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.
an essay on Gabriel Josipovici’s novel Hotel Andromeda, and on Joseph Cornell
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.
an interview with Lydia Davis
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.