Archive for the ‘Alienation’ Category

The New Aesthetic

Sunday, September 30th, 2012

Of late, I’ve come across several laments for the lack of a sense of futurism contemporary culture. Take this piece on the lack of optimism in modern science fiction by Neal Stephenson:

"Neal Stephenson has seen the future—and he doesn’t like it. Today’s science fiction, he argues, is fixated on nihilism and apocalyptic scenarios… That’s a problem, says Stephenson, author of modern sci-fi classics such as Snow Crash. He fears that no one will be inspired to build the next great space vessel or find a way to completely end dependence on fossil fuels when our stories about the future promise a shattered world… To be sure, 20th-century sci-fi prefigured many of today’s technologies, from smart phones to MRI scanners, as you can see if you spend 30 seconds on YouTube reviewing such "Star Trek" gadgets as communicators and tricorders. Yet Stephenson argues that sci-fi’s greatest contribution is showing how new technologies function in a web of social and economic systems—what authors call "worldbuilding… Take Isaac Asimov’s novels and short stories about robots coexisting with humans, most notably his 1950 anthology I, Robot. He wrestled with such weighty issues as whether artificial beings have legal rights and the unforeseen dilemmas that could result from programming robots with moral directives."

And similarly:

"I went to see (William) Gibson talk last night and he said it might be true that his last three books were a pinhole portrait of the first decade of the 21st century. And it struck me that maybe all his books are that, he’s been approaching them from a long way in the past, imagining what they might be like. Now he’s in them, capturing portraits of the now. Soon he’ll be doing history… Anyway. It’s not just sci-fi. I’m also depressed about the lack of future in fashion. Every hep shop seems to be full of tweeds and leather and carefully authentic bits of restrained artisinal fashion. I think most of Shoreditch would be wondering around in a leather apron if it could. With pipe and beard and rickets. Every new coffee shop and organic foodery seems to be the same. Wood, brushed metal, bits of knackered toys on shelves. And blackboards. Everywhere there’s blackboards."

Reading this, I began to wonder if the issue is that in many respects our lives are saturated with information technology to such an extent of digital alienation that the old and physical acquire a nostalgic cachet. Something of this can be seen in the new aesthetic, an attempt to document the eruption of the digital into the physical, whether that be QR codes, surveillance cameras, augmented reality, missing people adverts on 404 pages, 3D printing through to pixellated photos of physical objects. As discussed here:

"Intuitively, one feels that this could be important. Smartphones, tablet computers, drones, CCTV cameras, LCD screens, e-readers, GPS, social networking, recognition algorithms and scores of allied technologies and concepts are rising to super-ubiquity around us. They are wreaking untold changes on the behaviour of nation states, corporations and individuals. Yet all this is happening in a cultural environment broadly evacuated of ideology, apart from the exhausted fairytales of neoliberal consumer capitalism… Converging, leapfrogging technologies were evoking genuinely new emotional responses within us, responses that do not yet have names."

I think some of this can also be seen in how we choose to depict the digital. On the one hand, we have Apple’s preference for skeuomorphism whereby interfaces are designed to mimic the physical with textures, beveled edges and leather or wooden finishes. It’s all rather reassuringly retro. By contrast, Microsoft’s Metro interface is an austere environment characterised by its flatness and minimalism having kicked away the crutch of realworld metaphors.

The Exterminating Angel

Monday, October 8th, 2007

As part of an occasional series here, this piece seems to suggest that JG Ballard has provided the most accurate depiction yet of the spirit of our times:

"Feverish shoppers ripped clothes off shop mannequins during a bargain store sale which ended in trouble and police being called… Product manager Will McCooke said some people had lost all sense. "It was completely primeval – it was like hunter-gatherers. Within half an hour of the store opening the windows had been ransacked by people coming in and ripping the clothes off the mannequins and just leaving the mannequins on the ground. They were literally tearing the mannequins apart to get the clothes."

Amongst other things, it doesn’t really help that the shop in question is called ‘Clockwork Orange.’

Update on a similar note, I found myself rather arrested by this piece, if not ncessarily for reasons the author intended:

"Auge’s remarkable observation was that, in the contemporary world, place is giving way to "non-place." Places, Augé explained, are made up out of social interactions between people, accumulating in memory to form historical meaning. Contemporary life, however, is a relentless procession through spaces of transit. Airport lounges and freeways are non-places, but so are less obvious spaces: ATMs, computer workstations, and supermarkets. In these spaces shared experiences between humans rarely develop. Non-places, Auge concluded, remain empty, meaningless environments that we pass through during our solitary lives.

Anthropologist Ichiyo Habachi has observed that the mobile phone creates a "telecocoon," an extension of intimate personal space into our surroundings. Through both phone calls and text messaging, it is possible to feel the presence of others nearly constantly and non-places become domesticated."

It’s difficult not to feel that the reassurance that the abolition of place will be offset by being bathed in the warm electromagnetic glow of networked appliances is scarcely less preferable that the original scenario. In either case, it still seems, once more, like a manifesto for a Ballard novel.

The Emmigrants

Sunday, January 28th, 2007

This piece on German conceptions of identity rather struck me:

"Speakers at awards ceremonies and festivals often remind their listeners of the role of literature in the creation of the German nation… But most speakers overlook the fact that by the time Germany finally emerged as an intellectual and later political structure, Germany’s writers had long since begun to think beyond Germany. The great German philosophers and poets of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – be it Goethe or Kant – had their sights not on German but on European unification. In Germany, the Enlightenment was from the very start not a national but a European programme. In literature too, the preferred models were not German, drawing instead on non-German literature from Homer to Shakespeare and Byron. German was something German literature did not want to be – and which is was nonetheless precisely in its appropriation of non-German motifs and structures. “Overview of the European Conditions of German Literature” is the title given by August Wilhelm Schlegel to his 1825 essay on the peculiarities of German intellectual life: “We are, I may confidently claim, the cosmopolitans of European culture”…

This vision put its proponents at odds with the nationalist zeitgeist in Germany, although in retrospect they are often claimed by it. Anti-nationalist opposition intensified in the twentieth century, especially after the experiences of World War II: the dream of a democratic union of European states was what the Mann brothers, Hesse, Hoffmansthal, Tucholsky, Zweig, Roth and Döblin upheld in the face of German nationalism… Germany’s writers have always been characterized among other things by their fraught relationship with Germany. They are Great Germans, despite or precisely in the way they quarrelled with Germany. In other words: Germany can be proud of those who were not proud of Germany… At the end of his lecture on “Germany and the Germans” in May 1945 at the Library of Congress, the same Thomas Mann reminded his listeners that none other than Goethe “went so far as to yearn for a German Diaspora.” The comment by Goethe quoted by Mann here comes from a conversation with Chancellor Müller from 14 December 1808: “Like the Jews, the Germans must be transplanted and scattered over the world […] in order to develop the good that lies in them, fully, and to the good of all nations.”"

This rather reminded me of one of the more striking examples of Germany’s national guilt, WG Sebald:

"After moving to England as a student and deciding to live there permanently, Sebald began to see a connection between his own emigration and the Egelhofer family history of emigration to the United States. Attached through his father’s military career to the legacy of German aggression on the one hand, Sebald imaginatively connected himself through his maternal line to the displaced wanderers and “victims” of history on the other; for instance, his (fictional) great-uncle in the story “Ambros Adelwarth” in The Emigrants (loosely based on his aunt Fanny’s brother-in-law) is the lifelong companion of a wealthy American Jew who dies insane, tormented by visions of the horrific carnage in World War I that also call to mind the later Nazi atrocities.

Readers have sometimes expressed discomfort with this connection, accusing Sebald of inappropriately identifying with the Jewish victims of National Socialism, as if he, too, were an “exile” of history. The objection is misguided, however, for Sebald never forgot the distinction between the forced exile of the Nazi period and his own voluntary postwar emigration; his entire work offers an eloquent tribute to the memory and memorialization of that historical difference. However, his literary imagination naturally sought out points of contact and continuity. For his book about four aging “emigrants,” he deliberately avoided the term exilierte, preferring instead the capacious and somewhat antiquated term ausgewanderte (literally, those who have “wandered” or “gone out”) in order to include his own family history of emigration. The Jewish exiles of National Socialism are but one, admittedly central part of a much broader pattern of modern displacement reaching back to the French Revolution (with an implicit titular reference to Goethe’s Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten) and the economic emigrations of both Jews and Germans from Central Europe during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Sebald’s semiautobiographical literary work is thus premised on a dual identity: as the son of a Wehrmacht officer who bears witness to the victims of German violence, but also as a member of his grandfather’s nonmilitary, emigrant family who identifies with these victims existentially."

My interest in this stems from my own ancestry, which although predominantly English, also stems from Saxony in what was once known as East Germany. To be specific, it stems from migration from Germany at the time of the Franco-Prussian war. Equally, the theme of exile is something I feel keenly in that while I now live in the south of England, I grew up in the Midlands, a place of markedly contrasting character and economic fortunes. My relationship with my country of birth is accordingly every bit as difficult as that described above for Germany (particularly since I find easier in a lot of respects to relate to my home region of the Midlands than to a construct called ‘England’). The British do (at least in their better part*) tend to deprecate ideas of national pride, instead emphasising a vision of England of motorways, national decline and high rises. The nation that, to paraphrase Morrissey, they forgot to shut down. In theory, Britain and Germany should have a great deal in common. Both are not so much states as convenient constructs formed to unify a disparate collection of ethnic nations. Since both nations had been constructed rather than having evolved, both tended to exist as essentially an idea. Where Germany has been defined through its diaspora of writers like Sebald and Kafka (as well as the wartime diaspora of figures like Mann, Schoenberg and Lang), Britain has been defined through a cosmpolitan assimilation of foreign artistic techniques and artists, like Joyce, Swift, Marx, Handel, Pevsner and Conrad. Both nations tended to look towards France for their model of civilisation, with Frederick the Great refusing to write or speak German and inviting Voltaire to his estate.

Of course, in practice, I suspect a lot of the above essay reflects a romanticised view of Germany and Britain alike. Both nations invented traditions, based to a large extent on those of Prussia and England and indeed of each other (as with Britain importing the idea of the Christmas tree from Germany along with its royal family), stressing national identity with all the neurosis of countries lacking one in the first place. The preoccupation of both nations with their medieval pasts, from Castell Koch to the Wartburg and from Wagner’s nationalist medievalism, Grimm’s Fairy Tales through to the Pre-Raphaelites is perhaps attributable to this. But, if nothing else, it does provide contrarianism with a pedigree and a heritage.


* I say in their better part as I increasingly feel that this sense of deprectation is being diminished. During the course of our recent military escapades, it has become more common to recast the empire as a mantle we are obliged to take up once more (if only as a means of national pride by association with the United States) rather than as a source of shame and to boastingly compare our economic fortunes with those of European states like Germany on what are typically the flimsiest of grounds. I was rather reminded of that in this piece by imomus, himself a good example of an artist turning his back on his home country in favour of adopted homelands in Germany and Japan:

"British TV seems to be obsessed with the ideology of Social Darwinism. Shows like Big Brother and The Weakest Link are all about the elimination of losers, and involve their audiences in the choice of those losers. It’s all very tally ho, a fox hunt. They’re the result of the transformation of Britain from a society that was at least heading towards horizontality (in other words, low-Gini equality) in the 60s and 70s to one that’s wedded at every level to inequality, unfairness, high-Gini — a “winner takes it all” society where income inequality is seen as something natural and even desireable.

Here in Germany you could never have shows as Social Darwinist as that, I ventured, because there really was the elimination of “the weakest link” here, within living memory, in the form of the extermination of gays, gypsies and Jews. In the same way, the surveillance excesses of the East German secret police have made it much harder to survey Germans. Britain’s ubiquitous citizen surveillance would be unacceptable here.

And this, for me, is why guilt is good. It’s guilt over things like surveillance and eliminating “the weakest link” which keeps the German state more liberal and benign than the UK state. It’s lack of guilt that’s the biggest current political problem in Israel, the UK and the US, and evidence of the return of guilt the most hopeful thing happening right now. "

Sexuality and Literature

Sunday, November 19th, 2006

This article by Alan Hollinghurst on Ronald Firbank does rather make me want to reread both writers:

“By making the novel a structure of bright fragments, Firbank had aestheticized it, and in the aesthetic realm the normative claims of morality are relaxed. Firbank’s difficult inconsequential manner is part of a bigger subversion of the novel, and what is in many ways a homosexualization of the novel. Characteristically, he didn’t do this by writing a “gay novel” of the kind that E. M. Forster had struggled with in Maurice, or of the kind that James Baldwin or Gore Vidal would later write in Giovanni’s Room and The City and the Pillar – novels in which the homosexual condition is itself the subject, with an unusual dominance of maleness. For Forster, the crisis which led him to abandon the novel form altogether was the impossibility of writing about the one thing which most determined his view of life. “

Although one of the striking facts about the novel in the twentieth century is that it easily adapted to producing gay novels like a A Boy’s Own Story as readily as it had adapted to women’s writing in the previous century, the notion of fragments as a gay aesthetic is interesting idea, particularly when one considers parallels between the fragmentary approach described here and the Burroughsian cut-up technique (or Gertrude Stein’s verbal collage). EM Forster’s dictum, only connect, may have largely been applied to a conventional interpretation of the novel but it was nonetheless applied to a context of alienation as much as Genet’s novels or John Rechy’s City of the Night (and goes some way to explain why modernism, with its emphasis on epiphany and fragment proved a fertile ground for gay writers like Proust and Gide). With that said, the most interesting example in this regard is Hollinghurst himself, given the influence of the Victorian novel on The Line of Beauty (the first post-gay novel, as Edmund White called it and very far from being concerned with outcasts and outsiders in the way Rechy, Baldwin or Vidal were), where the main character certainly does allude to Trollope’s The Way We Live Now and the novel depicts a broad swathe of nineteen eighties society and depicts the transition of conservatism from being a party of the landed gentry to being a party of upstart magnates. Where a Victorian social novel would have shown how different parts of society were inextricably joined, Hollinghurst deliberately emphasises the divisions of an increasingly atomised society, as the main character’s homosexuality clashes with both his middle-class background and the upper-class milieu he has become accustomed to.

The Outsider

Wednesday, July 19th, 2006

Of late, I’ve been reading two very different texts that share several themes in common. The first of these, Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, a survey of alienation in romantic and existential literature. As a work of criticism it tends to be somewhat reductive, seeing anomie as a byproduct of thwarted mysticism, a somewhat difficult theory to approach the post-christian likes of Camus and Sartre with. Accordingly, Nietzsche in deflated to a religious mystic while the moral questions that so excised Bakhtin in his reading of Dostoevsky are declared an irrelevance.

The second, Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul, is both a bildungsroman and an account of the history and architecture of his native city. Where a Western writer would typically have sought to interrelate these two themes, Pamuk alternates between them, reflecting his own preoccupation with the idea of the divided self. Pamuk writes of his childhood imagining of another Orhan living in the same city, of seeing his myriad other selves reflected in the mirror, of his father’s other life in another flat and of his dual perception of his city as its inhabitatant and under his own westernised eyes so that he comes to see it as a foreigner. The experience of alienation is one Pamuk sees as the product of a divergent cultural heritage, under Western eyes. At one point, he notes that the traditional Turkish view of literature was as something social, the bricolage that provides the communal myths and discourses that bind a society. To this he opposes the Western tradition of seeing the artist as a man apart and suggests a form of dissociation of sensibility is an inevitable result of this collision. To take a similar argument from TS Eliot’s Tradition and the Individual Talent:

“No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of æsthetic, not merely historical, criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one-sided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it.”

Of the two views, I have to admit to finding Pamuk’s the more congenial. As the likes of Lukacs argued, much of the reason for mythology of the individual in Western Literature is attributable to the increasingly individualistic, post-traditional nature of Western society; the paradox is that only an outsider can describe such a society. Like Sartre and his attempts to reconcile existentialism and communism, Lukacs saw self and society as being irrevocably sundered in modern society, in contrast to more homogeneous societies. Once this unity disintegrated, there could be no more spontaneous totality of being.

This paradox seems to me to have particularly seeped into the work of two of the greatest contemporary writers; JG Ballard and Michel Houellebecq. The latter depicts an atomised society with a fervour for the subversive and transgressive, such as sex tourism and a contempt for much of tradition, welcoming capitalism’s destruction of religion. Equally, he detests capitalism and the social breakdown he sees as following from it, often reviling other forms of transgression like hippy communes and sex clubs. The former depicts a world of homogeneity and conformity which by its very nature produces instincts towards violence and destruction; “thrill seekers with a taste for random violence.. a deep need for meaningless action, the more violent the better.” These drives alternate in Ballard between becoming the basis of a new form of social cohesion in which entire communities participate and a form of social subversion. Equally, Ballard often oscillates between depicting such instincts as the product of modernity and as a reversion to nature that takes place in the absence of society. Ballard’s aesthetics remind me of this observation from Slavoj Zizek:

“Throughout the entire twentieth century, I see a counter-tendency, for which my good philosopher friend Alain Badiou invented a nice name: ‘La passion du reel,’ the passion of the real. That is to say, precisely because the universe in which we live is somehow a universe of dead conventions and artificiality, the only authentic real experience must be some extremely violent, shattering experience. And this we experience as a sense that now we are back in real life.”

The Decline of Realism

Sunday, August 7th, 2005

An interesting piece from Waggish on the decline of realism:

Genealogy of Metaphysics: what was it that caused the shift from the master dichotomy of real/unreal to the slave dichotomy of real/fake? The loss of authority/authenticity in young American authors (see Eggers, Foer) indicates a preoccupation with returning to an imagined time where every utterance was a statement of the real, as opposed to the supposed fakeness that surrounds us that everyone is fed up with. The term “irony,” which once signified a sophisticated sort of social satire that required a certain amount of intelligence to appreciate, has become to devalued to the point where it simply signifies insincerity, the positive referent not being a specific target but simply the mores of society.

Certainly, realism has not been an especially fertile ground for modern literature (though I suspect that the increasingly individualistic nature of modern society is as likely a cause as Lyotardian explanations; realism has a certain sense of social solidarity as a pre-requisite; this is the difference between Balzac and Houellebecq), in spite of a brief flourishing after the second world war (Greene, Murdoch). Other forms have come to the forefront; historical fiction (Ackroyd, Atwood, Fowles), magical realism (Marquez, Kundera, Carter, Winterson) or speculative fiction (Atwood). That said, although Waggish notes that those that want to return to a pre-enlightenment authenticity (a dangerous notion, if one thinks of Hamsun or Heidegger) ingore how marginal and disingenuous their views are, his comments did remind me of Slavoj Zizek saying this:

Throughout the entire twentieth century, I see a counter-tendency, for which my good philosopher friend Alain Badiou invented a nice name: ‘La passion du réel’, the passion of the real. That is to say, precisely because the universe in which we live is somehow a universe of dead conventions and artificiality, the only authentic real experience must be some extremely violent, shattering experience. And this we experience as a sense that now we are back in real life.

This seems a good description of the writing of JG Ballard and perhaps others like Bret Easton Ellis or Chuck Palahniuk. Perhaps that is the writing that will be remembered from these times as being real. Perhaps it already is; I always remember JG Ballard observing that on the whole, the future would be bland, a world of stifling mediocrity and conformity occasionally punctuated by mildly absurd and senseless acts of violence. For all of its impact, 9/11 did not seem to fall into this category; it resembled a film (a Hollywood disaster movie) too much to seem truly real. The recent Tube bombings seem to meet Ballard’s description rather more accurately.

Update: Some interesting related observations I came across from John Fowles:

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the novel was at one remove from life. But since the advent of film and television and sound recording it is at two removes. The novel is now generally about things and events which the other forms of art describe better.

All the purely visual and aural sequences in the modern novel are a bore, both to read and to write. People’s physical appearance, their movements, their sounds, places, moods of places—the camera and the microphone enregister these twenty times better than the typewriter… In other words, to write a novel in 1964 is to be neurotically aware of trespassing, especially on the domain of the cinema… So over the novel today hangs a faute de mieux. All of us under forty write cinematically; our imaginations, constantly fed on films, “shoot” scenes, and we write descriptions of what has been shot. So for us a lot of novel writing is, or seems like, the tedious translating of an unmade and never-to-be-made film into words.

I’m not sure I agree, as I tend to think of cinema as the artform that failed but it does rather remind me of Paglia’s observation that cinema was always implicit in Western art in the prominence it gave to the visual or to Tanizaki’s compliant about the respective roles of light and shadow in Oriental and Occidental aesthetics.

Capitalism and Addiction

Sunday, February 29th, 2004

An interesting paper from Bruce Alexander, ostensibly on the subject of addiction but with wider implications for capitalist society:

Psychosocial integration is essential for every person in every type of society-it makes life bearable, even joyful at its peaks… Insufficient psychosocial integration can be called “dislocation.” Although any person in any society can become dislocated, modern western societies dislocate all their members to a greater or lesser degree because all members must participate in “free markets” that control labour, land, money and consumer goods. Free markets require that participants take the role of individual economic actors, unencumbered by family and friendship obligations, clan loyalties, community responsibilities, charitable feelings, the values or their religion, ethnic group, or nation… People who persistently fail to achieve genuine psychosocial integration eventually construct lifestyles that substitute for it.

It’s an interesting argument (if a rather psychoanalytic interpretation of Marx, though Marx was unlikely to have been so nostalgic for ‘clan loyalties’), largely because it’s one that has always seemed to carry a great deal of truth to it (and is certainly more convincing than the conservative view of social dislocation being attributable to the permissive society and moral decline). That said, the particular point of interest for me is comparison with Anthony Giddens and his views of post-traditional identity, wherein the decline of imposed social roles necessitates the creation of more diverse lifestyles.

Trading security for freedom

Sunday, June 1st, 2003

The Guardian has an interesting interview with Zygmunt Bauman. The interest lies in his thesis that modern alienation and anomie are attributable to the degree to which identity has become a reflexive matter than one of convention (this being the inverse of Anthony Giddens and his thesis on the subject).

"What preoccupies him is how social conventions obstruct the possibility of human liberation and it makes him a stern critic of the status quo, particularly in his growing focus on how an individualistic society finds common cause, and how the public realm can be renewed and sustained… Bauman points out that Freud’s thesis that human beings had traded freedom for security has been inverted; now we have traded security for freedom and with that freedom has come unprecedented responsibilities for the conduct of our own emotional lives and for our political participation."

As such, the fluidity of modern identity makes any form of stable social relations impossible at best (rather like Slavoj Zizek’s observation that liberal capitalism tends to produce cultures that are both more individualistic and unstable due to higher rates of criminality), something that reminds me of Freud’s observation that “most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility and most people are frightened of responsibility” (quoted here as trading security for freedom). That said, the problem with this is that Bauman’s view that we have traded security for freedom seems somewhat odd to anyone not coming from a Marxist background. It would seem more accurate to say that the state is becoming a surrogate for an ever increasing number of social relations, in which case I can’t help but wonder if something in Bauman’s arguments doesn’t start to unwind somewhat.

Kidnapping for Kicks in New York

Thursday, August 1st, 2002

I think it’s fair to say that it’s not everyday that one comes across an article quite like this; kidnapping for kicks in New York. It does rather remind me of Zizek’s summary of Badiou, “That is to say, precisely because the universe in which we live is somehow a universe of dead conventions and artificiality, the only authentic real experience must be some extremely violent, shattering experience.” However, I suspect it may be all to easy to over-egg this particular pudding, if only because the question ‘but why?’ is not one that would seem to have an obvious answer.

On a more straightforward subject then; a set of gallery reviews from the Guardian, including a somewhat churlish review of Birmingham museum and art gallery and a rather more satisfying review of the Ashmolean. I’ve also found a mildly interesting review of Freedom and its Betrayal by Isiah Berlin, but this article on VS Naipaul is altogether more interesting.