Author Archives: Phil
UPDATE! See the end for added infuriating irony.
So here’s a nice little big of irony. I wanted to write a tiny blog post, something aphoristic about the choices that get made at crucial points in the development of a technology, after which it becomes seemingly impossible to get away from them. There are plenty of examples, of which one of the most interesting to me is “the file” in computing. (Read Jaron Lanier’s book, YOU ARE NOT A GADGET, for something on that.)
Another example: using fossil fuels. You get the idea. It’s called a “lock-in” and it’s interesting.
I was going to post something like: In the future, one of the greatest markets will be silence, simplicity and disconnection. You’ll pay more for a hotel room without internet access than for one with. A premium ebook device will be one that does not contain hyperlinks. Classes in concentration will be the most valuable (overcharged) seminars for productivity enthusiasts.
I don’t have my laptop on me, so I took out my iPhone and saw that my WordPress app “needed” to be updated. Which means: I hadn’t paid attention to the app in months. Foolishly, I updated it. And the app looked pretty different. There are NEW FEATURES. There’s an IMPROVED INTERFACE. My posts on this blog appear in an order I don’t understand; my login credentials didn’t work for 15 minutes. My phone’s autocorrect function has made this post difficult to write: “ebook” became “rebook”, “Jaron” became “Yeats” and “Lanier” was “learner” or something. I got a text while writing, which distracted me. Then the phone rang.
So I hope my dystopia comes true and I can really purchase my way out of this universe of distractions someday.
UPDATE: Upon hitting “post” on my WordPress app, I saw in my Twitter feed that it had been automatically shared on my Twitter account (I opted out of that at least one year ago) — and clicking through led me to this site, to a post that didn’t exist. Really. The app said the post had been published; the internet said otherwise. Logging in to my WordPress on a computer just now, it wasn’t even saved in drafts. Yet the WordPress app “published it” AND announced it through my Twitter feed. How beautiful all of this is. (Yes, I had to EMAIL THIS POST TO MYSELF FROM THE APP.)
Just finished William Gaddis’s third novel, Carpenter’s Gothic. I’d been meaning to read it and, knowing I’d be out at sea for a few days, figured now was the time.
The problem is that with a Gaddis novel, now is never really the time. His books are all-consuming and time-consuming at the same time; you need to focus, but the focus must also be sustained. I think of his novels as the sort to force the cultivation of focus, not just its exercise: you go into them expecting to struggle, but in fact the struggle isn’t even the hardest bit. What’s hardest is learning to struggle, figuring out what kind of attention you need to be paying, and for how long each moment of effort will go on.
Carpenter’s Gothic is — if you exclude Agape Agape, which I would not call a novel in any significant sense — Gaddis’s shortest novel, and I read it relatively quickly. But then, I set myself high standards when I was reading The Recognitions: six months of nothing but reading that, more than once, carefully, adoringly. JR took about a month.
Everything in Carpenter’s Gothic happens in a single house built in the style suggested by the title: wooden, derivative, or, in the words of a central character, “a patchwork of conceits, borrowings, deceptions, the inside’s a hodgepodge of good intentions like one last ridiculous effort at something worth doing even on this small a scale…” What I quoted is a passage I’ve seen a few times in Gaddis criticism, and having read the novel I understand its importance. This novel is bursting with characters trying to make do with what is there, and often doing it badly, miserably.
The back cover copy on my edition calls this a “tempestuous comic novel” — if this is a comic novel, I’ve lost my funnies. I feel almost dead after reading it, much as I did when I finished JR. The humor is there, but it’s not funny very often. This is not a drawback. Whatever remains lighthearted throughout the book serves a higher purpose than providing laughter. It is relief from the endless sense of gloom and sadness. The Recognitions has moments of utter hilarity to it, frequent moments, but it, too, is generally bleak. The difference is partly in this novel’s conciseness. There’s less scope for digression, and jokes aren’t really useful here the way they are in the longer books.
Instead, what drives things forward here seems to be a kind of playful seriousness, of taking cliches seriously enough that they no longer need satirizing or lamenting. So you have a truly horrible, lying abuser of a husband, his wife utterly frozen with fear and longing and a mysterious artist figure/geologist with whom she goes for her affair. You have the irresponsible and impressionable younger brother, the Christian fundamentalists as idiotic as they ever are portrayed in fiction, the dubious strangers walking into the house.
Gaddis mentioned in an interview I read once that he was playing with cliches, but this wasn’t what you’d expect. The cliches here are purely formal; he departs from them. It’s a remarkable, unsettling thing to see cliches stripped of their power. Films like Shrek find almost all their strength in their clever subversion of the hackneyed and the eye-rollingly obvious; the Austin Powers films, too, take what we all know about spy films and just nod along with us as we delightedly identify the things being skewered. I’ve been trained, by my own prejudices and by a very powerful culture of sarcastification, to see a distance from boring tropes as a way to keep them at bay.
But Carpenter’s Gothic is an example of what Slavoj Zizek often goes back to in his early work: overidentification, or taking the dominant ideology so seriously that you actually end up displacing it. It’s a fascinating idea, one of my favorite little parts of Zizek’s explicitly Lacanian work, and of course Gaddis did this perfectly well in JR, too — but here it’s the formal aspect of the novel’s power that springs from overidentification. This abusive husband, Paul, is truly a wretched creature, but for whatever damned reason, a relatable monster; this powerless wife, Liz, probably the closest thing to a protagonist here, is not an idealized sufferer who could only be rescued by the shadowy artist, McCandless — and he finds no redemption either, because he is naive and cynical at every step. These people rant and lie to each other, ignore the moments of truth as so much more irrelevance, and suffer in absolute isolation. It’s glorious. You forget that you’ve seen this a million times, that of course the affair was going to come, that of course the house is somehow symbolic in this way and that. The far-fetched coincidences are not a relief.
The escape from Gaddis’s narrator’s unrelenting exteriority comes only from the inner despair betrayed by what the characters say to each other, even as they’re being ignored. It’s by listening to them that you get any sense of who they are. And if the reader doesn’t listen, it’s likely nobody else will, either. It’s a chaos of babbling and contradiction in that house. I loved it and want to die.
If there’s been any easily identifiable shift in my attitude toward life in the last couple of years, it is one that has also left me feeling much better off in the world: the shift from feeling sorry for those who, if they are mentioned at all in footnotes in someone else’s memoirs, are simply forgotten as soon as they die, to pitying those who think it’s a shame not even to make it into a footnote.
Striking to observe how difficult the idea of “waste” has become. Whatever “wasting something” really means isn’t obvious.
If you can use it again, keep it.
If you have no use for it anymore but it could be absorbed by another process, you’re recycling.
If you accidentally spilled it, take a picture and call it art.
It could sound like I’m being facetious but I’m not. There’s a moralistic, patronizing element to the condemnation of wastage. When the cost of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral was announced, one of the saner common responses to the announcement was the simple question of where else that money could have gone. In other words: What a waste.
It’s not that by being anti-Thatcher you are necessarily smarter about wasting things. Yes, a deeply conservative antagonism to some perceived decline in cultural standards suggests the regret that so much of worth in what has shaped one’s culture should “go to waste” amid the rabble and the babble; but the revolutionary spirit itself, especially when animated by the desire for bloodshed (or the terribly sorry necessity of it) brings with it another standard of wastage. Can human life be wasted? My ideologically inflected answer is: sure. But what kind of waste is impermissible? The genocidal? The plotted? An unfulfilled life? An unexamined one? A godless, hedonistic fall into hell?
Online culture, home of the new utopians, is one of the best examples of the trouble with waste as a concept. Whether it’s Clay Shirky with his “cognitive surplus” or Chris Anderson with his “long tail,” there seems to be a (perhaps imaginary, but too easily imagined) consensus on the matter: waste is difficult. Remixing and resampling is easy, and sharing is easy, so whatever old material you find, you can reuse artistically. No waste. Or: It costs little to store enormous collections of music in the cloud, so even if, out of all the available music, only a fraction of it actually generates real money on its own, the sales from the rest will also be significant taken together. No waste.
Thus, abruptly, ends my catechism.
Let me link you to one of the best, most bizarre articles I’ve read in months.
It’s a long one. I don’t want to ruin it, because its effect comes, partly, from the author’s deft suspense-building.
The world is full of crazies. Remember how pleased I was just from a bit of internet trolling? I hate having to admit I’ve been surpassed like this.
Yeah, fine, it’s already halfway into the month and I should have advertised it two weeks ago, but I’ve been busy neglecting to do that, so I didn’t get a chance to do it.
Praise of Motherhood is just $0.99 as a Kindle ebook this month. It’s been nominated for ForeWord’s Book of the Year award, and it’s got lots of nice reviews from people on blogs, magazines, and Goodreads. If that doesn’t sell it, it… has… a foreword from Caleb J Ross, who is nice, and… doesn’t… feature…
… vampires. I think.
Please buy my book. Please. Please.
Look at the goddamned cat. It’s frickin’ adorable. Buy the damned book.
Hegel’s Ladder by HS Harris is an incredible book for those who want to get to grips with Hegel’s Phenomenology. It’s also one of those stupidly expensive academic books — the first volume (there are two in total), even with Amazon’s discount, is $140. Yes, academic books are more expensive, and geared at a different readership, and will be purchased, very often, by institutions rather than by little folks. But it’s still a huge amount to pay for a single book. It isn’t like there’s a “Look Inside” function. There’s no ebook.
And there’s the collection of critical evaluations of Lacan that you can buy, right now, for a measly $1500.
I’m certainly very aware that almost nobody is going to want to buy those books anyway. But when you type in the name of a book like Hegel’s Ladder on Google, it automatically suggests “hegel’s ladder pdf”, which is suggestive. And anyway, the very existence of sites like aaaaarg.org is evidence, as if anyone needed it, that people DO want access to expensive academic books. They’ll share them illegally if they must.
Hey, even at Zero we have titles that I think are priced too highly (though I would say the one I just linked is worth it). Sometimes you don’t feel you’re going to recoup the costs by releasing a book, and in fact you’re pretty sure you’re heroic for even taking it on.
But a grand and a half for a book, when it’s listed on Amazon, is depressing. I’ve been talking to others in my company for a few months now about trying to do something that would make certain kinds of academic books (credible ones) cheaper to buy, easier to sell. No obvious solutions, even with the obvious problems, but it’s one of those things that sticks out in my mind as “worthy of tackling.”
My faithful friend and reader, the novelist Sarah Martinez, suggested I write a blog post on whether I think men can be feminists.
The short answer is that I think the question frames things in an unhelpful, group-narcissistic way. A serious commitment to change, of the sort that is not safe and perfectly within the coordinates of what’s acceptable at almost any level, is accessible to all and accessed by very few.
One of the first things you learn when as an undergraduate was that any ism, from atheism to anarchism to seemingly more narrowly defined things like Trotskyism, is going to be open to continual and sometimes violent reinterpretation. This is especially clear when you’re a nineteen-year-old student and you see your professors — people who have been at it much longer than you have — disagreeing on even some of the most basic things that would seem to unite them in a political or academic cause.
From context to context, you’ll find that what feminism “is” changes on a profound level. In one school of thought, gender identity is socially constructed, and has no essence of its own; it doesn’t actually exist in a meaningful way, and may be modified or at least subverted. In another school of thought, there is an essential difference between women and men, a difference that goes beyond anatomical differences, and the major political issue is identifying and correcting, as much as possible, the points at which those differences lead to oppression or inequality. There are other basic perspectives, some extremely abstract and beyond the grasp of the uninitiated, others annoyingly lazy and simplistic.
If there’s no agreement on what feminism is, then the definition of membership is also left open. My feeling is that the very idea of membership is a problem, and that whether someone “is” or “is not” a feminist hardly matters outside of the context in which that discussion takes place. We can all agree to be feminists, but only some of us are really going to go out there and do things that bring change. For that, yes, I think men and women can both be feminists, because action is tough and potentially socially isolating.
To be clear, I’m not saying that the question of whether one should espouse feminist values is not important. It is. My own understanding of the differences in how men and women are treated and treat themselves has only been sharpened by my being chided by feminists here, repulsed by male sexism there. Being called out on a dumb opinion or behavior has helped me, not just in that moment, but later, when, having thought about the criticism (sometimes indignantly), I observed the validity of that criticism in other people’s behavior.
A deep and difficult commitment to a cause is, I think, the only useful test. If I’m a feminist and you’re a feminist, but you’re the one who is very actively trying to redress the balance, in whichever way you deem the most effective (protesting, dressing differently, creating unexpected female characters in art, questioning academic givens, ignoring the warnings and actually going for a top position in an industry dominated by men), then I need to concede that, however aligned our interests may be, you are the one helping move things forward.
I put the emphasis on real-life action, and serious commitment, for two main reasons.
- It’s easy to identify publicly as something, anything: concerned with the “starving kids in Africa”, upset about people in North Korea, heroically anti-capitalist or anti-whatever else. Such identifications are, depressingly often, meaningless. Especially in a culture of self-promotion madness and social media-constructed alter egos, what people tell you they are is always going to be dubious until you see that part of their identity in action.
- If feminism were simply a matter of dogma, and you could just verify that someone’s actions were in line with the explicitly stated intentions and guidelines of the group, things would be pretty easy to sort out. But like any loose-knit group of tenets and ideals, feminism will be most powerfully defined by the actions of those who take it seriously, even without having figured it all out.