a review of Cathy Caruth’s Literature in the Ashes of History
Trauma conveys a kind of philosophical force: it puts pressure on the epistemological status—and the evidential value—of recollected and recounted memories. Crucially, for Caruth this pressure is not only epistemological; it is also necessarily ethical. This is because trauma cuts across the personal and the historical. Indeed, Caruth contends that trauma is “not so much a symptom of the unconscious as a symptom of history,” such that “the traumatized carry an impossible history within them.” For her, it follows that this “impossible” quality must be preserved—particularly if we wish to bear “witness” to the histories that our traumas transmit. It is easy to see this idea’s deconstructive colouring. Recalling Derrida’s similar style of ethical thought, Caruth argues that trauma’s aporia ought to be retained; that impossible histories call for appropriately unresolved types of testimony. In short, if we are ever to take stock of trauma, we must remain faithful to its “affront to understanding.”
a review of Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days
In Erpenbeck’s world, everything is connected. Stylistically, this is conveyed through tiny parallels and repetitions—elusive leitmotifs that echo across the protagonist’s alternate lives. Indeed, the book’s basic theme of birth and death indirectly recurs in the minutiae of its imagery. In this way, Erpenbeck deploys the smallest details to recapitulate her ideas. One character considers how the bruises on corpses “change colour in the coffin,” and speculates that “this metamorphosis of colours” might stand in for “the sorts of development of which the person was no longer capable”—the other lives they might have lived.
Matt Jakubowski interviewed me for his series on “the role of the critic”
Can you describe a few of the ways that studying theory has affected you as a reader and a critic?
The most revealing thing is probably how it affected me as a person. In my late teens and early twenties, I basically lived and breathed so-called “French theory.” I really was like those “pallid theory boys” Simon Reynolds writes about. I identified with theory, and in doing so, I fitted a definite stereotype (which was pretty ironic by that point, when theory had already been declared “dead.”) Anyway, Marco Roth captures this quite well when he says that theory appeals to people who possess a “native anti-foundationalism”—an instinctive unease “about subject and object, language and self.” That kind of alienation is common to adolescence, of course. Indeed, adolescent identity is almost like theory’s ideal type. It’s no surprise if “floating signifiers” speak strongly to someone on the cusp of adulthood; “aporia” are appropriate to people whose lives are largely unmapped. Perhaps that’s part of what theory is: the time for theory is the time of youth. In the old, it ossifies into philosophy. My problem, though, is that I never grew out of my native attachment to theory. All my friends have matured and flourished, and I’m still here, at odds with my body, my words, and my world. Waiting for theory to finally swallow me.
a review of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone
Mirkovic’s onward momentum echoes that of the wider world; both are blindly accelerating into oblivion. And, in the end, this momentum is endless. Mirkovic’s anticipation of his destination represents a desire for “the end of the world.” Ultimately, he wants to stop time in its tracks. But the brilliance of Zone lies in its brutal refusal to stop. Again and again, Énard’s white-knuckle narrative plunges back into the battle-scarred past, forcing us to confront its horrors. In doing so, it teaches us that we can’t disconnect from our collective historical crimes. In Mirkovic’s words, “we all tell the same story,” and, like this relentlessly inventive novel, it is “a tale of fierce animals, a book with wolves on every page.”
essays on literature and theory
A book-length collection of my writing is forthcoming from Zero Books in January 2015. Here’s some blurbage from the excellent Evan Lavender-Smith:
David Winters is the smartest young critic to emerge in recent years. His writing is marked by a desire for the unorthodox, and an attention to our most daring logophiles—Lish, Lutz, Marcom, Schutt—so often overlooked by others. An intimacy with continental philosophy and literary modernism elevates his work well beyond the obvious exegetical formulas of mainstream criticism, and yet it always remains eminently readable and accessible, eminently fun. In Winters I’ve found a critic whose writing I can read without having to chalk it up to a guilty pleasure—he makes me smarter, there’s no doubt about it.
an essay on recent trends in critical theory
Perhaps the real power of theory (and, in its own way, of fiction) resides as much in unknowing as knowing. To call “clarity” into question, or at least to qualify its epistemic value, is to partake of one of theory’s defining insights. The specifically theoretical character of theory could be said to depend on its critical distance from the “details of life,” and on the resultant defamiliarization of those everyday intuitions which its technical terminology redescribes as ideology. If this is the case, then the problematic status of “clarification” would need to be borne in mind by any properly metatheoretical project. Second-order studies of theory must strike a balance between clarity and singularity; between a reflective familiarity with theory’s concepts and contexts, and a fidelity to the radical (and at times necessarily alienating) force of theory itself. In this sense, the finest of lines separates reflection from reconciliation. Looking ahead, the push and pull of such tensions will undoubtedly continue to condition—and perhaps even define—what it means to do “theory on theory.”
a review of Michael Sayeau’s Against the Event
In moving away from a representational model of the everyday—that is, from a direct mimetic mapping of lived experience onto literary works—Sayeau aims to examine the manner in which this temporal quality expresses itself within literature, as an immanent principle, organizing and orienting narrative logic. On this reading, then, modernist novels do not merely contain representations of everyday life; more importantly, they seek solutions to the specifically “formal challenges” posed by modernity’s “empty time.” According to this formulation, the everyday manifests itself in fiction as a force that threatens to stall the narrative production of meaning. At a formal level, Sayeau shows how his chosen modernist—and proto-modernist—texts “share a particular dilemma: how to maintain the coherence of the text, a rhythm of meaningful experiences, in a world in which time itself seems to be flattening out, softening into circularity, reiteration, and stasis.” In this way, the everyday emerges as an internal element of the economy of the novel, pulling against plot progression, towards entropic dissolution.