a review of Jane Unrue’s Love Hotel
The novel’s knowledge of the connection between the seen and the unseen—between what O’Connor calls “the concrete world” and its invisible outside or underside—is best captured by a description of classical statues. “Their gaze was collective,” Unrue writes, “trained upon a destination too distant, formless, timeless for the living person even to envisage.” The passage recalls both the disturbingly “eyeless” taxi driver who transports the narrator to the couple’s estate, and her encounter with a portrait whose “eyes appeared to gaze into the eyes of someone something just behind the painter.” Each of these sights could be said to express what she calls “patterns of anticipation”—where anticipation, much like desire, is largely defined by the absence of information. Of course, describing this absence gets us no closer to an account of what Unrue’s mysterious book is “about.” But maybe it helps us to formulate what it feels like to read it. So, here goes: reading Love Hotel feels like tracing someone’s gaze as they stare at something you can’t see. Or like feeling someone or something moving behind you, and turning to find nothing there. That tracing, that turning, that feeling marks the way art draws us into its mystery: the clocks stop, the world falls away, and suddenly, somehow, something appears.
a review of Jessica Pressman’s Digital Modernism
Pressman’s historical picture is one of subtle parallels and recurrences, rather than dramatic ruptures. This nuanced approach yields numerous insights. Most notably, it helps to deflate the rhetoric of division that has often dominated both academic and public discussions of the digital. As Pressman argues, such debates have been beset by a simplistic tendency to “see difference wherever there’s digitality”, whether in the case of doom-mongering declarations of the death of print (her preferred example is Robert Coover’s 1992 article “The End of Books,” but there are many more) or overstatements of the radical “newness” of new technologies. In this regard, her reading of Ulysses is especially suggestive. Building on Hugh Kenner’s earlier observations, Pressman posits the novel’s “Ithaca” section as a pre-digital instance of a “database aesthetic”. In so doing, she develops a deft critique of the idea that “narrative and database” are necessarily separate entities. As she reminds us, questions about “the relationship between interpretation and information, between reading and data” are among the most pressing issues facing “the humanities in a digital age”.
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.