Beckett with a Smiley Face

This appeared in the New Statesman 4-10 March 2016: 16.

Beckett with a Smiley Face

danfoxpretentiousness

Dan Fox’s Pretentiousness: Why It Matters is as provocative and witty as its title. Taking his cue from Brian Eno (whose career he describes as “a successful experiment in pretension”), Fox, an art critic, sets about reclaiming the P-word. Indeed, the whole book is a gloss on Eno’s contention that “pretending is the most important thing we do” because it enables us to discover “what it would be like to be otherwise”. It is a self-help manual for those, brought up on David Bowie, who doubt that there is a self to help.

More often than not, the accusation of pretentiousness is levelled at people who get ideas above their station. It cuts them down to size. Fox turns this on its head by celebrating the aspiration to a life less ordinary. In the current cultural climate, it is downright subversive.

The author’s subject is the slippage from pretending — what is done at the kids’ table – to pretension, which “goes on over the wine and cheese course with the grown-ups”. How does an activity that is considered crucial to the healthy development of children become contemptible in adults? In a “back-of-an-envelope history of acting”, Fox asks where this stigma originates, exploring Plato’s mistrust of actors but also the adoption of classical rhetoric by politicians and lawyers, whereby the “history of pretence” became bound up with the “history of power”. Finally, the evolution towards a naturalistic style of acting accompanied the rise of individualism and the Romantic quest for “the truth of one’s inner self”. Pretending was now beyond the pale.

Authenticity raises the issue of authentication – the “legitimacy we confer, or not, on a performance”. It is “a matter of authority, of who gets to pass judgement on whether or not you are ‘being yourself'”. Fox notes that the modern artist’s mission is to seek “creative freedom” but fails to point out that this autonomy can also be the source of his or her lack of legitimacy. He describes the “gap between expectation and actuality” – which derives from this creative freedom – as “a productive necessity rather than a flaw”. Failure is the process “by which the arts move forward”. This is Beckett with a smiley face.

The rest of Fox’s argument covers class: accents, politics, gentrification and inverted snobbery. Unlike pretending, pretension “carries with it the sting of class betrayal, especially in the UK, where class is a neurosis as much as a set of social conditions”. The accusation of pretentiousness is “a form of social control”, designed to keep people in their place and protect the status quo.

Pretentiousness achieves a pleasing congruence between style and substance. After all, the essay – experimental by definition, not content with being itself – is arguably the most pretentious genre still in currency. Dan Fox’s shape-shifting work displays many of its hallmarks. It opens with a few etymological considerations and then unfolds organically, one idea leading to another, exemplifying Brian Dillon’s description of the essay as “a way of writing oneself into the unknown”.

There are downsides to this narrative drift. The author’s ruminations lead him, on occasion, to retread ground. In certain passages, the book feels freighted with too many examples. On the other hand, discussing the notion of authenticity without mentioning Kierkegaard or Heidegger seems remiss (although that probably says more about my pedantry than any shortcomings on the author’s part).

Nonetheless, the breadth of reference is staggering – taking in history, cinema, drama, politics, literature, sociology and music. It reflects the “magpie cultural education” that “pop’s intellectual permissiveness” once provided. Without giving in to nostalgia, Fox harks back to more progressive times when culture was not the preserve of the privileged. From this vantage point, his essay ties in with the writings of Mark Fisher (whom he quotes), Owen Hatherley and Simon Reynolds.

The final, autobiographical chapter is the strongest and most moving. It charts the author’s journey from Wheatley, a village in Oxfordshire where he grew up in the late 1980s, to New York City, where he now co-edits the contemporary art magazine frieze. It is a celebration of overreaching ambition; a paean to “dreaming big in small cities” at a point when pop music (which “never asked anyone for permission to be pretentious”) acted as a gateway to a wider world of culture. Music connects the young author to Manhattan and Berlin, even though he has “barely been an hour down the motorway to London”. On day trips to Oxford, he feels the presence of Andy Warhol in a student’s striped T-shirt or Nico in a local branch of Chelsea Girl.

Fox ends by fast-forwarding to his present life in New York. Near his apartment, there is “an Essex Street, a Ludlow Street, a Norfolk Street, and a Suffolk Street”. He wonders what these British toponyms would have conjured up, had he grown up “on the Lower East Side rather than in the English countryside”. Having read this book in Paris, I find myself longing for Wheatley. Life, as Rimbaud never quite said, is elsewhere.

In Fox’s interpretation, pretentiousness is culturally – rather than socially – aspirational. It is “permission for the imagination”, allowing us to transfigure our mundane surroundings and soar above what Keats called “busy common-sense”.
danfox

On 8 March 2016, this review was posted on the New Statesman‘s website under the title “When Did Pretentiousness Become Such a Dirty Word?”

It was prefaced thus: Dan Fox’s new book sets out to reclaim the P-word with an impressively broad-ranging study of art, literature and culture.

Hauntology

This appeared in Guardian Books on 17 June 2011:

Hauntology: A Not-So-New Critical Manifestation
The new vogue in literary theory is shot through with earlier ideas

[Haunting presence … Jacques Derrida, who coined the term hauntology, in a still from the documentary Derrida]

Hauntology is probably the first major trend in critical theory to have flourished online. In October 2006, Mark Fisher — aka k-punk — described it as “the closest thing we have to a movement, a zeitgeist”. A mere three years later, Adam Harper prefaced a piece on the subject with the following caveat: “I’m all too aware that it’s no longer 2006, the year to blog about hauntology”. Two months ago, James Bridle predicted that the concept was “about six months away from becoming the title of a column in a Sunday supplement magazine”. Only four months to go, then. My hunch is that hauntology is already haunting itself. The revival starts here.

Like its close relative psychogeography, hauntology originated in France but struck a chord on this side of the Channel. In Spectres of Marx (1993), where it first appeared, Jacques Derrida argued that Marxism would haunt Western society from beyond the grave. In the original French, “hauntology” sounds almost identical to “ontology”, a concept it haunts by replacing — in the words of Colin Davis — “the priority of being and presence with the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present, nor absent, neither dead nor alive”.

Today, hauntology inspires many fields of investigation, from the visual arts to philosophy through electronic music, politics, fiction and literary criticism. At its most basic level, it ties in with the popularity of faux-vintage photography, abandoned spaces and TV series like Life on Mars. Mark Fisher — whose forthcoming Ghosts of My Life (Zer0 Books) focuses primarily on hauntology as the manifestation of a specific “cultural moment” — acknowledges that “There’s a hauntological dimension to many different aspects of culture; in fact, in Moses and Monotheism, Freud practically argues that society as such is founded on a hauntological basis: the voice of the dead father”. When you come to think of it, all forms of representation are ghostly. Works of art are haunted, not only by the ideal forms of which they are imperfect instantiations, but also by what escapes representation. See, for instance, Borges‘s longing to capture in verse the “other tiger, that which is not in verse”. Or Maurice Blanchot, who outlines what could be described as a hauntological take on literature as “the eternal torment of our language, when its longing turns back toward what it always misses“. Julian Wolfreys argues in Victorian Hauntings (2002) that “to tell a story is always to invoke ghosts, to open a space through which something other returns” so that “all stories are, more or less, ghost stories” and all fiction is, more or less, hauntological. The best novels, according to Gabriel Josipovici, share a “sense of density of other worlds suggested but lying beyond words“. For the reader or critic, the mystery of literature is the opacity — the irreducible remainder — at the heart of writing that can never be completely interpreted away. The whole western literary tradition itself is founded on the notion of posterity, which Paul Eluard described as the “harsh desire to endure” through one’s works. And then, of course, there’s the death of the author… All this, as you can see, could go on for quite a while, so perhaps we should wonder if the concept does not just mean all things to all (wo)men. Steen Christiansen, who is writing a book on the subject, explains that “hauntology bleeds into the fields of postmodernism, metafiction and retro-futurism and that there is no clear distinction — that would go against the tension which hauntology aims at”.

As a reflection of the zeitgeist, hauntology is, above all, the product of a time which is seriously “out of joint” (Hamlet is one of Derrida’s crucial points of reference in Spectres of Marx). There is a prevailing sense among hauntologists that culture has lost its momentum and that we are all stuck at the “end of history“. Meanwhile, new technologies are dislocating more traditional notions of time and place. Smartphones, for instance, encourage us never to fully commit to the here and now, fostering a ghostly presence-absence. Internet time (which is increasingly replacing clock time) results in a kind of “non-time” that goes hand in hand with Marc Augé’s non-places. Perhaps even more crucially, the web has brought about a “crisis of overavailability” that, in effect, signifies the “loss of loss itself”: nothing dies any more, everything “comes back on YouTube or as a box set retrospective” like the looping, repetitive time of trauma (Fisher). This is why “retromania” has reached fever pitch in recent years, as Simon Reynolds demonstrates in his new book — a methodical dissection of “pop culture’s addiction to its own past”.

Hauntology is not just a symptom of the times, though: it is itself haunted by a nostalgia for all our lost futures. “So what would it mean, then, to look for the future’s remnants?” asks Owen Hatherley at the beginning of Militant Modernism, “Can we, should we, try and excavate utopia?” It might just be worth a shot.