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.
an essay on Lydia Davis’s novel The End of the Story
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.
a review of D.N. Rodowick’s Elegy for Theory
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.
a conversation about literature and philosophy with 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.