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Reading on Election Day or: The impossible, the absurd and the grotesque

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The impossibility of politics and Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

Macon Holt

Whatever happens today with the U.S. there will be something disappointing about it. Unless you naively think, as Slavoj Žižek does, that a rupture of neoliberal capitalism’s support system, in the U.S.A’s political establishment, with a Trump victory, outweighs the possibility of a resurgent savage fascism, or that a Clinton victory (aside from the symbolic function of Clinton’s gender in the development of North America’s national mythology) will be anything other than a continuation of the status quo, disappointment abounds. My own position is that you never let a fascist take power, so that is the principle I’ll cling to as the radio wakes me tomorrow morning with the news of the results.

Wallace’s challenging but engaging, and most of the time hilarious, writing reveals the persistent pain of a society in which politics (meaning the capacity to make decisions that can affect meaningful beneficial change) is no longer possible.

Under such a conditions, it is easy to relate to a remark made by infinite jestFranco ‘Bifo’ Berardi at an event I attended a few years back, that “politics is no longer possible”. But that was a few years back, and referred then to the manufactured inertia of neoliberalism, under which the only political decision taken could not be said to be “political” at all, but only automatic functions determined entirely by what the market would tolerate. This situation, however, seems to have made something else unfortunately possible. Now it seems, with the rise of right-wing xenophobia, that decisions are being made without consideration for the market at all, but also without consideration for any humans that “The People” don’t directly know and like…

Good God! I’m already of off track. Basically, if you want to develop some of the tools to process all of this
purposefully confusing, boring and terrifying stuff that we are expected to accept a key part of reality, I’d recommend you read
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. Written 20 years ago, like numerous other pieces of speculative science fiction, the novel has proven to be remarkably prescient (in terms of the degradation of political discourse, worsening ecological conditions, increasing anxiety about terrorist activities, and the evermore personalised and isolating entertainment). But aside from the Nostradamian qualities, the strength of the novel derives from its attention to how these seemingly huge ideas of political economy affects the inner lives of the characters. Wallace’s challenging but engaging, and most of the time hilarious, writing reveals the persistent pain of a society in which politics (meaning the capacity to make decisions that can affect meaningful beneficial change) is no longer possible.

The book may appear heavy on predicament and light on solutions but a hopefulness permeates it. The source of this hope, and how we might realise it remains, however, elusive over the half-million words of the novel. This may be a lesson in itself, in that solutions to our intractable moment don’t lend themselves to easy sound bite and require more from us than we are perhaps willing to give. At least for now.

But with all that said, the length of the novel should mean that it will keep you occupied from the morning of the 9th until inauguration day, so it may at least offer a diverting respite.

The absurd is real and White Noise by Don DeLillo

Emilie Bang-Jensen

It’s been about 10 years since I first read White Noise by Don DeLillo, but its feeling of postmodern absurdity still hasn’t left me. On a day like this, where the fate of millions – all over the world – will be decided by a broken democratic system (with at least one decidedly anti-democratic choice on the menu) what better concepts could there be to describe such an atmosphere.

DeLillo manages to weave the whole condition of postmodernity into this family drama, where the way of being in the world is dictated not by rationality, beauty or truth, but by an overpowering sense of disempowerment.

white noiseDeLillo’s White Noise is generally perceived as his break-through novel, and 17-year-old-me had definitely never read anything like it before. 17-year-old-me also did not know that the novel is actually from 1985 and thus, just like Wallace’s Infinite Jest (see above), uncannily precise about future predicaments. I felt I had been firmly planted right in the center of my own, then contemporary, 2006-conundrums.

Welcome to 2016, where the novel’s unexplained overhanging “Airborne Toxic Event” seems the perfect metaphor for this approaching election. This indefinable yet potentially lethal happening pervades the whole story, in which the married couple Jack and Babette make decisions based solely on their fear of death. Babette becomes addicted to a drug that promises to dispel the fear but may cause side effects such as losing the ability to “distinguish words from things”, and Jack experiments with homicide to find a similar solution.

The absurdity is made even more so by the way that life proceeds as normal, with supermarket shopping, raising kids, and absorbing the mass media of the TV and radio. DeLillo manages to weave the whole condition of postmodernity into this family drama, where the way of being in the world is dictated not by rationality, beauty or truth, but by an overpowering sense of disempowerment.

All in all, a perfect read for this election cycle. I am not sure if there is any hope, except the fact that Jack and Babette’s youngest kid manages to make it over a highway on his tricycle without dying. I suppose that signals something.

 

 Grotesque times and Ill Fares the Land by Tony Judt

Franek Korbanski

As tomorrow’s read I want to recommend Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land. I do, despite the awareness that not many may be inclined to seriously entertain an idea of reading about something that nowadays can only too easily be characterised as the ‘comically or repulsively ugly’, or ‘distorted’, or ‘incongruous’, or ‘inappropriate to a shocking degree’, or ‘wildly formed’, or ‘of irregular proportions’, or ‘boldly odd’, i.e. about something which can be seen as an incarnation of the dictionary definition of the word grotesque. Given what we have just been through, my fear is not many may be willing to read about politics.

If Ill Fares the Land has a potential to brighten today’s darkness, it is not because of the particular solution it makes a case for, but because it reminds us that what we observe today, is just one among many possibilities of politics rather than politics itself.

ill-fares-the-landAnd I do not mean American political scene only. This presidential race is simply the most flashy example of a more widespread tendency, if only because America traditionally excels in showmanship. But in what we have observed throughout the process culminating today, citizens of many European countries can easily sense the narratives, sentiments and themes that are only too familiar from their own courtyards (or vice versa, if your standpoint is American). In this sense today’s event is not really a matter of life and death for the grotesque, it is rather purely symbolic: regardless of the results, the overall condition of politics will remain, more or less, the same. Even if  this ‘more’ has never meant as much as it does today.

It seems that, on both sides of Atlantic, western democracies do not even struggle anymore to keep any appearances of seriousness, they simply choose straight out cynicism. And surprisingly, they seem to get away with it: Because we get tired, we cannot be bothered to care anymore. Thus turning into the grotesque, politics prevents itself from being taken seriously. Trump is not so much the problem but merely its brightest illustration.

As is often the case, the sense the something is wrong is palpable; it is the elusive nature of this something that is much harder to pinpoint. Judt’s book central concern is to address this issue, engaging in a reflection on the interrelation between historical, economical and ideological shifts of the 20th and 21st century western party-politics scene. It is thanks to this broad perspective that Judt achieves enough distance to be able to look at where we are now, and although his book is now six years old, it’s central and titular thesis is as relevant today as ever. His social democratic stance, clearly articulated in the book, does not decrease this appeal. If Ill Fares the Land has a potential to brighten today’s darkness, it is not because of the particular solution it makes a case for, but because it reminds us that what we observe today, is just one among many possibilities of politics rather than politics itself. Which given where we are today, is a lot indeed.

 

Artwork by Sarah Ommanney 

1 Comment

  1. […] the Presidential Election Day I mused—together with Macon Holt and Emilie Bang-Jensen—on which books would serve us well the coming days, should worst come to worst, which we can now pretty safely assume, it did. Not that we were […]

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