September 17th, 2013 / 9:18 pm

We Got Sick of Theory and Talked About That


Between July 9th and August 5th , Alec Niedenthal and I had a long & blabby conversation that began when Alec enthusiastically responded to me saying “I’m almost completely gagged now by fucks like Deleuze.” Knowing Alec mostly as a fellow young philosophy & theory head, I asked after his newfound disillusionment with the stuff.

That conversation posted here—mostly unedited—in hopes you find it useful or rousing.

Ken: What literature strikes you as bullshit now?

Alec: Your question is great, but I’m not sure that I’m equipped to answer it. I’ll explain why. First, I’m not sure how possible it is today to talk about what sort of art is valueless, ie bullshit, when the role of art is so unclear and, less evidently but no less significantly, when we as avant-garde writers are unsure whether there should be an institution called “Art” any longer. That’s to say, it’s hard to even talk about what literature should be doing when the “should”-level claim about literature in general—basically, what it ought to depict and how to depict it—is supposed to be.

That said, there’s another level to this problem. I think in many ways James’s preface to The Portrait of a Lady is a codex or cipher for modern literature and the way that, in modernity, history began responding to problems posed by art rather than merely vice versa (the reverse being what’s typically called “realism” on the threshing-floor of places like HTMLGiant). He says there something like, look, fiction–and here I believe he specifically says fiction rather than art “in general,” a distinction that’s interesting for a modernist to make–is more or less this big building looking out on a landscape. Each room on every floor will afford a different perspective of that landscape. The window-frame is its medium or the mode in which the same landscape is taken up; this is what will go on to be called “style,” and become one of James’s many obsessions. Now, first, what kind of literary device is this? A metaphor for the way that the novel accedes to the throne of the first truly modern–not tragic, not comic, but absolutely modern–art form? A Platonic allegory that counterposes the ever-ascending tower of literary Babel–in this way we see James as a real forebear of Borges (whom I heard pronounced as Borgs on Friday)–to the absolutely static thing-in-itselfish landscape, the object and end of all portraiture? Or is James’s image metonymic, a stand-in for the unprecedented fin-de-siecle tug-of-war between being and appearing (inaugurated, folks like Heidegger will go on to tell us, by the automatism of technology, but that any good Marxist will commend to globalization and the exportation of the free market, which James in fact confronts again and again without quite realizing it and with the same primordial ultra-contemporary rage against commerce and the trappings of glamor as evinced by later pop figures like Kanye West and Bob Dylan)? Or are all three the case, and, moreover, what relevance does this seeming digression, which I would estimate zero people will care to read, even have to what you asked above? Well, I think more than saying “realism is bullshit” or “language-based fiction is bullshit” or “the Taocolytes are full of shit”—no clue what either of those categories mean anymore—I’d like to say that (a) they are all rooms in the house of literature and that (b) there is no reason to believe that the house of literature is not totally underwater, ie is in debt for more than it’s worth, for ever and all time. But I also think—following on the heels of Henry James’s image, which I’m here employing as a metaphor for how fiction works now, an allegory for how fiction relates to global events now, and a metonymy for how these same events unfold outside of their fabrication in art–that the landscape James imagined is no longer that; it’s more like a landfill. So if the house of fiction is decrepit and, so to speak, underwater, that’s because, by the same token, the world that is its frame is also bankrupt of substance. This is what our philosophers must mean when they say that we do not have a subject of History—proletariat, Enlightenment, et al.—in the twenty-first century because we no longer have a substance or being, catchword of catchwords, for it to work on—for instance, no labor-power because of mass unemployment and underemployment and the erosion of public and private property by unregulated investment and raiding of assets, fracking and the XL Pipeline, the war on Africanity, and general incomprehension of the fact that no one can thrive if even a single population is not thriving, etc. etc.; but I am no politician.

I wonder how you’d respond to the same question.

Ken: I want to get you right before I try to get me right, so let me recap what you’re saying:

  1. Fictive literature—as a tool to understand ourselves, our environment, and our history—isn’t effective anymore.
  2. Because humanity’s story about itself doesn’t have a dominant focus now, it’s hard for ANY tool to be effective.

Does that feel right?

Well, I’m probably just aping Mircea Eliade and John Gray and Nassim Taleb too hard lately, so keep that in mind before you take me too seriously.

More people are nonreligious now than ever, right? A high percentage, I mean. One of the nice things about most religions—beyond the time-tested strategies and rules they provide to limit your exposure to risk (e.g. debt, greed, adultery, gluttony, etc.)—is that they point to history a lot. I mean, they may not point to empirical history, but they point to SOME past, even if it’s mythological.

I think the recent repulsion towards religion contributes to the disrespect for studying history, maybe. Particularly if you consider the history of scholarship’s via religious organization—most of our scholars have been religious, and used their religion to pursue a scholarly life.

Now enter someone like John Gray. His argument is that human qualities—our sense of beauty and our morality—do not progress. This is obvious to anyone—well, anyone that isn’t gagged & blindfolded—that looks at history. In other words, only scientific knowledge actually increases, improves. But, because science has almost completely been in the service of making human technology more powerful—to make human life more comfortable or productive or whatever—it magnifies our moral flaws, and that leads us to nuke each other, or chemically castrate scientists like Alan Turing, or manufacture food products that poison people, or massacre millions in the name of political or ethnic progress… The list goes on and on and on.

Meanwhile, art—music, oral storytelling, dance, literature, movies, video games—has taken the place of religion as the dominant realm for us to experiment with stuff in our heads and try to figure out how to live. And because modern movies and music and video games are so fucking sophisticated and entertaining—built to explicitly stimulate our neurological pleasure centers, in many cases; just like food products like potato chips or Twinkies or Coke—our desire and trust in religion to define a good life is just dying. More and more each day. Which is fine, right? I mean, organized religion is responsible for its own massacres and abusive ethics, and on and on. An obvious point to any angsty teenager. But, by the numbers, the nationstate has been a SEVERELY more destructive and fatal social organization, which is something that might also feel obvious to any angsty teenager. So serving the big nation state isn’t a decent guide to the good life, and neither is big religious movements.

But what does all this pontification have to do with literature? (And why is this 23 year old asshole so arrogant?)

Well, it all goes back to history. If you pick humans as the hero in the story of Life on Earth, then your hero has a pretty shitty track record for actually pulling the sword from the stone. That is: he’s not good at changing things in a major way. Humans seem to ride certain rhythms—from democratic societies to tyrannical societies (with many shades in between), from large social organizations to small ones, from complexity to collapse, from simple culture to sophisticated culture. The sophisticated culture—elaborate art—has mostly come before radical collapse.

Now, assuming humans manage to pull a slipshod peace together, and figure out a way to live and trade and consume and procreate together without ruining Earth’s ecological capacities in a way that kills us all whether we like it or not, maybe literature will become popular again. I mean, “reading literature as a way of figuring shit out” is a tiny little bubble—a SPECK!—in humanity’s shared history. Maybe literature’s better off dead! Maybe we’ll be better off if we return to oral storytelling, if we return to simple, ritualistic, religious living.

But for now, if you want to live without religion but you still want to use literature as a tool to understand or amuse or transcend yourself, you could run to philosophy. The books that strike me as bullshit now are mostly books of contemporary philosophy that traffic in lingual complexity and technical sophistication, thereby divorcing themselves from what I think is a pretty solid aim, which is to help people live well in a world we don’t understand. So Deleuze can get fucked, is what I’m saying. It’d behoove secular humans that feel lost for philosophy to jump out of the ivory tower and get in the fucking streets, again. Self-help books are popular for just this reason: people want to learn how to live, and I wish that contemporary philosophers and fiction writers explore some aesthetically interesting—and self-critical!—solutions that avoid promises of utopia.

Wrote this in a rush, so apologies for any fuckery or dumb points!

Also people that can get fucked a little bit: writers that ignore ancient literature. But again, my opinion right now might be mostly reactionary to reading 95% contemporary literature for a few years straight.

Alec: I think the theme of this conversation has emerged: what is literature–whatever that means–to offer in a world that has largely abandoned it not only as the great vehicle of moral feeling but also as, well, a really vital medium? Of course, as you say, we can either (a) imagine a world, radically unsaved, that has lost both taste and respect for literature and that ends with that weird utopian-dystopian hybrid we see in movies like Wall-E and feel when we recite slogans like “99%”; and (b) a society that saves itself and rediscovers old forms–or forms that the culture had only mothballed to the extent that it misunderstood itself, such as–careerist that I am, I must say it–capital-L Literature. But we have to ask the question whether literature was ever that terribly “relevant” to begin with. There’s every poet’s favorite part of Plato’s REPUBLIC, in which Socrates threatens to exile all poets who don’t explicitly canvass for goodness and morality. He wonders aloud whether in Homer’s time most good people weren’t good in spite of his poems, rather than because of them. He asks, what evidence do we have that Homer was anything more than cheap entertainment in his time? Short of assuming that his stories impart wisdom and virtue, did anyone ever rely on Homer for them? And we have to wonder whether a strong literary culture was ever the prime mover in a social form, and if not, we should ask the question: when literary culture has been a major player in both expressing and determining what a population desires, what has been its remit? What have we been missing since 9/11?

These are all obvious questions and nothing new, but I think it’s very judicious of you to make the connection between organized religion and “reading literature as a way of figuring shit out.” I think a lot of readers, whether implicitly or not, get that careful articulation between the literary–not the fictive, because that’s too easy–and the religious. It seems like literary forms across history have been wondering the same insoluble thing, the same carping little question: what else is there beyond sex and money? The answer is God, for the religious, and death, for the literary artist. They are very close–in Dostoevsky, clearly, so close as to be almost indistinguishable, and it is that tiny gap between where for him human law crystallizes. So then we have to ask what our mass culture’s understanding–its pre-conceptual understanding, as Heidegger, against whom my hackles are raised as I paraphrase here, would say–of death is. We citizens approach the good life only through the byroad of death, and I’m not sure that there’s any other way (at least for hypochondriac little me). If you could say something about how mass American culture–now, today, and I should say that I keep thinking of Miley Cyrus as I write this–understands and traffics in death, in death, what would it be?

Pardon the typos I’m a little drunk.

Also very much agree re: the ancients/classics. I wonder whether that’s another conversation or inherently pertains to this one…

Ken: I feel like that question—does literature make you a more morally just person—is answered brilliantly by Teju Cole in his essay A Reader’s War. Well, it’s not a total answer, but it’s a look at the power of power to warp someone’s ethics. In other words: our consciousness’s structure—built for radically simpler environments—and threatening contexts—such as real physical danger, or imagined tribal dangers faced by the POTUS—strong-arms literature’s guidance.

And we’re fucked if we want an empirical answer. The only empirical study of reading’s effects on empathy happened this February, and it’s loosely conclusive. The gist: people that were emotionally involved in fiction self-reported their empathy levels as higher than normal for a week. People that were emotionally involved in non-fiction reported themselves as LESS empathic. And people that weren’t emotionally involved—in either nonfiction or fiction—reported themselves less empathic. An interesting pull from this study:

When readers disengage from what they read, they possibly become more self-centered and selfish in order to protect the sense of self in relation to others [17]. Yet, these results are important, because previous research has claimed that fiction reading has positive effects [6]–[7], while we are amongst the first who also show that fiction reading might have negative effects, when readers do not become transported, and hence, disengage from literature.

This isn’t surprising if you study psychology, though; the brain is lazy, and intellectual work turns it into a glucose-gobbling asshole.

As a quick aside: I like Anne Carson’s interpretation of The Republic. She claims that Plato encouraged Socrates to say the most outlandish shit about an imaginary, ideal city so that actual Athenians would feel better about Athens as it stood. Plato was obviously brilliant, manipulative, wily, so I like this interpretation.

The God or death thing is interesting. On a practical level, I think about death every day, especially since almost dying. The backstory: I got sick, almost died, recovered, and am now living and in good shape but unable to kick my chronic (and currently incurable) illness. So I’ve got a walking memento mori in my guts. I take the Stoic/Montaignean/Zen approach, and try to think about my death a little bit every day. I’ve never felt fearful of dying—which appears with a vengeance when you have children, reportedly—so it could be a chicken & the egg thing. I don’t know. Regardless, I think you’re onto something big, in that death is our most intense problem, and it’s mutating but ever-present solution—religion that paints death as a replay of cosmogony, as a process—is being forgotten. So maybe fictive literature’s aim shouldn’t be to make us more just or empathetic. Maybe it should just make us more comfortable with death.

But I’m also thinking about my reading habits, and how I’ve fallen into a history/philosophy/science trap door. It’s hard to read contemporary fiction after you’ve just read The Collapse of Complex Societies, or something. I mean, Tainter’s thesis seems pretty fucking scholarly and bullet proof—the only realistic way of circumventing societal collapse is to find a new energy subsidy. That a cultural response—to voluntarily simplify, subdivide, and make our appetites more meager as a precaution—ain’t gonna happen. So culture in general then—fiction, nonfiction, and even religion—will probably be useless when it comes to sustaining our complex, mostly-global society. That’s the aim I want culture to take. I want it to use ecology and collapse as its foundation, and preach from that pulpit. Because wouldn’t it be a fucking victory if humankind pulled off a last minute save of Earth’s ecological capacities—by procreating, producing, and consuming less—for broad & diverse life?

Maybe that’s too utopist (and necessarily gross) of me.

But how does current culture traffic in death right now? Shit. I don’t know, man. Totally ignores it, for the most part? I wish How To Die In Oregon was mandatory viewing for every adult on Earth, to be honest. That’d be a start. Montaigne’s That To Philosophize Is To Learn How To Die as mandatory reading. Death is obviously made spectacle and stimulant in video games and some blockbuster movies, but it’s all mostly glossed and warlike in its 30,000 ft anonymity and speed.

I don’t know. What do you think?

Alec: Well, I’ll say this: I’d forgotten I was talking to someone who’d nearly died. Maybe that’s because we haven’t talked extensively in a while. But I also have noticed that this country encourages people in fine health—by what rhetoric and subterfuge this happens is another question—to assume that everyone under the yoke of this American republic is in similarly fine health; or more exactly, that immediately non-lethal health problems are equally livable and sustainable for everyone. It seems to me that this reckless generalization of one’s own health conditions—the idea that, at the very least, though I rationally know this isn’t the case, I can’t help but believe that every other American has access to the healthcare system to the same extent as (however precariously) insured me—is just built into the bourgeois psychology. Perhaps I’m generalizing what I myself experience: the way I’ve wondered why my coworkers, who are uninsured while I’m still under my parents’ insurance, don’t visit health clinics when their throats have been hurting for two weeks or whatever. Though, again, I “know” how uneven the distribution of healthcare coverage is in this country, and even how coverage guarantees nothing when, without anyone batting an eye, insurance companies monopolize coverage for private employees and become the sorts of gray eminences that they inevitably are—though I know all of this, it’s a remarkable challenge for it to appear as a factor in my world and, so to speak, affect how I process experience. Self-broadening is an adaptation that the bourgeois mind has always accomplished slowly. By nature its purview narrows, and it forgets other ways of life in the guise of a more inclusive liberalism–case in point being the modern food movement. This seems to be the sort of natural adaptation of the bourgeois mind: as it thinks less, it convinces itself that it thinks more. I know you’ve talked about this elsewhere, but how has your experience with Crohn’s altered not only your tolerance of death but your understanding of healthcare in America?

Now, there was a piece in the NYT this morning on the House Appropriations Committee, in its latest raft of spending cuts, has drafted a bill to cut funding to the NEA in HALF. In half, Ken. I can’t help but wonder, though, how upset I should be about that when they’re also proposing to cut the funding for Community Development Block Grants in half. That the NEA isn’t or shouldn’t be a priority when urban development is under the knife is precisely what I’m talking about. We have to ask whether this is necessarily the case. Can’t we say that both are priorities for the same reason? Can someone please tell me why we’re raiding public education while refusing to touch the fund for riot police in cities—federal and state law enforcement and prison construction, etc.? So what is money for the NEA compared to the systematic abandonment of the, well, already-abandoned underemployed and unemployed population? When we’re talking about life—life that cannot be or can barely be lived—what is art to do? Again, there seems to be this understanding between art and religion; they seem to share a pulse.

But there’s a salient difference between them. I’m sure we’ve all noticed that there’s this sick desire in fundamentalists to see the turn away from religion as a sort of symptom of western decadence (it seriously just took me ten minutes to remember the word decadence. I think this car accident I was in in February shrunk my memory. Or else it’s what I’ve always suspected: I’m stupid, and my body is just now coming to terms with that irrepressible fact): the debauchery of western society only glorifies them. But the fear of art–of art that brings us to the limit of all possible experience—only worries us and, at the worst, leads us writers to believe that we are living in the end of days (again we see the eschatological link between religion and art). Because inherent to art that tilts against the limit—the art that believes in crossing death we can live the good life–is the idea that anyone, absolutely anyone, should have access to it. And when we see our oligarchs waging a war against urban development and the humanities with equal brio, a war whose hysterical nature recalls the red scare, we have to take account of the fact that—I mean, the evidence is there—these are both threats to the integrity of the values that underlie this shiftless republic: property, patriarchy, and the inscription of racism in the very letter of the law.

So I’ve been avoiding talking about death because I’m not sure I have an answer to the question. Somehow I think that for our culture to have the positive ethics you would’ve seen in the nineteenth century with proletarian revolution and in the eighteenth century with Enlightenment (with the twentieth century having a negative ethics of anti-totalitarianism)—if we’re to have a positive ethical prescription, we need to confront death not only by de-privatizing healthcare or whatever public policy but also by showing, through our art, the metaphysics of death. Only when we ask what it means to die can we ask what it means to thrive. But, because we are for better or worse mystics, it’s probably best to show how this happens by writing good, enduring fiction than by trying to develop narrative strategies in public. But I do wonder what you think about the sort of “threat” a living, breathing and thinking avant-garde poses to the status quo and the emptiness of today’s state.

Ken: Well, good health is invisible, right? Health is the invisibility of your organs, and the silence of your physiology. Only the occasional hypertrophy, or the more frequent fart, serves as signal to most healthy bodies. I think it’s less an American problem and more an epistemological problem… Opacity is hard to break with empathy when the invitation’s not even in the mail. But this opacity… this empathic distance… I feel like its uniquely American. Or at least its intensity is. Physical and geographical distance has something to do with it, as does American heritage culture—the idea that, unless united against a common enemy, we should strive to be varied and independent and self-reliant—and maybe there’s something too to be said for the lack of religion, here. The most beautiful thing about a church is its support of a sick person in the congregation. Well, that and the debt jubilees that organized religions have mandated and enforced.

Crohn’s, and being chronically sick, has made me want to blow up some insurance company headquarters. And I’ve got good insurance! The pain and frustration encountered by uninsured or barely-insured people is astonishing… I’ve got friends that are just ignored by the medical industry, and by its doctors and nurses, because they lack insurance. Which is one of the largest failures in human history, in my opinion. Social contracts, and our tax base, should provide a safety net for the ill, and it has failed to adequately do so in America beyond the pre-2008 Medicare & Medicaid histories. I dunno. Thinking about it too much just paralyzes me with rage.

And the healthcare! Well, the entire field of medicine has only VERY RECENTLY become more beneficial than iatrogenic, which is nuts to think about. The advice to quit smoking has been more beneficial to peoples’ health than all medical advancements combined in the last 40 years. Again: ridiculous! The problem’s tied to a bunch of other attentive malignancies: science that disproves isn’t sexy, so disconfirmatory studies are often ignored/not published/not pursued. Drug trials are ceaselessly manipulated under scant legal oversight & penalty. Preventative care is still treated as a fashion and not the main mission for the medical profession. And as far as death goes, Crohn’s has made me much more comfortable with the idea. Although it’s never bugged me, really. Arbitrary violence bugs and scares me. But accidental death, death “before someone’s time”, etc… I don’t fret about it in bed at night.

You’re right, I think; attacking public access to the arts and public access to housing are both important. I still would rather have the NEA entirely obliterated in lieu of the public housing apportions, or of Medicare, Medicaid, etc.; as would you. But I also think that art will thrive sans government support. People will still find time to fuck off and build imaginative aims and tilts, and smuggle them into others. It may become more familial, then, the practice of art. Less tied to the academy and the professional. Who knows.

Right now, I think the most effective avant-garde would aim to inspire a hatred and moral condemnation for the corporation, and the corporate manager. The idea that everything big is necessarily monstrous, and that those who take gamed risks with other people’s ____________ are scum. The avant garde would be radically ecological (cf. Derek Jenson), and anti-humanist without being materialist (because ya gotta draw the line somewhere, right?). The avant garde would be best suited celebrating and fighting for the small, the sick, the local, the dying, the subtractive, the failed, the broken, the dead.

As far as their power goes… I’m cynical about the potential for mass movements in the day of the internet. Too easy to see a big number on a screen and add your name to it without actually showing up at someone’s place of business.


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  1. Jeremy Hopkins

      I think there are plenty of intelligent people who’d be happy to drop the capital L for good. But, even though I think a lot of it is BS, I don’t think overemphasizing the theory side is really any more detrimental than all the LCD entertainment, because, currently, people still have the ability and means to choose what they want when they want it. It’s when their choices become not only points of pride, but standards to which they think other people should strive that things get ugly. But then we’re still in the directionless, purposeless mudhole of ‘postmodern-ism/-ity’ and skepticism prevails. Perhaps people were always skeptical, but they simply didn’t feel like it was worth recording by putting pen to parchment. Perhaps people are actually more skeptical today because there is so much more information and activity about which to be skeptical.
      [ramble on]
      I don’t think intellectually demanding lit will or can replace religion.
      I don’t think religion is the only way morality can be communicated or understood.
      I don’t think ‘the corporation’ deserves whipped hatred, but I’m all for regulation and perhaps even civil guidance.

  2. David Fishkind
  3. Trey

      may we progress toward a society in which we wage bloody wars over different works of art rather than different religions. amen.

  4. shaun gannon

      pro click

  5. Erik Stinson

      enjoyed this

  6. Erik Stinson

      the fragile health of the body and the virtually invaluable disembodied forms of art and commerce, especially corporate literature, seem to me to be resolved in the oral tradition of david’s podcasts

      repetition, community, information, education