Hi, are you Russian? It’s not easy, right? I know. But once in a while, something comes along, and it makes it all worthwhile. To wit: The great Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is coming to town in connection with Penguin’s publication of her new book, There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales. (*The* literary event of Halloween, incidentally.) But, rather than killing your neighbor’s baby, she’ll be performing a cabaret at the Russian Samovar on 52nd Street at 8 pm next Friday, November 6. I’ve seen her do this in Moscow and it’s amazing—she “translates” cabaret classics from German and French and Polish into what she thinks they ought to mean, in Russian. It’s really something. There’s also a reading at McNally Jackson on the 9th, but if you’re Russian you should really try to make this. No cover charge. Press contact Bela Shayevich (office: 718 210 3639, cell: 847 494 9011, firstname.lastname@example.org)—but otherwise just come.
Like everyone else, we at n+1 have been trying to figure out how to keep a print publication viable without becoming a ward of the state or spending all our time trying to sell ads to BMW. So here’s an experiment. We’ve posted three of the eighteen pieces from Issue 8 online; the others are available for download in their handsome original format for between $1 and $3 at Scribd.com. Like iTunes. Full list below and also here.
Sometimes writers worry that invoking any kind of technology in their work is like inserting a ticking time bomb of obsolescence. Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) opens with the adulterous bond trader Sherman McCoy accidentally dialing his wife from a pay phone when he meant to dial his mistress. Having given himself away, he hangs up in a panic.
Sherman stood by the telephone, breathing rapidly, almost panting. What was he to do now? He felt so defeated…
He dug out another quarter and summoned up Maria’s number into his brain. He concentrated on it. He nailed it down. Then he dialed with a plodding deliberation, as if he were using this particular invention, the telephone, for the first time.
Ha ha, Tom Wolfe you retrograde sucker! Your book is barely twenty years old and most kids these days don’t even know what a pay phone is!
And yet it’s interesting… what he describes, misdialing from a pay phone, it’s actually a little hard to believe. Seven digits, dialed separately, is a lot of digits—about halfway through you’d probably sense that something was wrong. You’d sense you’d made a mistake and retrieve your quarter and start again. Whereas with a text message—that’s just one button. And no stopping it.
The technology is almost gone but the technology that’s replaced it has actually *increased the danger*. Amazing. Wolfe wins again.
We have our winners for the Foucault caption competition. This year in fact there are two:
Sangwon Yoon informs us that the caption under Foucault in TimeOut Tel Aviv reads: “Not the world, radical/extremist criticism of the world.”
This makes sense—in the pamphlet one of the participants says he was unable to read Foucault in college because he was still trying to figure out the world as it was, and wasn’t yet ready to read a wholesale radical critique of it.
Winner #2, SRolph, recalling Foucault’s reflections on the death of the human subject, argues that the caption actually reads: “When I become the subject of a caption competition, then you will know the end of man is at hand.”
That too makes sense. We congratulate the winners of this year’s competition!
The last dozen years or so have seen the emergence of a new strain within the Anglo-American novel. What has been variously referred to as the novel of consciousness or the psychological or confessional novel—the novel, at any rate, about the workings of a mind—has transformed itself into the neurological novel, wherein the mind becomes the brain. Since 1997, readers have encountered, in rough chronological order, Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love (de Clérambault’s syndrome, complete with an appended case history by a fictional “presiding psychiatrist” and a useful bibliography), Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn (Tourette’s syndrome), Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (autism), Richard Powers’s The Echomaker (facial agnosia, Capgras syndrome), McEwan again with Saturday (Huntington’s disease, as diagnosed by the neurosurgeon protagonist), Atmospheric Disturbances (Capgras syndrome again) by a medical school graduate, Rivka Galchen, and John Wray’s Lowboy (paranoid schizophrenia). And these are just a selection of recently published titles in “literary fiction.” There are also many recent genre novels, mostly thrillers, of amnesia, bipolar disorder, and multiple personality disorder. As young writers in Balzac walk around Paris pitching historical novels with titles like The Archer of Charles IX, in imitation of Walter Scott, today an aspiring novelist might seek his subject matter in a neglected corner or along some new frontier of neurology.
Calls for “field of power” map of Park Slope, posts interesting response to Mark’s essay.
Now then, sex. Whatever else sex is, it’s more complicated than Greif thinks. In fact, it’s hard not to read his anti-domination discourse as this proclaimed sex-radical’s inadvertent confession of vanillahood. Does Greif not know that some unknowable number of people, perhaps a majority, gets some sexual charge from the image of domination itself? Has he no idea how many people, men and women, want to be whipped, spanked, cuffed, pretend-raped, pissed on, shit on, kicked in the balls, trampled, made to lick boots, tickled unto torture? Has he no idea how many people want to do these things to others? Again, it’s impossible to say how prevalent this is, but there’s a lot of it out there. All sex, as Freud taught, is fetish, and all fetish is a swerve from nature. I well know the rejoinder to this: fetish is all false consciousness, it’s the distortion of the healthy sexual impulse that comes with a culture of domination. But read Dialectic of Enlightenment again: culture is domination, and not avoidably either.
Your claim in the sentence quoted above, which is a sort of joke, has two lemmas. First, you imply that marriage is a surrender of sexual liberty. I don’t think that’s accurate. Marriage is Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell standing side by side in the closing scene of His Girl Friday, nattering on with the same jollity when handcuffed to each other as when not handcuffed. Marriage is indifference to handcuffs. There are always opportunities to escape. The strange discovery that makes marriage possible is that one has the liberty not to—the liberty to make the same choice, day after day—and that one happens to want to make a consistent choice. It is a paradox, at least. Will one happen to want to make the same choice forever? Maybe not. Separation and divorce are always possible, in our world, and maybe they give marriage its poignancy. The possibility of separation proves that no two people stay chained to each other unless they want to. It even seems to be the case that people who want to stay chained to each other sometimes can’t manage to. It is at any rate an error to think that marriage is a surrender of liberty. It is an exercise of it.
The second lemma of your joke is less seemly. It is mockery of anyone—in this case, gays—who wants the general social approbation implied by marriage. I suspect that you yourself will find this indigestible if you stop and think about it. Do you really intend to mock homosexuals, who have long been considered and in some circles still are considered pariahs, for wishing to have proof that they are no longer so thought of, at least as a matter of law? Your joke will only seem funny to readers who have taken social approbation for granted for so long that they now see only its conformist aspect and no longer its psychological and social benefits. Yes, yes, society bestows its approval conservatively; do you really think that people who have gone without it for most of their adult lives are unaware of that?
Not a public intellectual! This is a dude who seriously entitled his novel “All the Sad Young Literary Men.”
Ha ha, it’s true. I’m more of an internet theorist than a public intellectual. But what’s intriguing about this is that “x is not a public intellectual” is being used to mean “x is an idiot.” (x being me, in this case.) It’s like the early 90s discourse of the death of the public intellectual colliding with the late 00s discourse of internet insult. X is honored to have been a part of this moment.
While all this was going on, the mobster Yaponchik died of his gunshot wounds. Police predicted that the gangster’s death could lead to an all-out war between Moscow’s major criminal groups. Keeping in mind that he was a very bad man who probably killed many people, does Yapnochik’s death make the video I posted of him getting shot funnier or less funny?
So now that it’s more or less passed, some thoughts on what I’ve learned from the latest internet fracas occasioned by my response to the Awl’s criticism of Mark Greif’s piece on abortion and gay marriage in Issue 8.
Careful readers will recall that last year, after a similar series of online fracases with Gawker, I formulated several handy rules, such as: Only get involved in an online debate on your work if it’s a factual matter which only you can correct (i.e. the information is not publicly available—e.g. Gawker accuses you of drinking lattes, whereas you’ve never had a latte, but who else knows that but you?). Also, try not to argue with people who are just insulting you: If the New York Times calls you a jerk, will you write a letter to the Times saying you’re not a jerk? Probably not. So don’t write a letter to the internet. In a best-case scenario you’ll find yourself in an argument where you’re saying, “You shouldn’t have insulted us,” and the other person is saying, “Yes I should have.” That’s not a very interesting argument.
In this case, I maybe violated one or both of these rules, but in the process I came up with another: Don’t try to stand athwart an internet meme. In this case the meme was, “That essay sucked!!” There are many things to object to in the essay, and some of them are in fact extremely interesting (#1: what does it mean for a straight man to demand more radicalism from the gay rights movement?) and in the coming days we’re going to post some letters at nplusonemag pointing some of those things out (not too late to write a letter to the editor, if you’re so inclined: editors at nplusonemag.com), but that is not equivalent to suckiness. But since the non-suckiness of the essay is absolutely self-evident to me, I may not be the best person to argue about it. Also I’m clearly biased. I should have consulted with Bill Wasik, author of And Then There’s This, a book that deals at least partly with memes. I think he would have counseled waiting this one out.
All that said, I’d like to add this: Dear internet! Why are you so goddamn touchy? I have to listen to people saying n+1 is this and that, that Mark Greif—Mark Greif!!—is a “pussyhound,” although simultaneously he doesn’t know what sex is, wasn’t born in the 20th century, doesn’t know history, etc. etc.—and then I call the Awl a “news aggregator” and you go apeshit. Jesus Christ! Look. Despite the fact that the majority of the posts on the Awl are, in fact, news items with short, snappy commentary, a la Gawker (though with different emphases), I am aware that the Awl is a plucky new independent magazine that also posts reportage and essays and columns—for example, the witty and useful Social A’s column by Emily Gould, who happens to be my girlfriend, and who also happens to have once called the Awl an “aggregator” (without meaning it as a dig). That’s where I got the term, even though I did of course mean it as a dig. But left to my own devices I’d have called it something more obviously insulting—a “shit-mobile,” say.
But look, internet. You’ve made great strides over the years. Your traffic is up, your type-face has improved, Wall Street is still wowed despite the trauma you inflicted on it a decade ago, the lords of the mainstream media quake in their boots when they hear the very mention of your name—you bestride the world like a colossus, internet. So WILL YOU PLEASE GET OVER THIS GODDAMN INFERIORITY COMPLEX? It just makes it impossible to talk to you.
Everybody’s all, “Gessen SHUDDUP you suck you Harvard Harvard Harvard sucks!!!!!!!!!” It’s like the Yale game all over again. And I didn’t even mention Harvard.
But you should see what that last post did for my Tumblarity. Better luck next year, suckers.
Yesterday the news-aggregator site The Awl posted a reading of Mark Greif’s piece on abortion and gay marriage from the latest issue of n+1. It’s the old complaint, which boils down to: What is this intellectual mumbo-jumbo?? Speak English! I can’t understand you!!
Typically the people making these complaints can understand just fine. The pose of incomprehension is just that, a pose. Why this pose—which for a thinking person is really a disgraceful pose, if you ask me—tends to be struck most often by writers for the New York Observer is a mystery probably someone else should solve. Having said that, and looking at it again, I see there’s a certain amount he really didn’t understand. Let me help out.
Mark Greif is the reason we started n+1. His essays really were too difficult, too knotty, and his polemical positions were too extreme. There was no place for pieces like “Against Exercise,” “Mogadishu, Baghdad, Troy,” “Afternoon of the Sex Children.” His sentences really are sometimes too long—BK says that sometimes they sound as if they’d been translated from German—and you really do have to stare at them a while sometimes before you can figure out what they mean. But they do mean something—they are the product of a mind at work, I mean really at work, right now, today, trying to figure out what’s happening, and bringing to bear on it a great deal of reading, and emotion, and thought.
The piece in question about gay marriage and abortion is part of Mark’s ongoing investigation of what happened to our modern utopia—why, when we have been freed from factory work, do we re-invent the forms of physical coercion at the gym? Why, when we have been freed of hunger, do we re-import strictures and limitations into our eating? Why, when we have so many channels, don’t we do anything with them truly worthwhile? Here is the beginning of Mark’s piece on reality TV:
The utopia of television nearly came within reach in 1992, on the day cable providers announced that cable boxes would expand to 500 channels. Back then, our utopian idea rested on assumptions both right and wrong. We assumed network-sized broadcasters could never afford new programming for so many active channels. That was right. We also assumed TV subscribers wouldn’t stand for 500 channels of identical fluff, network reruns, syndicated programs, second-run movies, infomercials, and home shopping. That was wrong.
The whole piece (from Issue 3) here.
The latest piece, on gay marriage and abortion, makes the argument that the utopian promise of those two very recent developments in American life—that is, the right to choose one’s sexual partner freely, and the right to choose whether to have a child—has been abrogated in favor of a rhetoric of piety, where too much ground is ceded to the “values voters.”
Today gay progress is in an expansionist phase under the banner of the right to marry… Feminism is reduced to pleading for abortion rights, while the common sense of three decades ago is hemmed in by a secular right wing that has adopted the extremism of orthodox religion. Abortion defenders must pretend that it is a “tragic” but necessary evil; a redoubt of “choice,” just like any other choice.
Here is marriage: The division of humanity into closed couples, when modernity has given us a chance at something much better… [and given us opportunities to have so many of the things marriage used to give *without marriage*. And so:] When marriage has as its main purpose a total and unique defense against loneliness and isolation and anomie, then it’s been saddled with a function too grand and dishonest for it ever to meet; no wonder it will seem imperfect, disappointing, not yet the right, ﬁnal marriage.
On gay marriage:
And yet if you commit to marriage as your end, you win the piety battle, or, say, the war for harmless cuddliness. To marry is the closest adult thing to making your eyes big, your forehead rounded, and your hands into adorable little paws. Look at hubby-wubby! It is so responsible. It says that your desire is not for pleasure or fun, it is for ﬁtting in. It is for the maintenance of what already is. How can you refuse these sweet-natured, utterly ordinary and gentle people—gay marriage-ists—who want to sacriﬁce themselves to this really rather miserably difficult institution, one which doesn’t even work well for straights, who have it so easy? Opposing gay marriage is like denying the wishes of people who want to feed your pets or take out your garbage. For moderates, on the fence about bigotry, it really will be too cute to deny.
And on abortion:
Abortion, unlike marriage, is unlovely. It’s a basic practical necessity of modern values, like sports medicine and hotels, but it is being sentimentalized out of existence by its opponents. Defenders seem cowed by the climate of opinion the sentimentalists have created. “Choice” worked as a rallying cry for a long time. But it’s hardly enough if you can’t also say what abortion itself is really for, and why it’s not “sad but necessary” but right and good.
This is a tough and risky and controversial argument because obviously those legal rights, fought for by a previous generation, are real achievements. What Mark is suggesting is that by not being fought for now, more aggressively, they are in danger of being lost and eroded. Maybe he’s wrong about that, or maybe the argument is slightly different—not that they will be lost but that we’ll settle for them, when we should be demanding more.
Anyway, here’s the piece. See what you think.