October 5th, 2010 / 6:24 pm

Vollmann, Elliott, Foucault

I have been thinking a lot lately about the connections between Foucault’s and Vollmann’s works. Their kinship is immediately apparent. Vollmann has a massive multi-volume treatise on human violence; Foucault has a massive multi-volume treatise on human sexuality. Vollmann works with human sexuality constantly in his fiction and nonfiction; via Foucault’s investigations into power, especially in Discipline and Punish, Foucault works with human violence. Both authors refuse confinement to a single discipline; both are interested in what has been dubbed biopolitics. Vollmann’s Imperial and the newly translated The Birth of Biopolitics by Foucault put into stark relief the overlap in this interest.

“Wrestling the Octopus: William T. Vollmann’s Imperial and Biopolitics;
or: Rethinking Literary Theory;
or: Early Directions in Vollmann Studies”
by Okla Elliott


  1. letters journal

      Royal Family.

  2. Kyle Minor

      We don’t have many young public American intellectuals except in New York. (Not many there, either, but there are a few.) Okla Elliott is the best candidate I know. I’m glad to see him writing about Vollman. I’m happy for the chance to read him on any subject.

  3. Okla Elliott

      Thank you, kind sir. You are one of three readers I always imagine when I am writing something, no matter what genre or subject matter it is.

  4. lorian

      thanks for this, will stay late at work to read it

  5. Eric Beeny

      Nice, Chris…

  6. Bip

      I think Vollman is going to win the Nobel Prize on Thursday.

  7. KTLincoln

      God willing.

  8. Alex

      Can someone recommend a starting point for Vollmann? I’m a little overwhelmed by his output…

  9. KTLincoln

      But let’s just say I’m not as confident as you. Blah. Interesting that Cormac McCarthy’s odds got so good.

      Also can’t wait to read this.

  10. lorian

      i think the atlas or whores for gloria are good starting points…velvet punches.

  11. Okla Elliott

      i usually advise The Butterfly Stories, which is a novel but only 300 pages or so long and very readable. You Bright and Risen Angels is his first novel and also more human in length (around 450 or so, i think), and it is his best novel — a work of freaky genius. seriously.

  12. letters journal

      Royal Family.

  13. RyanPard

      Angels is a pretty fun start. As awesome as all his work is, sometimes I wish he hadn’t disowned that mode of writing. So whacked out.

  14. Guest

      where r they

  15. Patrick

      I agree… I started with The Butterfly Stories and loved it. Thirteen Stories Thirteen Epitaphs is another good one. Honestly I’ve read nothing by this guy I didn’t like. I have the same kind of hard-on for Vollmann a lot of people here have for DFW. I look forward to reading your essay.

  16. Ryan Call

      i admit im not familiar with much vollmann, but i read angels in college and it made me really happy/excited to try to write. i read it the same summer i read infinite jest, so i always link bug and incandenza in my head for some reason.

  17. Alec Niedenthal

      You Bright and Risen Angels is one of the best novels I’ve ever read (and, without having read Elliott’s essay, eerily close to Foucault), but I haven’t read anything else by Vollmann.

  18. Okla Elliott

      thanks, kyle, for the kind words and the support. our country needs more public intellectuals. i hope you’re right, and i’m deeply flattered.

  19. Tom B.

      I looked at Ladbrokes’ site the other day — the UK bookie’s firm that gives odds on authors winning the Nobel — and Vollmann wasn’t listed at all, which made me sad. I think his ambition — reach and grasp — exceeds that of any other living American writer.

      Whores for Gloria is a good, short intro to his work. As for the doorstops, I have a particular fondness for Fathers and Crows, 2nd in his Seven Dreams cycle. And the National Book Award winner, Europe Central, is a monumental work (not just for its size).

  20. Alec Niedenthal

      Read the review and really enjoyed the hell out of it. As I said I’ve only read Angels, so there’s not much more I can say. But again I think that book is really well-suited to be read not as–and I love the way Elliott puts it here–a dead moth on the wall, but as a weapon. There’s another prolific eccentric who I think works with the machinery of disciplinary power really well, and that’s Proust.

  21. Guest

      I looked for Vollmann, too. Did you see Bob Dylan on the list? Absurd. Tarantula is AWFUL.

  22. Guest

      Rainbow Stories is amazingly good.

  23. KTLincoln

      I read Riding Toward Everywhere, which I’ve heard isn’t his best, but I still enjoyed it—gives you a nice quick taste of what he’s at/after, and as far as Vollmann goes it’s super-short, like 200 pages. Also, An Afghanistan Picture Show is maybe the perfect mix of self-analysis and bizarre bravado ever captured in book form

  24. Michael J Seidlinger

      The Atlas is indeed one of Vollmann’s more accessible and approachable pieces.

  25. lorian

      the atlas was my first vollmann. read it cover to cover on an airplane and kept thinking oh my god oh my god. hadn’t felt that way since my first dfw

  26. Okla Elliott

      I love DFW, but I think I am with you. Vollmann hits me harder and his overall range seems greater. Oh, and let me know what you think of the essay, if it occurs to you.

  27. reynard seifert

      i don’t understand how anyone could read anything by vollmann cover to cover on one flight, maybe i’m misreading that, that thing is over 400 pages, did you fly around the world? are you a speed reader? osmosis?

  28. RyanPard

      I have to agree. I’m a huge DFW fanboy, but Vollmann’s work is IMO better, even if I’m not as sentimentally attached to it.

  29. RyanPard

      yes! Scintillant Orange is so bizarre! I love that story so much. I wish we talked about WTV more here at htmlgiant.

  30. Tom B.

      Talking about (Thinking about) Vollmann is difficult, not just because he is so productive, but because his work is so varied that it’s like he’s several different writers.

      There’s the postmodern storyteller (Angels, Seven Dreams, Rainbow Stories), the novelist of prostitution (Gloria, Butterfly, Royal Family), the journalist and philosopher (the two are inextricably entwined — Rising Up and Rising Down, Imperial, Kissing the Mask), the Eastern European novelist (Europe Central), and some other WTVs I’m probably forgetting. (And these different writers converge in some of the individual works.) So: Who (or what) do we talk about when we talk about Vollmann?

  31. lorian

      put a country between your legs and squeeze hard.

      the atlas is a collection of short stories, sometimes only a paragraph or two in length. whores for gloria is even shorter, maybe a flight from san francisco to denver

  32. Blake Butler

      i’m going to go with The Rifles as his book I’d most recommend, not only because it’s quicker to get into than the others, but it also balances a lot of the weird magic in the best way. YBARA is so amazing passage by passage but it also seems to wane inside itself sometimes, better in bursts than in one long read.

      Though really, if i had to pick anything of Vollmann’s for the ages, it would be the case studies that make up the last two volumes of Rising Up & Rising Down. unbelievable.

  33. Blake Butler

      my one complaint with the Atlas are the similes. dude says something akin to ‘like a rosebud bursting underneath the coat of her skin’ at least every other paragraph.

      other than that, though, yeah, the Atlas is gorgeous. WfG is also.

  34. Okla Elliott

      I agree completely. That’s part of why I suggest The Rifles over other fiction of his for academic/critical attention in the essay. Partly, yes, because it is more manageable in length, but also because of the the wonderful appendices he adds at the end (e.g., the pissy letters between him and the scholar he consults).

      You Bright and Risen Angels is a 400+ page prose poem in many ways, but also a narrative novel, so I see what you mean about trying to slog through in one go. I read about half of it in one weekend 5 or 6 years ago and then about a month later picked up it and finished it in little chunks over a few weeks.

      Rising Up and Rising Down is just unstoppably powerful and amazing. I think it might be among the 20 or so most important books of the past quarter century (if just rankings are even worth doing at all).

  35. Tom B.

      I hope someday there is an affordable paperback edition of the 7-volume original. (I have the McSweeney’s, but RURD should be made generally available, not just the abridgement.)

  36. Guest

      Scintillant Orange. Yes! It IS bizarre. I remember being surprised that it kept going for so long.

      Actually that story may be one of the reasons I, being very poor at the time, bought the unabridged RURD. I trusted/trust him.

  37. RyanPard

      Agreed. For a while after he won that one award for Europe Central I was hoping a paperback, tiny-margins and tiny-type reprint of RURD might roll out.

  38. Okla Elliott

      I vote for Foucault here. YB&RA deals with the hyper-organization of space and resources, the production of knowledge via power, and the tensions between rational-scientific and irrational thought. all of his prostitution stuff and his nonfiction are very much about biopolitics and the microphysics of power. With Europe Central you could do Foucault or Agamben, but I think Foucault offers more, even though Agamben’s talk of states of exception would be useful too. That said, I think Vollmann could be used to elucidate Foucault and Agamben (and others), since they are coming at very similar projects from different angles.

  39. deadgod

      Disciplinary organization, power/knowledge co-generation, unreason countermanaging rational authority: to me, the potency of Foucault’s discourse is closely related to its near-universal usefulness (as well as to the attractiveness of his verbal facility). In few cases of ‘creative’ writers are Foucault’s slants pointless.

      Let me also nominate – my “vote” is split into inutility – Gadamer: when we talk about Vollmann, we’re talking about conversation, about ineluctably dialogic contact. Not that domination and pretenses to homogeneity are not in effect, but rather that so, too, are resistance and solidarity.

  40. Okla Elliott

      Gadamer is a good addition. And I agree with the wide range of things to which we can apply Foucault, but I think Vollmann’s project is very similar to Foucault’s, and that we’d be best served aiming both Vollmann and Foucault at, say, issues of power (using RU&RD and Discipline and Punish, for example). The thing with nearly all Theory — Derrida, Lacan, Marx, Foucault, etc — is that we can apply them to anything if we so choose, which is both their strength and their most annoying and self-privileging quality. I’ve gotten very curious lately about which creative writers we can use as critical-theoretical lenses in the same (or similar) way we use Theory. Vollmann seems to me a primary candidate for such reading (as do DFW and Sartre and Brecht, among others of course).

  41. Justin RM

      Sounds more like Bakhtin than it does Gadamer.

  42. deadgod

      And I’m “curious” how you’d use – provisionally! – literary writers (or whatever we’ll agree to call them) as “critical-theoretical lenses in the same (or similar) way we use Theory”. Just thinking out scriptic, the issue, for me, between ‘literature’ and ‘theory’ is which side each privileges in shuttling between general and specific.

      Theory is worked out in general terms. Of course, the thinkers you mention all turn to specific cases for illustration, exemplification, – all kinds of indication. But for each theorist, it’s always ‘indication of‘, as I understand them; ‘indication of’ a pattern that’s generally true, that’s true even if some particular instance is deleted. So the analysis can be lifted off of the specific case and used – that is, it’s practical – in cases that are patterned ‘like’ the (now-)topical illustration.

      With creative – I prefer “literary” – writing, the writer plunges the reader (immersively or toesies-first) into this world, these people, that problem, the other furniture, and so on. (That readers relate: ‘hey, I have a father and a mom’ – well, ok — though, since “nothing human is [completely] alien to me”, relating to the work seems to me almost trivial, and a dumb priority.)

      So: how would you go from particular stories/poems/theater/etc. to the luminosity of theory?

  43. deadgod

      The word “dialogic” is a Bakhtinian word, but I’d emboldened “conversation” purposefully.

      Bakhtin is more carefully linguistic and literary-critical than Gadamer. (‘Careful’: you bet; Stalin was, among other roles, the Great Philologist (as I’ve read).) Bakhtin uses, for example, “dialogic” to mean ‘dialogue with other texts, authors; (eventually) languages, civilizations’. Sure, because talking about language is a way of talking about everything human, the ‘contextuality of language usage’ is a particular way of getting purchase on the universe of ‘human being’, but Bakhtin goes on about words, novels, authors, and, as I understand him, wants not to be too adventurously metaphysical. – useful to philosophers of all kinds, and useful in Okla’s sense, as he is.

      Gadamer explicitly uses “conversation” as a concrete activity whose consideration brings one directly to epistemological and ontological theory. In his first book, Plato’s Dialectical Ethics (his Ph. D. thesis, of sorts), he meticulously explains his beginning at “Conversation and the Way We Come to Shared Understanding”, through “Plato’s [various] Dialectic[s]”, to “Dialectic’s Ontological Presuppositions”. This reliance and constant re-founding of his thought on the reality of “conversation”, Gadamer never loses nor discards. – and was what I was referring to with (also Vollmann’s) “ineluctably dialogic contact”.

  44. Okla Elliott

      ooops. that parenthetical at the end ought to read “if such* rankings are even worth doing.” that’s what i get for posting a comment between classes — not time to actually read what i fucking wrote.

  45. reynard seifert

      good to know, i’ve thought, surely there must be a snack size vollmann, they all seem pretty damn long. rainbow stories was my first and still the most condensed i’ve read since. i will try to squeeze harder.

  46. Okla Elliott

      Given the space here and the time I have right now, I’ll just offer some examples. Think of how we constantly refer to Orwell’s 1984 to discuss a politician’s speech or rhetorical tactics, or how we might use Musil’s The Man Without Qualities to critique anything from nationalism to scientific progress to the formation of the self in the modern world. Not every book is as productive this way as others, of course, but it seems the fictional narrative can speculate in a way that pure critical works are more (though not entirely) tied to the world of epistemic data. Also, think of the work on memory Proust did. Cog Sci folk are just now catching up, since their methodology requires stricter adherence to reproducible epistemic data, whereas the novelist can speculate on the workings of the mind via fiction and get us closer in many cases or at least get us different kinds of knowledge about it.

      Provisionally, that would be my response, though entire books could be written on the subject.

  47. deadgod

      Yes, those are excellent choices – but you’re not talking about using them similarly to how Theory is used, Okla. You’re talking about 1984 and Musil as examples of the struggle for power in language and the construction of self, respectively (or in chiasmus!).

      The only philosophical project I can think of (at the moment) that doesn’t beg for fictive illustration is analytic philosophy – I think: not coincidentally, philosophy as far from ‘life’ as it can get. Any good piece of literature is perfectly open to a … to many planes of philosophical intersection.

      Although you might start, with a group of students, with 1984, and not a pro philosopher, nevertheless, as you say here, you’d be starting with 1984 as exemplary of ‘rhetoric, politically acting speech’, that is, as illustrative of Theory that had already, for the group, begun, and into which theorizing the novel begun to ‘happen’ for each reader. That’s not what I’d mistaken you for meaning.

  48. Okla Elliott

      I am using them as examples of processing events in the world. We explain a Bush or Obama speech via reference to Orwell, just as we might explain it via a rhetoric textbook (or whatever). We do this sort of thing all the time, with a handful of literary texts, but I think many many more beg to be used in this same way. Foucault’s works are examples of a human mind trying to process and understand how power works; so are (certain) fictional works by Orwell. The object of study is the world; the two authors have merely chosen different methods to study it. And this is how I want to use literature more often. I make my case in brief and use another theorist as an example of someone doing this in the Vollmann essay. But the very last thing I think of a novel as is an example of a theoretical principle — especially when that novel is one like 1984 or YB&RA or Infinite Jest or or or…

  49. Kyle Minor

      Okla, I think this thesis is one that deserves more than a blog comment. It deserves an American Scholar article, at least.

  50. Okla Elliott

      I do need to write an entire essay on this singular idea. I ended up trotting it out in the middle of my essay on Vollmann, since he seems like the writer working today who most exemplifies how literary works can be used to process/theorize the world — though tons of work could be used this way, including your own, Kyle (in regard to the psychology of ethics especially) — but I think I gave it short shrift and need to fully flesh out that particular argument and use examples like Musil, Proust, William Carolos Willliams, etc etc etc.

      I’ll send you a draft when I get it done.

  51. deadgod

      examples of processing events in the world […] different methods to study it

      Yes, Okla, I think that’s exactly what all communicative acts disclose and generate (both): the exchange between thought and world. And, as I’d said, anything written well will be exemplary of this “processing” – why not novels, poems, and so on? When we talk about their effects on us, that’s what we’re already doing: raising this intelligibility of “process” to deliberation. So why not do it self-consciously, ‘philosophically’?

      I do think I’ve miscommunicated what I mean by “example” and “illustration”. To say that a novel (1984) ‘exemplifies’ theoretical perspectives on rhetoric, that it ‘illustrates’ the fictive working-out of some particular Theory or is a fictive concretization of what some theorist discerns, is not to say that Orwell made up his story to fit tidily into a theory box! Maybe he did, maybe he was ‘illustrating’ Theory few readers detect or care about, maybe he’s giving evidence for points of view he detests – surely few readers will care to understand that they’re forcing a novel to conform to, well, any theory.

      This post facto molding isn’t what I meant, which was that, in approaching a Bush speech by way of Orwell, theories of persuasion and power are already effective in that “use” of literature. I don’t think one can go from specific to specific except by way of generality.

  52. Patrick

      There are videos on youtube with Vollmann reading a couple of parts from “Imperial,” and while I found the discussions it sparked interesting, I was planning on skipping it. But recalling the videos and after reading your essay, I’m definitely putting it on my list of Vollmann works to read.

      I like that you wrote a little about how devoted Vollmann is to his subject matter. I believe it’s also been a criticism of him (he’s an obsessive fetishist whose prose regarding his subject matter is often un PC), but I find his approach fascinating.