar whose face really was melted like wax and who would say things under her breath in a language I didn’t understand, but that someone — a linguist we used to hang out with — said was Coptic. I haven’t been back there for twenty years, but I remember it was one of those bunker-like places beneath an old building, very dark, and the space was difficult to understand. Was it an enormous room, or simply a room that, by its lighting, seemed enormous? Sort of an interior version of the Zone from Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979).

AG Has Detroit — where you teach — influenced your work?

NR I’m sure it has — both the city and the place where I work, the University of Detroit Mercy, which has been supportive of all my work, no matter how much it has strayed. The university was founded by the Jesuits and their mode of intellectual inquiry about the created world has inspired and sustained me. I was hired in the mid-1990s as an early Americanist in the English department, having written my dissertation on the late eighteenth-century rise of the gothic novel in the United States. I still teach and do research in that field, but the connections I sensed between the messy dialogism and heteroglossia of the early novel — especially emerging out of a Puritan context, as it did in the US — and similar dialogic noises that punk made, felt natural to me and worth pursuing.

And I drive each day through parts of the city that still bear physical scars of the 1967 riot — or insurrection, as it is called by many in these parts. It can be a strange and exhilarating feeling, like looking at sedimentary rock with its exposed layers of time. Where other cities, through gentrification, “urban renewal,” and the like, have eradicated traces of their past, unless they are pleasing to look at, Detroit retains an almost documentary-like record of its violent past, though not by choice. There is such a strong feeling in Detroit that you have to push very hard through history to be and to exist in the present, and this constant state of adjustment gives people here, I find, a very high sense of alertness and clarity.


The first question was cut during the editing process. I eventually worked part of it into the introduction. Here it is, for the record:

AG In the Preface, you claim that films surendered much of their “mythic aura” when they migrated from big screens to computers via television. This “demystification” — that represents yet another stage in Schiller’s disenchantment of the world — is largely due to the fact that movies have lost their relentless forward momentum. Since the “advent of VCR,” spectators have been able to control the way films are watched: they can fast-forward, rewind, and — most importantly for digital film theorists — pause. The “ability of even the most technically handicapped users to capture video and film frames” runs counter to the traditional “fleetingness” of the cinematic experience — “the impossible-to-stop movement of images across the screen, the ways in which the audience remembered and misremembered certain moments”. Do you agree, with the likes of Mark Fisher or Simon Reynolds, that what we have lost in our digital age is loss itself?

NR I think it’s the feeling of loss, rather than loss itself, perhaps something akin to what Steven Shaviro describes as affect that doesn’t merely represent, but structures subjectivity. Lately, though, I’ve taken my deconstructive cues more from literature and film and less so from theory, so my responses will reference those sources a bit more than the usual theory suspects. A super-abundance, or plague, of meaning. That’s our curse. It’s not just cinematic images: our data centers, digital archives, cached pages, cloud storage — these suggest a weird distorted image of the surveillance state. It is not we who watch films, but films that watch us. My feeling is that this is expressed best through genre, horror specifically, perhaps because of all of cinema’s dirty genres, horror has always been about scopophilia (Laura Mulvey) more than anything else. Theory can be found, today, in the haunted images of the V/H/S films, the first three Paranormal films, and several Ti West films (especially The Sacrament) because the horror genre gives permission, somehow, to theorize not just space within the frame, but the nature of the frame itself. The V/H/S/ horror anthologies, for instance, remind us every twenty minutes or so (or whenever a ‘new’ tape is inserted) of the embodiment of horror in its precarious, unstable situation as its medium shifts from analogue to digital.

La influencia de la ansiedad

This article, translated by Iris Bernal, appeared in Función Lenguaje 2 (summer 2012)

La influencia de la ansiedad

“Llegamos demasiado tarde para decir algo que no se haya dicho ya” se lamentaba La Bruyère a finales del siglo XVII. El hecho de que el propio La Bruyère
llegara tarde al afirmar esto (el Eclesiasta y Terencio ya se habían adelantado a él en los siglos III y II AC) venía a demostrar su aserto. Según la precuela de Macedonio Fernández, anterior al Génesis, siempre hemos llegado demasiado tarde. Este autor imagina lo que bien podría haber sucedido cuando Dios estaba a punto de crear el universo. De pronto, una voz clama en el desierto, interrumpiendo el eterno silencio del espacio infinito, la misma que aterra a Pascal: “Todo ha sido escrito, todo ha sido dicho, todo ha sido hecho”, se lamenta. El Todopoderoso, que ya ha escuchado esto con anterioridad, sigue adelante sin darle importancia, dando sentido a la famosa ocurrencia de André Gide: “Todo está ya dicho, pero como nadie escucha, hay que volverlo a decir” (Le Traité du Narcisse, 1891). En el principio fue el verbo, y el verbo es anterior al principio mismo.

En su obra más influyente, The Anxiety of Influence (1973), Harold Bloom argumentaba que los grandes poetas románticos malinterpretaron a sus ilustres predecesores “con el fin de liberar un espacio imaginativo para sí mismos”. La figura del padre literario se asesinaba, metafóricamente hablando, a través de un proceso de “transgresión poética”. T.S. Eliot ya había expresado una idea similar a propósito de la de Philip Massinger: “Los poetas inmaduros imitan; los poetas maduros roban; los malos poetas desfiguran lo que toman, y los buenos poetas lo convierten en algo mejor, o al menos en algo diferente” (1920). Borges, discípulo de Macedonio, al cual Bloom hace referencia, compartía la misma longitud de onda (aunque en el extremo opuesto del dial) cuando exclamaba que “cada escritor crea sus propios precursores” (1951).

Según Bloom, este sentimiento de inferioridad es, más que un fenómeno característico del Renacimiento, el motor principal de la historia de la literatura: “Llegar tarde no me parece en absoluto una condición histórica, sino una situación que pertenece al hecho literario como tal”. A lo largo de los siglos, la creación literaria ha sido siempre un diálogo de dos direcciones entre el pasado y el presente (el primero subsiste en el segundo; el segundo arroja luz sobre el primero). En sus Essais (1580), Montaigne ya se quejaba de la multiplicación de exégesis parasitarias: “Es más laborioso interpretar las interpretaciones que interpretar las cosas, y hay más libros sobre libros que sobre cualquier otro tema: no hacemos más que parafrasearnos unos a otros”. George Steiner, otro crítico sincero de “el Leviatán de papel del discurso secundario”, sostiene que la forma más elevada de paráfrasis se halla en la propia literatura: “Cuando el poeta critica al poeta desde el interior del poema, la hermenéutica lee el texto viviente que Hermes, el mensajero, ha traído del reino de los muertos inmortales” (Real Presences, 1989). Esto implica que la creación literaria no trata sobre la expresión del yo, sino sobre la recepción y la transmisión. “El verdadero poeta es hablado por el lenguaje, el poeta es el médium elegido, por decirlo así, en virtud de su naturaleza osmótica, permeable, gracias a lo que Keats denomina su ‘capacidad negativa’. Antes de ser nuestro, el acto de recepción es el del artista-creador” (Grammars of Creation, 2001). Lo que llama la atención es que Steiner, cuya concepción de la literatura deriva de sus creencias religiosas, debería estar totalmente de acuerdo, en este punto, con Tom McCarthy, que viene, por decirlo de alguna manera, del otro lado de las barricadas. Para el autor de C (2010) -una novela que versa sobre la ficción como recepción y transmisión-, “el escritor es un receptor y el contenido ya está ahí. La tarea del escritor es filtrarlo, ejemplificarlo y remezclarlo; no de forma aleatoria sino de forma consciente y atenta”. Dándole la vuelta a la cronología, él considera Finnegans Wake como el código fuente de la ficción anglófona: un nuevo comienzo, más que un hiato o un punto y aparte. Por supuesto, McCarthy es un gran admirador de Maurice Blanchot, quien afirma en La Part du Feu que “la literatura, al igual que el discurso cotidiano, comienza con el final”; con lo que quiere decir la muerte (como posibilidad o imposibilidad). Si la literatura comienza con el final, concluye con el principio ya que la creación literaria, bajo su punto de vista, es una búsqueda maldita de su fuente de inspiración. Así como Orfeo no puede evitar mirar atrás para ver a Eurídice en la oscuridad del Hades (y de esta forma perderla para siempre) el escritor sacrifica su obra para permanecer fiel a su origen dionisíaco y oscuro. A la pregunta “¿dónde va la literatura?”, Blanchot nos da la siguiente respuesta: “La literatura va hacia ella misma, hacia su esencia, la cual es su desaparición” (Le Livre à Venir, 1959). El “contenido” está “ahí fuera” -siempre ahí- toda la literatura es “paráfrasis”: “¿Quién estaría interesado en un discurso nuevo y no transmitido? Lo importante no es contar, sino volverlo a contar, y en esta repetición, contarlo de nuevo como si fuera la primera vez” (L’Entretien Infini, 1969). Los escritores modernos deben “comenzar de cero en cada ocasión” mientras que sus ancestros simplemente tenían que “rellenar una forma dada” (Gabriel Josipovici, What Ever Happened to Modernism?). La imposibilidad de empezar de cero (la ausencia de una “primera vez” definitiva) significa que la literatura fracasa al comenzar una y otra vez, como si se tratara de una compulsiva repetición inducida de forma traumática. En otras palabras, no cesa de acabar. La novela, dice Tom McCarthy, ha estado “viviendo su propia muerte” desde Don Quijote; la “experiencia del fracaso” es parte integral de su ADN. Si no estuviera muriendo, no estaría viva.

Escribiendo para el New York Review of Books en 1965, Frank Kermode afirmó que “el destino específico de la novela, considerada como un género, es el de estar siempre muriendo”. Y proseguía afirmando que la muerte de la novela era “el material sin el que la literatura moderna es inimaginable”. Esta cuestión de la muerte de la literatura es de hecho tan antigua como la propia literatura. Se puede rastrear hasta Juvenal y Tácito, pasando por David Shields, Samuel Richardson, y llegando a los escribas del fin-de-siècle. Para Richard B. Schwartz, el asunto empezó a torcerse en el Renacimiento tardío: “la Literatura en mayúsculas realmente murió con la aristocracia que la consumía” (After the Death of Literature, 1997). Según Steiner, el declive comenzó con la crisis lingüística que acompañó al auge de la novela. Después del siglo XVII (después de Milton), “la esfera del lenguaje” dejó de abarcar la mayor parte de la “experiencia y la realidad” (“The Retreat from the Word”, 1961). Las matemáticas se volvieron cada vez más difíciles de traducir al lenguaje; la pintura post-impresionista escapaba de toda verbalización; la lingüística y la filosofía destacaban el hecho de que las palabras se refieren a otras palabras… La proposición final del Tractatus (1921) de Wittgenstein atestigua esta intrusión de lo innombrable: “De lo que no se puede hablar, hay que callar”. Tan solo cuatro años antes, Kafka había conjeturado que quizá hubiera sido plausible escapar al canto de las Sirenas, pero no a su silencio.

Harold Bloom tiene razón: llegar tarde no es simplemente una “condición histórica”. Después de todo, ya era uno de los temas principales del Quijote. Así como señala Gabriel Josipovici, “este sentimiento de haber llegado, de algún modo, demasiado tarde, de haber perdido para siempre algo que alguna vez fue una posesión común, es una preocupación clave, la preocupación fundamental del Romanticismo” (What Ever Happened to Modernism?, 2010). En contra del ambiente de deterioro de la confianza en los poderes del lenguaje -igual que el “desencanto del mundo” de Schiller se estaba volviendo más aparente, y la legitimidad del escritor, en un “tiempo destituido” (Hölderlin) de Dioses ausentes y Sirenas mudas, parecía cada vez más arbitraria- la literatura llegó a ser considerada como un “absoluto” (Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe y Jean-Luc Nancy, L’Absolu Littéraire : Théorie de la littérature du romantisme allemand, 1968). Walter Benjamin describió de forma célebre el “lugar de nacimiento de la novela” como “el individuo en soledad”, un individuo aislado de la tradición que no puede reclamar ser el portavoz de la religión o la sociedad. Tan pronto como este “individuo en soledad” se elevaba al estatus de un alter deus, la tardanza esencial a toda la creatividad humana resultaba obvia. “Ninguna forma artística”, dice Steiner en Grammars of Creation (2001), “nace de la nada. Siempre viene después” y el “creador humano se enfurece ante [este] venir después, al ser, para siempre, segundo con respecto al misterio original y originador de la formación de la forma” (Real Presences, 1990). William Marx ha analizado con gran maestría cómo en Francia las desmedidas reivindicaciones para la literatura condujeron a esta decadencia prolongada. Esta evolución, de lo sublime a lo ridículo, tuvo lugar en tres etapas. A finales del siglo XVIII, la literatura se transformó en un sucedáneo de la religión. En una segunda etapa, marcada por la arrogancia, los escritores intentaron aislarse del resto de la sociedad (el arte por el arte) desencadenando de este modo un proceso de marginalización. En una última fase, la devaluación de la literatura (a los ojos del público en general) fue interiorizada por los propios escritores e incorporada a sus obras (L’Adieu à la Littérature. Histoire d’une dévalorisation XVIIIe-XXe siècles, 2005).

En sus Vorlesungen über die Ästhetik (compiladas en 1835), Hegel declaró, de manera brillante, que el arte se había transformado en “algo del pasado”. No quería decir con esto, como a menudo se ha creído, que el arte y la literatura estuviesen muertos, o incluso en decadencia, sino que no podían seguir transmitiendo de forma adecuada las más elevadas aspiraciones espirituales de la humanidad. En otras palabras, no podían seguir siendo el instrumento para expresar lo Absoluto. Influido por Hegel, Blanchot se pregunta: “¿Está el arte alcanzando su final? ¿Está pereciendo la poesía por haberse visto reflejada en sí misma, igual que aquel que muere después de contemplar a Dios?” (Le Livre à Venir). Si, como él propone en otro sitio, “la literatura surge en el momento en el que la literatura se convierte en una pregunta”, entonces la respuesta es no (La Part du Feu, 1949). Sin embargo, al transformarse en una pregunta, la literatura se transforma a su vez en su propia respuesta, por lo que ya no es capaz de sincronizarse consigo misma. Uno podría alegar que la literatura es entonces la distancia que la separa de sí misma. “Aquellos viejos tiempos”, anteriores al Génesis según Witold Gombrowicz, “cuando Rabelais escribía cómo un niño hacía pis contra el tronco de un árbol” habían acabado. “Retroceder al universo de los géneros literarios no es una opción”, ratifica Gabriel Josipovici, “como tampoco lo es un retorno al mundo del ancien régime” (What Ever Happened to Modernism?). Esta crisis de identidad se agravaba por una conciencia cada vez mayor de las limitaciones de la creación literaria. La literatura ya no sabía exactamente lo que era, pero sí sabía lo que no era, lo que ya no era capaz de hacer. “Ser moderno”, como declaró Roland Barthes, “es conocer lo que ya no es posible”. Es también anhelar esa imposibilidad, en la forma en la que Borges lo hacía en “el otro tigre, el que no está en el verso”. Tom McCarthy afirma que una novela es “algo que contiene su propia negación”, que clama contra sus propias limitaciones. Según este autor, la literatura es “un medio que sólo marcha cuando no funciona”: es “un fallo en el sistema, igual que un fallo en el ordenador”. “Fracasa otra vez. Fracasa mejor”, como decía Beckett en Worstward Ho (1983). Para Blanchot, es precisamente esta imposibilidad esencial de la literatura (su incapacidad para convertirse en una instancia del Absoluto hegeliano) lo que la preserva como posibilidad. La obra está siempre por venir.

La potencialidad, el angustioso vértigo de la libertad, es fundamental para la modernidad literaria. Pierre Menard responde a la arbitrariedad de la ficción (puesta de relieve por la libertad creativa) reescribiendo palabra por palabra Don Quijote y, de este modo, convierte la contingencia en necesidad (“Pierre Menard, autor de El Quijote”, 1939). Otra respuesta a esta cuestión es la de Henry James, que permite al lector sentir “la narración como podría haber sido” tras “la obra construida y limitada a la que él da vida” (Le Livre à Venir). Una creciente reticencia a dar vida a cualquier obra, por muy limitada que sea, se hizo sentir desde el siglo XVIII en adelante. En Sygdommen til Døden (1849), Kierkegaard observó cómo “se hace cada vez más plausible porque nada se vuelve real”. Llevando esta lógica hasta el extremo, Rousseau afirma que “No hay nada más bello que lo que no existe”, mientras que Keats resaltaba la belleza innombrable de las melodías “no escuchadas” (“Ode on a Grecian Urn”, 1819). Una figura emblemática, como señala Dominique Rabaté (Vers une Littérature de l’épuisement, 1991) es el “demonio de la posibilidad” lui-même: Monsieur Teste de Valéry, que se niega a reducir el campo de posibilidades convirtiendo cualquiera de ellas en realidad. Es un claro precursor del Ulrich de Musil -el epónimo Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (1930-42)- al cual Blanchot describe como alguien que “no dice que no a la vida sino que aún no, quien finalmente actúa como si el mundo no pudiera nunca empezar excepto al día siguiente”. Otra figura representativa es Lord Chandos, de Hofmannstahl, el cual, habiendo renunciado a la literatura porque el lenguaje no puede “penetrar en el núcleo más íntimo de las cosas”, llegó a personificar un motín mudo instigado (en la vida real) por Rimbaud (Ein Brief “Lord Chandos”, 1902). Estos escritores cada vez más reticentes, los cuales, como el Bartleby de Melville, “preferirían no hacerlo” (“Bartleby, the Scrivener”, 1853), son los que Jean-Yves Jouannais denominó “artistas sin obra” (Artistes sans oeuvres, 1997); los partidarios de lo que Enrique Vila-Matas denomina la “literatura del no” (Bartleby y compañia, 2000).

La literatura ha ido muriendo inexorablemente a lo largo del siglo XX. En 1925, José Ortega y Gasset escribió sobre el “declive” de la novela. En 1930, Walter Benjamin afirmaba que estaba en “crisis”. Theodor W. Adorno creía que no podía haber poesía después de Auschwitz. En 1959, Brion Gysin (el de los “cut-ups”) se quejaba de que la ficción llevaba un retraso de cincuenta años con respecto a la pintura. A principios de los ‘60, Alain Robbe-Grillet criticó la momificación de la novela en su encarnación del siglo XIX. En 1967, John Barth publicó “The Literature of Exhaustion”, texto en el que hablaba de “la extenuación de determinadas formas o el agotamiento de determinadas posibilidades”. Ese mismo año, Gore Vidal diagnosticó que la novela estaba exhalando su último aliento. “Debemos continuar durante mucho tiempo hablando de obras y escribiéndolas, haciendo como que no nos damos cuenta de que la iglesia está vacía y que los feligreses se han ido a otra parte, a ocuparse de otros dioses”. En 1969, Ronald Sukenick publicó una colección de relatos breves titulada The Death of the Novel. A comienzos de los ‘70, el Nuevo Periodismo de Tom Wolfe fue considerado por algunos como el futuro de la escritura creativa. La muerte de la literatura y el mundo tal y como lo conocemos hoy en día, se convirtió en un tema de actualidad entre los académicos estadounidenses a principios de los ‘90 (ver, por ejemplo, la obra de Alvin Kernan titulada con gran acierto The Death of Literature, 1992). Habitualmente, argumentaban que los Departamentos de Inglés habían sido secuestrados por los estudios culturales, la Filosofía Continental y la corrección política enloquecida (a la que Bloom ha denominado “Escuela del Resentimiento”).

Desde entonces, han ocurrido dos cosas. La novela -que fue creada con el propósito de fusionar la poesía y la filosofía (según los primeros Románticos alemanes), de contener los demás géneros e incluso, el universo entero (siguiendo la concepción de Mallarmé acerca de El Libro o el sueño de Borges de una “Biblioteca Total”)- ha sido relegada a la “ficción”, un género que aborda la creación literaria como si el siglo XX nunca hubiera existido. Al mismo tiempo, la era digital ha llevado el exceso de información (del cual ya se quejaba en su momento el Eclesiasta) a un nivel completamente nuevo. Como consecuencia de esto, David Shields cree que la novela ya no está capacitada para reflejar la compleja vitalidad de la vida moderna: él prescribe nuevas formas híbridas de escritura (Reality Hunger, 2010). El poeta estadounidense (y fundador de UbuWeb) Kenneth Goldsmith nos pide encarecidamente que dejemos de escribir del todo para centrarnos en recombinar los textos que hemos ido acumulando a lo largo de los siglos (Uncreative Writing, 2011). Trasladando el retrato que James Joyce hizo de sí mismo como “el hombre del corta y pega” a la era digital, Mark Amerika afirma que hoy en día todos somos “remezcladores”. Sin embargo, ¿qué ocurriría si, tal como se preguntaba Lewis Carroll, las combinaciones de palabras fueran limitadas y ya las hubiéramos utilizado todas?

Según Steiner, somos “agonistas”, “vamos rezagados”: “No tenemos más comienzos” (Grammars of Creation). Para nosotros, el lenguaje “está desgastado por el uso” y el “sentido de revelación, de profuso conocimiento” exhibido por los escritores del periodo Tudor, Isabelino y Jacobeo “nunca ha vuelto a ser plenamente recuperado”. En vísperas de los innombrables horrores de la Segunda Guerra Mundial, Adorno ya sentía que “los cadáveres de las palabras, palabras fantasmales” era todo lo que habíamos dejado. El lenguaje se había corrompido, irremediablemente arruinado por “el uso de la tribu” (Mallarmé). ¿Es que acaso ya no podemos seguir el mandato de Ezra Pound de “hacerlo nuevo”?

“Incluso la propia originalidad ya no es capaz de sorprendernos”, escribe Lars Iyer en un destacable ensayo publicado recientemente por The White Review. Según este novelista y catedrático de filosofía, vivimos en “una era de palabras sin precedente” pero en la cual los Novelistas Importantes han dado paso a “una legión de escribas”. La literatura tan sólo sobrevive como ficción literaria kitsch: una “parodia de estilos pasados”; “una pantomima de sí misma”. Este es un terreno que Andrew Marr ha revisitado a comienzos del siglo XXI. La novela, hoy en día, “no reivindica ampliar los límites del modo en que entendemos el mundo” y se encuentra anclada a finales del siglo XIX: “Los cientos de buenos artesanos de la novela, que aprendieron de forma laboriosa y detallada las lecciones acerca de la construcción de la trama y los personajes, dónde ser recargados y cuándo lacónicos, se han convertido en réplicas modernas de máquinas pensantes llevadas a su máximo nivel de desarrollo hace un siglo. Es como si el motor de combustión interna hubiera sido perfeccionado en 1870 y todos los coches de hoy en día fueran simples modelos victorianos con un estilo actualizado”. La conclusión a la que llegó Marr fue que la novela –tal como ocurrió anteriormente con “la sinfonía, el ballet, el arte figurativo o la cerámica esmaltada”– podría haber perdido ya su esplendor: “… las grandes obras, el tiempo de los descubrimientos, está muerto y no puede ser reabierto” (“Death of the Novel”, The Observer 27 de Mayo de 2001). En “The Literature of Exhaustion”, John Barth ya había pronosticado cómo “las ultimidades sentidas de nues- tro tiempo” (por ejemplo, el mismísimo final de la novela como “forma artística mayor”, tal como mencionaba Marr) podrían convertirse en alimento para obras futuras. En este sentido, Iyer da en el clavo. En su opinión, no estamos escribiendo las páginas finales de la literatura (su conclusión) sino más bien su “epílogo”: la nuestra es “una literatura después de la literatura”. Mientras que los poetas Románticos de Bloom se sentían “subsidiarios” frente a sus ilustres predecesores, Iyer cree que hemos llegado demasiado tarde, y punto. La literatura hoy en día ya no es “la Cuestión en sí misma, sino la Cuestión que se ha desvanecido”. La tarea del escritor es “conjurar al fantasma” de una tradición que se ha dado por vencida. De este modo, las novelas de Tom McCarthy, Lee Rourke o el propio Iyer no son tanto la evidencia de un revival del nouveau roman, sino ejemplos de un nuevo tipo de ficción ontológica que explora las posibilidades perdidas del Modernismo.

Según Kathleen Fitzpatrick, la muerte de la novela ha sido utilizada por los novelistas como un ardid para garantizar su supervivencia (The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television, 2006). Nos queda comprobar si, como afirma Iyer, nos hemos adentrado en una era post-literaria, o si por el contrario, la crónica acerca de la muerte de la literatura ha sido magnificada una vez más.

Una versión reducida de este artículo fue publicada en el periódico británico The Guardian, el 10 de enero de 2012, con el título “In Theory: the Death of Literature”.

Larger versions of these scans are available here:
Page 23 / Page 24 / Page 25 / Page 26 / Page 27 / Page 28 / Page 29 / Page 30 / Page 22

Review of Dogma

This appeared in Bookslut on 5 March 2012 (issue 118):

Dogma by Lars Iyer

For Scheherazade, storytelling cannot end; for Lars Iyer, it cannot begin. Two novels in, and some reviewers are wondering where his trilogy is going, if anywhere. According to Alfred Hickling, in The Guardian, this “lack of direction becomes self-defeating”. He has a point. It is, in fact, the point.

Spurious, last year’s debut, precedes Dogma, its nominal sequel, but it would make little difference if one were to read them in reverse order, simultaneously, or even back to front. Both volumes can be dipped into at random, safe in the knowledge that the very same obsessions and characters will recur, like some trauma-induced repetition compulsion. Readers of Spurious will rediscover Lars and W. — the self-styled “landfill thinkers” — modeled on the author himself and his colleague William Large, two English philosophy lecturers who have both published books on the works of Maurice Blanchot. Their relationship revolves around the cruel but hilarious abuse that W. constantly heaps on Lars, a modus operandi that baffles their North American hosts: “Don’t they understand that it’s the only way we can express affection? It’s a British working class thing, W. told them, but they only looked at us blankly”. Lars is mocked for everything from his lack of style (“No woman would have permitted your vest phase“) to his non-thinking (“‘It’s like Zen,’ says W. ‘Pure absence'”). On the very first page, W. likens the roaring of the sea to his friend’s alleged stupidity: “It’s the sound of unlearning, he says. It’s the sound of Lars, of the chaos that undoes every idea”. They go off on a sparsely-attended lecture tour of the Deep South (“Six bored people, looking at their watches. Did we come all the way for this?”) during which they pontificate over pints of Big Ass Beer, buy souvenir togas in Athens, and are immortalized on the banks of the Mississippi for W.’s Facebook page: “He rides me like a horse. I ride him like a horse. Sal rides both of us, like two horses, with the camera set on automatic”. W. and Lars also attend music festivals, where they neck Plymouth Gin from water bottles, discussing Jandek’s “non-music” (“the ‘non-‘ is not privative”) and Josh T. Pearson’s integrity (“He speaks from inside the burning bush”). They look for religion in the everyday (“‘Are you going religious?’ says Sal. ‘I hate it when you go religious'”) and attempt to step into life like Rosenzweig (“This is where philosophy must begin anew, right here in the pub!”). Most significantly perhaps, they launch their own intellectual movement, the eponymous Dogma: “Dogma was greater than us. Dogma was broader, more generous. Weren’t we only swallows in the updraft? Weren’t we leaves swept up in an autumn storm?”

On the final page, W. asks his companion to be his Boswell, thus providing the trilogy with its creative primal scene. Lars, Dogma‘s narrator, plays the part of “the Delphic Pythia, speaking for the Oracle”: he carries out his duties to the letter, almost completely erasing his own voice from the book. Most of the time, it is W. we hear speaking through Lars. He speaks of Lars, but also for Lars — in his place — as though he were a ventriloquist, but the ventriloquist is himself ventriloquized since Lars is reporting all of this. W. even begins to wonder if Lars has not conjured him up “from a sense of his own failure,” and some reviewers have speculated that he may indeed be a figment of the narrator’s imagination. Lars’s very self-effacement provides a kind of passive (possibly passive-aggressive) resistance to W., simply by letting him express himself fully. One is reminded of that medieval depiction of Socrates taking dictation from Plato, in which Derrida makes out “Plato getting an erection in Socrates’s back” (The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond). Moving on from Lars’s hypothetical erection, there are two explicit references to ventriloquism in Dogma. The second one is clearly attributed to W., and provides a nice instance of dramatic irony: “Our eternal puppet show, says W. Our endless ventriloquy. Who’s speaking through us? Who’s using our voices?” The first reference, however, remains anonymous. W’s external monologue seems to have been completely absorbed, here, by a narrative voice whose origin is no longer clearly Lars: “We were ventriloquised; we spoke, but not with our voices”.

Like its predecessor, Dogma is composed of individual fragments that originated as blog posts on the author’s website. In spite of this episodic pattern, the novel is expertly crafted throughout. A few throwaway remarks about the “famous Poles of Plymouth” in the opening pages segue seamlessly into an evocation of Stroszek; itself forestalling the American lecture tour during which W. and Lars identify with the protagonists of Herzog’s film: “They’d come to escape the past! And what did Bruno find? The dancing chicken, W. says”.

Some of these fragments are arranged in sequences, while others could be shuffled around like the loose pages in Marc Saporta’s book-in-a-box. Structurally, as well as thematically, each stand-alone vignette embodies the hope — ever dashed, but eternally springing — of a radical new departure: “We need a realitätpunkt, W. says. A point of absolute certainty, from which everything could begin. But the only thing of which he can be certain is the eternal crumbling of our foundations, the eternal stop sign of our idiocy”.

The very possibility of starting afresh — of turning over a new leaf, and then another — seems to have vanished, hence the lack of direction; of narrative drive. Spurious never really begins: it opens in medias res. Dogma never really ends, as the final Beckettian sentence testifies: “It’s time to die, says W. But death does not come”. The novel stops and starts; it repeats on itself as though it had binged on Plymouth Gin: “Every day, the same failure”. Lars and W. mooch about in the dead time of stasis, a disjointed time, which is not so much dead, as endlessly dying. “But that’s just it: death doesn’t want us, W. says,” in an earlier passage, “It isn’t our time, and it will never be our time.” Things are forever coming to an end, but the end itself never comes: “The conditions for the end are here, W. says, but not the end itself, not yet…” The two characters are suspended in this liminal state, stupefied by the non-stop inertia of late capitalism, “pushing [their] shopping cart full of Plymouth Gin through the gathering darkness,” biding their time: “The apocalypse is imminent, things are coming to an end, but in the meantime…? It’s always the meantime in the pub, W. says”. And again: “Only the disaster is real, W. says. There is no future. And isn’t that a relief: that there is no future? And meanwhile, his long fall. Meanwhile our long fall through the clouds…” And yet again: “Perhaps this is a great waiting room; this, the time before a dentist’s appointment, when nothing very important happens: we leaf through a magazine, we gaze out of the window … But they’ve forgotten to call our names, haven’t they? They’ve forgotten we are here, in the eternal waiting room”.

And what exactly is this mean limbo time? Even the seemingly gormless narrator has an answer, albeit a second-hand one: “The infinite wearing away, I said, quoting Blanchot. Eternullity, I said, quoting Lefebvre”. “We’re dead men,” W. later concurs, “the walking dead.”

Messianism — that desperate hope, or hopeful despair — lies at the very heart of Dogma. “You need a volume of Rosenzweig with you at all times,” W. explains, producing The Star of Redemption from his trusty man bag aboard a Greyhound bus bound for Memphis (of all places). Back in Britain, he boasts that he is “still reading Rosenzweig, very slowly, in German, every morning” despite failing to “understand a word” of it. He describes himself as “a man of the end who yearns for the beginning,” but beginning and end are but interchangeable opt-outs from the “endless end,” symbolized by the “eternal scratching of the rats” under Lars’s floorboards, or the “endless, remorseless teaching” that is the “wreck of the humanities“. The Mersey Estuary at sunset is likened to “the end of the world” or “the beginning,” as though both times were indeed identical. The desire to be born again is just that: a desire to be born again, to be borne back. W.’s longing for the Apocalypse is thus mirrored by his nostalgia for an idyllic childhood (“Ah, his Canadian years!”), his vision of Lars and himself as “idiot Whitmans” in “blousy shirts” roaming a prelapsarian America, and even his matutinal work routine:

    Four AM; five AM — he’s ready for work; he opens his books, he takes notes as the sky brightens over Stonehouse roofs. He’s there at the inception, at the beginning of everything, even before the pigeons start cooing like maniacs on his window-ledge. He’s up before anyone else, he knows that, but there’s still no chance of thinking. Not a thought has come to him in recent months; not one. He’s stalled, W. says. […] But when wasn’t he stalled? […] No matter how early he gets up, he misses his appointment with thought; no matter how he tries to surprise it by being there before everyone else.

It is never early enough for W. (who believes things started going downhill in the mid-Neolithic); but neither is it ever late enough. Just as the end keeps on ending endlessly, the novel itself keeps on beginning inexorably. In the paradoxical incipit of Grammars of Creation, George Steiner declares that “We have no more beginnings”: here, we have nothing but beginnings, but it comes to the same thing really. One is reminded of W., “looking for the America hidden by America”: “a perpetually new America stretching its limbs in the sun”. Dogma is also constantly in the process of becoming, which is why — for all the talk of exhaustion and Armageddon — it feels so vital and remarkably angst-free. We learn that Lars had once travelled to Patmos, where the Book of Revelation was written, but ended up by accident on Paros, “the party island.” Short of a revelation, the novel turns into a comic celebration.

Each new fragment harbors the potential to disrupt the continuum represented by the (theoretically infinite) succession of paragraphs. This promise of a revolutionary revelation — the achievement of artistic closure — is never fulfilled, and it produces a daisy chain of failed fragments: a compulsion to retread the same ground. W. claims that our reading is “only the shadow of reading, the search for the world-historical importance that reading once had”. Likewise, Dogma is only the shadow of a novel, the search for the world-historical importance that novels once had. It gestures towards the kind of book it could be if novels still mattered; if only it could take itself seriously enough to really get going. At times, this phantom book shines through the pages “like a watermark”.

Roland Barthes famously argued that “to be modern is to know that which is not possible any more”. By this token, Dogma is resolutely modern. Lars and W.’s saving grace is their acute awareness of their limitations; an awareness that can be extended to the book itself: “We know we fall short, desperately short. We know our task is too great for us, but at least we have a sense of it, its greatness”. In a recent interview at Ready Steady Book, Iyer explained that “Kafka’s work transmits a sense of the importance of notions of God, of belief, even as it deprives us of them”. This is precisely what Dogma does for literature. The book’s apparent lack of direction is part of a strategy to sabotage its literariness; to ensure that it does not become another bogus piece of literary fiction.

For the Romantics, the early German Romantics, in particular, a fragment was a synecdoche standing for a larger, ideal work left to the reader’s imagination. What is missing here is not a bigger, better book that could have been, or indeed could still be, written, but one that is no longer possible at all. In Dogma, W. is nagged by the fear that he may already have had his great idea without knowing it. When he finally loses his university job, he is caught unawares, although it is something he had been predicting right from the start: “He had been waiting for the end, W. says, and still the end surprised him”. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, we move from a sense of impending doom to a feeling that the disaster is already behind us; haunting us: “It’s time, W. says. No, it’s after time. It’s too late. We’re living a posthumous life”. In the final pages, Lars is also described as living each day “as though it were the day after the last”.

According to Iyer, who recently wrote an anti-manifesto on the subject, ours is a “literature which comes after literature”. If John Barth (“The Literature of Exhaustion,” 1967) and the High Postmodernists wrote literature’s conclusion, we are now writing its epilogue. Whereas Harold Bloom’s Romantic poets felt “belated” vis-à-vis their illustrious predecessors, we feel belated with regards to literature itself. For us, literature can no longer be “the Thing itself”; it can only be “about the vanished Thing”. From this point of view, Lars Iyer’s work ranks alongside the hauntological novels of Tom McCarthy and Lee Rourke, which excavate the lost futures of literary modernity.

The Death of Literature

This appeared in Guardian Books on 10 January 2012:

The Death of Literature
The fact that people have been proclaiming its passing for centuries only makes the sense of its ending more acute

[The end: headstone in Lund Cemetery, Nevada. Photograph: Deon Reynolds/Getty]

“We come too late to say anything which has not been said already,” lamented La Bruyère at the end of the 17th century. The fact that he came too late even to say this (Terence having pipped him to the post back in the 2nd century BC) merely proved his point — a point which Macedonio Fernández took one step backwards when he sketched out a prequel to Genesis. God is just about to create everything. Suddenly a voice in the wilderness pipes up, interrupting the eternal silence of infinite space that so terrified Pascal: “Everything has been written, everything has been said, everything has been done.” Rolling His eyes, the Almighty retorts (doing his best Morrissey impression) that he has heard this one before — many a time. He then presses ahead with the creation of the heavens and the earth and all the creepy-crawlies that creepeth and crawleth upon it. In the beginning was the word — and, word is, before that too.

In his most influential book, The Anxiety of Influence (1973), Harold Bloom argued that the greatest Romantic poets misread their illustrious predecessors “so as to clear imaginative space for themselves”. The literary father figure was killed, figuratively speaking, through a process of “poetic misprision”. TS Eliot had already expressed a similar idea in 1920, when he claimed that “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different”. Borges (a disciple of Fernández, whom Bloom references) was on the same wavelength (but at the other end of the dial) when he claimed that “each writer creates his precursors”.

According to Bloom, this feeling of “secondariness” is not specifically a Romantic phenomenon, but rather the very engine of literary history. Down the centuries, literature has always been a two-way dialogue between past and present — the former living on in the latter; the latter casting new light upon the former. George Steiner thus contends that the highest form of literary criticism is to be found within literature itself: “In the poet’s criticism of the poet from within the poem, hermeneutics reads the living text which Hermes, the messenger, has brought from the undying dead” (Real Presences, 1989). This implies that writing is not, primarily, about self-expression, but about reception and transmission; as Winnie the Pooh once put it, with uncharacteristic menace, “Poetry and Hums aren’t things which you get, they’re things which get you”. What is striking here is that Steiner — steeped in the Judaeo-Christian tradition; scourge of Gallic theory — should be in total agreement, on this point, with novelist Tom McCarthy, who comes, as it were, from the other side of the barricades. For the author of C — a novel which is all about fiction as reception and transmission — “the writer is a receiver and the content is already out there. The task of the writer is to filter it, to sample it and remix it — not in some random way, but conscientiously and attentively”. Turning chronology on its head, he sees Finnegans Wake as the source code of anglophone literature — a new beginning — rather than a dead end or a full stop. The novel, says McCarthy, has been “living out its own death” ever since Don Quixote; the “experience of failure” being integral to its DNA. If it weren’t dying, the novel would not be alive.

According to Steiner, the rise of the novel was contemporaneous with a growing linguistic crisis. After the 17th century — after Milton — “the sphere of language” ceased to encompass most of “experience and reality” (“The Retreat from the Word“, 1961). Mathematics became increasingly untranslatable into words, post-Impressionist painting likewise escaped verbalisation; linguistics and philosophy highlighted the fact that words refer to other words … The final proposition in Wittgenstein‘s Tractatus (1921) bears witness to this encroachment of the unspeakable: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”. Four years earlier, Kafka had conjectured that it may have been possible to escape the sirens’ singing, but not their silence.

Harold Bloom is right: belatedness is not merely an “historical condition”. After all, it was already one of the major themes in Don Quixote. Yet, as Gabriel Josipovici points out, “this sense of somehow having arrived too late, of having lost for ever something that was once a common possession, is a, if not the, key Romantic concern” (What Ever Happened to Modernism?, 2010). Against the backdrop of declining confidence in the powers of language — just as Schiller‘s “disenchantment of the world” was becoming ever more apparent, and the writer’s legitimacy, in a “destitute time” (Hölderlin) of absent gods and silent sirens, seemed increasingly arbitrary — literature came to be considered as an “absolute“. Walter Benjamin famously described the “birthplace of the novel” as “the solitary individual”: an individual cut off from tradition, who could no longer claim to be the mouthpiece of society. As soon as this “solitary individual” was elevated to the status of an alter deus, the essential belatedness of human creativity became glaringly obvious. “No art form,” says Steiner, “comes out of nothing. Always, it comes after,” and the “human maker rages at [this] coming after, at being, forever, second to the original and originating mystery of the forming of form”.

As early as 1758, Samuel Richardson had wondered if the novel were not just a fad, whose time had already run out. By the 20th century, the picture looked far bleaker. Theodor Adorno felt that there could be no poetry after Auschwitz. In 1959, Brion Gysin complained that fiction was lagging 50 years behind painting. In the early 60s, Alain Robbe-Grillet attacked the mummification of the novel in its 19th-century incarnation. In 1967, John Barth published “The Literature of Exhaustion” in which he spoke of “the used-upness of certain forms or exhaustion of certain possibilities”. The same year, Gore Vidal diagnosed that the novel was already in its death throes: “we shall go on for quite a long time talking of books and writing books, pretending all the while not to notice that the church is empty and the parishioners have gone elsewhere to attend other gods”. The death of literature, and the world as we know it, became a fashionable topic among US academics in the early 90s (see, for instance, Alvin Kernan’s aptly-titled The Death of Literature, 1992). Their argument was usually that English departments had been hijacked by cultural studies, Continental theory or political correctness gone mad (Bloom’s “School of Resentment”).

Since then, two things have happened. The novel — which was meant to fuse poetry and philosophy, to subsume all other genres and even the entire universe (following Mallarmé‘s conception of The Book or Borges’s dream of a “Total Library”) — has been reduced to “literary fiction”: a genre that approaches writing as if the 20th century had never happened. At the same time, the digital age has taken information overload to a whole new level. As a result, David Shields believes that the novel is no longer equipped to reflect the vitality and complexity of modern life (Reality Hunger, 2010). Kenneth Goldsmith — the poet to whom we owe the wonder that is UbuWeb — urges us to stop writing altogether in order to focus on recombining the texts we’ve accumulated over the centuries (Uncreative Writing, 2011). We may all be “remixologists” now, but what if (as Lewis Carroll wondered) word combinations were limited, and we had used them all up?

According to Steiner, we are “terminalists”, “latecomers”: “we have no more beginnings“. For us, language “is worn by long usage” and the “sense of discovery, of exuberant acquisition” exhibited by writers during the Tudor, Elizabethan and Jacobean periods “has never been fully recaptured”. On the eve of the unspeakable horrors of the second world war, Adorno already felt that “the carcass of words, phantom words” was all we had left. Language had been corrupted; irredeemably soiled by “the usage of the tribe” (Mallarmé). Perhaps is it no longer possible for us to follow Ezra Pound‘s injunction to “make it new”.

“Even originality itself no longer has the ability to surprise us,” writes Lars Iyer in a remarkable essay recently published by The White Review. According to the author of Spurious (shortlisted for the Guardian‘s Not the Booker Prize), we live in “an unprecedented age of words”, but one in which Important Novelists have given way to “a legion of keystroke labourers”. Literature only survives as literary-fiction kitsch: a “parody of past forms”; a “pantomime of itself”. In “The Literature of Exhaustion”, Barth had envisaged how the “felt ultimacies of our time” (ie the end of the novel as “major art form”) could become the material of future works. Iyer cranks this up a notch. We are no longer writing literature’s conclusion but its “epilogue”: ours is a “literature which comes after literature”. Where Bloom’s Romantic poets felt “belated” vis-à-vis their predecessors, Iyer feels that we have come too late for literature, full stop. Literature today is thus no longer “the Thing itself, but about the vanished Thing”. The writer’s task is “to conjure the ghost” of a tradition that has given it up. By this token, the novels of Tom McCarthy, Lee Rourke and Iyer himself are not so much evidence of a nouveau roman revival as instances of a new type of hauntological fiction which explores the lost futures of Modernism.

Given that Iyer has published two books on the work of Maurice Blanchot, one cannot but think of the French author’s answer to the question ‘Where is literature going?’: “literature is going toward itself, toward its essence, which is disappearance”. Perhaps the “Thing itself” was about “the vanished Thing” all along – but stop me, oh-oh-oh, stop me, stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before.