A few months ago, I became incredibly drunk while catching up with a friend of mine, the writer of strange and sadly funny stories of social commentary, Luke Hilton, when I hit upon a way to articulate something that had been playing on my mind for a while. Of course owing to the effects alcohol can have on brain chemistry, and the specific and aggregate context that constitutes a long conversation with an old friend, all I can present here is a partial account of what felt to me at the time to be a profound insight.
Basically, I am continually troubled by the idea that when I try to express something, I am always engaged in some sort of obfuscation. That in some way I am keeping an arm’s length from some vague notion of genuine expression or communication; a truth I am not always sure that exists and, indeed, I am often strongly of the opinion that it does not.
This is a problem I find in reading (or other media consumption) as much as in writing. When I read something that gestures towards some sort of political analysis or that rails against systemic injustice, while I may well agree with what the work communicates proposition by proposition, I find I am left cold, as all that is said there seems reducible to some ideal abstraction. On the other hand, if I read something deeply personal, while I may be thrilled by the moments of identification and empathic sparks, I am often left feeling as if the experience is taking place in a void, where the scale and complexity of our entanglement in the world has been neglected.
An example of the former could be Paul Murray’s The Mark and The Void, a metafictional satire/heist novel about the financial crisis. Murray has a raucous fun writing a version of himself as a supporting character into his tale of Claude, a disillusioned French philosophy student turned banker, and indeed much of it is effective. His invention of snippets of theory from a fictional continental philosopher (leaning heavily on Baudrillard) add conceptual depth to well-trodden ground of the mocking the vulgarities of financial capitalism.
However, what irritates me is that this depth seems to stop at the edge of his satirical target. When it comes to his character’s inner lives all we know is that Claude is sad because he left behind part of his life (the study of continental philosophy) that he thought added depth, the novel’s Paul Murray is bitter and fame hungry after the success of another novel he feels heavily plagiarized his previous one, and that Ariadne, a waitress/artist, is desirable to Claude because she (and series of artworks called “Simulacrum”) presents him with a way to contact something he finds significant. This is all there is to the characters who form the frame of metafictional devices. That being said, it is an ingeniously constructed device, which illustrates the conceptual relationship between the stories that structure the operations of markets and the stories of novels. This is a clever point but is left feeling light as it is enacted by character-shaped-entities rather than fully fleshed out characters. In short, we see how people are shaped by systems but not how such system emerge from people.
Perhaps though what Murray is most guilty of, through no fault of his own, is that his writing reminds me of some of my own attempts at fiction. There is something in the use of humour that I find reflects elements of my personality I would rather be without; a certain need to win the approval of an audience that I simultaneously somewhat despise; an audience that are entirely of my own subconscious invention. This is not to say that I think my writing is bad in some sort of self pitying way. In fact I think, save for a little editing, it is a pretty good example of what it is, and the same is true of The Mark and The Void. It is simply that it isn’t what I thought I would make. It seemed something automatic took place, that this was the content I felt safe in producing and, therefore, also disappointing.
For an example of the later problem we can perhaps look to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, specifically the first volume, which I have actually read. (I’m sure there are some readers who would suggest that as I have not read all six volumes of Knausgaard’s Proustian autobiographical epic I should not comment on the work, especially as he goes on about the Nazi’s later on. To those people I say, what is the only part of In Search of Lost Time that people actually talk about? That’s right, it’s the stuff about the madeleine cake from Swan’s Way, otherwise known as the first one or the one people have actually read).
There are moments in this books that give the rush of empathic understanding mentioned above. Knausgaard’s evocation of sneaking out to get drunk on New Year’s Eve, stemming from a moment’s distraction in the present of writing, is a subtle depiction of the intoxication of nostalgia that is inescapably entangled in the production of personal identity. But the odd thing is that for all Knausgaard’s ruminations on masculinity and his father’s role in forming this complex within him, the buck kind of stops in his small Norwegian home town. There is no real attempt to connect this to something related to power, like say patriarchy, even if the word itself would stick out in the context of the memoire. Instead, while we are left to see the relationship between Karl and his father as a not entirely universal but nonetheless general phenomena, we aren’t dealing with the pathologies produced through the ossification of structure of power, but looking into the problems of human nature. This is a conclusion that not only offers no hope to the reader, beyond knowing there are others out there who share your problems, but is not actually that interesting as Knausgaard’s anxieties just hang there as a kernel of beautiful incomprehensible traumas.
Of course, and while this is not necessarily the purpose of literature, knowing that your problems are in part the result of a vast and complicated network of power does little to resolve them for you. Knowledge of such abstract notions is never enough to improve the conditions in which you find yourself, for this you really need some kind of empathetic connection, which Knausgaard can produce seemingly at will. However, such moments of connection can feel fragile. So fragile, that were they to be run through a set of theoretical tools the fear would be that they would be chewed up and lost, like a tape in some sort of machine… from the 90s.
However, I think that engagement with certain theory has helped me to articulate the problem to myself, if not here in this piece. That trying to attach a theoretical significance to a work runs the risk of diluting, or presents an obstacle to, personal expression and connection. Many of the most prominent theoretical perspectives can reduce everything to fit within a closed framework. Adornian pessimism requires artworks made within capitalism to be reduced to reified commodities, Freudian perspectives require a root, familial trauma and the Lacanian developments of this require that this trauma be nested within the subject’s relation language. Even my reading throughout this piece has been inflected with a Foucauldian perspective that sees everything through the distribution of power.
The problem is that when we use these devices we run the risk of flattening the communicative motion, to force it to fit within a pre-established frame of what we believe is being communicated. We can ignore which doesn’t fit, and then laud our conquest of the text’s underlying meaning. Even theory that would argue that there is no underlying meaning in a text can produce analysis that insists on one, which fits comfortably into the frame of analysis to the exclusion of others.
But at the same time if we don’t use some kind of tools of framing or perspective in reading or writing we can end up creating work that can seem confused. Groping for meaning into an amorphous marass. The trick is to not confuse the creation of the distinctions and categories that these tools require with discovering something true. We are adding, not excavating. So, if you are looking to create work that makes some sort of theoretical intervention, it needs to be through how you construct the boundaries that you will work within, rather than excluding things for the sake a snug fit.
Instead of resolution what I think we need is a continuous process of negotiation, where the tension this produces itself is productive of works that can trouble what we expect the project of writing to be.
If I were to be Adornian, I would insist that this apparent impasse should function as a dialectic (wherein the thesis of the noble pursuit of human qua human communication is scuppered by the antithesis of individulistic fetishishm). A dialectic that must be resolved as some new synthesis. But something leaves me anxious about this approach. That to merely resolve the tension between these positions that I have outlined here, would itself do a disservice to the objectives of art works made with either of these intention at their core.
What I mean by this could be summed up if one were to think of a charge level at works often by female authors that have some feminist themes. Such works are often criticised as being “self-involved”, and while this may well undeniably be the case for some, others are misunderstood while making a significant theoretical intervention through the personal. It is only by spending time, getting uncomfortably close to the personal that we can access the ambiguous space where what it is that defines you owes much more to the world around you than you fellow denizens would perhaps like to admit. By taking the time to really excavate the personal we can ask serious questions about how it got there in the first place and why we even consider it personal.
Instead of resolution what I think we need is a continuous process of negotiation, where the tension this produces itself is productive of works that can trouble what we expect the project of writing to be. Although, as solutions go, perhaps something less vague would be preferable, if near impossible to concretely articulate. So in lieu of firm conclusions I would like to leave you with a (mostly American) list of recent of four works I think manage this tension well….
10:04 — Ben Lerner
The Wallcreeper — Nell Zink
Bret Easton Ellis and Other Dogs — Lina Wolff
Richard Yates — Tao Lin
I’ll probably return to this idea one day soon..