modernity’s empty time

a review of Michael Sayeau’s Against the Event

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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.

read the review in Modernism/Modernity

stars and despair

an essay on Gabriel Josipovici’s novel Hotel Andromeda, and on Joseph Cornell

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Glory and sadness, stars and despair: the box’s “unsayable” truth consists of a combination of contradictory qualities. Within the bounded world of the box, “reality and the ideal” are constellated but not reconciled, so that the viewer’s gaze moves through that world “as in a Möbius strip, perpetually from one to the other.” In this vein, we might even say that the box combines conflicting ideas in its mind, much as our own minds can sometimes hold two antithetical thoughts in tension. In other words, this work of art could be said to possess a cognitive power; a kind of knowledge, whose nature resides in something like what Adorno once called “the consistent consciousness of non-identity.” Not only this, but that knowledge contains an existential component. Specifically, the box seems to “know” something about the relation—or rather, to recall Victoria Best’s word, the “entanglement”—that always links art and life.

read the rest in Music & Literature Magazine

the tension of reality

an interview with Lydia Davis

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A large part of writing a story, after all, has to do with structure, proportion, the ordering of events and facts, and of course the choice and handling of the language itself – in description, striving for precision and minutely observed detail (à la Flaubert), and in dialogue, the economical expressiveness of one’s characters. The material can be invented, or it can be real. In a way, it doesn’t matter. Invented material can be wonderful. As for a story using ‘real’ material, what makes it read as fiction is the tone, the stylised nature of the writing, the selection and shaping of the material, and of course those (optional) fictional elements that may be needed for the structure or drama of it. Out of a hundred people reading this sort of story, though, only three might know that it has many ‘real’ elements; to the other ninety-seven, it could just as well be wholly invented. So, these days, I’m simply more interested in the manipulation of material taken from everyday life – which of course can include texts. When I am working with reality, the material is all there, or almost all, and my challenge is to put it into a form that suits it, and then to arrange it and word it effectively, making little adjustments or fictional additions to the ‘truth’ as necessary. Invention is not obligatory. Maybe it is my long practice of translation that has biased me toward the pleasure of working with found material – an important difference, however, being that I have a great deal more freedom with a story of my own.

read the full conversation in The White Review, issue 10

a shadow that casts its own shadow

an essay on Lydia Davis’s novel The End of the Story

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The “story” is deceptively simple. An unnamed narrator (who, like Davis, works as a translator) looks back on a love affair long since over. As with any such loss, she “couldn’t let go of it later.” So, looking back at herself not letting go, she tries to imprint an order upon her experience. Specifically, she sets out to turn the story of the failed affair and its aftermath into a novel. Already though, this apparently straightforward story of love and loss is mediated through multiple optics. Firstly, there are the facts; secondly, the narrator’s slanted experience of those facts. Next, there are the mechanisms of memory—always frail and fallible—through which this experience is recalled. Finally, framing this nested structure, we confront the encompassing act of writing—an act which, as Blanchot would have it, “issues from its own absence, addressing itself to the shadow of events, not their reality.” More confusingly still, if writing is the final stage of this sequence, it is also the first, since writing is what renders recollection. And this is to say nothing of the difference between the novel the narrator is writing and the one we are reading—the one written by Lydia Davis. Writing is a shadow that casts its own shadow.

read the rest at The Quarterly Conversation 

steep turns, surprising vistas

a review of D.N. Rodowick’s Elegy for Theory

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If theory moves forward by looking back, then Rodowick’s own work epitomizes the metacritical spirit it describes. In this essential respect, Elegy for Theory surpasses its humbly stated aim of “clarifying” the history of a concept. While it is true that readers of Rodowick’s book will discover new insights into the story of theory, the exhilaration aroused by those “steep turns and surprising vistas” stems as much from the structure and form of the story’s telling: to follow Rodowick’s argument is, in a way, to witness the spiraling swerve of theory enveloping and comprehending itself. It remains to be seen where Rodowick’s next book will lead—he hints that it will relinquish high theory in favor of a new conception of philosophy. And yet his elegy’s very existence suggests, somehow, that whatever animates theory is alive and well. Toward the end of this book, Rodowick writes of the era of theory that “to feel one’s self at the end of something inspires reflection on its ends.” In itself, his inspired reflection revives the stream of ideas on which it reflects; if this is only an elegy, it’s one that instills its object with endless energy.

read the rest at the Los Angeles Review of Books

speeds and shapes of consciousness

a conversation about literature and philosophy with Evan Lavender-Smith

Evan Lavender-Smith

I remember reading Derrida and becoming aware of the fact that I wasn’t really making any substantive leap from the words on the page to extra-textual referents, to anything out there in the world, and yet I was still very much desiring the continuation of the text, the extension of the text’s form in my mind. It seemed like I’d gained access to a secret or interior meaning, an alternate mode of reading and meaning–making in which the words accrued to refer to or establish some intra-textual formal intensity or truth. In Markson — in Reader’s Block, say — there’s always a point when the content begins to blur, when I’ve relaxed my vision of the novel’s surface in order to project my attention below or behind the language, to engage more viscerally with the novel’s form. Of conceptualism in general one might say that gestures of appropriation and repetition invite the reader to look past or beyond content and instead toward form and production (…)

Maybe this is just a fancy way of reframing or intellectualising the reader’s familiar claim that she had ‘fallen’ or ‘escaped’ into something called “the world of the book.” I suppose the difference here, with respect to the Derrida and Markson reading experiences, is that the “world of the book” is more closely aligned with the book’s form — perhaps its ‘texture,’ as you call it — than with its immediate content, with Markson’s specific anecdotes or Derrida’s specific abstractions. When I fall into the world of a Markson novel, I’m not picturing myself in some dilapidated Brooklyn flat surrounded by thousands of note cards each containing a single death-related literary anecdote; instead, I’ve become less interested in the anecdotes themselves, more interested in the rhythms of their presentation and my reception of those rhythms, their syntactic rhythms, of course, but also those rhythms I associate simply with the application of my consciousness to the book, or with the speeds and shapes of my consciousness as revealed by the book — with the form of the book and with the book’s formal effects on me.

read a longer excerpt from the interview online at Gorse Journal

the prism of literature

a double review of Franco Moretti’s The Bourgeois and Distant Reading

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For Moretti, there is something “ghostly” about the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie—once the essential “embodiment” of capitalism; now its obsolete cast-off. He examines this extinct species by excavating the “fossil remains” of its foremost literary record: the realist novel, a genre which György Lukács once called “bourgeois epic.” In fact, Moretti’s method in this book is as indebted to Lukács as to the laboratory. Like his Hungarian predecessor, he sees the true traces of social relations in literature’s form, not its content—as he asserts, “I found the bourgeois more in styles than in stories.” And although his stylistic analyses here draw on corpora, their attention to “the buried dimension of language” owes as much to a more old-fashioned approach: the commendably “close” cultural philology of an Erich Auerbach, or a Raymond Williams. So, Moretti sets out to study “the bourgeois, refracted through the prism of literature.” What this means is that he moves between social history and narrative structure, searching for “the fit between cultural forms and class realities.” Characteristically, he has little to say about characterisation, or plot. Moretti is much more concerned with the concrete behaviour of words on the page; with, say, “the oblique semantics of Victorian adjectives,” or “the role of the gerund in Robinson Crusoe.” In his hands, however, this apparently arid approach proves so revealing that it partly bears out the bold claim, “the past speaks to us only through the medium of form.”

read the rest in the Times Literary Supplement