In Memoriam: Patrick Giles, 1957–2005
I read Keith Gessen’s lovely remembrance of our friend Patrick Giles [www.nplusonemag.com/giles.html]. I was late in getting the news since Patrick and I had a falling out a few years back and I assumed we would have more time to put things right. You mention at the end of the article “I wonder what he wrote for Homo Xtra?” A question which is only too funny to answer.
He and I often shared bylines on the “Summer Reading List” and short book reviews. I remember him double-talking “Joe,” the then editor of HX, into believing that Tina-tweaking gay party boys would LOVE to know more about the hardcover box set of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, Susan Sontag’s The Volcano Lover, and whatever opera compendium came out that spring. We would then rip apart a few gay genre novels and hand it in with a straight face. This is the stuff we got away with when Patrick did the talking. The odd part was, since we both worked at A Different Light bookstore in Chelsea, we would actually see customers coming in to buy Sontag or Musil while clutching our article. Patrick knew what he was talking about. His knowledge was infectious. I’m glad he passed it on to me. I will miss him so much.
Small Things of Us Forgot
I read with great interest your new magazine n+1. It is perfectly crafted to the times. Many of the best pieces in the magazine appear to be watched over by the angel of Walter Benjamin, of whom Hannah Arendt once said (and I am paraphrasing here since I don’t have a copy of Illuminations to hand): For Benjamin the value and importance of a thing was in inverse relation to its size.
Where the magazine occasionally falters is in its earnest desire to take in the whole big sweep at once. Perhaps the most egregious example of this is “Death Is Not The End” [“The Intellectual Situation,” Issue Two]. A certain wistfulness hovers over that essay, especially when the writer laments the literal death of so many giants of theory. It is a wistfulness, I fear, that has very nearly paralyzed the writer’s critical capacity.
For what were two of the major themes of theory (especially French theory) during this period if not the death of the author and a thoroughgoing suspicion of the “universal intellectual”? Nowhere is the writer’s longing for the lost great theorists of the past more apparent than in his sad résumé of what remains post-Derrida. After reminding us that Althusser is no longer alive, the writer follows with a brief catalog of those who remain—Zižek, Badiou, Ferry, Virillio, Agamben, Negri, Vattimo, Sloterdijk, Luhmann, Kittler—only to conclude that compared with giants like Foucault and Derrida they “seem somehow, well, small by comparison.” First there is the undisguised nostalgia for the very thing (i.e., the great man of theory) that at least one of these figures sharply opposed. Second, there is a rather facile dismissal—no doubt due to a lack of real acquaintance—of a very diverse body of interesting work. To regard Niklas Luhmann’s work on social systems and systems theory as “small” betrays a rather profound ignorance of both the ambitiousness of Luhmann’s project and the extent of his influence. He was influential enough for Habermas to devote a whole section of The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity to a critique of systems theory. Finally, as Luhmann died in 1998, he really ought to be accounted among those who have moved beyond the pale rather than as someone who remains in the wake of Derrida’s absence.
The Perils of “Dating”
The dating piece [“The Intellectual Situation,” Issue Three] is certainly a hit. Though I would like to call it timely, I think it is way overdue—such an attack on the absurd culture of American dating should have happened some years ago.
I lived in the United States for a good part of my life (18 to 25), and during that time had three boyfriends (two of whom I was with for more than a year), but I never went on a date. (One time, when I was 18, I had a potential date for Valentine’s, but I refused it.) So it comes as a bit of a surprise to me that the culture at large is reacting to a prevalent phenomenon to which I am almost a complete stranger. Of course I knew that dating existed, and had even heard of distant relations who went on dates (and more recently I have been privy to old episodes of Sex and the City dubbed into German). But the concept always remained vague and a bit old-fashioned.
But what would an American alternative to dating look like? The answer to this question can be found, I believe, in the American understanding of the place (and significance) of marriage in romantic relations. For Americans, the end-goal of dating is the almighty ring. American-style dating is, indeed, nothing other than the outcome of a uniquely American concoction: rebellion (sexual freedom) and tradition (marriage). Americans cannot seem to let go of one or the other, and as such, dating seems to be the failed means by which these two contradictory stances have been combined. Dating allows sexual freedom, even anonymity, but always has the goal of marriage somewhere in mind. Its ground rules (independence, freedom, et cetera) undermine its end (marriage, tradition, et cetera) and vice versa. The alternative to dating will have to take into account these two American vows to rebellion and tradition.
We (in Europe!) don’t have this kind of formal distinction between dating someone and having a boyfriend. You just meet people, usually because you have friends in common, and then see what happens. And as soon as you get along well with somebody (with whom you sleep), you can say he is your boyfriend, even if you’re not sure you’ll marry him . . . you don’t need a conversation to decide if you’re “allowed” to date different people at the same time. If you sleep with the same person, let’s say, twice a week, well, it’s considered unfair to sleep with two other people in the same week. Except if you sleep with them all at the same time, but then it has nothing to do with dating, does it?
Just in case you go to Europe.
You forgot to add Mary McCarthy to your list of writers and their sexual sums. The following is from her Intellectual Memoirs:
I realized one day that in twenty-four hours I had slept with three different men. And one morning I was in bed with somebody while over his head I talked on the telephone with somebody else. . . . I did not feel promiscuous. Maybe no-one does. And maybe more girls sleep with more men than you would ever think to look at them.
She is said to have slept with more than 100 men. But, and maybe this is the real difference between our sex-filled age and hers, she gave up counting.
I’ve been pleased to see more pieces by women in your second and third issues than in the first one: we shouldn’t have to count, but of course we do count (and that “we,” unlike the editorial “we” of “The Intellectual Situation,” is certainly female). But I was nonetheless disheartened by the experience—or rather, by my specifically female experience, though it’s not a phrase I usually invoke—of reading the third issue. Despite excellent essays by and about women (Emily Votruba’s piece on women’s boxing comes to mind) as well as by men on topics that are obviously of interest to both sexes (the inspired pairing, for instance, of Walter Benn Michaels on the scholarship novel with J. D. Daniels on wifebeaters and trucker hats), something about the issue still struck me as deeply inhospitable, inhospitable to me personally: it wouldn’t be too strong to say that I felt actively unwelcome on the basis of something awfully like sexual difference.
This feeling coalesced around “Dating,” which certainly seemed to me the most infuriating piece in the last issue. Take a look back at it and think about how you’d feel if you were reading n+1 and you weren’t male, or you didn’t have an Ivy League degree, or you weren’t white and well-off or “broke” in the way of the privately schooled bohemian, or if you were a man who didn’t sleep with women or perhaps just a woman dismayed to realize that the Brooklyn hipster-intellectuals who made up her obvious sex-partner demographic had taken to amortizing the time they spent with her (“Two hours at $40 an hour when we could have been doing our freelance copyediting. Then dinner, another $100. Drinks, $30. The cab ride over the bridge to our little room, $15. Coffee the next morning, $8. That’s $233 and on a Tuesday. For Saturday dates add the price of brunch and $3 for the Sunday Times”). I enjoy the energy and intellectual ambition of n+1, but the “we” of “The Intellectual Situation” needs to start talking a different game before n+1 can make a persuasive claim to be the voice of what Intellectual Situation Man calls “our generation.”
At the time, I wrote in my blog that the magazine had alienated me with what I can still only call “the feeling of guy-ness,” and I went on to rant about not wanting to read “high-falutin philosophizing about pop music and reality TV; it seems to me that the ideal of crashing together the academic and the journalistic should take you altogether the other way, with a more accessible and down-to-earth prose style but a high level of intellectual acuity about important things.” This is another way of phrasing something I say periodically to some of my brightest students at Columbia; I ask them to take an essay or chapter they have written, undoubtedly brilliant but brilliant in a way that calls attention to its own cerebral force rather than actually bothering to invite the reader in (so to speak), and to revise it with the goal of turning it into something that can be read and enjoyed by a conjectural figure I call “someone’s well-educated mother,” a reader—a female reader—who might be a lawyer or a high school principal or a financial journalist, who would look at the first page of the piece as it currently stands and say to herself, “This is smart but it is not for me.” And who will therefore put it aside, though it may be full of insights and observations that would have enriched her had she only been made to feel welcome.
Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t ever write grand expansive sentences full of latinate abstractions like the parenthetical aside on the sublime in Mark Greif’s essay on Radiohead: “(By compassing the unencompassable power in inner representation, it was even suggested, you could be reminded of the interior power of the moral faculty, the human source of a comparable strength.)” Sometimes you have to use words like “de-enunciation” or “counterslogan” to say what you mean, or adopt a certain elevated diction that harks back to the sublime pronouncements of Adorno and company. Maybe the most brilliant among us will do those things a lot. But how smart can you be if you want to write something about which someone’s (perhaps even your own) well-educated mother is going to say, “It’s brilliant—I didn’t read it, I was sure I wouldn’t understand a word of it”? It’s a deeply inhospitable writing gesture, one made too often by people whose humanity and hospitality seem to desert them when they sit down to put words on paper.
Maybe the thing here is less about talking and more about listening; the strain that disturbs me—OK, that pisses me off—in n+1 is akin to what Keats objected to in Wordsworth, “the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime.” Keats laid out in contrast the “poetical Character” in which he chose membership: “it is not itself—it has no self—it is every thing and nothing. . . . A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity—he is continually in for—and filling some other Body.” You guys could use less of the egotistical sublime and more of “the camelion Poet”—it would make things more fun for everyone concerned, readers and writers alike.
I think it’s super that Mark Greif digs late ’90s alterna rock. I like Radiohead, too. A thought experiment: use your word processor’s search-and-replace function to replace the search string “Radiohead” with “Pink Floyd,” and see whether the essay changes at all.
No one would, of course, take “The Philosophy of Pop: Pink Floyd” seriously. And yet, it’s probably true that some part of the n+1 readership won’t laugh at the idea of “Radiohead, or the Philosophy of Pop.” We should be asking ourselves why, and not be surprised if the answer is something other than the one offered in the piece. Greif acknowledges up front that it’s a foolish enterprise. He then proceeds to write beautifully about Radiohead. Radiohead sounds like the way I feel, he tells us. Isn’t that what rock bands do? But he’s taken something at face value that he shouldn’t.
Rock ’n’ roll began as the music of malevolent hicks like Jerry Lee Lewis and screaming black fairies like Little Richard and truck-driving mama’s boys like Elvis Presley. It quickly became, in the 1960s, the music of middle-class baby boomers. They turned rock ’n’ roll into the basis of a new kind of cultural hegemony. Acts of conformity began to present themselves as nonconformity. Greif doesn’t claim that Radiohead gets out of that system. But then he doesn’t acknowledge that that’s how the system is working here now too. It’s a curious omission. Greif rightly observes that when the children of the middle class started to tattoo the gap between the bottoms of their cropped T-shirts and the tops of their low-slung jeans, they were conforming to rather than rebelling against something. Yet he sees listening to his favorite rock band differently—which shows that, just like the rest of us, even very stringent thinkers can be sentimental about their favorite things.
Greif tells us that one of the things Radiohead does is remind us that we ought to resist those voices that tell us to seek happiness by turning to doctors and corporations and purchases to find fulfillment. But he also tells us that this is inevitably futile—“one person’s shaken fist.” He’s right about this, but this should give him a clue about what Radiohead and bands like them really do in the culture of broadcast. Affecting to hold at bay the anxieties and blandishments of middle-class life has now become a reliable way for a certain kind of person already poised to benefit from middle-class life to bid up his own price. The idea of a more serious, less easily indulged revolt strikes all of us as hopelessly misconceived, crazy, impossible.
The perception reinforces the fact. If we’re going to be, as Greif puts it, “fool enough to attempt” something, we should do more than write an essay reminding us that a shaken fist is the best we can do. What could be more readily permitted by the powers that be? A certain kind of person is intent on living a lush life but wants credit for being a conscientious person. Such people are fascinated by this commonplace ambivalence, which they think is their own personal cross. A whole class did it through the 1990s—that’s Clintonism, those are the boomers. They enriched themselves at the expense of others while basking in a fantasy of their own virtue and uselessness that let them dissemble away their will to power. They’re still at it, even in these dark times. If we are to survive, the politics of the new age will begin by rejecting this kind of pseudopolitics.
I was very impressed with the critical insights in “Radiohead, or the Philosophy of Pop,” and the lucidity of their presentation. But I disagree.
I consider Radiohead a marginal, not a representative, case. Mark Greif takes his fundamental question to be whether a pop act can represent some aspect of exterior history. (He says “represent,” but also means “influence” as the essay goes on.) Radiohead is selected as the “case study” precisely because Radiohead was best able to “pose the question: How should it really ever be possible for pop music to incarnate a particular historical situation?” He’s selected the band most likely to answer his own question; but then, logically, every other band, and there are a lot of them that go into the whole of pop, is less likely than Radiohead to represent some aspect of exterior history (even if some subset of them can and do).
“Pop”—and here I really mean “rock”—is rooted in a set of ideas labeled “counterculture”: an aura of personal freedom, youth, sexual license. Its birth coincides with the odd demographic moment when the first baby boomer became a teen. Any analysis must determine whether rock started out as “counterculture” for its own internal reasons or was transformed into counterculture by the dominant culture. It has, for sure, maintained its (cynical?) denial of itself as part of the mainstream. (As late as 1995, the best- selling music was “alternative”!)
Someone cooler than you inevitably tells you about new music. This person knows because he is, in a sense, less of-the-culture than you. With each new discovery, which you then pass on, you too become less of-the-culture. You, the fan, enact this constant dialectic of not-being-in-the-culture/being-in-the-know. (All this ends at some ever later “adult moment” when you keep listening to whatever you liked between 18 and 21, or trade it all for Schubert.) Rock’s standing as counterculture (as freedom) is vital to its reception and pleasures. But pop music is mercilessly and permanently wedded to the idea of cool, which requires the idea of the uncool mainstream to maintain its distinctiveness. If there were no squares, they would have to be invented. And so pop cannot seed true revolution.
Anyone who tries to take culture seriously must face the fundamental question of whether the rebellious elements of culture are genuine (as Mark Greif defines it, likely to produce revolution) or mere illusions into which people can pour their anger and dislocation. For any artifact of our culture, it’s now possible to argue both sides persuasively—that it is a seedbed of revolt or steam-valve for social control. There is no possible means to prove it either way, save perhaps some tally of results.
Let’s pause to tally those results. Since the coming of rock counterculture (say 1960), there has been no successful political revolution in the West save a conservative “Reagan” version. Was that the one? Rock has coincided with a revolution in sexual mores, drug use, and personal mobility, the dismantling of many restrictions on economic life and consequent fraying of the social functions of the state. I suggest it has done some work, but its work is ambiguous. While we—I mean here you and I—probably consider the personal freedom to use and abuse ourselves a “good,” we are probably dismayed at the “anything goes” political and social life which opens the field to predatory action by anyone with a modicum of power. The violence in rock may have fit very well with the emerging symbolic and actual violence of American life.
The achievement of Radiohead may be the discrediting of rock’s possibilities as rebellion, as validation of feelings in a mass arena. I don’t think, as art, Radiohead’s songs have the closed space the essay ascribes to them; we wish to grant them special knowledge (which they could tell us if they stopped singing and were just plain) because they display the absence of those levels of privacy we understand, regret, and cling to in ourselves. They are, we sense, where we are headed, when the last fortress falls.
As James Wood knows perfectly well— but seems at pains to pretend not to know— I have nowhere in any of my essays espoused a “thin aestheticism” of the sentence. His original claim was based on a brief parenthetical passage, near the middle of a 14,000-word essay, in which I described my gratitude at finding refuge in a Janet Frame novel after being subjected to a couple of hours of airplane television. Here are the sentences of Frame that I quoted:
Poor Noeline, who was waiting for Dr. Howell to propose to her although the only words he had ever spoken to her were How are you? Do you know where you are? Do you know why you are here?—phrases which ordinarily would be hard to interpret as evidence of affection. But when you are sick you find yourself in a new field of perception where you make a harvest of interpretations which then provides you with your daily bread, your only food. So that when Dr. Howell finally married the occupational therapist, Noeline was taken to the disturbed ward.
The beauty of these sentences is unmistakably a beauty of humaneness, sympathy, and fully realized tone. This is the kind of beauty that Wood champions in his own criticism. But how curiously difficult it is for him to see this beauty championed by anybody else! And, though he does charitably “doubt” that “Franzen himself” subscribes to a thin aestheticism, what an odd sort of charity this is! Given that he invented the notion to begin with!
I want to admire Wood. But if he won’t tell the truth here—if he insists on repeating a misrepresentation that is unique to him and is plainly contradicted by everything I’ve ever written—why should I trust him anywhere else?
James Wood replies:
Jonathan Franzen wants to admire me, and I want to admire him, so perhaps, like two amorous crabs, we can haltingly make a path to each other.
He is right, of course, that no “thin aestheticism” hovers around Janet Frame’s strong sentences, and he and I would doubtless agree on the kind of prose that might constitute such aestheticism (say, Updike during a bad decade or so). But within the context of his entire Harper’s essay, I think that his plucking of three sentences of Frame, and his mournful rhetorical question—“To write sentences of such authority that refuge can be taken in them: Isn’t this enough? Isn’t it a lot?”—does sound, to my ears, both a bit too thin and a bit too aestheticizing.
The problem is that in his Harper’s essay, Franzen, as readers will recall, combines a serious discussion of the fate of the novel with a discussion of his own depression and isolation. The essay offers a very American arc, whereby young Franzen battles with himself and with the culture, and finally cures his sense of isolation—by talking to a professor who has been doing research into readers and audiences and social isolation, and by “doing some journalism and even hitting a few parties.” The cured Franzen emerges from his depression ready to renew the American novel, and to resume work on his third book: he has found a way to take refuge in sentences of authenticity. Look, I have come through!
But does the refuge he can now take in such sentences have to do with the power of the sentences, or with the fact that Franzen just now feels better about himself? Franzen undermines his optimism in two other moments in the essay. Ten pages before his quoting of Janet Frame, Franzen had delivered himself of these convictions: “I can’t stomach any kind of notion that serious fiction is good for us, because I don’t believe that everything that’s wrong with the world has a cure, and even if I did, what business would I, who feel like the sick one, have in offering it?” This, perhaps, is Franzen’s characterization of himself as a former depressive. But the present tense gives one pause, as does the next assertion: “I resist, finally, the notion of literature as a noble higher calling, because elitism doesn’t sit well with my American nature, and because even if my belief in mystery didn’t incline me to distrust feelings of superiority, my belief in manners would make it difficult for me to explain to my brother, who is a fan of Michael Crichton, that the work I’m doing is simply better than Crichton’s.”
Now, a criticism that simply refuses to account for the ethical power of literature (except by recourse to the findings of an academic audience researcher), and can’t or won’t argue for the aesthetic superiority of one text over another; yet which, at the same time, simply makes a religious leap into the “refuge” of authentic sentences (again, without any explanation)—what can this be, really, but a “thin aestheticism”? And even if Franzen insists that this is how he used to feel, not how he currently feels, the difficulty remains that the terms of his personal recovery from his “bubble of despair” remain so vague (“hitting a few parties”), that their entanglement with the “refuge” of authentic sentences only softens the absoluteness of that refuge.
I wrote that Franzen seems not himself to believe in the conclusions of his Harper’s essay partly because it is very hard to determine from that essay what indeed he believes in, but also—on a much more positive note—because The Corrections is neither thin nor an example of aestheticism. At its frequent best, as I wrote in the original review which spurred this discussion, his novel is “clear, direct, humane, and sensitively intelligent.” On this, he and I, mutual almost-admirers, surely agree.
The Wild World of the Web
Dear Sir or Madam,
Just to say how sad it is that your web link on Google has to contain the f-word.
This is the fucking tambourine player. We share the absurd humor of his better moments: when he signs the TVT record contract for the Jonestown he announces . . .
The reference that I searched was “tambourine playing,” which could as easily have been put in by my wife or a child. Despite society today being as it is, some of us still do find such words quite offensive.
Marco Roth replies:
We’re very sorry you were offended by the appearance of the f-word in that particular piece. You may not be aware that we have absolutely no control over what Google links to, nor can we suggest links to them. Once an article is on the web, Google searches its contents and shows you a link to it even if it has nothing to do with your original search. So we’re as surprised as you are that we turned up under the heading of “tambourine playing.” Short of imposing a rigorous standard of censorship on web publishing or inventing a better search engine, there’s no way you or your family can be protected from an encounter with the obscene or the offensive while using the web. For all I know, “tambourine playing” might be a code word for some strange sexual practice. There’s no telling what people will think up when they’re denied the ordinary obscenities. Still, I’d like to think that if you or your wife and child read n+1, you’ll find that it contains a whole range of language and thought on a fair array of topics from global politics to wrestling and film. You may not always be safe from rough language when reading it, or when walking down the street, but we like to think we know when it’s called for.