Wednesday, November 30, 2005

On Proust




With two months left until I must return to school, I have recently immersed myself once again in the most enjoyable of all the books I was assigned last Spring, of which I had previously read only what was required and not more: Remembrance of Things Past, by Marcel Proust. And, as was the case in the Spring, I am beginning to experience Proustian moments interpolated into my normal days. More so than any other author I have ever read, Proust's language affects my thoughts and words, injecting a complexity of vision and consequently of sentence construction, that perhaps he best describes in relation to the Swann family:

"Sitting alone, I continued to fashion remarks such as might have pleased or amused the Swanns, and to make this pastime more entertaining I myself took the parts of those absent players, putting to myself fictitious questions so chosen that my brilliant epigrams served simply as apt repartee. Though conducted in silence, this exercise was none the less a conversation and not a meditation, my solitude a mental social round in which it was not I myself but imaginary interlocutors who controlled my choice of words, and in which, as I formulated, instead of the thoughts that I believed to be true, those that came easily to my mind and involved no retrogression from the outside inwards, I experienced the sort of pleasure, entirely passive, which sitting still affords to anyone who is burdened with a sluggish digestion." (623)


Proust, as an imaginary interlocutor, offers subtle commentaries on the microphysics of memory and imagination as they operate in the complex fields of social interaction and aesthetic appreciation. He confers upon those he inhabits the occasional benediction of a moment of conscious perception that would otherwise have passed by and become, as the true title of his novel suggests, temp perdu, or lost time. For in truth every hour of one's life--every social interaction, every sensation, every (environ)mental context--is replete with those forms of thought and action that fall subject to the laws of Habit, deriving alternately from social convention or personal developmental contingency. We are not used to dredging up the processes of our consciousness for microscopic examination, but Proust's narrative voice reflects on us the hypersensitivity and perceptiveness that is required not only to follow his thoughts but to form our own analogous thoughts regarding our own phenomenologies of experience.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

November's Advance

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Philip K. Dick



Back To Utopia
Can the antidote to today's neoliberal triumphalism be found in the pages of far-out science fiction?
By Joshua Glenn
The Boston Globe, November 20, 2005


I have been a big fan of Philip K. Dick for most of my life. I have probably read 10-15 of his novels and the majority of his short stories. I have never written about him, however, because I guess I mostly considered him a guilty pleasure. I was aware that science fiction novels have become a hot topic for postmodern theorists of late; earlier this year I read Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction, by Scott Bukatman, which spins not only Dick, Delany and Gibson into theories of subjectivity in the age of Internet but also manages to pull in Lisberger's Tron and Cronenberg's Videodrome to the same critical framework, proving once again that theory can be synthesized from the oddest of sources if you look hard enough (and if you know what you are looking for). The Boston Globe article above refers to a new book by the eminent postmodern theorist Frederic Jameson that attempts to draw from Dick, Delany, Le Guin, and others to illustrate the cultural turn from anti-utopianism to anti-anti-utopianism in the face of the onset of the inescapable, inexhaustible logic of late capitalism ("It's only when people come to realize that there is no alternative," he said, "that they react against it, at least in their imaginations, and try to think of alternatives.") Interesting, I guess. I might check the book out. I might not. I'm pretty tired of theory, actually.

I prefer to think of Dick as one of the most prolific schizophrenics of the twentieth century. He actually wasn't that good of a novelist; the majority of his novels, in my experience, seem to end when he feels like cutting them off, not when things are tied up nicely or when meaning is finally and totally revealed. Rather, Dick's talent was a sort of creative mania that unfolded in more and more brilliant forms as his novels progressed. He seemed to have no end to the supply of fucked-up worlds in his psyche. Post-apocalyptic societies, mutants, psychopaths, androids, precogs, demiurges, dreams, nightmares, visions, drugs--they just poured out of the man's brain, and for those of us who get off on that stuff, Dick is perhaps even worthy of the nickname that many of his followers gave him: Saint Phil (part of the reason for this epithet was the series of mystical visions that Dick himself claimed to have experienced in 1974, and which marked a turning point in his life).

I'm not really sure about what Jameson says, but it seems to me that if Dick is an example of anything it is not of the onset of late capitalism but rather of the potential for extreme creative fertility to result from the one-two-three combo of early exposure to science fiction, serious psychological aberrancy, and lots and lots of powerful drugs.

I hope to reread his stuff one of these days, and I pray that my exposure to theory will not ruin the experience.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Young Writers

I read two novels over the past week by young writers who have received a great deal of critical acclaim. First, I read Indecision, by Benjamin Kunkel, and then I read White Teeth, by Zadie Smith. (Oddly enough, both have connections to Harvard: Kunkel graduated there after attending Deep Springs; Smith teaches there).

I was very disappointed with Kunkel's first literary offering, especially considering the fact that I consider myself a big fan of his new magazine, n+1. The story was about one Dwight Wilmerding, who is fired from his entry-level job at Pfizer and decides (for once) to take two steps towards solving his problem of chronic indecision: he starts to take Abulinix, an experimental new drug that is supposed to treat said condition, and he buys a ticket to Quito, Ecuador to visit an old high school friend of his. Dwight is a pretty average, unappealing, self-centered American twentysomething who occasionally has something quasi-philosophical to say. The narrative reminds me somewhat of Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which also stars a narcissistic, overly self-conscious hero, but whereas Eggers is relentlessly aware of/obsessed with his narrative's flaws and turns much of the book into meta-commentary, Kunkel seems for the most part unaware that his prose is anything but erudite, resembling a bad comedy routine much more than a good narrative (not that I am a fan of AHWoSG). I could analyze this book more in depth, but I really don't feel like it.

White Teeth is a good book, but not as good as I had hoped. Smith is a much better writer, a much better storyteller, a master of a diverse set of idioms that are woven together nicely. Archibald Jones is a character that resembles Dwight in his inability to make decisions (they share a preference for coin-tosses), but luckily Archie is just one of the nodes in the web of personalities making up Smith's North London mix of first, second, and third generation Jamaican- and Bengali- immigrants who may or may not be "more English than the English". I thought that the story lost some of its steam about halfway through, when the utter banality and fixity of the lives of the characters seems to get the better of Smith's narrative skill. In the end, I found the book too full of those partial characters who are so stuck within the confines of their definition and role that they lack any spark of consciousness and thus ultimately become tiresome. The end of the book shows that Smith can follow through, that despite her young age she knows how to work those narrative arcs into perfect circles, to turn the contingent into the provident--not to eliminate randomness completely (as the Chalfens would have it) but to transmute it into beauty. I can't help but think, however, that the acclaim she (rightly) got for this first novel was perhaps inflated due to the simultaneity of its release with the heyday of the postcolonial studies vogue.

Another reason I have perhaps been overly critical of these two books is that the other two books I have read recently were The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera, and If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, by Italo Calvino, both of which (especially the latter) I found to be beautiful works of fiction of the highest order.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

On Our Narcissism

The Overpraised American
By Christine Rosen
http://www.policyreview.org/oct05/rosen.html

This is a longish article that does a really good job of analyzing the state of our culture, using as its lens the 1979 book by Christopher Lasch entitled The Culture of Narcisissm. I basically agree with most of the things the author says, and I think she does a really good job of making her social theory both accessible and relatively well-grounded in (occasionally stretched) empirical (and clinical) data. I know it's long, and relentlessly cynical, but it is definitely worth at least attempting to read, for its criticism, at least for me, strikes not just at THEM but at US.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Meta Blog



Why is it that I am so bad a blogging? I guess I just can't bring any sort of regularity to my private writings so that displaying them would not cause me embarrassment. I have enough problems with developing my "voice" already without having to worry about an everpresent public forum.

I have done quite a bit recently. I just got back from Chicago, which I fell in love with. I went 5 for 11 with 3 walks in my brother's baseball tournament. I went to a White Sox game. I met some cool Chicago peeps. I went to a model party. I drove from Chicago, IL to Gas City, IN, to Lansing, MI, back to Chicago, IL. I attended a video game conference (the first of several--the next starts tomorrow in NYC).

The highlight of Future Play was meeting a guy who was an assistant professor at MSU, who was interested in socio-historical strategy games (Civilization, Age of Empires, etc.) and their "orientalizing' effects on historical understanding. It's something I am thinking of turning my thesis into.

Another cool part of my trip was visiting MSU's collection of The Masses, a Marxist magazine that ran during the 1910s but was shut down by the government in 1918. I took many photos of cartoons, especially those by Arthur Young, my favorite cartoonist. Here are a few, and here are a few more:






Sunday, September 11, 2005

Structuralism

Just stumbled on this definition of structuralism from Roman Jakobson in 1929:

The mode in which "any set of phenomena examined by contemporary science is treated not as a mechanical agglomeration but as a structural whole [in which] the mechanical conception of processes yields to the question of their function" ("Romantic" 711)